Story type: Literature
[The scene is the kitchen of a small farm-house above the Walkham River, on the western edge of Dartmoor. The walls, originally of rough granite, have had their asperities smoothed down by many layers of whitewash. The floor is of lime-ash, nicely sanded. From the ceiling–formed of rude, unplaned beams and the planching of the bedroom above–depends a rack crowded with hams and sides of bacon, all wrapped in newspapers. In the window a dozen geraniums are blooming, and beyond them the eye rests on the slope of Sharpitor and the distant ridge of Sheepstor. The fireplace, which faces the window, is deep and capacious, and floored with granite slabs. On these burns a fire of glowing peat, and over the fire hangs a crock of milk in process of scalding. In the ingle behind it sits the relator of this story, drying his knees after a Dartmoor shower. From his seat he can look up the wide chimney and see, beyond the smoke, the sky, and that it is blue again and shining. But he listens to the farmer’s middle-aged sister, who stands at the table by the window, and rolls out a pie-crust as she talks. (The farmer is a widower, and she keeps house for him.) She talks of a small picture–a silhouette executed in black and gold–that adorns the wall-space between the dresser and the tall clock, and directly above the side-table piled with the small library of the house. The portrait is a profile of a young man, somewhat noticeably handsome, in a high-necked coat and white stock collar.]
‘It is none of our family, though it came to us near on a hundred years ago. It came from America. A young gentleman sent it over from Philadelphia to my grandmother, with a letter to say he was married and happy, and would always remember her. Perhaps he did; and, again, perhaps he didn’t. That was the last my grandmother heard of him.
‘But it wasn’t made in America. It was made in the War Prison, over yonder at Princetown, where they keep the convicts now. I’ve heard the man that drew and cut it out was a French sergeant, with only one arm. He had lost the other in the war, and his luck was to be left until the very last draft. He finished it the morning he was released, and he gave it to the young American–Adams, his name was– for a keepsake. The Americans had to stay behind, because their war wasn’t over yet.
‘It came to my grandmother in this way: She was married to my grandfather that owned this very farm, and lived in this very house; and twice a week she would drive over to the prison, to the market that used to be held there every day from before noon till nightfall. Sometimes my grandfather drove with her, but oftener not. She could take care of herself very well.
‘She sold poultry and pork, eggs and butter, and vegetables; lard sometimes, and straw, with other odds and ends. (The prisoners used the straw for plaiting bonnets.) Scores of salesmen used to travel to the prison every day, from Tavistock, Okehampton, Moreton, and all around the Moor: Jews, too, from Plymouth, with slop-clothing. But in all this crowd my grandmother held her own. The turnkeys knew her; the prisoners liked her for her good looks and good temper, and because she always dealt fair; and the agent (as they called the governor in those days) had given orders to set aside a table and trestles for her twice a week, close inside the entrance of the market square, on the side where the bettermost French prisoners lived in a building they called the Petty Caution.
‘But with the prisoners, though many a time her heart melted for them, she was always very careful, and let it be known that she never smuggled tobacco or messages even for her best customers. After a while they got to understand this, and (though you may think it queer) liked her none the less. The agent, on his part, trusted her–and the turnkeys and the military officials–and didn’t respect her the less because she never told tales, though they knew she might have told many.
‘This went on, staid and regular, for close upon three years; and then, one fine October evening, my grandmother, after reaching home with her little cart, unharnessing and bedding up the donkey in his stable, walked out to the orchard, where my grandfather was looking over his cider apples, and says she to him,–
‘”William, I’ve a-done a dreadful deed.”
‘My grandfather took off his hat, and rubbed the top of his head. “Good Lord!” he says. “You don’t tell me!”
‘”I’ve helped a prisoner to escape,” says she.
‘”Then we’m lost and done for,” says my grandfather. “How did it come about?” And with that he waited a little, and said, “Damme, my dear, if any other person had brought me this tale I’d have tanned his skin.” For I must tell you my grandfather and grandmother doted on one another.
