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

I WAS born at Oulton, in Suffolk, in the year 1672. I know not the day of my birth, but it was in March, a day or two after the Dutch war began. I know this, because my father, who was the clergyman at Oulton, once told me that in the night of my birth a horseman called upon him, at the rectory, to ask the way to Lowestoft. He was riding from London with letters for the Admiral, he said; but had missed his way somewhere beyond Beccles. He was mud from head to foot (it had been a wet March) but he would not stay to dry himself. He reined in at the door, just as I was born, as though he were some ghost, bringing my life in his saddle bags. Then he shook up his horse, through the mud, towards Lowestoft, so that the splashing of the horse's hoofs must have been the first sound heard by me. The Admiral was gone when he reached Lowestoft, poor man, so all his trouble was wasted. War wastes more energy, I suppose, than any other form of folly. I know that on the East Coast, during all the years of my childhood, this Dutch war wasted the energies of thousands. The villages had to drill men, each village according to its size, to make an army in case the Dutch should land. Long after the war was over, they drilled thus. I remember them on the field outside the church, drilling after Sunday service, firing at a stump of a tree. Once some wag rang the alarm-bell at night, to fetch them out of their beds. Then there were the smugglers; they, too, were caused by the war. After the fighting there was a bitter feeling against the Dutch. Dutch goods were taxed heavily (spice, I remember, was made very dear thus) to pay for the war. The smugglers began then to land their goods secretly, all along the coast, so that they might avoid the payment of the duty. The farmers were their friends; for they liked to have their gin cheap. Indeed, they used to say that in an agueish place like the fens, gin was a necessity, if one would avoid fever. Often, at night, in the winter, when I was walking home from Lowestoft school, I would see the farmers riding to the rendezvous in the dark, with their horses' hoofs all wrapped up in sacks, to make no noise.

I lived for twelve years at Oulton. I learned how to handle a boat there, how to swim, how to skate, how to find the eggs of the many wild fowl in the reeds. In those days the Broad country was a very wild land, half of it swamp. My father gave me a coracle on my tenth birthday. In this little boat I used to explore the country for many miles, pushing up creeks among the reeds, then watching, in the pools (far out of the world it seemed) for ruffs or wild duck. I was a hardy boy, much older than my years, like so many only children. I used to go away, sometimes, for two or three days together, with my friend John Halmer, Captain Halmer's son, taking some bread, with a blanket or two, as my ship's stores. We used to paddle far up the Waveney to an island hidden in reeds. We were the only persons who knew of that island. We were like little kings there. We built a rough sort of tent-hut there every summer. Then we would pass the time there deliciously, now bathing, now fishing, but always living on what we caught. John, who was a wild lad, much older than I, used to go among the gipsies in their great winter camp at Oulton. He learned many strange tricks from them. He was a good camp-companion. I think that the last two years of my life at Oulton were the happiest years of my life. I have never cared for dry or hilly countries since. Wherever I have been in the world, I have always longed for the Broads, where the rivers wander among reeds for miles, losing themselves in thickets of reeds. I have always thought tenderly of the flat land, where windmills or churches are the only landmarks, standing up above the mist, in the loneliness of the fens. But when I was nearly thirteen years old (just after the death of Charles the Second) my father died, leaving me an orphan. My uncle, Gabriel Hyde, a man about town, was my only relative. The vicar of Lowestoft wrote to him, on my behalf. A fortnight later (the ways were always very foul in the winter) my uncle's man came to fetch me to London. There was a sale of my father's furniture. His books were sent off to his college at Cambridge by the Lowestoft carrier. Then the valet took me by wherry to Norwich, where we caught a weekly coach to town. That was the last time I ever sailed on the Waveney as a boy, that journey to Norwich. When I next saw the Broads, I was a man of thirty-five. I remember how strangely small the country seemed to me when I saw it after my wanderings. But this is away from my tale. All that I remember of the coach-ride was my arrival late at night at the London inn, a dark house full of smells, from which the valet led me to my uncle's house.

I lay awake, that first night, much puzzled by the noise, fearing that London would be all streets, a dismal place. When I fell asleep, I was waked continually by chiming bells. In the morning, early, I was roused by the musical calling made by milkmen on their rounds, with that morning's milk for sale. At breakfast my uncle told me not to go into the street without Ephraim, his man; for without a guide, he said, I should get lost. He warned me that there were people in London who made a living by seizing children ("kidnapping" or "trepanning" them, as it was called) to sell to merchant-captains bound for the plantations. "So be very careful, Martin," he said. "Do not talk to strangers." He went for his morning walk after this, telling me that I might run out to play in the garden.

