"The Stage-Coachmen Of England:
A Bully Served Out"
By George Borrow.
I LIVED on very good terms, not only with the master and the old ostler, but with all the domestics and hangers-on at the inn; waiters, chambermaids, cooks, and scullions, not forgetting the 'boots', of which there were three. As for the postillions, I was sworn brother with them all, and some of them went so far as to swear that I was the best fellow in the world; for which high opinion entertained by them of me, I believe I was principally indebted to the good account their comrade gave of me, whom I had so hospitably received in the dingle. I repeat that I lived on good terms with all the people connected with the inn, and was noticed and spoken kindly to by some of the guests -- especially by that class termed commercial travellers -- all of whom were great friends and patronizers of the landlord, and were the principal promoters of the dinner, and subscribers to the gift of plate, which I have already spoken of, the whole fraternity striking me as the jolliest set of fellows imaginable, the best customers to an inn, and the most liberal to servants; there was one description of persons, however, frequenting the inn, which I did not like at all, and which I did not get on well with, and these people were the stage-coachmen.
The stage-coachmen of England, at the time of which I am speaking, considered themselves mighty fine gentry, nay, I verily believe, the most important personages of the realm, and their entertaining this high opinion of themselves can scarcely be wondered at; they were low fellows, but masters of driving; driving was in fashion, and sprigs of nobility used to dress as coachmen and imitate the slang and behaviour of coachmen, from whom occasionally they would take lessons in driving as they sat beside them on the box, which post of honour any sprig of nobility who happened to take a place on a coach claimed as his unquestionable right; and then these sprigs would smoke cigars and drink sherry with the coachmen in bar-rooms, and on the road; and, when bidding them farewell, would give them a guinea or a half-guinea, and shake them by the hand, so that these fellows, being low fellows, very naturally thought no small liquor of themselves, but would talk familiarly of their friends lords so and so, the honourable misters so and so, and Sir Harry and Sir Charles, and be wonderfully saucy to any one who was not a lord, or something of the kind; and this high opinion of themselves received daily augmentation from the servile homage paid them by the generality of the untitled male passengers, especially those on the forepart of the coach, who used to contend for the honour of sitting on the box with the coachman when no sprig was nigh to put in his claim. Oh ! what servile homage these craven creatures did pay these same coach fellows, more especially after witnessing this or t'other act of brutality practised upon the weak and unoffending -- upon some poor friendless woman travelling with but little money, and perhaps a brace of hungry children with her, or upon some thin and half-starved man travelling on the hind part of the coach from London to Liverpool with only eighteen pence in his pocket after his fare was paid, to defray his expenses on the road; for as the insolence of these knights was vast, so was their rapacity enormous; they had been so long accustomed to have crowns and half-crowns rained upon them by their admirers and flatterers, that they would look at a shilling, for which many an honest labourer was happy to toil for ten hours under a broiling sun, with the utmost contempt; would blow upon it derisively, or fillip it into the air before they pocketed it; but when nothing was given them, as would occasionally happen -- for how could they receive from those who had nothing? and nobody was bound to give them anything, as they had certain wages from their employers -- then what a scene would ensue! Truly the brutality and rapacious insolence of English coachmen had reached a climax; it was time that these fellows should be disenchanted, and the time -- thank Heaven! -- was not far distant. Let the craven dastards who used to curry favour with them, and applaud their brutality, lament their loss now that they and their vehicles have disappeared from the roads; I, who have ever been an enemy to insolence, cruelty, and tyranny, loathe their memory, and, what is more, am not afraid to say so, well aware of the storm of vituperation, partly learnt from them, which I may expect from those who used to fall down and worship them.
Amongst the coachmen who frequented the inn was one who was called 'the bang-up coachman'. He drove to our inn, in the forepart of every day one of what were called the fast coaches, an afterwards took back the corresponding vehicle. He stayed at our house about twenty minutes, during which time the passengers of the coach which he was to return with dined; those at least who were inclined for, dinner, and could pay for it. He derived his sobriquet of 'The bang-up coachman' partly from his being dressed in the extremity of coach dandyism, and partly from the peculiar insolence of his manner, and the unmerciful fashion in which he was in the habit of lashing on the poor horses committed to his charge. He was a large tall fellow, of about thirty, with a face which, had it not been bloated by excess, and insolence and cruelty stamped most visibly upon it, might have been called good-looking. His insolence indeed was so great, that he was hated by all the minor fry connected with coaches along the road upon which he drove, especially the ostlers whom he was continually abusing or finding fault with. Many was the hearty curse which he received when his back was turned; but the generality of people were much afraid of him, for he was a swinging strong fellow, and had the reputation of being a fighter, and in one or two instances had beaten in a barbarous manner individuals who had quarrelled with him.
