Categories
Story Of London

The Adventures of James Batson: I


This is the autobiography of a 17th century rogue with a most idiosyncratic family (his mother died of a longing for mushrooms when there were none). He was born in 1603 and died in the year of the Great Fire of London (1666). His sharpness of brain and lightness of hands brought him to many adventures in Europe but he ended his days in London and on the gallows. Here, to begin with, and in his own words, is the story of his youth and first brush with the law.

NewgateI suppose, according to custom, the reader will expect some account of my genealogy, and as I was always a mighty admirer of fashions, I will follow the mode, and give some account of my parents and relations, beginning with my grandfather, who had the great fortune to marry a woman excellently skilled in vaulting and rope-dancing, and would play her part with any man. She, though above fifty years of age, and troubled with the phthisic [Note: pulmonary tuberculosis.], died in the air. Her husband would not marry again – to avoid seeing other women fly as she had done – but kept a puppet-show in Morefields, and it was reckoned the most curious that ever had been seen in the city. Besides, my grandfather was so little that the only difference between him and his puppets was, that they spoke through a trunk and he without one. He made such speeches before his shows that the audience would wish he had never done, for he had a tongue like a parrot. All the apple-women, hawkers and fish-women were so charmed with his wit among his puppets that they would run to hear him without leaving any guard upon their goods but their straw hats. Unfortunate man! being so like a *****-sparrow, he took to so many hens that, when they had devoured his money, clothes and puppets, they consumed his health, and left him like a naked baby in a hospital.When he thought to have died soberly, he fell into a frenzy, to such a degree that one day he fancied he was a bull in a puppet-show, and was to encounter a stone cross that stood near the hospital gate; and after several essays he made at the same cross, crying: “Now I have you!” This said, he ran his head so furiously against the cross that he dropped down and said no more. A good hospital nurse, who was one of the family of the Innocents, seeing him die in that manner, cried: “0 the precious soul! he died at the foot of the Cross, and directing his discourse to it.”My father had two trades, or two strings to his bow, for he was a painter and a gamester, and a master much alike at both; for his paintings would hardly rise so high as a signpost, and his sleight-of-hand at play was of such an ancient date that it would hardly pass upon the mob. He had one misfortune, which he entailed on all his children, like original sin; and that was his being born a gentleman, which is as bad as a poet, few of whom escape eternal poverty, or are above perpetual want.My mother died, unluckily, of a longing for mushrooms when they were not to be had, being then with child by my father, as she said, and departed as quiet as a bird. She left two daughters, great devotees of Venus, though they were Christians, just at the age the doctors prescribe they are fit to eat; both very handsome and very young; and I was left very little, but much better skilled in sharping than my age seemed to promise. When the funeral ceremonies were over, and the tears dried up, which were not very many, my father fell again to his daubing, my sisters to stitching, and I returned to my little-frequented school, where my posteriors paid for the slowness of my feet and the lightness of my hands.I had such an excellent memory, that though my wicked idle temper was the same it has ever since continued, yet I soon learned to read, write and cast accounts well enough to have taken a better course than I have done. I put so many unlucky tricks upon my master, and so often set the boys together by the ears, that everybody called me the little Judas. It was hard for any book to escape me; and if once I cast my eye on a picture, it was surely my own, which cost me many a boxing bout every day, or else the complaints were carried home to my father and sisters. The eldest of them had it in charge to reprove and convert me; she would sometimes give me a soft cuff with her delicate white hand, at other times she would tell me I should be a disgrace to the family.All this nonsense, and her reproof, signified no more to me than the barking of a dog; it went in at one ear and out at the other; so that, in short, I played so many unlucky pranks, and was so full of roguery, that I was expelled the school in as solemn a manner as if it had been by beat of drum. My father, after currying my hide very well, carried me to a friend of his, who was barber to Count Gondemar, the Spanish Ambassador, then residing here, with whom he left me upon trial, in order to be bound apprentice. Having delivered his hopeful son he returned home, and my master ordered me into the kitchen to my mistress, who presently found me employment, giving me a basket full of children’s blankets, clouts, slabberring-bibs, barrows, etc., and opening the yard door, furnished me with about an ounce of soap; then showing me the cistern, with a great trough under it – “Jemmy,” says she, “mind your hits, there’s a good boy; for this work belongs to the apprentices.” I hung down my head, and tumbled all the filthy clouts from the basket into the trough and washed them as well as I could, and hung the linen to dry. I managed it very well for myself, since I was soon discarded from my office, which, had it continued longer, there had been an end of Jemmy in