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Captain Ketchcalfe by John Lang

 

"ONE of those wedding-rings--one of those on the card," began Mr. Prawnby of Shrimpington, "belonged to a very pretty young girl whose name was Mary Warland. She was only seventeen when she married. I sold her that ring and she paid me for it with her own hand. I little dreamt then what terrible evidence it would one day give in a court of justice! Unfortunately for Mary Warland, she married a worthless fellow. He spent the whole of her savings and his own (he had been a butler in a gentleman's family), and then deserted her. She heard nothing of him for some years, when one morning she received a letter in his own handwriting, and dated Sydney, October 1, 18--. It ran thus:--

'DEAR MARY,--I am alive and doing well. I am a free man, and am earning £2. 10s. a-week as head-waiter at the Rose Inn, Castlereagh Street. Forgive me for the past, and come to me. We will yet be happy. I send you £20, which will enable you to get a steerage passage.

Your penitent husband.

JOSEPH MAXTED.'

"Now, sir," continued the old man, "many people in Shrimpington advised her to keep the money, and stay where she was. But no. She forgave him, and obeyed his command. She sailed for Sydney, and, after a boisterous passage of six months, arrived in the colony. But she did not see her husband. A few weeks before her arrival he met with a severe accident, and died in consequence of the injuries he received. Being a very hard--working woman, and carrying, as she did, an honest character in her face, Mary had no difficulty in earning a living. She used to go out washing and ironing for half-a-crown a day, and lived in a little cottage at the back of the barrack square. After a while she became known to the inhabitants of Sydney as 'Peggy the washerwoman.' And she was much respected, as she ought to have been. But we must now lose sight of Peggy for a time, and change the scene, sir.

"One of the oldest and most influential families in this county was cursed with a bad boy--a very bad boy. He was a thief. He was cruel--he was malevolent, and criminally mischievous. If he entered a poor man's orchard stealthily, to rob an apple or pear-tree, and found no fruit thereon, he would take out his knife, sit down, and bark the tree to the bone, near the root, and thus kill it--for the sap could not ascend. To save him from the clutches of the law, his father, Sir Eldred Ketchealfe, had to pay large sums of money annually to persons who would otherwise have prosecuted him. His name was George--George Ketchcalfe. At thirteen years of age he was sent into the Royal Navy, as a volunteer of the first-class (his uncle was a Lord of the Admiralty). After passing his examination as a midshipman, he was soon gazetted as a lieutenant, and appointed to a line-of-battle ship. He was then only nineteen years of age. Interest, no doubt, did a great deal for him; but it would have been unjust to dispute his merit as a sailor and an officer. A smarter and more daring man never walked a quarter-deck. At the age of twenty-three he was appointed to command an eighteen-gun brig--one of the prettiest and fastest vessels in the Royal service. This was in the year 1820. The brig which he commanded was ordered to proceed to Staten Island. The master of the brig, Mr. John Treadwell, was not only a very skilful navigator, but a very scientific man; and he was specially required by the Admimalty to report concerning 'the swinging of the pendulum' (a very important question in those days), and to his care were intrusted several chronometers (for the purpose of testing their accuracy and value), besides those which were required for the working of the ship.

"The 'Hecuba'--such was the name of the eighteen-gun brig--did not reach Staten Island. When she had been only three weeks at sea, Captain Ketchcalfe discovered that there was mutiny on board--mutiny fostered by his first lieutenant--and one morning he suddenly gave the order to 'put the helm up and square the yards;' and returned to the Downs, where the 'Hecuba's' anchor was 'let go.'

"There was an investigation touching the mutiny; but it only ended in a recommendation that the 'Hecuba' should be put out of commission and paid off. This was done accordingly.

"In all there were seven chronometers on board the 'Hecuba,' in Mr. Treadwell's custody; but on the day on which he was required to re-deliver them, only six could be found. One had been abstracted from his cabin. The old man, who was only worth his scanty pay, and who had a wife and three daughters to support, was unable to make the loss good; and insomuch as Captain Ketchcalfe had, when written to on the subject, falsely represented the old master as 'a drunken fellow, on whom no dependence could be placed,' Mr. Treadwell was dismissed the service. Numberless were the petitions addressed to the Lords of the Admiralty by the old man, setting forth the hardness of his case and his extreme poverty. Voluminous the certificates signed by the various captains with whom he had sailed during the past thirty years, each and every certificate bearing testimony to the honesty, sobriety, zeal, &c., of John Treadwell, late master, R.N. But they were of no avail; and after a while the receipt, even, of a petition from John Treadwell was not acknowledged. Nevertheless, buoyed up by hope, the old man went on petitioning and forwarding certificates; for whenever he chanced to meet an officer with whom he had sailed, the old man begged his evidence in writing as to character.

"Six months after the 'Hecuba' was paid off, Captain Ketchcalfe was appointed to a sloop of war, and took her to the Mediterranean, where he remained for more than two years, and then came home 'sick,' in the hope of getting a larger vessel; a hope which was on the very eve of being fulfilled, when an accident ordained it otherwise.

