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Chapter XV.

FREESTONE, beneath the weeping skies and in the carbonised atmosphere of England, assumes, in course of time, a very dingy hue—puts on, in old-fashioned phrase, “sad-coloured raiment.” The buildings of Bath—save in the case of magnificent Queen-square where the tint is a pure and venerable grey, harmonising well with the ancient extinguishers, for linkboys' torches, still projecting from the walls—seem, on a close inspection, clad in not over clean mourning for the departed gaiety that once brightened the town as with a swarm of peacock-butterflies, flooded it with jocund music as though life had been but one long holiday—the dynasty of duties deposed for ever, and delight reigning with a rose-wreathed sceptre in their stead. The city that was full of merry-makers now sits solitary. Some of her streets—King-street for instance—are so silent that they remind you of Palmyra and Pompeii. For want of living traversers, you people them with ghosts. Patches and ruffles, hoops and swords, paint themselves on the empty air. The flirts and fribbles of the eighteenth century ascend from Hades, dumbly chattering, as they coquettishly tap their polished fans, or sapiently wag their powdered wigs. Beau Nash is King of Bath once more. His coach-and-six again parades the place—with wheels that rattle not, and horses velvet-shod; grandly his heralds puff their spectral cheeks, but noiseless are their horns.——“By leave,” growls a gruff voice in your ear, and two tall chairmen—in long, blue, caped coats, corduroy small-clothes, and ribbed grey worsted stockings, just such as chairmen wore in the Beau's time—trot past with a seedy sedan in which, perhaps, the Beau has sat—it looks quite old enough. The vehicle and vehents that have dispelled your dream of by-gone Bath are the sole relics of its manners. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Bath, however, blackened limestone and deserted streets notwithstanding, is, when seen from a distance on a fine day, one of the most brilliantly beautiful of cities. Hills stand about her as they stand about Jerusalem,


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but hills blooming beneath the blessing of God, not blasted by His curse. In the emerald basin that they form, crescent rises above crescent, terrace above terrace. Graceful churches dot the denser masonry, pointing with taper fingers to the skies; and in the centre of the clustered houses the Abbey towers sublime. Smoke-stains and weather-stains are washed out by the deluge of sunlight raining on window, roof, and wall; in lovely contrast with the verdant slopes around, and the azure heavens smiling overhead, Bath glitters like a jewelled queen. Aquæ Solis was a name she bore in the old Roman times. She may not be indebted to the sun for her waters, but verily she is for her winsomeness. No matter what the season, she looks splendid in the sunshine. When an avalanche of fruit-blossom hangs on the side of Lyncombe Vale, and the glowing green of spring ends every vista opening from sombre but majestic Pulteney-street; when Prior Park decked in its summer robes basks in the dazzling glory of a cloudless mid-day, and summer grass waist high waves in the meadows by the winding Avon; when the Twerton valley gleams one tufted mass of gold and crimson in the pensive radiance of an autumn afternoon; and when the last clambering spray of the wild clematis has withered in the hedges, and Hampton cliffs stand bluff and bright in the cold, clear winter air, embossed on the pale-blue winter-sky,—the Queen of the West may proudly challenge comparison with the fairest of her sisterhood of cities,—any, the wide world over.

But very dreary did Bath look that muggy winter's day when I approached it, a little before noon, by the muddy lower Bristol Road. Dark clouds, almost touching the turrets of the abbey, hung over the city, stretching like a leaden-coloured canopy from Beechen Cliff to Lansdowne. The leafless trees upon the hill where the Leper Prince's pigs once crunched the abundant mast, were glossy with rain and dripping dismally. Beckford's Tower rose like a light-house above a sea of mist. Damp donkeys laden with coal from Radstock, and driven by women that looked like men, and men that looked like devils, came trudging down steep Holloway and the more level Wells Road, shaking the raindrops from their drooping ears, and wearing that expression of melancholy patience which is to be seen only in the faces of flogged asses, and flogged wives. The pavement on the bridge was caked inch-thick with mire, through which foot-passengers toiled like flies on a greasy plate. Below rushed the swollen river, of the colour of bad gingerbread. Bump, bump against the wharf went the black barges, as they rose and fell upon the bilious-looking stream. Drearily the smoke straggled from their rusty chimneys; drearily yelped their dogs; seeking in vain dry places to lie down in on


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the glistening tarpaulins; dreary was the monotonous creak of the straining hawsers; dreary the flapping of the unfurled, wet-through sails.

My Clifton supper, and a frugal breakfast of bread-and-cheese at a roadside public-house, had not exhausted my half-crown. The part left, indeed, being in copper change, seemed to me, in spite of Euclid, greater than the original silver whole. Having lightened my pocket a little by the purchase of a pork-pie, I turned out of busy Southgate-street, and munched my peppery, unctuous dinner unmolested, as I dragged my weary feet over the puddle-sprinkled flags of the once fashionable St. James's Parade: now tenanted by tailors, stencillers, milk-sellers, and washer-women—portraits of cows that would make Landseer stare, and miniatures of mangles, decorating the doorpost or ground-floor window of almost every other house on both sides of the way. Roaming on by Westgate-buildings—fast sinking, through the intermediate stage of shabby gentility, into the base commercial condition of their fallen neighbour—I entered dingy Kingsmead-square. From this leads Avon-street, the Bathonian Alsatia, where—“the politest city in Europe” being cursed with the most blackguardly mob in the world—harlots and ruffians swarm, nearly as numerous and nasty as the vermin that share their quarters.

