Authors: Phyllis Bentley
Mr. Daniel Defoe, the famous author of
and my very good friend, has told me in a letter that I should be wise to write down all that happened to me in the matter of the stealing of the cloth from my master, Mr. Firth, so that I may be able to give a very clear and exact account of all those strange events. I shall be the chief witness against the thieves, he says, when the trial takes place at York assizes, and the whole West Riding of Yorkshire will have its eyes on me, for not only Mr. Firth, but several other cloth makers (clothiers as they call them here) have had cloth stolen, they
think by these same men. It is a great responsibility for a lad of fourteen, says Mr. Defoe (I was born in the year of Our Lord 1708). Indeed I feel it so. I only hope my broken arm, which I took in the fight, will have healed by then, for I feel foolish wearing it in a kind of sash. But when I said this to Mr. Firth, he laughed.
“Nay, Tom,” he said, “a wound bound up makes a lad look a hero.”
“I am not a hero, Mr. Firth,” said I, embarrassed.
“That is for others to say, Tom,” said he, laughing again. “Not you.”
I had shown Mr. Firth Mr. Defoe's letter of course, and he approved what Mr. Defoe advised me about writing down all my recollections of the affair, and has set me down here with ink and paper and several pens (sharpened for me by Gracie) and told me to write every day until I have finished my story, and not to trouble myself about my work at the loom. I asked him where he thought I should begin the tale. At this he looked very serious.
“Why, Tom,” he said soberly, “I think you had best begin with your first coming to Yorkshire. For there is a matter or two there which is not cleared up, you know. Your father's watch, for instance. And that voice you say you heard.”
“I heard the voice, sir,” I said obstinately.
“Aye, so you say. Remember, Tom,” said Mr. Firth, laying his hand very kindly on my shoulder: “In court you will be on your oath. Everything you say must be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So you had better write in the same way.”
“I will write the truth, Mr. Firth,” said I.
I spoke rather sharply, and looked him straight in the eye, for I was tired of being doubted, knowing what pain any suspicion of my honesty would have given my father. However, I thought his advice was sound, and so I begin with a short account of my life in Suffolk with my father.
My name is Thomas Leigh, as was my father's. He was a
good weaver, the best in all the countryside round Lavenham, a town noted for centuries for its fine cloth. My grandfather was by name Thomas Leigh again, and my great-grandfather too; he was also a weaver, and one of good repute, but he was noted throughout the county for another cause, namely that being a man of great strength and courage, he halted the horses of a coach carrying the daughter of a noted Earl de Vere which were running away through Lavenham, and this Earl, in gratitude for the saving of his daughter's life, presented my great-grandfather with a silver watch. On the back of this watch outside were engraved his initials,
., and on the inside was engraved
December 16th, 1660
, this being the date when the horses bolted. This watch came in course of time to be inherited by my father, and you may imagine that he was very proud of it and cherished it, though it no longer told the time. He had it with him, on his person, when we came north to Yorkshire, and that I swear.
My father, though a tall man and sinewy like his famous forebear and not lacking in any way in courage, was rather quiet and sober in manner. It seems my mother died when I was born, and he lost his merriment from that day. But he was the kindest and best of fathers to me; he never said a harsh word to me, and would play and talk with me when we were alone together in our cottage, and always saw that I had the best food we could afford, and paid for me to go to the little dame's school in our part of the town. He was much respected in Lavenham, not only for his great skill at the loom but also for his calm judgment and straightforward honesty. So that when he decided to accept Mr. Somebody's offer of very good wages to go north to Yorkshire and teach his weavers there how to make really fine cloth instead of the coarse stuff they wove, of course it seemed to me the right thing to do, and certainly many of the Lavenham weavers envied him.
I say Mr. Somebody because this was one of the difficulties of my situation later; I did not know his name although
I saw him when he came to visit my father. I did not much care for what I saw, though he wore a handsome suit of cinnamon cloth, for he was a short stout man with turned-out toes and prominent eyes, who held his head very far back as if to look at his own nose, and flipped his thumbnails against each other when he was any way vexed. When I ran in from play and found him talking to my father, he frowned a little and flipped his nails thus, and looked over my head when my father spoke of me as his son who would accompany him to Yorkshire.
“There is no need to mention my name to your son,” he said. “Keep it altogether to yourself, if you please. Both here and in Yorkshire it will be best to keep our business private.”
So my father never mentioned his new master's name. What there might be in Yorkshire to make this secrecy desirable, I did not then know, but I guessed, rightly as it proved, that it was intended to gain a business advantage over rivals by springing on the market finer cloth than they could weave. My father explained to me why secrecy might be good in Lavenham. It seemed that while some people thought the cloth trade was slowly dying in Lavenham, others opposed this view and thought it wrong of my father to leave, and the farmers might have refused to sell their wool to this northern clothier next time he came round, if they had known him.
My father always said I resembled my mother in face and disposition. As to face I cannot say, but I have heard that she was light-hearted and gay, and certainly before all this happened I was a merry lad enough. In appearance I take after my father, being now well-grown for my age, not broad but sinewy, with dark hair and eyes and an even colour in my cheeks.
