Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 6

Poor Tom was once a kiddy upon town,

A thorough varmint, and a real swell.

Tyrrell’s attendant having produced their breakfast, which consisted of coffee, eggs, honey and toast, our confines did ample justice to the vivers, after which, Rashleigh having questioned his companion respecting his past history, Tyrrell observed that in order to understand it, it would be necessary to begin at an early period of his life; but, as there was nothing else to do, it would form as good a pastime as any other, and he began as follows:

“My father was a noted fence, and it may easily be imagined, in consequence, that what I saw in my paternal mansion during my early childhood did not greatly predispose me to a life of honesty. In fact, I was taken notice of by the thieves who resorted to our house for the purpose of selling whatever they had stolen. These gentry were lost in admiration of my dexterity, for at nine years of age I could pick the pocket of the sharpest man among them.

“Talents like mine were not to be hidden in obscurity; so one day, after I had lost all my browns gaffing with a chummy, and my old dad had refused to give me any more, I watched my opportunity and stole from him a watch and a small lot of silver spoons, which I took to an acquaintance of his in the same line, whom I amused by a false tale of my dexterity in stealing them. He willingly bought the whole, without asking any troublesome questions, and told me with an air of patronage I shall never forget, ‘that he always thought I should turn out a most splendid thief!!!’ Egad, I believe he considered this to be the highest praise he could bestow; and for my part, I thought more of it, by an immeasurable degree, than I should, had he predicted I should live to be a Bishop!

“With the money thus acquired, I forsook the East end for the West, and soon fell in with a highly distinguished member of the swell mob, now, alas, luxuriating at Botany Bay. This worthy had often praised my consummate skill in the art of conveyancing, and by such a distinguished artist was I now taken into protection. Under his auspices it was that I acquired that savoir vivre which I have often been complimented upon in after life, and to which, no doubt, may be ascribed the singular success that has generally attended my operations.

“We carried on the war against the pockets of all and sundry for two years with prolific industry, until at last, in a moment of rashness, my companion essayed his skill upon the person of no less redoubtable a victim than Sir R. B. the celebrated police magistrate, whom he eased of his pocket book, containing a considerable sum, just at the door of his own office! From that instant our fortunes declined. The officers of his establishment, after the affront offered to their chief, appeared to be each endowed with more eyes than Argus himself. We were had up before the beak three times in one fortnight on suspicion of various offences, and though acquitted of any actual criminality, yet my companion was sent three months to gaol as a suspected thief, while I was ordered to be received into the refuge. This destination I obtained from my obstinacy in refusing to disclose my real name or the residence of my parents, which I was loath to do because I feared my father might be ungentlemanly enough to remember the little faux pas I had committed when I left him.

“In this benevolent institution for reclaiming the destitute youth of London I remained four years, much against my will, in which period I learned to read and write, for my education had hitherto been very much neglected. Besides, I obtained an insight into the calling of a snob, to which gentle occupation I was apprenticed at the expiration of my servitude, a master being chosen for me by the institution, who in consideration of my services for three more years, engaged to provide me with food and clothing and to perfect me in the knowledge of that necessary craft, which is said to have been patronised by Saint Crispin.

“This benevolent gentleman added to the other obligations he wished to confer upon me, an intimate acquaintance with short commons — and a long stirrup-leather. But after my close confinement in the Refuge, I can assure you I had other notions of the sweets of liberty than to waste my fife among the awls and ends of a cobbler’s shop; so I very soon absconded from my master, and taking the road to Bristol, with a scanty stock of clothing and a still more slender supply of cash, I began the world anew. I had travelled many miles before the night fell, and I found myself near a small village, to the inn of which I hastened for shelter.

“In the night an alarm of fire roused all the inmates at once. I had slept in an apartment on the ground floor, and was soon in safety; but the case was far different with some others, because the flames had attained great power before they were discovered. It appeared they had broken out in a fireplace that adjoined the only staircase which the house contained. Consequently, the retreat of those who occupied the upper rooms was quickly cut off.

