Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter XXVI.

The rogues were very merry on their booty. They said a thousand things that showed the wickedness of their morals. —— Gil Bias.

They fixed on a spot where they made a cave, which was large enough to receive them and their horses. This cave was inclosed within a sort of thicket of bushes and brambles. From this station they used to issue, etc. —— Memoirs of Richard Turpin.

It was not for several minutes after their flight had commenced that any conversation passed between the robbers. Their horses flew on like wind; and the country through which they rode presented to their speed no other obstacle than an occasional hedge, or a short cut through the thicknesses of some leafless beechwood. The stars lent them a merry light, and the spirits of two of them at least were fully in sympathy with the exhilaration of the pace and the air. Perhaps, in the third, a certain presentiment that the present adventure would end less merrily than it had begun, conspired, with other causes of gloom, to check that exaltation of the blood which generally follows a successful exploit.

The path which the robbers took wound by the sides of long woods or across large tracts of uncultivated land; nor did they encounter anything living by the road, save now and then a solitary owl, wheeling its gray body around the skirts of the bare woods, or occasionally troops of conies, pursuing their sports and enjoying their midnight food in the fields.

“Heavens!” cried the tall robber, whose incognito we need no longer preserve, and who, as our readers are doubtless aware, answered to the name of Pepper — “heavens!” cried he, looking upward at the starry skies in a sort of ecstasy, “what a jolly life this is! Some fellows like hunting; d —— it! what hunting is like the road? If there be sport in hunting down a nasty fox, how much more is there in hunting down a nice, clean nobleman’s carriage! If there be joy in getting a brush, how much more is there in getting a purse! If it be pleasant to fly over a hedge in the broad daylight, hang me if it be not ten times finer sport to skim it by night — here goes! Look how the hedges run away from us! and the silly old moon dances about, as if the sight of us put the good lady in spirits! Those old maids are always glad to have an eye upon such fine, dashing young fellows.”

“Ay,” cried the more erudite and sententious Augustus Tomlinson, roused by success from his usual philosophical sobriety; “no work is so pleasant as night-work, and the witches our ancestors burned were in the right to ride out on their broomsticks with the awls and the stars. We are their successors now, Ned. We are your true fly-by-nights!”

“Only,” quoth Ned, “we are a cursed deal more clever than they were; for they played their game without being a bit the richer for it, and we — I say, Tomlinson, where the devil did you put that red morocco case?”

“Experience never enlightens the foolish,” said Tomlinson, “or you would have known, without asking, that I had put it in the very safest pocket in my coat. ‘Gad, how heavy it is!

“Well,” cried Pepper, “I can’t say I wish it were lighter! Only think of our robbing my lord twice, and on the same road too!”

“I say, Lovett,” exclaimed Tomlinson, “was it not odd that we should have stumbled upon our Bath friend so unceremoniously? Lucky for us that we are so strict in robbing in masks! He would not have thought the better of Bath company if he had seen our faces.”

Lovett, or rather Clifford, had hitherto been silent. He now turned slowly in his saddle, and said: “As it was, the poor devil was very nearly despatched. Long Ned was making short work with him, if I had not interposed!”

“And why did you?” said Ned.

“Because I will have no killing; it is the curse of the noble art of our profession to have passionate professors like thee.”

“Passionate!” repeated Ned. “Well, I am a little choleric, I own it; but that is not so great a fault on the road as it would be in housebreaking. I don’t know a thing that requires so much coolness and self-possession as cleaning out a house from top to bottom — quietly and civilly, mind you!”

“That is the reason, I suppose, then,” said Augustus, “that you altogether renounced that career. Your first adventure was house breaking, I think I have heard you say. I confess it was a vulgar debut — not worthy of you!”

“No! Harry Cook seduced me; but the specimen I saw that night disgusted me of picking locks; it brings one in contact with such low companions. Only think, there was a merchant, a rag-merchant, one of the party!”

“Faugh!” said Tomlinson, in solemn disgust.

“Ay, you may well turn up your lip; I never broke into a house again.”

“Who were your other companions?” asked Augustus. “Only Harry Cook — [A noted highwayman.]— and a very singular woman —”

Here Ned’s narrative was interrupted by a dark defile through a wood, allowing room for only one horseman at a time. They continued this gloomy path for several minutes, until at length it brought them to the brink of a large dell, overgrown with bushes, and spreading around somewhat in the form of a rude semicircle. Here the robbers dismounted, and led their reeking horses down the descent. Long Ned, who went first, paused at a cluster of bushes, which seemed so thick as to defy intrusion, but which, yielding on either side to the experienced hand of the robber, presented what appeared the mouth of a cavern. A few steps along the passage of this gulf brought them to a door, which, even seen by torchlight, would have appeared so exactly similar in colour and material to the rude walls on either side as to have deceived any unsuspecting eye, and which, in the customary darkness brooding over it, might have remained for centuries undiscovered. Touching a secret latch, the door opened, and the robbers were in the secure precincts of the “Red Cave.” It may be remembered that among the early studies of our exemplary hero the memoirs of Richard Turpin had formed a conspicuous portion; and it may also be remembered that in the miscellaneous adventures of that gentleman nothing had more delighted the juvenile imagination of the student than the description of the forest cave in which the gallant Turpin had been accustomed to conceal himself, his friend, his horse,

