Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 1

Why then the world’s mine oyster.

Respecting the parents of Ralph Rashleigh, little needs here he add save that they were of a decent rank as London shopkeepers, and that they were thus enabled to afford their son the advantage of a good plain English education, upon the completion of which he was articled to a conveyancer in extensive practice, who resided near Chancery Lane, a romantic neighbourhood to which Ralph was compelled to restrict his rambles for the first two years of his servitude; but on the expiration of that period, in compliance with a stipulation contained in his indentures, a small allowance being made to him, he ceased to reside under his master’s roof and occupied a lodging by himself.

He was now fairly launched upon the great ocean of Life, for although his office hours were sufficiently long, yet abundance of time still remained, during which Rashleigh was completely his own master; and amid the varied amusements offered to his choice in the modern Babylon, he soon found nothing deficient for enjoyment, except money, with which he was but sparingly supplied. This hiatus, of course, giving him much pain, he naturally set himself to work to remove it, if possible, but for a long period without any success.

Among the number of his boon companions was a young man, who though only receiving from his employer an equal salary to himself, yet always appeared to be possessed of means for the gratification of his pleasures; and as he ever seemed to distinguish Ralph with his friendship, the latter, one evening when both were tolerably warm from the effect of numerous potations in which they had indulged, begged his friend to explain how he managed so well with his limited income, as always to have cash for any expense he chose to incur.

His companion, whose name was Hartop, after many injunctions of secrecy, informed him that as his employer usually sent him to make payments and receive money upon account of the business, he had for a long period been in the habit of occasionally passing bad sovereigns, using however great precaution. and never carrying more than one at a time upon his person. Then he picked his customers — mostly people from the country or residing at a distant part of London — to whom he would tender a queer piece and if it were objected to, would immediately replace it by a good one, wondering how he came by it, etc. At other times, when he thought he could do so safely in telling over money he was about to receive, he would dexterously exchange one of the good ones for another he had previously concealed in his hand, which of course was bad. The result of this manoeuvre would be, that when he objected to the one he had himself put down, the person about to pay him, probably knowing all the pieces he had tendered to be genuine, would exchange the one questioned without hesitation. Nay, so good were the imitations he made use of, that often, in paying considerable sums of money in gold into banks — where the specie was weighed in the lump — a bad sovereign would pass current enough among many others, and not excite any suspicion.

This communication over, Hartop offered our hero his services, to procure him a few of the inimitable imitations of the current coin of the realm, adding that he could pay for them when he was lucky. To this offer Ralph, nothing loath, assented. A few days after, he received from his friend twenty spurious sovereigns, that being deemed enough for his first essay.

Thus did Ralph Rashleigh commence his career of dishonesty, and for a long period escaped with impunity, owing to the able manner in which he adopted and followed the cautious counsels of his sage tutor. At length, finding that he could obtain all the luxuries of life, not to mention necessaries only, without any very arduous exertion, he became so very idle, careless, and inattentive to his employer’s business, that after many fruitless remonstrances and unavailing lectures from his worthy principal, he received lib dismissal, his articles being cancelled.

This event, indeed, did not much concern him, as he believed he should always be able to supply his wants by means of passing bad money. as heretofore. In order, however, to lull suspicion, which might have been awakened had he remained without any employment or apparent means of earning a livelihood whatever, Ralph, who now wrote a remarkably fine and quick legal hand, obtained out-of-door copying from a law scrivener, intending to do only just as much work as might be supposed to afford him subsistence.

After this resolution, his custom was to work two or three hours per day at his lodging, and to employ the rest of his time perambulating London, varying his rambles every day, and at times shifting the scene of his exertions to a fair or race in the country, where he generally met with tolerable success.

But the period of his profitable trading in this line was rapidly drawing to a close, and one unlucky day, having extended his operations to Maidstone at the time of a fair, he was apprehended. As, contrary to his usual custom, he had then two bad sovereigns in his pocket, he was committed to take his trial upon a charge of uttering counterfeit coin. At the ensuing assizes in spite of a most ingenious defence, he was found guilty and sentenced to pass twelve months in imprisonment at hard labour in the house of correction.

This being prior to the invention of treadmills or the improvement of prison discipline, there was no restraint to free communication with his fellow unfortunates. And the species of employment, which consisted only of picking oakum and beating hemp, afforded ample opportunities for the relation by his companions of the many marvellous exploits, cunning schemes, hair-breadth scapes, and successful stratagem for which the lives of each had been remarkable.

It may very easily he imagined, that such society produced its full effect upon the mind of our adventurer, who had, in fact, never been notorious for any great nicety in distinguishing the difference between meum et tuum, and he now emerged from his confinement a most finished adept in all those arts by winch the unprincipled portion of mankind contrived, five and twenty years ago, to victimise their unwary fellow-countrymen.

