IT happened to my father,” said the tall man in the chimney corner, “and that’s how I came to know all about it.”
The chimney corner is that of the Rising Sun, a pleasant little roadside inn, about two miles from Northampton, and the tall man is the president of a bowling-club that met there, once a fortnight, principally to dine. The “it,” of which the speaker’s relative was the hero, is the adventure which forms the subject of this narrative.
The reason why we were listening to stories, instead of playing bowls, was simply this. One of the heaviest thunder-storms that I can remember, broke over the Rising Sun that afternoon. All during dinner we could see great ragged, copper-coloured clouds banking up against the wind, and the cloth was hardly off the table, when spit! spat! spat! against the diamond shaped window-panes came a few heavy hailstones, then came the lightning, then came the thunder, and then came the rain, as though it had not rained for ten years, and was determined to make up for lost time.
So there was nothing for it but to sit still and amuse ourselves, as best we could, in-doors; and the conversation having turned upon travelling, and the dangers of the road before railways were invented, Mr. Josh Sandiger, our president, sitting and smoking his pipe in the chimney corner, volunteered to tell us a tale of those times, and said he, “It happened to my father, and that’s how I came to know all about it.”
I do not think you would like me to give you the story just as Mr. Josh gave it us; you might get vexed with his pipe. He always smokes a very long clay pipe, which seems to require a great deal of management to get it to draw properly. He never says more than about six words at a time; then he has a pull at his pipe, and goes on again, giving you a whiff of words, and then a whiff of smoke, whilst you are turning them over in your mind and wondering what is coming next.
About every tenth whiff, he takes his pipe out of his mouth and looks gravely into the bowl; then he takes the tobacco-stopper, presses down the ashes carefully, and shakes them out on the hob; then he looks into it again, and, if it is all right, he dips the shank end into his brandy and water, looks into the bowl a third time, and gives it a rub with his cuff.
Next, he opens his mouth wide, puts the sealing-wax end in, closes his lips upon it slowly, and then goes on again with his story, six words at a time as before. He is reckoned a very emphatic speaker in these parts, is our president. And so, of course, he is; but I must confess, out of his hearing, that all this fidgetting, these pauses, and puffings, and stoppings, and rubbings, and lookings at nothing at all, in the middle of a story, irritate me sometimes to that degree that I feel inclined to run at him, knock his pipe out of his mouth, and shriek at him to get on faster — that I do!
It would be as well, perhaps, then, if I were to quote his own words as nearly as I can recollect them straight on, and put his pipe out.
My father (continued Mr. Josh), used often to say that he would like to see the man who could rob him upon the highway, and one fine November evening he did see him.
You young fellows who are accustomed to be whisked away a hundred miles between your breakfast and your dinner by an express-train, and grumble vastly if you are ten minutes behind time, don’t know much about what travelling was in 1795 — cross country travelling ‘specially.
Folks did not leave their homes then if they could help it. It’s all very fine to talk about the beauties of the country, and the delights of a change of scene, but when there are more highwaymen than scavengers or police about, the roads are not so very charming, I can tell you. Why, it was a week’s journey from here to London and back, in those days! and if you got home with whole bones and a full purse, you were not in a hurry to tempt Providence and Tom Rocket a second time.
Tom Rocket was a highwayman. No one ever christened him Tom, and his father’s name was not Rocket. When he was tried for his life at Warwick Assizes, he was arraigned as Charles Jackson, and they were particular about names then. If you indicted a man as Jim, and his true name was Joe, he got off; and when the law was altered — so that they could set such errors right at the trial — people, leastwise lawyers, said that the British Constitution was being pulled up, root and branch.
But that’s neither here nor there. I cannot tell you how it was that he came to be known as Tom Rocket, and if I could, it would not have anything to do with my story. For six years he was the most famous thief in the Midland counties, and for six years no one knew what he was like. He was a lazy fellow, was Tom; he never came out except when there was a good prize to be picked up, and he had his scouts and his spies all over the place to give him information about booty, and to warn him of danger.
But to judge by what people said, he was “on the road” at half-a-dozen different places at once every day of his life; for you see when any one was robbed of his property, or found it convenient so to account for it, why he laid it upon Tom Rocket as a sort of excuse for giving it up easily, because, you see, no one thought of resisting Tom.
