It was on a blusterous windy night in the early part of November, 1812, that three men were on the high road near to the little village of Grassford, in the south of Devonshire. The moon was nearly at the full, but the wild scud, and occasionally the more opaque clouds, passed over in such rapid succession, that it was rarely, and but for a moment or two, that the landscape was thrown into light and shadow; and the wind, which was keen and piercing, bent and waved the leafless branches of the trees which were ranged along the hedgerows, between which the road had been formed.
The three individuals to whom we have referred appeared all of them to have been indulging too freely in the ale which was sold at the public-house about half a mile from the village, and from which they had just departed. Two of them, however, comparatively speaking, sober, were assisting home, by their joint efforts, the third, who, supported between them, could with difficulty use his legs. Thus did they continue on; the two swayed first on the one side of the road, and then on the other, by the weight of the third, whom they almost carried between them. At last they arrived at a bridge built over one of those impetuous streams so common in the county, when, as if by mutual understanding, for it was without speaking, the two more sober deposited the body of the third against the parapet of the bridge, and then for some time were silently occupied in recovering their breath. One of the two who remained leaning on the parapet by the side of their almost lifeless companion was a man of about forty years of age, tall and slender, dressed in a worn-out black coat, and a pair of trousers much too short for him, the original colour of which it would have been difficult to have surmised; a sort of clerical hat, equally the worse for wear, was on his head. Although his habiliments were mean, still there was something about his appearance which told of better days, and of having moved in a different sphere in society; and such had been the case. Some years before he had been the head of a grammar-school, with a comfortable income; but a habit of drinking had been his ruin, and he was now the preceptor of the village of Grassford, and gained his livelihood by instructing the children of the cottagers for the small modicum of twopence a head per week. This unfortunate propensity to liquor remained with him and he no sooner received his weekly stipend than he hastened to drown his cares, and the recollection of his former position, at the ale-house which they had just quitted. The second personage whom we shall introduce was not of a corresponding height with the other: he was broad, square-chested, and short-dressed in knee-breeches, leggings, and laced boots—his coat being of a thick fustian, and cut short like a shooting-jacket: his profession was that of a pedlar.
“It’s odd to me,” said the pedlar, at last breaking silence, as he looked down upon the drunken man who lay at his feet, “why ale should take a man off his legs; they say that liquor gets into the head, not the feet.”
“Well,” replied the schoolmaster, who was much more inebriated than the pedlar, “there’s argument even in that and, you see, the perpendicular deviation must arise from the head being too heavy, that’s clear; and then, you see, the feet, from the centre of gravity being destroyed, become too light; and if you put that and that together, why, a man can’t stand. You understand my demonstration?”
“It was heavy wet, that ale, and so I suppose it’s all right,” replied the pedlar; “but still ale a’n’t poured into the head or into the feet of a man, but into the internals, which are right in the middle of a man; so, how do you make out your case, Mr Furness?”
“Why, Byres, you talk of the residuum.”
“Never said a word about it; and, as I stand here, never even heard the word before.”
“Perhaps not: the residuum is, you see, Byres, what is left.”
“If that’s residgium, I didn’t mean to say a word about it; there was none left, for you drained the pot.”
“Good, Byres; you have never been to college, that’s clear. Now, observe, when a man pours down into his stomach a certain quantity of liquor, the spirituous or lighter part ascends to his head, and that makes his head heavy. Do you understand?”
“No; what’s light can’t make things heavy.”
“Can’t it?—you know nothing about the matter. Have you not a proof before you?” replied the schoolmaster, reeling, and catching hold of the parapet for support; “look at that unfortunate man, who has yielded to excess.”
“Very true; I see that he’s drunk, but I want to know how it is that he got drunk?”
“That I knew before.”
“Then why ask any more questions? Had we not better proceed, and take him home to his expectant and unhappy wife? ’Tis a sad, sad thing, that a man should ‘put an enemy into his mouth to steal away his brains.’”
“Half a pint will do that with Rushbrook,” replied the pedlar; “they say that he was wounded on his head, and that half his brains are gone already, and that’s why he has a pension.”
“Yes, seventeen pounds a year; paid quarterly, without deduction, and only to walk four miles to get it,” replied Furness; “yet how misplaced is the liberality on the part of the government. Does he work? No; he does nothing but drink and lie in bed all day, while I must be up early and remain late, teaching the young idea at twopence per week. Friend Byres, ‘mercy is not itself which oft looks so.’ Now, it is my opinion that it would be a kindness to this poor wretch if we were to toss him, as he now is, over the bridge into the rushing stream; it would end all his troubles.”
