Johnny Darbyshire by William Howitt
OHN DARBYSHIRE, or, according to the regular custom of the country,
Johnny Darbyshire, was a farmer living in one of the most obscure parts
of the country, on the borders of the Peak of Derbyshire. His fathers
before him had occupied the same farm for generations; and as they had
been Quakers from the days of George Fox, who preached there and
converted them, Johnny also was a Quaker. That is, he was, as many
others were, and no doubt are, habitually a Quaker. He was a Quaker in
dress, in language, in attendance of their meetings, and, above all, in
the unmitigated contempt which he felt and expressed for everything like
fashion, for the practices of the world, for the Church, and for music
and amusements. There never was a man, from the first to the present day
of the society, who so thoroughly embodied and exhibited that quality
attributed to the Quaker, in the rhyming nursery alphabet,—"Q was a
Quaker, and would not bow down."
No, Johnny Darbyshire would not have bowed down to any mortal power. He
would have marched into the presence of the king with his hat on, and
would have addressed him with just the same unembarrassed freedom as
"The old chap out of the West Countrie" is made to do in the song. As to
any of the more humble and conceding qualities usually attributed to the
peaceful Quaker, Johnny had not an atom of those about him. Never was
there a more pig-headed, arbitrary, positive, pugnacious fellow. He
would argue anybody out of their opinions by the hour; he would "threep
them down," as he called it, that is, point blank and with a loud voice
insist on his own possession of the right, and of the sound common-sense
of the matter; and if he could not convince them, would at least
confound them with his obstreperous din and violence of action. That was
what he called clearing the field, and not leaving his antagonist a leg
to stand on. Having thus fairly overwhelmed, dumfoundered, and tired out
some one with his noise, he would go off in triumph, and say to the
bystanders as he went, "There, lads, you see he hadn't a word to say for
himself"; and truly a clever fellow must he have been who could have got
a word in edgeways when Johnny had once fairly got his steam up, and was
shrinking and storming like a cat-o'-mountain.
Yet had anybody told Johnny that he was no Quaker, he would have
"threeped them down" that they did not know what a Quaker meant. What!
were not his father, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather
before him all Quakers? Was not he born in the Society, brought up in
it? Hadn't he attended first-day, week-day, preparative, monthly,
quarterly, and sometimes yearly meetings too, all his life? Had not he
regularly and handsomely subscribed to the monthly, and the national,
and the Ackworth School Stocks? Had he not been on all sorts of
appointments; to visit new members, new comers into the meeting; to warn
disorderly walkers; nay, had he not sate even on committees in London at
yearly meetings? Had he not received and travelled with ministers when
they came on religious visits into these parts? Had he not taken them in
his tax-cart to the next place, and been once upset in a deep and dirty
lane with a weighty ministering friend, and dislocated his collar-bone?
What? He not a Quaker! Was George Fox one, did they think; or William
Penn, or Robert Barclay, indeed?
Johnny Darbyshire was a Quaker. He had the dress, and address, and all
the outward testimonies and marks of a Quaker; nay, he was more; he was
an overseer of the meeting, and broke up the meetings. Yes, and he would
have them to know that he executed his office well. Ay, well indeed;
without clock to look at, or without pulling out his watch, or being
within hearing of any bell, or any other thing that could guide him, he
would sit on the front seat of his meeting where not a word was spoken,
exactly for an hour and three quarters to a minute, and then break it up
by shaking hands with the Friend who sate next to him. Was not that an
evidence of a religious tact and practice? And had not the Friends once
when he was away, just like people in a ship which had lost both rudder
and compass, gone drifting in unconsciousness from ten in the morning
till three in the afternoon, and would not then have known that it was
time to break up the meeting, but that somebody's servant was sent to
see what had happened, and why they did not come home to dinner?
Johnny could see a sleeper as soon as any, were he ensconced in the
remotest and obscurest corner of the meeting, and let him hold up his
head and sleep as cleverly as he might from long habit. And did not he
once give a most notable piece of advice to a rich Friend who was a
shocking sleeper? Was not this Friend very ill, and didn't Johnny go to
see him; and didn't he, when the Friend complained that he could get no
sleep, and that not all the physic, the strongest opium even of the
doctor's shop, could make him,—didn't Johnny Darbyshire say right
slap-bang out, which not another of the plainest-spoken Friends dare
have done to a rich man like that,—"Stuff and nonsense; and a fig for
opium and doctor's stuff,—send, man, send for the meeting-house bench,
and lie thee down on that, and I'll be bound thou'lt sleep like one of
the seven sleepers."
Undoubtedly Johnny was a Quaker; a right slap-dash Quaker of the old
Foxite school; and had anybody come smiling to him in the hope of
getting anything out of him, he would have said to him as George Fox
said to Colonel Hackett, "Beware of hypocrisy and a rotten heart!" True,
had you questioned him as to his particular religious doctrines or
articles of faith, he would not have been very clear, or very ready to
give you any explanation at all, for the very best of reasons,—he was
not so superstitious as to have a creed. A creed! that was a rag of the
old woman of Babylon. No, if you wanted to know all about doctrines and
disputations, why, you might look into Barclay's Apology. There was a
book big enough for you, he should think. For himself, like most of his
cloth, he would confine himself to his feelings. He would employ a
variety of choice and unique phrases; such as, "If a man want to know
what religion is, he must not go running after parsons, and bishops, and
all that sort of man-made ministers, blind leaders of the blind, who can
talk by the hour, but about what neither man, woman, nor child, for the
life of them, can tell, except when they come for their tithes, or their
Easter dues, and then they speak plain enough with a vengeance. One of
these Common-Prayer priests," said he, "once came to advise me about the
lawfulness of paying Church-rates, and, instead of walking into my
parlor, he walked through the next door, and nearly broke his neck, into
the cellar. A terrible stramash of a lumber, and a plunging and a
groaning we heard somewhere; and rushing out, lo and behold! it was no
other than Diggory Dyson, the parish priest, who had gone headlong to
the bottom of the cellar steps, and had he not cut his temples against
the brass tap of a beer-barrel and bled freely, he might have died on
the spot. And that was a man set up to guide the multitude! Had he been
only led and guided by the Spirit of God, as a true minister should be,
he would never have gone neck-foremost down my cellar steps. That's your
blind leader of the blind!"
