E-text prepared by Martin Robb
A Story of the Time of Benbow
Chapter 1: The Wyle Cop. Chapter 2: Joe Breaks His Indentures. Chapter 3: I Meet The Mohocks. Chapter 4: Captain John Benbow. Chapter 5: I Lose My Best Friend. Chapter 6: I Take Articles. Chapter 7: A Crown Piece. Chapter 8: I Fall Among Thieves. Chapter 9: Good Samaritans. Chapter 10: The Shuttered Coach. Chapter 11: I Hold A Turnpike. Chapter 12: I Come To Bristowe—And Leave Unwillingly. Chapter 13: Duguay-Trouin. Chapter 14: Harmony And Some Discord. Chapter 15: The Bass Viol. Chapter 16: Across The Moat. Chapter 17: Exchanges. Chapter 18: In The Name Of King Lewis. Chapter 19: I Fight Duguay-Trouin. Chapter 20: The King's Commission. Chapter 21: I Meet Dick Cludde. Chapter 22: I Walk Into A Snare. Chapter 23: Uncle Moses. Chapter 24: I Make A Bid For Liberty. Chapter 25: I Spend Cludde's Crown Piece. Chapter 26: We Hold A Council Of War. Chapter 27: Some Successes And A Rebuff. Chapter 28: I Cut The Enemy's Cables. Chapter 29: We Bombard The Brig. Chapter 30: The Six Days' Battle. Chapter 31: The Cockpit. Chapter 32: I Become Bold.
Chapter 1: The Wyle Cop.
'Tis said that as a man declines towards old age his mind dwells ever more and more on the events of his childhood. Whether that be true of all men or not, certain it is that my memory of things that happened fifty years ago is very clear and bright, and the little incidents of my boyhood are more to me, because they touch me more nearly, than such great matters as the late rebellion against His Majesty King George, whom God preserve.
Especially does my thought run back to a day, fifty-six years ago this very summer, when by mere chance, as it would appear to men's eyes, my fortunes became linked with those of Joe Punchard, who is now at this moment, I warrant, smoking his pipe in the lodge at my park gates. I was eleven years old, a thin slip of a boy, small for my age, and giving no promise, to be sure, of my present stature and girth. The neighbors shook their heads sometimes as they looked at me, and wondered why Mr. John Ellery, if he must adopt a boy—a strange thing, they thought, for a bachelor to do—did not choose one of a sturdier make than poor little Humphrey Bold. They even joked about my name, averring that names assuredly must go by contraries, for I was Bold by name, and timid by nature. The joke seemed to me, even then, a very poor one, for a boy must have the name he is born with, and I have known very delicate and white-handed folk of the name of Smith.
Mr. Ellery, a bachelor, as I have said, adopted me when my own father and mother died, which happened when I was still an infant and, mercifully, too young to understand my loss. My father, as I called him, was a substantial yeoman whose farm and holding lay some three miles on the English side of Shrewsbury. He was well on in years when he adopted me, and dwells in my memory as a strong, silent man who, when his day's work was done, would sit in the inglenook with a book upon his knees. This taste for reading marked him out from the neighboring farmers, with whom, indeed, he had little in common in any way, so that he was rather respected than liked by them. But he was wonderfully kind to me, and if my love for him was qualified with awe, it was from reverence, and not from fear.
My frail appearance, on which the neighbors jested, caused my father to look on me sometimes with an anxious eye, and he would question the housekeeper and the maids about my appetite, and whether I slept well o' nights. On these matters he need not have had any concern, since I ate four hearty meals a day, with perhaps an apple or a hunk of bread in between; while as for sleeping, Mistress Pennyquick was wont to declare, five out of the seven mornings in the week, when she woke me, that she knew I would sleep my brains away. This prediction scarcely troubled me, and since the motherly creature never disturbed me until I had slept a good nine hours by the clock, I do not think she was really distressed on this score.
Until I reached my eleventh birthday I did not go to school, being taught to read and write and cipher by my father himself. But one day he set me before him on his horse and rode into Shrewsbury, where, after a solemn interview with Mr. Lloyd, the master, I was put into the accidence class at King Edward's famous school. As we rode back, I remember that my father, who was generally so silent, talked to me more than ever before, about school, and work, and the great men who had been in past time pupils in the same school, notably Sir Phillip Sidney. And from that day I used to trudge every morning, barring holidays, into the town, and say my hic, haec, hoc as well, I verily believe, as the rest of my schoolfellows.
But with the opening of my school days I began to know what misery was. My lessons gave me little trouble, and the masters were kind enough; but among the boys there were two who, before long, kept me in a constant state of terror. They were older than I by some four or five years, and in school I never saw them; but outside they used to waylay me, tormenting me in many ingenious ways. Looking back now I see that much of my terror was needless. They seldom ill-treated me in act; but knowing, I suppose, that the imagination is often very apprehensive in weakly bodies like mine, they took a delight in threatening me, conjuring up all manner of imaginary horrors, and so working on me that my sleep was disturbed by hideous nightmares. I told nobody of what I suffered, and when Mistress Pennyquick noticed that I was pale and heavy-eyed sometimes in the morning, she did but suppose it was due to a closer application to books than I had known formerly, and forthwith increased my daily allowance of milk.
My father, if he had known of these doings, would doubtless have taken strong measures to put a stop to them, for the older, though not the worse, of the two bullies was a nephew of his own. His sister was married to Sir Richard Cludde, of a notable family whose seat lay north of Shrewsbury, towards Wem, and it was his only son, named Richard after his father, who made one of this precious couple of harriers. There was little coming and going between the houses of the two families, for Mr. Ellery had not approved his sister's match, Sir Richard's character being not of the best, and heartily disliked the fine-lady airs which she put on when she became wife of a baronet; while she on her side resented her brother's cold looks, and nourished a special grievance against him when he adopted me and announced that he would name me his heir. I make no doubt that she gave tongue to her feeling in the hearing of her son Dick, for among the many taunts which he and his boon fellow Cyrus Vetch cast at me was that I was what they pleased to call a "charity child."
I have mentioned Cyrus Vetch. If I feared Dick Cludde, I both feared and hated his companion. Cyrus was the son of a well-to-do merchant of the town—a man little in stature, but stout, and wondrous big in self esteem. He was the owner of much property, already one of the twelve aldermen, and ambitious, folk said, to arrive at the highest dignity a citizen of Shrewsbury could attain and wear the chain of mayor about his bulldog neck. He doted on his son, who certainly did not take after his father so far as looks went, for he was a tall, lanky fellow with a sallow face, the alderman's countenance being as red as raw beef.
Hating Cyrus as I did, and not without cause, as will be seen hereafter, I may be a trifle unjust in my recollection of him; but I seem to see again a weasel face, with a pair of little restless cunning eyes, and lips that were shaped to a perpetual sneer. As to the sharpness of his tongue I know my memory does not play me false: Dick Cludde's taunts bruised, but Cyrus Vetch's stung.
I had been less than a year at the school when an event happened which had a great bearing on my future life. It was in the autumn of the year 1690. I left afternoon school, and walked up Castle Street, intending to turn down by St. Mary's Church as I was wont to do, and make my way by Dogpole and Wyle Cop to English Bridge and so home. But just as I came to the corner I spied Cludde and Vetch waiting for me, as they sometimes did, at the back end of the church. To avoid them, I went on till I came to the corner of Dogpole and Pride Hill, hoping thereby to escape. But Cyrus Vetch's keen eyes had seen me, and when I came to the turning by Colam's, the vintner's, there were my two tormentors, posted right in my path.
"Aha, young Bold!" says Cyrus, clutching me roughly by the arm, "so you thought to give us the slip, did you?"
I could not deny it, and said nothing.
"Hark 'ee, young Bold," Cyrus went on, "you're to bring us tomorrow morning a good dozen of old Ellery's apples, d'you hear?"
"A good dozen, young Bold," says Cludde, with the precision of an echo.
"Let me go, please, Vetch," I said, endeavoring to wrench my arm away.
"Not so fast, bun face," says he, giving my arm a twist. "You'd best promise, or it will be the worse for you. Now say after me, 'I, Humphrey Bold, adopted brat of John Ellery'—Speak up now!" "Please let me go, Vetch," said I, wriggling in his grasp.
"You won't, eh? You're an obstinate pig, eh? You defy us, eh?" and with every question the bully twisted my arm till I almost screamed with the pain.
"Don't be a ninny," says Cludde. "What's a few apples! Why, old Ellery's trees are loaded with 'em."
Vetch's grip somewhat relaxed while Cludde was speaking, and, seizing the opportunity, I wrenched my arm away with a sudden movement and took to my heels. Being thin and light of foot, I was a fleet runner, and though they immediately set off in pursuit, I gained on them for a few yards, and had some hope of distancing them altogether. But just as I came to where Dogpole runs into Wyle Cop, a stitch in the side, which often seized me at inconvenient times, forced me to slacken speed. Seeing this, they quickened their pace, and in a few moments they would have had me at their mercy.
