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Rodney Stone

By Arthur Conan Doyle All Rights Reserved ©

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Friar's oak

On this, the first of January of the year 1851, the nineteenth century has reached its midway term, and many of us who shared its youth have already warnings which tell us that it has outworn us.  We put our grizzled heads together, we older ones, and we talk of the great days that we have known; but we find that when it is with our children that we talk it is a hard matter to make them understand.  We and our fathers before us lived much the same life, but they with their railway trains and their steamboats belong to a different age.  It is true that we can put history-books into their hands, and they can read from them of our weary struggle of two and twenty years with that great and evil man.  They can learn how Freedom fled from the whole broad continent, and how Nelson’s blood was shed, and Pitt’s noble heart was broken in striving that she should not pass us for ever to take refuge with our brothers across the Atlantic.  All this they can read, with the date of this treaty or that battle, but I do not know where they are to read of ourselves, of the folk we were, and the lives we led, and how the world seemed to our eyes when they were young as theirs are now. If I take up my pen to tell you about this, you must not look for any story at my hands, for I was only in my earliest manhood when these things befell; and although I saw something of the stories of other lives, I could scarce claim one of my own.  It is the love of a woman that makes the story of a man, and many a year was to pass before I first looked into the eyes of the mother of my children.  To us it seems but an affair of yesterday, and yet those children can now reach the plums in the garden whilst we are seeking for a ladder, and where we once walked with their little hands in ours, we are glad now to lean upon their arms.  But I shall speak of a time when the love of a mother was the only love I knew, and if you seek for something more, then it is not for you that I write.  But if you would come out with me into that forgotten world; if you would know Boy Jim and Champion Harrison; if you would meet my father, one of Nelson’s own men; if you would catch a glimpse of that great seaman himself, and of George, afterwards the unworthy King of England; if, above all, you would see my famous uncle, Sir Charles Tregellis, the King of the Bucks, and the great fighting men whose names are still household words amongst you, then give me your hand and let us start. But I must warn you also that, if you think you will find much that is of interest in your guide, you are destined to disappointment.  When I look over my bookshelves, I can see that it is only the wise and witty and valiant who have ventured to write down their experiences.  For my own part, if I were only assured that I was as clever and brave as the average man about me, I should be well satisfied.  Men of their hands have thought well of my brains, and men of brains of my hands, and that is the best that I can say of myself.  Save in the one matter of having an inborn readiness for music, so that the mastery of any instrument comes very easily and naturally to me, I cannot recall any single advantage which I can boast over my fellows.  In all things I have been a half-way man, for I am of middle height, my eyes are neither blue nor grey, and my hair, before Nature dusted it with her powder, was betwixt flaxen and brown.  I may, perhaps, claim this: that through life I have never felt a touch of jealousy as I have admired a better man than myself, and that I have always seen all things as they are, myself included, which should count in my favour now that I sit down in my mature age to write my memories.  With your permission, then, we will push my own personality as far as possible out of the picture.  If you can conceive me as a thin and colourless cord upon which my would-be pearls are strung, you will be accepting me upon the terms which I should wish. Our family, the Stones, have for many generations belonged to the navy, and it has been a custom among us for the eldest son to take the name of his father’s favourite commander.  Thus we can trace our lineage back to old Vernon Stone, who commanded a high-sterned, peak-nosed, fifty-gun ship against the Dutch.  Through Hawke Stone and Benbow Stone we came down to my father, Anson Stone, who in his turn christened me Rodney, at the parish church of St. Thomas at Portsmouth in the year of grace 1786. Out of my window as I write I can see my own great lad in the garden, and if I were to call out “Nelson!” you would see that I have been true to the traditions of our family. My dear mother, the best that ever a man had, was the second daughter of the Reverend John Tregellis, Vicar of Milton, which is a small parish upon the borders of the marshes of Langstone.  She came of a poor family, but one of some position, for her elder brother was the famous Sir Charles Tregellis, who, having inherited the money of a wealthy East Indian merchant, became in time the talk of the town and the very particular friend of the Prince of Wales.  Of him I shall have more to say hereafter; but you will note now that he was my own uncle, and brother to my mother. I can remember her all through her beautiful life for she was but a girl when she married, and little more when I can first recall her busy fingers and her gentle voice.  I see her as a lovely woman with kind, dove’s eyes, somewhat short of stature it is true, but carrying herself very bravely.  In my memories of those days she is clad always in some purple shimmering stuff, with a white kerchief round her long white neck, and I see her fingers turning and darting as she works at her knitting.  