It is an old saying, that “if there were no receivers there would be no thieves,” and it would have been of very little use for Rushbrook to take the game if he had not had the means of disposing of it. In this point, Byres, the pedlar, was a valuable accessory. Byres was a radical knave, who did not admire hard work. At first he took up the profession of bricklayer’s labourer, one that is of a nature only affording occasional work and moderate wages. He did this that he might apply to the parish for relief; and do nothing for the major portion of the year. But even a few months’ work would not suit him, and subsequently he gained his sustenance by carrying on his head a large basket of crockery, and disposing of his wares among the cottagers. At last he took out a pedlar’s license—perhaps one of the most dangerous permits ever allowed by a government, and which has been the cause of much of the ill-will and discontent fomented among the lower classes. Latterly, the cheapness of printing and easiness of circulation have rendered the profession of less consequence: twenty years ago the village ale-houses were not provided with newspapers; it was an expense never thought of; the men went to drink their beer and talk over the news of the vicinity, and if there was a disturbance in any other portion of the United Kingdom, the fact was only gained by rumour, and that vaguely and long after it had taken place. But when the pedlar Byres made his appearance, which he at last did, weekly or oftener, as it might happen, there was a great change; he was the party who supplied information, and, in consequence, he was always welcome, and looked upon as an oracle; the best seat near the fire was reserved for him, and having deposited his pack upon the table or in a corner, he would then produce the Propeller, or some other publication full of treason and blasphemy, and read it aloud for the benefit of the labourers assembled. A few months were more than sufficient to produce the most serious effects: men who had worked cheerfully through the day, and retired to bed satisfied with their lot, and thankful that work was to be obtained, now remained at the public-house, canvassing the conduct of government, and, leaving their resort, satisfied in their own minds that they were ill-used, harshly treated, and in bitter bondage. If they met their superiors, those very parties to whom they were indebted for employment, there was no respect shown to them as formerly or, if so, it was sullen and forced acknowledgement. The church was gradually deserted—the appearance of the pastor was no longer a signal for every hat to be lifted from the head; on the contrary, boys of sixteen or seventeen years of age would lean against the church, or the walls of the churchyard, with their hands in both pockets, and a sort of leer upon their faces, as though they defied the pastor on his appearance—and there would they remain outside during the service, meeting, unquailed and without blushing, his eyes, cast upon them as he came out again. Such was the state of things in the village of Grassford in one year after the pedlar had added it to his continual rounds—and Byres was a great favourite, for he procured for the women what they commissioned him to obtain, supplied the girls with ribbons and gewgaws, and trusted to a considerable extent. His reappearance was always anxiously looked for; he lived scot-free at the public-house, for he brought so much custom, and was the occasion of the drinking of so much ale, that the landlord considered his coming as a godsend. His box of ware was well supplied in the sunnier months, for the fine weather was the time for the wearing of gay ribbons; but in the winter he travelled more to receive orders, or to carry away the game supplied to him by the poachers, with whom he was in league. Had his box been examined during the shooting season, it would have been found loaded with pheasants, not with trinkets and ribbons. It need hardly be observed after this that Byres was the party who took off the hands of Rushbrook all the game which he procured, and which he had notice to call for before daylight, generally the second morning after it had been obtained; for Rushbrook was too cautious to trust Byres with his secret, that of never going out of a night without having previously pretended intoxication, and having suffered himself to be led or carried home.