But in that predicament I heard Joe Punchard whistling, through the open door of the shop where he did 'prentice work for old Matthew Mark, the cooper. I knew Joe well; he had often brought barrels to our farm, and once or twice on my way home from school I had gone into the shop and watched him at his work.
Now, as a fox when the hounds are in full cry behind him will run for shelter into any likely place that offers, so I, hard pressed as I was, rushed panting into the shop, too breathless at first to explain my need.
"Hallo! What's this!" cried Joe, who was just rolling down his sleeves before closing work for the day. "What be the matter, Master Bold? You be all of a sweat and puffing like to burst."
"They're after me! Keep 'em off, Joe!" I gasped.
"After you, be they! Some of your schoolmates worriting of you, eh? Don't be afeared, lad. I be just going home, and I'll see you safe to Bridge.
"Ah! there they be," he added, as my pursuers appeared in the doorway.
"Good afternoon to you, and what might you be pleased to want?"
"Out of the road, Joe Punchard!" cries Cludde, walking into the shop. "I'll teach that little beast to run away."
And he came forward to where I stood, sheltering myself behind Joe's thick-set body.
"Bide a minute," says Joe, lurching so as to shield me. "What ha' Master Bold bin doin' to you?"
"What's that to you?" says Cyrus Vetch, edging round him on the other side. "He's a young sneak, that's what he is, and wants a good basting, and he'll get it, too."
"Not so fast now," says Joe, sticking out his elbows to broaden himself. "I know you, Master Vetch, and 'tis my belief you and Master Cludde are just nought but a brace of bullies, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves, Master Cludde in particular, seeing as the little lad be your own cousin."
"You shut your mouth, Joe Punchard!" shouts Cludde in a passion. "He my cousin, indeed!—the mean little charity brat!"
"And a blubbering baby, too!" says Vetch, "cries before he is hurt."
"'Tis not much good crying after," says Joe with a chuckle, before I could protest that I was not crying; I always did hate a blubbering boy.
"Now you two boys be off," Joe went on. "I'm going home, and I'll see to it you don't bait Master Bold no more this side of the Bridge. And what's more, I tell you this: that if I cotch you two great chaps worriting the boy again, I'll take and leather you, both of you, and that's flat."
"Try it, bandy-legs," said Vetch with a sneer. "We'll do as we please, and if you dare to lay a hand on either of us, I'll—I'll—"
"What'll you do, then?" says Joe, who all this while had been spreading himself in front of me. "What'll you do then? D'you think I care a farden what you'll do? You'd better behave pretty, Master Vetch, or 'twill be worse for you, my young cockchafer."
At this the two boys backed a little, and Joe, thinking them daunted by his threatening mien, turned to take down the key of the shop from its nail on the wall. But he had no sooner left my side than Vetch sprang forward, and catching me by the arm, gave it a cunning twist that, in spite of myself, made me shriek with pain. Joe was round in an instant, and made for my tormentor, who with Cludde ran towards the door. But in their endeavor to escape they impeded each other: Vetch tripped, and before he could recover his footing Joe had him in an iron grip, and began to shake him as I had many times seen our terrier shake a rat he had caught in the barn.
"Let me go!" yells Cyrus. "Help, Dick! Kick his shins!"
But Cludde, though a big fellow enough, was never over ready to put his head in chancery. He stood in the street, shaking his fist, and writhing his face into terrible grimaces at me.
"Let me go!" cries Vetch again.
"You young viper!" says Joe, shaking him still. "You'll misuse the little lad before my face, will you? And squeal like a pig to be let go, will you?
"Aha! You shall go," he says with a sudden laugh. "Dash me if 'twere not made o' purpose."
Joe Punchard, I have forgotten to mention, was short of stature, standing no more than five feet three. But he was very thick-set and heavily made, with massive arms and legs, the latter somewhat bowed, making him appear even shorter than he was. It was these legs of his, together with his big round head and shock of reddish hair, that inspired some genius of the school with a couplet which was often chanted by the boys when they caught sight of Joe in the street. It ran:
O, pi, rho, bandy-legged Joe, Turnip and carrots wherever you go.
But bandy-legged as he was, Joe had the great strength which I have often observed to accompany that defect of nature. So it was with exceeding ease he lifted Cyrus Vetch, for all his struggles, with one hand, and dropped him into a barrel that stood, newly finished, against the wall—a barrel of such noble height that Vetch quite disappeared within it. Then, trundling it upon its edge, as draymen do with casks of beer, he brought it to the street, laid it sidelong, and set it rolling.
Now the Wyle Cop at Shrewsbury, as you may know, is a street that winds steeply down to the English Bridge over the Severn. Had it been straight, the bias of the barrel would doubtless have soon carried it to the side, and Joe Punchard might have risen in course of time to the status of a master cooper in his native town. But when I went to the door to see what was happening, there was the barrel in full career, following the curve of the street, and gathering speed with every yard. Joe stood with arms akimbo, smiling broadly. Cludde was racing after the barrel, shouting for someone to stop it.
If I had not already been in such mortal terror of the consequences of Joe's mad freak, I should have laughed to see the wayfarers as they skipped out of the course of the runagate, not one of them aware as yet that it held human contents, nor guessing that the end might be more than broken staves.
By this time Joe himself had come to a sense of his recklessness. He gripped me by the hand, and dragged me down the hill at so fierce a pace that in half a minute all the breath was out of my body. I wondered what he purposed doing, for the barrel was now out of sight past the bend, and could scarce have been overtaken by the wearer of the seven league boots. But as we turned into the straight again, just by Andrew Cruddle, the saddler's, we again espied the terrible barrel, rolling with many bumps towards the head of the bridge.
And then I verily believe that my heart for some seconds ceased to beat, and I am sure that Joe shared my dismay, for he tightened the grip of his great strong hand upon my puny one until I could have sworn it was crushed to a pulp. At the bridge head were two gentlemen, who had to all appearance been engaged in chatting, for one still sat on the parapet, while the other stood within a foot or two of him. They were not talking now, but gazing at the barrel rolling down towards them, and the one who was seated wore the trace of a smile upon his face.
But the other—Heaven knows what terror seized me when my eyes lighted upon him: it was none other than Joshua Vetch, the father of the boy who, as I feared, was being churned to a jelly; and he stood full in the path of the barrel.
Mr. Vetch, as I have said, was a small but corpulent man, and stood very upright, with a slight backward inclination, to balance, I suppose, the exceeding greatness of his rotundity. His countenance habitually expressed disapproval, and his shaggy brows were drawn down now in an angry frown. I perceived that he said something to his companion, and then I saw no more for a while, a mist seeming to gather before my eyes.
When I regained possession of my faculties, dreading what might have happened, I found myself on the skirts of a group of five or six, and heard the loud voice of Mr. Vetch bellowing forth words which, for modesty's sake, I forbid my pen to write. He was not dead, then, I thought, nor even hurt, or assuredly he would not have had the strength to curse with such vigor. But what of Cyrus?
"I'll have the law on the villain! Run for a potticary! D'you hear, you gaping jackass? Run for Mr. Pinhorn and bid him come here!"
And then followed a string of oaths like to those I had heard before. The group parted hastily, and out came Dick Cludde, with a face as white as milk, and sped up the town as fast as his long legs would carry him. No doubt he was the "gaping jackass" whom Mr. Vetch had so addressed in his fury.
Pushing my way through the townsmen who had gathered, and whose numbers were swelled every moment by the afflux of aproned grocers, and potboys, and 'prentices, and others from the streets, I saw Cyrus laid on his back by the parapet, white and still, his father pacing heavily up and down, and his friend Captain Galsworthy fending off the prying onlookers with his cane.
"I'll thrash the villain to a pulp! I'll send him to the plantations, I will! I'll break every bone in his body!"
So Mr. Vetch roared and, much as I disliked him, I could not but feel a certain compassion, too, for all the world knew how he doted on his son. I looked around for Joe Punchard, to see whether he was in hearing of these threats, but he was not among the crowd.
By and by came Mr. Pinhorn, the surgeon, and some while after him four lads bearing a stretcher, upon which the unconscious form of my enemy was conveyed slowly up the town to Mr. Vetch's house on Pride Hill. I followed on the edge of the crowd until I saw the doors close upon the bearers, and then I betook myself home, in sore distress at the fate in store for my friend Joe Punchard, and in some terror lest I should share it, the mad freak of which he was guilty having been performed on my behalf.
Chapter 2: Joe Breaks His Indentures.
