A Silver Tankard for Captain Lightfoot

By the end of the 19th century, the stories about Michael Martin, aka Captain Lightfoot, had been passed down orally several generations, and retellings added new context to his legend. The short story below appeared in The Youth’s Companion magazine of June 22, 1893. The author is unknown, but the story was given “Third Prize Folk Lore Story.” It was also reprinted in Christian publications, since it espoused the values of childhood innocence, moral instruction, charity, and forgiveness. The story setting varies far from any historical truth about Martin’s actions, and “Captain Lightfoot” is still portrayed as a professional criminal, but one who still has some good in him–the same attitude expressed by the general public towards Michael Martin in 1821.


In the early days of the eighteenth century Antipas Goodwin’s farm lay about four miles away from a small village situated about fifteen miles north of Portsmouth. It was a source of grief to the pious landholder that the meetinghouse was so far away that he and his family could not walk to and fro on Sunday, while his wagon was not large enough to hold them all. Generally his eldest daughter, Charity, now twelve years old, went to meeting with a neighbor, who lived a mile farther from the village than Goodwin did, beyond a tract of woods.

One Sunday morning the neighbor, from some extraordinary cause, did not go. Mr. Goodwin decided that Charity should stay at home, and occupy her time, lest it he wasted, In committing to memory a Psalm and two hymns.

Just as Mr. Goodwin was clucking to his horses to start, a man came riding rapidly from the direction of the village, and beckoned Antipas Goodwin to one side.

“Are you going to meeting to-day, Neighbor Goodwin?” he whispered.

“I always attend divine service with my household on the Lord’s day,” answered Mr. Goodwin,
with old-fashioned gravity.

“Have you not heard the evil tidings? You had better stay at home to-day,” continued his friend.

“Forsake not the assembling or yourselves together,” replied the householder, in the same voice which he used in public prayer.

“But, Neighbor Goodwin,” insisted the other, laying his hand solemnly on Mr. Goodwin’s arm, “they say that Lightfoot and his gang of robbers have taken up their abode in Negutaqua woods, and intend to search the neighborhood; and there is a report that they have special designs upon your house for the store of silver
you are known to have.”

“My silver and my gold are the Lord’s,” replied Antipas Goodwin, soberly. Such phrases were not considered cant in those early days. They were earnestly uttered and literally interpreted.

“Yes, neighbor,” urged his friend, “but that is no reason why they should be the robbers. I shall conduct services in my own house this Sabbath, that I may protect my little ones and my goods, even as I worship the Lord.”

With a warning gesture this sensible man rode off at a hurried pace, leaving Mr. Goodwin silent for a moment. It is probable he spent that moment praying. At any rate his face lightened, as if the problem were divinely solved.

He hurried back into the house to the room where Charity sat already at her Bible. There the usually undemonstrative father caught her in his arms, and kissed the astonished girl again and again before he said: “Daughter Charity, be a good child, and if any persons come to call while we are away, treat them with all kindness and hospitality, as your mother would.”

Then this Puritan father rejoined his wife in the wagon and whipped up his horses to get to church, four miles off, where ho worshiped God in his own stern, sincere way, 1eavving his daughter alone at the homestead. He did not even tell his wife the news that he had heard. Was not his faith in God enough for bis family?

Charity had not committed five verses of the ninety-first Psalm to memory when she heard a click at the garden gate at the back of the house.

“Perhaps there are father’s callers,” she thought. She put down her Bible with a happy face, unbarred the back door, and ran out in the sun to meet the guests.

There they stood–ten dark-browed, evil men armed to the teeth, and as fierce as the figures in a wild dream. Charity ran on as far as the currant bushes, where she stopped.

The robbers and the child confronted each other. For a moment neither seemed to know just what to do next. Then Charity held out her little hands cordially. Her blond, waving hair, bathed in white light, looked like a halo about her head, and she seemed more like an angel bidding good men welcome to a heavenly home than a sweet-hearted farmer’s daughter asking terrible robbers
to enter her father’s house.

“I am so glad you have come!” she began, smiling brightly. Father told me that if visitors came I should take care of them as my mother would if she were here.”

The ten evil faces exchanged glances. Then twenty astonished eyes stared at Charity. What could this mean? Tho robbers whispered together. They were suspicions and hesitating. Into what trap were they likely to he led?

“Why do you wait?” pleaded Charity, prettily, putting out her hand to the leader. “Come right in!”

The men began to move toward the house. They had a dazed expression. The child led the way, chattering: “I’m so sorry they’re out! They’ve all gone to meeting. You might have seen them there; but I will do the best I can. Come through into the parlor. If you do not wish to wipe your feet you needn’t trouble yourselves. I’ll brush up, for father wished me to be very polite.”

With such artless talk Charity took the nonplussed leader by the hand and led him into the best room. Nine rough, staring men followed. Each wiped his shoes carefully on the worn straw mat as he passed in.

