Adventures in Watchbell Street

Imogene had got to Rye, and got there through the devil of a bad sea. It was Sunday morning, and by the time that the church bells were ringing for matins she had safely beached her boat with the help of two fishermen who knew her well. With these two old salts she breakfasted. A rude meal it was, served in a hut upon the shingle. Fish, bread, and hot broth were things that she liked, and she did credit to the fare, for she was hungry. She was also sorely in need of sleep, and the old fellows tried to persuade her to take a nap, but she would not hear of it, for time pressed and she had much to do.

Before leaving Dymchurch, Mrs. Waggetts had provided her with a case of pistols and a sealed packet of papers. This packet she now examined. It contained two papers. It was fortunate, indeed, that Doctor Syn had in his charity taught her to read. One of the papers was a letter of instructions telling her the easiest way of setting about the rescue of the squire’s son, and she knew the advice to be sound, for the signature bore the great name of the Scarecrow. What’s in a name, eh? More than Mr. Shakespeare gave credit for, because as the name of Robespierre had carried terror and power in France, and as the name of Napoleon was changed to Boney for the frightening of children by tyrannical nurses in England, so the title of the Scarecrow bore the like qualities on Romney Marsh, for it meant that the power of the smugglers was behind it, and would be used to force obedience to the Scarecrow’s behests. Imogene knew, therefore, that her papers were of power, credentials that would get her a hearing, and the rest must be left to her own initiative, her wits, and her courage, and to chance. Yes, if she carried out these orders to the letter she was pretty confident that all would be well. She read the letter of instructions till she had thoroughly mastered its contents, and then burned it on the bucket of live coals outside the hut. The other letter she kept, for she had great need of that. It was addressed to one Antony Whyllie, attorney-at-law, Watchbell Street, Rye, Sussex, and read:

We find that we have further need of your help. The son of our squire is in the hands of the Rye press gang. We have accordingly dispatched to you one of our messengers, a young girl upon whom no suspicions will fall. You must see to it that you and the girl succeed in rescuing the young man. If the girl returns without him, all we have to say to you is that it will be the worse for you both; it will also be the last of you both. We would have done well perhaps to send you more help in this difficult venture, but this we cannot do, the girl being the only one of our servants available. However, you will find in her a young woman of great resource, and of high courage, and those qualities, added to your well-known ability and cunning in getting out of difficult corners, should enable you to carry out our wishes for our own convenience and for the saving of your life, which we presume affords you some interest.



With this useful letter tucked away in her blouse in company with one of Mrs. Waggetts’ pistols, Imogene, after bidding farewell to the two fishermen, struck out from the beach across the mile or so of flat country that lies in front of the little rising town of Rye. It is a fortified town, an ancient stronghold against whose walls the sea at one time used to beat but has long since receded. Her heart beat high as she looked up at the great battlements and the quaint little houses that clustered in all shapes and sizes around them, higher and higher, until they reached the church tower, the highest point of all.

She did not enter the town by the north gate, but skirted the wall and ascended the long irregular step-way that rises from the river wharf⁠—a long ladder of stone that climbs the surface of rock zigzag till you find yourself at the top of the wall and standing upon the cobbled roadway of Watchbell Street⁠—a thoroughfare made green with moss and with rank grass and rendered vastly attractive by the picturesque houses that flank its little pavements. To one of these little houses Imogene made her way, a little white house with a quaint little white front door. She pulled the brass chain, and in response to the bell a serving-maid announced that Mr. Whyllie was not then at home, having gone to church with his wife. So perforce she had to wait until the master and mistress returned from the morning service. A quaint old lady was the wife of the starchy old lawyer. She was dressed in highly flowered brocades, with a curious bonnet, under which her round little face shone out with much animation. A clever little face it was, with a queer little pursed-up mouth, and a tiny little nose with an upward tilt, and her eyes were lively. It was the face of a clever eccentric. Imogene saw them coming and gave them a profound courtesy as they drew near to their front door.