It was so much later than my usual hour for returning from school that I was not surprised to see Mistress Pennyquick at the gate of our farm, shading her eyes against the westering sun as she looked for me up the road. I endeavored to compose my countenance so as to betray no sign of the excitement through which I had passed; but the attempt failed lamentably, and when the good creature began to question me, I burst into tears. This was so rare an occurrence with me that she was mightily concerned and adjured me to tell all, promising that if I had done wrong she would shield me from my father's anger. And when in answer to this I told her what Joe Punchard had done to Cyrus Vetch, and the terrible things I had heard the alderman threaten against him, she laughed and said I was too tender hearted for a boy, and Joe Punchard would be none the worse for a basting, and a deal more to the same tune, which almost broke through my determination to say nothing of what had caused the mischief; for, after all, Dick Cludde and Cyrus Vetch were my schoolfellows, and, in my day; for one boy to tell on another was the unpardonable sin.
My father came in soon after, and when he heard so much of the story as I had told Mistress Pennyquick he drew his fingers through his beard and said in his quiet way: "To be sure, barrels were not made for that kind of vetch!"
And then we sat down to supper. We had hardly begun when there came a smart rap on the door, and, with the freedom of our country manners, in walked a visitor. My heart gave a jump when I saw it was none other than Captain Galsworthy, the gentleman with whom Mr. Vetch had been in converse at the bridge.
We knew the captain well; he was, in a way, one of the notable persons of our town. We boys looked on him with a vast admiration and reverence, not so much for his title—for there are captains and captains, and I have known some who have done little in the matter of feats of arms—as because he bore on his lean and rugged countenance marks which no one could mistake. A deep scar seamed his right temple, and on one of his cheeks were several little black pits which we believed to be the marks of bullets. He spoke but rarely of his own doings, and until he came to Shrewsbury a few years before this he had been a stranger to the town: but it was commonly reported that he had been in the service of the Czar of Muscovy, and since that potentate was ever unwilling that any officer who had once served him should leave him (save by death or hanging), it was supposed that the captain had made his escape. He lived alone in a little cottage on the Wem road, and, not being too plentifully endowed with this world's goods, he eked out his competency by giving lessons in fencing, both with singlesticks and swords.
Well, in comes the captain, cocking a twinkling eye at me, lays on the table the cane without which he never went abroad, and, placing a chair for himself at the table, says:
"'Tis to be hoped we are not in for a ten years' Trojan war, Master Humphrey."
Though I understood nothing of his meaning, I knew he made reference to the recent escapade, and I felt mightily uncomfortable. My father looked from one to the other, but did not break his silence.
"They haven't put you to the Iliads yet, I suppose," says the captain, helping himself to a mug of our home-brewed cider, "but you know, neighbor Ellery, 'twas an apple that set the Greeks and Trojans by the ears, and 'tis apples, or rather the want of 'em, that is like to put discord between some of our families hereabout."
"You speak in riddles, Captain," says my father at last; "and why are you eying Humphrey in that quizzical way?"
"Why, bless my soul, don't you know? I thought it had been half over the county by this."
"I know that that 'prentice lad Punchard hath half-killed young Vetch, and richly deserves what he will no doubt get tomorrow."
"And is that all? Have you told only half your story, Humphrey?"
This direct question made me still more uncomfortable, especially as my father's eyes were sternly bent upon me. He hated lies, and half truths still more, and I could see that he was dimly suspecting me of a complicity in Joe Punchard's action to which I had not confessed. But Captain Galsworthy was a shrewd old man, and he saw at once how the matter stood.
"No peaching, eh, lad?" he said kindly. "I've an inquisitive turn of mind, and after that performance with the barrel—and it was a monstrous comical sight, Ellery, to see the little alderman skip out of the way when the barrel made straight for his shins, but not so funny when he pulls at the shock head sticking out and finds it belongs to his own son—after that performance, I say, I caught young Dick Cludde by the ear, and made him tell me the story. And it begins with apples—like this excellent cider of yours, Ellery."
He quaffed a deep draught and leaned back in his chair, giving me another friendly wink. The captain was ever somewhat long winded over his stories, and I could see that my father was growing impatient; but he sat back in his chair with his hands upon the arms and said never a word.
"Young Cludde and Cyrus Vetch, it seems, have a sweet tooth for your apples, Ellery," said the captain, "and Cludde told me with a fine indignation that Humphrey flatly refused to fill his pockets for their behoof. They were proceeding to enforce their requisition, I gather, when the boy broke from them, and, finding himself hard pressed by and by, took refuge behind Joe Punchard's bandy legs. And Joe must needs take up the cudgels on behalf of the oppressed, and chose an original way of punishing the oppressor. And thus the rolling of the barrel is explained."
At this Mistress Pennyquick broke out into vehement denunciation of the two boys, but my father silenced her. Quietly he began to question me: he would take no denial, and drew out of me bit by bit the whole story of the bullying I had suffered from those two of my schoolfellows.
And then he was more angry than I had seen him ever before. He smote the arm of the chair with his great fist, and vowed he would not have me ill used; and though he said but little, and never once raised his voice, I knew by the set of his lips and the gleam of his eye that it would go hard with anyone who baited me again. Then the captain made a proposition for which I have been thankful all my life long.
"The moral of it is, Ellery, that Humphrey must be a pupil of mine.
"Give me your arm, boy.
"Ah!" says he, feeling the muscle, which was soft enough, no doubt, seeing that I was only eleven and had never done anything about the farm. "We must alter that. Let him come to me twice a week, Ellery, and he shall learn the arts of self defense, first with nature's own weapons, for boxing I take to be the true foundation of all bodily exercise, and afterwards, when he is a little grown, the more delicate science of swordsmanship, which demands bodily strength and wits, and to which the other is but a prelude. And I warrant you, if he have the right stuff in him, that by the time the schoolmaster has done with him he shall be able to hold his own against any man, and will need no succors from Joe Punchard or anyone else."
Hereupon Mistress Pennyquick set up a cry about the wickedness of teaching little boys to fight, and the state she would be in if I was some day brought home mangled and disfigured, and a great deal more to the same effect. The captain tapped the table until she had finished, and then, with a fine courtly bow, he said:
"Spoken like a woman, ma'am. Humphrey will suffer hard knocks, to be sure; yes, please God, he shall have many a black eye, and many a bloody nose, and we shall make a man of him, ma'am: a gentleman he is already."
"Yes, to be sure," says the simple creature, "and his mother was a born lady, and—"
"Tuts, ma'am," the captain here interrupted. "I was not alluding to his pedigree. The boy has suffered torment for months without breathing a word of it to betray his schoolfellows; from that I deduce that he has the spirit of a gentleman, and I want no further proof."
"'Tis time the boy was abed," says my father. "Run away, lad."
I got up at once to go, guessing that my father wished to have some private talk with Captain Galsworthy. My ears were tingling, I confess, with his praise of me, and my heart throbbed with delight and pride at the thought of being the captain's pupil. I could not sleep for thinking of it. I imagined all manner of scenes in which I should some day figure, and saw myself already holding off five enemies at once with my flashing sword. These visions haunted my dreams when at last I slept, and it was after a bout of especial fierceness that I found myself lying awake, in a great heat and breathlessness.
And then I was aware of an actual sound—a sound which no doubt had entered into my dreams as the clash of arms. It was a soft and regular tapping, a ghostly sound to hear at dead of night, and like to scare a boy of quick imagination. I lay for some moments in a state bordering on panic, unable to think, much less to act.
Tap, tap, tap—so it went on, like the ticking of the great clock on the stairs, only louder and more substantial. It ceased, and I held my breath, wondering whether I should hear it again. Then it recommenced, and I was about to spring from my bed and run to tell Mistress Pennyquick when a sudden thought held me: What would Captain Galsworthy think if he knew I had fled from a sound? Would he regard me as the right stuff of which to make a man?
The captain's good opinion was worth so much to me now that I crushed down my fears and sat up in bed (yet keeping a tight clutch upon the blanket), and tried to use my reason.
The tapping, I reflected, must be caused by some person or thing. A ghost is a spirit, and insubstantial, and I had never heard that the ghost which some of the townsfolk (chiefly servant maids) had seen in St. Alkmund's Churchyard had done more at any time than glide silently among the tombs. And even as I decided that the sound must have a natural cause, I had startling confirmation of my conclusion in a new sound—nothing else than a sneeze, sudden, and short, and stifled. The tapping ceased, and while I was still trying to collect my wits I heard a groan, and immediately afterwards a voice calling my name, and then a new tapping, only quicker.
It was now clear to me that some one was at my window, though, seeing that my room was some twenty feet above the ground, I was at a loss to imagine how the tapper had mounted there.
My fears now being merged in surprise, I got out of bed, stole to the window, and pulled the blind an inch aside.
"Master Bold! Master Bold!" came the voice again, and, venturing a little more, I put my head between the blind and the window, and saw a dark form against the clear summer sky.