They were villainous-looking men. Great horse-pistols were thrust into their belts, and their faces were scarred and distorted. They walked as outlaw men do, with slinking, irresolute motions.

Following the unusual example of their leader, they took off their hats and laid them on a mahogany table in the hall as they passed into the front room.

“This is a strange business!” whispered one robber to another with a half-pleased smile. “Snared by a little maid! Who’d ‘a thight it o’ us? Hey, capt’n?”

“I’m too hungry to think about it yet,” answered Captain Lightfoot, the tallest, least ill-looking and strongest of the gang.

Charity had been looking over her guests with the pride of a little housekeeper, and was nodding her curly head as she counted each one off; but when she overheard the captain’s answer, she looked at him pityingly, and her lip quivered with sympathy.

“Are you hungry? Oh, I am very sorry, I’ll do tho best I can. It is the Sabbath, you know,
and the dinner must needs be cold. Mother would give you a better meal than I can get, but I know how she sets the table for company, and I should gladly do it for you. I’ll go right away
and make it ready.”

She tripped to the door. The men looked at her; if ever there were ten completely dumbfounded robbers, these were the ten. The red-handed thieves had not a word to say. They glanced at their leader helplessly.

Then Lightfoot, the most courteous gentleman Charity thought she had ever seen, arose and gave the little dame a courtly bow, which she returned with a pretty courtesy. It was a strange sight–this little farmer’s daughter singly arrayed against the most dreaded highwayman of his day and his picked bandits!

“while you are waiting,” continued Charity, in her musical voice and standing on the threshold, “you can read father’s books or sing a hymn. There are six Bibles and five tune-books on that
shelf; over there are Baxter, and Edwards ‘On True Virtue.’ I read that one with father. I could not understand all of it, but you could of course.”

She closed the door and hustled about getting dinner. She did not hear the gruff expletives of wonder that burst after a minute’s silence from those sin-steeped men. What withered heart had
her simple trust touched?

“This is a go!” repeated the roughest ruffian of the gang. “I’ll be –“
·
“No, you won’t be anything but a decent man in a house like this,” interrupted Lightfoot, sternly, “until I give contrary orders.”

Charity went to the linen closet and took out the finest, sweetest-scented table-cloth, and spread it carefully, smoothing the wrinkles as she had seen her mother do. Then she reached down from the cupboard the best old china, covered with rose patterns. From the high, inlaid case she took the silver knives and forks, which were used only on great occasions.

Then she went to a secret place and brought out carefully the great silver teapot and sugar bowl and cream pitcher, precious family heirlooms, and put them before her place at the head of the table. Besides these, she laid all the silver spoons she could find, both big and little. While she worked she sang to herself, now louder, now softer:

God is the refuge of His saints
When storms of sharp distress invade

“What’s the young one tunin’ up for?” asked one of the robbers, uneasily, of his neighbor.

As a last touch the little hostess brought out the silver tankard, her mother’s wedding present, which had been given to Charity to have as her own because she was the eldest child.

Charity loved the tankard better than anything else she owned. She filled it with sparkling spring water, and placed it at the end of the table where the captain was to sit.

There was an abundance of hearty food: cold lamb, fresh Saturday’s bread, pies, doughnuts, and Indian pudding, and–

“Hello there!” shouted a harsh voice, penetrating two heavy oaken doors and startling the
faithful girl. “Hurry up! We can’t wait! We’re as hungry as–“

Charity did not hear any more. Her beaming face became sober with sympathy. “Poor, poor men!” she said to herself. “They are starving! My wicked pride–” she cast a reproachful look at the flashing table–“has kept
them too long.”

She hurried into the parlor and opened tho door. Her guests were scattered about the room, evidently examining tho ornaments with great care. One man had a silver inkstand in his hand which he was weighing. He started as if caught in some wickedness. The empty inkstand fell to the floor.

With a muffled exclamation the abashed man stooped and picked it up, and laid it softly upon the table.

“I didn’t mean to keep you waiting so long. Your dinner is ready now,” said Charity, in a sweet voice.

With her face flushed with excitement, responsibility, and embarrassment, she walked up to the leader. Then Lightfoot bent low and offered her his arm. This Charity took with all seriousness, for she had seen her
mother conducted by some guest to the table in the same way.

As the men stumbled out to the dining-room, one loitered behind. He took up the inkstand and slipped it into his pocket. Then a strange expression overspread his face. He took it out–and stood undecided. A tender look came into his eyes–he put the inkstand down, and quickly followed the rest. He wondered what was the matter with him. For the first time in his life he had missed a chance to steal.

Charity sat in her mother’s high-backed chair and place, her eyes beaming with satisfaction. The man whom they called “Cap’n” sat opposite, and began immediately to drink from the massive silver tankard.

“Won’t you ask the blessing first?” said the daughter of the godly house, gently, and a little reprovingly. She made the sign at the captain, and bowed her head reverently and shut her eyes.

