The Westminster Scholars
A few years since, some Westminster scholars received great insult from
a hackney-coachman, who treated them with the greatest scurrility,
because they would not comply with an overcharge in his fare. This
behaviour the youths did not forget, and were resolved to punish him
without danger of prosecution; upon which one of them devised the
following whimsical turn of revenge.
Four of these gentlemen, one dark evening, about nine o'clock, (having
previously learned where his coach would be) called him from off the
stand, and desired the coachman to drive over Westminster Bridge to
Newington. They had not long been seated, when one of them, with a
sportive tone of voice, said, "Come, boys, let us begin."
They then instantly dressed themselves in black clothes, and every
necessary befitting mourners at a funeral, (which articles they brought
with them in small parcels.) And the night was particularly favourable
for carrying their scheme into execution: for it was uncommonly dark,
and very still. 'Twas such a night that Apollonius Rhodius thus
"Night on the earth pour'd darkness; on the sea,
The wakesome sailor to Orion's star
And Helice turn'd heedful. Sunk to rest,
The traveller forgot his toil; his charge,
The centinel; her death-devoted babe,
The mother's painless breast. The village dog
Had ceas'd his troublous bay: each busy tumult
Was hush'd at this dread hour; and darkness slept,
Lock'd in the arms of silence."
To terrify him the more, they wore linen hat-bands and scarfs, instead
of crape. And when they had got into the loneliest part of St. George's
Fields (for at that time they were not built over as at present), they
called to him, and desired him to stop, as they wanted to get out.
They marked the side the coachman came to open the door of; and he that
sat next the other door, opened it at the same instant.
What the coachman felt on seeing the first mourner move out with the
greatest solemnity, can be better conceived than expressed: but what
were his terrors when the second approached him, a majestic spare figure
about six feet perpendicular, who passed him (as did the first) without
speaking a word.
As fast as one youth got out, he went round to the other side of the
coach, stepped in, and came out a second time at the opposite door.
In this manner they continued, till the coachman, if he had the power
of counting, might have told forty.
When they had thus passed out seemingly to the number of twenty, the
poor devil of a coachman, frightened almost to death, fell upon his
knees, and begged for mercy's sake the King of Terrors would not suffer
any more of his apparitions to appear; for, though he had a multitude of
sins to account for, he had a wife and a large family of children, who
depended upon his earnings for support.
The tallest of these young gentlemen then asked him, in a hoarse tone of
voice, what was his heaviest sin? He replied, committing his lodger, a
poor carver and gilder, to the Marshalsea, for rent due to him, which
the badness of the times, and his business in particular, would not
enable him to pay. He said, he would not have confined him so long, but
in revenge for a severe beating he gave him one day when they fell to
loggerheads and boxed. He further told them, the poor man had been six
months in captivity; and that he understood from a friend of his, the
other day, that he made out but a miserable living by making brewers'
pegs, bungs for their barrels, and watchmakers' skewers.
The young gentleman then told him, that if he did not instantly sign his
discharge, which he would write, he might rest assured of no mitigation
of the dreadful punishment he would go through in a few minutes; for
those he had seen come out of his coach were his harpies in disguise,
and were now in readiness to bear him to the infernal regions.
The trembling villain, without the least hesitation, complied. One of
the scholars fortunately having a pen and ink, the King of Terrors wrote
the discharge in a fair leaf of his pocket-book, as well as he could in
the dark, and then made the coachman sign it.
Having so done, the scholars told him he might go for the present, and
that he would find his coach in less than an hour in Piccadilly or
One of the youths then mounted the box, while the others got within, and
away they drove to the Marshalsea, but in the way they stopped till they
had taken off their disguise.
The youth who had the discharge, after making a collection among the
others, went into the prison, and gave the poor fellow what set him at
liberty the next morning.
The scholars then drove on to Oxford Street, congratulating themselves
on the success of their adventure, and all happy to a degree of rapture
at being instrumental in obtaining the captive's liberty.
About a quarter of an hour after they quitted the coach, they observed
the coachman arrive; who mounted the box, and drove home, muttering the
bitterest execrations, and damning his father confessor for bilking him
of half a guinea which he gave him that morning for an absolution, that
was to have rubbed out the entire score of his transgressions.
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