Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Plucky Dick pluckless
PLUCKY DICK PLUCKLESS.
Probably more persons than we imagine have at some period of their lives been most thoroughly frightened. I do not mean frightened in the common sense of the word, but so completely paralysed with terror as to be utterly unable to think or act aright, or indeed do anything for a time. One does not often hear of such cases, for the confession of fear is very humiliating to men, and we lock the secret up close in our breasts.
It does not at all follow that we are, generally speaking, cowards. May-be our liver has been deranged, or our nerves from some cause or other unstrung, and so fear has dashed in upon us with, the irresistible impetuosity and icy coldness of a swollen river, which has burst its banks in winter. May-be something has taken place which is in reality most trivial, and yet from its unusually sudden appearance, and from its most unexpected occurrence, it has sent such a shock through us, as seriously to damage, if not indeed render entirely useless for the time being, our physical and moral courage. A man can with ease step down one or two feet at a time, or jump down eight or ten feet; but let the same man unexpectedly step down six or eight inches, and he will receive such a shock, as to be for a few moments almost incapacitated from moving. Many a person with iron nerves will most fearlessly face the greatest conceivable danger if it comes in human form, but let there be a dash of what he thinks supernatural about it—that is, supernatural, because he can by no means account for it—and forthwith his iron nerves are turned to something about as strong as the threads of a spider’s cobweb.
The following tale is published by request. The somewhat extraordinary title is attached to it by request. The names of the persons concerned have been very slightly changed, because it is not wished that they should be made public, but every word of the narrative is true, and there is not the slightest objection to the real names being recognised, as they easily will be, by many a friend and acquaintance who reads these pages.
Three or four weeks ago, I was staying at Carroll Hall, a large country house in Wiltshire. The host, Sir Edward Moreton, had assembled around him a numerous and pleasant party. Among the number of those staying at the Hall were Colonel Moreton, Sir Edward’s eldest son, and Major Dyvart. The last-mentioned officer had seen much active service. He had been through the war in the Crimea, where his name was well-known; he had served in India and in China; he was decorated with many a hardly-earned medal; and had so distinguished himself on several occasions by his conspicuous courage, that he had been specially complimented and rewarded for his bravery. His reputation, thanks to the newspapers, and the association of the French with us in the Crimea, might at one time fairly have been described as being of European, if not world-wide, extent. And should there be any one, who from this account thinks he ought to remember, but fails to recognise, the real name of Major Dyvart, he may have his memory quickened, and his understanding enlightened, if I mention that, in by-gone days of active service and hard-won fields, the officer in question was far more generally spoken of and addressed by the soubriquet of “Plucky Dick,” than his proper surname. Such then was Major Dyvart, the chief character in my story—the bravest among the brave.
It so happened that one morning when I was staying at Carroll Hall, Major Dyvart performed some unusual feat of courage. A carriage and pair, the driver of which had lost all control over the horses, came at a runaway pace down the avenue. Major Dyvart threw himself in the way, seized the head of one of the horses, and after being dragged some little distance, in the course of which he was severely bruised, succeeded in averting a catastrophe which had threatened to be fatal. One reads so often in novels of runaway horses being checked in their mad career by heroes who perform extraordinary acts, and not only invariably save the heroines of the tale, but invariably escape themselves, that seated by our firesides we almost look upon the act as common-place and comparatively easy. All I can say is, try to perform it yourself, reader, when the sad opportunity occurs, or see another man do it while you yourself stand by, paralysed with fear, and you will no longer speak slightingly or feel lightly about the danger incurred.
It was the second evening after the above-mentioned circumstance had taken place, that we were seated round the dining-table, talking over the scene. Everyone was loud in the praises of the courage of Major Dyvart, who sat with one arm in a sling, and his forehead strapped in two or three places with plaister. A new turn was given to the conversation by Colonel Moreton exclaiming, “It is very well for you all to praise Dyvart so much, and he knows how much I myself honour and value him; but let me tell you that time has been when he was a coward.”
“Impossible, impossible!” exclaimed many of the party; “you are only jealous, Moreton.”
“Oh fie! George,” exclaimed his sister.
“Nonsense, George,” cried his father, old Sir Edward, “nonsense: Dyvart a coward!”
Colonel Moreton smiled, cracked his nuts, and seemed imperturbable, merely repeating, “I tell you all, Dyvart has been a coward.”
A fresh storm of abuse arose, if that could be called abuse, which was only a very strong expression of good natured astonishment.
Dyvart wore a puzzled look.
