"What can I do for you, sir?" I asked blandly, astonished. He was a tall broad-shouldered man in a rough pea-jacket, and scowled portentously."
"Put me into an honest livelihood," he answered. It was such a strange demand that I could only stare. "Don't you understand?" he said, seating himself with rough vehemence, "I want to become a reputable member of society. I want some honest employment."
"But, my good sir, why do you come to me? Your motive is most excellent, but an honest employment is the last thing at my disposal."
"That be blowed!" said he, "you could give me a fortune if you liked, you know you could. But I don't want that. No, I'm fly to that game! You'll have some blessed elder brother, that nobody knowed of, coming back from New Zealand and succeeding to the ancestral mansion; or you'll get me pitched out of my gilded chariot at the church door, and marry my wife, that ought to be, to somebody else. I know you. I only want a modest competence, nobody interferes with that."
"Your language is even more mysterious than your appearance, my friend," I said.
Pshaw!" said he (I never heard a man out of books say "pshaw"—never), "don't you know me?"
I looked at him steadily, and it seemed that I ought to know him, that hat, that pea-jacket, that knotted scarf around his muscular throat, those brown sinewy hands, those fierce eyes—all were familiar to me. That bundle and that stick—had I not seen them a hundred times in the admirable drawings of Gilbert, Julian Portch, Cousens, Carrington, and Calvert.
"You don't happen to have any marks about you?" I asked, while a cold sweat broke out upon my brow. He laughed—that bitter laugh which I had described so often. "I have a peculiar mole on the back of my neck, the tip of my left ear is shot away, my right side still bears the mark of Pompey's claws when he defended his young mistress Alice in the lonely swamp. I have lost the little finger of my right hand, and have three pear-shaped wens, besides the usual allowance of strawberry marks."
There was no mistaking him. It was my Villain! I knew his blood-thirsty nature, and dreaded the tremendous struggle which experience told me was to follow.
"But why come here ?" I urged.
"I am sick of it," said my Villain, doggedly. "I ain't to be badgered any more. It ain't a respectable business. First, I was Jabez Jamrack, then Black Will the smuggler, then Curlewis Carleyon, then a Poacher, then a Burglar, then an Unjust Steward, and now I'm an Escaped Convict."
It was true. The unhappy creature before me had figured—in my world-renowned novels—in all those capacities.
"It's getting a little too rough on me," continued my Villain. "I ain't a bad sort—at least, I wasn't when you took me from my peaceful home in the old Kentish valley—and I say I'm getting sick of this line of business. I've a conscience, Mr. Clarke, though you don't give me credit for it, unless it's 'seared,' and I'm not going to be plunged into the black abyss of crime no longer. How many poor young maidens haven't I carried off? How many unsuspecting barrow-knights haven't I pushed over the towering cliff? How many policemen haven't I knocked on the head? How many custom-house officers—cussing and swearing tremenjious the while—haven't I buried in the foaming billow ? How many children haven't I kid-napped? How many wives haven't I married, and dispoged of afterwards in various ways? My eyes, what a Beauty I've been, haven't I?"
It was true. He had done—by my direction—all these things.
"It ain't my pussonal appearance," continued the miserable man, "though what with warts and moles and strawberry marks, that ain't much to boast of. It ain't on account of wounds with axes and bullets and such like that I cares. It ain't because I'm out all nights in all sorts of weathers, mostly thunderous. It ain't because I'm often drunk, always in debt, and totally disreputable. It ain't because I've murdered a large variety of mothers, and brought the grey 'airs of a corresponding number of aged fathers with sorrow to the grave. It ain't because my langwidge is altogether ridiculous, and I leave out more 'h's' and put in more oaths in my conversation than any natural man did yet. It ain't that. No!" he cried, waxing wroth, "it's because I'm always left at the end of the third volume, if I'm alive, without hope of mercy or promise of repentance."
"Take some brandy," I said, and pushed him the decanter. He took it, and filling half-a-tumbler with neat spirit drained it at a gulp. I knew he would, The Beast—under my direction— invariably took his liquor in that fashion.
"I appeal to you, if that's fair. Is it right? Is it just, guvernor? Your young curate allays gets the gal he's after. Your comic servant winds up with the chambermaid. Your aristocratic villain, the Marquis, my master, who poisons his niece, and shoots his aunt with an air gun, he's all right. He disports himself in the gilt and splendid sallongs of Parry, he does. He drives four-in-hand down the Bullyvards, and marries the lovely and accomplished Duchess of Double-Gloucester. If he does get found out, he blows out his brains in the true style of the hold regeem. He's never hung in chains, or tuk to Newgate, or starved to death in a deserted drive on the diggings of Bend—i—go."