Our readers will acknowledge that little Joey was placed in a very dangerous position; it is true that he was not aware that he was doing wrong in assisting his father; nevertheless, being a reflective boy, it did sometimes occur to him that it was odd that what was right should be done so secretly; and he attempted to make out how it was that the birds that flew about everywhere, and appeared to belong to every one, might not be shot in the open day. He knew that the laws forbade it; but he inquired of himself why such laws should be. Joey had heard but one side of the question, and was therefore puzzled. It was fortunate for him that the pastor of the parish, although he did not reside in it, did at least once a week call in at Mr F’s school, and examine the boys. Mr Furness, who was always sober during the school hours, was very proud of these visits, and used to point out little Joey as his most promising scholar. This induced the pastor to take more immediate notice of our hero, and the commendation which he received, and the advice that was bestowed upon him, was probably the great cause why Joey did attend assiduously to his lessons, which his otherwise vagrant life would have disinclined him to do; and also kept a character for honesty and good principle, which he really deserved. Indeed, his father and mother, setting aside poaching, and the secrecy resorted to in consequence, were by no means bad examples in the ordinary course of life; they did to their neighbours as they would be done by, were fair and honest in their dealings, and invariably inculcated probity and a regard to truth on their son. This may appear anomalous to many of our readers, but there are many strange anomalies in this world. It may therefore be stated in a very few words, that although our little hero had every chance of eventually following the road to ruin, yet, up to the present time, he had not entered it.
Such was the life led by little Joey for three years subsequent to our introduction of him to the reader; every day he became more useful to his father; latterly he had not attended school but in the forenoon, for, as we have before observed, Joey could, from his diminutive size and unsuspicious appearance, do much that his father would not have ventured to attempt. He was as well versed in the art of snaring as his father, and sauntering like a child about the fields and hedge-rows, would examine his nooses, take out the game, and hide it till he could bring it home. Sometimes he would go out at night attended only by Mum, and the dog would invariably give him mute notice, by simply standing with his ears and tail erect, when the keepers had discovered the snares, and were lying in wait for the poacher, to lay hold of him when he came to ascertain his success. Even in such a case, Joey very often would not retreat, but, crawling on his stomach, would arrive at the snare, and take out the animal without the keepers perceiving him; for their eyes were invariably directed to the horizon, watching the appearance of some stout figure of a man, while Joey crawled along, bearing away the prize unseen. At other times, Joey would reap a rich harvest in the broad day, by means of his favourite game-cock. Having put on the animal his steel spurs, he would plunge into the thickest of the cover, and, selecting some small spot of cleared ground for the combat, he would throw down his gallant bird, and conceal himself in the brushwood; the game-cock would immediately crow, and his challenge was immediately answered by the pugnacious male pheasant, who flew down to meet him: the combat was short, for the pheasant was soon pierced by the sharp steel of his adversary; and as one antagonist fell dead, again would the game-cock crow, and his challenge be accepted by another. In an hour or two the small arena was a field of blood Joey would creep forward, put his victorious cock into his bag together with many dead adversaries, and watch an opportunity for a safe retreat.
Such was the employment of our hero; and although suspicion had often been attached to his father, none had an idea that there had been a violation of the laws on the part of the son, when an event took place which changed our hero’s destiny.
We have said that Byres was the receiver of the game obtained by Rushbrook. It so happened, that in these accounts Byres had not adhered to his duty towards his neighbour; in fact, he attempted to over-reach, but without success, and from that time Byres became Rushbrook’s determined, but secret, enemy. Some months had passed since their disagreement, and there was a mutual mistrust (as both men were equally revengeful in their tempers), when they happened to meet late on a Saturday night at the ale-house, which was their usual resort. Furness the schoolmaster was there; he and many others had already drunk too much; all were boisterous and noisy. A few of the wives of those drinking were waiting patiently and sorrowfully outside, their arms folded in their aprons as a defence against the cold, watching for their husbands