"Master Bold, 'tis me, Joe Punchard," said the voice in a whisper. "Canst let me in, lad, without making a noise?"
Without more ado I lifted the sash gradually, for it was heavy and creaked, and I feared to rouse the household. When it was high enough for Joe's bulky form to pass through he clambered over the sill, and stood in my room.
"How did you get up, Joe?" I asked in a whisper.
"Got a ladder from the rick yard, lad. I bin tapping for nigh half an hour, I reckon. You be one of the seven sleepers, for sure."
"But what do you want, Joe? You can't stay here, you know."
"Nor don't want to. I be come to tell you, lad, I be going away."
"Going away, Joe?"
"Yes. No one knows it but you, and I wouldn't ha' telled you only the old mother will be in a rare taking when she finds me gone, and I want you to tell her as I've come to no harm."
"But why, Joe?"
"Vetch—that's why. 'Tis no place for me now, lad. He bin cursing and swearing he'll send me to the plantations for that business with the barrel, and he'll keep his word. And so I be going to run for it."
"But where, Joe? And what about your 'dentures?"
"That's where it is: my 'dentures must go too. If I be catched, there's a flogging and prison for that. But I don't mean to be catched. Before the sun's up I'll be on my way to Bristowe."
"That's ever so far."
"So 'tis, but not further than a pair of legs can walk."
"And will you get a place with a cooper there?"
"No, no; no more coopering for me; I be done with barrels for good and all. I be going to sea."
"To sea! What ever made you think of such a thing?"
"One thing and another. And I won't be the first, not even from such an upland place as Shrewsbury. Why, haven't we heard Mistress Hind tell time and again how her brother John Benbow ran away to sea nigh upon thirty years ago?"
"True, and so did Sam Blevins, and hasn't been heard of since, Joe."
"Well, if Vetch ships me to the plantations you may be sure no more will be heard of Joe Punchard, so 'tis as broad as 'tis long."
"'Tis all my fault, Joe. If I hadn't run into the shop this wouldn't have happened, and you'd have worked out your 'dentures, and maybe risen to be a partner with Mr. Mark. I wish I had let them catch me, Joe, I do."
"Now don't you take on, Master Humphrey. As for partners, I be sick of making barrels for other folks' beer, that's the truth, and by what I've heard there's riches to be picked up in the Indies, and many a sea captain is a deal better off than Matthew Mark. And I'm set on trying it, lad, the more so as, by long and short, I dursn't stay in Shrewsbury no longer. So you'll be so good as go and see the old mother tomorrow, and tell her I be gone to sea, and I'll send her home silks, and satins, and diamonds, too, maybe, and I'll come home some day rich as creases, as I heard parson say once."
"I hope you will, Joe. Will you write to me and tell me how you are getting on?"
"Bless your life, I can do no more than make my mark. But maybe I'll light on some scholard who'll write down out of my mouth, and I'll make him limn a barrel on the paper, and then you'll know for sure 'tis me."
This conversation had proceeded in whispers, but Joe's whisper was sonorous, and I was in some fear lest Mistress Pennyquick, whose room was hard by, should hear the rumble and take alarm. Yet I could not refrain from keeping him while I told of the matter so near my heart—the offer of Captain Galsworthy to take me as a pupil. Joe listened very sympathetically.
"'Tis an ill wind blows no one good," he said. "That there barrel makes a sailor of me; maybe 'tis to make a sojer of you."
"And what of Cyrus Vetch?" I could not help saying.
"Ah! Cyrus Vetch!" muttered Joe, looking troubled. "I be afeared 'twill make him a downright enemy to you, lad. But you'll grow, and captain will learn you how to ply your fists, and when it comes to a fight, mind of my fighting name, and punch hard."
Then, having promised to see his mother and do what I could to console her, I wrung his hand and wished him well, and he climbed out again by the window, and in the starlight I watched him carry the ladder across the yard; and then with a final wave of the hand he vanished into the night.
Chapter 3: I Meet The Mohocks.
At breakfast I said nothing of Joe's midnight visit, reckoning that it would not be long before the news of his flight got abroad. It was indeed the subject of a great buzz of talk among my schoolfellows, who flocked about me as I walked down Castle Street, demanding to hear the full story from my own lips. I could tell them nothing that they did not know, save only my leave-taking with Joe Punchard, which, of course, I had resolved to keep very close. I learned from them that Cyrus was abed, and like to stay there, said Mr. Pinhorn, for a week or more. His father was in a desperate rage, and had sent horsemen along all the roads in pursuit of the runaway, and I had some fear that my good friend would be caught and brought back to receive his punishment.
However, nothing had been heard of him by the time school was over, so that I had great hopes that he had got himself clean away. I went to see his mother as I had promised, and said what I could to comfort her; but the good woman was mightily upset, and declared in a passion of weeping that she was sure she would never see her Joe again.
That evening at supper my father was even more quiet than his wont. Mistress Pennyquick told me afterwards that he had been to see his sister Lady Cludde and her husband at Cludde Court, and given them a piece of his mind. What passed between them I know not, but I do know that my father never set foot in Cludde Court again, nor did his sister come any more to the farm, even when her brother lay a-dying. His visit had this good effect, however, that I suffered no more bullying at the hands of Dick Cludde or Cyrus Vetch. Dick eyed me with a malignant scowl whenever he met me, and as for Cyrus, who did not come back to school for a good ten days, he looked over my head as though I did not exist, which gave me no discomfort, you may be sure. At the end of that year they were both taken from school, Cludde going to Cambridge, and Vetch to assist his father, who was a grain merchant in a substantial way, as all Shrewsbury supposed.
It would be a tedious matter were I to tell all the little happenings of the next few years. Whether it was due to my constant exercise under Captain Galsworthy's tuition, I know not, but certainly, from that very summer, I grew at an amazing rate, shooting up until I was as tall as boys three or four years older, yet hardening at the same time. Twice a week regularly I betook myself to the captain's little cottage on the Wem road, and spent an hour with him in mastering the principles and practice of what he called the noble arts of self defense. He was pleased to say that I was quick of eye and nimble of body, and, being on my side very eager to learn, I was speedily in his good books, and he seemed to take a special pleasure in teaching me.
At first I found our bouts at fisticuffs a severe tax. The captain, though well on in years, was still hale and active, and, being tall and spare, he had a great advantage of me. With the long reach of his arms he could pummel me without giving me the least chance of reprisal, and many's the day I crawled home after our encounters bruised and sore, provoking indignant remonstrances from Mistress Pennyquick. But I refused to let her coddle me, and as my appetite never failed, and I throve amazingly, the good woman at last ceased to lament, and, as I discovered, was wont behind my back to vaunt my growing manliness.
By the time I was fifteen I was as tall as the captain himself, and then my share of bruises ceased to be so disproportionate. In skill, whether with the fists or the foils, he was always vastly my superior; indeed, to this day I have never met his equal. But I had youth on my side, and sometimes the old man at the end of a particularly arduous bout would sigh, and wish he were younger by a score of years.
No one could have been more generous in encouragement and praise. It would have amused an onlooker, I am sure, to see him, when I had had the good fortune to tap claret, mopping the injured feature and all the time maintaining a flow of complimentary remarks.
"Capital, my lad!"—after fifty years I can hear him still—"on my life, a neat one, Humphrey; I shall make something of you yet, my boy."
And then we fall to it again, and, being somewhat overconfident, perhaps, after my success, I fail a little in my guard, and the captain sees his opportunity and lands me such a series of staggerers that I see a thousand stars, and there am I dabbing my nose while he cries again: "Capital, my lad! A Roland for an Oliver! And now we'll wash away the sanguinary traces of our combat and allay our noble rage with a mug of cider."
And thus, giving and receiving hard knocks, we continued to be the best of friends.
These years brought changes in their train. One day Joshua Vetch, Cyrus' father, died suddenly of an apoplectic fit, brought on, folk said, by disappointment at Mr. Adderton the draper being elected mayor over his head. And then it was found that, so far from being wealthy as was supposed, he had been for years living beyond his means, being ably assisted in his expenditure by Cyrus. His affairs were in great disorder; Cyrus himself was totally unprovided for, and but for his uncle, John Vetch, a reputable attorney of our town, who took pity on him, and gave him articles, God knows what would have become of him.
At this change of fortune I could not but remember how, years before, he had sneered at me as a "charity brat." I fancy he remembered it too, for when I met him face to face one day, as I returned from school, coming out of his uncle's office, he flushed deeply and then gave me such a look of hatred that I felt uneasy for days after.
