Story type: Literature
My grand-uncle pushed the decanter of brown sherry: a stout old-fashioned decanter, with shoulders almost as square as his own, and a silver chain about them bearing a silver label–not unlike the badge and collar which he himself wore on full ceremonial occasions.
“Three times round the world,” he said, “and as yet only twice around the table. You must do it justice, gentlemen.”
“A great wine, Admiral!” said the Rector, filling and sipping, with half-closed eyes. “They have a brown sherry at Christ Church which may challenge it, perhaps . . . The steward remembers my weakness when I go up to preach my afternoon sermon at St. Mary’s. There was talk in Congregation, the other day, of abolishing afternoon sermons, on the ground that nobody attended them; but this, as one speaker feelingly observed, would deprive the country clergy of a dear privilege. . . .” The Rector took another sip. “An heroic contest, between two such wines!”
“Talking of heroic contests, mine came to me by means of a prize-fight,” said my grand-uncle, with a glance down the table at us two youngsters who were sipping and looking wise, as became connoisseurs fresh from the small beer of a public school. At the word ‘prize-fight,’ Dick and I pricked up our ears. To us the Admiral was at once a prodigiously fine fellow and a prodigiously old one–though he dated after Nelson’s day, to us he reached well back to it, and in fact he had been a midshipman in the last two years of the Great War. Certainly he belonged to the old school rather than to the new. He had fought under Codrington at Navarino. He had talked with mighty men of the ring–Tom Cribb, Jem Mace, Belcher, Sayers.
“What is more,” said he, “though paid late, the wine you’re drinking is the first prize-money I ever took; in my first ship, lads, and within forty-eight hours of joining her. . . . Youth, youth!”–as the decanter came around to him he refilled his glass.–“And to think that I was a good two years younger than either of you!”
“A prize-fight? You’ll tell us about it, sir?” ventured Dick eagerly.
“The Rector has heard the yarn before, I doubt?” said the old man, with a glance which told that he only needed pressing.
“That objection,” the Rector answered tactfully, “has been lodged against certain of my sermons. I never let it deter me.”
“There’s a moral in it, too,” said my grand-uncle, visibly reassured.
Well, as for the moral, I cannot say that I have ever found it, to swear by. But here is my grand-uncle’s story.
If you want a seaman, they say, you must catch him young, and I will add that the first hour for him is the best. Eh? Young men have talked to me of the day when they first entered Oxford or Cambridge–of the moment, we’ll say, when the London coach topped the Shotover rise in the early morning, and they saw all the towers and spires at their feet. I am willing to believe it good. And the first kiss,–when you and she are young fools and over head and ears in love,–you’ll know what I mean, you boys, when you grow to it, and I am not denying that it brings heaven down to earth and knocks their heads together. But for bliss–sheer undiluted bliss–match me the day when a boy runs upstairs and sees his midshipman’s outfit laid out on the bed–blue jacket, brass buttons, dirk, yes, and in my sea time a kind of top-hat that fined away towards the top, with a cockade. I tell you I spent an hour looking at myself in my poor mother’s cheval-glass, and then walked out across the common to show myself to my aunts,–rest their souls!–who inhabited a cottage about a mile from ours, and had been used hitherto, when entertaining me, to ask one another in French if the offer of a glass of beer would, considering my age, be permissible. I drank sherry with them that afternoon, and left them (I make no doubt) with a kind of tacit assurance that, come what might, they were henceforward secure of protection.
The next day–though it blew a short squall of tears when I took leave of my mother and climbed aboard the coach–was scarcely less glorious. I wore my uniform, and nursed my toasting-fork proudly across my knees; and the passengers one and all made much of me, in a manner which I never allowed to derogate into coddling. At The Swan with Two Necks, Cheapside, when the coach set me down, I behaved as a man should; ordered supper and a bed; and over my supper discussed the prospects of peace with an affable, middle-aged bagman who shared my box. He thought well of the prospects of peace. For me, I knitted my brows and gave him to understand that circumstances might alter cases.
From The Swan with Two Necks I took coach next morning–proceeding from the bar to the door between two lines of smiling domestics–and travelled down to the Blue Posts, the famous Blue Posts, at Portsmouth. In the Blue Posts there was a smoking-room, and across the end of it ran a sofa on which (tradition said) you might count on finding a midshipman asleep. I was not then aware of the tradition; but sure enough a midshipman reclined there when I entered the room. He was not asleep, but engaged in perusing something which he promptly, even hastily, stowed away in the breast of his tunic–a locket, I make no doubt. He sat up and regarded me; and I stared back at him, how long I will not say, but long enough for me to perceive that his jacket buttons were as glossy as my own. I noted this; but it conveyed little to me, for my imagination clothed in equal splendour everyone in his Majesty’s service.
He appeared to be young, even delicately youthful; but I felt it necessary to assert my manhood before him, and rang for the waiter.
“A glass of beer, if you please,” said I.
The waiter lifted his eyebrows and looked from me to the sofa.
“One glass of beer, sir?” he asked.
“I hardly like to offer–” I began lamely, following his glance.
“It is more usual, sir. In the Service. Between two young gentlemen as, by the addresses on their chestes, is both for the Melpomeny: and newly joined.”
“Hulloa!” said I, turning round to the sofa, “are you in the same fix as myself?”
Reading in his face that it was so, I corrected my order, and waved the waiter to the door with creditable self-possession. As soon as he had withdrawn, “My name’s Rodd,” said I. “What’s yours?”
“Hartnoll,” he said; “from Norfolk.”
“I come from the West–Devonshire,” said I, and with an air of being proud of it; but added, on an afterthought, “Norfolk must be a fine county, though I’ve never seen it. Nelson came from there, didn’t he?”
“His place is only six miles from ours,” said Hartnoll. “I’ve seen it scores of times.”
And with that he stuck his hands suddenly in his pockets, turned away from me, and stared very resolutely out of the dirty bow-window.
When the waiter had brought the drinks and retired again, Hartnoll confessed to me that he had never tasted beer. “You’ll come to it in time,” said I encouragingly: but I fancy that the tap at the Blue Posts was of a quality to discourage a first experiment. He tasted his, made a face, and suggested that I might deal with both glasses. I had, to begin with, ordered the beer out of bravado, and one gulp warned me that bravado might be carried too far. I managed, indeed–being on my mettle–to drain my own glass, and even achieved a noise which, with Hartnoll, might pass for a smacking of the lips: but we decided to empty his out of window, for fear of the waiter’s scorn. We heaved up the lower sash–the effort it cost went some way to explaining the fustiness of the room–and Hartnoll tossed out the beer.