"What can you do?" I asked, terrified at the vehemence of this strange man.
"Do!"—again that harsh and grating laugh, at which so many hapless maidens have trembled; I wished I had made it a little sweeter— "What can't I do? Haven't you left me 'anging by my 'ands from a bough, suspended for a whole month over a horful precipice? Haven't I raised trees with my mighty muscles, and burst open doors with kicks of my ponderous boots? I can do anything. But why waste words? Are we not alone here? No sound but the whistling of the wind in the wide chimney of the moated grange; no footstep but that of the midnight mouser as she creeps stealthily to her prey. Ha, ha! Thou art mine, and—"
Ha, ha, indeed! I guessed how it would happen. My experience as a novel-writer told me as much. Just as the enraged ruffian advanced to seize me, Leonard Fairfield, my pious hero, who had been waiting in the passage of the Priory since his return from sea, bounded into the room, and caught my assailant by the throat.
"This, villain, in thy teeth!" he cried (How often had he cried thus?) and pinioned him.
It might be thought that I stayed to lend assistance. Not I! I knew better what was required of me. With a shriek of terror I fled out of the open door, and sped along the lonely road with the speed of a hunted stag.
Black Jack and Meran Hafaz were consulting in the thieves' kitchen when I entered. I knew the cunning nature of the latter, and felt that the thousand pound note I held between my fingers would purchase the secret of the potion. I showed it to him. He laughed satirically.
"That is some of Flatman the Forger's work," he said. "Why did you not kill him in your last chapter?"
Ass that I was, I had allowed the maimed and mangled wretch to live! and this was how he repaid me!
Outside came the hurried tramp of feet. They were on my track.
"Save me, Black Jack," I exclaimed wildly. "Remember when you were fast locked in Newgate, without hope of mercy, I took you out by a subterranean passage never before known to exist, and gave you the hand of the fair Belinda."
"Ay, but only to recapture me in the next number," replied Black Jack, with a grin of scorn. "I've not forgotten the ducking you gave me at the Lonely Mill. No. Let them tear you limb from limb; I care not."
My position was evidently desperate, when a new-comer appeared upon the scene.
By his wavy hair, square-toed Wellingtons, massive watch chain, and handkerchief that hung from the right hand pocket of his shooting coat. I knew him at once.
He was Sir Aubrey de Briancourt.
"Assist me!" I exclaimed.
The look of scorn he gave was sufficient to daunt a bolder man, but I knew of a spell by which I could compel him.
"Hist!" I said, in a thrilling whisper. "Proud scion of a lordly house, there is another Sir Aubrey. Refuse to aid me, and young Fairfield shall assume thy name and title. These minions are beyond my power, but remember you are to be continued in our next."
The threat made pale the cheek even of one whose ancestors had bled on Bosworth, and the baronet waved a white hand towards the back door.
"Take my cabriolet, dog!" he said, with that courtesy which characterises the British aristocrat.
At that instant the rough voice of the Villain was heard at the gate.
I need scarcely remark that I leapt into the cabriolet, and was soon driving with the rapidity of lightning towards Goodman's Gully.
Fast behind came the echo of hoofs. The lightning flashed incessantly, and the negro who held the reins was white with fear.
All at once a man clad in a red shirt jumped from behind a bush and seized the head of the mare.
"Who are you?" I cried.
"The most abused of all," said he. "I am the Typical Digger! I am, the man whom you and others of your tribe have made eat bank notes as sandwiches. I have shod my horse with gold, and swilled champagne—which I detest—out of stable buckets. Frank Fowler has maligned me, Orion Home has sneered at me, Kingsley has mocked me, Howitt has slandered me, Thatcher has made ballads on me. Do y' think a man is never to change his shirt? Why should I always be compelled to appear in this sanguinary garment? Am I to pass, my life in finding repeatedly gigantic nuggets, and being perpetually robbed of the same? Am I to be for ever considered such an ass as to give handfuls of gold-dust for a glass of brandy. Must I never shave? Shall the tyranny of the fictionmonger compel me to sleep in boots?"
"Calm yourself, my friend," I said, "There is not much harm done. I know of some poor fellows whom the fiction-mongers have treated much more rudely."
At that instant the demoniac howls of my pursuers were borne upon the blast.
"That may be," roared the digger of Romance, "but I will be avenged on thee. Come!"
The cabriolet disappeared in the distance—there was never a cabriolet yet that did not do so under such circumstances—and my captor led me away.