less than a fortnight.The next day I went over my task again, and what I wanted in washing of clouts was made up in running errands.The third day, my master having just given me a small note to receive, there came into the shop a bully ruffian with a pair of whiskers that covered his face, and would have been worth money to have made brushes on. He told my master he would have his whiskers turned up. It being then so early that the journeyman he kept was not come, he was going to turn them up himself, and bid me light a fire and heat the irons. I did as I was ordered; and just as my master had turned up one whisker there happened to be a quarrel in the street, and my master, being always a busy [Note: meaning curious. man, must needs step out to see what was the matter, leaving the stern bravo with one whisker hanging quite down, and the other turned up. The scuffle lasting long, and my master staying to see the end of it, the furious kill-crow never ceased swearing and cursing. He asked me in a harsh tone whether I understood my trade; and I, thinking it an undervaluing to myself to say I did not, boldly answered I did. “Why then, you son of a whore,” says he, “turn up this whisker for me, or I shall go into the street as I am and kick your master.” I was unwilling to be found in a lie, and, thinking it no hard matter to turn up a whisker, never showed the least concern, but took up one of the irons that was at the fire, which had been heating ever since the first alarm of the fray, and having nothing to try it on, but desiring to be thought expeditious, I took a comb, stuck it into his bristly bush, and clapped the iron to it. No sooner did they meet but there arose a smoke as if it had been out of a chimney, with a whizzing noise, and all the hair vanished. He cried out furiously: “Thou son of a thousand dogs and ten thousand whores, dost thou take me for Saint Laurence, that thou burnest me alive?” With that he let fly such a bang at me that, the comb dropping out of my hand, I could not avoid in the fright laying the hot iron close along his cheek, and cauterising him on one side of his face. This made him give such a shriek as shook the very house, and at the same time he drew his sword to send me to the other world; but I, remembering the proverb that “One pair of heels is worth two pairs of hands,” got so nimbly into the street, and so swiftly scoured out of that part of the town, that, though I was a good runner, I was amazed when I found myself above a mile from home, with the iron in my hand and the spark’s whisker sticking to it. As good luck would have it, I was near the person who was to pay the note my master gave me to receive for him. I carried it, and received the money; but thought fit to apply it to my own use, not daring to return home again.My money lasted me for about a month, when I began to think of returning to my father, but I understood he was gone into the country to receive some money owing to him. I rejoiced at the news, and went very boldly into the house as sole lord and master of it. My sisters received me very coldly, giving me many a sour look, and upbraiding me with the money my father was forced to pay for my pranks. We had a thousand squabbles every day, particularly about their giving me small instead of strong beer.These animosities ran so high that, perceiving they did not mend, I resolved to make them know me. Accordingly one day, they having brought me sour beer, and the meat being on the table, I threw the dish at my elder sister and the pot with the beer at the younger, overthrew the table, and marched out of doors on a ramble; but accidentally met a messenger from the country, who informed me of my father’s death by a fever. At this news I quickly went back to my sisters, who were more compliable, finding by my father’s will I was left executor without restraint of age. I sold the goods, got in what debts I could, and led a merry life whilst the money lasted, keeping all the rakes about the town company, who at last drained me of every farthing.They obliged me one night to go abroad with them; though much against my will, and one of them having the keys, like St Peter, opened the door of a house, whence they took several trunks, to ease the owner of lumber. A cur dog, who was upon guard, gave the alarm, and the people of the house came running into the street, which compelled my companions to lay down their burdens and act upon the defensive with their swords. For my part, I stood quaking for fear before the robbery, at the time of the robbery, and after the robbery; and always kept at a distance, repenting that I had not been acquainted with their way of living before I came out of my lodging, that I might have avoided that danger. So that, seeing my companions fly, and the wounded men return to their houses, I kept my post all in a cold sweat, lest I should be taken up as a party concerned; and when I should have gone away had not the power to stir one foot. At the noise the watch came in, who, finding three trunks in the street, besides two men dangerously wounded, and me not far off, came up to see who I was. By the disorder they found me in they concluded I was one of those who had done the mischief. They took care of me that night, and the next day I was ordered to a place where I had occasion to try all my friends and acquaintance, who all proved as I deserved. In about ten days I was called to my trial, and my excuses being very frivolous, and my answers contradictory, I was condemned to be hoisted up by the neck, and go to heaven in a string. However, just as I was singing the last stave, a reprieve came, and in about two months after I got a full pardon.