There was an exclamation below.
While we craned out to see what had happened, the waiter’s voice smote on our ears from the doorway behind us, saying that young gentlemen would be young gentlemen all the world over, but a new beaver hat couldn’t be bought for ten shillings. Everything must have a beginning, of course, but the gentleman below was annoyed, and threatened to come upstairs. It wasn’t perhaps exactly the thing to come to the Port Admiral’s ears: but if we left it to him (the waiter) he had a notion that ten shillings, with a little tact, might clear it, and no bones broken.
Hartnoll, somewhat white in the face, tendered the sum, and very pluckily declined to let me bear my share. “You’ll excuse me, Rodd,” said he politely, “but I must make it a point of honour.” Pale though he was, I believe he would have offered to fight me had I insisted.
Our instructions, it turned out, were identical. We were to be called for at the Blue Posts, and a boat would fetch us off to the Melpomene frigate. Her captain, it appeared, was a kind of second cousin of Hartnoll’s: for me, I had been recommended to him by a cousin of my father’s, a member of the Board of Admiralty. Captain the Hon. John Suckling treated us, nearly or remotely as we might be connected with him, with impartiality that night. No boat came off for us. We learned that the Melpomene was lying at Spithead, waiting (so the waiter told us) to carry out a new Governor with his suite to Barbados; which possibly accounted for her captain’s neglect of such small fry as two midshipmen. The waiter, however, advised us not to trouble ourselves. He would make it all right in the morning.
So Hartnoll and I supped together in the empty coffee-room; compared notes; drank a pint of port apiece; and under its influence became boastful. Insensibly the adventure of the beaver hat came to wear the aspect of a dashing practical joke. It encouraged us to exchange confidences of earlier deeds of derring-do, of bird-nesting, of rook-shooting, of angling for trout, of encounters with poachers. I remember crossing my knees, holding up my glass to the light, and remarking sagely that some poachers were not at all bad fellows. Hartnoll agreed that it depended how you took ’em. We lauded Norfolk and Devon as sporting counties, and somehow it was understood that they respectively owed much of their reputation to the families of Hartnoll and Rodd. Hartnoll even hinted at a love-affair: but here I discouraged him with a frown, which implied that as seamen we saw that weakness in its proper light. I have wondered, since then, to what extent we imposed upon one another: in fact, I daresay, very little; but in spirit we gave and took fire. We were two ardent boys, and we meant well.
“Here’s to the Service!” said I, holding up my glass.
“To the Service!” echoed Hartnoll; drained his, set it down, and looked across at me with a flushed face.
“With quick promotion and a plenty of prize-money!” said a voice in the doorway. It was that diabolical waiter again, entering to remove the cloth: and for a moment I felt my ears redden. Recovering myself, I told him pretty strongly not to intrude again upon the conversation of gentlemen; but added that since he had presumed to take part in the toast, he might fetch himself a tankard of beer and drink to it. Whereupon he thanked me, begged my pardon for having taken the liberty, and immediately took another, telling me that anyone having his experience of young gentlemen could see with half an eye that I was born to command.
“Tell you what,” said I to Hartnoll when the waiter had left us, “that fellow has given me a notion, with his talk about prize-money. I don’t half like owing you my share of that ten shillings, you know.”
“I thought we were agreed not to mention it again,” said Hartnoll, firing up.
Said I, “But there’s my view of it to be considered. Suppose now we put it on to our first prize-money–whoever makes the first haul to pay the whole ten shillings, and if we make it together, then each to pay five?”
“That won’t do,” said Hartnoll. “My head don’t seem able to follow you very clearly, but if we make our first haul together, the matter remains where it is.”
“Very well,” I yielded. “Then I must get ahead of you, to get quits.”
“You won’t, though,” said Hartnoll, pushing back his chair, and so dismissing the subject.
Now the evening being young, I proposed that we should sally forth together and view the town–in other words (though I avoided them) that we should flaunt our uniforms in the streets of Portsmouth. Hartnoll demurred: the boat (said he) might arrive in our absence. I rang for the waiter again, and took counsel with him. The waiter began by answering that the Blue Posts, though open day and night, would take it as a favour if gentlemen patronising the house would make it convenient to knock-in before midnight, and, if possible, retire to their rooms before that hour. He understood our desire to see the town; “it was, in fact, the usual thing, under the circumstances.” If I would not take it as what he might call (and did) call a libbaty, there was a good many bad characters knocking about Portsmouth, pickpockets included, and especially at fair-time.
“Fair-time?” I asked.
“At the back of the town–Kingston way–you will find it,” said he, with a jerk of the thumb.
“But,” said I, “the frigate might send off a boat for us.”
“Not a chance of it to-night, sir,” said the waiter. “The southerly breeze has been bringing up a fog these two hours past, and the inside of the harbour is thick as soup. More by token, I’ve already sent word to the chambermaid to fill a couple of warming-pans. You’re booked with us, gentlemen, till to-morrow morning.”
Sure enough, descending to the street, we found it full of fog; and either the fog was of remarkable density, or Portsmouth furnished with the worst street-lamps in the world, for we had not walked five hundred yards before it dawned on me that to find our hostelry again might not be an entirely simple matter. Maybe the port wine had induced a haze of its own upon my sense of locality. I fancied, too, that the fresh air was affecting Hartnoll, unless his gait feigned a sea-roll to match his uniform. I felt a delicacy in asking him about it.
Another thing that surprised me was the emptiness of the streets. I had always imagined Portsmouth to be a populous town . . . but possibly its inhabitants were congregated around the fair, towards which we set ourselves to steer, guided by the tunding of distant drums. It mattered little If we lost our bearings, since everybody in Portsmouth must know the Blue Posts.
“Tell you what it is, Rodd,” said Hartnoll, pulling up in a by-street and picking his words deliberately,–“tell you what accounts for it,”–he waved a hand at the emptiness surrounding us. “It’s the press. Very night for it; and the men all hiding within doors.”
“Nonsense,” said I. “It’s a deal likelier to be the Fat Woman or the Two-headed Calf.”
