‘Serve God; honour the King; but, first maintain the Wall.’
In the year 1793, not only in the isolated taverns of the remote district of Romney Marsh, but in the fashionable clubs of London, two subjects of news were passed from mouth to mouth, and were discussed in leading columns of the papers. The first of these was the Reign of Terror, raging across the Channel — terrible and bloody. The second, and perhaps more popular, because of its humour, the latest exploits of the mysterious Scarecrow, who, in spite of the danger in France and the unpopularity of the British with the French, managed to keep successful his mighty organisation of contraband running, backwards and forwards across the Channel.
Even the most literary of the political periodicals found space enough to exploit the adventures of the Romney Marsh smugglers, in the same editions that screamed out execrations against the murderous Paris mob. Indeed they used the Scarecrow and his men as an excuse to howl against the Government, which seemed quite powerless to put the audacious scandal down. True, they had offered a thousand-guinea reward to any person who should hand over, or cause to be handed over, this notorious malefactor, alive or dead, but although this sounded a large sum in proclamation, it was nothing when compared to the many thousands which were slipping through the fingers of the Revenue.
‘In the devil’s name, who is this Scarecrow?’ was the question on everybody’s lips. The general opinion was that he must be a man of education, since it was known that he spoke French fluently and was as powerful in the coastal districts of France as he was in his own territory of the Marsh. But on both sides of the Channel his real identity was unknown. He was the Scarecrow — L’Epouvantail. Well, whoever he was, he was certainly a public benefactor. To the vast majority his adventures were a joy. His audacity made the world chuckle, while locally he was keeping his followers’ necks out of the Government’s noose, and by risking his own he made the poor rich, so long as they obeyed his orders, and played the dangerous game against the Revenue men, according to his rules.
There were other adventurers who played a dangerous game without adhering to any code of fairness, and one of these was Captain Foulkes, a successful gambler and soldier of Fortune. Oh yes, ‘Bully’ Foulkes, not without reason given this nickname, played for the highest stakes in the most exclusive London clubs. He cheated so cleverly that his fashionable victims innocently paid their losses and called them debts of honour when trying to balance their accounts. Whenever Bully Foulkes was accused of not playing fair, by gentlemen who were not quite so innocent in the ways of roguery, the noble Captain was so insulted that he sent his second immediately to arrange a meeting. This was not a very risky thing for the Captain to do since he happened to be brilliant with sword or pistol. He had to his record twelve gentlemen whom he had spitted in St. Martin’s Fields, and seven he had shot dead at Chalk Farm Tavern, where such matters were dealt with conveniently to all parties. Yes — a brave man might well think twice before meeting Captain Foulkes in an affair of so-called ‘honour’.
Yet he was not without disciples — young men of rank and fashion who admired his dash and tried to emulate his success. Such a youngster was Lord Cullingford, who, having recently come into his family title, found that he had mortgaged the next three years of his income.
He had raised the money from the City Jews in order to satisfy his creditors. But since it was utterly impossible for a young lord of the realm to live in the lap of luxury without a penny piece for three years, these same kind financiers advanced him a further sum, which, banked, would bring him in sufficient for his needs. Unfortunately the noble lord did not bank the money. Instead he cut a great dash with it, and for a few glorious and hilarious weeks managed to make himself the envy of his rivals, the other young dandies who roistered in the company of Captain Foulkes. Indeed, while the money circulated, he was raised to the rank of the Captain’s boon companion, and was privileged to swagger arm-in-arm with him when taken the air in St. James’s. The Captain permitted young Cullingford to imitate him, knowing that this was a form of flattery, and being well aware that, while the money lasted, the vain and stupid fop could never eclipse him when they were seen together.
Captain Foulkes cut a fine figure, tall, broad shouldered, athletic. Cullingford was not so tall, thin shouldered and effeminate. But the tailors managed to pad out his shoulders, and the bootmakers elevated his feet, while the Captain’s personal barber attended on him. In fact, the general opinion was that Cullingford’s friendship with Captain Foulkes had improved his looks and bearing considerably.
One miserable night in late autumn Lord Cullingford left the gaming-table at Crockford’s and strolled over to the fire. All day he had played cautiously, which is often an ill thing for a gambler to do. On this occasion it was certainly an ill thing for his young lordship. As he gazed into the flames, his mental arithmetic told him he was down to his last three hundred pounds, and was owing to various tradesmen. His credit was good enough, since none of the tradesmen in question were aware of the precarious state of his purse, but having tasted the dubious honour of being the chosen companion of so envied a man as Bully Foulkes, he had no desire to be given his
As he turned to put his resolution into practice, Bully Foulkes pushed back his chair, swept a pile of guineas from his place at the table, and swaggered over to him.
‘Come on, Cullingford,’ he said; ‘my luck is in, but I’m quitting for an hour as I have an appointment at Bucks. Take my place.’
‘Oh, the devil damn the rascal that first thought of cards and dice!’ snapped his lordship. ‘I’ve lost all day and will play no more.’
‘Then take my place and perhaps your luck will change all night,’ replied Foulkes. ‘And damme, I hope it may. You’ve been an ill enough companion for the past week, and if there is one thing I can’t abide ’tis a poor loser.’
‘I tell you, man, I have no wish to play and am going home.’
‘I vow you’re as sulky as the bear in Southwark pit,’ laughed the Captain, taking his arm. ‘Come, a glass of brandy will cure your spleen and a rattle of dice will take that sour expression from your face. My place is reserved for you. I beg you to take it and try one throw. A hundred guineas round the table and the highest takes the lot. ’Tis a quick way to earn a thousand, and I warrant a thousand guineas will soon cure you of the sulks.’