Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter xxxix.

Tom’s Escape.

All the story which I set myself to tell has now been written down, except only the manner and way of Tom’s escape from Newgate, which was as follows. We were not neglecting his affairs all the while; and Mr. Hilyard, as I have said, had found an honest sea captain. The man who was recommended to him was a certain smuggler or fisherman, named Shipman —— a good name for one in his profession —— who had a fast-sailing schooner or hoy, in which he carried on his trade. We were assured that we could thoroughly trust this man, and that, whether for carrying a cargo of Nantz, or parcel of lace, or a Jacobite gentleman, or a highwayman, or a Jesuit priest, or any other secret commodity, backwards or forwards across the water, the man had not his equal, whether for safety, secrecy, or despatch. His terms were high; but then, in such times, one must pay for honesty. Thus, we were to give him fifty guineas for landing Tom upon the coast of France; but he knew beforehand that he had to do with a prisoner of distinction, for whose capture a much larger sum than fifty guineas would be offered. Surely a man who takes fifty guineas, and keeps his word, when treachery would have given him a thousand pounds, is worth waiting for.

We waited for him, therefore, until the end of February, when Mr. Hilyard found him, opened negotiations, and presently took me to meet him at a place called Limehouse. In appearance he was quite another guess kind of fellow from the other, the Judas Iscariot captain of Wapping, having a rough and honest face, with clear eyes, which looked We soon came to terms. He declared that he could not afford to take less than fifty guineas for the trip; that times like these were brisk for honest sailors like himself, who troubled not themselves about party matters, and cared not a sour herring which was King and which Pretender; and that he must make the best of his market. He then gave us to understand that the gentleman (whose name he knew not, and said he desired not to know, nor why he wished to leave his native shores) would not be the first by a great many whom he had carried across to France, and not one caught yet. For his own part, the more the merrier, and all the better for his old woman and the children: and he should not care if the Pretender’s friends had a rising every month, nor if he was asked to carry King George himself and the Prince of Wales across to Holland out of the way. The fellow was so hearty, and laughed, and had so honest a face, that one could not choose but trust him. Therefore I agreed, and instructed Mr. Hilyard to make all other arrangements with him, as that he was not to have his money till his passenger was on board and the ship ready to drop down stream; that he was to be anchored off Leigh, in Essex, so as to avoid suspicion; and that he was, as soon as he had his schooner ready for sailing, to come to London, there to be at our service.

This done, I began to clinch the business with my friendly turnkey. Nota bene that, all through these troubles of Frank Radcliffe’s illness and my lord’s execution, either Mr. Hilyard or myself went daily to Newgate to cheer and encourage Tom, whose courage was now, what with the backsliding of his chaplain and the fate of Lord Derwentwater, as one may say, sunk down into his boots, almost beyond the power of a bottle to lift it up, nor did he derive any satisfaction save from his continual cursing of Mr. Patten. We were so careful lest he should in his cups say a word which might cause suspicion, that we told him nothing of our design.

Now, however, that we had secured our ship, it was necessary, without further delay, to open the business more fully with my friendly warden, Jonas. If he failed, but not unless, Mr. Hilyard should go to the honest Pitts, the Governor, and promise that greedy rogue all he asked. Therefore I went to the prison, where the worthy Jonas sat in the lobby or anteroom; but, instead of going straight through, I stopped, and, pulling out my handkerchief, began to cry and to wipe my eyes.

‘Alas!’ I said, ‘the trials must soon come on.Think you, good Jonas, that my brother’s case will be the first?’

‘That, your ladyship,’ he replied, jingling his keys, ‘is more than we wardens know. First or last matters little, considering what the end must be.’

‘Lady Nithsdale,’ I went on ——‘ah! happy woman! —— is said to have found a friend and helper among the guards of the Tower. But then, the Tower is not Newgate.’

‘Belike she did,’ he replied. ‘Friends can always be found, even in Newgate, by the unhappy, if they go the right way to work.’

‘Ah!’ I whispered, ‘would to Heaven that I could find such a compassionate heart in Newgate, and how richly would I reward him!’ I observed that his eyes twinkled and his fingers clutched as though already grasping the reward.

‘Why,’ he said, ‘as for that, and if it could be done without Mr. Pitts’ knowledge, and was made well worth a body’s while ——’

‘What do you call, Mr. Jonas, worth a body’s while?’

