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A PROCLAMATION AT MARKET
I DROVE THE little cart into town on a fine June morning. It was a bright day, and the country round about was green and fresh—what I could see of it past the backside of Old Nell, the dappled mare. I had a neatly inked list of things to buy at market, just enough coppers to buy them with, and that was the extent of my cares.
Market days were one of the great delights of my life back then. I liked the company of the crowd. There's nothing like mingling with a great many people to make solitude seem more pleasant. It was lonely at the Rattle Manse, where I was the only servant. My master, James Rattle, had no one else beneath his roof. It was but the two of us in the big, drafty house, excepting a bulldog named Demon, three horses, and some pigs. Even the pigs spent most of their time elsewhere, rooting for acorns in the dark woods thereabouts.
There was vanity involved, too—I might as well admit it. As a small boy I would have been proud to own a pair of shoes, so it felt very grand to go into town with brass buckles on my feet, commissioned to spend another man's money. Forgive my pride: Respectability is like wine. It goes straight to the head of one who hasn't had it before.
And besides, market days were entertaining. The entire market was like a big theater, every stall a stage, with the actors bellowing out their parts: "Two for a penny!" "A dozen for the price of ten!"
There were also people whose entire trade was entertainment for its own sake. Some were actors, and put on plays; others specialized in puppet shows, or displays of juggling, sword swallowing, gymnastic feats, and magic. In these performances I took special pleasure because I had, until recently, counted myself among the entertainers.
Before I took up service at the Rattle Manse, I had toured for several years with Trombonio's Traveling Wonder Show as "The Infant Daredevil," tramping the British Isles from one end to the other with a company of acrobats, clowns, and novelty acts, as well as Frieda the Tattooed Camel and an elderly baboon named Fred. My own role was that of trick horse-rider. I would spur my mount to a gallop and then dance about on its back, dangle from the stirrups, perform hand-springs, and generally risk death. The act became second nature and I seldom met with accidents, but when I did fall off, the crowds liked it all the better.
It was this trick-riding that had caught the eye of Master Rattle. He had attended a performance by the Wonder Show, and later that night, played cards with Mr. Fortescue Trombonio (birth name Gilbert Tubbins). Neither of them having much money, Master Rattle staked his fine sword, and Mr. Trombonio my documents of indenture. So it was, with a flourish of kings, I entered my present service.
The troupe had since been disbanded, and a number of its cast members transported to America for recidivism*, but I often ran into old acquaintances on market days, and it was pleasant to hear the news of life on the road. Although I was deeply grateful for my rescue from Mr. Trombonio, the monotony of my new life chafed me. I was bored.
Before allowing myself liberty to see the entertainers, however, I went around the stalls and bought up my list. I haggled and complained and judged the merchandise in the usual way. Then, having fed Old Nell some new oats, I went off in search of any past friends from the road.
They were mostly pitched around the edges of the marketplace, so they wouldn't have to compete with the lusty cries of the merchants. There was a Hindoo snake charmer I knew, and a magician whose specialty was causing live pigeons to fly out of meat pies. Then, to my delight, I discovered one of my fellow troupers from the Trombonio days. She now toured with a team of juggling clowns as Lily, the high-rope dancer. I remembered the clowns, Trombonio's Traveling Wonder Show having spent some weeks on the road with them between St. Bees and Pontefract when I was seven or eight years old.
"It's a pleasure to see you out and about," I said, once Lily's squeals of greeting had subsided. "There were rumors you'd been sent up for robbing a cheese shop."
"Oh, you know how it is. Someone catches you halfway through a window and they 'meejitly think the worst. But look at you! You're a grown man now. How old must you be?"
"Ten and six," said I, a little proudly, as if it were an achievement such as learning Latin.
"Sixteen years!" Lily exclaimed, tossing her yellow curls and pinching my cheek. "Old enough to marry!" She had often made fun of me in this way when I was small, and boxed my ears, too, though when her romantic entanglements inevitably failed after a fortnight or so, she would weep on my neck and kiss my brow and tell me men were cruel and I was her only friend. Now she held me at arm's length and looked me over.
"I remember when you was but a stripling lad, only as high as your own knee. Fresh-bought from the workhouse by Old Trombonio, God rest his soul. You were a tiny thing, and always hungry, but nimble as a monkey. Look at you now! If I wasn't engaged to that Pierrot over there with the white skin-cap on, I'd take an interest in you myself—such a handsome fellow with a fine suit of clothes and a purse at your belt! Whence," she added, "came you by the money?"
This last she whispered sideways, as if it were a secret.
"I'm servant in a good house," I replied, proudly. "The only servant."
"The only servant? Taking care of a fine family?" Lily didn't seem to believe me.
"Just the master and myself," I explained.
"No scullery girls to warm your heart, then? You haven't got a sweetheart, in a manner of speaking?"
I blushed furiously and denied any such thing.
But she didn't much care about my personal life, for the subject of the household swiftly returned. "Your master must be away most of the time, to keep such a small staff. A fine big house, and you all alone in it?"
I couldn't quite understand the line of questioning, but Lily's purpose soon became clear. She continued to alternate between teasing me and pressing for details about Master Rattle and the general disposition of the house, the quality of its furniture, and how much valuable metal it contained. I kept answering her from vanity, when I might better have been silent from prudence.
"He wouldn't miss a few odds and ends, I dare say," Lily muttered, and at last I plainly saw her intent. I should have guessed from the start—in my years with traveling performers I'd come to know their desperate poverty, and how often some of them took opportunity to supplement their incomes by way of a back door or an open window.