“It’s the press,” insisted Hartnoll: and for the moment, when we emerged out of a side lane upon a square filled with flaring lights, the crashing of drums and cymbals, and the voices of showmen yelling in front of their booths, I had a suspicion that he was right. One or two women, catching sight of our uniforms, edged away swiftly, and, as they went, peered back into the darkness of the lane behind us. A few minutes later, as we dodged around the circumference of the crowd in search of an opening, we ran up against one of the women with her man in tow. She was arguing with him in a low, eager sort of voice, and he followed sulkily. At sight of us again she fetched up with a gasp of breath, almost with a squeal. The man drew himself up defiantly and began to curse us, but she quickly interrupted him, thrusting her open hand over his mouth, and drew him away down a dark courtyard.
After this we found ourselves in the glare immediately under the platform of a booth; and two minutes later were mounting the rickety steps, less of our own choice than by pressure of the crowd behind. The treat promised us within was the Siege of Copenhagen with real fireworks, which as an entertainment would do as well as another. On the way up Hartnoll whispered to me to keep my hands in my breeches pockets, if I carried my money there; and almost on the same instant cried out that someone had stolen his dirk. He stood lamenting, pointing to the empty sheath, while a stout woman at a table took our entrance-money with an impassive face. The Siege of Copenhagen was what you youngsters nowadays would call a ‘fizzle,’ I believe: or maybe Hartnoll’s face of woe and groanings over his lost dirk damped the fireworks for me. But these were followed by a performing pony, which, after some tricks, being invited by his master to indicate among the audience a gentleman addicted to kissing the ladies and running away, thrust its muzzle affectionately into my waistcoat; whereat Hartnoll recovered his spirits at a bound, and treacherously laughed louder than any of the audience. I thought it infernally bad taste, and told him so. But, as it happened, I had a very short while to wait for revenge: for in the very next booth, being invited to pinch the biceps of the Fat Woman, my gentleman-of-the-world blushed to the eyes, cast a wild look around for escape, and turned, to fall into the arms of a couple of saucy girls who pushed him forward to hold him to his bargain. His eyes were red–he was positively crying with shame and anger–when we found ourselves outside under the torchlights that made flaming haloes in the fog.
“Hang it, Rodd! I’ve had enough of this fair. Let’s get back to the Posts.”
“What’s the time?” said I, and felt for my watch.
My watch had disappeared.
It had been my mother’s parting gift, and somehow the loss of it made me feel, with a shock, utterly alone in the world. Why on earth had I not clung to the respectable shelter of the Blue Posts? What a hollow mockery were these brazen cymbals, these hoarse inviting voices, these coarse show-cloths, these lights!
Curiously enough, and as if in instant sympathy with my dejection, the cymbals ceased to clash. The showmen began to extinguish their torches. I had lost my watch; Hartnoll did not own one. But we agreed that, at latest, the hour could not be much more than ten. Yet the shows were closing, the populace was melting away into the fog.
“I’ve had enough of this. Let’s get back to the Posts,” Hartnoll repeated. His eyes told me that up to two days ago, when he left home, nine o’clock or thereabouts had been his regular bedtime. It had been mine also.
One of the two saucy girls, happening to pass an instant before the booth above us extinguished its lights, spied us in dejected colloquy, and came forward. Hartnoll turned from her, but I made bold to ask her the nearest way to the Blue Posts.
I will give you her exact answer. She said–“Turn up on your right hand at the next turning, but, at the next turning of all, on your left; marry, at the very next turning, turn of no hand, but turn down indirectly to the Blue Postesses.”
I have it by heart, because years after I found it in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, where you may find it for yourselves, if you look, with the answer I might have made to her. She did not wait for one, however, but stood looking around in the fog as if for a guide. “Poor lads!” she went on, “you’ll certainly never reach it without help, though everyone in Portsmouth knows the Blue Posts: and I’d go with you myself if I weren’t due at the theatre in ten minutes’ time. I have to call on the manager as soon as the house empties to-night; and if I miss it will mean losing an engagement.” She puckered her brow thoughtfully, and her face in spite of the paint on it struck me as a lovely one, saucy no longer but almost angelically kind. I have never seen her again from that day to this, and I was a boy of fourteen, but I’ll wager that girl had a good heart. “Your best plan,” she decided, “is to step along with me, and at the stage door, or inside the theatre at any rate, we’ll soon find somebody to put you in the way.”
But here a small figure stepped out against us from the shadow of the platform, and a small shrillish voice piped up–
“For a copper, miss–or a copper apiece if they’ll trust me. Find the Blue Postesses? W’y, I’d walk there on my head with my eyes bound!”
We stared down at her–for it was a small girl, a girl so diminutive that Hartnoll and I, who were not Anaks by any means, topped her by head and shoulders. She wore no shoes, no stockings, no covering for her head. Her hair, wet with the fog, draggled down, half-hiding her face, which was old for its age (as they say), and chiefly by reason of her sharp, gipsy-coloured eyes.
“For a copper apiece, miss, and honour bright!” said the waif.
The young actress turned to us with a laugh. “Why not?” she asked. “That is, if you’re not above being beholden to the child? But I warn you not to pay her till you get to the Blue Posts.”
I answered that any port was good in a storm, and the child should have sixpence if she proved as good as her word.
“So long, then, my pair of seventy-fours. I’m late for the theatre already. Good-night! and when you tuck yourselves in to bye-low don’t forget to dream of your mammies.” Bending quickly, she kissed Hartnoll on the cheek, and was in the act to offer me a like salute when I dodged aside, angered by her last words. She broke into a laugh like a chime of bells, made a pretty pout at me with her lips and disappeared into the darkness. Then it struck me that I need not have lost my temper; but I was none the more inclined to let Hartnoll down easily.
“I call that pretty meek,” said I, as we walked off together, the child pattering, barefoot, beside us.
“What’s the matter?” asked Hartnoll.
“Why, to let that girl kiss you–like a baby!”
“Sure you’re not thinking of sour grapes?”
“I take you to witness,” said I, “that she tried it on and I wouldn’t let her.”
“The more fool you!” retorted Hartnoll, edging away from me in dudgeon– but I knew he was more than half ashamed. Just at that moment to my astonishment I felt the child at my side reach up and touch my hand.
“Ugh!” said I, drawing it away quickly. “Paws off, please! Eh?–what’s this?” For she was trying to thrust something into it and to close my fingers upon it.
“Hush!” she whispered. “It’s your watch.”
I gave a whistle. “My watch? How the deuce did you come by my watch?”
“Prigged it,” said the child in a business-like voice. “Don’t know why I gave it back: seemed that I wanted to. That’s why I offered to come with you: and now I’m glad. Don’t care if I do get a hiding.”
For the moment, while she plodded alongside, I could only feel the watch over in my hand, making sure that it was really mine.
