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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter59)

2006-08-28 16:18

  Chapter LIX. Which Relates, Among Other Things, How Barnabas Lost His Hat

  Now as Barnabas stood thus, he heard another sigh, and glancing up beheld Mr. Shrig seated at the little Cobbler's bench, with a guttering candle at his elbow and a hat upon his fist, which he appeared to be examining with lively interest.

  "Sir," said he, as Barnabas approached, wondering, "I'm taking the liberty o' looking at your castor."

  "Oh!" said Barnabas.

  "Sir, it's a werry good 'at as 'ats go, but it's no kind of an 'at for you to-night."

  "And why not, Mr. Shrig?"

  "Because it ain't much pertection ag'in windictiveness——in the shape of a bludgeon, shall ve say, and as for a brick——v'y, Lord! And theer's an uncommon lot of windictiveness about to-night; it's a-vaiting for you——as you might say——round the corner."

  "Really, Mr. Shrig, I'm afraid I don't understand you."

  "Sir, d' ye mind a cove o' the name o' 'Vistling Dick,' as got 'isself kicked to death by an 'orse?"

  "Yes."

  "And d' ye mind another cove commonly known as 'Dancing Jimmy,' and another on 'em as is called 'Bunty Fagan'?"

  "Yes, they tried to rob me once."

  "Right, sir,——only I scared 'em off, you'll remember. Conseqvently, p'r'aps you ain't forgot certain other coves as you and me had a bit of a turn-up vith v'en I sez to you 'Run,' and you sez to me 'No,' and got a lump on your sconce like an 'ard-biled egg according?"

  "Yes, I remember of course, but why——"

  "Sir, they 're all on 'em out on the windictive lay again to-night, ——only, this time, it's you they 're arter."

  "Me——are you sure?"

  "And sartin! Corporal Richard Roe, late Grenadiers, give me the office, and Corporal Richard's never wrong, sir. Corporal Dick's my pal as keeps the 'Gun' in Gray's Inn Lane, you may remember, and the 'Gun' 's a famous chaffing-crib for the flash, leary coves. So, v'en the Corp tipped me the vord, sir, I put my castor on my sconce, slipped a barker in my cly, took my stick in my fib——or as you might say 'daddle,' d' ye see, and toddled over to keep a ogle on you. And, sir, if it hadn't been for the young gent as shadowed ye all the way to Giles's Rents, it's my opinion as they'd ha' done you into a corp as you come along."

  "But why should they want to do for me?"

  "V'y, sir, they'd do for their own mothers, j'yful, if you paid 'em to!"

  "But who would employ such a gang?"

  "Vell, sir, naming no names, there's a party as I suspect from conclusions as I've drawed, a party as I'm a-going to try to ketch this here werry night, sir——as I mean to ketch in flay-grant de-lick-too, vich is a law term meaning——in the werry act, sir, if you'll help me?"

  "Of course I will," said Barnabas, a little eagerly, "but how?"

  "By doing eggs-actly as I tell you, sir. Is it a go?"

  "It is," nodded Barnabas.

  "V'y, then, to begin vith, that theer coat o' yours,——it's too long to run in——off vith it, sir!"

  Barnabas smiled, but off came the long, befrogged surtout.

  "Now——my castor, sir" and Mr. Shrig handed Barnabas his famous hat. "Put it on, sir, if you please. You'll find it a bit 'eavyish at first, maybe, but it's werry good ag'in windictiveness."

  "Thank you," said Barnabas, smiling again, "but it's too small, you see."

  "That's a pity!" sighed Mr. Shrig, "still, if it von't go on, it von't. Now, as to a vepping?"

  "I have my stick," said Barnabas, holding it up. Mr. Shrig took it, balanced it in his grasp and passed it back with a nod of approval.

  "V'y then, sir, I think ve may wenture," said he, and rising, put on his hat, examined the priming of the brass-bound pistol, and taking the nobbly stick under his arm, blew out the candle and crossed to the door; yet, being there, paused. "Sir," said he, a note of anxiety in his voice, "you promise to do eggs-actly vot I say?"

  "I promise!"

  "Ven I say 'run' you'll run?"

  "Yes."

  "Then come on, sir, and keep close behind me."

  So saying, Mr. Shrig opened the door and stepped noisily out into the narrow court and waited while Barnabas fastened the latch; even then he paused to glance up at the sombre heaven and to point out a solitary star that twinkled through some rift in the blackness above.

  "Going to be a fine night for a little walk," said he, "Oliver vill be in town later on."

  "Oliver?" inquired Barnabas.

  "Ah! that's flash for the moon, sir. Jest a nice light there'll be. This vay, sir." With the words Mr. Shrig turned sharp to his left along the alley towards the River.

  "Why this way, Mr. Shrig?"

  "First, sir, because they're a-vaiting for you at t'other end o' the alley, and second, because v'en they see us go this vay they'll think they've got us sure and sartin, and follow according, and third, because at a certain place along by the River I've left Corporal Dick and four o' my specials, d'ye see. S-sh! Qviet now! Oblige me with your castor——your 'at, sir."

  Wonderingly, Barnabas handed him the article in question, whereupon Mr. Shrig, setting it upon the end of the nobbly stick, began to advance swiftly where the shadow lay blackest, and with an added caution, motioning to Barnabas to do the like.