I was nearly having a fracas with this worthy. One day, after he had been drinking sherry with a sprig, he swaggered into the yard where I happened to be standing; just then a waiter came by carrying upon a tray part of a splendid Cheshire cheese, with a knife, plate, and napkin. Stopping the waiter, the coachman cut with the knife a tolerably large lump out of the very middle of the cheese, stuck it on the end of the knife, and putting it to his mouth nibbled a slight piece off it, and then, tossing the rest away with disdain, flung the knife down upon the tray, motioning the waiter to proceed; 'I wish,' said I, 'you may not want before you die what you have flung away" whereupon the fellow turned furiously towards me; just then, however, his coach being standing at the door, there was a cry for coachman, so that he was forced to depart contenting himself for the present with shaking his fist at me, and threatening to serve me out on the first opportunity; before, however, the opportunity occurred he himself got served out in a most unexpected manner.
The day after this incident he drove his coach to the inn, and after having dismounted and received the contributions of the generality of the passengers, he strutted up, with a cigar in his mouth, to an individual who had come with him, and who had just asked me a question with respect to the direction of a village about three miles off, to which he was going. 'Remember the coach-man,' said the knight of the box to this individual, who was a thin person of about sixty, with a white hat, rather shabby black coat, and buff-coloured trousers, and who held an umbrella and a small bundle in his hand. 'If you expect me to give you anything,' said he to the coachman, 'you are mistaken; I will give you nothing. You have been very insolent to me as I rode behind you on the coach, and have encouraged two or three trumpery fellows, who rode along with you, to cut scurvy jokes at my expense, and now you come to me for money; I am not so poor, but I could have given you a shilling had you been civil; as it is, I will give you nothing.' Oh ! you won't. won't you? 'said the coachman; 'dear me I hope I shan't starve because you won't give me anything -- a shilling! why, I could afford to give YOU twenty if I thought fit, you pauper ! civil to you, indeed ! things are come to a fine pass if I need be civil to you ! Do you know who you are speaking to? why, the best lords in the country are proud to speak to me. Why, it was only the other day that the Marquis of ____ said to me ___,' and then he went on to say what the Marquis said to him; after which, flinging down his cigar, he strutted up the road, swearing to himself about paupers.
'You say it is three miles to ___,' said the individual to me; 'I think I shall light my pipe, and smoke it as I go along.' Thereupon he took out from a side-pocket a tobacco-box and a short meerschaum pipe, and implements for striking a light, filled his pipe, lighted it, and commenced smoking. Presently the coachman drew near, I saw at once that there was mischief in his eye; the man smoking was standing with his back towards him, and he came so nigh to him, seemingly purposely, that as he passed a puff of smoke came of necessity against his face. 'What do you mean by smoking in my face?' said he, striking the pipe of the elderly individual out of his mouth. The other, without manifesting much surprise, said, 'I thank you; and if you will wait a minute, I will give you a receipt for that favour'; then gathering up his pipe, and taking off his coat and hat, he laid them on a stepping-block which stood near, and rubbing his hands together, he advanced towards the coachman in an attitude of offence, holding his hands crossed very near to his face. The coachman, who probably expected anything but such a movement from a person of the age and appearance of the individual whom he had insulted, stood for a moment motionless with surprise; but, recollecting himself, he pointed at him derisively with his finger; the next moment, however, the other was close upon him, had struck aside the extended hand with his left fist, and given him a severe blow on the nose with his right, which he immediately followed by a left-hand blow in the eye; then drawing his body slightly backward, with the velocity of lightning he struck the coachman full in the mouth, and the last blow was the severest of all, for it cut the coachman's lips nearly through; blows so quickly and sharply dealt I had never seen. The coachman reeled like a fir-tree in a gale, and seemed nearly unsensed. 'Ho! what's this? a fight! a fight!' sounded from a dozen voices, and people came running from all directions to see what was going on. The coachman, coming somewhat to himself, disencumbered himself of his coat and hat; and, encouraged by two or three of his brothers of the whip, showed some symptoms of fighting, endeavouring to close with his foe, but the attempt was vain, his foe was not to be closed with; he did not shift or dodge about, but warded off the blows of his opponent with the greatest sang-froid, always using the guard which I have already described, and putting in, in return, short chopping blows with the swiftness of lightning. In a very few minutes the countenance of the coachman was literally cut to pieces, and several of his teeth were dislodged; at length he gave in; stung with mortification, however, he repented, and asked for another round; it was granted, to his own complete demolition. The coachman did not drive his coach back that day, he did not appear on the box again for a week; but he never held up his head afterwards. Before I quitted the inn, he had disappeared from the road, going no one knew where.