But if Johnny Darbyshire thought the "Common-Prayer priests" obscure,
they must have thought him sevenfold so. Instead of doctrines and such
pagan things, he talked solemnly of "centring down"; "being renewedly
made sensible"; "having his mind drawn to this and that thing"; "feeling
himself dipped into deep baptism"; "feeling a sense of duty"; and of
"seeing, or not seeing his way clear" into this or that matter. But his
master phrase was "living near to the truth"; and often, when other
people thought him particularly provoking and insulting, it was only
"because he hated a lie and the father of lies." Johnny thought that he
lived so near to the truth, that you would have thought Truth was his
next-door neighbor, or his lodger, and not living down at the bottom of
her well as she long has been.
Truly was that religious world in which Johnny Darbyshire lived a most
singular one. In that part of the country, George Fox had been
particularly zealous and well received. A simple country people was just
the people to be affected by his warm eloquence and strong manly sense.
He settled many meetings there, which, however, William Penn may be said
to have unsettled by his planting of Pennsylvania. These Friends flocked
over thither with, or after him, and left a mere remnant behind them.
This remnant—and it was like the remnant in a draper's shop, a very
old-fashioned one—continued still to keep up their meetings, and carry
on their affairs as steadily and gravely as Fox and his contemporaries
did, if not so extensively and successfully. They had a meeting at
Codnor Breach, at Monny-Ash in the Peak, at Pentridge, at Toad-hole
Furnace, at Chesterfield, etc. Most of these places were thoroughly
country places, some of them standing nearly alone in the distant
fields; and the few members belonging to them might be seen on Sundays,
mounted on strong horses, a man and his wife often on one, on saddle and
pillion, or in strong tax-carts; and others, generally the young,
proceeding on foot over fields and through woods, to these meetings.
They were truly an old-world race, clad in very old-world garments.
Arrived at their meeting, they sate generally an hour and three quarters
in profound silence, for none of them had a minister in them, and then
returned again. In winter they generally had a good fire in a chamber,
and sate comfortably round it.
Once a month, they jogged off in similar style to one of these meetings
in particular, to what they called their monthly meeting, where they
paid in their subscriptions for the poor, and other needs of the
society, and read over and made answers to a set of queries on the moral
and religious state of their meetings. One would have thought that this
business must be so very small that it would be readily despatched; but
not so. Small enough, Heaven knows! it was; but then they made a
religious duty of its transaction, and went through it as solemnly and
deliberately as if the very salvation of the kingdom depended on it. O,
what a mighty balancing of straws was there! In answering the query,
whether their meetings were pretty regularly kept up and attended,
though perhaps there was but half a dozen members to one meeting, yet
would it be weighed and weighed again whether the phrase should be, that
it was "pretty well attended," or "indifferently attended," or
"attended, with some exceptions." This stupendous business having,
however, at length been got through, then all the men adjourned to the
room where the women had, for the time, been just as laboriously and
gravely engaged; and a table was soon spread by a person agreed with,
with a good substantial dinner of roast-beef and plum-pudding; and the
good people grew right sociable, chatty, and even merry in their way;
while, all the time in the adjoining stable, or, as in one case, in the
stable under them, their steeds, often rough, wild creatures, thrust
perhaps twenty into a stable without dividing stalls, were kicking,
squealing, and rioting in a manner that obliged some of the good people
occasionally to rise from their dinners, and endeavor to diffuse a
little of their own quietness among them. Or in summer their horses
would be all loose in the graveyard before the meeting, rearing,
kicking, and screaming in a most furious manner; which, however, only
rarely seemed to disturb the meditations of their masters and
And to these monthly meetings over what long and dreary roads, on what
dreadfully wet and wintry days, through what mud and water, did these
simple and pious creatures, wrapped in great-coats and thick cloaks, and
defended with oil-skin hoods, travel all their lives long? Not a soul
was more punctual in attendance than Johnny Darbyshire. He was a little
man, wearing a Quaker suit of drab, his coat long, his hat not cocked
but slouched, and his boots well worn and well greased.
Peaceful as he sate in these meetings, yet out of them, as I have
remarked, he was a very Tartar, and he often set himself to execute what
he deemed justice in a very dogged and original style. We may, as a
specimen, take this instance. On his way to his regular meeting he had
to pass through a toll-bar; and being on Sundays exempt by law from
paying at it, it may be supposed that the bar-keeper did not fling open
the gate often with the best grace. One Sunday evening, however, Johnny
Darbyshire had, from some cause or other, stayed late with his friends
after afternoon meeting. When he passed through the toll-gate he gave
his usual nod to the keeper, and was passing on; but the man called out
to demand the toll, declaring that it was no longer Sunday night, but
Monday morning, being past twelve o'clock.
"Nay, friend, thou art wrong," said Johnny, pulling out his watch: "see,
it yet wants a quarter."
"No, I tell you," replied the keeper, gruffly, "it is past twelve. Look,
there is my clock."
"Ay, friend, but thy clock, like thyself, doesn't speak the truth. Like
its master, it is a little too hasty. I assure thee my watch is right,
for I just now compared it by the steeple-house clock in the town."
"I tell you," replied the keeper, angrily, "I've nothing to do with your
watch; I go by my clock, and there it is."
"Well, I think thou art too exact with me, my friend."
"Will you pay me or not?" roared the keeper; "you go through often
enough in the devil's name without paying."
"Gently, gently, my friend," replied Johnny; "there is the money: and
it's really after twelve o'clock, thou says?"
"To be sure."
"Well, very well; then, for the next twenty-four hours I can go through
again without paying?"
"To be sure; everybody knows that."
"Very well, then I now bid thee farewell." And with that, Johnny
Darbyshire jogged on. The gatekeeper, chuckling at having at last
extorted a double toll from the shrewd Quaker, went to bed, not on that
quiet road expecting further disturbance till towards daylight; but,
just as he was about to pop into bed, he heard some one ride up and cry,
Internally cursing the late traveller, he threw on his things and
descended to open the gate, when he was astonished to see the Quaker
"Thou says it really is past twelve, friend?"
"To be sure."
"Then open the gate: I have occasion to ride back again."