“Lord love you, Mister Whyllie,” the old lady exclaimed, “and what’s the pretty wench bobbing at us for?”

“It may be that she would speak to you, my dear,” replied the lawyer to his wife.

“Then why doesn’t she, sir?” answered the little lady, raising her glasses and quizzing Imogene from head to foot. “A handsome face she has. Mister Whyllie, a handsome face indeed, refined yet rough, but then again rough yet refined, take it how you will, but Lord love you again, Mister Whyllie, she has positively the most obnoxious clothes you could wish for to meet, and no shoes, neither has she stockings, sir, but shapely legs, sir, good legs indeed, though you need not embarrass the child by quizzing them, Mister Whyllie.”

Mr. Whyllie looked away awkwardly and, raising his hat, inquired whether Imogene wished to speak to them.

“I have come to speak to you, sir, on most grave business.”

“To do with one of my cases, I suppose,” he answered, by way of explanation, to his wife, for he had no wish that she should suspect him of having any dealings with such a handsome wench.

“Which case?” snapped the suspicious little wife.

“Well, really, now, I cannot say off hand,” faltered the lawyer. “Probably the Appledore land claims, but I wouldn’t swear to it, for it could quite equally be something to do with the Canver squabble. In fact, more likely to be, quite likely to be. Probably is, probably is. It might so very well be that, mightn’t it, my love?”

“Yes, and it might not be that,” returned his wife with scorn. “Why don’t you ask the girl if you want to know, instead of standing there like the town idiot? Being a lawyer, I naturally suppose you to have a tongue in your head.”

“I have, my dear,” exclaimed the lawyer desperately, “but dang it, ma’am, you will not let me wag it.”

“You blasphemous horror!” screamed the lady, sweeping past him into the house, for the serving-maid was holding the front door open for them.

It was, by the way, a good thing for Antony Whyllie that his house was situated in a quiet corner of Watchbell Street, a very good thing, for these sudden squalls would repeatedly burst from his wife, regardless altogether of publicity.

With a sigh the attorney begged Imogene to follow him, and led the way into a little breakfast-room whose latticed windows looked out upon the street. It was a panelled room, but the panels were enamelled with white paint, which gave to the place a most cheerful aspect. Upon each panel hung a mahogany framed silhouette portrait of some worthy relative and over each panel was hung a brass spoon or brazen chestnut roaster, each one polished like gold and affording a bright contrast to the black portraits below, which stood out so very severely against the white panelling. There was in one corner of the room an embrasure filled with shelves, the shelves in their turn being filled with china. A round mahogany table, mahogany chairs, and a heraldic mantelpiece made up the rest of the furniture of this altogether delightful little room into which Imogene followed the lawyer, who placed a chair for her and shut the door. He then sat down by the fire and awaited her pleasure to address him. Imogene handed him the paper which had been prepared for her, and as he began to read she drew the silver pistol from her blouse and held it ready beneath a fold of her dress. That the lawyer was greatly startled was only too plain, for as he read the letter he turned a terribly pallid colour in the face.

“God bless me! but it’s monstrous,” he said, starting up, with his eyes still on the paper. “Not content with holding up my coach, commandeering my horses, and making me look extremely ridiculous, they now force me, a lawyer, an honest lawyer, to break those very laws that I have sworn to defend. It’s monstrous! Utterly monstrous! What am I to do? What can I do? My wife must know of this! My wife must read this letter,” and accordingly he took a step toward the door. But Imogene was too quick for him. With her back against it and the pistol levelled at his head, the lawyer was entirely nonplussed.

“If you please, sir,” she said, “I had orders that you were not to leave the room, indeed that you were not to leave my sight, until I was quite satisfied that you would carry out the Scarecrow’s orders.”

“No, really?” exclaimed the lawyer.

“Yes, indeed, sir,” replied the girl, and then added in a frightened voice: “If you disobey the Scarecrow, it is just as well that I should shoot you here, for all the chance you will have to get away from the penalty, and for myself⁠—well, the consequences would be as fatal to me in either case, so you see if you do not help me by obeying the letter you will not only be killing yourself but me, too.”

