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Wilson's Border Tales
Squire Ben


Before introducing my readers to the narrative of Squire Ben, it may be proper to inform them who Squire Ben was. In the year 1816, when the piping times of peace had begun, and our heroes, like Othello found "Their occupation gone," a thickset, bluff, burly-headed little man—whose every word and look reminded you of Incledon’s "Cease, rude Boreas," and bespoke him to be one of those who had "sailed with noble Jervis," or,

"In gallant Duncan’s fleet,
Had sang out, yo heave ho!"—

purchased a small estate in Northumberland, a few miles from the banks of the Coquet. He might be fifty years of age; but his weather-beaten countenance gave him the appearance of a man of sixty. Around the collar of a Newfoundland dog, which followed him more faithfully than his shadow, were engraved the words, "Captain Benjamin Cookson;" but, after he had purchased the estate to which I have alluded, his poorer neighbours called him Squire Ben. He was a strange mixture of enthusiasm, shrewdness, courage, comicality, generosity, and humanity. Ben, on becoming a country gentleman, became a keen fisher; and, as it is said, "A fellow feeling makes one wondrous kind," I also being fond of the sport, became a mighty favourite with the bluff-faced Squire. It was on a fine bracing day in March, after a tolerable day’s fishing, we went to dine and spend the afternoon in the Angler’s Inn, which stands at the north end of the bridge over the Coquet, at the foot of the hill leading up to Longframlington. Observing that Ben was in good sailing trim, I dropped a hint that an account of his voyages and cruises on the ocean of life would be interesting.

"Ah, my boy," said Ben, "you are there with your soundings, are you?—Well, you shall have a long story by the shortest tack. Somebody was my father," continued he, "but whom I know not. This much I know about my mother: she was cook in a gentleman’s family in this county; and being a fat portly body—something of the build of her son, I take it—no one suspected that she was in a certain delicate situation, until within a few days before I was born. Then, with very grief and shame, the poor thing became delirious; and, as an old servant of the family has since told me, you could see the very flesh melting off her bones. While she continued in a state of delirium, your humble servant, poor Benjamin, was born; and without recovering her senses, she died within an hour after my birth, leaving me—a beautiful orphan as you see me now—a legacy to the workhouse and the world. Benjamin was my mother’s family name—from which I suppose they had something of the Jew in their blood; though, Heaven knows, I have none in my composition. So they who had the christening of me gave me my mother’s name of Benjamin, as my Christian name; and, from her occupation as cook, they surnamed me Cookson—that is ‘Benjamin the Cook’s son,’ simply Benjamin Cookson, more simply, Squire Ben. Well, you see, my boy, I was born beneath the roof of an English squire, and, before I was three hours old, was handed over to the workhouse. This was the beginning of my life. The first thing I remember was hating the workhouse—the second was loving the sea. Yes, sir, before I was seven years old, I used to steal away in the noble company of my own good self and sit down upon a rock on the solitary beach, watching the ships, the waves, and the sea-birds-—wishing to be a wave, a ship, or a bird—ay, sir, wishing to be anything but poor orphan Ben. The sea was to me what my parents should have been—a thing I delighted to look upon. I loved the very music of its maddest storms; though, quietly, I have since had enough of them. I began my career before I was ten years of age, as cabin-boy in a collier. My skipper was a dare-devil, tear-away sort of fellow, who cared no more for running down one of your coasting craft, than for turning a quid in his mouth. But he was a good, honest, kind-hearted sort of chap for all that—barring that the rope’s end was too often in his hand. ‘Ben,’ says he to me one misty day, when we were taking coals across the herring pond to the Dutchmen, and the man at the helm could not see half-way to the mast head—‘Ben, my little fellow, can you cipher?‘ ‘ Yes, sir,’ says I. ‘The deuce you can!’ says he; ‘then you’re just the lad for me. And do you understand logarithims?’ ‘No sir,’ says I; ‘what sort of wood be they?’ ‘Wood be hanged! you blockhead!’ said he, raising his foot in a passion, but a smile on the corners of his mouth shoved it to the deck again, before it reached me. ‘But come, Ben, you can cipher, you say; well, I know all about the radius and tangents, and them sort of things, and stating the question; but blow me if I have a multiplication table on board—my fingers are of no use at a long number, and I am always getting out of it counting by chalks;—so come below, Ben, and look over the question, and let us find where we are. I know I have made a mistake someway; and mark ye, Ben, if ye don’t find it out--ye that can cipher—there’s a rope’s-end to your supper, and that’s all.’ Hows’ever, sir, I did find it out, and I was regarded as a prodigy in the ship ever after. The year before I was out of my apprenticeship, our vessel was laid up for four months, and our skipper sent me to school during the time, at his own expense, saying—‘Get navigation, Ben, my boy, and you will one day be a commodore—by Jupiter, you’ll be an honour to the navy.’ I got as far as ‘Dead Reckoning,’ and there I reckon I made a dead stand, or rather, I ceased to do anything but study ‘Lunar Observations.’ Our owner had a daughter, my own age to a day. I can’t describe her, sir; I haven’t enough of what I suppose you would call poetry about me for that, but upon the word of a sailor, her hair was like night rendered transparent—black, jet black; her neck white as the spray on the bosom of a billow; her face was lovelier than a rainbow; and her figure handsome as a frigate in full sail. But she had twenty thousand-pounds—she was no bargain for orphan Ben! However, I saw her, and that was enough—learning and I shook hands. Her father had a small yacht— he proposed taking a pleasure party to the Coquet Isle. Jess—for that was her name—was one of the passengers, and the management of the yacht was entrusted to me. In spite of myself, I gazed on her by the hour—I was intoxicated with passion—my heart swelled as if it would burst from my bosom. I saw a titled puppy touch her fingers—I heard him prattle love in her ears. My first impulse was to dash him overboard. I wished the sea which I loved might rise and swallow us. I thought it would be happiness to die in her company—perhaps to sink with her arm clinging round my neck for protection. The wish of my madness was verified. We were returning. We were five miles from the shore. A squall, then a hurricane, came on—every sail was reefed—the mast was snapped as I would snap that pipe between my fingers;’—(here the old Squire, suiting the action to the word, broke the end of his pipe;)—‘the sea rose—the hurricane increased, the yacht capsized, as a feather twirls in the wind. Every soul that had been on board was now struggling for life—buffeting the billows. At that moment I had but one thought, and that was of Jess; but one wish, and that was to die with her. I saw my fellow-creatures in their death agonies, but I looked only for her. At the moment we were upset, she was clinging to the arm of the titled puppy for protection; and now I saw her within five yards of me still clinging to the skirts of his coat, calling on him and on her father to save her; and I saw him— yes, sir, I saw the monster, while struggling with one hand, raise the other to strike her on the face, that he might extricate himself from her grasp. ‘Brute! monster!’ I exclaimed; and the next moment I had fixed my clenched hands in the hair of his head. Then, with one hand, I grasped the arm of her I loved; and, with the other, uttering a fiendish yell, I endeavoured to hurl the coward to the bottom of the sea. The yacht still lay bottom up, but was now a hundred yards from us; however, getting my arm round the waist of my adored Jess—I laughed at the sea—I defied the hurricane. We reached the yacht. Her keel was not three feet out of the water; and, with my right hand, I managed to obtain a hold of it. I saw two of the crew and six of the passengers perish; but her father, and the coward who had struck her from him, still struggled with the waves. They were borne far from us. Within half an hour I saw a vessel pick them up. It tried to reach us, but could not. Two hours more had passed, and night was coming on—my strength gave way—my hold loosened—I made one more desperate effort, I fixed my teeth in the keel—but the burlen under my left arm was still sacred—I felt her breath upon my cheek—it inspired me with a lion’s strength, and for another hour I clung to the keel. Then the fury of the storm slackened;—a boat from the vessel that had picked up her father, reached us--we were taken on board. She was senseless, but still breathed—my arm seemed glued round her waist. I was almost unconscious of everything, but an attempt to take her from me. My teeth gnashed when they touched my hand to do so. As we approached the vessel, those on board hailed us with three cheers. We were lifted on deck. She was conveyed to the cabin. In a few minutes I became fully conscious of our situation. Some one gave me a brandy—my brain became on fire. ‘Where is she?’ I exclaimed—‘did I not save her?—save her from the coward who would have murdered her? I rushed to the cabin—she was recovering—her father stood over her—I bent over her—I pressed my lips to hers—I called her mine. Her father grasped me by the collar—‘Boy, beggar, bastard!’ he exclaimed. With his last word half of my frenzy vanished—for a moment I seized him by the throat—I cried, ‘Repeat the word!’—I groaned in the agony of shame and madness. I rushed upon the deck—we were then within a quarter of a mile from the shore—I plunged overboard—I swam to the beach—I reached it."