The gate flew open, Johnny Darbyshire trotted back towards the town, and
the man, with double curses in his mind, returned up stairs. This time
he was not so sure of exemption from interruption, for he expected the
Quaker would in a while be coming back homewards again. And he was quite
right. Just as he was about to put out his candle, there was a cry of
"Gate." He descended, and behold the Quaker once more presented himself.
"It really is past twelve, thou says?"
"Umph!" grunted the fellow.
"Then, of course, I have nothing more to pay. I would not, however,
advise thee to go to bed to-night, for it is so particularly fine that
I propose to enjoy it by riding to and fro here a few hours."
The fellow, who now saw Johnny Darbyshire's full drift, exclaimed,
"Here, for God's sake, sir, take your money back, and let me get a wink
But Johnny refused to receive the money, observing, "If it was after
twelve, then the money is justly thine; but I advise thee another time
not to be too exact." And with that he rode off.
Such was his shrewd, restless, domineering character, that his old
friend, the neighboring miller, a shrewd fellow too, thought there must
be something in Quakerism which contributed to this, and was therefore
anxious to attend their meetings, and see what it was. How great,
however, was his astonishment, on accompanying Johnny, to find about
half a dozen people all sitting with their hats on for a couple of hours
in profound silence; except a few shufflings of feet, and blowing of
noses; and then all start up, shake hands, and hurry off.
"Why, Master Darbyshire," said the dry old miller, "how is this? Do you
sit without parson or clerk, and expect to learn religion by looking at
your shoe-toes? By Leddy! this warn't th' way George Fox went on. He was
a very talking man, or he would na ha' got such a heap of folks
together, as he did. You've clearly gotten o' th' wrong side o' th'
post, Johnny, depend on't; an' I dunna wonder now that you've dwindled
But if Johnny was as still as a fish at the Quaker meetings, he had
enough to say at home, and at the parish meetings. He had such a spice
of the tyrant in him, that he could not even entertain the idea of
marrying, without it must be a sort of shift for the mastery. He,
therefore, not only cast his eye on one of the most high-spirited women
that he knew in his own society, but actually one on the largest scale
of physical dimensions. If he had one hero of his admiration more than
another, it was a little dwarf at Mansfield, who used to wear a
soldier's jacket, and who had taken it into his head to marry a very
tall woman, whom he had reduced to such perfect subjection, that he used
from time to time to evince his mastery by mounting a round table and
making the wife walk round it while he belabored her lustily with a
Johnny, having taken his resolve, made no circumbendibus in his
addresses; but one day, as he was alone in the company of the lady, by
name Lizzy Lorimer,—"Lizzy," said he, "I'll tell thee what I have been
thinking about. I think thou'd make me a very good wife."
"Well," replied Lizzy; "sure, isn't that extraordinary? I was just
thinking the very same thing."
"That's right! Well done, my wench,—now that's what I call hitting the
nail on the head, like a right sensible woman!" cried Johnny, fetching
her a slap on the shoulder, and laughing heartily. "That's doing the
thing now to some tune. I'm for none of your dilly-dally ways. I once
knew a young fellow that was desperately smitten by a young woman, and
though he could pluck up courage enough to go and see her, he couldn't
summon courage enough to speak out his mind when he got there; and so he
and the damsel sate opposite one another before the fire. She knew well
enough all the while—you're sharp enough, you women—what he was
after; and there they sate and sate, and at last he picked up a cinder
off the hearth, and looking very foolish, said, 'I've a good mind to
fling a cowk at thee!' At which the brave wench, in great contempt,
cried, 'I'll soon fling one at thee, if thou artn't off!' That's just as
thou'd ha' done, Lizzy, and as I shouldn't," said Johnny, gayly, and
laughing more heartily than before.
That was the sum and substance of Johnny Darbyshire's courtship. All the
world said the trouble would come afterwards; but if it did come, it was
not to Johnny. Never was chanticleer so crouse on his own dung-hill, as
Johnny Darbyshire was in his own house. He was lord and master there to
a certainty. In doors and out, he shouted, hurried, ran to and fro, and
made men, maids, and Lizzy herself, fly at his approach, as if he had
got a whole cargo of Mercury's wings, and put them on their feet. It was
the same in parish affairs; and the fame of Johnny's eloquence at
vestries is loud to this day. On one occasion there was a most hot
debate on the voting of a church-rate, which should embrace a new
pulpit. Johnny had hurt his foot with a stub of wood as he was hurrying
on his men at work in thinning a plantation. It had festered and
inflamed his leg to a terrible size; but, spite of that, he ordered out
his cart with a bed laid in it, and came up to the door of the
vestry-room, where he caused himself to be carried in on the bed, and
set on the vestry-room floor, not very distant from the clergyman. Here
he waited, listening first to one speaker and then another, till the
debate had grown very loud, when he gave a great hem; and all were
silent, for every one knew that Johnny was going to speak.
"Now, I'll tell you what, lads," said Johnny; "you've made noise enough
to frighten all the jackdaws out of the steeple, and there they are
flying all about with a pretty cawarring. You've spun a yarn as long as
all the posts and rails round my seven acres, and I dunna see as you've
yet hedged in so much as th' owd wise men o' Gotham did, and that's a
cuckoo. I've heard just one sensible word, and that was to recommend a
cast-iron pulpit, in preference to a wooden 'un. As to a church-rate to
repair th' owd steeple-house, why, my advice is to pull th' owd thing
down, stick and stone, and mend your roads with it. It's a capital heap
o' stone in it, that one must allow,—and your roads are pestilent bad.
Down with the old daw-house, I say, and mend th' roads wi' 't, and set
th' parson here up for a guide-post. Oh! it's a rare 'un he'd make; for
he's always pointing th' way to the folks, but I never see that he moves
one inch himself."
"Mr. Darbyshire," exclaimed the clergyman, in high resentment, "that is
very uncivil in my presence, to say the least of it."
"Civil or uncivil," returned Johnny; "it's the truth, lad, and thou can
take it just as thou likes. I did not come here to bandy compliments; so
I may as well be hanged for an old sheep as for a lamb,—we'll not make
two mouthfuls of a cherry; my advice is then to have a cast-iron pulpit,
by all means, and while you are about it, a cast-iron parson, too. It
will do just as well as our neighbor Diggory Dyson here, and a plaguy
deal cheaper, for it will require neither tithes, glebe, Easter-dues,
Having delivered himself of this remarkable oration, to the great
amusement of his fellow-parishioners, and the equal exasperation of the
clergyman, Johnny ordered himself to be again hoisted into his cart, and
rode home in great glory, boasting that he had knocked all the wind out
of the parson, and if he got enough again to preach his sermon on
Sunday, it would be all.