“And that sweet saint who lay by Turpin’s side;”

or, to speak more domestically, the respectable Mrs. Turpin. So strong a hold, indeed, had that early reminiscence fixed upon our hero’s mind, that no sooner had he risen to eminence among his friends than he had put the project of his childhood into execution. He had selected for the scene of his ingenuity an admirable spot. In a thinly peopled country, surrounded by commons and woods, and yet, as Mr. Robins would say if he had to dispose of it by auction, “within an easy ride” of populous and well-frequented roads, it possessed all the advantages of secrecy for itself and convenience for depredation. Very few of the gang, and those only who had been employed in its construction, were made acquainted with the secret of this cavern; and as our adventurers rarely visited it, and only on occasions of urgent want or secure concealment, it had continued for more than two years undiscovered and unsuspected.

The cavern, originally hollowed by nature, owed but little to the decorations of art; nevertheless, the roughness of the walls was concealed by a rude but comfortable arras of matting; four or five of such seats as the robbers themselves could construct were drawn around a small but bright wood-fire, which, as there was no chimney, spread a thin volume of smoke over the apartment. The height of the cave, added to the universal reconciler (custom), prevented, however, this evil from being seriously unpleasant; and, indeed, like the tenants of an Irish cabin, perhaps the inmates attached a degree of comfort to a circumstance which was coupled with their dearest household associations. A table, formed of a board coarsely planed, and supported by four legs of irregular size, made equal by the introduction of blocks or wedges between the legs and the floor, stood warming its uncouth self by the fire. At one corner a covered cart made a conspicuous article of furniture, no doubt useful either in conveying plunder or provisions; beside the wheels were carelessly thrown two or three coarse carpenter’s tools, and the more warlike utilities of a blunderbuss, a rifle, and two broadswords. In the other corner was an open cupboard, containing rows of pewter platters, mugs, etc. Opposite the fireplace, which was to the left of the entrance, an excavation had been turned into a dormitory; and fronting the entrance was a pair of broad, strong wooden steps, ascending to a large hollow about eight feet from the ground. This was the entrance to the stables; and as soon as their owners released the reins of the horses, the docile animals proceeded one by one leisurely up the steps, in the manner of quadrupeds educated at the public seminary of Astley’s, and disappeared within the aperture.

These steps, when drawn up — which, however, from their extreme clumsiness, required the united strength of two ordinary men, and was not that instantaneous work which it should have been — made the place above a tolerably strong hold; for the wall was perfectly perpendicular and level, and it was only by placing his hands upon the ledge, and so lifting himself gymnastically upward, that an active assailant could have reached the eminence — a work which defenders equally active, it may easily be supposed, would not be likely to allow.

This upper cave — for our robbers paid more attention to their horses than themselves, as the nobler animals of the two species — was evidently fitted up with some labour. The stalls were rudely divided, the litter of dry fern was clean, troughs were filled with oats, and a large tub had been supplied from a pond at a little distance. A cart-harness and some old wagoners’ frocks were fixed on pegs to the wall; while at the far end of these singular stables was a door strongly barred, and only just large enough to admit the body of a man. The confederates had made it an express law never to enter their domain by this door, or to use it, except for the purpose of escape, should the cave ever be attacked; in which case, while one or two defended the entrance from the inner cave, another might unbar the door, and as it opened upon the thickest part of the wood, through which with great ingenuity a labyrinthine path had been cut, not easily tracked by ignorant pursuers, these precautions of the highwaymen had provided a fair hope of at least a temporary escape from any invading enemies.

Such were the domestic arrangements of the Red Cave; and it will be conceded that at least some skill had been shown in the choice of the spot, if there were a lack of taste in its adornments.

While the horses were performing their nightly ascent, our three heroes, after securing the door, made at once to the fire. And there, O reader! they were greeted in welcome by one — an old and revered acquaintance of thine — whom in such a scene it will equally astound and wound thee to re-behold.

Know, then — But first we will describe to thee the occupation and the garb of the August personage to whom we allude. Bending over a large gridiron, daintily bespread with steaks of the fatted rump, the INDIVIDUAL stood, with his right arm bared above the elbow, and his right hand grasping that mimic trident known unto gastronomers by the monosyllable “fork.” His wigless head was adorned with a cotton nightcap. His upper vestment was discarded, and a whitish apron flowed gracefully down his middle man. His stockings were ungartered, and permitted between the knee and the calf interesting glances of the rude carnal. One list shoe and one of leathern manufacture cased his ample feet. Enterprise, or the noble glow of his present culinary profession, spread a yet rosier blush over a countenance early tinged by generous libations, and from beneath the curtain of his pallid eyelashes his large and rotund orbs gleamed dazzlingly on the new comers. Such, O reader! was the aspect and the occupation of the venerable man whom we have long since taught thee to admire; such, alas for the mutabilities of earth! was — A new chapter only can contain the name.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31