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Barrington by John Lang

 

A FEW years ago I made the acquaintance of a an elderly lady, whose husband, so far back as 1799, held an official position, both civil and military, in the colony of New South Wales. Many anecdotes she told me of celebrated characters who had, in the words of one of them, "left their country for their country's good." With most, if not with all, of these celebrities the old lady had come in contact personally.

"One morning," she began, "I was sitting in my drawing-room with my two little children, who are now middle-aged men with large families, when a gentleman was announced. I gave the order for his admission; and on his entering the door of the apartment, I rose from my chair, and greeted him with a bow, which he returned in the most graceful and courtly manner imaginable. His dress was that of a man of fashion, and his bearing that of a person who had moved in the highest circles of society. A vessel had arrived from England a few days previously with passengers, and I fancied that this gentleman was one of them. I asked him to be seated. He took a chair, opposite to me, and at once entered into conversation, making the first topic the extreme warmth of the day, and the second the healthful appearance of my charming children--as he was pleased to speak of them. Apart from a mother liking to hear her children praised, there was such a refinement in the stranger's manner, such a seeming sincerity in all he said, added to such a marvellous neatness of expression, that I could not help thinking he would form a very valuable acquisition to our list of acquaintances, provided he intended remaining in Sydney, instead of settling in the interior of the colony.

"I expressed my regret that the major (my husband) was from home; but I mentioned that I expected him at one o'clock, at which hour we took luncheon; and I further expressed a hope that our visitor would remain and partake of the meal. With a very pretty smile (which I afterwards discovered had more meaning in it than I was at the time aware of), he feared he could not have the pleasure of partaking of the hospitalities of my table, but, with my permission, he would wait till the appointed hour, which was then near at hand. Our conversation was resumed; and presently he asked my little ones to go to him. They obeyed at once, albeit they were rather shy children. This satisfied me that the stranger was a man of a kind and gentle disposition. He took the children, seated them on his knees, and began to tell them a fairy story (evidently of his own invention, and extemporized), to which they listened with profound attention. Indeed, I could not help being interested in the story, so fanciful were the ideas, and so poetical the language in which they were expressed.

"The story ended, the stranger replaced the children on the carpet, and approached the table on which stood, in a porcelain vase, a bouquet of flowers. These he admired, and began a discourse of floriculture. I listened with intense earnestness; so profound were all his observations. We were standing at the table for at least eight or ten minutes; my boys hanging on to the skirt of my dress, and every now and then compelling me to beg of them to be silent.

"One o'clock came, but not the major. I received, however, a note from him, written in pencil on a slip of paper. He would be detained at Government House until half-past two.

"Again I requested the fascinating stranger to partake of luncheon, which was now on table in the next room; and again, with the same winning smile, he declined. As he was about, as I thought, to depart, I extended my hand; but, to my astonishment, he stepped back, made a low bow, and declined taking it.

"For a gentleman to have his hand refused when he extends it to another is embarrassing enough. But for a lady! Who can possibly describe what were my feelings? Had he been the heir to the British throne, visiting that penal settlement in disguise (and from the stranger's manners and conversation he might have been that illustrious personage), he could scarcely have, under the circumstances, treated me in such an extraordinary manner. I scarcely knew what to think. Observing, as the stranger must have done, the blood rush to my cheeks, and being cognizant evidently of what was passing through my mind, he spoke as follows:--

"'Madam, I am afraid you will never forgive me the liberty I have taken already. But the truth is, the passion suddenly stole over me, and I could not resist the temptation of satisfying myself that the skill which made me so conspicuous in the mother-country still remained to me in this convict land.'

"I stared at him, but did not speak.

"'Madam,' he continued, 'the penalty of sitting at table with you, or taking the hand you paid me the compliment to proffer me--yourself in ignorance of the fact I am about to disclose--would have been the forfeiture of my ticket-of-leave, a hundred lashes, and employment on the roads in irons. As it is, I dread the major's wrath; but I cherish a hope that you will endeavour to appease it, if your advocacy be only a return for the brief amusement I afforded your beautiful children.'