I became interested in the narrative of the Squire, and I begged he would continue it with less rapidity. "Rapidity!" said he, fixing upon me a glance in which I thought there was something like disdain—"youngster, if you cast a feather into the stream it will be borne on with it. But," added he, in a less hurried tone, after pausing to breathe for a few moments—"after struggling with the strong surge for a good half hour, I reached the shore. My utmost strength was spent, and I was scarcely able to drag myself a dozen yards beyond tide-mark, when I sank exhausted on the beach. I lay, as though in sleep, until night had gathered round me; and when I arose, cold and benumbed, my deliriuin had passed away. My bosom, however, like a galley manned with criminals, was still the prison-house of agonising feelings, each more unruly than another. Every scene in which I had borne a part during the day, rushed before me in a moment—her image—the image of my Jess, mingled with each; I hated existence—I almost despised myself; but tears started from my eyes—the suffocation in my breast passed away, and I again breathed freely. I will not trouble you with details. I will pass over the next five years of my life, during which I was man-of-war’s man, privateer, and smuggler. But I will tell you how I became a smuggler, for that calling I only followed for a week, and that was from necessity; but, as you shall hear, it well nigh cost me my life. Britain had just launched into war with France, and I was first mate of a small privateer, carrying two guns and a long Tom. We were trying our fortune within six leagues of the Dutch coast, when two French merchantmen hove in sight. They were too heavy metal for us, and we saw that it would be necessary to deal with them warily. So hoisting the republican flag, we bore down upon them; but the Frenchmen were not to be had; and no sooner had we come within gunshot, than one of them saluted our little craft with a broadside that made her dance in the water. It was evident there was no chance for us but at close quarters. ‘Cookson,’ says our commander to me, ‘what’s to be done, my lad?’ ‘Leave the privateer,’ says I. ‘What!’ says he, ‘take the long boat and run, without singing a Frenchman’s whisker!—no, blow me,’ says he. ‘No, sir,’ says I, ‘board them—give them a touch of the cold steel.’ ‘Right, Ben, my boy,’ says he; ‘helm about there—look to your cutlasses, my hearties—and now for the Frenchman’s deck, and French wine to supper. The next moment we had tacked about, and where under the Frenchman’s bow. In turning round, long Tom had been discharged, and clipped the rigging of the other vessel beautifully. The commander, myself, and a dozen more sprang upon the enemy’s deck, cutlass in hand. Our reception was as warm as powder and steel could make it--the Frenchmen fought like devils, and disputed with us every inch of the deck hand to hand. But, d’ye see, we beat them aft, though their numbers were two to one; yet, as bad luck would have it, out of the twelve of us who had boarded her, only seven were now able to handle a cutlass; and amongst those who lay dying on the enemy’s deck, was our gallant commander. He was a noble fellow, sir—a regular fire-eater, even in death. Bleeding, dying as he was, he endeavoured to drag his body along the deck to assist us--and when finding it would not do, and he could move no further, he drew a pistol from his belt, and raising himself on one hand, he discharged it at the head of the French captain with the other—and shouting out—‘Go it, my hearties!— Ben! never yield!’ his head fell upon the deck—and ‘he died like a true British sailor.’ But, sir, the other vessel that had been crippled, at that moment made alongside. Her crew also boarded to assist their countrymen, and we were attacked fore and aft. There was nothing now left for us but to cut our way to the privateer, which had been brought round to the other side of the vessel we had boarded. She had been left to the care of the second mate and six seamen; but the traitor, seeing our commander fall and the hopelessness of our success, cut the lashings, and bore off, leaving us to our fate on the deck of the enemy. Our number was now reduced to five, and we were hemmed in on all sides, but we fought like tigers bereaved of their cubs. We placed ourselves heel to heel, we formed a lit circle of death. I know not whether it was admiration of our courage, or the cowardice of the enemy, that induced them to proclaim a truce, and to offer us a boat, oars, and provisions, and to depart with our arms. We agreed to the proposal, after fighting an hour upon their deck. And here begins my short, but eventful history as a smuggler. We had been six hours at sea in the open boat, when we were picked up by a smuggling lugger named the Wildfire. Her captain was an Englishman, and her cargo, which consisted principally of brandy and Hollands, was to be delivered at Spittal and Boomer. It was about daybreak on the third morning after we had been picked up; we were again within sight of the Coquet Isle. I had not seen it for five years. It called up a thousand recollections—I became entranced in the past. My Jess seemed again clinging to my neck—I again thought I felt her breath upon my cheek—and again involuntarily I exclaimed aloud, ‘She sha11 be mine.’ But I was aroused from my reverie by a cry—‘A cruiser— cutter a-head!’ In a moment the deck of the lugger became a scene of consternation. The cutter was making upon us rapidly; and though the Wildfire sailed nobly, her pursuer skimmed over the sea like a swallow. The skipper of the lugger seemed to become insane as the danger increased. He ordered every gun to be loaded, and a six-oared gig to be got in readiness. The cutter fired on us, the Wildfire returned the salute, and three of the cutter’s men fell. A few more shots were exchanged, and the lugger was disabled; her skipper and the Englishmen of his crew took the gig and made for the shore. In a few minutes more we were boarded by the commander of the cutter, and a part of her crew. I knew the commander’s face; his countenance—his name—were engraved as with a sharp instrument on my heart. His name was Melton—the honourable Lieutenant Melton—my enemy—the man I hated—the titled puppy of whom I spoke—my rival for the hand of my Jess. He approached me—he know me as I did him—we lost no love between us—I heard his teeth grate as he fixed his eyes on me, and mine echoed to the sound.

‘Slave!—scoundrel! were his first words—‘we have met again at last, and your life shall pay the forfeit--place him in irons.’—‘Coward!’ I hurled in his teeth a second time and my hand grasped my cutlass, which in a moment flashed in the air. His armed crew sprang between us--I defied them all—he grew bold under their protection. ‘Strike him down!’ he exclaimed, and, springing forward, his sword entered my side--but scarce was it withdrawn ere his blood streamed from the point of my cutlass to my hand. Suffice it to say, I was overpowered and disarmed—I was taken on board his cutter and put in irons. And now, sir," continue the Squire, raising his voice, for the subject seemed to wound him, "know that you are in the company of a man who has been condemned to die—yes, sir, to die like a common murderer on the gallows! You start—but it is true; and if you like not the company of a man for whom the hangman once provided a neckerchief, I will drop my story." I requested him to proceed. "Well, sir," continued he, "I was lodged in prison. I was accused of being a smuggler--of having drawn my sword against one of his Majesty officers—of having wounded him. On the testimony of my enemy and his crew, I was tried and condemned—condemned to die without hope of pardon. I had but a day to live, when a lady entered my miserable cell. She came to comfort the criminal, to administer consolation in his last hour. I was in no mood to listen to the admonitions of the female Samaritan, and I was about to bid her depart from me. Her face was veiled, and in the dim twilight of the dungeon I saw it not. But she spoke, and her voice went through my soul like the remembrance of a national air which we have sung in childhood, and hear in a foreign land. ‘Lady!’ I exclaimed, ‘what fiend hath sent thee? Come ye to ask me to forgive my murderer?—if you command it I will.’ ‘I would ask you to forgive your enemies,’ replied she, mildly; ‘but not for my sake.’ ‘Yet it can only be for your sake,’ said I; ‘but tell me, lady, are you the wife ot the man who has pursued me to death?’ ‘No—not his wife.’ ‘But you will be?’ cried I, hastily; ‘and you love him—tell me, do you not love him?’ She sighed—she burst into tears. ‘Unhappy man,’ she returned, ‘what know you of me that you torment me with questions that torture me?’ I thrust forth my fettered hand—I grasped hers—’ ‘Tell me, lady,’ I exclaimed, ‘before my soul can receive the words of repentance which you come to preach—tell me—do you love him?’—‘No!’ she pronounced emphatically, and her whole frame shook. ‘Thank God!’ I cried, and clasped my fettered hands together. ‘Forgive me, lady, forgive me! Do you know me—I am Ben—orphan Ben—the boy who saved you!’—She screamed aloud—she fell upon my bosom, and my chained arm once more circled the neck of my Jess.

