The Regents Wager, by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch
Boutigo's van—officially styled The Vivid—had just issued from
the Packhorse Yard, Tregarrick, a leisurely three-quarters of an hour
behind its advertised time, and was scaling the acclivity of St.
Fimbar's Street in a series of short tacks. Now and then it halted
to take up a passenger or a parcel; and on these occasions Boutigo
produced a couple of big stones from his hip-pockets and slipped them
under the hind-wheels, while we, his patrons within the van, tilted
at an angle of 15° upon cushions of American cloth, sought for new
centres of gravity, and earnestly desired the summit.
It was on the summit, where the considerate Boutigo gave us a minute's
pause to rearrange ourselves and our belongings, that we slipped into
easy and general talk. An old countryman, with an empty poultry-basket
on his knees, and a battered top-hat on the back of his head, gave us
"When Boutigo's father had the accident—that was back in 'fifty-six,'
and it broke his leg an' two ribs—the van started from close 'pon the
knap o' the hill here, and scat itself to bits against the bridge at
the foot just two and a half minutes after."
I suggested that this was not very fast for a runaway horse.
"I dessay not," he answered; "but 'twas pretty spry for a van slippin'
backwards, and the old mare diggin' her toes in all the way to hold
One or two of the passengers grinned at my expense, and the old man
"But if you want to know how fast a hoss can get down St. Fimbar's
hill, I reckon you've lost your chance by not axin' Dan'l Best, that
died up to the 'Sylum twelve years since; though, poor soul, he'd but
one answer for every question from his seven-an'-twentieth year to his
end, an' that was 'One, two, three, four, five, sis, seven."
"Ah, the poor body! his was a wisht case," a woman observed from the
corner furthest from the door.
"Ay, Selina, and fast forgotten, like all the doin's and sufferin's of
the men of old time." He reached a hand round his basket, and touching
me on the knee, pointed back on Tregarrick. "There's a wall," he said,
and I saw by the direction of his finger that he meant the wall of the
county prison, "and beneath that wall's a road, and across that road's
a dismal pool, and beyond that pool's a green hillside, with a road
athurt it that comes down and crosses by the pool's head. Standin'
'pon that hillside you can see a door in the wall, twenty feet above
the ground, an' openin' on nothing. Leastways, you could see it once;
an' even now, if ye've good eyesight, ye can see where they've bricked
I could, in fact, even at our distance, detect the patch of recent
stone-work; and knew something of its history.
"Now," the old man continued, "turn your looks to the right and mark
the face of Tregarrick town-clock. You see it, hey?"—and I had time
to read the hour on its dial before Boutigo jolted us over the ridge
and out of sight of it—"Well, carry them two things in your mind: for
they mazed Dan'l Best an' murdered his brother Hughie."
And, much as I shall repeat it, he told me this tale, pausing now and
again to be corroborated by the woman in the corner. The history, my
dear reader, is accurate enough—for Boutigo's van.
There lived a young man in Tregarrick in the time of the French War.
His name was Dan'l Best, and he had an only brother Hughie, just three
years younger than himself. Their father and mother had died of the
small-pox and left them, when quite young children, upon the parish:
but old Walters of the Packhorse—he was great-grandfather of the
Walters that keeps it now—took a liking to them and employed them,
first about his stables and in course of time as post-boys. Very good
post-boys they were, too, till Hughie took to drinking and wenching
and cards and other devil's tricks. Dan'l was always a steady sort:
walked with a nice young woman that was under-housemaid up to the old
Lord Bellarmine's at Castle Cannick, and was saving up to be married,
when Hughie robbed the mail.
Hughie robbed the mail out of doubt. He did it up by Tippet's Barrow,
just beyond the cross-roads where the scarlet gig used to meet the
coach and take the mails for Castle Cannick and beyond to Tolquite.
Billy Phillips, that drove the gig, was found in the ditch with his
mouth gagged, and swore to Hughie's being the man. The Lord Chief
Justice, too, summed up dead against him, and the jury didn't even
leave the box. And the moral was, "Hughie Best, you're to be taken to
the place whence you come from, ancetera, and may the Lord have mercy
upon your soul!"
You may fancy what a blow this was to Dan'l; for though fine and vexed
with Hughie's evil courses, he'd never guessed the worst, nor anything
like it. Not a doubt had he, nor could have, that Hughie was guilty;
but he went straight from the court to his young woman and said, "I've
saved money for us to be married on. There's little chance that I can
win Hughie a reprieve; and, whether or no, it will eat up all, or
nearly all, my savings. Only he's my one brother. Shall I go?" And she
said, "Go, my dear, if I wait ten years for you." So he borrowed a
horse for a stage or two, and then hired, and so got to London, on a
fool's chase, as it seemed.
The fellow's purpose, of course, was to see King George. But King
George, as it happened, was daft just then; and George his son reigned
in his stead, being called the Prince Regent. Weary days did Dan'l air
his heels with one Minister of the Crown after another before he could
get to see this same Regent, and 'tis to be supposed that the great
city, being new to him, weighed heavy on his spirits. And all the
time he had but one plea, that his brother was no more than a boy and
hadn't an ounce of vice in his nature—which was well enough beknown
to all in Tregarrick, but didn't go down with His Majesty's advisers:
while as for the Prince Regent, Dan'l couldn't get to see him till the
Wednesday evening that Hughie was to be hanged on the Friday, and then
his Royal Highness spoke him neither soft nor hopeful.
"The case was clear as God's daylight," said he: "the Lord Chief
Justice tells me that the jury didn't even quit the box."