to come out, that they might coax them home before the major part of the week’s earnings had been spent in liquor. Byres had the paper in his hand—he had taken it from the schoolmaster, who was too far gone to read it, and was declaiming loudly against all governments, monarchy, and laws when a stranger entered the tap-room where they were all assembled. Rushbrook was at the time sitting down, intending quietly to take a pint and walk home, as he had too much respect for the Sabbath to follow his profession of poacher on the morning of that day: he did not intend, therefore, to resort to his usual custom of pretending to be intoxicated; but when the stranger came in, to his great surprise he observed a glance of recognition between him and Byres, after which they appeared as if they were perfect strangers. Rushbrook watched them carefully, but so as not to let them perceive he was so doing, when a beckon from the stranger to Byres was again made. Byres continued to read the paper and to harangue, but at the same time took an opportunity of making a signal in reply. There was something in the stranger’s appearance which told Rushbrook that he was employed as a keeper, or something in that way, for we often single out our enemies by instinct. That there was mischief in the wind Rushbrook felt sure, and his heart misgave him the more so, as occasionally the eyes of both were turned towards him. After a little reflection, Rushbrook determined to feign intoxication, as he had so often done before: he called for another pint, for some time talked very loud, and at last laid his head on the table; after a time he lifted it up again, drank more, and then fell back on the bench. By degrees the company thinned, until there was no one left but the schoolmaster, the pedlar, and the stranger. The schoolmaster, as usual, offered to assist the pedlar in helping Rushbrook to his cottage; but Byres replied that he was busy, and that he need not wait for Rushbrook; the friend he had with him would assist him in taking home the drunken man. The schoolmaster reeled home, leaving the two together. They sat down on the bench, not far from Rushbrook, who appeared to them to be in the last stage of inebriety. Their conversation was easily overheard. The pedlar stated that he had watched several nights, but never could find when Rushbrook left his cottage, but he had traced the boy more than once; that R had promised to have game ready for him on Tuesday, and would go out on Monday night for it. In short, Rushbrook discovered that Byres was about to betray him to the man, whom, in the course of their conversation, he found out to be a game-keeper newly hired by the lord of the manor. After a while they broke up, Byres having promised to join the keeper in his expedition, and to assist in securing his former ally. Having made these arrangements, they then took hold of Rushbrook by the arms, and, shaking him to rouse him as much as they could, they led him home to the cottage, and left him in charge of his wife. As soon as the door was closed, Rushbrook’s long-repressed anger could no longer be restrained: he started on his feet, and striking his fist on the table so as to terrify his wife, swore that the pedlar should pay dear for his peaching. Upon his wife’s demanding an explanation, Rushbrook, in a few hurried sentences, explained the whole. Jane, however she might agree with him in his indignation, like all women, shuddered at the thought of shedding blood. She persuaded her husband to go to bed. He consented; but he slept not: he had but one feeling, which was vengeance towards the traitor. When revenge enters into the breast of a man who has lived peaceably at home, fiercely as he may be impelled by the passion, he stops short at the idea of shedding blood. But when a man who had, like Rushbrook, served so long in the army, witnessed such scenes of carnage, and so often passed his bayonet through his adversary’s body, is roused up by this fatal passion, the death of a fellow-creature becomes a matter of indifference, provided he can gratify his feelings. Thus it was with Rushbrook, who, before he rose on the morning of that Sabbath in which, had he gone to church, he could have so often requested his trespasses might be forgiven, as he “forgave them who trespassed against him,” had made up his mind that nothing short of the pedlar’s death would satisfy him. At breakfast he appeared to listen to his wife’s entreaties, and promised to do the pedlar no harm; and told her that, instead of going out on the Monday night, as he had promised, he should go out on that very night, and by that means evade the snare laid for him. Jane persuaded him not to go out at all; but this Rushbrook would not consent to. He told her that he was determined to show them that he was not to be driven off his beat, and would make Byres believe on Tuesday night that he had been out on the Monday night. Rushbrook’s object was to have a meeting with Byres, if possible, alone, to tax him with his treachery, and then to take summary vengeance.