So it was, that all sorts of conflicting descriptions of his person got abroad. One said that he was an awfully tall man and had a voice like thunder; another that was a mild little man, with black eyes and light hair. He was a fiery fat man, with blue eyes and black hair with some; he had a jolly red face — he was as pale as death — his nose was Roman one day, Grecian or a snub the rest. His dress was all the colours of the rainbow, and as for his horse! — that was of every shade and breed that was ever heard of, and of a good many more beside, that have yet to be found out.
He wore a black half-mask, but somehow or other it was always obliging enough to slip off, so as to give each of his victims a full view of his face, only no two of them could ever agree as to what it was like.
My father was a Gloucestershire man. He stood six feet three in his stockings, and measured thirty-six inches across the chest. He could double up a half-crown between his finger and thumb, and was as brave as a lion. So, many a time and oft, when any one talked of the dangers of the road, he would set his great teeth together, shake his head, and say that he should like to see the man that could rob him on the highway; and, as I said before, he did see him, and it was Tom Rocket.
My father was a lawyer, and was, at the time I have mentioned, engaged in a great tithe cause that was to be tried at Warwick Spring Assizes. So, shortly before Christmas, he had to go over to look up the evidence. There was no cross country coach, so he rode; and being, as I have said, a brave man, he rode alone.
He transacted his business; and my poor mother being ill, and not liking to leave her alone longer than he could help, he set out to ride home again about half past nine o’clock that same evening. It was as beautiful a winter’s night as ever you were out in. His nag was a first-rate hunter, as docile as a dog, and fit to carry even his weight over, or past anything.
He had a brace of excellent pistols in his holsters; and he jogged along, humming a merry tune, neither thinking nor caring for any robber under the sun. All of a sudden, it struck him that the pretty barmaid of an inn just out of Warwick town, where he had stopped to have a girth that he had broken patched together, had been very busy with those self-same pistols; and suspecting that she might have been tampering with them, he drew the charges and re-loaded them carefully. This done, he jogged on again as before.
He had ridden about ten miles, when he came to a wooden bridge that there was in those days over the Avon. Just beyond it rose a stiffish hill, at the top of which was a sudden bend in the road. Just as my father reached this turn, a masked horseman suddenly wheeled round upon him, and bade him “Stand and deliver!” It was Tom Rocket!
In a second my father’s pistols were out, cocked, and snapped within a yard of the highwayman’s chest; but, one after the other, they missed fire! The pretty barmaid— a special favourite of Tom’s — was too sharp to rely upon the old dodge of drawing the balls, or damping the charge: she thrust a pin into each touch-hole, and then broke it short off.
“Any more?” Tom inquired, as coolly as you please, when my father’s second pistol flashed in the pan.
“Yes!” shouted my father, in a fury, “one for your nob!”
And seizing the weapon last used by the muzzle, he hurled it with all his might and main at Rocket’s head. Tom ducked, the pistol flew over the hedge, and my father, thrown out of balance by his exertion, lost his seat, and fell heavily on the grass by the road side. In less time than it takes to say so, Tom dismounted, seized my father by the collar, and presenting a pistol within an inch of his face as he lay, bade him be quiet, or it would be the worse for him.
“You’ve given me a deal of trouble,” said Tom, “so just hand over your purse without any more ado, or by G—! I’ll send a bullet through your skull — just there;” and he laid the cold muzzle of his pistol on my father’s forehead just between his eyes.
It is bad enough to have to look down the barrel of loaded fire-arms upon full cock, with a highwayman’s finger upon the trigger; but to have the cold muzzle pressed slowly upon your head — ugh! — it makes me creep to think of it. My father made a virtue of necessity, and quietly gave up his purse.
“Much good may it do you,” he said; “for there’s only three-and-sixpence in it.”
“Now for your pocket-book,” said Tom, not heeding him.
“Pocket-book?” inquired my father, turning a little pale.
“Aye, pocket-book!” Tom repeated; “a thick black one; it is in the left-hand pocket of your riding-coat.”
“Here it is,” said my father, “you know so much about it that perhaps you can tell what its contents are worth?”
“I’ll see,” Tom replied, quietly taking out and unfolding half a dozen legal-looking documents.
“They are law-papers — not worth a rush to you or any one else,” said my father.
“Then,” Tom replied, ” I may tear them up,” and he made as though he would do so.
“Hold! on your life!” my father shouted, struggling hard, but in vain, to rise.
“Oh! they are worth something, then,” said Tom, with a grin.
“It would take a deal of trouble to make them out again,” my father replied sulkily — “that’s all.”
“How much trouble?” Tom inquired with a meaning look.