‘”I know you would,” said my grandmother, dismally. “And I can’t think how the temptation took me. But the poor creatur’ was little more’n a boy–and there were a-something in the eyes of him–” She meant to say there was a-something that reminded her of her own eldest, that she had lost a dozen years before.
‘I don’t know whether my grandfather understood or whether he didn’t. But all he said was, “However did you contrive it?”
‘”It came,” she said, “of my takin’ they six white rabbits to market. I sold mun all; and when they were sold, and the hutch standin’ empty–” My grandmother pulled out her handkerchief and dabbed her eyes.
‘”You drove him out in the rabbit hutch?” asked my grandfather.
‘”With a handful of straw between him and the bars,” she owned. “He’s nobbut a boy. You can’t think how easy. And the look of him when he crep’ inside–“
‘”Where is he?” asked my grandfather.
‘”Somewheres hangin’ about the stable at this moment,” she told him, with a kind o’ sob.
‘So my grandfather went out to the back. He could not find the prisoner in the stable, but by-and-by he caught sight of him on the slope of the stubble field behind it. The poor lad had taken a hoe, and was pretending to work it, while he edged away in the dimmety light.
‘”Hallo!” sings out my grandfather across the gate; and goes striding up the field to him. “If I were you,” says he, “I wouldn’t hoe stubble; because that’s a new kind of agriculture in these parts, and likely to attract notice.”
‘”I was doin’ my best,” twittered the prisoner. He was a delicate-lookin’ lad, very white just now about the gills. “I come from Marblehead,” he explained, “and, bein’ bred to the sea, I didn’t think it would matter.”
‘”It will, you’ll find, if you persevere with it. But come indoors. We’ll stow you in the cider-loft for to-night, after you’ve taken a bite of supper. And to-morrow–well, I’ll have to think that out,” said my grandfather.
‘For the next few hours he felt pretty easy. He and his wife had a good reputation with the agent, who would take a long time before suspecting them of any hand in an escape. The three ate their supper together in good comfort, though from time to time my grandfather pricked up his ears as though he heard the sound of a gun. But the wind blew from the south-west that night, and if a gun was fired the sound did not carry.
‘When supper was done my grandmother made a suggestion that the lad, instead of turning out to the cider-loft, should sleep in the garret overhead; and my grandfather, after a look at the lad’s face, shut his lips, and would not gainsay her, though–as in bed he couldn’t help reminding her–it would be difficult to pass off a visitor in the garret, with two blankets, for a housebreaker.
‘As it happened, though, they were not disturbed that night. But my grandfather, for thinking, took a very little sleep, and in the morning he went up to the garret with the best plan he could devise.
‘”I’ve been turnin’ it over,” he said, “and there’s no road will help you across the Moor for days to come. You must bide here till the hue-an’-cry has blown over, and meantime the missus must fit up some disguise for you; but you must bide in bed, for a man can’t step out o’ this house, front or back, without bein’ visible from all the tors around. So rest where you be, and I’ll just dander down along t’wards Walkhampton, where the Plymouth road runs under Sharpitor, an’ where I’ve been meanin’ to break up a taty-patch this long time past. There’s alway a plenty goin’ and comin’ ‘pon the road, an’ maybe by keepin’ an eye open I’ll learn what line the chase is takin’.”
‘So my grandfather shouldered his biddick and marched off, down and across the valley, marked off his patch pretty high on the slope, and fell to work. Just there he could keep the whole traffic of the road under his eye, as well as the fields around his house; and for a moment it gave him a shock as he called to mind that in the only field that lay out of sight he’d left a scarecrow standing–in a patch that, back in the summer, he had cropped with pease for the agent’s table up at the War Prison. To be sure, ’twasn’t likely to mislead a search-party, and, if it did, why a scarecrow’s a scarecrow; but my grandfather didn’t like the thought of any of these gentry being near the house. If they came at all they might be minded to search further. So he determined that when dinner-time came he would go back home and take the scarecrow down.
