Jim Davis/Chapter XIX

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Jim Davis by John Masefield
Chapter XIX: The Road to London


CHAPTER XIX
THE ROAD TO LONDON

You may be sure that I lost no time in leaving the inn. I merely noted the way to London from the coaching-map and hurried out, repeating the direction so that I should not forget. It was a bright, cool morning: and I walked very briskly for a couple of hours, when I sat down to rest by the roadside, under a patch of willows, which grew about a little bubbling brook. Presently I saw that a little way ahead of me were three gipsy-looking people (a boy with his father and mother), sitting by the road resting. They got up, after I had been there for twenty minutes or so, and came along the road towards me, bowed under their bundles. I got up, too, intending to continue my journey; but when I was about to pass them, the man drew up in front of me.

"Beg your pardon, young master," he said; "but could you tell me the way to Big Ben?" "But that's in London," I said. "That's in London, at the House of Parliament."

"What!" he cried. "You don't mean to tell me that us have come the wrong road?'

"Yes," I said. "You're going the wrong way for London."

"Then take that," cried the man, giving me a shove, just as the woman flung her shawl over my head. I stepped back, for the shove was no light one; but just behind me the boy had crouched on all fours (he had evidently practised the trick), so that I went headlong over him, and had a nasty fall into the road.

"Stop his mouth, Martha," said the man: and stop it she did, with her ragged old shawl, in which she had evidently carried the provisions of the gang.

"What's he got on him?" said the woman, as the man rummaged through my pockets.

"Only a prince and a chive," said the man, disgustedly, meaning my half-crown and a jack-knife.

"Well," said the woman, "his jacket's better than Bill's, and we'll have his little portmanteau, what's more."

In another minute they had my suit stripped from me; and I had the sight of dirty little Bill, the tramper's boy, putting on my things.

"Here," said the woman. "You put on Bill's things. They're good enough for you. And don't you dare breathe a word of what we done."

"Yes," said the man, as Bill buttoned up his jacket, and took my little bundle in his hand. "You keep your little jaw shut or I'll come after you."

"Oh, Mother," said Bill. "Don't I look a young swell, neither?"

For answer, his mother grabbed him by the arm, and the three hurried away from me in the direction from which I had come. The man looked back and made a face at me, shaking his fist. I was left penniless in the road. A milestone told me that I was seventy miles from London.

I was now at the end of my resources; almost too miserable to cry. I did not know what was to become of me. I could only wander along the road, in a dazed sort of way, wishing for Marah. I was wretched and faint, and Marah was so strong and careless. Then I said to myself that Marah was dead, and that I should soon be dead, for I had neither food nor money. The smugglers had talked of shipwrecks once or twice. I had heard them say that a man could live for three days without food or drink, in fair weather; and that without food, drinking plenty of water, he could live for three weeks. They were very wild talkers, to be sure; but I remembered this now and got comfort from it. Surely, I thought, I shall be able to last for a week, and in a week I ought to be near London. Besides, I can eat grass; and perhaps I shall find a turnip, or a potato, or a partridge's nest with young ones still in it; and perhaps I shall be able to earn a few coppers by opening gates, or holding horses.

I plucked up wonderfully when I thought of all these things; though I did not at all like wearing Bill's clothes. I felt that I looked like a dirty young tramp, and that anybody who saw me would think that I was one. Besides, I had always hated dirt and untidiness, and the feeling that I carried both about me was hateful.

But Bill's clothes were to be a great help to me before noon that day. As I wandered along the road, wondering where I could get something to eat (for I was now very hungry), I came to a turnpike. The turnpike-keeper was cleaning his windows, outside his little house. When he saw me, he just popped his head inside the door, and said something to some people inside. His manner frightened me; but I was still more frightened when two Bow Street runners (as we called detectives then) and a yeomanry officer came out of the house, and laid hold of me.

"That's your boy, sir," said the turnpike-keeper.

"Come on in here," said the officer, "and give an account of yourself."

They led me into the room, where they were eating some bread and cheese.

"He doesn't answer the description," said one of the men, glancing at a paper.

"I'm not so sure about that," said the officer. "He's the exact height, and that's the same coloured hair."

"Now I come to think of it," said the keeper, "I believe I saw that boy pass along here this morning, along with two trampers. That coat with the pocket torn. Yes, and red lining showing. I thought I'd seen them."

"Well, boy," said the officer, "what's your name?"

"Jim Davis," I answered.

"What were you doing with the two trampers, Jim?" he asked.

"Please, sir," I said, "I wasn't doing anything with them."

"Ah," said one of the runners. "These young rogues is that artful, they never do nothing anywhere."

"You'll live to be hanged, I know," said the other runner.

