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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter31)

2006-08-28 16:11

  Chapter XXXI. Which Describes Some of the Evils of Vindictiveness

  Barnabas stumbled suddenly, dropped his cane, saw his hat spin through the air and roll on before him; staggered sideways, was brought up by a wall, and turning, found three men about him, ——evil-faced men whose every move and look held a menace. A darting hand snatched at his fob-seals, but Barnabas smote, swift and hard, and the three were reduced, for the moment, to two. Thus with his back to the wall stood Barnabas, fists clenched, grim of mouth, and with eyes quick and bright; wherefore, beholding him in this posture, his assailants hesitated. But the diamonds sparkled at them from his cravat, the bunch of seals gleamed at them from his fob, and the fallen man having risen, albeit unsteadily, they began to close in upon him. Then, all at once, even as he poised himself to meet their rush, a distant voice uttered a sharp, warning cry, whereat the three, spattering curses, incontinent took to their heels, and were gone with a thud of flying feet.

  For a moment Barnabas stood dazed by the suddenness of it all, then, stooping to recover hat and cane, glanced about, and saw that he was in a dirty, narrow street, or rather alley. Now up this alley a man was approaching, very deliberately, for as he came, he appeared to be perusing a small book. He was a short, broad-shouldered man, a mild-faced man of a sober habit of dress, with a broad-brimmed hat upon his head——a hat higher in the crown than was the custom, and a remarkably nobbly stick beneath his arm; otherwise, and in all respects, he was a very ordinary-looking man indeed, and as he walked, book in hand, might have been some small tradesman busily casting up his profit and loss, albeit he had a bright and roving eye.

  Being come up with Barnabas, he stopped, closed his book upon his finger, touched the broad rim of his hat, and looked at Barnabas, or to be exact, at the third left-hand button of his coat.

  "Anything stole, sir?" he inquired hopefully.

  "No," answered Barnabas, "no, I think not."

  "Ah, then you won't be vantin' to mek a charge ag'in 'em, sir?"

  "No,——besides, they've escaped."

  "Escaped, Lord no, sir, they've only run avay, I can allus put my 'ooks on 'em,——I spotted 'em, d'ye see. And I know 'em, Lord love you! ——like a feyther! They vas Bunty Fagan, Dancin' James, and Vistlin' Dick, two buzmen an' a prig."

  "What do you mean?" inquired Barnabas, beginning to eye the man askance for all his obtrusive mildness.

  "I means two pickpockets and a thief, sir. It vas Vistlin' Dick as you give such a 'leveller' to,——a rare pretty knock-down I vill say, sir,——never saw a cleaner——Oh! they're a bad lot, they are, 'specially Vistlin' Dick, an' it's lucky for you as I 'appened to come this vay."

  "Why, do you mean to say," said Barnabas, staring at the mild-faced man, "do you want me to believe that it was the sight of you that sent them running?"

  "Vell, there veren't nobody else to, as I could see, sir," said the man, with a gentle smile and shake of the head. "Volks ain't partial to me in these yere parts, and as to them three, they're a bad lot, they are, but Vistlin' Dick's the vorst——mark my vords, 'e'll come to be topped yet."

  "What do you mean by 'topped'?"

  "V'y, I means scragged, sir," answered the man, his roving eye glancing continually up and down the alley,

  "I means 'anged, sir,——Lord love you, it's in 'is face——never see a more promising mug, consequent, I 've got Vistlin' Dick down in my little book 'ere, along vith a lot of other promising vuns."

  "But why in your book?"

  "Veil, d' ye see, I keeps a record of all the likely coves, Capital Coves as you might call 'em——" Here the mild man jerked his head convulsively to one side, rolled up his eyes, and protruded his tongue, all in hideous pantomime, and was immediately his placid self again.

  "Ah! you mean——hanged?" said Barnabas.