"Poor old John Treadwell, in almost soleless shoes, and rusty threadbare coat, was one morning walking down Holborn Hill thinking of his grievances, when he stopped opposite the window of a pawnbroker's shop, and began abstractedly to look at the various articles exposed to view. Suddenly his eye lighted on a chronometer, which he fancied he recognized as the one that had brought him into so much trouble--which, in fact, had ruined him. To make sure, he entered the shop.

"'Is that chronometer for sale?' said the old man.

"'It is, sir,' was the pawnbroker's reply.

"'An unredeemed pledge?'

"'Yes, sir.'

"'Its price?'

"'120 guineas.'

"'May I inspect it?'

"'By all means, sir. You seem to know how to handlea chronometer.'

"'Yes; and have handled this one before to-day. Yes, this is the instrument--and a very bad one it is.'

"'Indeed!'

"'It belongs to the King. It was stolen from one of hip Majesty's ships, lying at anchor in the Downs.'

"'I am sorry to hear that. It was pledged to me more than two years ago,'by a person who said he was the captain of a ship, in bad circumstances--and he certainly looked like a seafaring man, and not at all like a thief. I advanced him £60 upon it.'

"'What sort of a man was he?'

"'Well, I could swear to him anywhere--for we were at least three--quarters of an hour higgling over the sum. He wanted £75; and I offered £50 at first, and then £55, and then £60, beyond which I would not go. He was a short, thick-set, broad-shouldered man, rather bow--legged. Broad flat face, black eyes--black as jet, and very sparkling; one of them had a cast in it, which gave him a very comical expression of countenance. His lower jaw protruded rather, and the bridge of his nose had seemingly been broken.'

"'Good heavens!' exclaimed the old master, 'you have described Captain Ketchcalfe!'

"'I have described the man who pawned that instrument.'

"'You must not part with it till I have seen you again. It will be to--morrow, perhaps this evening;' and with these words the old man left the pawnbroker's shop, and made the best of his way to the Admiralty, where he sent up his name, and a note, to the First Lord, whom he desired to see on 'a very serious matter.' The First Lord sent a verbal message--that he would not see Mr. Treadwell; and the messenger, when asked to take up a second note, refused to do so.

"'Then there is no help for it,' sighed the old man, and from the Admiralty he wended his way to Bow Street. The presiding functionary at the last-named institution was not so difficult of access as the First Lord. The old man's statement was taken down; his certificates (he always carried several about with him) carefully inspected; a note made of the name of the pawnbroker, and the name of the famous chronometer-maker in Cornhill; instructions given to two of the most expert officers connected with the court, and old Mr. Treadwell required to be in attendance on the following day at noon precisely.

"By what means the Bow Street officers obtained Captain Ketchcalfe's address; how, where, and when they found him; how they placed him face to face with the man to whom he pawned the chronometer, and who identified him--it signifies nothing. But the next day when old Mr. Treadwell made his appearance in Bow Street, he was informed that the prisoner was in custody, and that as soon as the night charges were disposed of, the case would be called on. And it was called on--at ten minutes to one, and at half-past two George Ketchcalfe, captain R.N., was committed to take his trial at the Old Bailey.

"It was now too late for the First Lord to think of devising means for averting from a scion of his ancient house a felon's doom. The press had made the case known to the world; a reporter's quill had done this 'mischief;' and the British public, as one man, rose and sympathized with the poor old master, who was not to be 'bought out of the way;' for the insult which he received at the Admiralty, when he last sought an interview, rankled in his breast.

"Captain Ketchcalfe was convicted and sentenced to be transported for fourteen years, and in 'due course' was landed in the colony of New South Wales. His career in Botany Bay, if transcribed with minute fidelity, would warrant, perhaps, the assumption that it was the most extravagant fiction ever penned. There was scarcely a crime of which he was not guilty in Australia, and of which he was not convicted. Petty theft, burglary, forgery (he once forged the name of Sir James Dowling, one of the judges, and was transported to Norfolk Island for life), and piracy--piracy on the high seas, and the most extraordinary case that ever was heard of in this world. When he was on his way to Norfolk Island, in a chartered brig called the 'Wellington,' under sentence of transportation for life, for forging the signature of Sir James Dowling, he, one dark night, in a fearful gale of wind, contrived, having muffled his irons (his naval experience never deserted him), to get upon the deck, and unobserved entered the doctor's cabin, whence he abstracted from the medicine-chest a quantity of arsenic, which he threw into the large copper vessel in which was made the soup for the ship's company, the convicts, fifty in number, and the guard, consisting of twenty-five men of the regiment of foot then quartered in the colony of New South Wales. On the following day, shortly after dinner--time (1 P.M.) nearly every soul on board the 'Wellington' was seized with pains so violent that they became perfectly helpless; whereupon Captain Ketchcalfe, and nine men--who, at his bidding, abstained from tasting the soup--in the most quiet and deliberate manner imaginable took possession of the vessel. The guard were thrown overboard alive, but most probably dying. The master, officers, and seamen belonging to the vessel shared the same fate. And then the remaining forty convicts were brought up in their irons, and with equal remorselessness were committed to the deep. In absolute command of the brig, Captain Ketchcalfe--than whom no one knew better how to work and navigate a vessel--resolved upon steering for North America, via Cape Horn; but inasmuch as there was not sufficient water on board for so long a passage, he bore up for Cloudy Bay, New Zealand, in order to fill up his casks. But previous to entering Cloudy Bay, in which were always to be found two or more whaling-ships, he employed himself and his convict crew in disfiguring the 'Wellington.' He chopped off her 'figure-head'--that of the Great Duke--and in lieu thereof, put up a piece of wood resembling a huge fish. He painted out the name of the vessel from the stern, and painted in the words--'Shark, of Boston.' He painted out her (sham) port-holes, and gave her a broad streak of red. He made with his own hands an American flag, and enjoined all on board to speak with a Yankee accent, of which he was himself a perfect master.