It was only on such occasions as these that Johnny Darbyshire ever
appeared under the church roof. Once, on the occasion of the funeral of
an old neighbor, which, for a wonder, he attended, he presented himself
there, but with as little satisfaction to the clergyman, and less to
He just marched into the church with his hat on, which, being removed by
the clergyman's orders, Johnny declared that he had a good mind to walk
out of that well of a place, and would do so only out of respect to his
old neighbor. With looks of great wrath he seated himself at a good
distance from the clergyman; and as this gentleman was proceeding, in
none of the clearest tones, certainly, to read the appropriate service,
Johnny suddenly shouted out, "Speak up, man, speak up! What art mumbling
at there, man? We canna hear what thou says here!"
"Who is that?" demanded the clergyman, solemnly, and looking much as if
he did not clearly perceive who it was. "Who is that who interrupts the
service? I will not proceed till he be removed."
The beadle approached Johnny, and begged that he would withdraw.
"Oh!" said Johnny, aloud, so as to be heard through all the church,
"I'll sit i' th' porch. I'd much rather. What's the use sitting here
where one can hear nothing but a buzzing like a bee in a blossom?"
Johnny accordingly withdrew to the porch, where some of his neighbors,
hurrying to him when the funeral was about to proceed from the church to
the grave, said, "Mr. Darbyshire, what have you done? You'll as surely
be put into th' spiritual court, as you're a living man. You'd better ax
the parson's pardon, and as soon as you can."
Accordingly, as soon as the funeral was over, and the clergyman was
about to withdraw, up marched Johnny to him, and said, "What, I reckon
I've affronted thee with bidding thee speak up. But thou should speak
up, man; thou should speak up, or what art perched up aloft there for.
But, however, as you scollards are rayther testy, I know, in being taken
up before folks, I mun beg thy pardon for 't'arno."
"O, Mr. Darbyshire," said the clergyman, with much dignity, "that will
not do, I assure you. I cannot pass over such conduct in such a manner.
I shall take another course with you."
"O, just as tha' woot. I've axed thy pardon, haven't I? and if that
wunna do, why, thou mun please thysen!"
Johnny actually appeared very likely to get a proper castigation this
time; but, however it was, he certainly escaped. The parishioners
advised the clergyman to take no notice of the offence,—everybody,
they said, knew Johnny, and if he called him into the spiritual court,
he would be just as bold and saucy, and might raise a good deal of
public scandal. The clergyman, who, unfortunately, was but like too many
country clergymen of the time, addicted to a merry glass in the village
public-house, thought perhaps that this was only too likely, and so the
For twenty years did Johnny Darbyshire thus give free scope to tongue
and hand in his parish. He ruled paramount over wife, children, house,
servants, parish, and everybody. He made work go on like the flying
clouds of March; and at fair and market, at meeting and vestry, he had
his fling and his banter at the expense of his neighbors, as if the
world was all his own, and would never come to an end. But now came an
event, arising, as so often is the case, out of the merest trifle, that
more than all exhibited the indomitable stiffness and obstinacy of his
Johnny Darbyshire had some fine, rich meadow-land, on the banks of the
river Derwent, where he took in cattle and horses to graze during the
summer. Hither a gentleman had sent a favorite and valuable blood mare
to run a few months with her foal. He had stipulated that the greatest
care should be taken of both mare and foal, and that no one, on any
pretence whatever, should mount the former. All this Johnny Darbyshire
had most fully promised. "Nay, he was as fond of a good bit of
horse-flesh as any man alive, and he would use mare and foal just as if
they were his own."
This assurance, which sounded very well indeed, was kept by Johnny, as
it proved, much more to the letter than the gentleman intended. To his
great astonishment, it was not long before he one day saw Johnny
Darbyshire come riding on a little shaggy horse down the village where
he lived, leading the foal in a halter.
He hurried out to inquire the cause of this, too well auguring some sad
mischief, when Johnny, shaking his head, said, "Ill luck, my friend,
never comes alone; it's an old saying, that it never rains but it pours;
and so it's been with me. T' other day I'd a son drowned, as fine a lad
as ever walked in shoe-leather; and in hurrying to th' doctor, how
should luck have it, but down comes th' mare with her foot in a hole,
breaks her leg, and was obligated to be killed; and here's th' poor
innocent foal. It's a bad job, a very bad job; but I've the worst on't,
and it canna be helped; so, prithee, say as little as thou can about
it,—here's the foal, poor, dumb thing, at all events."
"But what business," cried the gentleman, enraged, and caring, in his
wrath, not a button for Johnny Darbyshire's drowned son, in the
exasperation of his own loss,—"but what business had you riding to the
doctor, or the devil, on my mare? Did not I enjoin you, did you not
solemnly promise me, that nobody should cross the mare's back?"
Johnny shook his head. He had indeed promised "to use her as his own,"
and he had done it to some purpose; but that was little likely to throw
cold water on the gentleman's fire. It was in vain that Johnny tried the
pathetic of the drowning boy; it was lost on the man who had lost his
favorite mare, and who declared that he would rather have lost a
thousand pounds,—a hundred was exactly her value,—and he vowed all
sorts of vengeance and of law.
And he kept his word too. Johnny was deaf to paying for the mare. He had
lost his boy, and his summer's run of the mare and foal, and that he
thought enough for a poor man like him, as he pleased to call himself.