He paused at the door of the usual bush inn (how well I knew it), and striking three loud blows upon the door (they invariably struck three loud blows), we were admitted into a long apartment. I beheld with astonishment that all the personages whom I had imagined the creatures of my own too fertile brain were there.
"Wretch!" cried the fair Madeline, "why did you not unite me to the Duke? You know you only changed your mind at the last moment."
"Monster," said the lovely Violet, "You made me pass three nights of horror in the Red Farm, when one stroke of your pen would have freed me."
"Miserable man," cried Jabez Jamrack, "the blood of the Earl be upon your head. You knew that I had no intention of killing his lordship until the base lack of a 'sensation' for your last chapter impelled me to the bloody deed!"
"Christian dog!" roared Mordecai the Jew, "I was born with charitable impulses, and should have lent in peace the humble shilling upon the ragged coat of honest poverty, had not your felon soul plunged me into crime to gratify the tastes of a blood-and-thunder loving public."
"And I," remarked Henry Mortimer, with that cynical smile that I had so often depicted, curling his proud lip, "did I wish to throw my elder brother down a well in order to succeed to his name and heritage? No! I loved him fondly, madly, as you took pains to state in your earlier chapters. I should have loved him still, had not Cora the Gipsy wound her spells about my heart. Who brought her to me? Did I of my own accord, I, a proud scion of Britain's aristocracy, demean myself to such a love? No minion, 'twas thy brain contrived the meeting, thy hand that hurled my elder brother into the abyss, and stamped the brand of Cain upon my brow."
"Away with him!" hissed Lady Millicent, the Poisoner, "I knew not of the deadly power of strychnine until he told me. A lovely child, I roamed the lordly gardens of my father's princely mansion, and chased the butterfly from flower to flower. 'Twas he that set on the smugglers to seize me, and under his vile tuition I acquired in ten short chapters, all the hideous knowledge of the Borgias! Away with him!"
"'Twas he dishonoured my bills," cried Lord Agustus Plantaganet.
"'Twas he that let me linger in consumption for forty pages folio!" cried Coralie de Belleisle, the planter's daughter.
"'Twas he that blighted my voluptuous contours with an entirely unnecessary railway accident!" wept the lovely Géraldine.
"Away with him!"
"Mercy!" I cried, gazing in terror on their well-known lineaments, "Mercy!"
"Mercy!" cried the Lost Heiress, Isabella Beaumanior, "when for two long hours you deliberated whether my sainted mother or the poacher's wife should give me birth! Mercy for thee! Oh, no, no, no!"
It was terrible to hear my own impassioned language thus turned against me.
"Ladies and gentlemen," cried I in despair, "consider the exigencies of fiction!"
"Fiction be blowed!" roared the digger. "This way boys."
A deserted drive was before me—how many luckless wretches had not I thrown down it?—and I made one supreme effort.
"Ladies and gentlemen," I shouted, "consider dramatic unity! You could not all be happy."
Dramatic unity be d——!" snarled Jabez Jamrack, "that is the last thing you thought of."
I trembled over the abyss.
"Hold! "said the rough voice of my Villain, who had now approached. "Make me respectable and you shall live."
"I can't," I said faintly. "It is impossible. You are too great a ruffian."
"Let go!" cried the digger, and I already felt myself launched into the chasm, when a loud ringing sounded in my ears, and I heard the voice of Leonard Fairfield. The noble fellow had sprung the alarm-bell.
"Fiends!" he shouted with all the force of his lungs—ha! ha! 'twas I that gave them to him!—" Thou art baffled! Black Demon! Thy limbs shall feed the ravens, and the magpie perch upon thy fleshless skull! What ho! Without there!"
"Why seek to dispel my ennui with this espièglerie, mon ami," said the soft tones of the Count in his native tongue. "Sacre, let the pauvre petit escape, my dejeuner a la fourchette awaits. The coup d'œeil is superb, the tout ensemble all that could be desired. Voila. "
The digger swung me over the yawning grave. All the buttons in my waistcoat gave way, and for an instant my life hung literally by a thread.
"Will you make me respectable?" said the Villain.
The button cracked. I was going, going—gone, when the alarm-bell sounded, the door was burst open, and
"It is the boy from the printers' for the proofs," said she.
"Tell him to wait," said I; and wiping the sweat from my intellectual brow, I seized my pen, and in ten lines had got my Villain comfortably in irons at Norfolk Island.
This document (source) is part of Crummy, the webspace of Leonard Richardson (contact information). It was last modified on Sunday, July 15 2007, 00:22:16 Nowhere Standard Time and last built on Saturday, September 26 2020, 10:00:08 Nowhere Standard Time.