Aware that Byres slept at the ale-house, he went down there a little before dark, and told him that he intended going out on that night; that it would be better if, instead of coming on Tuesday, he were to meet him at the corner of one of the covers, which he described, at an hour agreed upon, when he would make over to him the game which he might have procured. Byres, who saw in this an excellent method of trapping Rushbrook, consented to it, intending to inform the keeper, so that he should meet Rushbrook. The time of meeting was arranged for two o’clock in the morning. Rushbrook was certain that Byres would leave the ale-house an hour or two before the time proposed, which would be more than sufficient for his giving information to the keeper. He therefore remained quietly at home till twelve o’clock, when he loaded his gun, and went out without Joey or the dog. His wife perceiving this, was convinced that he had not gone out with the intention to poach, but was pursuing his scheme of revenge. She watched him after he left the cottage, and observed that he had gone down in the direction of the ale-house; and she was afraid that there would be mischief between him and Byres, and she wakened Joey, desiring him to follow and watch his father, and do all he could to prevent it. Her communication was made in such a hurried manner, that it was difficult for Joey to know what he was to do, except to watch his father’s motions, and see what took place. This Joey perfectly understood; and he was off in an instant, followed, as usual, by Mum, and taking with him his sack. Our hero crept softly down the pathway, in the direction of the ale-house. The night was dark, for the moon did not rise till two or three hours before the morning broke, and it was bitterly cold: but to darkness and cold Joey had been accustomed, and although not seen himself; there was no object could move without being scanned by his clear vision. He gained a hedge close to the ale-house. Mum wanted to go on, by which Joey knew that his father must be lurking somewhere near to him: he pressed the dog down with his hand, crouched himself; and watched. In a few minutes a dark figure was perceived by Joey to emerge from the ale-house, and walk hastily over a turnip-field behind the premises: it had gained about half over, when another form, which Joey recognised as his father’s, stealthily followed after the first. Joey waited a little time, and was then, with Mum, on the steps of both; for a mile and a half each party kept at their relative distances, until they came near a furze bottom, which was about six hundred yards from the cover; then the steps of Rushbrook were quickened, and those of Joey in proportion; the consequence was, that the three parties rapidly neared each other. Byres for it was he who had quitted the ale-house—walked along leisurely, having no suspicion that he was followed. Rushbrook was now within fifteen yards of the pedlar, and Joey at even less distance from his father, when he heard the lock of his father’s gun click as he cocked it.
“Father,” said Joey, not over loud, “don’t—”
“Who’s there?” cried the pedlar, turning round. The only reply was the flash and report of the gun; and the pedlar dropped among the furze.
“Oh father—father!—what have you done?” exclaimed Joey, coming up to him.
“You here, Joey!” said Rushbrook. “Why are you here?”
“Mother sent me,” replied Joey.
“To be evidence against me,” replied his father, in wrath.
“Oh no!—to stop you. What have you done, father?”
“What I almost wish I had not done now,” replied he, mournfully; “but it is done, and—”
“And what, father?”
“I am a murderer, I suppose,” replied Rushbrook. “He would have peached, Joey—have had me transported, to work in chains for the rest of my days, merely for taking a few pheasants. Let us go home;” but Rushbrook did not move, although he proposed so doing.
He leant upon his gun, with his eyes fixed in the direction where Byres had fallen.
Joey stood by him—for nearly ten minutes not a word was spoken. At last Rushbrook said—
“Joey, my boy, I’ve killed many a man in my time, and I have thought nothing of it; I slept as sound as ever the next night. But then, you see, I was a soldier, and it was my trade, and I could look on the man I had killed without feeling sorrow or shame; but I can’t look upon this man, Joey. He was my enemy; but—I’ve murdered him—I feel it now. Go up to him, boy—you are not afraid to meet him—and see if he be dead.”
Joey, although generally speaking fear was a stranger to him, did, however, feel afraid; his hands had often been dyed with the blood of a hare or of a bird, but he had not yet seen death in his fellow-creatures. He advanced slowly and tremulously through the dark towards the furze-bush in which the body laid; Mum followed, raising first one paw and pausing, then the other, and as they came to the body, the dog raised his head and gave such a mournful howl, that it induced our hero to start back again. After a time Joey recovered himself; and again advanced to the body. He leant over it, he could distinguish but the form; he listened, and not the slightest breathing was to be heard; he whispered the pedlar’s name, but there was no reply; he put his hand upon his breast, and removed it reeking with warm blood.
“Father, he must be dead, quite dead,” whispered Joey, who returned trembling. “What shall we do?”
“We must go home,” replied Rushbrook; “this is a bad night’s work;” and, without exchanging another word until their arrival, Rushbrook and Joey proceeded back to the cottage, followed by Mum.