  They were close upon the River now, so close that Barnabas could hear it lapping against the piles, and catch the indefinable reek of it. But on they went, swift and silent, creeping ever in the gloom of the wall beside them, nearer and nearer until presently the River flowed before them, looming darker than the dark, and its sullen murmur was all about them; until Mr. Shrig, stopping all at once, raised the hat upon his stick and thrust it slowly, inch by inch, round the angle of the wall. And lo! even as Barnabas watched with bated breath, suddenly it was gone——struck away into space by an unseen weapon, and all in an instant it seemed, came a vicious oath, a snarl from Mr. Shrig, the thud of a blow, and a dim shape staggered sideways and sinking down at the base of the wall lay very silent and very still.

  "Run!" cried Mr. Shrig, and away he went beside the River, holding a tortuous course among the piles of rotting lumber, dexterously avoiding dim-seen obstacles, yet running with a swiftness wonderful to behold. All at once he stopped and glanced about him.

  "What now?" inquired Barnabas.

  "S-sh! d'ye 'ear anything, sir?"

  Sure enough, from the darkness behind, came a sound there was no mistaking, the rush and patter of pursuing feet, and the feet were many.

  "Are we to fight here?" demanded Barnabas, buttoning his coat.

  "No, not yet, sir. Ah! there's Oliver——told you it vould be a fine night. This vay, sir!" And turning to the left again, Mr. Shrig led the way down a narrow passage. Half-way along this dim alley he paused, and seating himself upon a dim step, fell to mopping his brow.

  "A extra-special capital place, this, sir!" said he. "Bankside's good enough for a capital job, but this is better, ah, a sight better! Many a unfort'nate wictim has been made a corp' of, hereabouts, sir!"

  "Yes," said Barnabas shivering, for the air struck chill and damp, "but what do we do now?"

  "V'y, sir, I'll tell you. Ve sit here, nice and qviet and let 'em run on till they meet my four specials and Corporal Richard Roe, late Grenadiers. My specials has their staves and knows how to use 'em, and the Corp has 's 'ook,——and an 'ook ain't no-vise pleasant as a vepping. So, ven they come running back, d' ye see, theer's you vith your stick, an' me vith my barker, an' so ve 'ave 'em front and rear."

  "But can we stop them——all?"

  "Ah!" nodded Mr. Shrig, "all as the Corp 'as left of 'em. Ye see they know me, most on 'em, and likevise they knows as v'en I pull a barker from my cly that theer barker don't miss fire. Vot's more, they must come as far as this passage or else drownd theirselves in the River, vich vould save a lot o' trouble and expense, and——s-sh!"

  He broke off abruptly and rose to his feet, and Barnahas saw that he held the brass-bound pistol in his hand. Then, as they stood listening, plain and more plain was the pad-pad of running feet that raced up to the mouth of the alley where they stood——past it, and so died down again. Hereupon Mr. Shrig took out his large-faced watch and, holding it close to his eyes, nodded.

  "In about vun minute they'll run up ag'in the Corp," said he, "and a precious ugly customer they'll find him, not to mention my specials——ve'll give 'em another two minutes." Saying which, Mr. Shrig reseated himself upon the dim step, watch in hand. "Sir," he continued, "I'm sorry about your 'at——sich a werry good 'at, too! But it 'ad to be yours or mine, and sir,——axing your pardon, but there's a good many 'ats to be 'ad in London jest as good as yourn, for them as can afford 'em, but theer ain't another castor like mine——no, not in the U-nited Kingdom."

  "Very true," nodded Barnabas, "and no hat ever could have had a more——useful end, than mine."

  "V'y yes, sir——better your castor than your sconce any day," said Mr. Shrig, "and now I think it's about time for us to——wenture forth. But, sir," he added impressively, "if the conclusion as I've drawed is correct, theer's safe to be shooting if you're recognized, so keep in the shadder o' the wall, d' ye see. Now, are ye ready?——keep behind me——so. Here they come, I think."

  Somewhere along the dark River hoarse cries arose, and the confused patter of running feet that drew rapidly louder and more distinct. Nearer they came until Barnahas could hear voices that panted out fierce curses; also he heard Mr. Shrig's pistol click as it was cocked.

  So, another minute dragged by and then, settling his broad-brimmed hat more firmly, Mr. Shrig sprang nimbly from his lurking-place and fronted the on-comers with levelled weapon:

  "Stand!" he cried, "stand——in the King's name!"

  By the feeble light of the moon, Barnabas made out divers figures who, checking their career, stood huddled together some yards away, some scowling at the threatening posture of Mr. Shrig, others glancing back over their shoulders towards the dimness behind, whence came a shrill whistle and the noise of pursuit.

  "Ah, you may look!" cried Mr. Shrig, "but I've got ye, my lambs——all on ye! You, Bunty Fagan, and Dancing Jimmy, I know you, and you know me, so stand——all on ye. The first man as moves I'll shoot——stone dead, and v'en I says a thing I——"

  A sudden, blinding flash, a deafening report, and, dropping his pistol, Mr. Shrig groaned and staggered up against the wall. But Barnabas was ready and, as their assailants rushed, met them with whirling stick.

  It was desperate work, but Barnabas was in the mood for it, answering blow with blow, and shout with shout.

  "Oh, Jarsper!" roared a distant voice, "we're coming. Hold 'em, Jarsper!"

  So Barnabas struck, and parried, and struck, now here, now there, advancing and retreating by turns, until the flailing stick splintered in his grasp, and he was hurled back to the wall and borne to his knees. Twice he struggled up, but was beaten down again, ——down and down into a choking blackness that seemed full of griping hands and cruel, trampling feet.

  Faint and sick, dazed with his hurts, Barnabas rose to his knees and so, getting upon unsteady feet, sought to close with one who threatened him with upraised bludgeon, grasped at an arm, missed, felt a stunning shock,——staggered back and back with the sounds of the struggle ever fainter to his failing senses, tripped, and falling heavily, rolled over upon his back, and so lay still.

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