“And save us the trouble of getting him home,” replied Byres, who determined to humour his more inebriated companion. “Well, Mr Furness, I’ve no objection. Why should he live? Is he not a sinecurist—one of the locusts who fatten on the sweat and blood of the people, as the Sunday paper says? Don’t you remember my reading it this morning?”
“Very true, Master Byres.”
“What d’ye say, then?—shall we over with him?”
“We must think a little,” replied the schoolmaster, who put his hand up to his chin, and remained silent for a minute or two. “No,” resumed he, at last; “on second thoughts I cannot do it. He halves his beer with me. No pension—no beer; that’s a self-evident proposition and conclusion. It were ingratitude on my part, and I cannot consent to your proposal,” continued the schoolmaster; “nay, more, I will defend him against your murderous intentions to the very last.”
“Why, Master Furness, you must be somewhat the worse for liquor yourself: it was your proposal to throw him over the bridge, not mine.”
“Take care what you say,” replied the schoolmaster; “would you accuse me of murder, or intent to murder?”
“No, not by no means—only you proposed heaving him over the bridge: I will say that.”
“Friend Byres, it’s my opinion you’ll say anything but your prayers; but in your present state I overlook it. Let us go on, or I shall have two men to carry home instead of one. Come, now, take one of his arms, while I take the other, and raise him up. It is but a quarter of a mile to the cottage.”
Byres, who, as we observed, was by far the more sober of the two, did not think it worth his while to reply to the pedagogue. After a few staggers on the part of the latter, their comrade was raised up and led away between them.
The drunken man appeared to be so far aware of what was going on that he moved his legs mechanically, and in a short time they arrived at the cottage-door, which the pedagogue struck with his fist so as to make it rattle on its hinges. The door was opened by a tall, handsome woman, holding a candle in her hand.
“I thought so,” said she, shaking her head. “The old story: now he will be ill all night, and not get up till noon.”
“What a weary life it is with a drunken husband. Bring him and thank you kindly for your trouble.”
“It has been hard work and hot work,” observed the schoolmaster, sitting down in a chair, after they had placed their comrade on the bed.
“Indeed, and it must be,” replied the wife. “Will you have a drop of small beer, Mr Furness?”
“Yes, if you please, and so will Mr Byres, too. What a pity it is your good man will not keep to small beer.”
“Yes, indeed,” replied the wife, who went into the back premises, and soon returned with a quart mug of beer.
The schoolmaster emptied half the mug, and then handed it to the pedlar.
“And my little friend Joey, fast asleep, I’ll warrant!”
“Yes, poor child, and so should I have been by this time; the clock has gone twelve.”
“Well, Mrs Rushbrook, I wish you a good night. Come, Mr Byres, Mrs Rushbrook must want to be in bed.”
“Good night, Mr Furness, and good night, sir, and many thanks.”
The schoolmaster and pedlar quitted the cottage. Mrs Rushbrook, after having watched them for a minute, carefully closed the door.
“They’re gone now,” said she, as she turned to her husband.
What would have created much astonishment could anybody else have witnessed it, as soon as his wife had spoken, Rushbrook immediately sprang upon his feet, a fine-looking man, six feet in height, very erect in his bearing,—and proved to be perfectly sober.
“Jane, my dear,” said he, “there never was such a night: but I must be quick, and lose no time. Is my gun ready?”
“Everything’s ready; Joey is lying down on his bed, but all ready dressed, and he awakes in a minute.”
“Call him, then, for there is no time to lose. That drunken fool, Furness, proposed throwing me over the bridge. It was lucky for them that they did not try it, or I should have been obliged to settle them both, that they might tell no tales. Where’s Mum?”
“In the wash-house. I’ll bring him and Joey directly.”
The wife left the room, while Rushbrook took down his gun and ammunition, and prepared himself for his expedition. In a minute or two a shepherd’s dog, which had been released from the wash-house, made his appearance, and quietly lay down close to his master’s feet; it was soon followed by Mrs Rushbrook, accompanied by Joey, a thin, meagre-looking boy, of about twelve years old, very small for his age, but apparently as active as a cat, and with energy corresponding. No one would have thought he had been roused from his sleep; there was no yawning or weariness of motion—on the contrary, his large eye was as bright as an eagle’s, as he quietly, although quickly, provided himself with a sack, which he threw over his shoulders, and a coil of line, which he held in his hand, waiting until his father was ready to start. The wife put out the lights, softly opened the cottage-door, looked well round, and then returned to her husband, who, giving a low whistle, as a summons to Joey and the dog, walked out of the door. Not a word was spoken; the door was softly shut to; and the trio crept stealthily away.
