Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Old Edwards and the Press-gang
By Henry Mackenzie (17451831)
From The Man of Feeling
MY son was a remarkably good shooter; he had always kept a pointer in our former farm, and thought no harm in doing so now; when one day, having sprung a covey in our own ground, the dog, of his own accord, followed them into the justices. My son laid down his gun, and went after his dog to bring him back; the gamekeeper who had marked the birds, came up, and seeing the pointer, shot him just as my son approached. The creature fell; my son ran up to him; he died with a complaining sort of cry at his masters feet. Jack could bear it no longer; but flying at the gamekeeper wrenched his gun out of his hand, and with the butt end of it felled him to the ground.
He had scarce got home, when a constable came with a warrant, and dragged him to prison; there he lay, for the justices would not take bail, till he was tried at the quarter-sessions for the assault and battery. His fine was hard upon us to pay; we contrived however to live the worse for it, and make up the loss by our frugality; but the justice was not content with that punishment, and soon after had an opportunity of punishing us indeed.
An officer with press orders came down to our country, and having met with the justices, agreed that they should pitch on a certain number, who could most easily be spared from the county, of whom he would take care to clear it; my sons name was in the justices list.
Twas on a Christmas eve, and the birthday, too, of my sons little boy. The night was piercing cold, and it blew a storm, with showers of sleet and snow. We had made up a cheering fire in an inner room; I sat before it in my wicker chair, blessing providence that had still left a shelter for me and my children. My sons two little ones were holding their gambols around us; my heart warmed at the sight; I brought a bottle of my best ale, and all our misfortunes were forgotten.
It had long been our custom to play a game at blind-mans-buff on that night, and it was not omitted now; so to it we fell, I and my son, and his wife, the daughter of a neighbouring farmer, who happened to be with us at the time, the two children and an old maid-servant, who had lived with me from a child. The lot fell on my son to be blindfolded; we had continued some time in our game, when he groped his way into an outer room in pursuit of some of us, who, he imagined, had taken shelter there; we kept snug in our places, and enjoyed his mistake. He had not been long there, when he was suddenly seized from behind; I shall have you now, said he, and turned about. Shall you so, master, answered the ruffian who had laid hold of him; we shall make you play at another sort of game by and by. At these words Harley started up with a convulsive sort of motion, and grasping Edwards sword, drew it half out of the scabbard, with a look of the most frantic wildness. Edwards gently replaced it in its sheath, and went on with his relation.
On hearing these words in a strange voice we all rushed out to discover the cause; the room by this time was almost full of the gang. My daughter-in-law fainted at the sight; the maid and I ran to assist her, while my poor son remained motionless, gazing by turns on his children and their mother. We soon recovered her to life, and begged her to retire and wait the issue of the affair; but she flew to her husband, and clung round him in an agony of terror and grief.
In the gang was one of a sinister aspect, whom, by his dress we discovered to be a sergeant of foot; he came up to me, and told me that my son had his choice of the sea or land service, whispering at the same time, that if he chose the land, he might get off on procuring him another man, and paying a certain sum for his freedom. The money we could just muster up in the house, by the assistance of the maid, who produced, in a green bag, all the little savings of her service; but the man we could not expect to find. My daughter-in-law gazed upon her children with a look of the wildest despair. My poor infants! said she, your father is forced from you; who shall now labour for your bread? or must your mother beg for herself and you? I prayed her to be patient; but comfort I had none to give her. At last, calling the sergeant aside, I asked him if I was too old to be accepted in place of my son? Why, I dont know, said he, you are rather old to be sure, but yet the money may do much. I put the money in his hand; and coming back to my children, Jack, said I, you are free; live to give your wife and these little ones bread; I have but little life to lose, and if I stayed, I should add one to the wretches you left behind! No, replied my son, I am not that coward you imagine me; Heaven forbid that my fathers gray hair should be so exposed, while I sat idle at home; I am young, and able to endure much, and God will take care of you and my family. Jack, said I, I will put an end to this matter; you have never hitherto disobeyed me; I will not be contradicted in this; stay at home, I charge you, and, for my sake, be kind to my children.
Our parting, Mr. Harley, I cannot describe to you; it was the first time we ever had parted; the very press-gang could scarce keep from tears; but the sergeant who had seemed the softest before, was now the least moved of them all. He conducted me to a party of new-raised recruits, who lay at a village in the neighbourhood; and we soon after joined the regiment. I had not been long with it, when we were ordered to the East Indies, where I was soon made a sergeant, and might have picked up some money, if my heart had been as hard as some others were; but my nature was never of that kind, that could think of getting rich at the expense of my conscience.