“But,” said I, after a long pause of wonder, “you don’t suppose that I want to give you a hiding, eh?–and you a girl, too!”
“Then who’s going to beat you?”
“Mother.” After a moment she added reassuringly, “But I’ve got another inside o’ my bodice.”
I whistled again, and called up Hartnoll, who had been lagging behind sulkily. But he lost his sulks when I showed him the watch: and he too whistled, and we stood stock-still gazing at the child, who had halted with one bare foot on the edge of the gutter.
“She has another about her,” said I. “She confessed it.”
“Good Lord!” As the child made a motion to spring away, Hartnoll stepped out across the gutter and intercepted her. “I–I say,” he stammered, “you don’t by any chance happen to have my dirk?”
She fell to whimpering. “Lemme go . . . I took pity on yer an’ done yer a kindness . . . put myself out o’ the way, I did, and this is what I get for it. Thought you was kind-hearted, I did, and–if you don’t lemme go, I’ll leave you to find your way, and before mornin’ the crimps’ll get you.” She threatened us, trembling with passion, shaking her finger at the ugly darkness.
“Look here,” said I, “if you said anything about another watch, understand that I didn’t hear. You don’t suppose I want to take it from you? I’m only too glad to have my own again, and thank you.”
“I thought ‘e might,” she said, only half-reassured, jerking a nod towards Hartnoll. “As for his dirk, I never took it, but I know the boy as did. He lives the way we’re going, and close down by the water; and if you spring a couple o’ tanners maybe I’ll make him give it up.”
“I’d give all I possess to get back that dirk,” said Hartnoll, and I believe he meant it.
“Come along, then,”–and we plunged yet deeper into the dark bowels of Portsmouth. The child had quite recovered her confidence, and as we went she explained to us quite frankly why her mother would be angry. The night–if I may translate out of her own language, which I forget– was an ideal one for pocket-picking, what with the crowd at the fair, and the fog, and (best of all, it seemed) the constables almost to a man drawn off to watch the roads around Fareham.
“But what,” I asked, “is the matter with Fareham?”
My ignorance staggered her. “What? Hadn’t we heard of the great Prize-fight?” We had not. “Not the great fight coming off between Jem Clark and the Dustman?” We were unfamiliar even with the heroes’ names.
She found this hard–very hard–to believe. Why, Portsmouth was full of it, word having come down from London the date was to-morrow, and that Fareham, or one of the villages near Fareham, the field of battle. The constabulary, too, had word of it–worse luck–and were on their mettle to break up the meeting, as the sportsmen of Portsmouth and its neighbourhood were all on their mettle to attend it. This, explained the child in her thin clear voice,–I can hear it now discoursing its sad, its infinitely weary wisdom to us two Johnny Newcomes,–this was the reason why the fair had closed early. The show-folk were all waiting, so to speak, for a nod. The tip given, they would all troop out northward, on each other’s heels, greedy for the aftermath of the fight. Rumour filled the air, and every rumour chased after the movements of the two principals and their trainers, of whom nothing was known for certain save that they had left London, and (it was said) had successfully dodged a line of runners posted for some leagues along the Bath and Portsmouth roads. For an hour, soon after sunset, the town had been stunned by a report that Brighton, after all, would be the venue: a second report said Newbury, or at any rate a point south-west of Reading. Fire drives out fire: a third report swore positively that Clark and the Dustman were in Portsmouth, in hiding, and would run the cordon in the small hours of the morning.
So much–and also that her own name was Meliar-Ann and her mother kept a sailor’s lodging-house–the small creature told us, still trotting by our side, until we found ourselves walking alongside a low wall over which we inhaled strong odours of the sea and of longshore sewage, and spied the riding-lights of the harbour looming through the fog. At the end of this we came to the high walls of a row of houses, all very quiet and black to the eye, except that here and there a chink of light showed through a window-shutter or the sill of a street-door. Throughout that long walk I had an uncanny sensation as of being led through a town bewitched, hushed, but wakeful and expectant of something. . . . I can get no nearer to explaining. We must have passed a score of taverns at least; of that I have assured myself by many a later exploration of Portsmouth: and in those days a Portsmouth tavern never closed day or night, save for the death of a landlord, nor always for that. But to-night a murmur at most distinguished it from the other houses in the street.
Meliar-Ann solved the puzzle for us, with a wise nod of the head–
“There’s a press out; or elst they’re expecting one,” she said.
I heard a distant clock chiming for midnight as we followed her along this row of houses. Ahead of us a door opened, throwing a thin line of light upon the roadway, and was closed again softly, after the person within had stood listening (as it seemed to me) for five seconds or so.
Meliar-Ann started suddenly in front of us, spreading her arms out, then slowly backwards, and so motioning us to halt under the shadow of the wall. Obeying, we saw her tiptoe forwards, till, coming to the door which had just been closed, she crept close and tapped on it softly, yet in a way that struck me as being deliberate. Afterwards, thinking it over, I felt pretty sure that the child knocked by code.
At all events the door opened again, almost at once and as noiselessly as before. Hartnoll and I squeezed our bodies back in the foggy shadow, and I heard a voice ask, “Is that Smithers?” To this Meliar-Ann made some response which I could not catch, but its effect was to make the voice–a woman’s–break out in a string of querulous cursings. “Drat the child!” it said (or rather, it said something much stronger which I won’t repeat before the Rector. Eh, Rector–what’s that you say? Maxima debetur pueris–oh, make yourself easy: I won’t corrupt their morals). “Drat the child!” it said, then, or words to that effect. “Bothering here at this time of night, when Bill’s been a-bed this hour and a half, and time you was the same.” To this Meliar-Ann made, and audibly, the briefest possible answer. She said, “You lie.” “Strike me dead!” replied the woman’s voice in the doorway. “You lie,” repeated the child; “and you’d best belay to that. Bill’s been stealin’ and got himself into trouble . . . a midshipman’s dirk, it was, and he was seen taking it. I’ve run all this way to warn him. . . .” The two voices fell to muttering. “You can slip inside if you like and tell him quietly,” said the woman after a while. “He’s upstairs and asleep too, for all I know. If he brought any such thing home with him I never saw it, and to that I’ll take my oath.”
But here another and still angrier voice–a virago’s–broke in from the passage behind, demanding to know if the door was being kept open to invite the whole town. The child stood her ground on the doorstep. An instant later a hand reached out, clutched her–it seemed by the hair– and dragged her inside. Then followed a strangling sob and the thud of heavy blows–
“Rodd, I can’t stand this,” whispered Hartnoll.