  "As ever vas, sir, capital punishment. And I goes round reg'lar jest to keep an eye on my capital coves. Lord! I vatches over 'em all——like a feyther. Theer's some volks as collects books, an' some volks as collects picters an' old coins, but I collects capital coves,——names and faces. The faces I keeps 'ere," and he tapped his placid forehead, "the names I keeps 'ere," and he tapped the little book. "It's my trade d' ye see, and though there's better trades, still there's trades as is vorse, an' that's summat, ain't it?"

  "And what might your trade be?" inquired Barnabas, as they walked on together along the narrow alley.

  "Veil, sir, I'm vot they calls a bashaw of the pigs——but I'm more than that."

  "Pray," said Barnabas, "what do you mean?" For answer the man smiled, and half drew from his pocket a short staff surmounted by a crown.

  "Ah!" said Barnabas, "a Bow Street Runner?"

  "And my name is Shrig, sir, Jasper Shrig. You'll have heard it afore, o'course."

  "No!" said Barnabas. Mr. Shrig seemed placidly surprised, and vented a gentle sigh.

  "It's pretty vell known, in London, sir, though it ain't a pretty name, I'll allow. Ye-es, I've 'eard prettier, but then it's better than a good many, and that's sum-mat, ain't it? And then, as I said afore, it's pretty vell known."

  "How so?"

  "Vell, sir, there be some as 'as a leanin' to one branch o' the profession, and some to another,——now mine's murders."

  "Murders?" said Barnabas, staring.

  "Vith a werry big M., sir. V'y, Lord love you, there's been more murderers took and topped through me than any o' the other traps in London, it's a nat'ral gift vith me. Ye see, I collects 'em——afore the fact, as ye might say. I can smell 'em out, feel 'em out, taste 'em out, it's jest a nat'ral gift."

  "But——how? What do you mean?"

  "I means as I'll be valking along a street, say, looking at every face as I pass. Vell, all at once I'll spot a cove or covess vith vot I calls a capital mug, I'll follow that cove or covess, and by 'ook or by crook I'll find out that there cove or covess's name, and——down it goes in my little book, d' ye see?" and he tapped the little book.

  "But surely," said Barnabas, "surely they don't all prove to be murderers?"

  "Vell no, sir——that's hardly to be expected,——ye see, some on 'em wanishes away, an' some goes an' dies, but they mostly turns out true capitals——if I only vaits for 'em long enough, and——up they goes."

  "And are you always on the lookout for such faces?"

  "Yes, sir,——v'en I ain't busy on some case. A man must 'ave some little relaxation, and that's mine. Lord love you, sir, scarcely a day goes by that I don't spot one or two. I calls 'em my children, an' a werry large, an' a werry mixed lot they are too! Rich an' poor, men an' women,——rolling in their coaches an' crawling along the kennel. Aha! if you could look into my little reader an' see the names o' some o' my most promisin' children they'd as-tonish you. I've been to 'ave a look at a couple of 'em this mornin'. Aha! it would a-maze you if you could look into my little reader."

  "I should like to," said Barnabas, eyeing the small, shabby book with a new interest. But Mr. Shrig only blinked his wide, innocent eyes, and slipping the book into his pocket, led the way round a sudden corner into another alley narrower than the last, and, if possible, dirtier.

  "Where are we going?" Barnabas demanded, for Mr. Shrig, though always placid, had suddenly taken on an air that was almost alert, his bright, roving eye wandered more than ever, and he appeared to be hearkening to distant sounds. "Where are we going?" repeated Barnabas.

  "Gray's Inn is 'andiest, sir, and I must ask you to step out a bit, they're a rough crowd as lives 'ereabouts,——scamps an' hunters, didlers an' cly-fakers, so I must ask you to step out a bit, this is a bad country for me."

  "Bad for you? Why?"

  "On account o' windictiveness, sir!"

  "Of what?"

  "Windictiveness, sir——windictiveness in every shape an' form, but brick-ends mostly——vith a occasional chimbley-pot."

  "I'm afraid I don't understand," Barnabas began.