An action was commenced against him, of which he took not the slightest
notice till it came into court. These lawyers, he said, were dear chaps,
he'd have nothing to do with them. But the lawyers were determined to
have to do with him, for they imagined that the Quaker had a deep purse,
and they longed to be poking their long, jewelled fingers to the bottom
The cause actually came into court at the assizes, and the counsel for
the plaintiff got up and stated the case, offering to call his evidence,
but first submitted that he could not find that any one was retained on
behalf of the defendant, and that, therefore, he probably meant to
suffer the cause to go by default. The court inquired whether any
counsel at the bar was instructed to appear for Darbyshire, in the case
Shiffnal v. Darbyshire, but there was no reply; and learned gentlemen
looked at one another, and all shook their learned wigs; and the judge
was about to declare that the cause was forfeited by the defendant, John
Darbyshire, by non-appearance at the place of trial, when there was seen
a bustle near the box of the clerk of the court; there was a hasty
plucking off of a large hat, which somebody had apparently walked into
court with on; and the moment afterwards a short man, in a Quaker dress,
with his grizzled hair hanging in long locks on his shoulders, and
smoothed close down on the forehead, stepped, with a peculiar air of
confidence and cunning, up to the bar. His tawny, sunburnt features, and
small dark eyes, twinkling with an expression of much country subtlety,
proclaimed him at once a character. At once a score of voices
murmured,—"There's Johnny Darbyshire himself!"
He glanced, with a quick and peculiar look, at the counsel, sitting at
their table with their papers before them, who, on their part, did not
fail to return his survey with a stare of mixed wonder and amazement.
You could see it as plainly as possible written on their faces,—"Who
have we got here? There is some fun brewing here, to a certainty."
But Johnny raised his eyes from them to the bench, where sat the judge,
and sent them rapidly thence to the jury-box, where they seemed to rest
with a considerable satisfaction.
"Is this a witness?" inquired the judge. "If so, what is he doing there,
or why does he appear at all, till we know whether the cause is to be
"Ay, Lord Judge, as they call thee, I reckon I am a witness, and the
best witness too, that can be had in the case, for I'm the man himself;
I'm John Darbyshire. I didn't mean to have anything to do with these
chaps i' their wigs and gowns, with their long, dangling sleeves; and I
dunna yet mean to have anything to do wi' 'em. But I just heard one of
'em tell thee, that this cause was not going to be defended; and that
put my monkey up, and so, thinks I, I'll e'en up and tell 'em that it
will be defended though; ay, and I reckon it will too; Johnny
Darbyshire was never yet afraid of the face of any man, or any set of
"If you are what you say, good man," said the judge, "defendant in this
case, you had better appoint counsel to state it for you."
"Nay, nay, Lord Judge, as they call thee,—hold a bit; I know better
than that. Catch Johnny Darbyshire at flinging his money into a lawyer's
bag! No, no. I know them chaps wi' wigs well enough. They've tongues as
long as a besom's teal, and fingers as long to poke after 'em. Nay, nay,
I don't get my money so easily as to let them scrape it up by armfuls.
I've worked early and late, in heat and cold, for my bit o' money, and
long enough too, before these smart chaps had left their mother's
apron-strings; and let them catch a coin of it, if they can. No! I know
this case better than any other man can, and for why? Because I was in
it. It was me that had the mare to summer; it was me that rode her to
the doctor; I was in at th' breaking of th' leg, and, for that reason, I
can tell you exactly how it all happened. And what's any of those
counsellors,—sharp, and fine, and knowing as they look, with their
tails and their powder,—what are they to know about the matter, except
what somebody'd have to tell 'em first? I tell you, I saw it, I did it,
and so there needs no twice telling of the story."
"But are you going to produce evidence?" inquired the counsel for the
"Evidence? to be sure I am. What does the chap mean? Evidence? why, I'm
defender and evidence and all!"
There was a good deal of merriment in the court, and at the bar, in
which the judge himself joined.
"There wants no evidence besides me; for, as I tell you, I did it, and
I'm not going to deny it."
"Stop!" cried the judge; "this is singular. If Mr. Darbyshire means to
plead his own cause, and to include in it his evidence, he must be
sworn. Let the oath be administered to him."
"Nay, I reckon thou need put none of thy oaths to me! My father never
brought me up to cursing and swearing, and such like wickedness. He left
that to th' ragamuffins and rapscallions i' th' street. I'm no swearer,
nor liar neither,—thou may take my word safe enough."
"Let him take his affirmation, if he be a member of the Society of
"Ay, now thou speaks sense, Lord Judge. Ay, I'm a member, I warrant me."
The clerk of the court here took his affirmation, and then Johnny
"Well, I don't feel myself any better or any honester now for making
that affirmation. I was just going to tell the plain truth before, and I
can only tell th' same now. And, as I said, I'm not going to deny what
I've done. No! Johnny Darbyshire's not the man that ever did a thing and
then denied it. Can any of these chaps i' th' wigs say as much? Ay, now
I reckon," added he, shaking his head archly at the gentlemen of the
bar, "now I reckon you'd like, a good many on you there, to be denying
this thing stoutly for me? You'd soon persuade a good many simple folks
here that I never did ride the mare, never broke her leg, nay, never
saw her that day at all. Wouldn't you, now? wouldn't you?"—
Here the laughter, on all sides, was loudly renewed.
"But I'll take precious good care ye dunna! No, no! that's the very
thing that I've stepped up here for. It's to keep your consciences clear
of a few more additional lies. O dear! I'm quite grieved for you, when I
think what falsities and deceit you'll one day have to answer for, as it
The gentlemen, thus complimented, appeared to enjoy the satire of Johnny
Darbyshire; and still more was it relished in the body of the court.
But again remarked the judge, "Mr. Darbyshire, I advise you to leave the
counsel for the plaintiff to prove his case against you."
"I'st niver oss!" exclaimed Johnny, with indignation.
"I'st niver oss!" repeated the judge. "What does he mean?—I don't
understand him." And he looked inquiringly at the bar.
"He means," my lord, said a young counsel, "that he shall never
offer,—never attempt to do so."
"That's a Darbyshire chap now," said Johnny, turning confidentially
towards the jury-box, where he saw some of his county farmers. "He
understands good English."
"But, good neighbors there," added he, addressing the jury, "for I
reckon it's you that I must talk to on this business; I'm glad to see
that you are, a good many on you, farmers like myself, and so up to
these things. To make a short matter of it, then,—I had the mare and
foal to summer; and the gentleman laid it down, strong and fast, that
she shouldn't be ridden by anybody. And I promised him that I would do
my best, that nobody should ride her. I told him that I would use her
just as if she was my own,—and I meant it. I meant to do the handsome
by her and her master too; for I needn't tell you that I'm too fond of a
bit of good blood to see it willingly come to any harm. Nay, nay, that
never was the way of Johnny Darbyshire. And there she was, the pretty
creature, with her handsome foal cantering and capering round her in the
meadow; it was a pleasure to see it, it was indeed! And often have I
stood and leaned over the gate and watched them, till I felt a'most as
fond of them as of my own children; and never would leg have crossed her
while she was in my possession had that not happened that may happen to
any man, when he least expects it.