‘Why, to be plain, madam,’ he said, ‘do you think I did not know your tricks and your ways when you began with your soft looks and your guinea here and your half a guinea there, what it meant? Let us come to business without further shilly-shally. What is it you want me to do, and for how much?’

‘As for what I want you to do,’ I replied, ‘it is simple and easy, and I will tell you presently; as for the reward, you shall have something in hand —— say ten guineas; but until General Forster is safe across the water. not a penny more.’

‘I cannot send him across the water. But still —— how much will your ladyship offer?’

‘Why —— shall I say fifty guineas?’

He laughed in my face.

‘Fifty guineas! Why, he was the General of the Forces and he is a Member of Parliament! Fifty guineas for the Man under the Rose? Sure, madam, you seem to understand very little what your brother is worth in such a market as this. Fifty guineas? Well, if that is all, there is an end.’

I informed him that General Forster was not like Lord Nithsdale, a man of a great estate, but, on the other hand, that his estates had been all sold up, so that he had nothing at all but what he would get at the death of his father. But he stiffly refused to do business, as he called it, on such shabby terms, and I was forced to raise my price. He was truly a most exorbitant creature, and refused to do anything until I gave him fifty guineas down, and an offer in writing to give him four hundred and fifty guineas more on my brother’s escape being assured. The fellow had some education, it seems, and could read and write. I think he had been a kind of lawyer’s clerk, who had been put into this place in return for some services. ‘If,’ he said, ‘you make me the offer, I can put it into Mr. Pitts’ hands should you play me false. Go away then, madam, and write it down, and bring the fifty pounds before we have any more dealings or talk.’

‘But if,’ I said, ‘you play me false, and, after taking the fifty pounds, do not go on with the business?’

‘Five hundred guineas,’ he replied, ‘though little enough reward for the escape of the General and the risk I run, is a mighty great sum for me. Your ladyship need not fear.’

I went away therefore, and presently wrote on a piece of paper words which might have brought me to prison too, if this fellow showed them. For I said that I, Dorothy Forster, sister of General Forster, then in Newgate Gaol, solemnly pledged myself to give one Jonas, warden or turnkey in the said gaol, the sum of four hundred and fifty guineas sterling as soon as the said General Forster was out of the gaol.

Next I sought my friend Purdy, the blacksmith, where I lodged, and told him that I wanted his services, but secretly, and without a word said to his wife, or his prentices, or any living soul. He swore very readily to the greatest silence on the matter. Then I asked him whether, in case I put into his hand an impression in wax of a key, he would make me its counterpart in iron. He smiled, guessing very easily what I designed, and said that such an imitation was a thing belonging to his trade, and that he would undertake to make me such a key in a very little while, and nobody to guess or suspect a word of the matter.

I lost no time at all, but went back to the prison, found the worthy Mr. Jonas, who was waiting for me, and gave him the earnest-money which he asked —— namely, fifty guineas in a purse.

‘So,’ he said, ‘this is business. And what next can I do to please your ladyship?’

I told him that I wanted an impression in wax of the master-key, which for the moment was all I would ask of him. This he made for me, and gave me very readily, only imploring that, should the possession of this be discovered, or the plot be prevented by any untoward misfortune, it should never be divulged how I got the key. And again he threatened, if the money was not paid after Mr. Forster’s escape, to put my paper in the hands of a justice, by which he said, I know not how truthfully, he could ensure my being put to death with all the barbarities proper for the crime.

In this simple method, without troubling Mr. Hilyard to complete his grand plot, and without any regard to what he called the dramatic situation, I obtained that most invaluable aid to an escape, a master-key.

Now, it was hard to keep my counsel during this time, for on the one hand I had to restrain the impatience of Mr. Hilyard, who would still be urging me to let him follow up the overtures he had made to Mr. Pitts, who indeed expected it, for his own part, and, the sum of £10,000 having been mentioned between them, began to throw out hints not only to Mr. Hilyard but to myself, so that I was obliged to let him be plainly told that for the present at least nothing could be done. When I consider the number of escapes that were made from Newgate, I am amazed that the man and his wardens and assistants were not brought to justice. Perhaps, however, the Ministry were not unwilling that the prisoners should escape. Lady Cowper told me, after all was done, that she had a strange offer before they were all brought up to London —— that General Forster should be allowed to escape, if she pleased, upon the road. It came to her from Baron Bernstoft, through Mademoiselle Schutz, his niece. She told me further that at the time she was concerned chiefly about Mr. Clavering and his son, so that she did not need the offer. But this explained why at the first she spoke so much about neglecting the chances of getting off while on the road. It rejoices me to think that so many brave fellows got clean away, but surely a generous King would have given them their pardon rather than suffer them to get off by this ignominious way of bribing a jailer.