‘The road (as I said) was always pretty full of traffic, coming and going between Plymouth and the War Prison. There were bakers’ wagons, grocery vans, and vans of meat, besides market carts from Bickleigh and Buckland. My grandfather watched one and another go by, but made out nothing unusual until–and after he had been digging for an hour, maybe–sure enough he spied a mounted soldier coming up the road at a trot, and knew that this must be one of the searchers returning. In a minute more he recognised the man for an acquaintance of his, a sergeant of the garrison, and by name Grimwold, and hailed him as he came close.
‘”Hallo! Is that you?” says the sergeant, reining up. “And how long might you have been workin’ there?”
‘”Best part of an hour,” says my grandfather. “What’s up?”
‘”There’s a prisoner escaped, another o’ those damned Yankees,” says the sergeant. “I’ve been laying the alarm all the way to Plymouth. You ha’n’t seen any suspicious-lookin’ party pass this way, I suppose?”
‘My grandfather said very truthfully that he hadn’t, but promised very truthfully that he would keep an eye lifting. So the sergeant wished him good-day and rode on towards Two Bridges.
‘For the next twenty minutes nothing passed but a tax-cart and a market woman with a donkey; and a while after them a very queer-looking figure hove in sight.
”Twas a man walking, with a great sack on his shoulders and two or three hats on his head, one atop of another. By the cut of his jib, as they say, my grandfather knew him at once for one of the Plymouth Jews, that visited Princetown by the dozen with cast-off clothes for sale, and silver change for the gold pieces that found their way sometimes into the prison as prize-money. Sometimes, too, they carried away the Bank of England notes that the Frenchmen were so clever at forging. But though, as he came near, the man had Jew written all over him, my grandfather couldn’t call to mind that he’d ever seen this particular Jew before.
‘What is more, it was plain enough in a minute that the Jew didn’t recognise my grandfather; for, catching sight of him aloft there on the slope, first of all he gave a start, next he walked forward a few steps undecided-like, and last he pulled up, set down his bundle like a man tired, and looked behind him down the road. The road was empty, so he turned his attention to my grandfather, and after looking at him very curiously for half a minute, “Good-morning,” says he.
‘By this time my grandfather had guessed what was passing in the man’s mind, and it came into his own to have a little fun.
‘”Good-morning, stranger,” said he, through his nose, mimicking so well as he could the American manner of speaking.
‘”How long have you been at work there, my man?” asks the Jew, still glancing up and down the road.
‘”A long time,” answers my grandfather, putting on a scared look, and halting in his words. “This piece of ground belongs to me”–which was true enough, but didn’t sound likely; for he was always a careless man in his dress (the only matter over which he and my grandmother had words now and then), and to-day, feeling he had the whip-hand of her, he had taken advantage to wear an old piece of sacking in place of a coat.
‘”Oh, indeed,” says the Jew, more than dubious, and thinking, no doubt, of the three guineas that was the regular reward for taking an escaped prisoner.
‘”It’s the tarnal truth,” says my grandfather, and fell to whistling, like a man facing it out. But the tune he chose was “Yankee Doodle!” This, of course, made the Jew dead sure of his man. But he was a lean little wisp of a man, and my grandfather too strongly built to be tackled. So the pair stood eyeing one another until, glancing up, my grandfather saw three soldiers come round the corner of the road from Plymouth, and with that he dropped his biddick and turned like a desperate man.
‘The Jew saw them too, and almost upon the same instant. “Help, help!” he yelled, and leaving his bag where he had dropped it, tore down the road to meet the soldiers, waving both arms and still shouting, “Help! A prisoner! A prisoner!”