“Well,” my father answered, “I suppose I know what you are driving at. Hand me them back and let me go, and I promise to send you a hundred pounds when and where you please.”
“You know very well that these papers are worth more than a hundred,” said Tom.
“A hundred and fifty, then,” said my father.
“Go on,” said Tom.
“I tell you what it is, you scoundrel,” cried my father, “ I’ll stake five hundred against them if you’ll loose your hold, and fight me fairly for it.”
Tom only chuckled.
“Why what a ninny you must take me for,” he said. “Why should I bother myself fighting for what I even get without.”
“You’re a cur, that’s what you are,” my father shouted in a fury.
“Don’t be cross,” said Tom, “it don’t become you to look red in the face. Now, attend to me,” he continued in an altered tone, “do you see that bridge? Well! There’s a heap of stones in the centre, isn’t there? Very good ! If you will place five hundred guineas in gold, in a bag, amongst those stones at twelve o’clock at night this day week, you shall find your pocket-book and all its contents in the same place two hours afterwards.”
“How am I to know that you will keep your word,” my father replied, a little softened by the hope of regaining, even at so heavy a price, the papers that were invaluable to him.
“I’m Tom Rocket,” replied the robber, securing the pocket-book upon his person, “and what I mean, I say, and what I say, I stick to. Now, get up, and mind,” he added, as my father sprang to his feet, “my pistols don’t miss fire.”
”I shall live to see you hanged,” my father muttered, adjusting his disordered dress.
“Shall I help you to catch your horse?” Tom asked politely.
“I’ll never rest till I lodge you in a jail,” said my father, savagely.
“Give my compliments to your wife,” said Tom, mounting his horse.
” Confound your impudence,” howled my father.
“Good night,” said Tom, with a wave of his hand, and turning sharp round, he jumped his horse over the fence and was out of sight in a moment.
It was not quite fair of my father, I must own (Mr. Josh continued, after a pause), but he determined to set a trap for Tom Rocket, baited with the five hundred guineas, at the bridge. He posted up to London, saw Bradshaw, a famous Bow-street runner, and arranged that he and his men should come down, and help to catch Tom; but, just at the last moment, Bradshaw was detained upon some important government trial, and so another runner, Fraser, a no less celebrated officer, took his place.
It was settled that the runners should come by different roads, and all meet at a way-side inn about five miles from the bridge, at eight o’clock P.M. on the day my father’s pocket-book was to be returned. An hour afterwards they were to join him on the road, three miles further on.
Their object, you see, in taking this roundabout course was to baffle Tom’s spies and accomplices, and to get securely hid about the appointed spot long before the appointed time.
My father was a little late at the place of meeting; but when he arrived there he could see no one about, except a loutish-looking countryman in a smock-frock, who was swinging on a gate hard by.
“Good noight, maister,” said the yokel.
“Good night to you,” replied my father.
“Can ye tell me who this yer letter’s for,” said the yokel, producing a folded paper.
My father saw in a moment that it was his own letter to Bradshaw.
“Where did you get that?” he said quickly.
“Ah!” replied the yokel, replacing it in his pocket, “that ud be tellins. Be yer expecting anybody?”
“What’s that to you?” said my father.
“Oh, nought,” said the yokel, “only a gentleman from London—”
“Ha!” cried my father; “what gentleman?”
“Will a name beginning with F. suit you?” asked the yokel.
“Fraser?” The word fell involuntarily from my father’s lips.
“That’s the name,” replied the yokel, jumping down from his seat, and changing his tone and manner in a moment.
“I’m Fraser, sir, and you’re Mr. Sandiger, as has been robbed of a pocket-book containing waluable papers; and we’re going to catch Tom Rocket as has got it — that’s our game, sir. All right, sir; and now to business.”
“But where are your men?” my father asked, when Fraser had explained the reason for his disguise.
“All right again, sir,” said the runner, “they will join us. We have not much time to lose, so please to lead the way.”
So my father led the way, followed by Fraser; and by the time that they came in sight of the bridge they had been joined by four London officers, in different disguises, and from different directions. One appeared as a tramp, one as a pedlar, another as a gentleman’s servant leading a horse, and the fourth as a soldier. No one could have guessed that they had met before, much less that they were engaged together in a pre-concerted scheme. My father gave Fraser great credit for the dexterous way in which he had collected his forces.
The bridge upon which the money was to be placed, consisted of two arches across the river, and was joined on either side by a long sort of causeway, built upon piles over meadows that in the winter time were generally covered with water. It so happened, that the very next morning after the robbery heavy rain set in, and soon the floods were out, so that there was no way of getting on the bridge but by going along the causeway, which extended a distance of a hundred yards, sloping down gradually to the road, on each side of the river.