"'You are a convict!' I said, indignantly, my hand on the bell-rope.

"'Madam,' he said, with an expression of countenance which moved me to pity, in spite of my indignation, 'hear me for one moment.'

"'A convicted felon, how dared you enter my drawing-room as a visitor?' I asked him, my anger again getting the better of all my other feelings.

"'The major, madam,' said the stranger, 'requested me to be at his house at the hour when I presented myself; and he bade me wait if he were from home when I called. The major wishes to know who was the person who received from me a diamond necklace which belonged to the Marchioness of Dorrington, and came into my possession at a state ball some four or five years ago--a state ball at which I had the honour of being present. Now, madam, when the orderly who opened the front door informed me that the major was not at home, but that you were, that indomitable impudence which so often carried me into the drawing-rooms of the aristocracy of our country, took possession of me; and, warmed as I was with generous wine--just sufficiently to give me courage--I determined to tread once more on a lady's carpet, and enter into conversation with her. That much I felt the major would forgive me; and, therefore, I requested the orderly to announce a gentleman. Indeed, madam, I shall make the forgiveness of the liberties I have taken in this room the condition of my giving that information which shall restore to the Marchioness of Dorrington the gem of which I deprived her--a gem which is still unpledged, and in the possession of one who will restore it on an application, accompanied by a letter in my handwriting.'

"Again I kept silence.

"'Madam!' he exclaimed, somewhat impassionedly, and rather proudly, 'I am no other man than Barrington, the illustrious pickpocket; and this is the hand which in its day has gently plucked, from ladies of rank and wealth, jewels which realized, in all, upwards of thirty-five thousand pounds, irrespective of those which were in my possession, under lock and key, when fortune turned her back upon me.'

"'Barrington, the pickpocket!' Having heard so much of this man and of his exploits (although, of course, I had never seen him), I could not help regarding him with curiosity; so much so, that I could scarcely be angry with him any longer.

"'Madam,' he continued, 'I have told you that I longed to satisfy myself whether that skill which rendered me so illustrious in Europe still remained to me, in this country, after five years of desuetude? I can conscientiously say that I am just as perfect in the art; that the touch is just as soft, and the nerve as steady as when I sat in the dress-circle at Drury Lane or Covent Garden.'

"'I do not comprehend you, Mr. Barrington,' I replied, (I could not help saying Mister.)

"'But you will, madam, in one moment. Where are your keys?'

"I felt my pocket, in which I fancied they were, and discovered that they were gone.

"'And your thimble and pencil-case, and your smelling-salts? They are here!' (He drew them from his coat-pocket.)

"My anger was again aroused. It was indeed, I thought, a frightful liberty for a convict to practise his skill upon me, and put his hand into the pocket of my dress. But, before I could request him to leave the room and the house, he spoke again; and, as soon as I heard his voice and looked in his face, I was mollified, and against my will, as it were, obliged to listen to him.

"'Ah, madam,' he sighed, 'such is the change that often comes over the affairs of men! There was a time when ladies boasted of having been robbed by Barrington. Many whom I had never robbed gave it out that I had done so, simply that they might be talked about. Alas! such is the weakness of poor human nature that some people care not by what means they associate their names with the name of any celebrity. I was in power then, not in bondage. 'Barrington has my diamond ear-rings!' Once exclaimed the old Countess of Kettlebank, clasping her bands. Her ladyship's statement was not true. Her diamonds were paste, and she knew it, and I caused them to be returned to her. Had you not a pair of very small pearl-drops in your ears this morning, madam?'

"I placed my bands to my ears, and discovered that the drops were gone. Again my anger returned, and I said, 'How dared you, sir, place your fingers on my face?'

"'Upon my sacred word and honour, madam,' he replied, placing his hand over his left, breast, and bowing. 'I did nothing of the kind! The ear is the most sensitive part of the human body to the touch of another person. Had I touched your ear my hope of having these drops in my waistcoat--pocket would have been gone. It was the springs only that I touched, and the drops fell into the palm of my left-hand.' He placed the ear-rings on the table, and made me another very low bow.