‘My grandfather always said afterwards that, when he heard this, he fairly groaned. He wasn’t by any means humorous as a rule, and, so far as he was concerned, the joke had gone far enough; and he used to add as a warning that a man may go so far in a joke he can’t help but go farther–’tis like hysterics with women. At any rate, he saw the soldiers coming for him at the double, spreading themselves to head him off, and as they came he broke and ran straight up the slope towards the head of the tor.
‘This violent exercise didn’t suit him at all, and glad enough he was, after two minutes of it, to note that the soldiers were shortening the distance hand over fist. For a moment he had a mind to drop, as though worn out with hunger and exhaustion, but his face and shape wouldn’t lend themselves to that deceit. So he held on and did his best, until the foremost soldier drew within thirty yards and shouted out, threatening to fire. Turning and seeing that he had his musket almost at the “present,” my grandfather dropped his arms, stood still, and allowed them to take him like a lamb.
‘”But,” said he, sulky-like, “if ’tis to the prison you mean to carry me, then carry me you shall. Back to the road I’ll go with you, but not a step farther on my own legs, and on that you may bet your last dollar.”
‘The soldiers–they were three raw youngsters of the Somerset Militia–threatened at first to prick him along the road with their bayonets. But by this time the little Jew had come up panting and yet almost capering with excitement.
‘”No bloodthed!” said he, in his lisping way. “I’ll have no bloodthed! The man ‘ith worth three guineath to me ath he ith. He thall have a cart, if it cotht me five shillingth! Where ‘th the nearetht village?”
‘He ran off and down the road, while my grandfather sat down on the turf along with the soldiers, and smoked a pipe of tobacco. Very nice lads they were, too; but he felt shy in their company, thinking how badly he had deceived them, and also that the joke was near running dry. For, whatever cart the Jew might hire, the driver couldn’t help recognising a man so widely known as my grandfather.
‘But his luck stood yet. For the little man hadn’t run above three-quarters of a mile on the road and was not half-way towards Buckland–his nearest chance of a cart–when he came full tilt upon a light wagon and three more soldiers, with a fourth riding behind, and all conveying the prisoners’ weekly pocket-money up to Princetown, in sacks filled with small change. Here was a chance to save breath as well as carriage hire, and the little Jew charged down on them so fiercely, as they crawled up the hill, that the corporal who sat on the money with a musket across his knees, had nearly shot him for a highwayman before giving him time to explain.
‘They whipped up the horses though, when they heard his story; and so, coming to the road under Sharpitor, and halting, they very soon had my grandfather trussed and laid upon the bags of money, and jogged away with him towards the Two Bridges, the Jew and three militiamen tramping behind at the cart-tail.
‘It was one o’clock, or a little past, when they drove up to the prison gate; and a mist beginning to gather above North Hessary, as at this time of year it often does after a clear morning. My grandfather, looking out from under the tilt of the cart, felt as he’d never felt before what a cheerless place it must seem to a new-comer, and his heart melted a little bit further towards the lad he was hiding at home.
‘”Hallo!” says the sentry at the gate.
‘”You’ll say something more than Hallo! when you see what we’ve got inside here,” promised the corporal.
‘Then they bundled my grandfather out in the light of day, and the corporal proudly told the sentry to summon the agent at once.
‘”Good Lord!” said the sentry, “if it bain’t Farmer Mugford!”
‘Just then, as it happened, forth stepped the agent himself from the wicket, starting for his walk that he took for his health’s sake every afternoon. Captain Sharpland his name was, and later on, when the Americans mutinied, he was accused of treating them harshly, but my grandfather said that a kinder-hearted man never stepped.
‘”Hallo,” says Captain Sharpland, halting and putting up his eyeglass. “Why, Mugford, whatever is the meaning of this?”
‘”You’d best ask the Jew here, sir,” my grandfather answered, nursing his sulks.
