Gateway to the Classics: Martin Hyde: The Duke's Messenger by John Masefield
Martin Hyde: The Duke's Messenger by  John Masefield

I Leave Home Again

I THOUGHT Ephraim a pig for putting in that word about the fall. Though I had only known Ephraim for a few days I disliked him perhaps as much as he disliked me. He was angry (I could feel it) at having a boy in the house, after many years of quiet alone with my uncle. I know that when he had occasion to speak to me, he always went away muttering about my being a charity brat who ought to be in the poor-house. Still, like most servants, he vented most of his malice indirectly, as in this hint of his about the river. I rose up from the dinner-table full of rebellion. I would go on the river, I said to myself, fall or no fall. I would see more of Mr. Jermyn, too. I would find out what went on in that house. I would find out everything. In all this, of course, I was very wrong, but having made sure that I was being treated unjustly I felt that I was only doing right in rebelling. So after waiting till Ephraim was in the pantry, washing up the dinner-things with the housemaid, I slipped down the garden to the boathouse. The door was padlocked, as I had feared; but with an old hammer-head I managed to pry off the staple. I felt like a burglar when the lock came off in my hand. I felt that I was acting deceitfully. Then the thought of Ephraim came over me, making me rebellious to my finger-tips. I would go on the river, I said to myself, I would go aboard all the ships in the Pool. I would show them all that I could handle a boat anywhere. So in a moment my good angel was beaten. I was in the boat-house, prying at the staple of the outer door, like the young rogue that I was. Well, I paid a heavy price for that day of disobedience. It was the most dearly bought day's row I ever heard of.

It took me a few moments to open the outer door. Then, with a thrill of pleasure, such as only those who love the water can feel, I thrust out into the river, on to the last of the ebb, then fast ebbing. The fall under the bridge at that state of the tide was truly terrifying. It roared so loudly that I could hear nothing else. It boiled about the bridge piers so fiercely that I was scared to see it. I had seen the sea in storm; but then one does not put to sea in a storm. This waterfall tumbled daily, even in a calm. I shuddered to think of small boats, caught in the current above it, being drawn down, slowly at first, then with a whirl, till all was whelmed in the tumble below the arches. I saw how hatefully the back wash seemed to saunter back to the fall along the banks. I thought that if I was not careful I might be caught in the back wash, drawn slowly along it by the undertow, till the cataract sank me. As I watched the fall, fascinated, yet scared by it, there came a shooting rush, with shouts of triumph. A four-oared wherry with two passengers shot through the arch over the worst of the water into the quiet of the midstream. They waved to me, evidently very pleased with their exploit. That set me wondering whether the water were really as bad as it looked. My first feat was to back up cautiously almost to the fall, till my boat was dancing so vigorously that I was spattered all over. Standing up in the boat there, I could see the oily water, like a great arched snake's back, swirl past the arch towards me, bubbleless, almost without a ripple, till it showed all its teeth at once in breaking down. The piers of the arches jutted far out below the fall, like pointed islands. I was about to try to climb on to the top of one from the boat, a piece of madness which would probably have ended in my death, but some boys in one of the houses on the bridge began to pelt me with pebbles, so that I had to sheer off. I pulled down among the shipping, examining every vessel in the Pool. Then I pulled down stream, with the ebb, as far as Wapping, where I was much shocked by the sight of the pirates' gallows, with seven dead men hung in chains together there, for taking the ship Delight,  so a waterman told me, on the Guinea Coast, the year before. I left my boat at Wapping Stairs, while I went into a pastry-cook's shop to buy cake; for I was now hungry. The pastry-cook was also a vintner. His tables were pretty well crowded with men, mostly seafaring men, who were drinking wine together, talking of politics. I knew nothing whatever about politics, but hearing the Duke of Monmouth named I pricked up my ears to listen. My father had told me, in his last illness, when the news of the death of Charles the Second reached us, that trouble would come to England through this Duke, because, he said, "he will never agree with King James." Many people (the Duke himself being one of them) believed that this James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, was the son of a very beautiful woman by Charles the Second, who (so the tale went) had married her in his wanderings abroad, while Cromwell ruled in England here. I myself shall ever believe this story. I am quite sure, now, in my own mind, that Monmouth was our rightful King. I have heard accounts of this marriage of Charles the Second from people who were with him in his wanderings. When Charles the Second died (being poisoned, some said, by his brother James, who wished to seize the throne while Monmouth was abroad, unable to claim his rights) James succeeded to the crown. At the time of which I write he had been King for about two months. I did not know anything about his merits as a King; but hearing the name of Monmouth I felt sure, from the first, that I should hear more of what my father had told me.

One of the seamen, a sour-looking, pale-faced man, was saying that Holland was full of talk that the Duke was coming over, to try for the Kingdom. Another said that it wasn't the Duke of Monmouth but the Duke of Argyle that was coming, to try, not for England, but for Scotland. A third said that all this was talk, for how could a single man, without twenty friends in the world, get through a cruising fleet? "How could he do anything, even if he did land?"

"Ah," said another man. "They say that the West is ready to rally round him. That's what they say."

"Well," said the first, raising his cup. "Here's to King James, I say. England's had enough of civil troubles." The other men drank the toast with applause. It is curious to remember how cautious people were in those troublous days. One could never be sure of your friend's true opinion. It was a time when there were so many spies abroad that everybody was suspicious of his neighbour. I am sure that a good half of that company was disloyal; yet they drank that toast, stamping their feet, as though they would have shed their blood for King James with all the pleasure in life. "Are you for King James, young waterman?" said one of the men to me. "Yes," I said, "I am for the rightful King." At this they all laughed. One of the men said that if there were many like me the Duke of Monmouth might spare himself the trouble of coming over.