I answered, “Nor I;” and together we made a spring for it and hurled into the passage, bearing back the woman who tried to hold the door against us.
At the rush of our footsteps the virago dropped Meliar-Ann and fled down the passage towards a doorway, through which she burst, screaming. The child, borne forward by our combined weight, tottered and fell almost across the threshold of this room, where a flight of stairs, lit by a dingy lamp, led up into obscure darkness. On the third stair under the lamp I caught a momentary vision of a dirty, half-naked boy standing with a drawn dirk in his hand, and with that, my foot catching against Meliar-Ann’s body, I pitched past, head foremost, into the lighted room.
As I fell I heard, or seemed to hear, a scuffle of feet, followed by a shout from Hartnoll behind us–“My dirk! You dirty young villain!”–and another stampede, this time upon the stairway. Then, all of a sudden, the room was quiet, and I picked myself up and fell back against the door-post, face to face with half a dozen women.
They were assuredly the strangest set of females I had ever set eyes on, and the tallest-grown: nor did it relieve my astonishment to note that they wore bonnets and shawls, as if for a journey, and that two or three were smoking long clay pipes. The room, in fact, was thick with tobacco-smoke, through the reek of which my eyes travelled to a disorderly table crowded with glasses and bottles of strong waters, in the midst of which two tallow dips illuminated the fog; and beyond the table to the figure of a man stooping over a couple of half-packed valises; an enormously stout man swathed in greatcoats–a red-faced, clean-shaven man, with small piggish eyes which twinkled at me wickedly as I picked myself up, and he, too, stood erect to regard me.
“Press-gang be d–d!” he growled, answering the virago’s call of warning. “More likely a spree ashore. And where might you come from, young gentleman? And what might be your business to-night, breakin’ into a private house?”
I cast a wild look over the bevy of forbidding females and temporised, backing a little until my shoulder felt the door-post behind me.
“I was trying to find my way to the Blue Posts,” said I.
“Then,” said the stout man with obvious truth, “you ain’t found it yet.”
“No, sir,” said I.
“And that bein’ the case, you’ll march out and close the door behind you. Not,”–he went on more kindly–“that I’d be inhospitable to his Majesty’s uniform, ‘specially when borne by a man of your inches; and to prove it I’ll offer you a drink before parting.”
He reached out a hand towards one of the black bottles. I was about to thank him and decline, withdrawing my eyes from a black-bonneted female with (unless the shadow of her bonnet played me false) a stiff two-days’ beard on her massive chin, when a noise of feet moving over the boards above, and of a scuffle, followed by loud whimpering, reminded me of Hartnoll.
“I don’t go without my mate,” I answered defiantly enough.
“And what the ‘–‘ have I to do with your mate?” demanded the stout man. “I tell you,” said he, losing his temper and striding to the stairway, as the sounds of a struggle recommenced overhead, “if your mate don’t hold the noise he’s kicking up this instant, bringing trouble on respectable folks, I’ll cut his liver out and fling it arter you into the street.”
He would have threatened more, though he could hardly have threatened worse, but at this moment a door opened in the back of the room and a bullet-head thrust itself forward, followed by a pair of shoulders naked and magnificently shaped.
“Time to start, is it?” demanded the apparition. “Or elst what in thunder’s the meanin’ o’ this racket, when I was just a-gettin’ of my beauty sleep?”
The stout man let out a murderous oath, and, rushing back, thrust the door close upon the vision; but not before I had caught a glimpse of a woman’s skirt enwrapping it from the waist down. The next moment one of the females had caught me up: I was propelled down the passage at a speed and with a force that made the blood sing in my ears, and shot forth into the darkness; where, as I picked myself up, half-stunned, I heard the house-door slammed behind me.
I take no credit for what I did next. No doubt I remembered that Hartnoll was still inside; but for aught I know it was mere shame and rage, and the thought of my insulted uniform, that made me rush back at the door and batter it with fists and feet. I battered until windows went up in the houses to right and left. Voices from them called to me; still I battered: and still I was battering blindly when a rush of footsteps came down the street and a hand, gripping me by the collar, swung me round into the blinding ray of a dark lantern.
“Hands off!” I gasped, half-choked, but fighting to break away.
“All right, my game-cock!” A man’s knuckles pressed themselves firmly into the nape of my neck. “Hullo! By gosh, sir, if it ain’t a midshipman!”
“A midshipman?” said a voice of command. “Slew him round here. . . . So it is, by George! . . . and a nice time of night! Hold him up, bo’sun–you needn’t be choking the lad. Now then, boy, what’s your name and ship?”
“Rodd, sir–of the Melpomene–and there’s another inside–” I began.
“Yes, sir: and there’s my friend inside, and for all I know they’re murdering him. . . . A lot of men dressed up as women. . . . His name’s Hartnoll–” I struggled to make away for another rush at the door, and had my heel against it, when it gave way and Hartnoll came flying out into the night. The officer, springing past me, very cleverly thrust in a foot before it could be closed again.
“Men dressed as women, you say?”
“It’s an old trick, sir,” panted the bo’sun, pushing forward. “I’ve knowed it played ever since I served on a press. If you’ll let the boys draw covert, sir . . . they’ve had a blank night, an’ their tempers’ll be the better for it.”
He planted his shoulder against the door, begging for the signal, and the crew closed up around the step with a growl.
“My dirk!” pleaded Hartnoll. “I was getting it away, but one of ’em half-broke my arm and I dropped it again in the passage.”
“Hey? Stolen your dirk–have they? That’s excuse enough. . . . Right you are, men, and in you go!”
He waved his cocked hat to them as a huntsman lays on his hounds. In went the door with a crash, and in two twos I was swept up and across the threshold and surging with them down the passage. By reason of my inches I could see nothing of what was happening ahead. I heard a struggle, and in the midst of it a hand went up and smashed the lamp over the stairway, plunging us all in total darkness. But the lieutenant had his lantern ready, and by the rays of it the sailors burst open the locked door at the end and flung themselves upon the Amazons before the candles could be extinguished. At the same moment the lieutenant called back an order over my head to his whippers-in, to find their way around and take the house in the rear.
The women, though overmatched, fought like cats–or like bull-dogs rather. They were borne down to the floor, but even here for a while the struggle heaved and swayed this way and that, and I had barely time to snatch up one of the candles before table, bottles, glasses, went over in a general ruin. Above the clatter of it and the cursing, as I turned to stick the candle upright in a bottle on the dresser, I heard a cheer raised from somewhere in the back premises, and two men came rushing from the inner room–two men in feminine skirts, the one naked to the waist, the other clad about his chest and neck with a loose flannel shirt and a knotted Belcher handkerchief.
