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The Seven Poor Travellers – 1854 – A Christmas tale – a collaboration
This appeared in the Christmas 1854 edition of Household Words and later in All the Year Round.
Strictly speaking their were six Poor Travellers, plus the Narrator made seven. They turn up at a quaint old door in Rocheter and it bore an inscription:
‘RICHARD WATTS, Esq by his Will, dated 22 Aug 1579,
founded this Charity for Six poor Travellers, who not being ROGUES, or PROCTORS, May receive gratis for one Night,
Lodging, Entertainment, and Fourpence each.’
The narrator had seen the Watts tomb at the cathedral with an effigy of Richard emerging from it like a ship’s figurehead.
He paused, he knew he was not a Proctor, but was he a Rogue? He concluded he was no rogue. He looked at the house, it was clean and white, despite its quaint old arched door, it had a venerable air. It fitted Rochester well.
He sees a matronly woman at an upstairs window. She let him in and showed him the firepalce that travellers cooked their suppers from the bits they bought with their fourpence.
He asks about the promised ‘Entertainment’, the matron says they have the fire and cooking utensils. She explains what travellers often bought, and said occasionally they would put their fourpences together to organise their supper.
He said ‘It is very comfortable’, she said ‘Ill-convenient’. He took this as as good sign, That she would not cut corners. He however protested her description, saying it appeared fine. She said ill-convenient for her and her daughter, because there was no other room for them in the evenings.
He spied a similar room across the entrance, but is told this was the Board Room where meetings were held by the gentlemen. He assumed the travellers slept upstairs but she explained they slept in two little outer galleries at the back.
Inspecting these galleries, the matron explained that they were always taken up, all year round. He wondered if he might meet the Travellers and she replied ‘No’. ‘Nobody ever asked to see them, and nobody ever did see them’.
He insisted he would like to treat the Travellers to supper and a hot Wassail, because it was Christmas Eve. Eventually it was agreed that at nine o’clock he would put turkey and roast beef by the fire and host a party.
He went back to his inn and spent the day preparing for the evening. It was a cold day with gusts of sleet. He spent the day imagining the Travellers, hethought they were weary, footsore, using bent sticks… He heard the clock strike each hour as he waited.
At eight o’clock he could smell the turkey and roast beef being prepared. He began meticulously to prepare the Wassail. At nine he set out for the Watt’s Charity with his supper.
The Travellers were assembled, the cloth was laid. They placed the food and drink by the fire and he went around shaking the hands of the Travellers.
One of them had the smell of wood about him, the host assumed him to be in shipbuilding, he wore a sling. There was a young boy with lots of brown hair in a sailor boy’s outfit. Another was shabby-genteel with a a suspicious look, with buttons missing from his waistcoat and tattered papers sticking out of an inner breast-pocket. The next traveller was a foreigner, a watchmaker from Geneva who wore his pipe in a hatband, he was a journeyman travelling the continent on foot. The next was a little widow, she had been pretty, but her beauty had been wrecked by misfortune, she was rather timid, The last was a book-pedler, who boasted that he could repeat more verses in an evening than he could sell in a twelve month.
The supper went well, then his ‘brown beauty’, the Wassail, was heated and served. They toasted Richard Watts, and the host saw it was time for Story-telling, The host started his tale:
It was 1799 and a relative of his sat in this very room, sleeping in a bed that one of the travellers would use that night.
He had come to enlist in a cavalry regiment, his object was to be shot, and he chose cavalry so he could ride rather than walk. His name was Richard Doubledick, he was called Dick, he was twenty-two, five foot ten, from Exmouth.
On arrival he found no cavalry in the area, so he enlisted in a regiment of the line. He had been betrothed to Mary Marshall, but she had sworn to ‘never address another word to you on earth as Maryt Marshall’. This had driven him into the Army, to be shot.
There was not a more dissipated and reckless soldier in Chatham barracks than Private Richard Doubledick. He mixed with the dregs of the regiment and was seldom sober,
The Captain of Dick’s company, Capt Taunton, was just five years older and was known for his laughing eyes, but when he looked at Dick, he found that he was ashamed.
When Dick emerged from forty-eight hours in Black hole, a place he habituated, he was told to report to the Captain. The Captain said he was a man of education and he was bothered to see him waste himself. Dick said he was a common soldier, a brute that signified nothing, and that he hoped to be shot soon.