I finished my cake quietly, after that. Then, as the tide was not yet making, to help me back up the river, I wandered into Wapping fields, where a gang of beggars camped. They were a dirtier, more troublesome company than the worst of the Oulton gipsies. They crowded round me, whining about their miseries, with the fawning smiles of professional beggars. There were children among them who lied about their wants as glibly as their parents lied. The Oulton beggars had taught me to refuse such people, as being, nearly always, knaves; so I said that I had nothing for them. I felt the hands of these thieves lightly feeling the outsides of my pockets for something worth taking. One of them with a sudden thrust upon me snatched my handkerchief. He tossed it to a friend. As he started to run from me, a young man with an evil, weak face pushed me backwards with a violent shove. I staggered back, from the push, to fall over a boy who had crouched behind me there, ready to upset me. When I got up, rather shaken from my fall, the dirty gang was scattering to its burrow; for they lived, like beasts, in holes scratched in the ground, thatched over with sacks or old clothes. I hurried back towards Wapping in the hope of finding a constable to recover my handkerchief for me. The constable (when I found him) refused to stir until I made it worth his while. Sixpence was his fee, he said, but he was sure that a handsome young gentleman like myself would not grudge a sixpence to recover a handkerchief. On searching for my purse (in which I had about two shillings) I found that that had gone, too, "nicked" by these thieves. I told the constable that my purse had been stolen.

"Oh," he said. "How much was in it?" I told him.

"Could you describe the man who took it?"

"No." I said. "I did not see the man take it."

"Then how do you know that anybody took it?" Of course I did not know that anybody had taken it; but thought it highly probable. "That won't do here," he said, settling down in his chair to his tobacco. "I'll look into it. If I hear of it, why, next time you come here, you shall have it."

"But my handkerchief," I said.

"Sixpence is my fee," the brute answered. "Do you want to rob a poor man of his earnings? Why, what a rogue you must be, young master." I tried to move him to recover my handkerchief, but without success. At last, growing weary of the sound of my pipe, as he said, he rounded on me.

"If you don't run away 'ome," he said, "I'll commit you for a nuisance. Think I'm goin' to be bothered by yer. Be off, now."

At that, I set off down to the river. There I found two dirty little boys in my uncle's boat, busy with the dipper, trying to fill her with water. I boxed the ears of one of them, when the other, coming behind me, hit me over the head with the stretcher. I turned sharply, giving him a punch which made his nose bleed. The other, seeing his chance (my back being turned) promptly soused me with the dipper. I saw that I would have to settle one of them at a time, so, paying no attention to the dipper, I followed up my blow on the nose with one or two more, which drove the stretcher-boy out of the boat. The other was a harder lad; who would, perhaps, have beaten me, had not a waterman on the stairs taken my part. He took my enemy by the ear. "Get out of that," he said, giving him a kick. "If I catch you messing boats again, I'll give you Mogador Jack." I pushed off from the stairs then, glad to get away with both oars. My enemies, running along the banks, flung stones at me as long as I was in range. If I had had my sling with me, I would have warmed their legs for them. When I was out of range of their shot, I laid in my oars, so that I could bail. The boys had poured about six inches of water into the boat. If the plug had been less tightly hammered in, they would no doubt have sunk her at her painter by pulling it out. Then I should have been indeed in difficulty. It took me about twenty minutes to bail the boat clear. As I bailed her, I thought that Londoners must be the most unpleasant people in the world, since, already, in two days, I had met so many knaves. It did not occur to me at the time that I was a young knave, too, to be out in a stolen boat, against orders. I never once thought how well I had been served for my disobedience.

I had an uncomfortable journey upstream, for I was very wet from my sousing. I loitered at the Tower to watch the garrison drilling with the big guns. Then I loitered about among the ships, reading their names, or even climbing their gangways to look at their decks. I lingered a long time at the schooner La Reina,  partly because she was much the prettiest ship in the Pool, but partly because I was beginning to dread Ephraim. I wondered whether Mr. Jermyn was on board of her. I was half tempted to climb aboard to find out. I clambered partly up her gangway, so that I could peer over her rail. To my surprise, I found that her hatches were battened down as in ships ready for the sea. Her cargo of oranges, that had smelt so sweetly, must have been a blind, for no ship, discharging cargo the day before, could be loaded, ready for sea, within twenty-four hours. Indeed, she was in excellent trim. She was not too light to put to sea. No doubt, I said to myself, she has taken in ballast to equal the weight of oranges sent ashore. But I knew just enough of ships to know that there was some mystery in the business. The schooner could not be the plain fruit-trader for which men took her. As I looked over her rail, noting this, I said to myself that "here is another mystery with which Mr. Jermyn has to do." I felt a thrill of excitement go through me. I was touching mysterious adventure at half a dozen different points. I felt inclined to creep to the hatchway of the little cabin, to listen there if any plots were being hatched. It was getting duskish by this time, it must have been nearly seven o'clock. Two men came up the cabin hatch together. One of them was Mr. Jermyn, the other a shorter fellow, to whom Mr. Jermyn seemed extremely respectful. I wished not to be seen, so I ducked down nimbly into my boat, drawing her forward by a guess-warp, till I could row without being heard by them. I heard Mr. Jermyn calling to a waterman; so very swiftly I paddled behind other ships in the tier, without being observed. Then I paddled back to my uncle's boathouse, the door of which, to my horror, was firmly fastened against me.

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