This causeway was built of wood. At some places the timbers were covered with earth and stones, but at others the roadway had worn out and they were bare, so that anyone’looking up from underneath, could see who was passing overhead.
Mr. Fraser’s sharp eye took in the position in a moment. He got two hurdles out of a field close by, and with some rope, that he had brought for another purpose, fastened them to the piles, so that they hung like shelves between the roadway and the flood, one at each side of the bridge, and about twenty yards from it.
This was his plan: two of his men were to lie hidden on each hurdle, whilst he and my father, in a boat that was concealed beneath the main arch of the bridge, unseen themselves, could watch the heap of stones where the money was to be placed, and the stolen pocket-book left in exchange for it. As soon as Tom Rocket, or any of his friends, removed the bag in which the gold was packed, Fraser was to whistle, and his men were to climb from their hiding places, and secure whoever it might be. If he leaped over the railing of the causeway, and took to the water, there was the boat in which to follow and capture him.
Mr. Fraser was very particular to practise his allies in springing quickly from their place of concealment, and in impressing upon them and my father the necessity of all acting together, keeping careful watch, and strict silence.
“And now, sir,” he said to my father, as a distant clock chimed a quarter to twelve, “it’s time to get to our places and to bait the trap, so please to hand me the bag that I may mark it, and some of the coins, so as to be able to identify them at the trial.”
He had made up his mind, you see, to nail Master Tom this time. My father gave him the bag, saw him write upon it, and make some scratches on about a dozen of the guineas, and then my father let himself down into the boat, in which he was immediately joined by the runner.
“It’s all right,” said Fraser, in a low tone.
“Do you think he will come?” whispered my father.
“Certain,” replied Fraser, “but, hush! we must not talk, sir, time’s up.”
For three mortal hours did my father sit in that boat, and the runners lay stretched out on the broad of their backs upon those hurdles watching for Tom Rocket to come for his money; and for three mortal hours not a soul approached the bridge, not a sound but the wash of the swollen river was heard.
By the time that the clock struck three, my father, who had been nodding for the last twenty minutes, fell fast asleep as he sat covered up in his cloak, for it was a bitter cold night; but was very speedily aroused by hearing Fraser cry out that they were adrift.
Adrift they were, sure enough. The rope that held them had been chafed against the sharp corner of a pile (so Mr. Fraser explained) till it broke, and away went the boat, whirling round and round in the eddies of the river, fit to make any one giddy. So strong was the stream, that they were carried a mile and a half down it, before they could get ashore.
My father was for returning directly to the bridge, and so was Fraser; but, somehow or other, they lost each other in the dark; and when my father arrived there, having run nearly all the way, he found, to his great surprise, that the officers had left. He rushed to the heap of stones, and there the first thing that caught his eye was his pocketbook — the money was gone! Lord, how he did swear!
Determining to have it out with the runners for deserting their posts, he hurried on to the inn where they had met, and were to pass the night. He knocked at the door. No answer. He knocked again, louder. No answer. He was not in the very best of tempers, as you may guess; so he gave the door a big kick. In it flew; and a sight met his view that fairly took away his breath. Tied into five chairs, hand and foot, trussed up like so many Christmas turkeys, with five gags in their five mouths, and their five pair of eyes glaring at him, owlishly, sat the real Mr. Fraser and his four Bow Street runners.
Tom Rocket had managed the business at the bridge himself! How he managed to get scent of the plot, and to seize the officers, all together, just at the nick of time, my father never could find out, and no one knows to this day. Upon examining his pocket-book, my father found all his documents, and a paper on which was written these words:
“By destroying these writings I could have ruined you. In doing so, I should have injured your client, whom I respect. For his sake I keep my word, though you have played me false. Tom Rocket.”
Here Mr. Josh paused, and smoked for some time in silence.
“And what became of Tom?” asked one of the company.
“Well,” replied Mr. Josh, “after having been tried three times, and getting off upon some law quibble on each occasion, he — who had robbed the worth of thousands of pounds, and escaped — was executed at Nottingham for stealing an old bridle! And now I’ve done, gentlemen all. I looks to-wards you.”
So our worthy president “looked to-wards us,” and finished his brandy-and-water at a gulp. Then, finding that the rain had given over, we thanked him for his story, and all adjourned to the bowling-green.
Author: Albany Fonblanque, Junr.