Having been cross-examined with rather uncomfortable closeness as to my movements by persons who had met and passed me in my morning's tramp to Bath, I had become very shy of asking directions, and was determined to find my way through the city into the London road by my own sagacity. Being, by this time, however, quite bewildered as to my where-abouts, I consciously doubled on my previous track, and wandered down this amiable Avon-street, almost to the river.

A very tall, stout woman, lounging at a half-open cottage-door, beckoned to me. I crossed the road, and was instantly dragged into the hovel. The door was banged-to, and I found myself in a small, foul, close room, where some seven or eight women, with bare breasts, and dirty, dishevelled hair hanging over their fat shoulders, were drinking, toying, and quarrelling with as many men. “What's up, Tom?” inquired one of the latter of my unceremonious introducer. “Where's the traps?” was Tom's counter-query, addressed, to my great astonishment, to me. When Tom's bonnet, however, was taken off, I found that Tom was no woman, but my navvy host of the night before; and told him all I knew of the rout and route of his pursuers. Tom seemed very pleased, and offered me another drink of his favourite “dog's-nose.” I just wetted my lips, and was about to make my exit, when a big blackguard, with a head, neck, and legs like a bull-dog's, caught me by the collar, remarking, with a wink, to his companions


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that I had come just in the nick of time, for a kid would be wanted. “Take young Spriggs,” said the youngest and prettiest of the women, “and not this poor little thing.” “Young Spriggs a'n't forthcoming, and Black Jim's too big, and Mother Jones's little chap is n't big enough,” growled the fellow in reply. “I tell yer this little cove is jist the kinchin for the job,” The girl still maintained that it was a shame to stop me, but a quart-pot, brought down upon her head with such a whack that a great dint was left in the pewter, soon silenced her. Tom, who also opposed my detention, was told to “shut up, if he did n't want to be blown on.”

The burly blackguard in whose clutch I was trembling, then forced a glassful of gin into my mouth, and pointing to a filthy mattress on the floor, bade me lie down there, and not get up till I was called.

The spirits—given me, I suppose, to make me go to sleep—I managed to spit out upon the sly; and, as I lay upon the bed, I listened shuddering to the conversation of my kidnappers. Being carried on chiefly in “thieves' Latin,” a great part of it was unintelligible to me; but, at last, in the midst of the quite mysterious slang, I caught several times the phrase “blue-faced old bloke,” and once or twice the name “Maurice.” After that, of course, I hearkened “with all my ears,” and contrived, by piecing what I did understand, and guessing as to what I didn't, to rede in this way the polyglot riddle: Mr. Maurice was going to leave home on this day with his little girl (I remembered that he had said he was about to send her to school—whither, however, I had forgotten); one of the men-servants travelling with his master, the male garrison of the house would be reduced to one—an infirm old butler; the scoundrels around me, being aware of these facts, had resolved to go over to Clifton in the dusk, and help themselves to the “blue-faced old bloke's” valuable plate at midnight; Tom, having come to this “ken” for asylum, had been pressed into the nefarious scheme; I was to be put through a window to open a back door.

This door I vowed inwardly I would never open. I would be shot first. Bella, I thought, would pity me when she heard that I had been killed in protecting her grandpapa's property. Oh, that I could escape and baffle the burglars! Now I pictured myself marching at the head of a posse of constables up to the den of thieves, and anon I was receiving Mr. Maurice's praises in the presence of my little goddess. The fancy made me tingle with delight.

Presently all the men, except Tom (who tumbled up stairs to get, as he said, “forty winks”) went out of the cottage. The bull-dog bully, who


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seemed to be at the head of the band, took a look at me before he swung his bandy legs over the threshold, but I saw him coming and “foxed” slumber. He merely, therefore, told one of the women to give me something to eat when I woke, and then followed his companions.

When the men were gone, the women began to drink furiously, and yelling, laughing, crying, most of them in a short time took their departure also, either into the street or to their bed-rooms. The woman in whose charge I had been left, a bloated old monster whom the others—hideous profanation of the word—called “Mother,” and the girl who had got her head broken for taking my part, were the only ones that remained.

My custodian and “Mother” swore at each other, slapped each other's faces, and then embraced with maudlin affection over their beer and gin. Soon they began to nod, and spreading their red, brawny arms on the liquor-stained table, laid down their frowzy heads beside the pewter pots, and in a few minutes were fast asleep.

When their snores had become regular, the girl went to the door and looked up and down the street. Returning on tiptoe, she touched me with her foot, and whispered “Run for your life, you poor ugly little devil!” My ugliness, I noticed, appeared to make her grudge her compassion. Had I been good-looking, she would have felt, doubtless, far more pleasure in serving me. It was all the kinder of her, then, to incur the risk of a murderous thrashing for my sake. These thoughts passed through my mind as, feeling very grateful to the poor girl, I crept over the earthen floor. She stooped and gave me a kiss, as if to atone for her uncomplimentary adjective. A moment afterwards I was flying, rather than running, along the slushy roadway.

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