Ardently longing to reduce the praiseworthy theoretical knowledge he had thus acquired to practical purposes, Rashleigh returned from the gaol to London, in which he still possessed some good clothing and a few trinkets. The latter he now turned into cash for his present subsistence, and then proceeded to the town of Winchester, where he had been informed by an old cracksman (housebreaker)— whom he had left in durance at Maidstone — there was a jeweller’s shop from which a large booty might easily he acquired. In fact, before he was released, Ralph had concerted a plan of operations with his informant, to be put in practice for this purpose when the latter should have served his full sentence and again acquired his liberty.

But our hero had no intention of waiting for an associate, as he wisely deemed the spoil would suffer much by participation with another. Therefore, the very day after that on which he had returned to the metropolis, he set off for Winchester per coach, provided with THe necessary implements of every kind for his nefarious purpose, carefully put up, with a change of clothing, in a carpet bag.

Having duly arrived at the proposed scene of action, he adjourned from the coach office to a small public-house on the outside of the town, where he dined. He then proceeded to view the shop in question. Everything here was apparently as he had been informed, and having spent a few minutes inside the shop, ostensibly for the purpose of purchasing a trifling article, he returned to his inn, there to digest his plans at leisure. These were soon arranged, and Rashleigh, having taken his supper, discharged his reckoning and went to bed, requesting that he might be called at two o’clock, there being a coach to start for Portsmouth at that hour.

The morning proved as dark as Erebus, for it was in the month of November. A chill sleet had completely driven the ancient guardians of the night to their retreats, and not a single sound disturbed the tranquillity of the town. Ralph therefore met with no difficulty or obstacle in his route to the shop. Once there, to remove a panel of the shutter with his centre-bit and chisel was an easy task. The glass next presented itself. This was also cut through with a diamond and prevented from falling by means of a piece of putty held against it. There was a small brass wire grating next the window; but it was movable, and the robber had nothing to prevent him from filling his pockets with the various articles which he could feel lay in the cases before him; when lo, the lusty shout of a watchman at a distance, crying the hour, warned him to be cautious. Accordingly he clapped a piece of dark-coloured paper against the opening of the panel and hastily betook himself to the kind concealment afforded by the shadows of an antique porch hard by.

The vigilant conservator of public property quickly passed, apparently in great haste to return to his box or the comforts of the watch-house fire, and the coast being thus once more clear, Ralph repaired to his unhallowed occupation. To fill his bag, pockets and hat with valuables and all kind of trinkets was but the work of a few minutes. Then, replacing the paper before named, to prevent too early an outcry, he made the best of his way by unfrequented paths to the outskirts of Winchester, where he had during the afternoon noticed a wood, in which he now carefully concealed all his ill-gotten booty, near the foot of an old and remarkable tree. He then cut across the fields until he reached a by-road leading to the town of Basingstoke. He walked upon this road until morning dawned, having for the last few hours had the benefit of the moon’s friendly beams, which so much assisted his progress that at daylight he found himself four and twenty miles from Winchester, and near a small public-house by the wayside. Here he stopped to refresh, and in a short time, a coach coming by, he embraced the opportunity of obtaining a ride to Farnham, where he intended to stay a day or two.

In the evening, weary of the solitude of his own apartment in the public house where he put up, Ralph descended to the large room, which served the inn “for parlour, for kitchen and hall”, in which he found the assembled rustics gaping around a man who had just arrived from Winchester, and who was giving them the details of a most owdacious robbery which had there been done the night before, property to the value of £1,500 having been abstracted from a jeweller’s shop. The whole town and neighbourhood were in a complete ferment at this very palpable proof of the presence of some dexterous thieves, of whom it was supposed a whole gang must have been employed to effect this atrocious act. And all whom the sapient magistrates of Winchester thought fit to consider loose or idle characters among the lower classes of the townsfolk had them apprehended and examined. Such a turmoil of arresting, searching, questioning, and cross-questioning had never been known in Hampshire since the death of William Rufus. Moreover, as a finale, to prove they did something as well as talk so much. after all this uproar, two poor sailors who were begging their way to Portsmouth in the hope of getting a ship were apprehended and each sent six months to hard labour in gaol, because they could give no better account of themselves than their true history.

It may easily he credited that Rashleigh was no indifferent auditor of this tale. He was, in sooth, much overjoyed to find that the police of Winchester were so far astray in their suspicions, and he consequently resolved to pay a visit to some relatives he possessed at Southampton for a few days, after which he proposed to return for his spoil, to the place of its concealment.

Accordingly, the next day he put this determination into practice. His friends at that pretty little sea-port received him most cordially, the rather, no doubt, that they had not the slightest idea of the manner in which he had lately spent his time, but believed him to be still employed as a lawyer’s clerk in London, and that he had now come down to keep a holiday. A few days were therefore passed most agreeably among them; but as the weather was too inclement to permit much out-of-door exercise, the sameness of the scene began to pall upon the mind of our adventurer, who soon longed for a return to the more varied pleasures of the great Babel. While here, however, a singular and rather romantic adventure happened to Rashleigh, which will be found narrated in the next chapter.


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