"My wife had been ill, very ill. My poor Lizzy, I thought I should ha'
certainly lost her. The doctors said she must be kept quiet in bed; if
she stirred for five days she was a lost woman. Well, one afternoon as I
was cutting a bit o' grass at th' bottom o' th' orchard for the osses,
again they came from ploughing the fallows, I heard a shriek that went
through me like a baggonet. Down I flings th' scythe. 'That's Lizzy, and
no other!' I shouted to myself. 'She's out of bed,—and, goodness! what
can it be? She's ten to one gone mad with a brain fever!' There seemed
to have fallen ten thousand millstones on my heart. I tried to run, but
I couldn't. I was as cold as ice. I was as fast rooted to the ground as
a tree. There was another shriek more piercing than before—and I was
off like an arrow from a bow—I was loose then. I was all on fire. I ran
like a madman till I came within sight of th' house; and there I saw
Lizzy in her nightgown with half her body out of the window, shrieking
and wringing her hands like any crazed body.
"'Stop! stop!' I cried, 'Lizzy! Lizzy! back! back! for Heaven's sake!'
"'There! there!' screamed she, pointing with staring eyes and ghastly
face down into the Darrant that runs under the windows.
"'O God!' I exclaimed, 'she'll drown herself! she's crazed, she means to
fling herself in'—groaning as I ran, and trying to keep crying to her,
but my voice was dead in my throat.
"When I reached her chamber, I found her fallen on the floor,—she was
as white as a ghost, and sure enough I thought she was one. I lifted her
upon the bed, and screamed amain for the nurse, for the maid, but not a
soul came. I rubbed Lizzy's hands; clapped them; tried her
smelling-bottle. At length she came to herself with a dreadful
groan,—flashed open her eyes wide on me, and cried, 'Didst see him?
Didst save him? Where is he? Where is he?'
"'Merciful Providence!' I exclaimed. 'She's gone only too sure! It's all
over with her!'
"'Where is he? Where's my dear Sam? Thou didn't let him drown?'
"'Drown? Sam? What?' I cried. 'What dost mean, Lizzy?'
"'O John! Sammy!—he was drowning i' th' Darrant—oh!—'
"She fainted away again, and a dreadful truth flashed on my mind. She
had seen our little Sammy drowning; she had heard his screams, and
sprung out of bed, forgetful of herself, and looking out, saw our
precious boy in the water. He was sinking! He cried for help! there was
nobody near, and there Lizzy stood and saw him going, going, going down!
There was not a soul in the house. The maid was gone to see her mother
that was dying in the next village; the nurse had been suddenly obliged
to run off to the doctor's for some physic; Lizzy had promised to lie
still till I came in, and in the mean time—this happens. When I
understood her I flew down stairs, and towards the part of the river she
had pointed to. I gazed here and there, and at length caught sight of
the poor boy's coat floating, and with a rake I caught hold of it, and
dragged him to land. But it was too late! Frantic, however, as I was, I
flew down to the meadow with a bridle in my hand, mounted the blood
mare,—she was the fleetest in the field by half,—and away to the
doctor. We went like the wind. I took a short cut for better speed, but
it was a hobbly road. Just as I came in sight of the doctor's house
there was a slough that had been mended with stones and fagots and
anything that came to hand. I pushed her over, but her foot caught in a
hole amongst the sticks, and—crack! it was over in a moment.
"Neighbors, neighbors! think of my situation. Think of my feelings. Oh!
I was all one great groan! My wife! my boy! the mare! it seemed as if
Job's devil was really sent out against me. But there was no time to
think; I could only feel, and I could do that running. I sprang over the
hedge. I was across the fields, and at the doctor's; ay, long before I
could find breath to tell him what was amiss. But he thought it was my
wife that was dreadfully worse. 'I expected as much,' said he, and that
instant we were in the gig that stood at the door, and we were going
like fire back again. But—"
Here Johnny Darbyshire paused; the words stuck in his throat,—his lips
trembled,—his face gradually grew pale and livid, as if he were going
to give up the ghost. The court was extremely moved: there was a deep
silence, and there were heard sobs from the throng behind. The judge
sate with his eyes fixed on his book of minutes, and not a voice even
said "Go on."
Johnny Darbyshire meantime, overcome by his feelings, had sate down at
the bar, a glass of water was handed to him,—he wiped his forehead with
his handkerchief several times, heaved a heavy convulsive sigh or two
from his laboring chest,—and again arose.
"Judge, then," said he, again addressing the jury, "what a taking I was
in. My boy—but no—I canna touch on that, he was—gone!" said he in a
husky voice that seemed to require all his physical force to send it
from the bottom of his chest. "My wife was for weeks worse than dead,
and never has been, and never will be, herself again. When I inquired
after the mare,—you can guess—when was a broken leg of a horse
successfully set again? They had been obliged to kill her!
"Now, neighbors, I deny nothing. I wunna!—but I'll put it to any of
you, if you were in like case, and a fleet mare stood ready at hand,
would you have weighed anything but her speed against a wife and—a
child?—No, had she been my own, I should have taken her, and that was
all I had promised! But there, neighbors, you have the whole
business,—and so do just as you like,—I leave it wi' you."