Cyrus had never borne a good name in Shrewsbury, and after his father's death he seemed to grow reckless. Dick Cludde was still at college, though I never heard that he did any good there, and in the vacations he and Cyrus consorted much together, and became in fact the ringleaders of a wild set whose doings were a scandal in Shrewsbury for many a day. Cludde, it seemed, had made a jaunt to London with other young bloods at the end of the term in the December of this year 1694, to see the great pageant of Queen Mary's funeral.
The adventure did him no good, for when he returned to Shrewsbury he formed, with Vetch and others of his kidney, a gang in imitation of the Mohocks, as they were called—the band of dissolute young ruffians who then infested London, wrenching off knockers, molesting women in the streets, pinking sober citizens, and tumbling the old watchmen into the gutters. Our streets at night became the scene of riotous exploits of this kind, and our watch, being old and feeble men, were quite unable to cope with the rioters, so that decent folk began to be afraid to stir abroad after dark. Though they disguised themselves for these forays, it was shrewdly suspected who they were; but they escaped actual detection, and indeed, they were held in such terror by the townsfolk that no one durst move against them openly, for fear of what might come of it.
Things grew to such a height that one Saturday the mayor, with half a dozen aldermen, walked out to the little cottage on the Wem Road, and besought Captain Galsworthy's aid. The captain and I chanced to be in the thick of an encounter with the foils, and neither of us heard the rap on the door which announced the visitors. A gust of air when the door was opened apprised us that we had onlookers at our sport; but the captain's eyes never left mine until with a dexterous turn of the wrist, which I had long envied and sought in vain to copy, he sent my foil flying to the end of the room.
"Capital, capital!" cried he, removing his mask and wiping his heated brow.
"Good morning, Mr. Mayor," he added; "we have kept you waiting, I fear; but we were just approaching the critical moment: the issue was doubtful, and there is little satisfaction in a drawn battle.
"Your looks are portentous, gentlemen: is this a visit of state, may I ask?"
Whereupon the mayor, an honest little draper, made a speech which I am sure he had diligently conned over beforehand. He passed from a recital of the woes under which Shrewsbury suffered to a most flattering eulogium of the captain's prowess, to which my good friend listened with an air of approval that amused me mightily. And then the mayor came to the point, and in the name of the corporation and all decent citizens of Shrewsbury besought the captain to suppress the disturbers of their peace.
"Hum! ha!" said the captain, rubbing his nose reflectively. "I am an old man, Mr. Mayor: methinks this is work for younger blood than mine."
"No, no!" cried the company in chorus.
"We seed tha knock the steel from the hand of Master Bold there as 'twere a knitting needle," says the mayor, whose speech was as broad as his figure.
"Well, well," says the captain, "I'll think of it, my friends. You do me great honor, and I thank you for your visit."
The captain and I talked over the matter between ourselves, and the upshot of our consultation was that we got together a little band of his former pupils, and for several nights in succession we perambulated the streets of Shrewsbury from the English to the Welsh Bridge and from the Castle to the Quarry, with naked swords and a martial air. But we had our exercise for nothing. The town was as quiet as a graveyard, and the only disturber of the peace that engaged our attention was poor Tom Jessopp, the drayman, who, one night, having drunk more old October than was good for him, encountered us as he was staggering home down Shoplatch, and invited us, first to wet our whistles, and, on our declining, to fight him for a pint. We escorted him home and put him to bed, not without some difficulties and inconveniences, and that was the first and last of our adventures, the captain declaring that to deal with topers was no work for a man of honor.
The very night after our company was thus dissolved the mayor was knocked down at the foot of Swan Hill by the Town Wall, gagged and trussed, and laid upon his own doorstep, where he was found by the maidservant in the morning, having wrought himself to the verge of apoplexy by his struggles to rid himself of his bonds. He besought the captain with tears of outraged dignity to resume his guardianship of the town; but the old warrior merely rubbed his nose and spoke of rheumatism.
The outrages occurred only at intervals, and ceased altogether during the college terms, when Dick Cludde was absent, so that we were not far wrong in our inference that he was the fount and origin of the deeds of lawlessness. The townsfolk, you may be sure, did not love him; nor did the high and mighty airs Sir Richard and my lady chose to assume in their dealings with the citizens win them many friends; so that when it became known, about the time when Dick left Cambridge finally, without a degree, that his father had suffered serious reverses of fortune in his adventures in oversea trade, there were few who felt anything but satisfaction.
At this time I was midway in my seventeenth year—a big strapping fellow standing five feet ten, having quite outgrown the delicacy of my childhood. I was high up in the school, on good terms with the masters, though my Latin and Greek was never considerable: on better terms with the boys, for, I must own, my inclinations were rather towards baseball and quoits than towards the nice discrimination of longs and shorts. I had developed in particular an amazing strength of arm, which stood me in good stead in wrestling bouts, and led to my being counted two in our tugs of war. It was this same strength, I fancy, that made my schoolfellows chary of provoking me to wrath, for which I was somewhat sorry, having always loved a fight.
During these years no tidings came to us of Joe Punchard. His poor mother, who earned a living by washing for some of our Shrewsbury folk, feared the worst from his long silence. But Mistress Nelly Hind, who kept a coffee shop in Raven Street, called Mistress Punchard a croaker and bade her be of good cheer, for she had neither seen nor directly heard from her brother John Benbow for twenty years; yet he was alive and well, and captain of a king's ship, if rumor were not a false, lying jade.
"Not that your Joe will ever rise to such a height," she added.
"Sure he's a better boy than ever your John was," said Mistress Punchard, up in arms for her offspring.
"John's legs are as straight as the bed post," retorted his sister, and then the two women began a war of words, in the midst of which, having drunk my dish of coffee, I slipped away.
I rarely speculated on my future, and my father never spoke of it. We took it for granted that I should succeed him in his little property, and during the school holidays I sometimes accompanied him to market, and learned to handle samples of grain and to discuss the points of his fat cattle.
It was when I was approaching the end of my seventeenth year that I began to think of the future more nearly. My father had suffered long—though Mistress Pennyquick and I had known nothing of it, he being so reticent—from a disease which nowadays physicians call angina pectoris, a disease that grips a man by the chest, as 'twere his breastbones are ground together, with breathlessness and exquisite pain. As he grew older, the attacks recurred more frequently and with greater violence, and after one of them, the first I had seen with my own eyes, he sent for Mr. Vetch, the attorney, and was closeted with him a great while in his room. Mistress Pennyquick's face was very grave when she spoke to me about it afterwards.
"'Tis a bad sign when a man sends for his lawyer, Humphrey," she said. "I can't abide 'un, for they always make me think of my latter end. Your father have made his will, I'll be bound, and I wish he spoke more free of things. But there, 'tis always the way; empty barrels make the most noise, as the saying is, and I will groan with the toothache while the poor master will suffer his agonies without a word."
One night as we were sitting reading, my father had an attack which terrified us. All at once, without a moment's warning, he dropped his book, and stood up, bending forward, his face blue, his eyes almost starting from his head. We hastened to him, but he motioned us away, and then Mistress Pennyquick bade me ride for Mr. Pinhorn. I snatched my cap, and, knowing that with my long legs I could reach the town by the fields more quickly than on horseback by the road, I did not stay to saddle Jerry, but set off at full speed across five-acre, vaulted the gate into the spinney, and so on till I gained the bridge, by which time I was blowing like a furnace.
It was dark, being October, and though I knew every yard of our ground, I marvel now to think how I escaped breaking my leg in a ditch or coming to some other mishap. I raced on to Raven Street, where Mr. Pinhorn lived, and by good luck found him just alighting at the door from his nag. I told him my errand in gasps; the good surgeon understood without much telling, and he leaped again into the saddle (his foot never having left the stirrup) and galloped away.
My knees shook so violently with the exertions I had made that I would fain have rested awhile before returning. But the thought that my father might die in my absence struck me with a chill, and I set off at a swinging stride after the surgeon.
I had gone but a few yards, however, when ahead of me, by the light of a flickering oil lamp, hanging from a bracket before one of the houses, I saw a group of some five or six, youths by their build, gathered about a doorway. Immediately afterwards I heard from the same spot a harsh sound as of rending wood, followed by guffaws of laughter. The party then moved quickly on for a few paces, and again came to a halt at a doorway, whence in a few seconds the same sound reached my ears.
Passing the door at which I had first seen them, I noticed that where the knocker should have been there was nothing but a few bent nails and a splintered panel. After former experiences my suspicion scarce needed this confirmation: without doubt these were our Shrewsbury Mohocks, out for a night's frolic. I had never before seen them at their diversions, my patrolling of the streets with Captain Galsworthy having been a mere parade, as I have related, and now I was in no mood to encounter them, having the trouble of my father's illness on my mind. But I perceived that they were engaged in wreaking their knavery upon the sign board of Nelly Hind, and my blood waxed hot at the thought of the poor woman's distress, and my fingers itched to strike a blow on her behalf.