I went out of doors feeling that London must be a very terrible place, if the folk there went about counting all who met them as possible enemies. I was homesick for the Broads, where everybody, even bad men, like the worst of the smugglers, was friendly to me. I hated all this noisy city, so full of dirty jumbled houses. I longed to be in my coracle on the Waveney, paddling along among the reeds, chucking pebbles at the water-rats. But when I went out into the garden I found that even London held something for me, not so good as the Broads, perhaps, but pleasant in its way.

Now before I go further, I must tell you that my uncle's house was one of the old houses in Billingsgate. It stood in a narrow, crowded lane, at the western end of Thames Street, close to the river. Few of the houses thereabouts were old; for the fire of London had nearly destroyed that part of the city, but my uncle's house, with a few more in the same lane, being built of brick, had escaped. The bricks of some of the houses were scorched black. I remember, also, at the corner house, three doors from my uncle's house, the melted end of a water pipe, hanging from the roof like a long leaden icicle, just as it had run from the heat eighteen years before. I used to long for that icicle: it would have made such fine bullets for my sling. I have said that Fish Lane, where my uncle lived, was narrow. It was very narrow. The upper stories of the houses opposite could be touched from my bed-room window with an eight-foot fishing rod. If one leaned well out, one could see right into their upper rooms. You could even hear the people talking in them.

At the back of the house there was a garden of pot-herbs. It sloped down to the river-bank, where there were stairs to the water. The stairs were covered in, so as to form a boat-house, in which (as I learned afterwards) my uncle's skiffs were kept. You may be sure that I lost no time in getting down to the water, after I had breakfasted with my uncle, on the morning after my arrival.

A low stone parapet, topped by iron rails, shut off the garden from the beach. Just beyond the parapet, within slingshot, as I soon proved, was the famous Pool of London, full of ships of all sorts, some with flags flying. The mild spring sun (it was early in April) made the sight glorious. There must have been a hundred ships there, all marshalled in ranks, at double-moorings, head to flood. Boats full of merchandise were pulling to the wharves by the Custom House. Men were working aloft on the yards, bending or unbending sails. In some ships the sails hung loose, drying in the sun. In others, the men were singing out as they walked round the capstan, hoisting goods from the hold. One of the ships close to me was a beautiful little Spanish schooner, with her name La Reina  in big gold letters on her transom. She was evidently one of those very fast fruit boats, from the Canary Islands, of which I had heard the seamen at Oulton speak. She was discharging oranges into a lighter, when I first saw her. The sweet, heavy smell of the bruised peels scented the river for many yards.

I was looking at this schooner, wishing that I could pass an hour in her hold, among those delicious boxes, when a bearded man came on deck from her cabin. He looked at the shore, straight at myself as I thought, raising his hand swiftly as though to beckon me to him. A boat pushed out instantly, in answer to the hand, from the garden next to the one in which I stood. The waterman, pulling to the schooner, talked with the man for a moment, evidently settling the amount of his fare. After the haggling, my gentleman climbed into the boat by a little rope-ladder at the stern. Then the boatman pulled away upstream, going on the last of the flood, within twenty yards of where I stood.

I had watched them idly, attracted, in the beginning, by that sudden raising of the hand. But as they passed me, there came a sudden puff of wind, strong enough to flurry the water into wrinkles. It lifted the gentleman's hat, so that he saved it only by a violent snatch which made the boat rock. As he jammed the hat down he broke or displaced some string or clip near his ears. At any rate his beard came adrift on the side nearest to me. The man was wearing a false beard. He remedied the matter at once, very cleverly, so that I may have been the only witness; but I saw that the boatman was in the man's secret, whatever it was. He pulled hard on his starboard oar, bringing the boat partly across the current, thus screening him from everybody except the workers in the ships. It must have seemed to all who saw him that he was merely pulling to another arch of London Bridge.

I was not sure of the man's face. It seemed handsome; that was all that I could say of it. But I was fascinated by the mystery. I wondered why he was wearing a false beard. I wondered what he was doing in the schooner. I imagined all sorts of romantic plots in which he was taking part. I watched his boat go through the Bridge with the feeling that I was sharing in all sorts of adventures already. There was a fall of water at the Bridge which made the river dangerous there even on a flood tide. I could see that the waves there would be quite enough for such a boat without the most tender handling. I watched to see how they would pass through. Both men stood up, facing forwards, each taking an oar. They worked her through, out of sight, in a very clever fashion; which set me wondering again what this handsome gentleman might be, who worked a boat so well. I hung about at the end of the garden until dinner time, hoping that they would return. I watched every boat which came downstream, finding a great pleasure in the watermen's skill, for indeed the water at the Bridge was frightful; only a strong nerve could venture on it. But the boat did not come back, though one or two other boats brought people, or goods, to the stairs of the garden beside me. I could not see into the garden; that party wall was too high.

