The Regent’s Wager by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

Boutigo’s van–officially styled The Vivid–had just issued from the Packhorse Yard, Tregarrick, a leisurely three-quarters of an hour behind its advertised time, and was scaling the acclivity of St. Fimbar’s Street in a series of short tacks. Now and then it halted to take up a passenger or a parcel; and on these occasions Boutigo produced a couple of big stones from his hip-pockets and slipped them under the hind-wheels, while we, his patrons within the van, tilted at an angle of 15 deg. upon cushions of American cloth, sought for new centres of gravity, and earnestly desired the summit.

It was on the summit, where the considerate Boutigo gave us a minute’s pause to rearrange ourselves and our belongings, that we slipped into easy and general talk. An old countryman, with an empty poultry-basket on his knees, and a battered top-hat on the back of his head, gave us the cue.

“When Boutigo’s father had the accident–that was back in ‘fifty-six,’ and it broke his leg an’ two ribs–the van started from close ‘pon the knap o’ the hill here, and scat itself to bits against the bridge at the foot just two and a half minutes after.”

I suggested that this was not very fast for a runaway horse.

“I dessay not,” he answered; “but ’twas pretty spry for a van slippin’ backwards, and the old mare diggin’ her toes in all the way to hold it up.”

One or two of the passengers grinned at my expense, and the old man pursued–

“But if you want to know how fast a hoss can get down St. Fimbar’s hill, I reckon you’ve lost your chance by not axin’ Dan’l Best, that died up to the ‘Sylum twelve years since; though, poor soul, he’d but one answer for every question from his seven-an’-twentieth year to his end, an’ that was ‘One, two, three, four, five, sis, seven.”

“Ah, the poor body! his was a wisht case,” a woman observed from the corner furthest from the door.

“Ay, Selina, and fast forgotten, like all the doin’s and sufferin’s of the men of old time.” He reached a hand round his basket, and touching me on the knee, pointed back on Tregarrick. “There’s a wall,” he said, and I saw by the direction of his finger that he meant the wall of the county prison, “and beneath that wall’s a road, and across that road’s a dismal pool, and beyond that pool’s a green hillside, with a road athurt it that comes down and crosses by the pool’s head. Standin’ ‘pon that hillside you can see a door in the wall, twenty feet above the ground, an’ openin’ on nothing. Leastways, you could see it once; an’ even now, if ye’ve good eyesight, ye can see where they’ve bricked it up.”

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I could, in fact, even at our distance, detect the patch of recent stone-work; and knew something of its history.

“Now,” the old man continued, “turn your looks to the right and mark the face of Tregarrick town-clock. You see it, hey?”–and I had time to read the hour on its dial before Boutigo jolted us over the ridge and out of sight of it–“Well, carry them two things in your mind: for they mazed Dan’l Best an’ murdered his brother Hughie.”

And, much as I shall repeat it, he told me this tale, pausing now and again to be corroborated by the woman in the corner. The history, my dear reader, is accurate enough–for Boutigo’s van.

There lived a young man in Tregarrick in the time of the French War. His name was Dan’l Best, and he had an only brother Hughie, just three years younger than himself. Their father and mother had died of the small-pox and left them, when quite young children, upon the parish: but old Walters of the Packhorse–he was great-grandfather of the Walters that keeps it now–took a liking to them and employed them, first about his stables and in course of time as post-boys. Very good post-boys they were, too, till Hughie took to drinking and wenching and cards and other devil’s tricks. Dan’l was always a steady sort: walked with a nice young woman that was under-housemaid up to the old Lord Bellarmine’s at Castle Cannick, and was saving up to be married, when Hughie robbed the mail.

Hughie robbed the mail out of doubt. He did it up by Tippet’s Barrow, just beyond the cross-roads where the scarlet gig used to meet the coach and take the mails for Castle Cannick and beyond to Tolquite. Billy Phillips, that drove the gig, was found in the ditch with his mouth gagged, and swore to Hughie’s being the man. The Lord Chief Justice, too, summed up dead against him, and the jury didn’t even leave the box. And the moral was, “Hughie Best, you’re to be taken to the place whence you come from, ancetera, and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul!”

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You may fancy what a blow this was to Dan’l; for though fine and vexed with Hughie’s evil courses, he’d never guessed the worst, nor anything like it. Not a doubt had he, nor could have, that Hughie was guilty; but he went straight from the court to his young woman and said, “I’ve saved money for us to be married on. There’s little chance that I can win Hughie a reprieve; and, whether or no, it will eat up all, or nearly all, my savings. Only he’s my one brother. Shall I go?” And she said, “Go, my dear, if I wait ten years for you.” So he borrowed a horse for a stage or two, and then hired, and so got to London, on a fool’s chase, as it seemed.

The fellow’s purpose, of course, was to see King George. But King George, as it happened, was daft just then; and George his son reigned in his stead, being called the Prince Regent. Weary days did Dan’l air his heels with one Minister of the Crown after another before he could get to see this same Regent, and ’tis to be supposed that the great city, being new to him, weighed heavy on his spirits. And all the time he had but one plea, that his brother was no more than a boy and hadn’t an ounce of vice in his nature–which was well enough beknown to all in Tregarrick, but didn’t go down with His Majesty’s advisers: while as for the Prince Regent, Dan’l couldn’t get to see him till the Wednesday evening that Hughie was to be hanged on the Friday, and then his Royal Highness spoke him neither soft nor hopeful.

“The case was clear as God’s daylight,” said he: “the Lord Chief Justice tells me that the jury didn’t even quit the box.”