But while the greedy Mr. Pitts (who I suppose prays for such another rebellion every day) looked for no less a sum than £10,000, he knew not that his turnkey had been beforehand with him, and his most important prisoner was on the point of escaping and he never a penny the richer. It gives me the greatest satisfaction to think how this great rogue was outwitted, and of his discomfiture and rage when he found the bird was flown. I would have cheated the turnkey as well, but could not, having pledged my word.

It was not until the morning of March the 6th, ten days after my lord was butchered, that Mr. Hilyard reported to me first that our skipper was now in London, having left his vessel off the coast at Leigh; next, that he had bought four strong and capable saddlehorses, which were now standing in the stables of the Salutation Tavern, Newgate Street, and could be saddled in readiness for any time.

‘And now,’ he said, ‘for Heaven’s sake, Miss Dorothy, delay no longer. Let me see Mr. Pitts and close with him this very day.’

‘To-morrow you shall,’ I replied, ‘unless —— but first, oh! my only friend! first, I pray thee, do exactly as I bid for this day. To-morrow, if I fail, which kind Heaven forbid, you shall have your turn.’

He begged me to give him his instructions.

I told him, first, that the day was actually come, and my own preparations made; that nothing could be done until after dark, nor then until such time as the streets were clear of people; that in my judgment it would be at some time between nine in the evening and midnight that we should want the horses. Therefore that the skipper should have them saddled in readiness, and should wait in the stables from eight o’clock or so until we came for him, and for the love of the Lord not to get drunk.

Mr. Hilyard opened his eyes very wide at this, as you may believe, and looked grave, but forbore to speak, except to promise that he would most faithfully and strictly carry out my instructions, and so departed, leaving me anxious indeed, but now hopeful.

What I had was a master-key; what I wanted was the opportunity of using it without being observed. That chance must be sought after dark, and pretty late, when prisoners are all locked up and turnkeys and wardens off guard.

Then I went back to the prison, where I found Tom sitting in his chamber, but not alone. Alas! how different was the behaviour of the prisoners in Newgate from that of my lord in the Tower! There was dignity, with the virtues of repentance, faith, and charity. Here there was constant drinking, with the smoking of tobacco, and everlasting railing, quarrelling, and disputing, one prisoner with another. But I will speak no more of the Press Yard and its horrid sights.

There was a custom of visiting the prisoners, bringing them presents of wine, spirits, tobacco, meat, and so forth; and, as regards the better sort, talking with them, many gentlemen finding it a curious entertainment to pass the afternoon conversing with a man who would probably in a few weeks have his head and limbs plastered with pitch and stuck upon Temple Bar; it was interesting, no doubt, to think that the man who sat with them was also going to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. As for themselves, they were honest Jacobites all, who were yet in no mood for undergoing that penalty; they were quite ready to sing loyal songs in a tavern, applaud loyal lines in a theatre, drink loyal toasts, frequent loyal coffee-houses, and, in fact, give the Prince every support short of fighting. With Tom there were sitting three of these gentlemen, not prisoners, though for the principles they professed, and the encouragement they had always given to the fighting men of the cause, they ought all to have been under lock and key if there were any justice in the world (but of that there seems mighty little). As for Tom himself, it was pitiful to see a man so pulled down by confinement, and trouble, and want of exercise; for his ruddy cheeks were pale and flabby; his once fresh bright eye was yellow; his hands shook, and so did his lip, and his eyes were full of anxiety. He sat in the midst of his comforters as Job sat in the midst of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. And, like these three sons of Consolation, who showed their friendliness by girding at the patriarch and imputing unto him secret sins, so did these three worthy gentlemen, each with a pipe of tobacco in his mouth, and happy in the consciousness that his own neck stood in little fear of being stretched, deliver their minds at large on the mistakes made by the English forces in the campaign (which, to be sure, was an easy thing to do), and discoursed freely (which was not a kind thing to do towards a gentleman in Tom’s position) on the executions at Liverpool and Preston, the bloodthirsty temper of the Government, the miserable outlook of the unfortunate prisoners, and the cruelty and barbarity of the punishment inflicted. Lord Wintoun’s case, they said, would occupy the Earls for some weeks yet, after which, no doubt, Tom would be put upon his trial. Then they began to advise, all with contrary opinions, what kind of defence he should set up. Defence there was none, because, first of all, Tom was, more than any of the others, except Colonel Oxbrough and Captain Gascoigne, involved in the designs hatched in London (which, if they had been carried out, would have set all England in a flame); next, he had been the first to proclaim the Prince; and then he had actually been General of the English Forces. What could he plead in extenuation of these crimes?