At this extraordinary request, Lightfoot flushed. His men glanced at him. Some began to snicker. Some bowed their heads–it seemed as if they could not help it–for the first time since they were innocent children in Christian homes.

Some stared at the little girl and dared not stir. Thoughts such as they had not had for many a wicked year swept over them and shamed them. The ten scoundrels hardly dared to breathe at the table which they had come to plunder, until the blond hair lifted itself and showed a grieved face.

“I guess I did not ask the right man,” she began. Then she brightened. “Oh, I know. You asked a silent blessing. Father does sometimes, when he is very tired. Now do eat! There is more in the house.”

They ate, for the most part in silence. At last the hunger of her guests was satisfied, and one, the rudest of the lot, arose.

“Come now, cap’n,” he roared. “We’ve had enough of this pious fooling. Let us take the silver and be gone.”

As he spoke, he bent forward and gathered up the spoons within his reach. Mechanically a few followed his example. One grasped the teapot, another the sugar-bowl, and another the silver tankard at the captain’s right hand.

Poor Charity started back with a piteous cry. Her blue eyes began to grow very large, and fi11 with tears. She shrank, and then, not knowing what else to do, did the most daring and the surest thing she could–run to her friend, the captain, for protection.

In the meanwhile the table was in the wildest uproar. The glitter of greed shone dangerously in the faces of these ferocious men. But before their hands could find time to drop their plunder into their deep pouches, Lightfoot cried “Hold!” with one hand upon the girl’s shoulder, and with the other leveling his huge pistol at the miscreants before him.

“Put that silver back upon the table,” he shouted. “Would ye plunder the maid who has treated us like honest men?”

The captain’s great form towered them all. Charity leaned her head against his rough belt, and looked up at him confidingly. He cast a quick, reassuring glance at her, and faced his men imperiously. Most of them cowered before their lender, and obeyed. But one, he who had proposed the plunder, sneered back:

“No, no, cap’n–not this time. You’re elected to steal, and not to preach. You led us here for silver, and I mean to have it. You’re one against too many.”

With a sullen chuckle he reached forward for the tankard, which another man had dropped.

At this juncture the fellow who had left the inkstand in the parlor stepped out from the nine, and ranged himself behind his captain.

“You scoundrel!”

The voice that spoke was so terrible, and the eyes that blazed were so commanding, that the man who was handling the silver trembled and stopped.

“Put it down, or die! Obey!”

The conquered fellow obeyed.

“This is the first home dinner we have bad, for”–the captain’s voice quivered a little–“for too many years. We have been treated
like gentlemen. Shall we repay the hospitality of this little maid by plunder that a brute would scorn?”

“Please,” interrupted the little hostess with shaking lip: “Don”t take father’s silver or mother’s. It does not belong to me to give.”

She hesitated, and the captain looked at her protectively. The robbers hung their heads. She seemed to them a being from another world; and indeed she was. She went to the table and took up the silver tankard by the captain’s plate, and held it out to him with a pleading look.

“There! If you must take anything do you take this. My mother gave it to me to keep. I’ll try not to care;” she gulped down a sob. The splendid captain looked undecided.

“Aye,” he said, with emotion, which he strove in vain to conceal, “I will take it. This is the first thing I have come by honestly for fifteen years. I’ll keep it a while to remember you, dear child. Now men!” he shouted. “You have my orders. Obey me! Go! Leave this good house as ye have found it! Go!”

He stood until the last man of them had passed out. Then the captain lifted the child in his arms and kissed her.

Was it a tear she saw? He turned his face and put her down. The last of all his gang, he passed along the worn path–the tankard in his hand brushed the currant bushes.

The little gate shut with a click. They were gone. But nothing else was gone–except the tankard; not even a salt-spoon.

Charity, trembling and sobbing, got down upon her knees before the disordered dinner-table and tried to say her prayers. But all she could think of was the ninety-first Psalm. “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High,” sobbed Charity, “shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.”

Three months after, strange news reached the home which the kindly impulse of a child’s sweet faith had protected. Lightfoot’s crimes had carried him too far. He had been arrested, and after trial was convicted of many crimes, had been sentenced and must die. From his prison in Portsmouth he sent by a trusty messenger the silver tankard back to Charity.

“I kept it for her blessing,” he had said. “I never meant to part with that for a thief’s price. Now take the silver to the maid, and tell her I should die a better man if so be I could see her face again before I hang.”

Charity began to sob, and begged of her father, “Let me go to the poor man, for I feel that I must.”

So her father himself took her to the prison, and even to the cell of the condemned man. It is said that the child stayed with the captain almost to the last hour of his life on earth; and the story further runs, God only knows how truly, that the robber died sincerely sorry for his sins–saved for Christ’s love, through the little girl, the only human creature who had trusted him, and whom he did not harm.

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