I hastily made amends. "My master is a gentleman," I said. "But he hasn't anything of worth, being the third son of a lord; just the Manse, which is halfway to tumbling down, and a lot of old stuff that's been in it for centuries, not worth the price of a cart to take it away in, I expect. Besides, what he has—he gambles away."
"Ooh, he's a bit of a rake, is he?" Lily asked, and batted her pale eyelashes fit to start a breeze.
"I don't know a thing about his life outside the Manse, I confess," said I, truthfully. "He keeps little enough money." The calculating look was still in Lily's eye, so I added, "One thing he keeps very well, though, is a bulldog named Demon."
"Ah," said Lily, and looked about her as if the animal might leap out at her in the next instant. "Vicious, is he? Jaws like a trap?"
"He can snap a bone with one bite," I said.
This was perfectly true. I did not lie about the dog, who was Master Rattle's constant companion, but rather omitted a few details: he was a French bulldog, a tiny beast bred not to fight bulls but to snore lustily, and he could snap a bone with one bite, but only a ham bone. In fact, he spent all of his waking moments, which amounted to about an hour each day, gnawing on bones.
The mention of Demon put an end to my old acquaintance's speculations, and after that we had a pleasant chat about doings upon the traveling circuit. Just as Lily was becoming tearful, relating a tragic romance she had recently endured, there came a commotion at the far end of the market square, which drew steadily nearer.
It was a squad of red-coated soldiers with white pipe-clayed crossbelts and gleaming bayonets. They marched through the crowd led by an officer mounted upon a fine brown horse. The town crier followed, carrying his big brass bell. The soldiers halted before the town notice board. The crier mounted the step at the foot of the board, rang his bell, and unfolded a piece of parchment. I took my leave of Lily and pressed through the crowd for a better look. I was grateful for an excuse to avoid further questions about my master, and also to escape being wept upon and kissed, especially by an older woman. Lily was at least twenty-four.
"Oyez, oyez!" the crier shouted, in the traditional way. "Oyez." The sellers stopped shouting long enough to see if his proclamation would affect their business.
"Be it known," the crier began, reading from the parchment. "A proclamation by His Majesty King George the Second*: Whereas bandits and highwaymen are flourishing upon our roads, and prey upon rich carriages, royal emissaries, mail coaches, and travelers well-to-do, inflicting their brutal and dastardly crimes upon the innocent, be it known that we have set upon the heads of all who pursue this vile profession a bounty of forty guineas, five shillings, thruppence ha'penny."
A gasp went up in the crowd, followed by a buzz of conversation. That was a great deal of money. One shilling would buy a pound of good soap, although nobody in that fragrant crowd, I thought, would be interested in a pound of soap. Three pennies was enough to have a tooth pulled. A ha'penny would buy a day-old bun. I did the calculation in my head and determined that with such a sum, I could get very clean, visit a dentist, and still retain enough money for two years' paid holiday and a stale bun.
The crier rang his bell again to quell the commotion, and the captain shouted threats from the vantage of his horse until the crowd quieted down.
As soon as there was any chance he would be heard, the crier continued. "Oyez, oyez, oyez! A list of villains is attached herewith, including Giant Jim and his gang, the Spanish Desperado, Dick Sculley, Sailor Tom, the Laughing Priest, Whistling Jack, and Milliner Mulligan, among others. Once convicted, they shall be hanged by the necks at Tyburn Tree. All such bandits in living or dead condition shall be presented to the magistrate of the court for inspection, et cetera et cetera. There's a good deal more to this 'ere proclamation, but that's the gist of the matter. Particulars shall be posted on this notice board. Given at our Court at St. James, this day in the year of our Lord et cetera and so on, God save the King!"
And with that, the soldiers recommenced their march behind the officer's splendid horse, and the crier made his way directly to a beer seller, his throat being sorely parched by the crying. The crowd closed back up and the mongers began shouting again.
I had one more errand before returning to the Manse, and took my time about it. The King's proclamation had put me in an introspective mood. I'll relay my thoughts, and how they returned to the matter of the highwaymen; bear with me a while.
My own childhood had been more like that of the highwayman than the major domo, and it was a great surprise to me to find that, after an interval of respectable stability, I pined for excitement again. My life was secure and comfortable now, yet days at the Manse felt like an endless rainy afternoon, and me stuck indoors. The mood was not mine alone: My master had become increasingly like a caged tiger in the last few weeks. He would lounge abed until afternoon many days, then spring up in a fit of energy and meet me in the kitchen yard with rapier and sabers. In these contests he fought with thrice the conviction I did, with the consequence that I became as skilled at defense as he was at offense.
He also spent hours pacing irritably from one end of the Manse to the other, smoking his churchwarden pipe and looking out of the windows as if expecting someone to visit. But no one ever did. He read books about coach-making and studied maps; he took me out hunting and shot no game, but rode his great black horse over every terrain like a madman with the devil at his back, myself trailing along behind on a gray hunter with similar skill but more care, determined not to break my neck.
Sometimes he would stop at a particular crossroads or other isolated spot and study the lay of the land with infinite care, I knew not why. I had begun to understand that my master, as much as I, felt trapped—myself by idleness, and him by some unknown business that worried him.
But here my musings ended, for my steps had taken me to the Widow's Arms.
Copyright © 2014 by Ben Tripp