  "Veil then," explained Mr. Shrig as they strode along, "I vere the means o' four coves bein' topped d' ye see, 'ighvay robbery vith wiolence,——'bout a month ago, used to live round 'ere, they did, an' their famblies an' friends is windictive against me accordingly, an' werry nat'ral too, for 'uman natur' is only 'uman natur', ain't it? Werry good then. Now their windictiveness,——or as you might say, 'uman natur',——generally takes the shape of chimbley-pots and brick-ends, though I 'ave met windictiveness in the form o' b'iling vater and flat-irons, not to mention saucepans an' sich, afore now, and vunce a arm-cheer, all of vich is apt to vorry you a bit until you gets used to it. Then there's knives——knives is allus awk'ard, and bludgeons ain't to be sneezed at, neither. But, Lord! every perfession and trade 'as its drawbacks, an' there's a sight o' comfort in that, ain't there?"

  All this time the eyes of Mr. Shrig were roving here, wandering there, now apparently glancing up at the strip of sky between the dingy house tops, now down at the cobbles beneath their feet; also Barnabas noticed that his step, all at once, grew slower and more deliberate, as one who hesitates, uncertain as to whether he shall go on, or turn back. It was after one of those swift, upward glances, that Mr. Shrig stopped all at once, seized Barnabas by the middle and dragged him into an adjacent doorway, as something crashed down and splintered within a yard of them.

  "What now——what is it?" cried Barnabas.

  "Win-dictiveness!" sighed Mr. Shrig, shaking his head at the missile, "a piece o' coping-stone, thirty pound if a ounce——Lord! Keep flat agin the door sir, same as me, they may try another——I don't think so——still they may, so keep close ag'in the door. A partic'lar narrer shave I calls it!" nodded Mr. Shrig; "shook ye a bit sir?"

  "Yes," said Barnabas, wiping his brow.

  "Ah well, it shook me——and I'm used to windictiveness. A brick now," he mused, his eyes wandering again, "a brick I could ha' took kinder, bricks an' sich I'm prepared for, but coping-stones——Lord love me!"

  "But a brick would have killed you just the same——"

  "Killed me? A brick? Oh no, sir!"

  "But, if it had hit you on the head——"

  "On the 'at sir, the 'at——or as you might say——the castor——this, sir," said Mr. Shrig; and glancing furtively up and down the gloomy alley he took off the broad-brimmed hat; "just run your ogles over this 'ere castor o' mine, an' you'll understand, perhaps."

  "It's very heavy," said Barnabas, as he took the hat.

  "Ah, it is a bit 'eavyish, sir. Peep inside of it."

  "Why," exclaimed Barnabas, "it's lined with——"

  "Iron, sir. My own inwention ag'in windictiveness in the shape o' bricks an' bludgeons, an' werry useful an comfortin' I've found it. But if they're going to begin on me vith coping-stones,——v'y Lord!" And Mr. Shrig sighed his gentle sigh, and rubbed his placid brow, and once more covered it with the "inwention."

  "And now sir, you've got a pair o' good, long legs——can ye use 'em?"

  "Use them,——yes. Why?"

  "Because it's about time as we cut our stick an' run for it."

  "What are we to run for?"

  "Because they're arter me,——nine on 'em,——consequent they're arter you too, d' ye see. There's four on 'em be'ind us, an' five on 'em in front. You can't see 'em because they're layin' low. And they're bad uns all, an' they means business."

  "What——a fight?"

  "As ever vas, sir. I've 'ad my eye on 'em some time. That 'ere coping-stone vas the signal."

  "Ha!" said Barnabas, buttoning up his coat.

  "Now, are ye ready, sir?"

  "Quite!"

  "Then keep close be'ind me——go!" With the word Mr. Shrig began to run, always keeping close beside the wall; indeed he ran so fast and was so very nimble that Barnabas had some ado to keep up with him. They had gone but a little distance when five rough looking fellows started into view further up the alley, completely blocking their advance, and by the clatter of feet behind, Barnabas knew that their retreat was cut off, and instinctively he set his teeth, and gripped his cane more firmly. But on ran Mr. Shrig, keeping close beside the wall, head low, shoulders back, elbows well in, for all the world as if he intended to hurl himself upon his assailants in some desperate hope of breaking through them; but all at once, like a rabbit into his burrow, he turned short off in mid career, and vanished down a dark and very narrow entry or passage, and, as Barnabas followed, he heard, above the vicious thud of footsteps, hoarse cries of anger and disappointment. Half-way down the passage Mr. Shrig halted abruptly and turned, as the first of their pursuers appeared.