The coachman, as I have said before, was very much disliked upon the road, but there was an esprit de corps amongst the coachmen, and those who stood by did not like to see their brother chastised in such tremendous fashion. 'I never saw such a fight before', said one. 'Fight! why, I don't call it a fight at all, this chap here ha'n't got a scratch, whereas Tom is cut to pieces; it is all along of that guard of his; if Tom could have got within his guard he would have soon served the old chap out.' 'So he would,' said another, 'it was all owing to that guard. However, I think I see into it, and if I had not to drive this afternoon, I would have a turn with the old fellow and soon serve him out.' I will fight him now for a guinea,' said the other coach-man, half taking off his coat; observing, however, that the elderly individual made a motion towards him, he hitched it upon his shoulder again, and added, 'that is, if he had not been fighting already, but as it is, I am above taking an advantage, especially of such a poor old creature as that.' And when he had said this, he looked around him, and there was a feeble titter of approbation from two or three of the craven crew, who were in the habit of currying favour with the coachmen. The elderly individual looked for a moment at these last, and then said, 'To such fellows as you I have nothing to say '; then turning to the coachmen, 'and as for you, he said, 'ye cowardly bullies, I have but one word, which is, that your reign upon the roads is nearly over, and that a time is coming when ye will be no longer wanted or employed in your present capacity, when ye will either have to drive dung-carts, assist as ostlers at village ale-houses, or rot in the workhouse.' Then putting on his coat and hat, and taking up his bundle, not forgetting his meerschaum, and the rest of his smoking apparatus, he departed on his way. Filled with curiosity, I followed him.
'I am quite astonished that you should be able to use your hands in the way you have done,' said I, as I walked with this individual in the direction in which he was bound.
'I will tell you how I became able to do so,' said the elderly individual, proceeding to fill and light his pipe as he walked along. 'My father was a journeyman engraver, who lived in a very riotous neighbourhood in the outskirts of London. Wishing to give me something of an education, he sent me to a day-school, two or three streets distant from where we lived, and there, being rather a puny boy, I suffered much persecution from my school-fellows, who were a very blackguard set. One day, as I was running home, with one of my tormentors pursuing me, old Sergeant Broughton, the retired fighting-man, seized me by the arm --'
'Dear me,' said I; 'has it ever been your luck to be acquainted with Sergeant Broughton?'
'You may well call it luck,' said the elderly individual; 'but for him I should never have been able to make my way through the world. He lived only four doors from our house; so, as I was running along the street, with my tyrant behind,me, Sergeant Broughton seized me by the arm. 'Stop, my boy," said he; "I have frequently seen that scamp ill-treating you; now I will teach you how to send him home with a bloody nose; down with your bag of books; and now, my game chick," whispered he to me, placing himself between me and my adversary, so that he could not observe his motions; "clench your fist in this manner, and hold your arms in this, and when he strikes at you, move them as I now show you, and he can't hurt you; now, don't be afraid, but go at him." I confess that I was somewhat afraid, but I considered myself in some degree under the protection of the famous Sergeant, and, clenching my fist, I went at my foe, using the guard which my ally recommended. The result corresponded to a certain degree with the predictions of the Sergeant; I gave my foe a bloody nose and a black eye, though, notwithstanding my recent lesson in the art of self-defence, he contrived to give me two or three clumsy blows. From that moment I was the especial favourite of the Sergeant, who gave me farther lessons, so that in a little time I became a very fair boxer, beating everybody of my own size who attacked me. The old gentleman, however, made me promise never to be quarrelsome, nor to turn his instructions to account, except in self-defence. I have always borne in mind my promise, and have made it a point of conscience never to fight unless absolutely compelled. Folks may rail against boxing if they please, but being able to box may sometimes stand a quiet man in good stead. How should I have fared to-day, but for the instructions of Sergeant Broughton? But for them, the brutal ruffian who insulted me must have passed unpunished. He will not soon forget the lesson which I have just given him -- the only lesson he could understand. What would have been the use of reasoning with a fellow of that description? Brave old Broughton! I owe him much.'
'And your manner of fighting,' said I, 'was the manner employed by Sergeant Broughton?'
'Yes' said my new acquaintance; 'it was the manner in which he beat every one who attempted to contend with him, till, in an evil hour, he entered the ring with Slack, without any training or preparation, and by a chance blow lost the battle to a man who had been beaten with ease by those who, in the hands of Broughton, appeared like so many children. It was the way of fighting of him who first taught Englishmen to box scientifically, who was the head and father of the fighters of what is now called the old school, the last of which were Johnson and Big Ben.'
'A wonderful man that Big Ben,' said I.
'He was so,' said the elderly individual; 'but had it not been for Broughton, I question whether Ben would have ever been the fighter he was. Oh! there is no one like old Broughton; but for him I should at the present moment be sneaking along the road, pursued by the hissings and hootings of the dirty flatterers of that blackguard coachman.'
'What did you mean,' said I, 'by those words of yours, that the coachmen would speedily disappear from the roads?'
'I meant,' said he, 'that a new method of travelling is about to be established, which will supersede the old. I am a poor engraver, as my father was before me; but engraving is an intellectual trade, and by following it, I have been brought in contact with some of the cleverest men in England. It has even made me acquainted with the projector of the scheme, which he has told me many of the wisest heads of England have been dreaming of during a period of six hundred years, and which it seems was alluded to by a certain Brazen Head in the story-book of Friar Bacon, who is generally supposed to have been a wizard, but in reality was a great philosopher. Young man, in less than twenty years, by which time I shall be dead and gone, England will be surrounded with roads of metal, on which armies may travel with mighty velocity, and of which the walls of brass and iron by which the friar proposed to defend his native land are types.' He then, shaking me by the hand, proceeded on his way, whilst I returned to the inn.
--George Borrow (1803-81), The Romany Rye.
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