‘Gentlemen,’ I said presently, because it seemed to me as if they were about to argue the case and conduct the whole trial to its gloomy end, which would take all the day —— ‘Gentlemen, let me say that my brother’s case will not be bettered by our talking about it beforehand. If on reflection you have any counsel which may serve us in this juncture, pray bestow it upon us, but ’tis idle to advise with a man upon trial for his life unless you have something that may help. So, if you please, gentlemen, and as my brother hath important affairs with me this day, I will ask you to leave him now and kindly come again to-morrow.’

‘Nay,’ protested Tom —— being, like most men, dull at seeing more than plain words mean ——‘nay, my affairs may wait a day, Dorothy. Wherefore, let us send for a tankard and ——’

‘By your leave, brother,’ I said, ‘I have letters from the north which may not be delayed.’

I spoke so earnestly that the three gentlemen rose, and, with many promises to come again soon and comfort the prisoner, retired.

‘Now, ‘Dorothy,’ cried Tom testily, ‘what the devil is this wonderful business? Cannot a man have a single half-hour with his friends?’

‘Friends! Yes, Tom, they are valuable and worthy friends, indeed, who egg on their companions to peril their lives and sit down themselves. I warrant you they drink the Prince’s health every day. Oh, Tom! what said my father? That he gets best out of the fray who goes in last. What said my lady? Nay, I reproach you not, Tom.You shall never say that I reproached you. But —— friends you call them? Cowardly betrayers of brave men, I call them. Colonel Oxbrough, at least, and Captain Gascoigne cast in their lot with us, even though they deceived us all. But this coffee-house loyalty! Why, they would like nothing better than to sit together of an evening, and tell how they went to see you hanged, drawn, and quartered, and how you looked the while. And, oh! the pity of it! And what a gallant fellow was there! And so another pipe.’

‘Why, Dorothy,’ said Tom —— but he shivered at mention of the word ‘hanging’——’ what ails the lass to-day? Your colour comes and goes, and why are you crying?’

‘I am crying, Tom,’ I said, because, in truth, there were tears and catchings of the breath, those outward signs of woman’s weakness and her agitation ——‘I am crying, Tom, because I think that you have done with such false friends for ever.’

‘Devil take me,’ he said, dropping into his chair, ‘if I know what she means!’

‘You shall soon know.’ With this lugged out my key. ‘This, Tom,’ I whispered, ‘is nothing less than the master-key. With this in your hand you can walk out whenever you please, that is, whenever you are not likely to be seen and followed.’

He took the key from me, and looked at it as one might look at a strange monster.

‘The master-key,’ he murmured. ‘Why, then —— I may cheat the gibbet yet.’

‘Oh! Tom,’ I seized him by the hand, ‘if ever there was an occasion for prudence, it is this. Keep sober this evening if ever you want to drink again. Your chance, very likely your only chance, is to-night.’

I then told him that I had secured him a passage by an unsuspected ship; that we had got horses ready, which should be waiting at the stables of the Salutation Tavern, a short distance from the prison, that night; that I would be either outside the prison-gates or with the horses.

‘Dorothy,’ he cried, changing countenance, ‘is this thine own doing, child?’

He took me in his arms and kissed me, shedding tears, and declaring that he was not worth the trouble that he caused the best of sisters, as he chose to call me. But I would have no time wasted in such tenderness.

‘Think, Tom,’ I said; ‘you have to make your opportunity. Will you wait until the Governor is abed and asleep?’

