Read CHAPTER II. - I START IN LIFE AS AN EMINENT PERSON. of The Adventures of Harry Revel , free online book, by Arthur Quiller-Couch, on

Mr. Scougall was a lean, strident man who, if he lectured us often, whipped us on the whole with judgment and when we deserved it.  So we bore him no grudge.  But neither did we love him nor take any lively interest in him as a bridegroom, and I was startled to find these feelings shared by Mr. George in the porter’s box when I discussed the news with him.  “I’m to have a new suit of clothes,” said Mr. George, “but whoever gets Scougall, he’s no catch.”  This sounded blasphemous, while it gave me a sort of fearful joy.  I reported it, under seal of secrecy, to Miss Plinlimmon.  “Naval men, my dear Harry,” was her comment, “are notoriously blunt and outspoken, even when retired upon a pension; perhaps, indeed, if anything, more so.  It is in consequence of this habit that they have sometimes performed their grandest feats, as, for instance, when Horatio Nelson put his spy-glass up to his blind eye.  I advise you to do the same and treat Mr. George as a chartered heart of oak, without remembering his indiscretions to repeat them.”  She went on to tell me that sailor-men were beloved in Plymouth and allowed to do pretty well as they pleased; and how, quite recently, a Quaker lady had been stopped in Bedford Street by a Jack Tar who said he had sworn to kiss her.  “Thee must be quick about it, then,” said the Quaker lady.  And he was.

I suppose this anecdote encouraged me to be more familiar with Mr. George.  At any rate, I confided to him next day that I thought of being a soldier.

“Do you know what we used to say in the Navy?” he answered.  “We used to say, ’A friend before a messmate, a messmate before a shipmate, a shipmate before a dog, and a dog before a soldier.’”

“You think,” said I, somewhat discouraged, “that the Navy would be a better opening for me?”

“Ay,” he answered again, eyeing me gloomily; “that is, if so be ye can’t contrive to get to jail.”  He cast a glance down upon his jury-leg and patted the straps of it with his open palm.  “The leg, now, that used to be here ­I left it in a French prison called Jivvy, and often I thinks to myself, ’That there leg is having better luck than the rest of me.’  And here’s another curious thing.  What d’ye think they call it in France when you remember a person in your will?”

I hadn’t a notion, and said so.

“Why, ‘legs,’” said he.  “And they’ve got one of mine.  If a man was superstitious, you might almost call it a coincidence, hey?”

This was the longest conversation I ever had with Mr. George.  I have since found that sentiments very like his about the Navy have been uttered by Dr. Samuel Johnson.  But Mr. George spoke them out of his own experience.

Mr. Scougall’s bride was the widow of a Plymouth publican who had sold his business and retired upon a small farm across the Hamoaze, near the Cornish village of Anthony.  On the wedding morning (which fell early in July) she had, by agreement with her groom, prepared a delightful surprise for us.  We trooped after prayers into the dining-hall to find, in place of the hateful porridge, a feast laid out ­ham and eggs, cold veal pies, gooseberry preserves, and ­best of all ­plate upon plate of strawberries with bowl upon bowl of cool clotted cream.  Not a child of us had ever tasted strawberries or cream in his life, so you may guess if we ate with prudence.  At half-past ten Miss Plinlimmon (who had not found the heart to restrain our appetites) marshalled and led us forth, gorged and torpid, to the church where at eleven o’clock the ceremony was to take place.  Her eyes were red-rimmed as she cast them up towards the window behind which Mr. Scougall, no doubt, was at that moment arraying himself:  but she commanded a firm step, and even a firm voice to remark outside the wicket, as she looked up at the chimney-pots, that Nature had put on her fairest garb.

The day, to be sure, was monstrously hot and stuffy.  Not a breath of wind ruffled the waters of the dock, around the head of which we trudged to a recently erected church on the opposite shore.  I remember observing, on our way, the dazzling brilliance of its weathercock.

We found its interior spacious but warm, and the air heavy with the scent ­it comes back to me as I write ­of a peculiar sweet oil used in the lamps.  Perhaps Mr. Scougall had calculated that a ceremony so interesting to him would attract a throng of sightseers; at any rate, we were packed into a gallery at the extreme western end of the church, and in due time watched the proceedings from that respectful distance and across a gulf of empty pews.

­That is to say, some of us watched.  I have no doubt that Miss Plinlimmon did, for instance; nay, that her attention was riveted.  Otherwise I cannot explain what followed.

On the previous night I had gone to bed almost supperless, as usual.  I had come, as usual, ravenous to breakfast, and for once I had sated, and more than sated, desire.  For years after, though hungry often enough in the course of them, I never thought with longing upon cold veal or strawberries, nor have I ever recovered an unmitigated appetite for either.

It is certain, then, that even before the ceremony began ­and the bride arrived several minutes late ­I slumbered on the back bench of the gallery.  The evidence of six boys seated near me agrees that, at the moment when Mr. Scougall produced the ring, I arose quietly, but without warning, and made my exit by the belfry door.  They supposed that I was taken ill; they themselves were feeling more or less uncomfortable.

