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'Artful, eh?'

Those who wonder whether the government should bail out citizens whose loans have ballooned to exceed the value of their real estate may be amused by this episode in Post Captain, which I submit as an example of fine British writing, British naval vigour, and 18th century methods for dealing with bankrupts. As Patrick O' Brian is the author, I feel pretty certain the historical details are authentic.

In late 18th century Britain, debtors were thrown into jail where it was, of course, impossible for them to earn a living and repay their debts, though incarceration sometimes had the effect of forcing family and friends to bail-out the bankrupt. Modern British and American governments abandoned this scenario, and may have gone too far in the other direction, though an article just published in the Times suggests that the pendulum is swinging back in Britain with the decrease in insolvency agreements and the increase in changing orders.

Jack Aubrey is unable to pay his debts because his agent has stolen his prize money. He is safe from the bailiffs and debtors' prison at sea, but not on land. The bailiffs are always hunting debtors, and they are on Jack's trail. It is rather like a game of freeze tag, played with the bailiff's staff. Just before he is due to sail, Jack visits an inn with his friend, Doctor Stephen Maturin, to celebrate the promotion of Pullings, one of his midshipmen. Here's O'Brian -

They had drunk the King, the First Lord ('O bless him, God bless him,' cried Pullings), Lord Nelson with three times three, wives and sweethearts, Miss Chubb (the pink child) and other young ladies; they had carried the elder Mr Pullings to his bed, and they were singing

We'll rant and we'll roar like true British sailors,
We'll range and we'll roam over all the salt seas,
Until we strike soundings in the Channel of old England:
From Ushant to Scilly 'tis thirty-five leagues.

We hove our ship to when the wind was south-west, boys,
We hove our ship to for to strike soundings clear,
Then we filled our main-topsail and bore right away, boys,
And right up the Channel our course we did steer.

We'll rant and we'll roar. . .

The din was so great that Stephen alone noticed the door open just enough for Scriven's questing head: he placed a warning hand on Jack's elbow, but the rest were roaring still when it swung wide and the bailiffs rushed in.

Pullings, pin that whore with the staff,' cried Stephen, tossing his chair under their legs and clasping Broken-nose round the middle.

Jack darted to the window, flung up the sash, jumped on to the sill and stood there poised while behind him the bailiffs struggled in the confusion, reaching out their staffs with ludicrous earnestness, trying to touch him, taking no notice of the clogging arms round their waists, knees and chests. They were powerful, determined fellows; the reward was high, and the mêlée surged towards the open window - one touch amounted to a lawful arrest.

A leap and he was away: but the head tipstaff was fly - he had posted a gang outside, and they were looking up eagerly, calling out 'jump for it, sir - we'll break your fall - it's only one storey.' Holding on to the window he craned out, looking down the lane towards the shore - he could see the gleam of water - towards the place where by rights the Polychrests should be drinking Pullings' beer, sent to them together with the second suckling-pig; and surely Bonden could be relied upon? He filled his lungs and hailed 'Polychrest' in a tone that echoed back from Portsmouth and stopped the mild gossip in the launch stone dead. 'Polychrest!'

'Sir?' came back Bonden's voice out of the dripping gloom.

'Double up to the inn, d'ye hear me? Up the lane. Bring your stretchers.'

'Aye-aye, sir.'

In a moment the launch was empty. Stretchers, the boat's long wooden footrests, meant a row. The captain was no doubt pressing some hands, and they, pressed men themselves, did not mean to miss a second of the fun.

The pounding of feet at the end of the lane, coming nearer: behind, the sway and crash of chairs, oaths, a doubtful battle.

'Here, here! Right under the window,' cried Jack, and there they were, a little wet mob, gasping, gaping up. 'Make a ring, now. Stand from under!' He jumped, picked himself up and cried, 'Down to the boat. Bear a hand, bear a hand!'

For the first moment the gang in the street hung back, but as the head tipstaff and his men came racing out of the inn, shouting 'In the name of the law! Way there, in the name of the law!' they closed, and the narrow lane was filled with the sound of hard dry blows, grunts, the crash of wood upon wood. The sailors, with Jack in the middle, pushed fast in the direction of the sea.

'In the name of the law!' cried the tipstaff again, making a most desperate attempt to break through.

'- the law, cried the seamen, and Bonden, grapplling with the bailiff, wrenched the staff from him. He flung it right down the lane, fairly into the water, and said, 'You've lost your commission now, mate. I can hit you now, mate, so you watch out, I say. You watch out, cully, or you'll come home by Weeping Cross.'

The bailiff uttered a low growl, pulled out his hanger and hurled himself at Jack. 'Artful, eh?' said Bonden, and brought his stretcher down on his head. He fell in the mud, to be trampled upon by Pullings and his friends, pouring out of the inn. At this the gang broke and fled, calling out that they should fetch their friends, the watch, the military, and leaving two of their number stretched upon the ground.

'Mr Pullings, press those men, if you please,' cried Jack from the boat. 'And that fellow in the mud. Two more? Capital. All aboard? Where's the Doctor? Pass the word for the Doctor. Ah, there you are. Shove off. Altogether now, give way. Give way cheerly. What a prime hand he will make, to be sure,' he added in an aside, 'once he's used to our ways - a proper bulldog of a man.'

At two bells that morning watch the Polychrest was slipping quietly through the cold grey sea, the cold grey air. . .

David was doubtful this post was making any very presentable points, so I will mention that in addition to exposing the very different method of handling bankrupts in 18th century Britain, and the hard fact of pressing, which many men hated, there is also a not entirely concealed respect for the law, the sheer good cheer of the scene, the rousing physical energy and wit of the Royal Navy under assault on land, and the lovely irony of 'Artful, eh?'

I feel sure I will have plenty of occasions in future to use the remark when reading about 10 Downing Street or American presidential candidates slogging it out on the campaign trail.

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