“I tell you,” repeated George, “that I know Dyvart has been a coward, an arrant coward—small blame to him. The Duke of Wellington is said to have run away in his first battle: Dyvart, however, has been worse than the Duke. I have seen him most thoroughly frightened, so frightened that though his hair was stiff enough to stand on end, and would have supported his hat, if he had not lost it in his fright, yet at the same time the strength that had gone to his uppermost extremities had left his legs and knees so weak, that a child might have knocked him down with a feather; and if you do not call a man in that state a coward for the time being, I do not know what cowardice means.”
Dyvart looked more mystified than ever.
Colonel Moreton was not speaking in the slightest degree in an offensive tone. He was speaking seriously, with, if possible, a dash of irony and banter underlying his seriousness. At length, roused apparently by the doubts expressed by all at table, he had recourse to an Englishman’s mode of defending the truth of a statement.
“I will bet you anything you like that Dyvart has been a coward.”
“Done, done,” exclaimed the ladies.
“How much will you bet?” cried the gentlemen.
“Yes, George, but how will you prove it?” said Sir Edward.
“Listen,” exclaimed Colonel Moreton. “I will bet the ladies any amount of gloves they choose to name, and the gentlemen of the party any sum of money in moderation, that to-morrow evening, after dinner, Dyvart himself shall confess that, so far from having always deserved the name of ‘Plucky Dick,’ he has once been, and that too in my presence, as pluckless and as cowardly as any one well could be.”
The bets were made, Miss Fanny Moreton quietly remarking to me, with an arch side-long glance, “Of course, Mr. Temple, if I lose, you will pay for me? It is not possible, though, for me to lose,” she added.
Dyvart had before been appealed to by some of the company, and had professed his utter ignorance of any time when his friend Colonel Moreton could have seen him in the state described. No one could doubt the truth of the speaker. A mysterious circular nod from the lady of the house, and her fair companions, rising in a magically simultaneous manner, shook out the reefs of their crinolines, and sailed from the room. The subject then dropped.
The following evening, after dessert had been placed on the table, and directly the servants had left the room, Dyvart, before any one could ask him questions, spoke as follows, to the utter amazement of every person.
“I am bound to confess that what Colonel Moreton stated last night was perfectly true, that he did not in the least degree exaggerate my state of fear, and that in all probability I showed more signs of terror than he mentioned. To the ladies who have lost their bets through my gross cowardice I may be allowed to say, that I trust I shall be permitted to pay their gloves for them. To the gentlemen I can only add that I trust they are fully satisfied; that, however strange it may seem, I do hope they will fully believe me when I say, that so far from fancying that I should this evening have to confess what I have confessed, I would most decidedly, as a matter of pecuniary consideration, have gladly taken all their bets last night on my own hands.”
A short silence followed. Everybody seemed astonished and bewildered, astonished that Dyvart should have been a coward, bewildered because they could not reconcile his present confession with what he had said last night, namely, that he could not understand how Moreton or any other man could have seen him in such a state.
“Well, George,” exclaimed Sir Edward, “tell us the story: let us hear the how, when, and where, and all about it.”
“Not a bit of it, father; I simply bet that this evening Plucky Dick shall confess certain things. He confesses them. I have won my bet. The story is Dyvart’s. He may tell it or not as he likes, but I calculate he will not like to do so.”
Curiosity was now most insatiably whetted. By the ladies, by the gentlemen, by fair means, by foul means, poor Dyvart was attacked, till at last he consented, merely premising two things, one of which was, that it was not until that very day that he had fully understood the facts he was about to relate, in which he himself had been chief actor; and the other that he trusted pardon would be granted to youthful acts of folly committed both by himself and his companions in the days of opening manhood.
“Some of you are aware,” he commenced, “that I did not enter the army at as early an age as most men. I was twenty years old when I was still from time to time residing in London, a member of —— Inn, and reading, or pretending to read, for the bar. My greatest amusement had always been driving—there was nothing in which I took so much pleasure, nothing on which I prided myself more, nothing on which I spent so much money. Not being rich enough to keep horses of my own, I was obliged to drive those belonging to other persons. Many and many a coach had I driven—many an omnibus, too, with a shabby great coat on my back, and the driver’s badge on my breast—many a Hansom, too, have I piloted through the City, and through the West End. I once drove one of those large awkward, lumbering three-horse goods’ waggons from Paddington to the opposite side of the City, partly because I doubted my power to accomplish the journey safely, partly because I had a weakness for being able to say I had driven everything. And I was almost able to make such a boast. One exception I was compelled always to state. I had never driven a hearse. My boast and my exception, many of my friends had heard me make; among others, no doubt, Colonel Moreton, then a young officer on leave, staying for a short time in London. In various ways had I tried to get myself perched, reins in hand, on the much coveted box, but to no purpose. Either hearse-owners and hearse-drivers were more conscientious than most people, or the risk of detection, and consequent injury to owner and driver, were greater than in other cases, where I have been allowed by proprietors or Jehus to drive. So it was, I never could get the chance of driving a hearse. One night there came to my lodgings in Mount Street, Grosvenor Square, a curiously- attired individual, dressed half in ostler’s style, half in cast-off mourning clothes, with a face which seemed quite able to laugh on one side, and cry on the other, at the same time, or laugh and cry alternately with both halves in simultaneous action, as often as required. The man stood bowing and scraping at the door, chewing, à la Punch’s Palmerston, a dilapidated straw.