I see her again in her middle years, sweet and loving, planning, contriving, achieving, with the few shillings a day of a lieutenant’s pay on which to support the cottage at Friar’s Oak, and to keep a fair face to the world.  And now, if I do but step into the parlour, I can see her once more, with over eighty years of saintly life behind her, silver-haired, placid-faced, with her dainty ribboned cap, her gold-rimmed glasses, and her woolly shawl with the blue border.  I loved her young and I love her old, and when she goes she will take something with her which nothing in the world can ever make good to me again.  You may have many friends, you who read this, and you may chance to marry more than once, but your mother is your first and your last.  Cherish her, then, whilst you may, for the day will come when every hasty deed or heedless word will come back with its sting to hive in your own heart. Such, then, was my mother; and as to my father, I can describe him best when I come to the time when he returned to us from the Mediterranean.  During all my childhood he was only a name to me, and a face in a miniature hung round my mother’s neck.  At first they told me he was fighting the French, and then after some years one heard less about the French and more about General Buonaparte.  I remember the awe with which one day in Thomas Street, Portsmouth, I saw a print of the great Corsican in a bookseller’s window.  This, then, was the arch enemy with whom my father spent his life in terrible and ceaseless contest.  To my childish imagination it was a personal affair, and I for ever saw my father and this clean-shaven, thin-lipped man swaying and reeling in a deadly, year-long grapple.  It was not until I went to the Grammar School that I understood how many other little boys there were whose fathers were in the same case. Only once in those long years did my father return home, which will show you what it meant to be the wife of a sailor in those days.  It was just after we had moved from Portsmouth to Friar’s Oak, whither he came for a week before he set sail with Admiral Jervis to help him to turn his name into Lord St. Vincent.  I remember that he frightened as well as fascinated me with his talk of battles, and I can recall as if it were yesterday the horror with which I gazed upon a spot of blood upon his shirt ruffle, which had come, as I have no doubt, from a mischance in shaving.  At the time I never questioned that it had spurted from some stricken Frenchman or Spaniard, and I shrank from him in terror when he laid his horny hand upon my head.  My mother wept bitterly when he was gone, but for my own part I was not sorry to see his blue back and white shorts going down the garden walk, for I felt, with the heedless selfishness of a child, that we were closer together, she and I, when we were alone. I was in my eleventh year when we moved from Portsmouth to Friar’s Oak, a little Sussex village to the north of Brighton, which was recommended to us by my uncle, Sir Charles Tregellis, one of whose grand friends, Lord Avon, had had his seat near there.  The reason of our moving was that living was cheaper in the country, and that it was easier for my mother to keep up the appearance of a gentlewoman when away from the circle of those to whom she could not refuse hospitality.  They were trying times those to all save the farmers, who made such profits that they could, as I have heard, afford to let half their land lie fallow, while living like gentlemen upon the rest.  Wheat was at a hundred and ten shillings a quarter, and the quartern loaf at one and ninepence.  Even in the quiet of the cottage of Friar’s Oak we could scarce have lived, were it not that in the blockading squadron in which my father was stationed there was the occasional chance of a little prize-money.  The line-of-battle ships themselves, tacking on and off outside Brest, could earn nothing save honour; but the frigates in attendance made prizes of many coasters, and these, as is the rule of the service, were counted as belonging to the fleet, and their produce divided into head-money.  In this manner my father was able to send home enough to keep the cottage and to pay for me at the day school of Mr. Joshua Allen, where for four years I learned all that he had to teach.  It was at Allen’s school that I first knew Jim Harrison, Boy Jim as he has always been called, the nephew of Champion Harrison of the village smithy.  I can see him as he was in those days with great, floundering, half-formed limbs like a Newfoundland puppy, and a face that set every woman’s head round as he passed her.  It was in those days that we began our lifelong friendship, a friendship which still in our waning years binds us closely as two brothers.  I taught him his exercises, for he never loved the sight of a book, and he in turn made me box and wrestle, tickle trout on the Adur, and snare rabbits on Ditching Down, for his hands were as active as his brain was slow.  He was two years my elder, however, so that, long before I had finished my schooling, he had gone to help his uncle at the smithy. Friar’s Oak is in a dip of the Downs, and the forty-third milestone between London and Brighton lies on the skirt of the village.  It is but a small place, with an ivied church, a fine vicarage, and a row of red-brick cottages each in its own little garden.  At one end was the forge of Champion Harrison, with his house behind it, and at the other was Mr. Allen’s school.  The yellow cottage, standing back a little from the road, with its upper story bulging forward and a crisscross of black woodwork let into the plaster, is the one in which we lived.  