‘”If you pleathe, noble captain,” put in the Jew, who didn’t yet guess anything amiss, “we’ve thecured the ethcaped prithoner–after a tuthle–“
‘”And pray, who the devil may you be?” asked Captain Sharpland, screwing his eyeglass into his eye. He disliked Jews, upon principle.
‘”Tho pleathe you, noble captain, my name ‘th Nathan Nathaniel, of Thouththide Thtreet, Plymouth: and on my way thith morning, ath you thee, I came on the prithoner–“‘
‘”Prisoner be–” began Captain Sharpland, but broke off to swear at the sentry, that was covering his face with his hands to hide his grins. “My good Mr Mugford, will you explain?”
‘”With pleasure, sir,” my grandfather answered, and told his story, while the Jew’s eyes grew wider and wider, and his jaw dropped lower and lower.
‘”You claim compensation, of course?” said Captain Sharpland at the close, and as gravely as he could, though he too had to smooth a hand over his upper lip.
‘”Why, as for that, sir”–my grandfather was taken aback–“I took it for a joke, and bear no grudge against Government for it.”
‘”It wouldn’t help you if you did,” said Captain Sharpland. “But I suggest that Mr Nathan, here, owes you a trifle–shall we put it at twenty pounds?”
‘But here Mr Nathan cast up his hands with a scream, and would have sat down in the roadway. The soldiers caught him, and held him upright, and you may guess if, in their temper at being fooled, they twisted his arms a bit.
‘”Take him to my quarters, and we will discuss it,” commanded Captain Sharpland, turning back to the wicket again, and leading the way. Well, the Jew, when he reached the agent’s quarters, rolled on to his knees, and whined so long, beating down the price, that ’twas well after four o’clock before he counted out the five guineas which was the least sum Captain Sharpland would hear of. My grandfather counted them into his pocket, scarcely believing his good fortune. He stayed behind after the creature had slunk away out of the room– to have a laugh with the captain, who very heartily offered him a glass of grog upon the top of it; and with that it came over him how he was deceiving this good man. He couldn’t accept the drink; he could scarcely muster up face to say “Good-night, sir, and thank you,” and if he, too, as he went out, didn’t carry his tail between his legs, I doubt if he felt much better satisfied with himself than did Mr Nathan.
‘But just outside the gate he found something to distract his mind. The soldiers, in a rage at being made to look foolish, had been waiting there for Mr Nathan with their belts; and my grandfather arrived in time to hear the wretched man howling for mercy, as they chevied him away over the moor under the lee of North Hessary and into the dusk.
‘He stood and listened for a minute or so, but by-and-by there was an end of the yells, and the soldiers came strolling back, laughing together, as men who had taken a pleasant little revenge but not pushed it too far. So he turned his face for home, and reached it a little after nightfall; and there he turned out his pocket in front of my grandmother, who could not believe a word of the tale until she had handled each guinea separately. Then she, too, flung her apron over her head, and laughed till she was weak. But my grandfather wanted to know if by rights he oughtn’t to share the money with the prisoner.
‘My grandmother couldn’t make up her mind about this, and advised him to sleep on it. The young man (she said) had faithfully kept his bed all day, but was growing resty. So my grandfather, before supping, took a light and went upstairs to the garret.
‘”We’ve kept the scent wide to-day,” he reported, very cheerful-like. “But you’ll have to lie still for a while yet.”
‘”Lyin’ here puts a strain on a man,” the lad grumbled. “Couldn’t I take a turn in the fields, now that dark has fallen? I’d promise not to stray far from the house.”
‘”That’s a notion,” my grandfather agreed. “I once had to lie in bed two days with a quinsy, and I hated it.” He considered for a while, and could see no objection. “Come down and sup with us,” he said; “and afterwards, if the missus agrees, you can take a stroll. But don’t make too much noise when you let yourself in again.”