“A scene of dire confusion now took place. The people of the inn, with the help of bystanders, endeavoured to save their property; and they were so busy that they did not remember an elderly gentleman and his daughter, who slept in two of the upper apartments situated at the back of the house, and who now appeared at a window, beseeching for help. By this time the flames had burst from the openings beneath them and threatened imminent danger to any who should even approach to set up a ladder for their escape. The landlord having offered a £10 note to anybody that could rescue them, I determined on trying to earn so considerable a reward.

“Having first stripped myself to my shirt, I wetted a blanket, which I fastened round me, and then boldly placed a ladder against the window. The old gentleman, in the mean time, had fainted, and his daughter refused to abandon him. I therefore ran up the ladder, and at the urgent entreaty of the girl, that I would save her father, I managed with some difficulty to get him out of the window upon my back, and though I was fairly enveloped in flame, I reached the ground with my burden in safety.

“The scene now was awful, for the whole of the lower part of the inn on that side presented nothing but one sheet of fire, which, bursting forth at every lower opening, licked the walls and clambered the side of the house in volumes of flame. But the beauty of the lovely girl, who now could only be seen at intervals, wringing her hands in a paroxysm of despair at the upper window, was too deeply impressed upon my mind to suffer her to perish so dreadfully without an effort.

“Taking another wet blanket with me, I rushed up the ladder once more, and throwing it around the young lady, caught her on my shoulder, and began my descent just in time; for I had not made two steps downwards, when the floor on which she had stood fell in with a tremendous crash, shaking the whole building and emitting a shower of burning flakes of timber. I felt almost paralyzed for an instant. The girl fainted on my shoulder, and I had great difficulty to keep my feet. The suffocating heat nearly deprived me of breath; but just at this moment the ladder slipped, which recalled me, and with convulsive energy I grasped its sides between my knees, and thus slid in half a second to the ground.

“Brief as my passage had been, my hair and even my eyebrows were burned, my right shoulder painfully scorched, and to crown all, the force with which I alighted on Terra firma had severely sprained my ankle, so that I had scarcely handed my lovely burden to her father, when I fell down insensible.

“After a long illness, during which the greatest attention was paid to me, when I recovered strength enough to take cognisance of those around me, I was informed that I now lay in a farm-house near the village where the fire had happened, that the old gentleman whose daughter I had saved had caused me to be brought there, having liberally paid the inmates for their attention to me, and that he had left orders that when I could bear the journey I was to proceed to his residence, situated at a place called King’s Weston, in Somersetshire, for which purpose he had left me a sum of money.

“The landlord of the inn frequently came to see me, and indeed, among all the neighbours, I was considered quite a hero. My convalescence was pleasant enough, and I set forth to pay my respects to Mr Waterton, which I found was the name of the gentleman in question. I had previously sent a letter to him, returning my thanks for his kindness, and stating the day on which I intended to start, so that on my arrival per coach at Bristol, I found a servant with a horse and chaise, waiting to convey me forward to my destination.

“I was most cordially received by Mr W., his son and daughter, and when my health was re-established, the old gentleman enquired my situation and prospects. I told him that I was an orphan, bred up by an uncle who had taught me the trade of a shoemaker, but that my protector being dead, I was travelling in search of work when I fell in with him. Mr Waterton asked me if I would accept a situation to attend his son, who was about to travel, promising that upon our return he would do something more for me. I embraced this proposal very joyfully, being most desirous to see the world. Accordingly, I visited nearly every capital in Europe with this young gentleman, who always treated me rather as a friend than a servant. I wanted for nothing money could supply and consequently had no temptation to resume my old game.

“At length, the vessel in which we had sailed from Naples for Constantinople was wrecked upon one of the Greek islands. The whole of the crew and passengers, in order to save themselves, got into boats; but as she struck the rock in the night-time, myself and my master were separated in the confusion. The boat in which I was — with several others — stood for the land, which appeared at no great distance; but the violence of the sea was so great that in a short time the oars were swept from the hands of the seamen, and immediately afterwards the skiff upset.

“I remember nothing more, until it appeared to me I awoke. I then found myself lying nearly naked on a bare sea-beach so far from the water that I could hardly conceive how I had got there; but it seems that in these parts the fury of the waves will sometimes lift a large boat several hundred feet on the dry land. I looked about and saw that the whole shore for some distance was strewed with fragments of wreck. Among the rest were several chests, one of which I recognised as having belonged to a young gentleman passenger named Alleyn, who had been in the same boat with myself.