The lawyer looked blankly at Imogene, and then, retreating from the close and unpleasant proximity of the pistol, sank into his armchair.

“Put it down, girl! Put that pistol down for heaven’s sake, for how can I think whilst I am being made a target of?”

Imogene lowered the weapon.

“I really don’t know what to say,” went on the wretched old man. “I am entirely fogged out of all vision. Muddled, muddled⁠—entirely muddled. I wish you would let my wife come in. Oh, how I do wish you would! Whatever her faults may be, she is really most excellent at thinking out difficulties of this kind. In fact, I must confess that she does all my thinking work for me. Women sometimes, you know, have most excellent brains⁠—quick brains. They have, you know. Really they have. Quick tongues, too. My wife has. Oh, yes, really, you know, she’s got both, and the tongue part of her is developed to a most astonishing degree. But give her her due. Give her her due. So’s her brain. So’s her brain. A most clever brain⁠—most clever. Very quick; exceptionally alert. As clever as a man, really she is. In fact, she’s absolutely cleverer than most. She’s cleverer than me. Oh, yes, she is. I confess it. I’m not conceited. Why, she does all my work for me⁠—so there you are. It proves it, don’t it? Writes all my speeches for me. Really, you know, I am utterly useless without her. She guides me⁠—absolutely guides me, she does. Why, alone I’m hopeless. How on earth do you suppose that I can get a young man out of the hands of the Rye press gang? They’re the most desperate of ruffians. The most desperate set of good-for-noughts that you could possibly wish to meet.”

The handle of the door turned suddenly, but Imogene’s foot was not easily shifted.

“There’s something in the way of the door, you clumsy clodhopper!” called the voice of Mrs. Whyllie from outside.

“I know there is, my love,” faltered the husband, and then to Imogene he said: “Oh, please let her come in. She will be quiet, I’m sure.” Then in a louder tone: “You will be quiet, won’t you, my love?”

“Antony,” called the voice of the spouse, “are you addressing yourself to that handsome girl? Are you calling her your love?” Then in a tone of doom: “Wait till I get in!”

“Oh, dear, oh, dear, she’s misunderstanding me again. Don’t let her come in now, for heaven’s sake!” But Imogene had already opened the door and in had burst the little lady, and without heeding Imogene she rushed across the room and administered with her mittened hand a very resounding and sound box upon her husband’s ear.

“Now perhaps you will behave yourself like a respectable married man, like an old fogey that you are, like everything in fact that you ought to be, but aren’t and never will be! Will you behave yourself now, you truly terrible old man?”

“Certainly, my love,” meekly replied the lawyer, “but do look at this young lady.”

“Sakes alive!” she exclaimed when she did look at Imogene, “for if she hasn’t got a pistol in her hand, you’re no fool, Antony!”

“She has got a pistol in her hand, my love, and I’ll not only be a fool, but a dead fool, if you don’t find some way out of the difficulty.”

“And what is the difficulty, pray?” she asked, looking from her terrified husband to the extraordinary girl. “Oh, keep that pistol down, will you, my dear? for there is no immediate danger of my eating you. Just because I keep this fool of a husband of mine in his place, you mustn’t think me an utter virago.”

“I am afraid it is me that you will be thinking a virago,” answered the girl, still feigning fear in her voice, “but indeed I cannot help myself. This unpleasant situation has been forced upon me.”

But the old lady cut in again with: “I beseech you both to cease making melodramatic idiots of yourselves and tell me calmly and clearly what all this to-do is about. Now, Antony, speak up and tell me all about it. Come along, sir, make haste and tell me if you have any ideas left in that silly head of yours. No doubt you’ve been getting yourself into another pretty mess. Isn’t it enough for you that you go out, sir, a-driving and get robbed of your coach and cattle? I should really have thought that had been quite enough to keep you out of mischief for a day or two. But no! Here you are in trouble again. No doubt you have quite forgotten the little lecture I read to you upon that occasion?”