"Yes, sir, it was my own Jess, who, without being conscious who I was, had come to visit the doomed one in his miserable cell, to prepare him for death, by pointing out the necessity of repentance and the way to heaven. I need not tell you that the moment my name was told, she forgot her mission: and as, with my fettered arms, I held her to my breast, and felt her burning tears drop upon my cheek, I forgot imprisonment, I forgot death—my very dungeon became a heaven that I would not have exchanged for a throne—for, oh! as her tears fell, and her heaving bosom throbbed upon my heart, each throb told me that Jess loved the persecuted orphan—the boy who saved her. I cannot tell you what a trance is; but, as I clung round her neck, and her arms encircled mine, I felt as if my very soul would have burst from my body in ecstacy. She was soon convinced that I was no criminal—that I had been guilty of no actual crime—that I was innocent and doomed to die. ‘No! no you shall not die! sobbed my heroic girl—‘hope! hope! hope!—the man who saved me shall not die!’ She hurried to the door of my cell—it was opened by the keeper, and she left me, exclaiming, ‘Hope!—hope!’ On that day his then Majesty, George III., was to prorogue Parliament in person. He was returning from the House of Lords; crowds were following the royal procession, and thousands of spectators line Parliament Street, some shewing their loyalty by shouts and the waving of hats and of handkerchiefs, and others manifesting their discontent in sullen silence, or half-suppressed murmurs. In the midst of the multitude, and opposite Whitehall, stood a private carriage, the door of which was open, and out of it, as the royal retinue approached, issued a female, and, with a paper in her hand, knelt before the window of his Majesty’s carriage, clasping her hands together as she knelt, and crying—‘Look upon me, sire—!’ ‘Stop!—stop!’ said the King—‘coachman, stop!—what—a lady kneeling, eh—eh? A young lady, too!—poor thing—poor thing—give me the paper.’ His Majesty glanced at it—he desired her to follow him to St. James’s. I need not dwell upon particulars; that very night my Jess returned to my prison with my pardon in her hand, and I left its gloomy walls with her arm locked in mine. And now you may think that I was the happiest dog alive—that I had nothing more to do but to ask and obtain the hand of my Jess—but you are wrong; and I will go over the rest of my life as briefly as I can. No sooner did her father become acquainted with what she had done, than he threatened to disinherit her—and he removed her I knew not where. I became first desperate, then gloomy, and eventually sank into lassitude.—Even the sea which I had loved from my first thought, lost its charms for me. I fancied that money only stood between me and happiness—and I saw no prospect of making the sum I thought necessary at sea. While in the privateer service, I had saved about two hundred pounds in prize money. With this sum as a foundation, I determined to try my fortune on shore. I embarked in many schemes; in some I was partially successful—but I persevered in none. It was the curse of my life that I had no settled plan—I wanted method; and let me tell you, sir, that the want of a systematic plan, the want of method, has ruined many a wise man. It was my ruin. From this cause, though I neither drank nor gamed, nor seemed more foolish than my neighbours, my money wasted like a snowball in the sun. Though I say it myself, I was not an ignorant man—for, considering my opportunities, I had read much, and I had as much worldly wisdom as most of people. In short, I was an excellent framer of plans at night; but I wanted decision and activity to put them into execution in the morning. I had also a dash of false pride and generosity in my composition, and did actions without considering the consequences, by which I was continually bringing myself into difficulties. This system, or rather this want of system, quickly stripped me of my last shilling, and left me the world’s debtor into the bargain. Then, sir, I gnashed my teeth together—I clenched