Strong as I was, I knew 'twould be mere folly to attempt single-handed to engage half a dozen, and I was thinking of running quickly to some of the members of the Captain's disbanded force and enlisting their help when the situation was changed by the arrival of old Ben Ivimey, the feeblest of the ancient watchmen to whom the peace of Shrewsbury was confided. He was past sixty and stone deaf, and his bent old figure, with a lantern in one hand and a staff in the other, came round the corner all unsuspecting what was in store for him.
The Mohocks, intent upon their mischief, did not observe the coming of the watchman. He was a little man, but must have been of some mettle in his day, for, perceiving what is afoot, he toddles up in his odd headlong gait, and laying his hand on the arm of one of the roisterers, formally arrests him in the name of the mayor.
The fellow swings round at the touch, and bursts into a roar of laughter. He was masked, as were all his companions; but I knew him by his make to be Cyrus Vetch. Well, he laughs, and shakes off the watchman's feeble grasp, and springing back, draws his sword; and in another instant there was old Ben, the center of the group, skipping this way and that to avoid their sword points, protesting, threatening, appealing, escaping one merely to run upon another.
I will say this for them, that they intended to do him no harm; their lunges were sportive and not in earnest; but diverting as the sport was to them, it was the very contrary to the old man, whose cries proclaimed that he thought his last hour was come.
All this happened in the space of a few moments. I was unwilling to leave old Ben to the mercy of his tormentors while I ran for assistance, as I was intending; yet it was clear I could do nothing alone.
"John Kynaston," thinks I, "lives only a couple of hundred yards away: he and I together might account for the ruffians."
I was just turning to make my way to Kynaston's house, when a cry of pain from the old man drove out all considerations of prudence. In dodging one of that ring of steel points it would appear that he had stumbled full upon another, and the weapon, by accident or otherwise, had pierced his arm. My blood was up; I clean forgot my design of running for help. I had no weapon with me, but, hastily scanning the dim-lit street for a something to wield, my foot kicked an object in the gutter. In a trice I had seized it in both hands, barely conscious of its weight. Then I ran with it the few yards that separated me from the scuffle, and, lifting my weapon above my head, hurled it at the nearest of the group. There was a sound of fury from the fellow at whom I had aimed, and from the two beyond him—a sound muffled and all but inarticulate, for the missile which had fallen like a bolt among them was a large wooden bin filled with household refuse, and placed in the gutter for the coming of the early morning scavenger.
Chapter 4: Captain John Benbow.
Our Mohocks suffered some discomfort, I fear, as the contents of the bin hurtled upon them. Household refuse hath, to be sure, no sweetness of savor; and the shower of bones, eggshells, cabbage stalks, potato parings, rinds of bacon, and what not, with a plentiful admixture of white wood ash, served to stay their activity in deeds, though I must own it did but enhance the fury of their tongues. But the diversion gave me a breathing space in which I drew old Ben within the shadow of a doorway and took his staff from his fainting hands—not without resistance on his part, for the mettlesome old fellow refused to yield up his insignia until I brought my face within an inch of his dim eyes, and he recognized me for a friend.
"Spring your rattle, man!" I cried, and then to the din of curses and roars for vengeance there was added the sharp crackle of his alarm signal.
By this time the leaders of the rioters had rubbed the dust from their eyes and came towards me, the foremost of them, Cyrus Vetch, shouting to his comrades to spit me like a toad. He had recognized me, and sprang towards the doorway where I stood with staff aslant, the trembling watchman still whirling his rattle behind. Mad with rage he cut at me with his sword, which bit deep into the staff, by that very fact becoming for a brief moment useless.
Before Vetch could recover his weapon, I had withdrawn mine, and lunging fair upon him, I dealt him a thrust that sent him spinning halfway across the street. But I was now beset by his comrades, who made at me from both sides of the porch, but for whose shelter I should in all likelihood have been overborne.
They had some sense of fair play, however. They returned their swords to the scabbards, and were for trusting to their fists alone. I contrived to give one of them a smart tap on the crown before they came to close quarters; but ere I could recover myself they were upon me, the staff was wrenched from my grasp, and I was as hard put to it as a stag bayed by hounds. I made what play I could with my fists, and got home at least one blow for two; but the odds were too heavy against me, and when at length a fellow as big as myself slipped round to my back and gripped me hard by the neck, all my struggles did not avail to prevent my being shoved and pulled and hustled out into the middle of the street.
Vetch had picked himself up, and now came running towards me in a frenzy. In his rage he had plucked off his mask, revealing his distorted features to all the good folk who, I doubt not, by this time had their heads out at their windows, viewing the scene from a secure altitude.
"Out of the way, Mytton!" he screamed, his voice shrill with passion. "Out of the way, I say; I will crop his ears, the cur!"
Burt Mytton, the fellow who had me by the neck, and some others of the band, were not for pushing things to such extremities. They closed about to protect me, and even Dick Cludde caught Vetch's arm and expostulated with him. Another meanwhile had snatched old Ivimey's rattle from him, and ever and anon amid the din I caught the sound of his quavering voice calling, "Help for the watch! O my sakes! O my bones!"
Then a cry arose:
"To the river! Give 'em a ducking!" and in another moment there we were, myself and Ivimey, being lugged at a quick scuffle down the street towards the Severn. There was no hope of escape, and I had resigned myself to the imminent bath, when at a turn in the narrow roadway we found the path blocked by two pedestrians.
With Mytton's hand forcing my head downwards I did not at first see them, but I heard a loud voice call, "Hold, rascals!" breaking in upon the watchman's feeble cry, "O my sakes! Help for the watch!"
"Out of the way!" cried Vetch; but the next moment I heard a clatter of steel upon the cobbles; and guessed that the stranger had struck my enemy's sword from his hand. Then my neck was released, and looking up I saw my captor himself captive in the grip of a tall man in riding cloak and high boots, while Vetch was struggling with a short, thick-set fellow who had his arms about the other's body.
Bullies are ever cowards at heart, and the rest of the band, finding the tables thus turned upon them, had taken to their heels and disappeared into the night.
"Let me go, hound!" yelled Vetch, and at the answer I started with a thrill of pleasure.
"Let ye go! Not for all the aldermen in the country. 'Twas your tricks drove me out of Shrewsbury, and seemingly ye're at 'em still. You ha'nt learnt your lesson, Master Vetch; more fool you."
It was Joe Punchard's voice. If I had doubted it I should have been assured by a word that fell from his companion.
"Haul him to the watch house, Joe. I'll bring this fellow!"
"And the bag, Captain?" says Joe.
"Give it to this long fellow," says the other, with a hard look at me.
And I found a large bag thrust into my arms, which Joe had been carrying and had dropped on the road at the encounter.
By this time a crowd had assembled, the good folk who had been craning their necks at the windows having swarmed out, now that the danger was past. And as we thronged up the street a score of voices poured into the ears of the man Joe had called "captain" the full tale of the Mohocks' doings.
I walked among them, shouldering the bag. I perceived that Joe had not recognized me, which was not to be wondered at, seeing that when he last saw me I was a pale slip of a boy, whereas now I was a tall brawny youth with cheeks the color of a ripe russet. And Joe himself was not quite the 'prentice lad I had known. His legs indeed were no less bowed than of yore; nor was his hair less red; but the round face appeared rounder than ever by reason of a thick fringe of whiskers. His body had filled out, and he moved with a rolling gait that caused him to usurp more than one man's share of the narrow street.
When we had laid the two ruffians safely in ward, the captain said to Joe:
"Now we'll go visit Nelly, and 'gad, my limbs yearn for bed, Joe. This fellow can still carry the bag; 'tis worth a groat."
I grinned, and stepping alongside of Joe, whose head did not reach much above my elbow, I looked down on him, and said:
"Don't you know me, Joe?"
His start of surprise set me a-smiling. His round face, somewhat more weatherbeaten than when I saw it last, expressed amazement, incredulity, and half a dozen more emotions in turn.
"Bless my soul!" he cried. "Sure 'tis little Humphrey Bold, growed mountain high. Give me the bag, sir; God forbid you should bear a load for Joe Punchard."
"No, no," I replied. "I'll earn my groat, now I've begun. And right glad I am to see you, Joe; I had thought never to look on your face again."
"And would not, but for my dear captain," says he.
"Captain, 'tis Master Bold, the boy I told ye of. 'Twas him I saved from the hands of Cyrus Vetch the last day I was at home, and sure 'tis a wonderful thing that the very night of homecoming we save him again. Vetch needs another turn in the barrel, methinks. I wonder if my old master has one that will hold his long carcass.
"But look 'ee, Master Humphrey, this be Captain Benbow, Mistress Nelly's brother, and my dear master. Oh, I've a deal to tell 'ee of, and a deal to hear, I warrant me. Is my old mother yet alive, sir?"