"Your Royal Highness must excuse me," said Dan'l, "but I never shall
be able to respect that judge. My opinion of a judge is, he should
be like a stickler and see fair play; but this here chap took sides
against Hughie from the first. If I was you," he said, "I wouldn't
trust him with a Petty Sessions."
"Well, you may think how likely this kind of speech was to please the
Prince Regent. And I've heard that Dan'l; was in the very article of
being pitched out, neck and crop, when he heard a regular caprouse
start up in the antechamber behind him, and a lord-in-waiting, or
whatever he's called, comes in and speaks a word very low to the
"Show him in at once," says he, dropping poor Dan'l's petition upon
the table beside him; and in there walks a young officer with his
boots soiled with riding and the sea-salt in his hair, like as if he'd
just come off a ship; and hands the Prince a big letter. The Prince
hardly cast his eye over what was written before he outs with a lusty
hurrah, as well he might, for this was the first news of the taking of
"Here's news," said he, "to fill the country with bonfires this
"Begging your Royal Highness's pardon," answers the officer,
pulling out his watch; "but the mail coaches have left St. Martin's
Lane"—that's where they started from, as I've heard tell—"these
"Damn it!" says Dan'l Best and the Prince Regent, both in one breath.
"Hulloa! Be you here still?" says the Prince, turning sharp round at
the sound of Dan'l's voice. "And what be you waiting for?"
"For my brother Hughie's reprieve," says Dan'l.
"Well, but 'tis too late now, anyway," says the Prince.
"I'll bet 'tis not," says Dan'l, "if you'll look slippy and make out
"You can't do it. 'Tis over two hundred and fifty miles, and you can't
travel ten miles an hour all the way like the coach."
"It'll reach Tregarrick to-morrow night," says Dan'l, "an' they won't
hang Hughie till seven in the morning. So I've an hour or two to
spare, and being a post-boy myself, I know the ropes."
"Well," says his Royal Highness, "I'm in a very good temper because
of this here glorious storming of St. Sebastian. So I'll wager your
brother's life you don't get there in time to stop the execution."
"Done with you, O King!" says Dan'l, and the reprieve was made out,
quick as lightning.
Well, sir, Dan'l knew the ropes, as he said; and moreover, I reckon
there was a kind of freemasonry among post-boys; and the two together,
taken with his knowledge o' horseflesh, helped him down the road as
never a man was helped before or since. 'Twas striking nine at night
when he started out of London with the reprieve in his pocket, and by
half-past five in the morning he spied Salisbury spire lifting out of
the morning light. There was some hitch here—the first he met—in
getting a relay; but by six he was off again, and passed through
Exeter early in the afternoon. Down came a heavy rain as the evening
drew in, and before he reached Okehampton the roads were like a bog.
Here it was that the anguish began, and of course to Dan'l, who found
himself for the first time in his life sitting in the chaise instead
of in the saddle, 'twas the deuce's own torment to hold himself still,
feel the time slipping away, and not be riding and getting every ounce
out of the beasts: though, even to his eye, the rider in front
was no fool. But at Launceston soon after daybreak he met with a
misfortune indeed. A lot of folks had driven down overnight to
Tregarrick to witness the day's sad doings, and there wasn't a chaise
to be had in the town for love or money.
"What do I want with a chaise?" said Dan'l, for of course he was in
his own country now, and everybody knew him. "For the love of God,
give me a horse that'll take me into Tregarrick before seven and save
Hughie's life! Man, I've got a reprieve!"
"Dear lad, is that so?" said the landlord, who had come down, and was
standing by the hotel door in nightcap and bedgown. "I thought, maybe,
you was hurrying to see the last of your brother. Well, there's but
one horse left in stable, and that's the grey your master sold me two
months back; and he's a screw, as you must know. But here's the stable
key. Run and take him out yourself, and God go with 'ee!"
None knew better than Dan'l that the grey was a screw. But he ran down
to the stable, fetched the beast out, and didn't even wait to shift
his halter for a bridle, but caught up the half of a broken mop-handle
that lay by the stable door, and with no better riding whip galloped
off bare-back towards Tregarrick.
Aye, sir, and he almost won his race in spite of all. The hands o' the
town clock were close upon seven as he came galloping over the knap
of the hill and saw the booths below him and sweet-stalls and
standings—for on such days 'twas as good as a fair in Tregarrick—and
the crowd under the prison wall. And there, above them, he could see
the little open doorway in the wall, and one or two black figures
there, and the beam. Just as he saw this the clock struck its first
note, and Dan'l, still riding like a madman, let out a scream, and
waved the paper over his head; but the distance was too great. Seven
times the clapper struck, and with each stroke Dan'l screamed, still
riding and keeping his eyes upon that little doorway. But a second or
two after the last stroke he dropped his arm suddenly as if a bullet
had gone through it, and screamed no more. Less than a minute after,
sir, he pulled up by the bridge on the skirt of the crowd, and looked
round him with a silly smile.
"Neighbours," says he, "I've a-got great news for ye. We've a-taken
St. Sebastian, and by all acounts the Frenchies'll be drove out of
Spain in less'n a week."
There was silence in Boutigo's van for a full minute; and then the old
woman spoke from the corner:
"Well, go on, Sam, and tell the finish to the company."
"Is there more to tell?" I asked.
"Yes, sir," said Sam, leaning forward again, and tapping my knee very
gently, "there were two men condemned at Tregarrick, that Assize;
and two men put to death that morning. The first to go was a
sheep-stealer. Ten minutes after, Dan'l saw Hughie his brother led
forth; and stood there and watched, with the reprieve in his hand.
His wits were gone, and he chit-chattered all the time about St.