I do not know if it is still standing, but I should think it likely, for it was not a place much given to change. Just opposite to us, at the other side of the broad, white road, was the Friar’s Oak Inn, which was kept in my day by John Cummings, a man of excellent repute at home, but liable to strange outbreaks when he travelled, as will afterwards become apparent.  Though there was a stream of traffic upon the road, the coaches from Brighton were too fresh to stop, and those from London too eager to reach their journey’s end, so that if it had not been for an occasional broken trace or loosened wheel, the landlord would have had only the thirsty throats of the village to trust to.  Those were the days when the Prince of Wales had just built his singular palace by the sea, and so from May to September, which was the Brighton season, there was never a day that from one to two hundred curricles, chaises, and phaetons did not rattle past our doors.  Many a summer evening have Boy Jim and I lain upon the grass, watching all these grand folk, and cheering the London coaches as they came roaring through the dust clouds, leaders and wheelers stretched to their work, the bugles screaming and the coachmen with their low-crowned, curly-brimmed hats, and their faces as scarlet as their coats.  The passengers used to laugh when Boy Jim shouted at them, but if they could have read his big, half-set limbs and his loose shoulders aright, they would have looked a little harder at him, perhaps, and given him back his cheer. Boy Jim had never known a father or a mother, and his whole life had been spent with his uncle, Champion Harrison.  Harrison was the Friar’s Oak blacksmith, and he had his nickname because he fought Tom Johnson when he held the English belt, and would most certainly have beaten him had the Bedfordshire magistrates not appeared to break up the fight.  For years there was no such glutton to take punishment and no more finishing hitter than Harrison, though he was always, as I understand, a slow one upon his feet.  At last, in a fight with Black Baruk the Jew, he finished the battle with such a lashing hit that he not only knocked his opponent over the inner ropes, but he left him betwixt life and death for long three weeks.  During all this time Harrison lived half demented, expecting every hour to feel the hand of a Bow Street runner upon his collar, and to be tried for his life.  This experience, with the prayers of his wife, made him forswear the ring for ever, and carry his great muscles into the one trade in which they seemed to give him an advantage.  There was a good business to be done at Friar’s Oak from the passing traffic and the Sussex farmers, so that he soon became the richest of the villagers; and he came to church on a Sunday with his wife and his nephew, looking as respectable a family man as one would wish to see. He was not a tall man, not more than five feet seven inches, and it was often said that if he had had an extra inch of reach he would have been a match for Jackson or Belcher at their best.  His chest was like a barrel, and his forearms were the most powerful that I have ever seen, with deep groves between the smooth-swelling muscles like a piece of water-worn rock.  In spite of his strength, however, he was of a slow, orderly, and kindly disposition, so that there was no man more beloved over the whole country side.  His heavy, placid, clean-shaven face could set very sternly, as I have seen upon occasion; but for me and every child in the village there was ever a smile upon his lips and a greeting in his eyes.  There was not a beggar upon the country side who did not know that his heart was as soft as his muscles were hard. There was nothing that he liked to talk of more than his old battles, but he would stop if he saw his little wife coming, for the one great shadow in her life was the ever-present fear that some day he would throw down sledge and rasp and be off to the ring once more.  And you must be reminded here once for all that that former calling of his was by no means at that time in the debased condition to which it afterwards fell.  Public opinion has gradually become opposed to it, for the reason that it came largely into the hands of rogues, and because it fostered ringside ruffianism.  Even the honest and brave pugilist was found to draw villainy round him, just as the pure and noble racehorse does.  For this reason the Ring is dying in England, and we may hope that when Caunt and Bendigo have passed away, they may have none to succeed them.  But it was different in the days of which I speak.  Public opinion was then largely in its favour, and there were good reasons why it should be so.  It was a time of war, when England with an army and navy composed only of those who volunteered to fight because they had fighting blood in them, had to encounter, as they would now have to encounter, a power which could by despotic law turn every citizen into a soldier.  If the people had not been full of this lust for combat, it is certain that England must have been overborne.  And it was thought, and is, on the face of it, reasonable, that a struggle between two indomitable men, with thirty thousand to view it and three million to discuss it, did help to set a standard of hardihood and endurance.  Brutal it was, no doubt, and its brutality is the end of it; but it is not so brutal as war, which will survive it.  Whether it is logical now to teach the people to be peaceful in an age when their very existence may come to depend upon their being warlike, is a question for wiser heads than mine.  But that was what we thought of it in the days of your grandfathers, and that is why you might find statesmen and philanthropists like Windham, Fox, and Althorp at the side of the Ring. The mere fact that solid men should patronize it was enough in itself to prevent the villainy which afterwards crept in.  