Dick finally met the Captain’s gaze and those eyes made him remorseful. The Captain assessed that he was at a cross roads of his fate. Even a brute could do his duty and win the respect of others. Dick swore he would follow the Captain’s request, the Captain said he wouldwitness of this change of heart.
That year Napoleon had taken the French to Egypt, Italy and Germany. England formed an alliance with Austria. Capt Taunton was posted to India, with his finest non-commisiioned officer being Corporal Richard Doubledick.
In 1802 a brief peace saw them return home. Wherever Capt Taunton led, close to him, ever at his side, firm as a rock, true as the sun, and brave as Mars, was Sergeant Richard Doubledick.
1805 was the year of Trafalgar, and of hard fighting in India. Doubledick fought savagely to recover the regiment’s colours and rescue his wounded Captain. Sergeant-Major Richard Doubledick became the bearer of the colours.
Ensign Doubledick was risen from the ranks. He inspirationally led his regiment through the Penninsular War. Major Taunton and Ensign Doubledick became known for their valour side by side.
One day at Badajos they were in a minor skirmish with the French. Inspired by an officer the French made a stand and fired a volley that hit Taunton. Dick raised Taunton’s head saying ‘For the love of Heaven, no! Taunton! My preserver, my guardian angel, my witness! Dearest, truest, kindest of human beings! Taunton! For God’s sake!’ The Major replied ‘Write to my mother. You will see Home again. Tell her how we became friends. It will comfort her, as it comforts me.’
Taunton died, Dick buried his friend, He had taken a packet of the Major’s hair for his mother. He swore to find the French Captain and revenge Taunton.
The war proceeded. At the Battle of Toulouse, Lieutenant Richard Doubledick was reported as ‘Severely wounded, but not dangerously’. In 1814, at the age of thirty-seven he was returned to England and invalided.
He went to Frome, where Taunton’s mother lived. He told her that her son, ‘Saved me from ruin, made me a human creature, won me from infamy and shame. O, God for ever bless him!’ He found himself telling her his life story.
He rejoined his regiment in the Spring. They fought through Qautre Bras and Ligny. In June they arrived at Waterloo. His regiment saw early action and Doubledick fell. He was taken to Brussels where he lay unconscious for week after week, unaware of the victory and the peace.
He gradually became aware of the medical staff, he thought he saw Mary Marshall, the dearest and kindest among them.
It was so tranquil that he thought he had passed into another world. He called out to Taunton, but saw instead Taunton’s mother who had come to nurse him. She told him of the great victory, he had no memory of the period of unconsciousness.
As he recovered Mary came to see him. She explained she had not broken her vow, because she had a new name. She had married a man she had loved with her whole heart. The mother of the dear mother of his friend had come to her and said he was lying dying in Brussels. She came to tend him. When he was at the point of death she had married him. Richard suddenly recalled parts of this.
They were happy, though the recovery took a long time. When they were first able to ride out, people flocked to the open carriage and cheered Captain Roichard Doubledick home.
They did not return to England, instead settling in Avignon, within the view of its broken bridge. After three years they returned to England. But Mrs Taunton then went to live In Aix, where she created a friendship with a young French girl. She wrote regularly and then, from the head of the chateau, she passed on an invitation for Captain Doubledick to visit.
Richard traveled through peacetime France marvelling at the changes. Richard arrived and found the large chateau doors open with no sign of a bell or a knocker, so he walked in.
He looked up and was starled to see the French officer he sought. He came down and greeted him, clearly he had no memory of Dick, He took him to the garden to meet with his charming wife, and Mrs Taunton was there. Children ran about and it was such a scene of innocent happiness.
The French officer showed him to his room, and asked ‘You were at Waterloo’, Dick replied, ‘I was. And at Badajos,’ How could he tell him? He knew of many duels that had resulted from such a meeting.
Mrs Taunton told him she hoped he would form a friendship with their host. How should he tell Taunton’s mother?
He called out the spirit of Taunton, asking if it was he who arranged this meeting, who had his mother present to stay his hand? Did Taunton want him to consider that the Frenchman too had merely done his duty?
He made the second great declaration of his life, he resolved not to tell anyone, and forgave the Frenchman.
That was the end of his tale as the first poor traveller, but he could have added that the sons of both men became firm friends and even fought side by side in common cause.
With that the Wassail was finished and the party broke up. He spent a restless night.
In the morning he went back to Watt’s to see the travellers move off in their various directions.
They were neither Rogues nor Proctors.
Doubledick, Richard ‘Dick’
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