"Yes, and hale and hearty, Joe, though she has well-nigh given up hope of the silks and satins you promised her."
"Bless her heart, she shall have 'em now. We have rid from Bristowe, sir, the captain and me, and we stayed but to put up our horses at the Bull and Gate, where I left my bag filled with good store of things for the old woman. Won't she open her eyes! Won't she thank Heaven for bandy-legged Joe!"
We had now reached the door of Mistress Hind's house, and as I set down the bag a great oath burst from Captain Benbow's lips.
"Split me!" says he, eying the splintered panel and the gap where the knocker had been. "Had I those villains on deck they should have a supper of rope's end, I warrant you."
His voice was rough, and his tongue had a keen Shropshire tang, which indeed it never lost, giving thereby evidence to confute those who afterwards claimed for him kinship with a noble family. In truth Benbow was the son of an honest tanner of our town, and took no shame of his origin: his greatness was above such pettiness of spirit. He had run away to sea at an early age, and for some years lived a hard life before the mast. But his native merits in time triumphed over adverse fortune, and before he was thirty he became master and in a good measure owner of a frigate which he called The Benbow.
It is said, I know not with what truth, that his fortunes date from an adventure that befell him in the year 1686. In the Benbow frigate he was attacked by a sallee rover, who boarded him, but was beaten off with the loss of thirteen men. Benbow (I tell the tale as I heard it) cut off their heads and threw them into pickle. When he landed at Cadiz, he brought them on shore in a sack, and on being challenged by the custom house officers as importing contraband goods, he threw them on the table with, "Gentlemen, if you like 'em, they are at your service."
This saying so tickled the humor of the king of Spain that he recommended Benbow to our King James, and thus led to his promotion in our Royal Navy. The captain was now somewhat above forty years old, straight but slight in build, not ill looking, save that his nose was a trifle over big—a defect not uncommon, I have remarked, among great commanders.
Well, as I said, we had arrived at Mistress Hind's door, and the captain was in a great rage at the havoc wrought by Vetch and his crew. He rapped on the door with the hilt of his sword, and out pops Mistress Nelly's head from the window above ('twas in a night-cap), and she screams:
"Out upon you, you vagabones! You've done mischief enough for one night, drat you, and if ye be not gone inside of half a minute I'll empty the slops on ye, that I will."
"The family spirit!" he says under his breath to Joe. "Speak to her; don't tell her I'm here."
"Oh, Mistress Hind," says Joe in a mournful voice, "here's a welcome to a poor worn-out old mariner as you used to befriend."
"Who in the world are ye?" she asks.
"Who but Joe Punchard, ma'am, that went away for rolling a barrel, and has been a-rolling ever since."
"Ay, now I know your voice. Back like a bad penny, are ye? Come and see me tomorrow; I'm abed now."
"But I've brought a friend with me—another poor old mariner"—with a wink at Benbow—"who wants a night's lodging."
"Can he pay?" asks Mistress Hind.
"To be sure: his pockets are full of pieces of eight and other sound coin."
"Then I'll come down to you; but ye must bide a minute or two till I throw a few things on, for I'd die rather than show myself to a mariner in my night rail."
Benbow laughed again.
"'Tis twenty years or more since I saw Nell," he said, "but I'd know her tongue in any company."
And now the remembrance of my father's illness, which the subsequent excitements had driven from my mind, returned with a sudden force that made me take a hasty leave of the two travelers, though both asked me to wait and drink a dish of coffee with them. So I did not see the meeting of brother and sister, but learned from Joe next day the manner of it.
Mistress Hind did not recognize the captain, never having seen him from a boy, until, sitting at table with a dish of coffee before him, and she standing over him, bidding him haste that she might return to bed—sitting thus, I say, he took up the dish and began to blow into it to cool it, as children do.
"Why," says Mistress Hind, "tha blows it round and round to make little waves, just like my brother John."
"Nelly!" says the captain, setting the dish down.
"And there they were," said Joe in telling me the story, "in each other's arms, and when she'd done drying her eyes she says,
"'John, and I needn't ha' minded about the night rail!'"
It was nigh eleven o'clock when I got home—a very late hour in our parts, and Mistress Pennyquick was in a great to-do, imagining all kinds of evil that might have befallen me. Mr. Pinhorn had remained with my father a long time, she said; he was now asleep and was not to be disturbed. I was myself fairly tired out, and fell asleep the instant my head touched the pillow.
Chapter 5: I Lose My Best Friend.
There was a crowded courthouse next day when Ralph Mytton and Cyrus Vetch were brought before the Mayor and charged with breach of the peace and malicious damage to the property of lieges. It was the first time that the Mohocks had been caught in the act, and their being well connected added a spice to the event.
The two prisoners bore themselves very differently. Mytton, a nephew of the member of Parliament, assumed an air of bravado, smiled and winked at his friends in court, evidently trusting to his high connections to get him off lightly. Vetch, on the other hand, was sullen and morose, never lifting his eyes from the floor except when I was giving my evidence, and then he threw me a glance in which I read, as clearly as in a book, the threat of venomous hate. Both he and Mytton were very heavily fined, and the Mayor was good enough to compliment me on the part I had played.
As we were leaving the court, a tipstaff came up to Joe Punchard, and formally arrested him as a runaway 'prentice; at the instance, I doubt not, of Vetch himself. But the matter ended in a triumph for Joe, for Captain Benbow accompanied him before the Mayor and declared that as a mariner in the King's navy he was immune from civil action. Whether the plea was good in law I know not. The Mayor did not know either, and the clerk, to judge by his countenance, was in an equal state of puzzlement. But Benbow was clearly not a man to be trifled with, and Joe had certainly had a part in bringing the Mohocks to book, and for one reason or another he was given the benefit of the doubt. When he left the court he was mightily cheered by a mob of 'prentices among the crowd, and would have accepted the invitations to drink pressed upon him but for the peremptory orders of his captain, who was no wine bibber himself, being therein unlike many of the navy men of his time.
The fines levied on Mytton and Vetch were the least part of their punishment. The incident of the dust bin brought on them open ridicule; they became the laughingstock of Shrewsbury. The school wag, who afterwards became famous for his elegant Greek verses at Cambridge, pilloried them in a lampoon which the whole town got by heart, and for days afterwards they could not show their faces without being greeted by some lines from it by every small boy who thought himself beyond their reach. It began, I remember:
Come list me sing a famous battle, A dustbin and a watchman's rattle; The hero he was nominate Cyrus, The scene was Shrewsbury, not Epirus.
The rhymester introduced all the characters; for instance:
Another who the dust has bitten Was a brawny putt by name Ralph Mytton; And Richard Cludde, a Cambridge lubber, He ran away home to his mam to blubber;
and so the doggerel went on, chronicling the details (more or less imaginary) of the fight, the entrance of Mr. Benbow and Punchard on the scene:
And Nelly Hind's bashed portal closes On bandy legs and Roman noses;
and ending thus:
Carmen concludo sine mora: "Intus si recte ne labora,"
which being the school motto (dragged in by the hair of the head, so to speak), pleased Mr. Lloyd, the master, mightily.
The rage of the persons chiefly concerned knew no bounds, and this good came of it, that the Mohocks troubled Shrewsbury streets no more.
Captain Benbow, and with him Joe Punchard, stayed but a few days in the town. They had come on a flying visit in an interval of the war against the French on the high seas, and very proud we were that the captain, one of ourselves, was winning himself a name for prowess and gallantry in his country's service.
Before he departed, however, I got from Joe a relation of what had befallen him since the night he stole away. He arrived in Bristowe footsore and ragged, and there came nigh to starving before he found employment. One shipmaster swore his hair was too red: it would serve for a beacon to French privateers; another, that he was too bandy: his legs would never grip the rigging if he essayed to go aloft. But at length he obtained a berth on a tobacco ship trading to Virginia, and suffered great torture both from the sea and from the harsh and brutal ship's officers. He made other voyages, to the Guinea coast, the Indies, and elsewhere, and one fine day, being paid off at Southampton, he chanced to hear that Captain Benbow was in port, and making himself known to that officer as a fellow townsman, he was taken by him to be his servant, and had never left him since.
"And have you pickled any pirates' heads?" I asked, remembering the story, and bethinking me of the silver-mounted cup possessed by Mr. Ridley, the captain's brother-in-law, which was said to have once covered the head of a sallee rover.
"Pickled fiddlesticks!" says Joe. "Dunnat believe every mariner's tale you hear, Master Humphrey."
And then he proceeded to tell me a fearful and wonderful tale of a sea serpent, and was mightily offended when I said it was all my eye.