my fist—I could have cut the throat of my own conscience, had it been a thing of flesh and blood, for spitting my thoughtlessness and folly in my teeth. I took no oath—but I resolved, firmly, resolutely, deeply resolved, to be wise for the future; and, let me tell you, my good fellow, such a resolution is worth twenty hasty oaths. I sold my watch, the only piece of property worth twenty shillings that I had left, and with the money it produced in my pocket, I set out for Liverpool. That town or city, or whatever you have a mind to call it, was not then what it is now. I was strolling along by the Duke’s little Dock, and saw a schooner of about a hundred and sixty tons burden. Her masts lay well back, and I observed her decks were double laid. I saw her character in a moment. I went on board—I inquired of the commander if he would ship a hand. He gave me a knowing look, and inquired if ever I had been in the trade before. I mentioned my name and the ship in which I had last served. ‘The deuce you are!’ he said; ‘what! you Cookson!—ship you, ay, and a hundred like you, if I could get them.’ I need hardly tell you the vessel was a privateer. Within three days the schooner left the Mersey, and I had the good fortune to be shipped as mate. For two years we boxed about the Mediterranean, and I had cleared, as my share of prize-money, nearly a thousand pounds. At that period, our skipper thinking he had made enough, resigned the command in favour of me. My first cruise was so successful that I was enabled to purchase a privateer of my own, which I named the Jess. For, d’ye see, her idea was like a never-waning moonlight in my brain—her emphatic words, ‘Hope!—hope!—hope!’ whispered eternally in my breast--and I did hope. Sleeping or waking, on sea or on shore, a day never passed but the image of my Jess arose on my sight, smiling and saying—‘Hope!’ In four years more, I had cleared ten thousand pounds, and I sold the schooner for another thousand. I now thought myself a match for Jess, and resolved to go to the old man—her father, I mean—and offer to take her without a shilling. Well, I had sold my craft at Plymouth, and, before proceeding to the north, was stopping a few days in a small town in the south-west of England, to breathe the land air—for my face, you see, had become a little rough, by constant exposure to the weather. Well, sir, the windows of my lodging faced the jail, and for three days I observed the handsomest figure that ever graced a woman, enter the priron at meal-times. It was the very figure—the very gait of my Jess—only her appearance was not genteel enough. But I had never seen her face. On the fourth day I got a glimpse of it. Powers of earth! it was her!—it was my Jess! I rushed down stairs like a madman—I flew to the prison-door and knocked. The jailor opened it. I eagerly inquired who the young lady was that had just entered. He abruptly replied—‘The daughter of a debtor.’ ‘For heaven’s sake,’ I returned, ‘let me speak with them.’ He refused. I pushed a guinea into his hand, and he led me to the debtor’s room. And there, sir—there stood my Jess—my saviour—my angel—there she stood, administering to the wants of her grey-haired father. I won’t, because I can’t, describe to you the tragedy scene that ensued. The old man had lost all that he possessed in the world; his thousands had taken wings and flown away, and he was now pining in jail for fifty; and his daughter, my noble Jess, supported him by the labours of her needle. I paid the debt before I left the prison, and out I came, with Jess upon one arm, and the old man on the other. We were married within the month. I went to sea again; but I will pass over that; and when the peace was made, we came down here to Northumberland, and purchased a bit of ground and a snug cabin, about five miles from this, and there six little Cooksons are romping about, and calling my Jess their mother, and none of them orphans, like their father, thank Heaven! And now, sire, you have heard the narrative of Squire Ben, what do you think of it?"


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