‘Well, so it was fixed; and after supper the lad put on a pair of high-lows my grandfather lent him, and started off for a ramble in the night air, with a plenty of instructions about the safest paths. At nine o’clock, which was their regular hour, my grandfather and grandmother made out the light and went to bed, leaving the door on the latch. It was an hour before my grandfather could get to sleep. He was thinking of the five guineas, and how they ought rightfully to be divided.
‘At five in the morning his wife woke him, and declared that in her belief the lad was still abroad. If he had returned and gone to his garret she must have heard; but she had heard nothing. She harped on this till my grandfather climbed out and went to the garret for a look; and sure enough the bed was empty.
‘They lay awake till daylight, the pair of them, cogitating this and that. But when the dawn came, my grandfather could stand it no longer. He pulled on his breeches and boots, went downstairs, and had scarcely thrown open the door before he heard screams and saw a wretched figure, naked to the shirt, running across the yard towards the house. It was Nathan the Jew, and he tumbled in front of my grandfather, and caught hold of him by the boots while he yelled for mercy.
‘What do you suppose, was the explanation? My grandfather could scarcely make head or tail of it, even after listening to the Jew’s story. And neither he nor my grandmother ever set eyes on the prisoner lad again. But about nine months later there came a letter from America that helped to clear things up.
‘The poor boy–so he wrote in his letter–being turned loose under the sky after fifteen months of captivity, just couldn’t go back to the garret. Though the night was pitch black and full of mist, and the stars hidden, he wanted no more than to pace to and fro, and look up and open his chest to it. To and fro he went, a bit farther each time, but always keeping my grandfather’s directions somewhere at the back of his mind, and always searching back till he could see the glimmer of whitewash showing him where the house stood. In the letter he sent to my grandmother he told very freely of the thoughts that came to him there while he felt his way back and forth; and to a staid woman that had never been shut up behind bars the writing–or the most of it–was mad enough. “Liberty! Liberty!” it kept saying: and “good though it was, how much better if he’d been able to see just one star through the fog!”
‘By little and little he stretched his tether so far, forgetting how the time went, that the dawn overtook him a good half-mile from the house; and through the gray of it he caught sight of a man standing about fifty yards away, and right in his path. He turned to run, and then his heart almost jumped out of his mouth as he saw another man standing to catch him with arms held wide!
‘But what had happened was, he had strayed into the pea-patch and the figure with its arms stretched out was no man at all, but a scarecrow. The lad had no sooner made sure of this than he whipped behind it, stretched out his hands upon the cross-trees that served it for arms, and clung there, praying.
‘Now the man creeping down the field was Nathan the Jew. He had been wandering the Moor all night, crazy with terror; and when the dawn showed him a house, he could have turned Christian and dropped on his knees. But casting a glance over his shoulder as he ran towards it, he caught sight of the scarecrow. For a second or two he ran faster, believing it to be either a man or a ghost. He took another glance back and came to a halt.
‘He knew it now for a scarecrow. He stood, and he stood, and he eyed it.
‘The scarecrow had a suit of clothes that was all tatters, and an old beaver hat. It was the hat that took Nathan’s fancy. Beaver hats cost a deal of money in those days: but they had a knack of lasting, and Nathan had scarcely ever met with one, however old, that he couldn’t sell for a few pence. For a minute or so he stood there, letting his sense of business get the better of his fright; then he swallowed down the last doubt sticking in his throat, walked straight up to the scarecrow, and made a grab at the hat.
‘”Leave my head alone, can’t you?” said the scarecrow. And with that Mr Nathan dropped in a fit; yet not so quick but that before dropping he caught a straight blow full on the jaw.
‘When he came to, his coat was gone, and his bag, and his hats, including the scarecrow’s. But the rest of the scarecrow stood over him, with its arms stretched out just as before; and he picked himself up and ran from it.
‘As for the lad, by this time he had made the best of two miles towards Plymouth. In his letter he apologised very prettily to my grandmother for not saying good-bye. He owed his life to her, he said; but being taken unawares he had done the best he could in the circumstances.’