For over twenty years, in the days of Jackson, Brain, Cribb, the Belchers, Pearce, Gully, and the rest, the leaders of the Ring were men whose honesty was above suspicion; and those were just the twenty years when the Ring may, as I have said, have served a national purpose.  You have heard how Pearce saved the Bristol girl from the burning house, how Jackson won the respect and friendship of the best men of his age, and how Gully rose to a seat in the first Reformed Parliament.  These were the men who set the standard, and their trade carried with it this obvious recommendation, that it is one in which no drunken or foul-living man could long succeed.  There were exceptions among them, no doubt - bullies like Hickman and brutes like Berks; in the main, I say again that they were honest men, brave and enduring to an incredible degree, and a credit to the country which produced them.  It was, as you will see, my fate to see something of them, and I speak of what I know. In our own village, I can assure you that we were very proud of the presence of such a man as Champion Harrison, and if folks stayed at the inn, they would walk down as far as the smithy just to have the sight of him.  And he was worth seeing, too, especially on a winter’s night when the red glare of the forge would beat upon his great muscles and upon the proud, hawk-face of Boy Jim as they heaved and swayed over some glowing plough coulter, framing themselves in sparks with every blow.  He would strike once with his thirty-pound swing sledge, and Jim twice with his hand hammer; and the “Clunk - clink, clink! clunk - clink, clink!” would bring me flying down the village street, on the chance that, since they were both at the anvil, there might be a place for me at the bellows. Only once during those village years can I remember Champion Harrison showing me for an instant the sort of man that he had been.  It chanced one summer morning, when Boy Jim and I were standing by the smithy door, that there came a private coach from Brighton, with its four fresh horses, and its brass-work shining, flying along with such a merry rattle and jingling, that the Champion came running out with a hall-fullered shoe in his tongs to have a look at it.  A gentleman in a white coachman’s cape - a Corinthian, as we would call him in those days - was driving, and half a dozen of his fellows, laughing and shouting, were on the top behind him.  It may have been that the bulk of the smith caught his eye, and that he acted in pure wantonness, or it may possibly have been an accident, but, as he swung past, the twenty-foot thong of the driver’s whip hissed round, and we heard the sharp snap of it across Harrison’s leather apron. “Halloa, master!” shouted the smith, looking after him.  “You’re not to be trusted on the box until you can handle your whip better’n that.” “What’s that?” cried the driver, pulling up his team. “I bid you have a care, master, or there will be some one-eyed folk along the road you drive.” “Oh, you say that, do you?” said the driver, putting his whip into its socket and pulling off his driving-gloves.  “I’ll have a little talk with you, my fine fellow.” The sporting gentlemen of those days were very fine boxers for the most part, for it was the mode to take a course of Mendoza, just as a few years afterwards there was no man about town who had not had the mufflers on with Jackson.  Knowing their own prowess, they never refused the chance of a wayside adventure, and it was seldom indeed that the bargee or the navigator had much to boast of after a young blood had taken off his coat to him. This one swung himself off the box-seat with the alacrity of a man who has no doubts about the upshot of the quarrel, and after hanging his caped coat upon the swingle-bar, he daintily turned up the ruffled cuffs of his white cambric shirt. “I’ll pay you for your advice, my man,” said he. I am sure that the men upon the coach knew who the burly smith was, and looked upon it as a prime joke to see their companion walk into such a trap.  They roared with delight, and bellowed out scraps of advice to him. “Knock some of the soot off him, Lord Frederick!” they shouted.  “Give the Johnny Raw his breakfast.  Chuck him in among his own cinders!  Sharp’s the word, or you’ll see the back of him.” Encouraged by these cries, the young aristocrat advanced upon his man.  The smith never moved, but his mouth set grim and hard, while his tufted brows came down over his keen, grey eyes.  The tongs had fallen, and his hands were hanging free. “Have a care, master,” said he.  “You’ll get pepper if you don’t.” Something in the assured voice, and something also in the quiet pose, warned the young lord of his danger.  I saw him look hard at his antagonist, and as he did so, his hands and his jaw dropped together. “By Gad!” he cried, “it’s Jack Harrison!” “My name, master!” “And I thought you were some Essex chaw-bacon!  Why, man, I haven’t seen you since the day you nearly killed Black Baruk, and cost me a cool hundred by doing it.” How they roared on the coach. “Smoked!  Smoked, by Gad!” they yelled.  “It’s Jack Harrison the bruiser!  Lord Frederick was going to take on the ex-champion.  Give him one on the apron, Fred, and see what happens.” But the driver had already climbed back into his perch, laughing as loudly as any of his companions. “We’ll let you off this time, Harrison,” said he.  “Are those your sons down there?” “This is my nephew, master.” “Here’s a guinea for him!  He shall never say I robbed him of his uncle.”  And so, having turned the laugh in his favour by his merry way of taking it, he cracked his whip, and away they flew to make London under the five hours; while Jack Harrison, with his half-fullered shoe in his hand, went whistling back to the forge.

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