“‘What on earth do you want, man?’ said I.
“‘Please, sir, I am told as how you wants to drive a hearse, and my master have got a job of the kind to-morrow, for Messrs. ——’ (mentioning a well-known firm of undertakers), ‘and if you will be a gentleman, sir, I will let you take it for me, but I am most afraid for many reasons, sir; but if, sir—’
“I was delighted: I checked the man at once in his voluble initiatory speech, made him sit down, put before him something hot to drink, and after giving him a preliminary fee, and promising to double it the next day, when the job was over, I said I was ready to listen to his fears, cautions, instructions, &c.
“‘Well, sir,’ said he, ‘in the first place you must be dressed in black, look solemn like, and so forth; and let me tell you, sir, when you have four black horses and mutes afore you, and a dead ’un for an inside passenger, you will find your feelings—’
“‘Nonsense, get on,’ said I.
“‘Well, sir, in the next place, you have driven four horses in a coach afore now, and you have looked back to see that your passengers were all right, and your luggage safe, may-be; but to-morrow you must not look back to see your coach loaded. You will receive your orders from the undertaker’s man to move on a bit at first, and then to go on slowly. And go on slowly you must, sir. You are sure to be tempted to cut in and out among the wehicles; though you are going at a walking pace you will see an opening, and you will be wanting gently to double thong your wheelers, or just touch your leaders with the lash, but you must not do it, sir, or you will be found out, and I shall be ruined. You must just keep steady on, and you will find everything get out of your way.’
“A few more minor instructions my mentor gave me, and then we parted; he, no doubt, to get drunk on my present to him of a sovereign, I to dream of to-morrow. At the appointed hour next day, I was at the stables. The head groom, or proprietor, I know not which, touched his hat to me, but though a little surprised at that, I soon forgot it. Nor did it strike me then, as it afterwards did, that it was strange there was only one mourning-coach and pair to follow the hearse and four. Off I drove to the undertaker’s close by, received my orders, and trotted away, with three or four mutes clinging behind to the hearse and coach, to the place where I was directed to take up the corpse. It was a small house, apparently only just finished, if indeed quite finished, and in a part of London now well built over, but then only just beginning to be attacked with bricks and mortar. I faithfully attended to the instructions given over-night, and in due time, with two or four, I forget which, mutes walking by the side of the hearse, started for the burying-place. That was a small country village some few miles out of town, on a road with which I was not acquainted.
“At first it had been easy work trotting round to the undertaker’s, and then to the door where we took up, but now I began to find that my horses were anything but slow and steady. An uneasy lifting of the hind-quarters of my leaders made me extra careful, and long for the time when, having deposited my burden, I could trot back to town, with the mutes sitting on the hearse, laughing, talking, and smoking, as is, or used to be, the unseemly custom. All went tolerably well for a time. We had cleared London, and were proceeding quietly between hedgerows, when, to my infinite disgust, an awkward shot fired by some boys, who were out sparrow-shooting I suppose, not only frightened my horses, but rendered them almost mad, by peppering very sharply my two leaders, who had before shown signs of freshness and uneasiness. They were off in a moment at a furious gallop, with the blood streaming down their sides. Nothing that I or any man could have done, would restrain them. Frantically they dashed on. I fully retained my presence of mind, and guided them in a certain manner.