Johnny Darbyshire stepped down from the bar, and disappeared in the
crowd. There was a deep silence in the court, and the very jury were
seen dashing some drops from their eyes. They appeared to look up to the
judge as if they were ready to give in at once their verdict, and nobody
could doubt for which party; but at this moment the counsel for the
plaintiff arose, and said:—
"Gentlemen of the jury,—you know the old saying—'He that pleads his
own cause has a fool for his client.' We cannot say that the proverb has
held good in this case. The defendant has proved himself no fool. Never
in my life have I listened to the pleadings of an opponent with deeper
anxiety. Nature and the awful chances of life have made the defendant in
this case more than eloquent. For a moment I actually trembled for the
cause of my client,—but it was for a moment only. I should have been
something less than human if I had not, like every person in this court,
been strangely affected by the singular appeal of the singular man who
has just addressed you; but I should have been something less than a
good lawyer if I did not again revert confidently to those facts which
were in the possession of my witnesses now waiting to be heard. Had this
been the only instance in which the defendant had broken his
engagement, and mounted this mare, I should in my own mind have flung
off all hope of a verdict from you. God and nature would have been too
strong for me in your hearts; but, fortunately for my client, it is not
so. I will show you on the most unquestionable evidence that it was not
the first nor the second time that Mr. Darbyshire had mounted this
prohibited but tempting steed. He had been seen, as one of the witnesses
expresses it, 'frisking about' on this beautiful animal, and asking his
neighbors what they thought of such a bit of blood as that. He had on
one occasion been as far as Crich fair with her, and had allowed her to
be cheapened by several dealers as if she were his own, and then proudly
rode off, saying, 'Nay, nay, it was not money that would purchase pretty
Nancy,' as he called her." Here the counsel called several respectable
farmers who amply corroborated these statements; and he then proceeded.
"Gentlemen, there I rest my case. You will forget the wife and the
child, and call to mind the 'frisking,' and Crich fair. But to put the
matter beyond a doubt we will call the defendant again, and put a few
questions to him."
The court crier called,—but it was in vain. Johnny Darbyshire was no
longer there. As he had said, "he had left it wi' 'em," and was gone.
The weight of evidence prevailed; the jury gave a verdict for the
plaintiff,—one hundred pounds.
The verdict was given, but the money was not yet got. When called on for
payment, Johnny Darbyshire took no further notice of the demand than he
had done of the action. An execution was issued against his goods; but
when it was served, it was found that he had no goods. A brother stepped
in with a clear title to all on Johnny's farm by a deed dated six years
before, on plea of moneys advanced, and Johnny stood only as manager.
The plaintiff was so enraged at this barefaced scheme to bar his just
claim, Johnny's bail sureties being found equally unsubstantial, that he
resolved to arrest Johnny's person. The officers arrived at Johnny's
house to serve the writ, and found him sitting at his luncheon alone. It
was a fine summer's day,—everybody was out in the fields at the hay.
Door and window stood open, and Johnny, who had been out on some
business, was refreshing himself before going to the field too. The
officers entering declared him their prisoner. "Well," said Johnny, "I
know that very well. Don't I know a bum-baily when I see him? But sit
down and take something; I'm hungry if you ar'na, at all events."
The men gladly sate down to a fine piece of cold beef, and Johnny said,
"Come, fill your glasses; I'll fetch another jug of ale. I reckon you'll
not give me a glass of ale like this where we are going."
He took a candle, descended the cellar, one of the officers peeping
after him to see that all was right, and again sitting down to the beef
and beer. Both of them found the beef splendid; but beginning to find
the ale rather long in making its appearance, they descended the cellar,
and found Johnny Darbyshire had gone quietly off at a back door.
Loud was the laughter of the country round at Johnny Darbyshire's
outwitting of the bailiff's, and desperate was their quest after him. It
was many a day, however, before they again got sight of him. When they
did, it was on his own hearth, just as they had done at first. Not a
soul was visible but himself. The officers declared now that they would
make sure of him, and yet drink with him too.
"With all my heart," said Johnny; "and draw it yourselves, too, if you
"Nay, I will go down with you," said one; "my comrade shall wait here
"Good," said Johnny, lighting a candle.
"Now, mind, young man," added he, going hastily forwards towards the
cellar steps,—"mind, I say, some of these steps are bad. It's a dark
road, and—nay, here!—this way,—follow me exactly."
But the man was too eager not to let Johnny go too far before him; he
did not observe that Johnny went some distance round before he turned
down the steps. There was no hand-rail to this dark flight of steps, and
he walked straight over into the opening.
"Hold!—hold! Heavens! the man's gone,—didn't I tell him!—"
A heavy plunge and a groan announced the man's descent into the cellar.
"Help!—help!" cried Johnny Darbyshire, rushing wildly into the room
above. "The man, like a madman, has walked over the landing into the
cellar. If he isn't killed, it's a mercy. Help!" snatching another
candle; "but hold—take heed! take heed! or thou'lt go over after him!"
With good lighting, and careful examination of the way, the officer
followed. They found the other manlying on his back, bleeding
profusely from his head, and insensible.
"We must have help! there's no time to lose!" cried Johnny Darbyshire,
springing up stairs.
"Stop!" cried the distracted officer, left with his bleeding fellow, and
springing up the steps after Johnny. But he found a door already bolted
in his face; and cursing Johnny for a treacherous and murderous
scoundrel, he began vainly denouncing his barbarity in leaving his
comrade thus to perish, and kicked and thundered lustily at the door.
But he did Johnny Darbyshire injustice. Johnny had no wish to hurt a
hair of any man's head. The officer had been eager and confident, and
occasioned his own fall; and even now Johnny had not deserted him. He
appeared on horseback at the barn where threshers were at work; told
them what had happened; gave them the key of the cellar door, bade them
off and help all they could; and said he was riding for the doctor. The
doctor indeed soon came, and pronounced the man's life in no danger,
though he was greatly scratched and bruised. Johnny himself was again
From this time for nine months the pursuit of Johnny Darbyshire was a
perfect campaign, full of stratagems, busy marchings, and expectations,
but of no surprises. House, barns, fields, and woods, were successively
ferreted through, as report whispered that he was in one or the other.
But it was to no purpose; not a glimpse of him was ever caught; and fame
now loudly declared that he had safely transferred himself to America.
Unfortunately for the truth of this report, which had become as well
received as the soundest piece of history, Johnny Darbyshire was one
fine moonlight night encountered full face to face, by some poachers
crossing the fields near his house. The search became again more active
than ever, and the ruins of Wingfield Manor, which stood on a hill not
far from his dwelling, were speedily suspected to be haunted by him.