They paused for just about the time it would take you to count five; paused while they drew themselves up for the charge; and the lieutenant, reading the battle in their faces–and no ordinary battle either–shouted to close the door. He shouted none too soon. In a flash the pair were upon us, and at the first blow two sailors went down like skittles. There must have been at least twenty sailors in the room, and all of them willing, yet in that superb charge the pair drove them like sheep, and the naked man had even time to drag the dresser from the clamps fastening it to the wall and hurl it down between himself and three seamen running to take him in flank. The candle went down with it: but the lieutenant, skipping back to the closed door, very pluckily held up his lantern and called on his men, in the same breath forbidding them to use their cutlasses yet. In the circumstances this was generous, and I verily believe he would have been killed for it–the pair being close upon him and their fists going like hammers–had not one of the seamen whipped out a piece of rope and, ducking low, dived under the naked man’s guard and lassoed him by the ankles. Two others, who had been stretched on the floor, simultaneously grabbed his companion by the skirts and wound their arms about his knees: and so in a trice both heroes were brought to ground. Even so they fought on until quieted by two judicious taps with the hilt of the boatswain’s cutlass. I honestly thought he had killed them, but was assured they were merely stunned for the time. The boatswain, it appeared, was an expert, and had already administered the same soothing medicine to two or three of the more violent among the ladies; though loath to do so (he explained), because it sometimes gave the crowd a wrong impression when the bodies in this temporary state of inanition were carried out.
The small crowd in the street, however, seemed in no mind to hinder us. Possibly experience had taught them composure. At any rate they were apathetic, though curious enough to follow us down to the quay and stand watching whilst we embarked our unconscious burdens. A lamp burned foggily at the head of the steps by which we descended to the waterside, and looking up I saw the child who had called herself Meliar-Ann standing in the circle of it, and gazing down upon the embarkation with dark unemotional eyes. Hartnoll spied her too, and waved his recovered dirk triumphantly. She paid him no heed at all.
“But look here,” said the lieutenant, turning on me, “we can’t take you on board to-night–and without your chests. Oh yes–I have your names; Rodd and Hartnoll . . . and a deuced lucky thing for you we tumbled upon you as we did. But Captain Suckling’s orders were–and I heard him give ’em, with my own ears–to fetch you off to-morrow morning. From the Blue Posts, eh? Well, just you run back, or Blue Billy,”–by this irreverent name, as I learned later, the executive officers of his Majesty’s Navy had agreed to know Mr. Benjamin Sheppard, proprietor of the Blue Posts: a solid man, who died worth sixty thousand pounds–“or Blue Billy will be sending round the crier.”
“But, sir, we don’t know where to find the Blue Posts!”
He stared at me, turning with his foot on the boat’s gunwale. “Why, God bless the boy! you’ve only to turn to your left and follow your innocent nose for a hundred and fifty yards, and you’ll run your heads against the doorway.”
We watched the boat as it pushed off. A few of the crowd still lingered on the quay’s edge, and it has since occurred to me to wonder that, as Hartnoll and I turned and ascended the steps, no violence was offered to us. We had come out to flaunt our small selves in his Majesty’s uniform. Here, if ever, was proof of the respect it commanded; and we failed to notice it. Meliar-Ann had disappeared. The loungers on the quay-head let us pass unmolested, and, following the lieutenant’s directions, sure enough within five minutes we found ourselves under the lamp of the Blue Posts!
The night-porter eyed us suspiciously before admitting us. “A man might say that you’ve made a pretty fair beginning,” he ventured; but I had warned Hartnoll to keep his chin up, and we passed in with a fine show of haughty indifference.
At eight o’clock next morning Hartnoll and I were eating our breakfast when the waiter brought a visitor to our box–a tallish midshipman about three years our senior, with a face of the colour of brickdust and a frame that had outgrown his uniform.
“Good-morning, gentlemen,” said he; “and I daresay you guess my business. I’m to take you on board as soon as you can have your boxes ready.”
We asked him if he would do us the honour to share our breakfast: whereupon he nodded.
“To tell you the truth, I was about to suggest it myself. Eh? What have we? Grilled kidneys? Good.”
I called to the waiter to fetch another dish of kidneys.
“And a spatchcock,” added our guest. “They’re famous, here, for spatchcock. And, yes, I think we’ll say an anchovy toast. Tea? Well, perhaps, at this time of the morning–with a poker in it.”
This allusion to a poker we did not understand; but fortunately the waiter did, and brought a glassful of rum, which Mr. Strangways–for so he had made himself known to us–tipped into his tea, assuring us that the great Nelson had ever been wont to refer to this–his favourite mixture–as “the pride of the morning.”
“By the way,” he went on, with his mouth full of kidney, “the second lieutenant tells me you were in luck’s way last night.”
To this we modestly agreed, and hoped that the prisoners had arrived safely on board.
He grinned. “You may lay to that. We had to club half a dozen of them as soon as they were lifted aboard. When I say ‘we’ I ought to add that I was in my hammock and never heard a word of it, being a heavy sleeper. That,” said Mr. Strangways pensively, “is my one fault.”
We attempted to convey by our silence that Mr. Strangways’ single fault was a trifling, a venial one.
“It’ll hinder my prospects, all the same.” He nodded. “You mark my words.” He nodded again, and helped himself to a round of buttered toast. “But I’m told,” he went on, “there was an unholy racket. They couldn’t do much, having the jollies on both pair of paws; but a party in mother-o’-pearl buttons made a speech about the liberty of the subject, in a voice that carried pretty nearly to Gosport: and the first lieutenant, being an old woman, and afraid of the ship’s losing reputation while he was in charge, told them all to be good boys and he would speak to the Captain when he came aboard; and served them out three fingers of rum apiece, which the bo’sun took upon himself to hocus. By latest accounts, they’re sleeping it off and–I say, waiter, you might tell the cook to devil those kidneys.”
“But hasn’t Captain Suckling returned yet?” I ventured to ask.
“He hasn’t,” said Mr. Strangways. “The deuce knows where he is, and the first lieutenant, not being in the deuce’s confidence, is working himself into the deuce of a sweat. What’s worse, His Excellency hasn’t turned up yet, nor His Excellency’s suite: though a boat waited for ’em five solid hours yesterday. All that arrived was His Excellency’s valet and about a score of valises, and word that the great man would follow in a shore-boat. Which he hasn’t.”