Before we proceed with our narrative, perhaps it will be better to explain what may appear very strange to the reader. Joseph Rushbrook, who has just left the cottage with his son and his dog, was born in the village in which he was then residing. During his younger days, some forty years previous to his present introduction to the reader, the law was not so severe, or the measures taken against poachers so strong as they were at the period of which we write. In his youth he had been very fond of carrying a gun—as his father had been before him—but he never was discovered; and after having poached for many years, and gained a perfect knowledge of the country for miles round, he was persuaded, in a fit of semi-intoxication, at a neighbouring fair, to enlist in a marching regiment. He had not been more than three months at the depot when he was ordered out to India, where he remained eleven years before he was recalled. He had scarcely been six months in England, when the exigency of the war demanded the services of the regiment in the Mediterranean, where he remained for twelve years, and having received a severe wound in the head, he was then pensioned off and discharged. He resolved to return to his native village, and settle down quietly, hoping by moderate labour and his pension, to gain a comfortable living. On his return he was hardly known; many had emigrated to a foreign clime; many had been transported for offences against the laws, particularly for the offence of poaching: and as most of his former allies had been so employed, he found himself almost a stranger where he expected to meet with friends. The property also about the village had changed hands. People recollected Squire So-and-So, and the Baronet, but now their lands were held by wealthy manufacturers or retired merchants. All was new to Joe Rushbrook, and he felt himself anywhere but at home. Jane Ashley, a very beautiful young woman, who was in service at the Hall, the mansion appertaining to the adjacent property, and the daughter of one of his earliest friends, who had been transported for poaching, was almost the only one who could talk to him after his absence of twenty-four years; not that she knew the people at the time, for she was then an infant, but she had grown up with them after Joe had left, and could narrate anecdotes of them, and what had been their eventual destinies. Jane having been the daughter of a man who had been transported for poaching, was to Joe a sort of recommendation, and it ended in his taking her for his wife. They had not been long settled in their cottage before Joe’s former propensities returned; in fact, he could not be idle, he had carried a musket too long, and had lived such a life of excitement in the service of his country, that he found it impossible to exist without shooting at something. All his former love of poaching came strong upon him, and his wife, so far from checking him, encouraged him in his feelings. The consequence was, that two years after his marriage, Joe Rushbrook was the most determined poacher in the county. Although often suspected, he had never been detected; one great cause of this was his appearing to be such a drunkard, a plan hit upon by his wife, who had observed that drunken men were not suspected of being poachers. This scheme had therefore been hit upon, and very successfully; for proving before a magistrate that a man was carried home dead drunk and speechless at midnight, was quite as good an alibi as could be brought forward. Joe Rushbrook had, therefore, the credit of being a worthless drunken fellow, who lived upon his pension and what his wife could earn; but no one had an idea that he was not only earning his livelihood, but laying by money from his successful night labours. Not that Joe did not like a drop occasionally—on the contrary, he would sometimes drink freely; but, generally speaking, the wounds in his head were complained of; and he would, if the wind was fresh and set in the right quarter, contrive to be carried home on the night in which he had most work to do. Such was the case, as we have represented in the first chapter.
Little Joey, who, as the reader may anticipate, will be our future hero, was born the first year after marriage, and was their only child. He was a quiet, thoughtful, reflective boy for his years, and had imbibed his father’s love of walking out on a dark night to an extraordinary degree: it was strange to see how much prudence there was, mingled with the love of adventure, in this lad. True it is, his father had trained him early, first to examine the snares and conceal the game, which a little shrimp like Joey could do, without being suspected to be otherwise employed than in picking blackberries. Before he was seven years old, Joey could set a springe as well as his father, and was well versed in all the mystery and art of unlawful taking of game. Indeed, he was very valuable to his father, and could do what his father could not have ventured upon without exciting suspicion. It was, perhaps, from his constant vigils, that the little boy was so small in size; at all events, his diminutive size was the cause of there being no suspicion attached to him. Joey went very regularly to the day-school of Mr Furness; and although often up the best part of the night, he was one of the best and most diligent of the scholars. No one could have supposed that the little fair-haired, quiet-looking boy, who was so busy with his books or his writing, could have been out half the night on a perilous excursion, for such it was at the time we are speaking of. It need hardly be observed that Joey had learned one important lesson, which was to be silent; not even Mum, the dog, who could not speak, was more secret or more faithful.