“No, my dear, I cannot forget it, I assure you. It is still very vivid to me, I promise you.” For indeed the little old man was still very conscious of a strange feeling of slippers whenever he chanced to sit down.

“Oh, yes, you have forgotten it,” went on the irrepressible lady. “You must have done so. Now tell me what on earth have you been doing to make this handsome girl behave in such a ridiculous fashion?”

With one hand still rubbing his boxed ear and with the other holding out to his wife the terrible letter, the lawyer explained as coherently as possible the whole situation. He told the facts in a timid voice, for he was greatly troubled as to how his wife would take it, but her manner was the most shocking surprise to him, it was so entirely different from anything he might have expected, for when she heard about the press gang, she clapped her little mittens together, and, laughing aloud, urged her husband to go on with the tale which she found the most refreshing she had heard for a month of Sundays, and at the conclusion she gave way to the most extraordinary capers of excitement, literally tripping round and round the table, exclaiming that nothing could have been more fortunate. “La, sir,” she cried, “this little affair is truly a Godsend to me.”

“In whatever way?” asked the amazed lawyer.

“Why, you disproportionate dullard! Who is head of the press gang, eh? Answer me that now, and you’ve got it.”

“Captain Tuffton, isn’t it, my love?” said the lawyer.

“Captain Tuffton, of course it is,” said his wife. “Captain Tuffton of a truth. That insufferable coxcomb, that atrociously obnoxious scent-smelling profligate on whom I shall now be able to pay off old scores.”

“Old scores, my love? Old scores?”

“La, sir, have you utterly forgotten how he snubbed me at Lady Rivers’s card party and again at his lordship’s water picnic? Has that slipped your memory, too? How he got that appallingly painted besom of a Parisian actress to imitate me to my face? Lord love you, Mister Whyllie, I have long sworn to get even with that young idiot. Why, it was only this morning that I was puzzling out a thousand schemes all through church for his undoing, and here comes a direct answer to my prayers, and you seem to have covered yourself with the blues about it. Why, Mister Whyllie, here is not only a chance to humble him to the dust, but a most admirable occasion for his disgrace as well.”

“I am truly glad to hear you say so,” was the husband’s comment. “But I’m danged if I can see how you are to set about it.”

“Through the help of this girl here, stupid, and by the bewitching charms of your handsome niece from India, who has returned to England with her large fortune inherited from the British East India Company.”

The lawyer stared at his wife blankly, then genuine concern for that lady’s health getting the better of his amazement, he said: “Can I fetch you your salts or anything, my love? Your pounce box or your vinaigrette? for I declare that you are wandering in your mind, my poor dear. I never had a niece in all my life, my love, and as for the British East India Company⁠—well, I have heard of it, of course, but little else indeed⁠—very little else.”

“Well, for today you will have to know a good deal about it,” said Mrs. Whyllie, “so you had better step into the library and read up its history, and as to your niece, your favourite niece, you will please do me the favour of remembering that you possess her, too, sir. Now, then, Mistress,” addressing Imogene, “as soon as this husband of mine has taken himself off, I’ll tell you your part in this affair.” Taking the hint, the lawyer beat a retreat to the library, gladly leaving the difficult business in the hands of his wife. “Now, girl,” she went on when they were alone, “I suppose I shouldn’t be very far wrong if I surmised that you are head over ears in love with this young man that the press gang has taken, eh?”

“Yes, I love him,” said the girl quietly.

“Ah!” sighed the lady, “that’s all right, and I suppose I’m also not far out if I suppose that you would do a good deal to save him from being shipped off to the wars, eh?”

“I will do anything to save him from that danger,” said the girl.

“Good!” replied the old lady. “Then come upstairs with me.”

Out of the room and across the little hall they went, and so up the broad white staircase to the dearest little bedroom imaginable, with a small four-posted bed with chintz frills and hangings, and a dressing-table set with bright silver ornaments.