  "This'll do!" he panted, swinging the nobbly stick in his hand, "can't come on more nor two at vunce. Be ready vith your stick——at their eyes——poke at 'em——no 'itting——" the rest was drowned in the echoing rush of heavy feet and the boom of hoarse voices. But now, seeing their quarry stand on the defensive, the pursuers checked their advance, their cries sank to growling murmurs, till, with a fierce shout, one of their number rushed forward brandishing a heavy stick, whereupon the others followed, and there, in the echoing dimness, the battle was joined, and waxed furious and grim.

  Almost at the first onset the slender cane Barnabas wielded broke short off, and he was borne staggering back, the centre of a panting, close-locked, desperate fray. But in that narrow space his assailants were hampered by their very numbers, and here was small room for bludgeon-play,——and Barnabas had his fists.

  There came a moment of thudding blows, trampling feet, oaths, cries, ——and Barnabas was free, staring dazedly at his broken knuckles. He heard a sudden shout, a vicious roar, and the Bow Street Runner, dropping the nobbly stick, tottered weakly and fell,——strove to rise, was smitten down again, and, in that moment, Barnabas was astride him; felt the shock of stinging blows, and laughing fierce and short, leapt in under the blows, every nerve and muscle braced and quivering; saw a scowling face,——smote it away; caught a bony wrist, wrenched the bludgeon from the griping fingers, struck and parried and struck again with untiring arm, felt the press thin out before him as his assailants gave back, and so, stood panting.

  "Run! Run!" whispered Mr. Shrig's voice behind him. "Ve can do it now, ——run!"

  "No!" panted Barnabas, wiping the blood from his cheek. "Run!" cried Mr. Shrig again, "there's a place I knows on close by——ve can reach it in a jiff——this vay,——run!"

  "No!"

  "Not run? then v'ot vill ye do?"

  "Make them!"

  "Are ye mad? Ha!——look out!" Once more the echoing passage roared with the din of conflict, as their assailants rushed again, were checked, smote and were smitten, and fell back howling before the thrust of the nobbly stick and the swing of the heavy bludgeon.

  "Now vill ye run?" panted Mr. Shrig, straightening the broad-brimmed hat.

  "No!"

  "V'y then, I vill!" which Mr. Shrig immediately proceeded to do.

  But the scowl of Barnabas grew only the blacker, his lips but curled the fiercer, and his fingers tightened their grip upon the bludgeon as, alone now, he fronted those who remained of the nine.

  Now chancing to glance towards a certain spot, he espied something that lay in the angle of the wall, and, instinctively stooping, he picked up Mr. Shrig's little book, slipped it into his pocket, felt a stunning blow, and reeled back, suddenly faint and sick. And now a mist seemed to envelop him, but in the mist were faces above, below, around him, faces to be struck at. But his blows grew weak and ever weaker, the cudgel was torn from his lax grip, he staggered back on stumbling feet knowing he could fight no more, and felt himself caught by a mighty arm, saw a face near by, comely and dimpled of chin, blue-eyed, and with whiskers trimmed into precise little tufts on either cheek. Thereafter he was aware of faint cries and shouts, of a rushing patter like rain among leaves, and of a voice speaking in his ear.

  "Right about face,——march! Easy does it! mind me 'ook, sir, the p'int's oncommon sharp like. By your left——wheel! Now two steps up, sir——that's it! Now three steps down, easy does it! and 'ere we are. A cheer, sir, now water and a sponge!"

  Here Barnabas, sinking back in the chair, leaned his head against the wall behind him, and the mist grew more dense, obliterating all things.

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