“This was no time to be scrupulous, for I was nearly perishing with cold; so, after some little difficulty, I broke open Mr Alleyn’s chest and to my great comfort found the contents were most of them dry, as the box was very strong and lined with tin. Among many other things I found a supply of warm clothing, which I much wanted, and therefore helped myself to a complete change. I found also a small bag containing a considerable number of pieces of foreign gold coin and a large bag of Spanish dollars, which I also secured. I now thought of looking after inhabitants, if there were any, and accordingly ascended a range of cliffs which overlooked the shore that was the scene of our disaster, and turned my eyes inland.

“The prospect was anything but cheering, for as far as my sight extended I could see nothing but a wild sort of heath, with a few stunted bushes here and there. At a considerable distance the view was shut in by a range of hills, beyond which a slight smoke appeared. The nearest way to these bills lay along the sea-beach, to which I accordingly returned.

“On repassing the fragments of wreck, I thought I might as well drag the most portable chests as far as I could out of the reach of the waves. I set busily to work to do so, and in my researches I stumbled upon the bodies of several of my unfortunate boat companions, which had before been hidden from my view by the rocks among which they lay. I examined them very anxiously, hoping to find one at least alive; for never did I feel so utterly abandoned and destitute. But the rough and jagged rocks among which they had been cast had completely crushed them to atoms. it was with great difficulty that I could recognise any of them; but among those I knew I discovered poor Mr Alleyn, whose clothes I had made free with. While I was endeavouring to draw the senseless corpses of my late shipmates up a little higher on the shore, I saw a man coming towards me, whose appearance was savage and uncouth enough to alarm a person better provided with means of resistance than myself; for, in fact, I possessed none but nature’s weapons.

“The person who now approached me bore a fowling-piece of singular appearance, marvellously long in the barrel. He was clad from head to foot in a sort of pelisse, or cloak, apparently made of sheepskin, with the wool outside. He wore a silken or velvet skull-cap, much embroidered with gold and silver thread. Boots of untanned leather completed his costume. Rude, however, as he seemed, I soon found by his gestures that his meaning was friendly; for although I could not understand a word he said, yet the tone of his voice, and the compassionate glances he cast at my dead companions assured me that I might hope for hospitality and assistance from him. He laid aside his gun, helped me to carry the relics of my shipmates, which we covered as decently as we could with some sails washed up by the storm, and then motioned me to accompany him.

“In the mean time I attempted to converse with him by trying all the scraps of languages I had picked up on my travels, but without any success. At last I desisted, and we pursued our path in silence. After walking about a mile along the shore, a sudden turn round a projecting cliff brought us a view of a small village, consisting of about three-score houses, most romantically situated at the head of a small bay. We soon reached one of the best in appearance, and my guide proceeded to issue several orders, apparently to his family. In a short time a small quantity of black bread, stewed meat, and a bottle of wine were placed before me. I needed but little pressing to satisfy my hunger.

“While I was thus engaged, a venerable-looking old man, whose white beard swept his girdle, came in. He made an obeisance to me and then began to speak in a sort of broken Italian, asking me whether I did not belong to the large ship that had been wrecked last night. I told him I was a passenger, and enquired whether anyone else had reached the shore, to which he replied that he knew not, for I was the first who had been seen.

“I now requested that he would endeavour to obtain assistance for the burial of my late companions and the security of the effects which lay on the beach, to which he replied that a party of the villagers had already gone to fetch the dead, in order to see to their interment in the churchyard. I proposed going to meet them, as I had no doubt that plunder was the object they had in view; but we had scarcely set out when we met these honest people returning with four of the corpses. They were carefully laid out upon boards in a little half-ruined chapel, where, by the direction of the old man, whom I now found to be a priest, several of the matrons commenced preparations for the burial. In short, the whole of them were brought in by noon, and having been prepared for interment, each being sewn up in a sort of sheet, the priest read the funeral service, and they were committed to the earth.