“After galloping for some distance, I saw a long rise before me, and thought I should succeed in stopping my impetuous steeds at the top if I could tire them a little bit. I began now to lash, and up the hill we flew at a pace if possible more furious than ever. I really believe that I should have been able to pull up ere long, had I not become frightened. To my horror, I heard sounds of a human voice issuing apparently from the hearse. I listened attentively, and most distinctly heard, amid the clatter of hoofs and rattle of wheels sounds of fear mingled with very emphatic unadulterated Saxon language, which I cannot and need not repeat, coming from inside the hearse behind me. I hardly know what I thought. The corpse was swearing horribly. And no wonder, too, in one sense of the word. I was paralysed with fear. Whether the reins dropped from my hands I cannot tell. Certainly I lost all power over them. I had urged the horses up the rise. I could not check them in time, they thundered down the corresponding descent the other side. We ran against a tree. A crash. I was hurled off my seat. The hearse was smashed. Its broken bits and the mad horses disappeared I know not where. I and the shattered coffin rolled down a steep bank. Whether I was in my senses or not I cannot tell, but in a ditch opposite to me there sat up a bloody corpse, with soiled and torn grave-clothes, speaking or trying to speak to me. There floated through my mind horrible thoughts of men buried alive, supposed to be dead. Evidently this was such a case. I had brought the supposed dead man to life. I had also done that which would cause his real death. My brain reeled. No doubt I showed all the signs of fear my friend Colonel Moreton has described; but little did I imagine that he was in the neighbourhood, looking on as an eye-witness. Coroner’s inquest—murder—homicide—gallows—disgrace flitted in a confused tangle through my mind. I picked myself up at once and tore off at my utmost speed, I cared not whither, across the country.
“After going four or five miles, as near as I can guess, I espied a small, solitary public-house by the road-side. I entered, drank something very strong, lay down in the bar and fell into an uneasy sleep. Towards evening I awoke. I had heard voices in my sleep. I asked the landlady who had been there.
“‘Only two policemen,’ she said, ‘have looked in. They mostly come at night, and will be here again by-and-by.’
“That was enough for me. I was off again in a few moments. I reached my lodgings eventually, how or when I cannot tell. I recollect nothing more until I opened my eyes and found myself in bed, very weak, room darkened, doctor and nurse bending over me, temples peppered over with leech bites, persons speaking in a whisper, and a disinclination on my part to do anything but sleep. After waking again from my sleep, my mind I found was very confused; gradually, however, I recollected what had taken place. The nurse told me that I had had a brain fever, and at one time had been given up. I kept my own counsel, merely inventing a story to account for a severe fall I had had, which I said was the cause of the wild, haggard, feverish state in which I was told I had appeared at my lodgings. From that time to this I have neither said nor heard a word on the subject. I never understood the matter. I never comprehended clearly what had brought the dead man partly to life. I never could learn. I dared not inquire what had eventually become of him or his body. At last I could only imagine that the fever must have been on me before I started for my drive; that the sounds I heard from the inside of the hearse must have proceeded from men whom we flew by from time to time on the road; that my illness coming on had made me a little light-headed; that the roll in a ditch with a clattering, broken coffin, and summersaults innumerable down a bank with a dead body, had made me, in a moment of agonising terror, fancy that the corpse had spoken, and foolishly imagine that jaws stiff in death were trying to articulate. One thing puzzled me not a little. I sent to the undertakers and to the owner of the hearse an ample apology, begging that the man who ought to have driven might not be blamed, entreating that secrecy might as much as possible be observed, and I enclosed to both all the money I could spare, promising to send them, as soon as I could, the remainder of the sum which I fairly owed them, and requesting they would let me know how much they thought I ought to pay. I did not sign my name, but told them to direct ‘A. B., Post-office, Charing Cross, till called for.’
“By the next post I received letters from them, more truthful than complimentary. I was told that money could not make up for the loss and injury I had occasioned; that nothing could excuse my conduct; that they were not at all surprised at my concealing my real name, nor were they astonished that one who could do such things as I had done, should seem to care nothing about the feelings of the relations and friends of the dear departed one whose mangled remains and mutilated corpse I had, through my wicked folly, exposed to the gaze of public curiosity, &c. &c. They begged to return my money.
“Now all this was pleasant to me. I felt going mad again. I left London directly. My commission was soon procured. Ere very long I had departed from England, nor did I return to these shores till after I had seen much service in India, the Crimea, and China. I really believe that many an act I have performed—which has obtained for me my sobriquet—has been the consequence of a mad feeling within, engendered by that terrible roll with death, which made me perfectly reckless.
“On my return to London, a short time ago, I found that the undertaker’s shop and the livery stables where I mounted the box of my hearse, had changed hands.”
The speaker ceased. He was at once taken up with a regular chorus, headed by Sir Edward, of—
“But, major, how do you account for—?”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the major, “upon my honour, everything I have stated is true; I assure you, moreover, that up to the time of my rising this morning, I neither could have explained nor accounted for a single fact more than I have just done. Now I am wiser; but till to-day I knew not whose corpse it was with which I had gone to grief. I knew not the name of the family whose feelings I had, through my wicked imprudence, so sadly lacerated, and it was perfectly impossible for me to conjecture last night what Colonel Moreton meant when he stated that he had seen me show the white feather. Others in this room may, if they choose, give the supplement to my story.”