‘Nay,’ he said, ‘there is also his man sits within the door all night. There must be another way.’

I had not thought of the Governor’s man. Yet I ought to have known that the Governor would not be left alone in his own house. Here was another and an unforeseen difficulty.

‘It is the fellow they call Jonas,’ said Tom.

‘Jonas?’ I asked. ‘Then we shall have no trouble with him.’

So I told Tom all, and how I had got the key.

‘Come,’ he said, ‘I think I see a way, but we must tell my man, Thomas Lee. Thy brother, Dorothy, hath been truly a great fool: but he has some mother-wit left.’

So we talked very earnestly for half an hour; and when I went out I found Jonas in the lobby, and told him what he was to do if necessary. Then, all being arranged, I came away.

He who hath never contrived a plot cannot know the difficulties of carrying it through. It was to be, first of all, my own design, confided to none but Tom, and to him only at the last moment; to Mr. Hilyard, and to him only in part: yet there were besides, the captain, the turnkey, my brother’s servant Tom Lee, and the blacksmith who made the key. Any one of these was enough to spoil all. Truly, those who deal in conspiracies must go for ever in fear and trembling, every man concerned knowing that he can purchase a pardon by revealing the names of his associates.

In early March the days begin to lengthen. The sun is twelve hours in the sky. We should have six hours at least of darkness before us, supposing that it was eleven of the clock before Tom found his way out. There was nothing meantime that I could do.

Then I sat down in my lodging and endeavoured to pass the time chiefly in prayer, but who can pray except in ejaculations at such a juncture? This night would Tom be in safety, or else —— presently the gibbet, and his head on Temple Bar. Surely, I thought, there must be some doom upon the Forsters, so many misfortunes having happened to them; out of nine children not one left living, though the eldest would not now be more than fiftyfive; the great Bamborough inheritance lost and sold; the heir now lying (like to be hanged) in Newgate, and his sister hoping only to secure his life by a timely flight.

Oh! long and weary hours, when one is waiting to learn the issue! My landlady, a good soul, though a Nonconformist and a Whig, came to ask what she could do for me. I told her a falsehood; I said that I was going to my Lady Cowper, and should perhaps remain with her for the night. So she left me. Presently, because if one waits long enough, such a thing is sure to come at last, the night fell.

At seven, Mr. Hilyard came. He said the horses would be saddled and kept in readiness, the skipper being already in the place, and under promise to keep sober, while to disarm suspicion he had been himself cursing all gentlemen who sit late over their bottle, when they should be up and on their way.

At eight, because I could no longer endure the waiting and suspense, I dressed, putting on my warm hood and gloves and having in my pocket my money,videlicet, a hundred guineas, of which fifty were for the captain and fifty for Tom, to serve his needs until we could send him more. Mr. Hilyard had girded on a sword (he was mighty martial since the affair at Preston), and told me he had placed two loaded pistols in his saddle. He carried a roquelaire, and wore a short riding wig, in place of his own full-bottomed perruque, and great boots. He also carried a huge bludgeon for the admonition of Mohocks and street-scourers.

Thus equipped, we sallied forth, the time being about half-past eight, the night clear and bright. We avoided the great broad field named after Lincoln’s Inn, because of the highwaymen and thieves who abound there, but by way of Little Queen Street emerged into the broad highway called Holborn, where there are continually until a late hour passengers and carriages of all kinds. It is not a street of good repute after dark, being frequented by the lawyers and wild students of Gray’s Inn, Barnard’s Inn, Staple Inn, and Furnival’s Inn, besides on both sides having streets into which an honest man may not venture, even by day, to say nothing of the night. The road ends in a steep descent, called Snow Hill, on the south side of which is the famous Fleet Market, and on the north, as Mr. Hilyard told me, Chick Lane, Cow Lane, and other evil places where the footpad and pickpocket lurk and live between their floggings, and until they meet their allotted end at Tyburn. At the bottom of the hill you come to the prison, and the old gate standing across the street. I know not which looked more gloomy in the moonlight —— the black stone prison in which so many brave fellows lay waiting for their doom, or the dark City gate, beyond which lay the way of our safety.

Opposite the prison, where the street narrows, is a row of stalls, used by day for the sale of fish, fruit, and meat, but at night left bare; a row of bulkheads on which, I believe, in summer poor houseless wretches, of whom there are so many in this great city, pass their nights. But on this Cold winter evening they were quite deserted. The moon shone full upon the prison side of the street, leaving this in darkness.