“Your Royal Highness must excuse me,” said Dan’l, “but I never shall be able to respect that judge. My opinion of a judge is, he should be like a stickler and see fair play; but this here chap took sides against Hughie from the first. If I was you,” he said, “I wouldn’t trust him with a Petty Sessions.”

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“Well, you may think how likely this kind of speech was to please the Prince Regent. And I’ve heard that Dan’l; was in the very article of being pitched out, neck and crop, when he heard a regular caprouse start up in the antechamber behind him, and a lord-in-waiting, or whatever he’s called, comes in and speaks a word very low to the Prince.

“Show him in at once,” says he, dropping poor Dan’l’s petition upon the table beside him; and in there walks a young officer with his boots soiled with riding and the sea-salt in his hair, like as if he’d just come off a ship; and hands the Prince a big letter. The Prince hardly cast his eye over what was written before he outs with a lusty hurrah, as well he might, for this was the first news of the taking of St. Sebastian.

“Here’s news,” said he, “to fill the country with bonfires this night.”

“Begging your Royal Highness’s pardon,” answers the officer, pulling out his watch; “but the mail coaches have left St. Martin’s Lane”–that’s where they started from, as I’ve heard tell–“these twenty minutes.”

“Damn it!” says Dan’l Best and the Prince Regent, both in one breath.

“Hulloa! Be you here still?” says the Prince, turning sharp round at the sound of Dan’l’s voice. “And what be you waiting for?”

“For my brother Hughie’s reprieve,” says Dan’l.

“Well, but ’tis too late now, anyway,” says the Prince.

“I’ll bet ’tis not,” says Dan’l, “if you’ll look slippy and make out the paper.”

“You can’t do it. ‘Tis over two hundred and fifty miles, and you can’t travel ten miles an hour all the way like the coach.”

“It’ll reach Tregarrick to-morrow night,” says Dan’l, “an’ they won’t hang Hughie till seven in the morning. So I’ve an hour or two to spare, and being a post-boy myself, I know the ropes.”

“Well,” says his Royal Highness, “I’m in a very good temper because of this here glorious storming of St. Sebastian. So I’ll wager your brother’s life you don’t get there in time to stop the execution.”

“Done with you, O King!” says Dan’l, and the reprieve was made out, quick as lightning.

Well, sir, Dan’l knew the ropes, as he said; and moreover, I reckon there was a kind of freemasonry among post-boys; and the two together, taken with his knowledge o’ horseflesh, helped him down the road as never a man was helped before or since. ‘Twas striking nine at night when he started out of London with the reprieve in his pocket, and by half-past five in the morning he spied Salisbury spire lifting out of the morning light. There was some hitch here–the first he met–in getting a relay; but by six he was off again, and passed through Exeter early in the afternoon. Down came a heavy rain as the evening drew in, and before he reached Okehampton the roads were like a bog. Here it was that the anguish began, and of course to Dan’l, who found himself for the first time in his life sitting in the chaise instead of in the saddle, ’twas the deuce’s own torment to hold himself still, feel the time slipping away, and not be riding and getting every ounce out of the beasts: though, even to his eye, the rider in front was no fool. But at Launceston soon after daybreak he met with a misfortune indeed. A lot of folks had driven down overnight to Tregarrick to witness the day’s sad doings, and there wasn’t a chaise to be had in the town for love or money.

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“What do I want with a chaise?” said Dan’l, for of course he was in his own country now, and everybody knew him. “For the love of God, give me a horse that’ll take me into Tregarrick before seven and save Hughie’s life! Man, I’ve got a reprieve!”

“Dear lad, is that so?” said the landlord, who had come down, and was standing by the hotel door in nightcap and bedgown. “I thought, maybe, you was hurrying to see the last of your brother. Well, there’s but one horse left in stable, and that’s the grey your master sold me two months back; and he’s a screw, as you must know. But here’s the stable key. Run and take him out yourself, and God go with ‘ee!”

None knew better than Dan’l that the grey was a screw. But he ran down to the stable, fetched the beast out, and didn’t even wait to shift his halter for a bridle, but caught up the half of a broken mop-handle that lay by the stable door, and with no better riding whip galloped off bare-back towards Tregarrick.

Aye, sir, and he almost won his race in spite of all. The hands o’ the town clock were close upon seven as he came galloping over the knap of the hill and saw the booths below him and sweet-stalls and standings–for on such days ’twas as good as a fair in Tregarrick–and the crowd under the prison wall. And there, above them, he could see the little open doorway in the wall, and one or two black figures there, and the beam. Just as he saw this the clock struck its first note, and Dan’l, still riding like a madman, let out a scream, and waved the paper over his head; but the distance was too great. Seven times the clapper struck, and with each stroke Dan’l screamed, still riding and keeping his eyes upon that little doorway. But a second or two after the last stroke he dropped his arm suddenly as if a bullet had gone through it, and screamed no more. Less than a minute after, sir, he pulled up by the bridge on the skirt of the crowd, and looked round him with a silly smile.

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“Neighbours,” says he, “I’ve a-got great news for ye. We’ve a-taken St. Sebastian, and by all acounts the Frenchies’ll be drove out of Spain in less’n a week.”

There was silence in Boutigo’s van for a full minute; and then the old woman spoke from the corner:

“Well, go on, Sam, and tell the finish to the company.”

“Is there more to tell?” I asked.

“Yes, sir,” said Sam, leaning forward again, and tapping my knee very gently, “there were two men condemned at Tregarrick, that Assize; and two men put to death that morning. The first to go was a sheep-stealer. Ten minutes after, Dan’l saw Hughie his brother led forth; and stood there and watched, with the reprieve in his hand. His wits were gone, and he chit-chattered all the time about St. Sebastian.”

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