So we sold our goods and left Lavenham. It was a bright spring morning when we said goodbye to it, and I shall never forget how black and white the timbered weavers' cottages looked in the sunshine, and the great square grey flint steeple of our church towering over all. My father
looked back rather mournfully, I thought, as we turned out of Water Street, but I felt eager for the adventure of a new life. So we set off, with our few clothes and goods on our backs.
I do not remember how many days we took to reach Yorkshire. They were very happy days; the weather held good, sunny but not too warm, with scarcely any wind. My father had money in his pocket, five gold guineas and a handful of silver, from our sale, and as he was going to good employment he did not scruple to put up in an inn each night and buy us a good supper and a good breakfast, with bread and cheese which we ate by the side of the road for our midday meal. So we journeyed along pleasantly enough, enjoying the sights of the road.
Then we came to Yorkshireâto the West Riding of Yorkshire, I should say, for it seems there are several parts of this large county.
From the first I was daunted by the landscape, for I had never seen anything like it before. In Suffolk we had a few pleasant hills, smooth and nicely rounded and not too high, with ploughed land and green pastures rolling gently to their summits. But these Pennine hills were terrible affairs! High and rough and steep, dark at the top, sometimes rocky, and coming on and on, one after the other, folding into each other so that you could never see the end of them, and as fast as you climbed one you had to go down from it into a valley, and then up again to another hillâwell, they were more like mountains. Streams tumbled headlong down from them, dashing over rocky beds. The fields were all divided by stone walls instead of hedges, and there was scarcely a strip of ploughland to be seen. The lanes were steep and stony, except that sometimes there would be a kind of narrow stone platform running along one side, above the level of the rest; we learned this was called a causey. My father seemed troubled by these causeys; I could not quite see why.
“It seems to me they are built to keep passers-by out of the water,” he said when I asked him. “It seems as if much water might pour down these steep lanes.”
He looked apprehensively up at the sky as he spoke. And well he might; for the weather had broken. Grey clouds were flying across the sky, driven by the strongest winds I had ever known, coming always roaring from the west. Soon we were spattered by large cold drops of rain, which presently became longer and longer showers, and as the afternoon waned these showers turned to heavy pouring rain, which seemed to drive into our faces whichever way we turned, so that soon we were drenched. To add to our miseries we were lost. The lanes hereabouts did not keep to the valleys so that you could judge your course by the river, but wandered about halfway up the hills where there seemed to be level stretches on which stood houses at a distance from each other, not snug cosy villages as in Suffolk at all. There were no men working in the fields from whom to ask the way, and we hesitated to go down the side lanes to the farms, in case we should be ill received by their dogs. Besides, to tell you the truth, the speech of these Yorkshire folk, when we did occasionally encounter one, was so outlandish to our ears that we hardly understood what they said. (Now, of course, I have grown used to it and understand it well; I can even speak a word or two of this dialect myself.)
We had climbed a stiffish hill and were tired and soaked to the skin as we walked slowly along a road, level for once, when we saw opening before us a steep drop, worse than the one we had just climbed. We both gave a kind of groan and halted.
“We'll go into this inn,” said my father.
For a few paces ahead another lane joined ours, and at the side stood an inn, the Fleece it was called. This seemed a comfortable kind of name connected with our trade, such as we had often seen above inns in Suffolk, so we thankfully entered.
It was a tremendous relief to be out of the wind and rain, but oddly enough I felt wetter than ever, and ashamed of my hair streaming down my back, and my soaked clothes which now began to steam. The inn parlour was crowded with men drinking and talking, and the landlord in his shirt sleeves
behind the bar did not at first notice us, and gave us a rather unfriendly glance when he did. My father asked the way to Halifax.
“Halifax! You're five miles off,” said the landlord. “Up and down miles, too. Where've you come from, then?”
“Never heard of it. I thought you were foreigners, from the start.”
“You can sell us some ale, however? The boy is chilled to the bone.”
“Have you the money to pay for it, eh?”
“Surely!” exclaimed my father. He flushed angrily, and put his hand towards the breast of his jacket, where the bag with his money lay.
“Oh, in that case,” said the landlord, who followed this gesture with his shrewd little eyes: “Sit you down by t'fire and warm you. You mun be fair starved. I'll bring you summat to eat as well as drink, eh?”
My father thanked him, and we were soon sitting on the tall settle by the hearth, with a smoking dish of ham and eggs before us. Unfortunatelyâand it was indeed a true misfortuneâthe sudden warmth after the long miles of cold and rain had turned me sleepy. I did not see any of the faces around me as I ate, only a confused blur of mugs and hands and neck cloths through the smoke. My head was down on the table when my father shook me awake. With his other hand he was replacing his money bag in its inner pocket. A discussion was going on as to the way he should take to Halifax. The landlord gave some directions which, though no doubt clear enough to him, sounded muddled and incomprehensible to us.