Mr. Hilyard led me into this dark side, behind the stalls, so that we could see, without being seen, what went on in the street.

Nine o’clock struck from St. Sepulchre’s Church —— that church which rings the knell for the departing souls of those who are on their way to be hanged. The night was so cold that there were few in the streets, and at nine it is late for honest folk, though early for revellers. To me, standing hidden in the dark, the figures of those who passed were like the figures that are seen in a dream. I remember them all to this day —— the sturdy citizen in broadcloth, carrying his trusty staff; the drunken fellow, who reeled from post to post, shouting a song; the young woman in a domino and a gaudy dress; the old constable, with his lantern and his staff; the wretched starving children who crept in and out among the bulkheads looking for something to eat —— I remember every one.

Mr. Hilyard stood beside me, patient and silent. It was not till after all was finished and done that I understood the extraordinary faithfulness and loyalty of this man, who had not hesitated first to hazard his life for a cause which he loved not, or an enterprise which he knew from the beginning would be a failure, in gratitude to his patron, whose favours he had already repaid tenfold by services such as are rendered by few —— else were this world made too happy. Then, when he escaped, he did not fear to hazard his life a second time, and that daily, by going to a place more fatal to rebels than Preston itself had proved, and that in the most frightful weather, and encumbered by a helpless woman. I say that I was so selfish as to accept these things as my just due, and only what one had a right to look for, and as if all these services were to be given without a murmur, and with a cheerful heart.

The clock struck the quarters —— one, two, three, four. It was ten, and no sign yet from the door of the Governor’s house.

What happened within was as follows. When I left him, Tom called for his servant, and they took counsel together. Now, it was Tom’s hospitable practice to desire the company of any gentlemen within reach over his bottle of an evening. Therefore, his room was nearly every night filled with guests from the prison, who drank around, and fought their unlucky campaign over again. The ordinary of Newgate was generally one of them; the Governor of the prison, Mr. Pitts, another; and one or two of the prisoners who occupied, with Tom, the Governor’s room, also sat with him. This evening Mr. Pitts came, according to custom, and Sir Francis Anderton (a gentleman from Lancashire, who had the bad luck to join at Preston the day before the fight). Fortunately there were no others. Tom had arranged with his servant, Thomas Lee, that he was to be drinking downstairs with Mr. Pitts’ man, Jonas, and any others, but that he should contrive to be left the last with Jonas; and, when they were alone, he was to invent some way in which it should seem as if he had forcibly silenced the fellow. (I believe he was to knock him on the head, if necessary; but Jonas needed no such extremity of persuasion.) Then he was to run upstairs and let his master know that the coast was clear. Like master, like man. While they drank port upstairs, downstairs they drank beer. Below they drank so much, and they talked so long, that it was eleven o’clock before they separated. Then Thomas Lee was left alone with Jonas.

‘Come, lad,’ said he, ‘let’s have another pot. Go draw it.’

The fellow (this being the plan agreed upon) took the jug and went to the cellar-door, which, as soon as he reached, Lee shut upon him (as had also been agreed between them), knocking him down the cellar steps (which was not in the agreement). This done, and Jonas sprawling on the floor below, Tom Lee made the door fast with a peg above the latch.

Then he went softly up the stairs to his master’s room, and opening the door, peeped in. Sir Francis was talking at a great rate, being somewhat disguised in wine; Mr Forster was sitting opposite to him, and in a chair beside the door sat Mr. Pitts, the Governor. But his face was purple with much wine, and his eyes were heavy and stupid.

‘Sir,’ said Tom, seeing the servant at the door, ‘another glass; a bumper. Why, the night is young, and we have another bottle at least to finish.’ So he poured out a brimming one, and gave it to Mr. Pitts; and because the Governor’s hand was too unsteady to carry the glass, Tom kindly lifted it to his lips. Mr. Pitts drained it greedily; his head fell back, his eyes closed and his mouth open. Mr. Pitts was as drunk as any gentleman can desire to be.

‘I am going to escape, Sir Francis,’ said Tom calmly; ‘the way is clear. Will you join company?’