Joe went away with his captain after a few days, and I own I envied him, and for the first time felt a secret discontent in the prospect of a life among pigs and poultry, a feeling which was heightened when Dick Cludde soon afterwards departed with a commission from His Majesty. Dick was a lubber and, I believed then, though I had afterwards proof to the contrary, a coward; and matching myself against him I knew I would do the king's navy more credit than he. But I kept my thought to myself—and next day made a sad bungle, I remember, of my construe of Thucydides' account of the sea fight at Salamis.
So months passed away. I saw with grave concern that my father was ailing more and more. The attacks of his terrible disease came more frequently, and Mr. Pinhorn owned that he could do him no good. He bore his pain with wonderful fortitude, never suffering a complaint to pass his lips. Many a time in after years I recalled his noble courage, which helped me to bear the lesser sufferings which fell to my lot. He seemed to know that his end was approaching, and one day called me to his private room and talked to me with a kindness that brought a lump into my throat.
Much of what he said is too sacred to be set down here; I can truthfully say that his assurance of having made ample provision for me seemed of little moment beside his earnest loving counsel, which made the deeper impression because he had so rarely spoken in that strain.
The end came suddenly, and with a shock that stunned me, for all I was so well prepared for it. A few brief moments of dreadful agony, and the good man who had been more than a father to me was no more. Never once during his long illness had his sister Lady Cludde visited him; neither she nor her husband accompanied his remains to the grave: and when we had left him in the churchyard of St. Mary and returned to the house, I was roused for a little from my stupor by the sight of Sir Richard among those assembled to hear Mr. Vetch read the will.
A great wave of anger surged within me when I saw him sitting in my father's chair, his fat hands folded upon his paunch, and his bleared eyes rolling a quizzing glance round upon the little company. So enraged was I that I took little heed of Mr. Vetch at the table, and heard nothing of what he said as he drew from his pocket a long paper sealed and tied with tape. No doubt I watched him untie the knots and break the seal, and spread the document on the table before him; no doubt I heard his cry of amazement, and saw Sir Richard and the few friends of my father who were present rise from their seats and crowd about him; but I remained listless in my place until a shriek from Mistress Pennyquick woke me to a sense that something was amiss. Then I heard Sir Richard say, in his loud blustrous tones:
"Then my lady inherits?"
"Not so fast, not so fast, Sir Richard," said Mr. Vetch in a tone of great perturbation. "She is, it is true, the heir-at-law, but our departed friend left his house, messuage, farm and all its appurtenances to his adopted son Humphrey Bold, with an annuity of fifty pounds per annum to his faithful housekeeper Rebecca Pennyquick: I took down his instructions with his own hand, and engrossed the will myself.
"There is some mistake, gentlemen, something inexplicable. I must ask you, in all fairness, to postpone your judgment of the matter until I have made search in my office. Never in my forty years' experience has so untoward a thing happened, and I must beg of you to give me time to solve the mystery."
"I will wait on you tomorrow, Mr. Attorney," says Sir Richard. "Meanwhile I claim this property for my Lady Cludde."
And with that he takes his hat and stick and marches from the room.
The neighbors followed him, giving me commiserating glances, one or two of them shaking me by the hand and speaking words of condolence. Mr. Vetch remained for a time staring at the paper before him; then he folded it and came to me.
"Some devilish prank," he said hurriedly. "Never fear, my lad; all will come right. I will see you tomorrow, my boy."
And then he too went, leaving me alone with Mistress Pennyquick, who had done nothing for some while but sob and rock herself to and fro on her chair.
"That wicked man!" she moaned. "But he will be punished—he will be punished, Humphrey. What does the good Book say about them that despoil widows and orphans? Oh, my poor master!"
"What is it, Becky?" I asked, with but little curiosity for her answer.
"'Tis the doing of that wicked man and his wife! I know it is," the poor creature sobbed. "And they wouldn't come near the poor soul when he was in his agony. And now they want to rob us—to rob you, my poor boy, and me who served him faithful these twenty year. God will punish him!"
"But what have they done, then?" I asked again.
"Done! Lord knows what they haven't done. I knew summat would happen when I saw Mr. Vetch come to your poor father a while ago—you mind, I told you so. Lawyers are all no good, that's my belief. Don't tell me Mr. Vetch didn't know what he was a-carrying. He's in league with the wretches, I know he is, for all his mazed look. Don't tell me he didn't know the paper was as white as the underside of a fleece. Fleece is the very word for it: he's fleeced us, sure enough, and I'll come on the parish, and you'll be a beggar, and they unnatural wretches will wallow in their pride, and—oh! I can't abear it, I can't abear it!"
And the poor creature burst into a passion of weeping, so that it was some time before I could learn the cause of her distress. It was amazing enough. When Mr. Vetch unfolded the document which he believed to be my father's will, the paper inside was as clean as when it came from the scrivener's. There was not a single mark upon it.
Chapter 6: I Take Articles.
We were at breakfast next morning, Mistress Pennyquick and I, when Captain Galsworthy, after a herald tap on the door, walked into the room.
"What's this cock-and-bull story that's running over the town?" he cried without circumstance.
Before I could reply, Mistress Pennyquick began to pour out her tale of woe, roundly accusing Sir Richard Cludde and Lawyer Vetch of conspiring to defraud me of my rights.
"I haven't slept a wink the whole night through, sir," says the poor soul, "and I've wetted six—no, 'tis seven handkerchers till they're like clouts from the washtub, and I can hardly see out o' my eyes, and—"
"Stuff and nonsense and a fiddlestick end!" cries the captain angrily, "dry your eyes, woman. Of all God's creatures a sniveling woman is the worst. Vetch has been wool gathering:
"Quandoque dormitat Homerus—eh, Humphrey?—
"Which means, ma'am, that you sometimes catch a weasel asleep. Depend on't, he engrossed the wrong docket, and by this time has discovered the true will in one of his moldy boxes. Gad, it'll ruin him, though—if his nephew has not done it already. A family lawyer can't afford to be caught napping.
"Put on your cap, Humphrey: we'll go and look into things and hint that we must change our attorney."
So he and I set off together. But, early as it was, Sir Richard Cludde had been before us. When we entered Mr. Vetch's office, there was the burly knight with his hand on the door, flinging a parting word at the lawyer, who sat behind his desk with his wig awry, the picture of harassment and woe. Sir Richard gave a curt nod to the captain, but vouchsafed me not a glance.
"You understand, Mr. Attorney?" he said. "The present occupants will vacate the premises within a week, and you will bring me the keys."
Then he strode away, banging the door after him. The captain whistled.
"Sits the wind—the whirlwind, I might say-in that quarter? Where's the will, Vetch?"
"I would give my right hand to know," said the lawyer. "There is Mr. Ellery's box"—he indicated a case of black tin with the name John Ellery printed in white letters on its side; "'twas there I laid it, with the title deeds and other documents. I searched it through yesterday. I spent half the night in ransacking every other box in the room, all to no purpose."
"You did not lay it aside when you had drawn it and afterwards engross a blank paper like folded, think you?"
"Sir, 'tis impossible. I drew the will at a sitting: it was not a long one; folded, engrossed, and tied it with my own hands. Nothing short of witchcraft could undo my handiwork."
"Or your nephew," snapped the captain. "He is the boon fellow of young Cludde; 'tis the Cluddes who gain by the disappearance, and mightily glad they will be of the property if all is true that's said of Sir Richard's affairs. Where's your nephew, Vetch?"
"At home and abed, Captain, suffering from a catarrh. I did ask him if he knew aught of the matter, and he laughed and denied it, reminding me that I had never trusted him with the keys. He is wild, I own, sir; heady and self willed, a sore trial to me sometimes; but he is of my name, and that name is honorable in Shrewsbury."
"'Tut, man, nobody but a fool would suspect you of evil dealing, and if your nephew had a hand in this it might be nought but a boyish prank, though a deuced indecent one. But now to the practical question: in the absence of the will, how does Humphrey stand?"
I shall never forget the poor lawyer's look of misery when this question was put to him, sharp as a pistol shot. He bent his quill in his hand till it cracked; he fidgeted on his stool; he began a sentence three times and left it unfinished.
"In a word," says the captain, who was ever for directness, "he is a pauper?"
The lawyer bowed his head, but said never a word. Captain Galsworthy began to drum on the table with his fingers, as his manner was when perturbed. I sat silent, still too much under the shadow of my great loss to comprehend the full bearing of his words.
"Did you put it to Cludde?" he asked suddenly.
"I did, sir, with all the force of which I was capable. I begged him to acquiesce in the known wishes of our friend, to accept the draft of the will—here it is—taken 'down by myself from his lips. Sir Richard looked at it, pished and pshawed, said he had never held John Ellery's wits in much account, and declared that my instructions were a clear proof of his feeble mindedness. When I protested that I had never known a man with a clearer head or of sounder sense he bellowed at me: what, did I think it sound sense to will away to a stranger property that had been in the family for generations?