A Funny Scene from Patrick O'Brian's Post Captain
Illustration by Dell'Orco
Post Captain Jack Aubrey is in debt and keeping one step ahead of the law - British law - and what an odd law it is! As in a game of tag, Jack need only be touched by a bailiff's tipstaff (an official wooden rod tipped in metal) to be legally caught and arrested, for "one touch amounted to a lawful arrest"! Jack's effort, therefore, is to evade the tipstaff and get to his boat. He is enjoying a feast just on shore when the law rushes in:
The din [of the feast] 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.Thus are the tables turned on the bailiffs. Deprived of their all-powerful tipstaffs, they are ordinary men who can be - and are - pressed into service under Jack's command! One of them, anyway. I'm not sure what happened to the other one.
'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 [i.e., clever] - 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 [i.e., Jack's sailors] should be drinking Pullings' beer, sent to them together with the second sucking-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.'
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, grappling 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 [i.e., a short sword?] 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.'
Still, an odd law, if it is a law, for I've found nothing to suggest that the tipstaff was actually used in this manner. Would a chased man agree to a rule that says he has to voluntarily accept that he's caught if tapped by a tipstaff? Not that I can imagine.
Any experts out there among my readers who might know?