"'And when did you deprive me of them?' I asked him.

"'When I was discoursing on floriculture, you had occasion several times to incline your head towards your charming children, and gently reprove them for interrupting me. It was on one of those occasions that the deed was quickly done. The dear children were the unconscious confederates in my crime--if crime you still consider it--since I have told you, and I spoke the truth; that it was not for the sake of gain, but simply to satisfy a passionate curiosity. It was as delicate and as difficult an operation as any I ever performed in the whole course of my professional career.'

"There was a peculiar quaintness of humour and of action thrown into this speech; I could not refrain from laughing. But, to my great satisfaction, the illustrious pickpocket did not join in the laugh. He regarded me with a look of extreme humility, and maintained a respectful silence, which was shortly broken by a loud knocking at the outer door. It was the major, who, suddenly remembering his appointment with Barrington, had contrived to make his escape from Government House, in order to keep it. The major seemed rather surprised to find Barrington in my drawing-room; but he was in such a hurry, and so anxious, that he said nothing on the subject.

"I withdrew to the passage, whence I could overhear all that took place.

"'Now, look here, Barrington,' said my husband, impetuously, 'I will have no more nonsense. As for a free pardon, or even a conditional pardon, at present, it is out of the question. In getting you a ticket-of-leave, I have done all that I possibly can; and as I am a living man, I give you fair warning that if you do not keep faith with me, I will undo what I have already done. A free pardon! What! Let you loose upon the society of England again? The Colonial Secretary would scout the idea, and severely censure the Governor for recommending such a thing. You know, as well as I do, that if you returned to England to-morrow, and had an income of five thousand a-year, you would never be able to keep those fingers of yours quiet.'

"'Well, I think you are right, major,' said the illustrious personage.

"'Then you will write that letter at once?'

"'I will. But on one condition.'

"'Another condition?'

"'Yes.'

"'Well, what is that condition? You have so many conditions that I begin to think the necklace will not be forthcoming after all. And, if it be not, by--'

"'Do not excite yourself to anger, major. I give you my honour--'

"'Your honour! Nonsense! What I want is, the jewel restored to its owner.'

"'And it shall be, on condition that you will not be offended, grievously offended, with me for what I have done this day!'

"'What is that?'

"'Summon your good lady, and let her bear witness both for and against me.'

"My husband opened the drawing-room door, and called out, 'Bessie!'

"I As soon as I had made my appearance, Barrington stated the case all that had transpired--with minute accuracy; nay, more, he acted the entire scene in such a way that it became a little comedy in itself; the characters being himself, myself, and the children, all of which characters he represented with such humour that my husband and myself were several times in fits of laughter. Barrington, however, did not even smile. He affected to regard the little drama (and this made it the more amusing) as a very serious business.

"This play over, my husband again put to Barrington the question, 'Will you write that letter at once?'

"'Yes,' he replied, 'I will; for I see that I am forgiven the liberty I was tempted to take.' And seating himself at the table he wrote:

"'MR. Barrington presents his compliments to Mr.--, and requests that a sealed packet, marked DN. No. 27, be immediately delivered to the bearer of this note. In the event of this request not being complied with, Mr. Barrington will have an opportunity ere long of explaining to Mr.--, in Sydney, New South Wales, that he (Mr.--) has been guilty of an act of egregious folly.'

"Fourteen months passed away, when, one morning, my husband received a letter from a gentleman in the Colonial Office. He clapped his hands, cried 'Bravo!' and then read as follows:--

"'MY DEAR MAJOR,--The great pickpocket has been as good as his word. My lady is again in possession of her brilliants. Do whatever you can for Barrington in the Colony, but keep a sharp eye upon him, lest he should come back and once more get hold of that necklace.'

"My husband sent for Barrington to inform him of the result of his letter, and he took an opportunity of asking the illustrious man if there were any other valuables which he would like to restore to the original owners.

"'Thank you--no!' was the reply. 'There are, it is true, sundry little articles in safe custody at home; but, as it is impossible to say what may be in the future, they had better for the present stand in my own name.'"

End.

 
 
 
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