“Now this room is for you, my dear, for my handsome niece from India, you understand? And now I must ask you to change your clothes and get into some pretty frock or other, and I must have you to know, my dear, that I have been married twice, and by my first marriage I must tell you, my dear, that I had a daughter, a really beautiful daughter. This was years ago, of course, but she was just about your age as I remember her⁠—By the way, what is your age, my dear?”

“About sixteen, or I might be seventeen perhaps,” said Imogene.

“Ah, well, my daughter was just nineteen when she died,” went on the old lady. “She was all I had in the world, for her father had died when she was quite a child. Yes, she was all that I had to love for fifteen years, and when she was taken I was so desperately lonely that in a weak moment I married that foolish Mister Whyllie, who is really very kindhearted and quite a good man, but, oh! how dull! Indeed, my dear, he would never have been in the position he is now if I hadn’t pushed him there. You see, my dear, he hasn’t much brain. Why, he cannot boast a third of my power, but on the whole I am glad that I married him, because he has given me such a lot to do helping him deceive other people that he isn’t a born fool. But I really must not talk such a lot, for we have a deal to do, my dear. But I must just explain this: I spent a good deal of money upon pretty frocks for my daughter, and, oh! how sweet she used to look in them. Well worth the money it was, my dear, to see her look so pretty. Now every one of these dresses I have kept, and kept carefully, too. If the sweet child came back to me now, she would find all her things as well cared for, as clean, and as fresh as when she left me, for this was her room (this house belongs to me, my dear, not to that fool downstairs), and in these chests and in that oaken tallboy there I have kept everything that reminds me of my darling. See!” And taking a key from a casket upon the chimneypiece she unlocked the tall oak cupboard, displaying to Imogene’s gaze a sight to make her stand entranced. The daintiest dresses were there, and in the brassbound coffer at the end of the bed the most costly laces and fine linen, and all kept sweet and pure in a strong scent of lavender. From these sacred treasures the old lady made selections, and by the time that the gong had sounded for the three o’clock dinner, instead of the handsome, dashing fisher-girl, there sat before the mirror, having the finishing touches put to her beautiful hair, done in the height of the fashion then existing, a beautiful young girl in a gown of country splendour, jewels glistening in her hair, and a diamond brooch of great beauty clasped into a lace fichu which set off her shapely neck to great advantage.

While she had been dressing the girl the old lady had with great tact got all of Imogene’s history out of her, at least as much of it as she knew, and just before they stepped from the room, as she surveyed her protégée with admiration, she held up her little quaint face and requested Imogene to kiss her, which she did.

“And now, my dear, we will go down to dinner, and the while we are eating I will tell you exactly what we are to do, and,” she added with enthusiasm, “if that squire’s son, whom I regard as a fortunate young fellow, does not marry you⁠—well, I’ll horsewhip him myself, aye, both him and his father, and adopt you as my own daughter, for what a relief it would be to have you in the house to look at, for you know, my dear, you are vastly prettier than my foolish Mister Whyllie,” saying which she tripped lightly down the stairs followed by the dazzling Imogene.

Had Imogene been in reality the old lady’s daughter, returned to her from the dim side of the veil, she could not have been shown more kindly love and attention. Even Mr. Whyllie got a happy time of it, for the little old lady was in the best of tempers, entirely at peace and lighthearted. Indeed at the conclusion of the meal the lawyer found himself pushed into a comfortable chair with a small table at his side upon which stood a fine old bottle of port, and to his utter astonishment his wife standing near with a churchwarden pipe filled with tobacco and a lighted paper spill all ready for him. So he also began to bless the coming of his niece from India, wishing that she had been invented sooner and that she was going to remain in the house to the end of the proverbial chapter.

Then Mrs. Whyllie, over a dish of tea with Imogene, unfolded her plan of campaign for the rescue of young Denis, and the manner in which this plan was carried out is set forth in a following chapter.