"What were you doing with the smugglers?" asked the officer suddenly, staring hard at my face, to watch for any change of expression.

But I was ready for him. A boy is often better able to keep his countenance than a grown man. With masters, and aunts, and game-keepers all down upon him, he lives a hunted life. He gets lots of practice in keeping his countenance. A grown man often gets very little.

"What smugglers, sir?" I asked as boldly as I could.

"The men you sailed with from Etaples," said the officer.

"Sailed with?" I asked, feeling that I was done for.

"Didn't the horses splash about, when you cut the cable?" said the officer, with a smile.

This time I thought I had better not answer. I looked as puzzled as I could, and looked from one face to the other, as though for enlightenment.

"Now, Jim," said one of the runners. "It's no good. Tell us all about the smugglers, and we'll let you go."

"We know you're the boy we want," said the captain. "Make a clean breast of it, and perhaps you will get off with transportation."

"Now don't look so innocent," said the other runner. "Tell us what we want to know, or we'll make you."

Now somewhere I had read that the police bullied suspected persons in this way. If you make a guilty person believe that you know him to be guilty, you can also get him to confess if you startle him sufficiently. It occurred to me that this was what these men were doing, especially as they had not been sure of me when I came into the room.

I had some twenty or thirty seconds in which to think of an answer, for the three men spoke one after the other, without giving me a chance to speak. I shook my head, putting on a puzzled look.

"I beg your pardon, sir," I said, speaking rather roughly, in the accent which Bill had used. "I think there's some mistake."

"Oh, I think not," said the officer. "Suppose I tell you how many men were in the lugger?"

But here we were stopped by the arrival of a chaise outside. A man entered hurriedly.

"It's all right, Gray," the newcomer called to the officer. "We have the boy. We caught him back there, along the road, with a couple of gipsies. There can be no doubt about it. The clothes and bundle are just as they're described in the advertisement. Who have you here?"

"Oh, a boy we brought in on suspicion," said the officer. "Shall we let him go?"

"Well, who is he?" asked the new arrival. "Eh, boy? Who are you?"

"A poor boy," I answered.

"How do you make a living?" he asked. "Little boys, like you, oughtn't to be about on the roads, you know. What d'ye do for a living?"

I am afraid it was rather a bold statement; but I cried out that I could sing ballads.

"Oh, Jim. So you sing ballads, do you?" said the officer. "Get on to that chair and sing us a ballad."

But I was cunning and wary. "Please, sir," I said, "I'm very hungry. I don't sing, except for my dinner and a sixpence."

"So you defy the law already, do you?" said the newcomer. "Well. Eat some bread and cheese, and I will give you sixpence for a song."

So I sat down very thankfully, and made a good dinner at the table. I pretended to pay no attention to the officers; but really I listened very eagerly to all that they said. I gathered that the newcomer was a coastguard naval captain, of the name of Byrne, and I felt that he half-suspected and half-liked me, without thinking very much about me one way or the other. When I had finished my dinner—and I ate enough to last me till the night—I got upon my chair, without being pressed, and sang the ballad of "The White Cockade," then very popular all over the West country. My voice was not bad in those days, and I was used to singing; indeed, people sang more then than they do now. Everybody sang.

Captain Byrne seemed puzzled by my voice, and by my cultivated accent. "Who taught you to sing?" he asked.

So I answered that I had been in the village choir at home; which was true enough.

"And where was that?" he asked.

For a moment I thought that I would trust him, and tell him everything. Then, very foolishly, I determined to say nothing, so I said that it was a long way away, and that I had come from thence after my father had died. He whispered something to Mr. Gray, the other officer; and they looked at me curiously. They both gave me a sixpenny piece for my ballad; and then they went out. Captain Byrne stopped at the door. "Look here," he said, "you take my advice and go home. You will come to no good, leading this wandering life."

When they had gone, I went out also, and watched their chaise disappear. The last that I saw of them was the two top-hats of the runners, sticking up at the back of the conveyance, like little black chimneys.

I felt very glad that Bill was taken up, evidently in mistake for me. It seemed a fitting reward. But at the same time I knew that the mistake might be found out at any moment; and that I should be searched for as soon as Bill had cleared himself. I walked slowly away from the turnpike, so that the keeper might not suspect me, and then I nipped over a stile, and ran away across country, going inland, away from the sea, as fast as I could travel. I could tell my direction by the sun, and I kept a westerly course, almost due west, for three or four hours, till I was tired out.

It was a lonely walk, too; hardly anything but wild, rather marshy country, with few houses, few churches, and no bigger town than the tiniest of villages. At about six o'clock that afternoon, when I had gone some sixteen miles since daybreak, I felt that I could go no further, and began to cast about for a lodging-place.