The belfry stairway, by which we had reached the door of our gallery, wound upward beyond it to the top of the tower, and gave issue by a low doorway upon the dwarf battlements, from which sprang a spire some eighty feet high.  This spire was, in fact, a narrowing octagon, its sides hung with slate, its eight ridges faced with Bath stone, and edged from top to bottom with ornamental crockets.

The service over, bride and bridegroom withdrew with their friends to the vestry for the signing of the register; and there, while they dallied and interchanged good wishes, were interrupted by the beadle, a white-faced pew-opener, and two draymen from the street, with news (as one of the draymen put it, shouting down the rest) that “one of Scougall’s yellow orphans was up clinging to the weathercock by his blessed eyebrows; and was this a time for joking, or for feeling ashamed of themselves and sending for a constable?”

The drayman shouted and gesticulated so fiercely with a great hand flung aloft that Mr. Scougall, almost before comprehending, precipitated himself from the church.  Outside stood his hired carriage with its pair of greys, but the driver was pointing with his whip and craning his neck like the rest of the small crowd.

It may have been their outcries, but I believe it was the ringing of the dockyard bell for the dinner-hour, which awoke me.  In my dreams my arms had been about some kindly neck (and of my dreams in those days, though but a glimpse ever survived the waking, in those glimpses dwelt the shade, if not the presence, of my unknown mother).  They were, in fact, clasped around the leg of the weathercock.  Unsympathetic support!  But I have known worse friends.  A mercy it was, at any rate, that I kept my embrace during the moments when sense returned to me, with vision of the wonders spread around and below.  Truly I enjoyed a wonderful view ­across the roofs of Plymouth, quivering under the noon sun, and away to the violet hills of Dartmoor; and, again, across the water and shipping of the Hamoaze to the green slopes of Mount Edgcumbe and the massed trees slumbering in the heat.  Slumber, indeed, and a great quiet seemed to rest over me, over the houses, the ships, the whole wide land.  By the blessing of Heaven, not so much as the faintest breeze played about the spire, or cooled the copper rod burning my hand (and, again, it may have been this that woke me).  I sat astride the topmost crocket, and glancing down between my boot heels, spied the carriage with its pair of greys flattened upon the roadway just beyond the verge of the battlements, and Mr. Scougall himself dancing and waving his arms like a small but very lively beetle.

Doubtless, I had ascended by the narrow stairway of the crockets:  but to descend by them with a lot of useless senses about me would be a very different matter.  No giddiness attacked me as yet; indeed I knew rather than felt my position to be serious.  For a moment I thought of leaving my perch and letting myself slip down the face of the slates, to be pulled up short by the parapet; but the length of the slide daunted me, and the parapet appeared dangerously shallow.  I should shoot over it to a certainty and go whirling into air.  On the other hand, to drop from my present saddle into the one below was no easy feat.  For this I must back myself over the edge of it, and cling with body and legs in air while I judged my fall into the next.  To do this thirty times or so in succession without mistake was past hoping for:  there were at least thirty crockets to be manoeuvred, and a single miscalculation would send me spinning backwards to my fate.  Above all, I had not the strength for it.

So I sat considering for a while; not terrified, but with a brain exceedingly blank and hopeless.  It never occurred to me that, if I sat still and held on, steeplejacks would be summoned and ladders brought to me; and I am glad that it did not, for this would have taken hours, and I know now that I could not have held out for half an hour inactive.  But another thought came.  I saw the slates at the foot of the weathercock, that they were thinly edged and of light scantling.  I knew that they must be nailed upon a wooden framework not unlike a ladder.  And at the Genevan Hospital, as I have recorded, we wore stout plates on our shoes.

I am told that it was a bad few moments for the lookers-on when they saw me lower myself sideways from my crocket and begin to hammer on the slates with my toes:  for at first they did not comprehend, and then they reasoned that the slates were new, and if I failed to kick through them, to pull myself back to the crocket again would be a desperate job.

But they did not know our shoe-leather.  Mr. Scougall, whatever his faults, usually contrived to get value for his money, and at the tenth kick or so my toes went clean through the slate and rested on the laths within.  Next came the most delicate moment of all, for with a less certain grip on the crocket I had to kick a second hole lower down, and transfer my hand-hold from the stone to the wooden lath laid bare by my first kicks.

This, too, with a long poise and then a flying clutch, I accomplished; and with the rest of my descent I will not weary the reader.  It was interminably slow, and it was laborious; but, to speak comparatively, it was safe.  My boots lasted me to within twenty feet of the parapet, and then, just as I had kicked my toes bare, a steeplejack appeared at the little doorway with a ladder.  Planting it in a jiffy, he scrambled up, took me under his arm, bore me down and laid me against the parapet, where at first I began to cry and then emptied my small body with throe after throe of sickness.

I recovered to find Mr. Scougall and another clergyman (the vicar) standing by the little door and gazing up at my line of holes on the face of the spire.  Mr. Scougall was offering to pay.

“But no,” said the vicar, “we will set the damage down against the lad’s preservation; that is, if I don’t recover from the contractor, who has undoubtedly swindled us over these slates.”