It is astonishing how much the nature and disposition of a child may be altered by early tuition. Let a child be always with its nurse, even under the guidance of a mother, regularly brought up as children usually are, and it will continue to be a child, and even childish, after childhood is gone. But take the same child, put it by degrees in situations of peril, requiring thought and observation beyond its years, accustom it to nightly vigils, and to watching, and to hold its tongue, and it is astonishing how the mind of that child, however much its body may suffer, will develop itself so as to meet the demand upon it. Thus it is with lads that are sent early to sea, and thus it was with little Joey. He was a man in some points, although a child in others. He would play with his companions, laugh as loudly as the others, but still he would never breathe a hint of what was his father’s employment. He went to church every Sunday, as did his father and mother; for they considered that poaching was no crime, although punished as such by the laws; and he, of course, considered it no crime, as he only did what his father and mother wished. Let it not be thought, therefore, that the morals of our little hero were affected by his father’s profession, for such was not the case.
Having entered into this necessary explanation, we will now proceed. No band of North American Indians could have observed a better trail than that kept by our little party. Rushbrook walked first, followed by our hero and the dog Mum. Not a word was spoken; they continued their route over grass-lands and ploughed fields, keeping in the shade of the hedgerows: if Rushbrook stopped for a while to reconnoitre, so did Joey, and so did Mum at their relative distances, until the march was resumed. For three miles and a half did they thus continue, until they arrived at a thick cover. The wind whistled through the branches of the bare trees, chiefly oak and ash; the cold, damp fog was now stationary, and shrouded them as they proceeded cautiously by the beaten track in the cover, until they had passed through it, and arrived on the other side, where the cottage of a gamekeeper was situated. A feeble light was burning, and shone through the diamond-paned windows.
Rushbrook walked out clear of the cover, and held up his hand to ascertain precisely the direction of the wind. Having satisfied himself; he retreated into the cover, in a direction so as to be exactly to leeward of the keeper’s house, that the noise of the report of his gun might not be heard. Having cleared the hedge, he lowered his gun, so as to bring the barrel within two or three inches of the ground, and walked slowly and cautiously through the brushwood, followed, as before, by Joey and Mum. After about a quarter of a mile’s walk, a rattling of metal was heard, and they stopped short; it was the barrel of the fowling-piece which had brushed one of the wires attached to a spring-gun, set for the benefit of poachers. Rushbrook lifted up his left hand, as a sign to Joey not to move; and following the wire, by continually rattling his barrel against it, he eventually arrived at the gun itself; opened the pan, threw out all the priming, leaving it with the pan open, so that it could not go off; in case they fell in with another of the wires. Rushbrook then proceeded to business, for he well knew that the gun would be set where the pheasants were most accustomed to roost; he put a small charge of powder in his fowling-piece, that, being so near, he might not shatter the birds, and because the noise of the report would be much less; walking under an oak-tree he soon discovered the round black masses which the bodies of the roosting pheasants presented between him and the sky, and raising his piece, he fired; a heavy bound on the earth near his feet followed the discharge; Joey then slipped forward and put the pheasant into his bag; another and another shot, and every shot brought an increase to Joey’s load. Seventeen were already in it when Mum gave a low growl. This was the signal for people being near. Rushbrook snapped his finger; the dog came forward to his side, and stood motionless, with ears and tail erect. In a minute’s time was heard the rustling of branches as the party forced their way through the underwood. Rushbrook stood still, waiting the signal from Mum, for the dog had been taught, if the parties advancing had another dog with them, always to raise his fore-feet up to Rushbrook’s knees, but not otherwise; Mum made no such sign, and then Rushbrook lay down in the brushwood, his motions being closely followed by his son and his dog.
Voices in whispers were now heard, and the forms of two men with guns were to be seen not four yards from where they were lying.
“Somewhere about here, I’ll swear,” said one.
“Yes, I think so; but it may be further on—the wind has brought down the sound.”
“Very true, let’s follow them, and they may fall back upon the spring-gun.”
The parties then advanced into the cover, and were soon out of sight; after a time Rushbrook held his ear to the wind, and, satisfied that all was safe, moved homewards, and arrived without further adventure, having relieved Joey of the heavy sack as soon as they were in the open fields.
At three o’clock in the morning, he tapped at the back door of the cottage. Jane opened it, and the spoils of the night having been put away in a secret place, they were all soon in bed and fast asleep.