I did not go indoors again till Ephraim came to fetch me, saying that it was time I washed my hands for dinner. I went to my room; but instead of washing my hands, I leaned out of the window to watch a dancing bear which was sidling about in the lane, just below, while his keeper made a noise on the pan-pipes. A little crowd of idlers was gathered round the bear. Some of them were laughing at the bear, some at his keeper. I saw two boys sneaking about among the company; they were evil-looking little ruffians, with that hard look in the eyes which always marks the thoroughly wicked. As I watched, one of them slipped his hand into a man's pocket, then withdrew it, passing something swiftly to his companion, who walked unconcernedly away. I ran out of doors at once, to the man who had been robbed.

"Sir," I said, when he had drawn away from the little crowd. "Have you not been robbed of something?"

He turned to look down on me, searching his pockets with both hands. It gave me a start to see him, for he was the bearded man who had passed me in the boat that morning. You may be sure that I took a good note of him. He was a handsome, melancholy-looking man, with a beard designed to make him look fairer than he really was.

"Robbed of something?" he repeated in a quiet voice. "Yes, I have been robbed of something." It seemed to me that he turned pale, when he found that he had been robbed. "Did you see it?" he asked. "Don't point. Just describe him to me. No. Don't look round, boy. Tell me without looking round."

"Sir," I said, "do you see two little boys moving about among the people there?"

"Yes," he said.

"It's the boy with the bit of broken pipe in his hat who has the, whatever it was, sir, I'm sure. I saw it all."

"I see," he said. "That's the coverer. Let this be a warning to you, boy, never to stop in a crowd to watch these street-performers. Where were you, when you saw it?"

"Up above there, sir. In that house.

"In Mr. Hyde's house. Do you live there?"

"Yes, sir."

"Since when? Not for long, surely?"

"No, sir. Only since yesterday. I'm Mr. Hyde's nephew."

"Ah! Indeed. And that is your room up there?"

"Yes, sir."

"Where do you come from then? You've not been in town before. What is your father?"

"My father's dead, sir. I come from Oulton. My father was rector there."

"Ah," he said quietly. "Now give this penny to the bear-ward."

While I was giving the penny to the keeper, the strange man edged among the lookers-on, apparently watching the bear's antics, till he was just behind the pickpocket's accomplice. Watching his time, he seized the boy from behind by both wrists.

"This boy's a pickpocket," he cried aloud. "Stop that other boy. He's an accomplice." The other boy, who had just taken a purse, started to run, letting the booty drop. A boatman who was going towards the river, tripped him up with an oar so that he fell heavily. He lay still where he had fallen (all the wind was knocked out of him) so that he was easily secured. The boy who had been seized by the bearded man made no attempt to get away. He was too firmly held. Both boys were then marched off to the nearest constable where (after a strict search), they were locked into a cellar till the morrow. The crowd deserted the bear-ward when the cry of pickpockets was raised. They followed my mysterious friend to the constable's house, hoping, no doubt, that they would be able to crowd in to hear the constable bully the boys as he searched them. One or two, who pretended to have missed things, managed to get in. The bearded man told me to come in, as he said that I should be needed as a witness. The others were driven out into the street, where, I suppose, their monkey-minds soon found other game, a horse fallen down, or a drunken woman in the gutter, to divert their idleness. Such sights seem to attract a London crowd at once.

The boys were strictly searched by the constable. The booty from their pockets was turned out upon the table.

"Now, sir," said the constable to the bearded man, after he had made a note of my story. "What is it they 'ad of you, sir?"

"A shagreen leather pocket-book," said the man. "There it is."

"This one?" said the constable.


"Oh," said the constable, opening the clasps, so that he could examine the writing on the leaves. "What's inside?"

"A lot of figures," said the man. "Sums. Problems in arithmetic."

"Right," said the constable, handing over the book. "Here you are, sir. What name, sir?"

"Edward Jermyn."

"Edward German," the constable repeated. "Where d' you live, sir?"

"At Mr. Scott's in Fish Lane."

"Right, sir," said the constable, writing down the address. "You must appear tomorrow at ten before Mr. Gatty the magistrate. You, too, young master, to give your evidence."

At this the boys burst out crying, begging us not to appear, using all those deceptive arts which the London thieves practise from childhood. I, who was new to the world's deceits, was touched to the marrow by their seeming misery. The constable roughly silenced them.