“In the mean time the villagers had brought most of the chests and portable articles that had drifted on shore to their dwellings. All of these they gave up to me; but I feared to claim any except the chests, etc. of Mr Alleyn, who I knew was dead, and I placed all the rest at the disposal of the padre, who told me that the place being a dependency upon the Ionian islands, he would write to Corfu by the first vessel, so that the authorities there might decide what should be done.

“In the mean time men had been dispatched to all parts of the islet, in order to look out for other traces of the wreck and to search for the survivors, if there might be any such, from the ill-fated vessel.

“I remained in the same cottage three days before any opportunity occurred for my removal, when a small galley, which came for fish from Naples, touched at the village. In this I took my departure, having in vain endeavoured to make the poor islanders accept of any remuneration for the trouble they had been at. The priest, who was the only person with whom I could maintain a broken sort of conversation, assured me, when I spoke of payment for the services rendered me, that the authorities at Corfu always satisfied both himself and flock for all the assistance they could afford a British subject.

“Finding that they would not receive any recompense for either my food or lodging, I bade them adieu. And ever since that time, when I have heard people railing at mankind, and vowing that there was neither honour, honesty, or hospitality left upon earth, I have thought of that lonely Greek islet, where the inhabitants, though as poor as poor can be, had yet extended protection and friendship to a solitary helpless being at his utmost need, without hope of reward.

“I soon reached the gay city of Naples again, and used every exertion, during my stay of near two months in that luxurious haunt of pleasure, to discover whether my master had escaped the wreck with life. But I was unsuccessful in all my endeavours, and I determined on returning to England, in the faint hope that young Mr Waterton might have arrived there, as there were many homeward bound vessels then sailing on those seas. I ardently trusted this might prove the case, for I really respected, I may say, loved, my master with great sincerity.

“I ought to have informed you that one of Mr Alleyn’s chests, of which I had taken possession, bore his name painted upon it in full. This being sent to the hotel at which I proposed to stop the day before I went thither myself, the people of the house dubbed me upon arrival, ‘Il Signor Alleyn’. As they had thus converted me into a gentleman, I had very little relish for again descending needlessly to the station of a servant. Besides, I fancied my honours sat quite as becomingly upon me as gentility did upon several of my countrymen, for, to speak Heaven’s truth, never were there such a collection of unlicked cubs as some of the Signori Inglese who abode in those days at the good town of Naples. Again, I found upon examination that with cash and trinkets, I was possessed of something above £1,100, which would at any rate, I thought, enable me to support my assumed character until I reached my fatherland, when I resolved upon dropping it and returning to my patron. But you know the old saying, ‘Man pro_poses but Heaven dis_poses.’ It so happened that among the passengers in the same ship with myself from Naples to England there was a young Irish gentleman named Power O’Donahoe, who had stayed at the Casa Inglese during all the time I had been there. Because I had never joined any of the other geniuses in laughing at his brogue or in ridiculing his blunders, this young man, with all the proverbial warmth of his country, formed quite a friendship for me, and when we arrived in London, nothing would suit him but I must go to the same hotel as he did.

“In an evil hour I consented, and we drank, danced, diced and wenched together for three months with great éclat. I was introduced into fashionable society by Mr O’Donahoe, who always told his friends that I was a young West Indian proprietor of great fortune, which indeed, through various hints I had purposely dropped, he really believed me to be.

“The roystering sort of life I now led rapidly attenuated my finances, and I began to obtain articles upon credit. Thus I quickly discovered the great truth that there is not upon earth a more credulous animal than a London tradesman; and by Heaven, they almost obliged but quite enticed me to swindle them. For eighteen months I thus lived upon the fat of the land, clad in purple and fine linen, faring sumptuously every day at the expense of others, and partaking most plentifully of all the pleasures the metropolis can afford, until at last duns became so troublesome that I was obliged to absent myself from the scene for a while. It was after an unsuccessful attempt at robbery that you first met me. I then returned to my old haunts, where I shortly afterwards took a furnished house and made free with nearly all its contents, together with a pair of job horses and a curricle. But that was my last feat, for I was in a few days after sold by one of my pals, who betrayed me into the hands of the traps, and — in short here I am.”


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00