‘Not I, General,’ said Sir Francis. ‘I prefer to stay where I am until they let me go. I doubt whether running away will serve me so well as keeping still. Hand me they will not. Of that I have assurance. And I would save my estate if I could. But if I were you, I would go, and that as quickly as maybe.’

It was about half-past eleven when, to my unspeakable joy, the door opened, and I saw Tom and the servant Lee standing in the moonlight. There was not another person in the Old Bailey. I rushed across and dragged him by the arm. ‘Come, Tom! hasten!’ I cried. ‘Oh! quick —— quick!’

‘By your leave, sir,’ said Lee. ‘If we lock the door from the outside, and leave the key in the lock, they will not be able to open it from within.’ And this he did. Then we walked quickly away, my own heart beating. By good luck we met no one in Newgate Street, though if we had I suppose there would have been no notice taken of us. The stable-yard of the Salutation Tavern was full of men, who were loading and unloading waggons, late as it was; but this was better for us, because it enabled our horses to be brought out without attracting notice. Here I must not forget one thing. The night was very cold. Tom was dressed in his ordinary grey cloth coat. Mr. Hilyard took off his roquelaire and threw it over his shoulders, saying:

‘This I brought for your honour to wear,’ and so went cold himself all that night.

You may be sure we lost no time in mounting, and rode off through the quiet streets, where the echo of our horses’ feet seemed to me like the ringing of alarm-bells. There were plenty of people still in Cheapside, the London citizens caring little about late hours; they passed along the street behind the posts, but paid no heed to the party who rode so late. I suppose it is not much more than half a mile from Newgate Street to Aldgate; but to me it seemed ten miles, so slowly did the time pass; and Mr. Hilyard whispering continually:

‘Go easy, sir; seem not to be in haste; in a few minutes we shall be beyond the streets and in the open. Make no sign of haste.’

Tom rode in the middle, his roquelaire wrapped round him hiding his face; I on his right, in hood and cloak; Mr. Hilyard on his left, and, behind, our friend the skipper and the man Thomas Lee.

‘Why,’ said Tom, when at last we were in the open road, with fields on either side, and the stars above our heads were clear and bright ——‘why, I believe we may give them the slip yet —— what say you, Tony?’

‘I say, sir,’ replied Mr. Hilyard, ‘that if your honour doth not get off it will be by some vile accident. But if you do, you must thank Miss Dorothy for it, and no one else, except Lord Crewe, who gave us the money.’

This was the night of the 6th of March, and will never be forgotten, because it was the night of that dreadful appearance in the heavens, which frighted the whole of England, and none I think more than the party who were riding as quickly as they could along the road which leads from London to Leigh, through Tilbury. It appeared in the north, and was at first like a black cloud, from which there presently began to dart streaks or arrows of red, blue, or pale fire. This dreadful spectacle lasted the whole night through, but sometimes more terrible for awhile, and then growing low as a fire which spends itself. Then it would light up again with flames of all colours most frightful to see. As we rode through the villages the people were all out in the roads dressed, and crying, weeping, wringing their hands, or praying; in more than one the clergyman was exhorting the people to instant repentance and preparation for death; many I heard afterwards were frightened into fits, and children were born before their time in consequence of the universal terror, for none would believe but that they were gazing upon the flames of hell, and that the end of the world was come.

‘This cannot fail,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘to be a mark of Heaven’s displeasure, did we only know at what. For it may be that the Lord is angry at the recent rebellion, or because it failed; or at the execution of the two lords, which seems probable; or at the accession of King George —— and yet he is a Protestant; or at the flight of the Prince —— but he is a Papist. If one could certainly tell what was intended by this apparition, one might move all hearts to do the will of the Lord. But as in oracles there is doubt, and in the interpretation of the World there is disagreement, so in such matters as this appearances in the skies (which is indeed terrifying), and in comets, shooting stars, meteors, and flaming swords in the heavens, while we can have no doubt that they are intended by way of warning and admonition to us all, I think that we must each read and interpret the message for ourselves.’

‘Is it, Tony,’ asked Tom, ‘the end of the world? To be sure one would rather meet that awful event in the open, than in the Governor’s House tippling with Mr. Pitts.’