From this light gossip Mr. Strangways turned and addressed himself to the devilled kidneys, remarking that in his Britannic Majesty’s service a man was hungry as a matter of course; which I afterwards and experimentally found to be true.
Well–not to protract the tale–an hour later we took boat with our belongings, under Mr. Strangways’ escort, and were pulled on a swift tide down to the ship. It so happened that the first and second lieutenants were standing together in converse on the break of the poop when we climbed on board and were led aft to report ourselves. The second lieutenant, Mr. Fraser (in whom we recognised our friend of the night before) stepped to the gangway and shook hands with a jolly smile. His superior offered us no such cheerful welcome, but stuck his hands behind him and scowled.
“H’m,” said he, “are these your two infants? They look as if they had been making a night of it.”
I could have answered (but did not) that we must be looking pasty-faced indeed if his gills had the advantage of us: for the man was plainly fretting himself to fiddle-strings with anxiety. He turned his back upon us and called forward for one of the master’s mates, to whom he gave orders to show us our hammocks. We saluted and took leave of him, and on our way below fell in with Strangways again, who haled us off to introduce us to the gun-room.
Of the gun-room and its horrors you’ll have formed–if lads still read their Marryat nowadays–your own conception; and I will only say that it probably bears the same relation to the Melpomene’s gun-room as chalk to cheese. The Melpomene’s gun-room was low–so low that Strangways seldom entered it but he contused himself–and it was also dark as the inside of a hat, and undeniably stuffy.
Yet to me, in my first flush of enthusiasm, it appeared eminently cosy: and the six midshipmen of the Melpomene–Walters, de Havilland, Strangways, Pole, Bateman, Countisford–six as good fellows as a man could wish to sail with. Youth, youth! They had their faults: but they were all my friends till the yellow fever carried off two at Port Royal; and two are alive yet and my friends to-day. I tell their six names over to-day like a string of beads, and (if the Lord will forgive a good Protestant) with a prayer for each.
Our next business was to become acquainted with the two marines who had carried our chests below, and who (as we proudly understood) were to be our body-servants. We were on deck again, and luckily out of hearing of our fellow-midshipmen, when these two menials came up to report themselves: and Hartnoll and I had just arrived at an amicable choice between them.
“Here, Bill,” said the foremost, advancing and pointing at me with a forefinger, “which’ll it be? If you don’t mind, I’ll take the red-headed one, to put me in mind o’ my gal.”
So on the whole we settled ourselves down very comfortably aboard the Melpomene: but the ship was not easy that day as a society, nor could be, with her commanding officer pacing to and fro like a bear in a cage. You will have seen the black bear at the Zoo, and noticed the swing of his head as he turns before ever reaching the end of his cage? Well just so– or very like it–the Melpomene’s first lieutenant kept swinging and chafing on the quarter-deck all that afternoon–or, to be precise, until six o’clock, when Captain Suckling came aboard in a shore-boat, and in his shore-going clothes.
He was a pleasant-faced man; clean-shaven, rosy-complexioned, grey-haired, with something of the air and carriage of a country squire; a pleasant-tempered man too, although he appeared to be in a pet of some sort, and fairly fired up when the first lieutenant (a little sarcastically, I thought) ventured to hope that he had been enjoying himself.
“Nothing of the sort, sir! It’s the first–” Captain Suckling checked himself. “I was going to say,” he resumed more quietly, “that it’s the first prize-fight I have ever attended and will be the last. But in point of fact there has been no fight.”
“Indeed, sir?” I heard the first lieutenant murmur compassionately.
“The men did not turn up; neither they nor their trainers. The whole meeting, in fact, was what is vulgarly called a bilk. But where is Sir John?”
“I beg your pardon, sir?”
“His Excellency–you have made him comfortable?”
“His Excellency, sir, has not turned up. In fact,” said the first lieutenant prettily, “I fancy that His Excellency, too, must have done what is–er–vulgarly termed a bilk.”
Captain Suckling stared from his lieutenant to the shore, and from the shore to the horizon.
“The boat waited no less than five hours for him yesterday, and in the end brought off his valet with some luggage. He gave us to understand that Sir John and his Secretary would follow in a shore-boat. This was twenty-four hours ago, and they have not appeared.”
“I have to report also,” said the first lieutenant, “that at seven o’clock, in accordance with orders, Mr. Fraser took a party ashore. The press has been active of late, and at first they found the whole town shy: in fact, sir, they met with no success at all until midnight, when, just as they were on the point of returning, they raided a house and brought off eight able-bodied fellows–as fine a lot, sir, physically, as you could wish to see. For their seamanship I am unable to answer, having had no opportunity to question them. To judge from his report Mr. Fraser handled the affair well, and brought them off expeditiously; and I am relieved to tell you that, so far, we have had no trouble from shore–not so much as an inquiry sent.”
“That is luck, indeed,” said Captain Suckling approvingly; “and a comfort to hear at the end of a day when everything has gone wrong. Fetch them up–that is, if they are sufficiently recovered; fetch them up, and when I’ve shifted these clothes I’ll have a look at them while daylight serves.”
The Captain went below: and five minutes later I saw the first of the prisoners haled up through the hatchway. It was the man in the double overcoat; but he had lost his colour, and he no sooner reached the deck than he lurched and sat down with a thud. Since no one helped him to rise, he remained seated, and gazed about him with a drugged and vacuous stare, while the light of the approaching sunset shimmered over his mother-of-pearl buttons.
The next to emerge was my friend of the splendid torso, handcuffed and fettered. When he, too, lurched and fell, I became aware for the first time that the frigate was rocking on a gentle south-westerly swell, and I turned to the bulwarks for a glance overside at the water which, up to an hour ago, had been smooth as a pond. I had scarcely reached the bulwarks when a voice forward sang out that a boat was approaching and hailing us.
Sure enough, a boat there was: and in the stern-sheets, with a couple of watermen pulling, sat two men of whom the portliss was promptly and confidently proclaimed by the midshipmen gathered around me to be no other than His Excellency.
The boat approached and fell alongside the ladder suspended a few yards aft of the ship’s waist. The first lieutenant, having sent word to the Captain, hurried forward to receive our distinguished guest, who climbed heavily on his Secretary’s arm. Arriving thus at the sally-way, he nodded graciously in answer to the first lieutenant’s salute, pulled out a handkerchief to mop his brow, and in the act of mopping it cast a glance across the deck.