These were hunted over and over, but no trace of Johnny Darbyshire, or
any sufficient hiding-place for him, could be found, till, one fine
summer evening, the officers were lucky enough to hit on a set of steps
which descended amongst bushes into the lower part of the ruins. Here,
going on, they found themselves, to their astonishment, in an ample old
kitchen, with a fire of charcoal in the grate, and Johnny Darbyshire
with a friend or two sitting most cosily over their tea. Before they
could recover from their surprise, Johnny, however, had vanished by some
door or window, they could not tell exactly where, for there were sundry
doorways issuing into dark places of which former experience bade them
beware. Rushing up again, therefore, to the light, they soon posted some
of their number around the ruins, and, with other assistance sent for
from the village, they descended again, and commenced a vigilant search.
This had been patiently waited for a good while by those posted without,
when suddenly, as rats are seen to issue from a rick when the ferret is
in it, Johnny Darbyshire was seen ascending hurriedly a broken
staircase, that was partly exposed to the open day by the progress of
dilapidation, and terminated abruptly above.
Here, at this abrupt and dizzy termination, for the space of half a
minute, stood Johnny Darbyshire, looking round, as if calmly surveying
the landscape, which lay, with all its greenness and ascending smokes of
cottage chimneys, in the gleam of the setting sun. Another instant, and
an officer of the law was seen cautiously scrambling up the same ruinous
path; but, when he had reached within about half a dozen yards or so of
Johnny, he paused, gazed upwards and downwards, and then remained
stationary. Johnny, taking one serious look at him, now waved his hand
as bidding him adieu, and disappeared in a mass of ivy.
The astonished officer on the ruined stair now hastily retreated
downwards; the watchers on the open place around ran to the side of the
building where Johnny Darbyshire had thus disappeared, but had scarcely
reached the next corner, when they heard a loud descent of stones and
rubbish, and, springing forward, saw these rushing to the ground at the
foot of the old Manor, and some of them springing and bounding down the
hill below. What was most noticeable, however, was Johnny Darbyshire
himself, lying stretched, apparently lifeless, on the greensward at some
On examining afterwards the place, they found that Johnny had descended
between a double wall,—a way, no doubt, well known to him, and thence
had endeavored to let himself down the wall by the ivy which grew
enormously strong there; but the decayed state of the stones had caused
the hold of the ivy to give way, and Johnny had been precipitated,
probably from a considerable height. He still held quantities of leaves
and ivy twigs in his hands.
He was conveyed as speedily as possible on a door to his own house,
where it was ascertained by the surgeon that life was sound in him, but
that besides plenty of severe contusions, he had broken a thigh. When
this news reached his persecutor, though Johnny was declared to have
rendered himself, by his resistance to the officers of the law, liable
to outlawry, this gentleman declared that he was quite satisfied; that
Johnny was punished enough, especially as he had been visited with the
very mischief he had occasioned to the mare. He declined to proceed any
further against him, paid all charges and costs, and the court itself
thought fit to take no further cognizance of the matter.
Johnny was, indeed, severely punished. For nearly twelve months he was
confined to the house, and never did his indomitable and masterful
spirit exhibit itself so strongly and characteristically as during this
time. He was a most troublesome subject in the house. As he sate in his
bed, he ordered, scolded, and ruled with a rod of iron all the women,
including his wife and daughter, so that they would have thought the leg
and the confinement nothing to what they had to suffer.
He at length had himself conveyed to the sitting-room or the kitchen, as
he pleased, in a great easy-chair; but as he did not satisfy himself
that he was sufficiently obeyed, he one day sent the servant-girl to
fetch him the longest scarlet-bean stick that she could find in the
garden. Armed with this, he now declared that he would have his own
way,—he could reach them now! And, accordingly, there he sate, ordering
and scolding, and, if not promptly obeyed in his most extravagant
commands, not sparing to inflict substantial knocks with his pea-prick,
as he called it. This succeeded so well that he would next have his
chair carried to the door, and survey the state of things without.
"Ay, he knew they were going on prettily. There was fine management, he
was sure, when he was thus laid up. He should be ruined, that was
certain. O, if he could but see the ploughing and the crops,—to see how
they were going on would make the heart of a stone ache, he expected."
His son was a steady young fellow, and, it must be known, was all the
while farming, and carrying on the business much better than he himself
had ever done.
"But he would be with them one of these days, and for the present he
would see his stock at all events."
He accordingly ordered the whole of his stock, his horses, his cows, his
bullocks, his sheep, his calves, his pigs, and poultry, to be all, every
head of them, driven past as he sate at the door. It was like another
naming of the beasts by Adam, or another going up into the Ark. There he
sate, swaying his long stick, now talking to this horse, and now to that
cow. To the old bull he addressed a long speech; and every now and then
he broke off to rate the farm-servants for their neglect of things.
"What a bag of bones was this heifer! What a skeleton was that horse!
Why, they must have been fairly starved on purpose; nay, they must have
been in the pinfold all the time he had been laid up. But he would teach
the lazy rogues a different lesson as soon as he could get about."
And the next thing was to get about in his cart with his bed laid in it.
In this he rode over his farm; and it would have made a fine scene for
Fielding or Goldsmith, to have seen all his proceedings, and heard all
his exclamations and remarks, as he surveyed field after field.
"What ploughing! what sowing! Why, they must have had a crooked plough,
and a set of bandy-legged horses, to plough such ploughing. There was no
more straightness in their furrows than in a dog's hind leg. And then
where had the man flung the seed to? Here was a bit come up, and there
never a bit. It was his belief that they must go to Jericho to find half
of his corn that had been flung away. What! had they picked the windiest
day of all the year to scatter his corn on the air in? And then the
drains were all stopped; the land was drowning, was starving to death;
and where were the hedges all gone to? Hedges he left, but now he only
So he went round the farm, and for many a day did it furnish him with a
theme of scolding in the house.
Such was Johnny Darbyshire; and thus he lived for many years. We sketch
no imaginary character, we relate no invented story. Perhaps a more
perfect specimen of the shrewd and clever man converted into the local
and domestic tyrant, by having too much of his own humor, never was
beheld; but the genus to which Johnny Darbyshire belonged is far from
extinct. In the nooks of England there are not a few of them yet to be
found in all their froward glory; and in the most busy cities, though
the great prominences of their eccentricities are rubbed off by daily
concussion with men as hard-headed as themselves, we see glimpses
beneath the polished surface of what they would be in ruder and
custom-freer scenes. The Johnny Darbyshires may be said to be instances
of English independence run to seed.