Colonel Moreton at once took up the running, and said:
“I will try to be brief. First of all, let me tell you that, as far as I am concerned, I insist upon all bets being off. You may send your sovereigns and the price of your gloves to the Lancashire Fund. Next, I assure you that, while some fifteen years ago, I little thought that the hearse-drive begun in comedy would end in tragedy, I still less imagined, when I started my sportive conversation last night, that I should find that the roll with death had dwelt so much upon my friend’s mind, and that though he and I have together seen hundreds of corpses on a battle field, yet that that particular encounter with one dead body should have worried him so much. Those who were concerned in the business would not let me explain the matter to Dyvart before. One of them was Bob Poland, who was killed in the Crimea, and the other was Mr. Conolly, who has lately died. I have not met Plucky Dick recently, as he knows, till within the last few days. Fortunately for me, he is kind and noble, as he is undoubtedly brave. He has forgiven me, and we are as firm friends as ever. You all will, I trust, forgive me also, especially you, my dear father,” said the Colonel, affectionately looking at old Sir Edward, “for you will find you have been victimised.
“One day in town, Dyvart, Poland, and Conolly had been dining with me at the Rag and Famish. Dyvart, who had been boasting about his having driven everything except a hearse, left early. We at once set to work concocting a practical joke to be played off on him. In the comic tragedy, so to call it, which took place, I was the corpse, Poland and Conolly the two mourners. It never was intended that the hearse should go as far as the village where the burying-place was. We had settled to stop at a certain lone spot in a lane, where Dyvart would have been called upon to drag myself and my coffin out of the hearse. I had my face tied up, and was attired in a shroud, in order that we might more successfully impose upon, frighten, and raise a laugh against Dyvart. We had bribed the chief ostler to put in a pair of frisky black leaders, in order that my friend might be more troubled and bothered in driving through town. As for a runaway,—of that I never for a moment dreamed, knowing that Dyvart was really a first-rate whip. My feelings, when I found myself being really run away with, while I was hopelessly locked up inside a hearse, may be more easily imagined than described. Dyvart says, I used what he elegantly terms emphatic, unadulterated Saxon. Possibly the horrible condition I found myself in may have led me to utter language which any of my present or early friends could testify was quite contrary to my habit. Some hero in former days—Ajax, I believe—prayed that he might be killed in the light. I was anything but a hero, still, I confess, that the idea of dying in darkness—the utter ignorance I was in as to where I might, every second, be hurled—was horrible. It was a delightful relief to me when I was catapulted into light, and rolled vis-a-vis into a ditch with Dyvart. It was a great relief when I saw him run off, as I fancied, uninjured. I cared not for my own bruises. Late at night I found him in his lodgings. I procured for him the best medical advice London afforded. I hung for days and nights over his bed, praying earnestly that my folly might not end in fatal results. Before Dyvart came round, I was obliged to rejoin my regiment. I paid everything connected with the unfortunate business. I bribed heavily and successfully to have the matter kept quite concealed. And now, father, you will understand why it was that, in the year 18—, I drew upon you for an extra 600l., and declined, at the time, to give you any reason for my unusual expenditure.”
There was a slight pause. The Colonel went on to say:
“The story, though amusing in several respects, has been often a painful subject to me. Many a time have I laughed out loud at the idea of the ludicrous figure Dyvart and I must have cut when rolling down the bank, and often have I longed for the pencil of a Leech to depict our summersaulting figures. I attired in death’s garments, Dyvart dying with fright; the coffin smashed; half the hearse and the horses disappearing in the distance, with the other half—sable plumes and all—filling up with its mutilated fragments the semi-doleful, semi-ludicrous sketch. Often have I also bitterly repented my folly, and always have I steadily adhered to my resolution, formed directly after the accident, never to have anything to do with a practical joke.”
When Colonel Moreton had finished speaking, the story he had been relating was commented on in various ways by the assembled party. At last, it was decided nem. con. that an account should be published of the only occasion on which Major Dyvart had shown the white feather. It was known by the company that I had occasionally contributed to a magazine, and I was urged to get this tale inserted. I have written it as nearly as possible, word for word, as it was related. I can only trust that it may be the source of as much astonishment and amusement to the readers of these pages, as it was to the guests assembled on the night of November the —th around the hospitable board of Sir Edward Moreton at Carroll Hall.