‘I think not,’ replied Mr. Hilyard, ‘that it is yet the end of the world, many prophecies remaining to be fulfilled.’ I confess I felt relief at this assurance. ‘Besides, we must remember that it is not the first time by a great many that strange appearances have been permitted in the heavens.’ He then began to while away the time, we now proceeding at a steady trot along the deserted roads, by recalling some of the well-known miraculous signs, as Constantine’s cross, the fiery dragon of Staffordshire, the double sun of Chatham, and so forth; by means of which, if he did not altogether allay our fears, he distracted our thoughts, and in this way we arrived at the coast and little village of Leigh. It is thirty-nine miles from London, but no large places on the road except Barking, and, not to speak of the villagers whom we found frightened in the streets, we met no one all the way from Bow, and drew rein somewhere about four o’clock in the morning, having ridden the distance in five hours, the roads good and hard, and the night fine (except for that dreadful phenomenon in the north). Thus far, then, had we succeeded almost beyond our hopes. At low tide the water runs out very far at Leigh, and leaves a long bank of mud; but now the tide was very high, and a fair wind from the north-west, and though the moon was long since gone down, there was plenty of light from the terrible fire in the north.

Half a dozen vessels lay off the coast, looking black against the sky. Our skipper pointed to one at whose bows there hung two lights.

‘It is the vessel,’ he said. ‘There is my ship.’

There followed great whistling and shouting of ‘Ship ahoy!’ and presently a little boat came rowing from her with one man aboard, who pulled ashore.

‘Now, sir,’ said our captain.

‘The bargain stands,’ said Mr. Hilyard, before the money was handed over.

‘Ay, ay —— the bargain is right enough if the guineas are ready.’

‘Here they are, then.’ Mr. Hilyard gave him the bag with the fifty guineas in it. He opened it, looked at the contents, and put it in his pocket without counting. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Now, sir, if your honour is to get aboard, the sooner the better. The tide is on the ebb, and a fairer wind couldn’t be. If it holds we shall be in Calais Harbour in eight hours.’

‘Dorothy,’ said, Tom, ‘kiss me, my dear. I shall come back soon —— with the Prince. Take care of her, Tony. Why, the good days shall come back again. Many a bottle shall we crack together yet; many a song you shall sing for us. Farewell —— oh! Dorothy, think not I am ungrateful because I say little. There is not another woman in the world who would do so much for her brother, I think. Thy hand again, Tony. Take care of her, I say.’

And with that he stepped into the boat with his man, and they were gone. We stood upon the shore and watched. Presently we heard a yo-hoing —— they were hauling up the anchor; then the ship began to drift slowly into the mid channel; the sails were set, and filled out in the breeze; the vessel slipped out of our sight and was gone.

I fell upon my knees, while Mr. Hilyard, taking off his hat, solemnly thanked God. Behind us, as we offered this humble service of gratitude and praise, the awful fire in the northern sky darted its arrows of fire like lightnings to and fro. Then, without halting, we mounted again and rode back together, leaving the other three horses to stray where they listed. Our work was almost done. There remained one thing more —— to put the messengers on a false scent in case of the vessel being delayed off the Nore by a contrary wind. ‘For,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘this wind may drop or chop round: any such accident may happen. His honour is not safe until he is on French soil. Let us, therefore, go seek the villain at Wapping, who looks to receive the reward and then to betray us.’

At Barking I was fain to cry a halt, and must needs rest. It was then past six o’clock, and already daylight. I was in those days as strong as most young women, but a whole night in the saddle, after the weariness and anxiety of the day, was sufficient excuse for anyone to be tired.

After two or three hours’ rest I was able to ride on to Wapping. We found the fellow we were in search of, and deceived him with the expectation of taking Mr. Forster, whose name we gave him, on board the next day. So successful was this deception, and so correct was Mr. Hilyard’s estimate of the man, that on his information messengers were sent to Wapping to lie in wait for the escaped prisoner, for whose capture they offered a thousand pounds. But before a week passed we had a letter from Tom. He was safe in France, and proposed to go to Bar-le-Due, where the Prince was holding his Court.

Thus was I suffered, by the mercy of Heaven, to save my brother’s life. ‘Child,’ said Lady Cowper, ‘be assured that we all rejoice. Your brother could not be pardoned. If any were to suffer, needs must that the General be one. Lucky he is in having such a sister. I have told the Princess whose wit it was that set the bird free, and she laughed. As for yourself, rest easy, my dear. There will no harm happen to thee.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/besant/walter/dorothy-forster/chapter39.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32