“Captain Suckling has asked me to present his excuses to your Excellency–” began the first lieutenant in his best tone of ceremony; and, with that, took a step backward as His Excellency flung out a rigid arm.
“The Dustman! for a fiver!”
“I–I beg your Excellency’s pardon–your Excellency was pleased to observe–“
“The Dustman, for a hundred pounds! Jem Clark, too! Oh, catch me, Winyates!” and His Excellency staggered back, clutching at a man-rope with one hand, pointing with the other. His gaze wavered from the prisoners amidships to the first lieutenant, and from the first lieutenant to the poop-ladder, at the head of which Captain Suckling at this instant appeared, hastily buttoning his uniform coat as he came.
“A thousand pardons, your Excellency!”
“A thousand pounds, sir!”
“If that’s not the very pair of scoundrels I’ve been hunting the length and breadth of Hampshire. Fareham was the venue, Captain Suckling–if I am addressing Captain Suckling–“
“You are, sir. I–I think you said Fareham–“
“I did, sir. I don’t mind confessing to you–here on the point of departing from England–that I admire the noble art, sir: so much so that I have wasted a whole day in the neighbourhood of Fareham, hunting for a prize-fight which never came off.”
“But–but I don’t mind confessing to your Excellency,” gasped Captain Suckling, “that I too have been at Fareham and have–er–met with the same disappointment.”
“Disappointment, sir! When you have kidnapped the scoundrels–when you have them on board at this moment!” Sir John pointing a shaking forefinger again at the pressed men.
Captain Suckling stared in the direction where the finger pointed. “You don’t mean to tell me–” he began weakly, addressing the first lieutenant.
“Mr. Fraser brought them aboard, sir,” said the first lieutenant.
“And we’ll have the law of you for it,” promised the man in the pearl buttons from amidships, but in a weakening voice.
Captain Suckling was what they call an officer and a gentleman. He drew himself up at once.
“In my absence my officers appear to have made a small mistake. But I hope your Excellency may not be disappointed after all. I have never set eyes on either of these men before, but if that naked man be the Dustman I will put up a hundred pounds upon him, here and now; or on the other if that runs counter to your Excellency’s fancy–“
“Jem Clark’s my man,” said Sir John. “I’ll match your stake, sir.”
“–And liberty for all if they show a decent fight, and a boat to set them ashore,” went on Captain Suckling. “Is that a fair offer, my men?”
The man in the pearl buttons raised his head to answer for the two pugilists, who by this time were totally incapable of answering for themselves. He showed pluck, too; for his face shone with the colour of pale marble.
“A hundred pounds! Oh, go to blazes with your hundred pounds! When I tell you the Prince Regent himself had five hundred on it. . . . Oh! prop ’em up, somebody! and let the fools see what they’ve done to poor Jem, that I’d a-trained to a hair. And the money of half the fancy depending on his condition. . . .”
“Prop ’em up, some of you!” echoed Captain Suckling. “Eh? God bless my soul–“
He paused, staring from the yellow faces of the pugilists to the battered and contused features of his own seamen.
“God bless my soul!” repeated Captain Suckling. “Mr. Fraser!”
“Sir!” The second lieutenant stepped forward.
“You mean to tell me that–that these two men–inflicted–er–all this?”
“They did, sir. If I might explain the unfortunate mistake–“
“You describe it accurately, sir. I could say to you, as Sir Isaac Newton said to his dog Diamond, ‘Oh, Mr. Fraser, Mr. Fraser, you little know what you have done!’”
“Indeed, sir, I fear we acted hastily. The fact is we found the two new midshipmen, Rodd and Hartnoll, in something of a scrape with these people. . . .” The second lieutenant told how he had found me battering at the door, and how he had effected an entrance: but the Captain listened inattentively.
“Your Excellency,” he said, interrupting the narrative and turning on the Governor, “I really think these men will give us little sport here.”
“They are going to be extremely ill,” said His Excellency, “and that presently.”
“I had better send them ashore.”
“Decidedly; and before they recover. Also, if I might advise, I would not be too hasty in knocking off their handcuffs.”
“We are short-handed,” mused Captain Suckling; “but really the situation will be a delicate one unless we weigh anchor at once.”
“You will be the laughing-stock of all the ships inside the Wight, and the object of some indignation ashore.”
“There is nothing to detain us, for doubtless I can pick up a few recruits at Falmouth. . . . But what to do with these men?”
“May I suggest that I have not yet dismissed my shore-boat?”
“The very thing!” Captain Suckling gazed overside, and then southward towards the Wight, whence a light sea-fog was drifting up again to envelop us.
“I never thought,” he murmured, “to be thankful for thick weather to weigh anchor in!”
He turned and stared pensively at the line of prisoners who had staggered one by one to the bulwarks, and leaned there limply, their resentment lost for the time in the convulsions of nature.
“It seems like taking advantage of their weakness,” said he pensively.
“It does,” agreed His Excellency; “but I strongly advise it.”
A moment, and a moment only, Captain Suckling hesitated before giving the order. . . . Then in miserable procession the strong men were led past us to the ladder, each supported by two seamen. The gangway was crowded, and my inches did not allow me to look over the bulwarks: but I heard the boatswain knocking off their irons in the boat below, and the objurgating voice of the man in the pearl buttons.
“Give way!” shouted someone. I edged towards the gangway and stooped; and then, peering between the legs of my superior officers, I saw the boat glide away from the frigate’s side. Our friends lay piled on the bottom-boards and under the thwarts like a catch of fish. One or two lifted clenched fists: and the boatmen, eyeing them nervously, fell to their oars for dear life.
As the fog swallowed them, someone took me by the ear.
“Hullo, young gentlemen,” said His Excellency, pinching me and reaching out a hand for Hartnoll, who evaded him, “it seems to me you deserve a thrashing apiece for yesterday and a guinea apiece for to-day. Will you take both, or shall we call it quits?”
Well, we called it quits for the time. But twenty years later, happening upon me at Buckingham Palace at one of King William’s last levees, he shook hands and informed me that the balance sheet at the time had been wrongly struck: for I had provided him with a story which had served him faithfully through half his distinguished career. A week later a dray rumbled up to the door of my lodgings in Jermyn Street, and two stout men delivered from it a hogshead of the sherry you are now drinking. He had inquired for Hartnoll’s address, but Hartnoll, poor lad, had lain for fifteen years in the British burial-ground at Port Royal.