"When the 'Wellington,' now the 'Shark,' dropped her anchor in Cloudy Bay, there happened to be lying there a vessel called the 'Harriet,' and belonging to the merchant, who had chartered the 'Wellington' to the Government. The 'Harriet' was commanded by a Mr. Dyke, who for three years had been chief mate of the 'Wellington,' and, much as she was disfigured, he recognized her.

"Captain (let us give him the title) Captain Dyke had a boat lowered, and visited the new arrival. He was received very courteously by Captain Ketchcalfe; but, while walking round the decks of the brig, his suspicions were completely confirmed. And on that night Captain Dyke and several of his crew, followed by fifty New Zealanders, all armed, boarded the 'Wellington,' and recaptured her. Captain Ketchcalfe and his crew were conveyed to Sydney, where he became king's evidence, avowing that the part he had taken in the capture of the vessel was by compulsion. The nine convicts were hanged one Monday morning on the same gallows in the jail at Sydney. Captain Ketchcalfe was of course pardoned, and further, instead of being re-shipped for Norfolk Island, he was suffered to remain in Sydney, where he was employed as a workman in the Government dockyard. Strange to say, Captain Nicholson, of the Royal Navy, who was at the time the superintendent of the dockyard, had been Ketchcalfe's first--lieutenant in the 'Hecuba!'

"In the year 185--was committed in Sydney one of the most foul murders that the human ear ever heard of. The victim was Mary Warland--or 'Peggy the washerwoman,' as she was called. It was not till two days afterwards that the murder was discovered, and then only by an accident. A police-officer, passing the back part of the premises occupied by Peggy, observed some linen on the drying-ground, and fearful that it might be stolen, he went to apprise the poor woman of her indiscretion, as he deemed it. The back-door of the cottage was shut, but not bolted; and, on lifting the latch, he found himself in the kitchen. He was surprised to find no fire burning, as usual; no candle, by the light of which she used to iron until eleven or twelve o'clock at night. He called aloud several times. "'Peggy, are you at home?' Receiving no answer, he ignited a match with his own tinder-box, and lighted a tallow candle that stood upon the dresser. What was his horror to behold poor Peggy stretched upon the kitchen--floor, her head literally cleft in two! Beside her was the axe with which the blow had been struck, and a sharp knife, with which had been cut off the third finger of Peggy's left hand. The murderer had been unable to get the wedding-ring over the joint, and therefore had recourse to this violent proceeding. It was for the sake of that wedding-ring that the murder was committed--for it was well known she was very poor--and none of her small stock of furniture and clothes was removed from the cottage--not even any of the linen belonging to other people. The sensation created by this murder in the town of Sydney may be easily imagined.

"Now, sir, on the morning of the day on which the murder was discovered, a man went into the shop of a Polish Jew, who had recently arrived in Sydney, and set up a pawnbroker's shop in Hunter Street, and pawned a wedding-ring for four-and-sixpence. The money was paid across the counter, and the ring, wrapped up in paper, was deposited with other pledges of the same description. As soon as the particulars of the murder became known, the Polish Jew was tempted to look at the ring that had been pawned to him. With the aid of a magnifying-glass, he observed upon it stains of blood. The ring had been wiped, but not washed. He (the Jew) went at once to the police-office, and had an interview with the chief--constable of Sydney; and, when asked to 'describe the man,' he took a piece of charcoal, and on the white-washed wall of the room in which the interview was held (having an immense talent for taking rough likenesses), drew not only the full face and side face, but a three-quarter face; and then gave a sketch of the man's figure, dressed as he was in a pair of canvas trousers, canvas smock-frock with turned-down collar, black Scotch cap, and high-low shoes. The likeness to Ketchcalfe was so perfect, that as soon as seen, he was recognized, and apprehended in the dockyard. And now, sir, to be brief--for it is getting late--Ketchcalfe was tried, convicted, and sentenced to suffer death. And he was hanged (it was that ring that hanged him) in the presence of the largest concourse of people that ever was seen in those days in the colony of New South Wales."

End.

 
 
 
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