"I know you," he said. "I 'ad my eye on you two ever since Christmas. Now you'll go abroad to do a bit of honest work, instead of nickin' pockets. Stow your blubbing now, or I'll give you Mogador Jack." He produced "Mogador Jack," a supple shark's backbone, from behind the door. The tears stopped on the instant.

After this, the bearded man showed me the way back to Fish Lane, where Ephraim (who was at the door, looking out for me) gave me a shrewd scolding, for venturing out without a guide. Mr. Jermyn silenced him by giving him a shilling.

The next day, Mr. Jermyn took me to the magistrate's house, where the two thieves were formally committed for trial. Mr. Jermyn told me that they would probably be transported for seven years, on conviction at the Assizes; but that, as they were young, the honest work abroad, in the plantations, might be the saving of them. "So do not be so sad, Mr. Martin," he said. "You do not know how good a thing you did when you looked out of the window yesterday. Do you know, by the way, how much my book is worth?"

"No, sir," I said.

"Well. It's worth more than the King's crown," he said.

"But I thought it was only sums, sir."

"Yes," he said, with a strange smile. "But some sums have to do with a great deal of money. Now I want you to think tonight of something to the value of twenty pounds or so. I want to give you something as a reward for your smartness. Don't decide at once. Think it over. Here we are at our homes, you see. We live just opposite to each other."

We were standing at this moment in the narrow lane at my uncle's door. As he spoke, he raised his hand in a farewell salute with that dignity of gesture which was in all his movements. On the instant, to my surprise, the door of the house opposite opened slowly, till it was about half open. No one opened it, as I could see; it swung back of itself. After my friend had stepped across the threshold it swung to with a click in the same mysterious way. It was as though it had a knowledge of Mr. Jermyn's mind, as though the raised hand had had a magical power over it. When I went indoors to my uncle's house I was excited. I felt that I was in the presence of something romantic, something mysterious. I liked Mr. Jermyn. He had been very kind. But I kept wondering why he wore a false beard, why his door opened so mysteriously, why he valued a book of sums above the worth of a King's crown. As for his offer of a present, I did not like it, though he had not given me time to say as much. I remembered how indignant the Oulton wherrymen had been when a gentleman offered them money for saving his daughter's life. I had seen the man robbed, what else could I have done? I could have done no less than tell him. I resolved that I would refuse the gift when next I saw him.

At dinner that day, I was full of Mr. Jermyn, much to my uncle's annoyance.

"Who is this Mr. Jermyn, Martin?" he asked. "I don't know him. Is he a gentleman?"

"Yes, uncle."

"Do you know him, Ephraim?"

"No, sir. I know him by sight, sir. Gentleman who lives over the way, Mr. Hyde."

"That's Mr. Scott's, though."

"No, sir. Mr. Jermyn's been there ever since February."

"But the house is empty."

"The lower floor is furnished, sir."

"Do you know anything of him? Do you know his man?"

"They say he's in the fruit way, sir. In the Spanish trade. His men are Spaniards. They do say he's not quite to be trusted."

"Who says this?" my uncle asked.

"I don't like to mention names, sir," Ephraim said.

"Quite right. Quite right. But what do they say?"

"Very queer things goes on in that 'ouse," said Ephraim. "I don't 'ardly like to say. But they think 'e raises the devil, sir. Awful noises goes on there. I seen some things myself there, as I don't like to talk of. Well. I saw a black bird as big as a man stand flapping in the window. Then I seen eyes glaring out at the door. They give the 'ouse a bad name, sir; everyone."

"H'm," said my uncle. "What's he like, Martin, this Mr. Jermyn?"

"A tall man, with a beard," I answered. I thought it wrong to mention that I knew the beard to be false. "He's always stroking the bridge of his nose with his hand."

"Ha," my uncle said, as though recognizing the trait. "But with a beard, you tell me?"

"Yes, sir. With a beard."

"H'm," he answered, musing, "I must have a look at this Mr. Jermyn. Remember, Martin, you're to have nothing more to do with him, till I know a little more of what he is. You understand?"

"Yes, uncle."

"One cannot be too careful in this town. I won't allow you in the streets, Martin. No matter who has his pockets picked. I told you that before."

"Please, uncle, may I go on the river, then, if I'm not to go into the street? I'm used to boats."

"Yes. You may do that. But you're not to go on board the ships, mind."

"Beg pardon, sir," Ephraim put in. "The fall at the Bridge is very risky, sir."

"Is it?" said my uncle, testily. "Then of course you can't go in a boat, Martin. You must play in the garden, or read."

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