Emerson Bennett’s “Two Remarkable Gentlemen” [1863]

The article below represents popular author Emerson Bennett’s first reworking of Michael Martin’s confession, focusing on one episode that Martin related. Bennett stays close to the source material, but pads the length out by a factor of four or five. This article was not reprinted as nearly as widely as Bennett’s later two stories.

by Emerson Bennett

On a clear, bright, balmy day, in the autumn of 1816, two travelers, well-mounted on a couple of fine horses, were quietly pursuing their way along a pleasant road in the western part of Ireland, some fifty miles from the city of Dublin. The elder of the two was a large, finely-proportioned man, some thirty-five years of age, with strongly-marked, intelligent features, dark hair, and very expressive black eyes. He rode with grace and dignity, and his dress and general appearance were those of a priest of the Church of England. The younger horseman was about twenty-one years of age, of lighter build than the elder, with coarser and more common-place features, and was altogether so inferior to his companion, in a certain courtly air and look of intelligence and breeding, that a close observer might have been justified in supposing them to be master and servant. It was a fine country through which they were passing, and both seemed to be in very good spirits.

“Upon my word, Mike,” said the elder, patting the neck of his horse, “this is a very fine animal–worth a hundred guineas, if I am a judge.”

“Five times as much as this is, sure!” growled the other.

“Why, of course you could expect the groom to be as well mounted as the baronet. But never mind! You will have a chance to trade your beast off before long, and get something more to your liking perhaps. It is better than going afoot, you admit?”

“Yes, of course.”

“As for mine,” pursued the elder, “I intend to keep him till I find a better, and I think on a dead race he would do me good service. Heigh-ho! What next? ‘By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes,’ says the witch in Macbeth. Now just the opposite of that will better express my present ideas of the immediate future. Suppose we let it run
‘By mine eternal ear,
Something pleasant now I hear,
Which betokens merry cheer,
As will presently appear.’
But, pshaw! What do you know about poetry, Mike? I might as well talk decent English to a full-blooded Cockney.”

“It was nature hersilf that made a great man of ye, Captain,” returned the other, with a good-natured laugh, “and it’ll be more the pity if ye spind your last minutes stretching hemp.”

The travelers now ascended a slight rise of ground, and came in sight of a beautiful mansion, half hidden in a grove of trees, the county seat of some gentleman of opulence.

“There,” said the elder, with a smile of satisfaction, “you see my prediction is about to be verified,–yonder is the spot for our ‘merry cheer.'”

“And do ye think of stopping there?” inquired the younger.

“To be sure, man–we must embrace all the chances, if only to keep our hands in.”

“And sure I’m willing enough,” rejoined the one called Mike, “and it’s hoping, I am, we’ll get something better than your poetry to reward us. Ye’ll manage the thing after your own fashion, Captain?”

“Of course–leave it all to me, Mike!” said the other, putting spurs to his horse.

The two now rode on at a brisk pace, and, in less than half an hour, reined up their horses at the very door of the mansion.

“Is this the residence of Sir John Barker?” inquired the one called captain, of the first servant that made his appearance.

“No sir–this is the estate of Mr. Wilbrook,” replied the latter, in a courteous tone.

“Ah, indeed! the very gentleman I wish to see!” rejoined the captain. “Is your master at home?”

“No, sir–he is away at a hunt.”

“That is unfortunate for me, as I have some very important business with him,” said the captain, with a musing air. “Perhaps some of the family are within?” he suggested.

“Oh, yes, sir–Mr. Wilbrook’s sisters are at home.”

“Ah, very well–I will, with their kind permission, have a word with them.” He quietly dismounted as he spoke, and his companion did the same. “Send some one to take charge of our horses,” he added, in the tone of one accustomed to give orders to his inferiors, “and then present the compliments of the Rev. Mr. Nugent and his friend to the ladies, and say it would afford us great pleasure to have a few minutes’ conversation with them.”

The servant bowed, with an air of profound respect, and called the groom, to whom he gave directions to have the gentlemen’s horses well attended to. Then, with another low bow, he said: “This way, gentlemen, if you please!” and conducted our travelers into an elegant apartment, used principally for the reception of visitors of quality. He then bowed himself out, and hastened to deliver his message to the ladies.

In a few minutes the latter made their appearance in the saloon, not a little curious to know what particular business two strange gentlemen could have with them. The Rev. Mr. Nugent rose as they entered, and, with an air of one accustomed to polite society, made a low bow, advanced a step, and said, with an appearance of some slight embarrassment:

“Ladies, I must really crave your pardon for troubling you; but the fact is, while riding across the country last night, a few miles distant from here, I was stopped by a man, having a mask on his face, who presented a pistol to my breast and demanded my money. To save my life, I was compelled to give him my purse, containing some twenty pounds, and a fine gold watch, which I prized far beyond its intrinsic value, because of its originally being a present to my lamented father from His Grace the Duke of Northumberland. After robbing me, the man fled in this direction, and I managed to trace him to within half a mile of your mansion. This and a few other circumstances, needless to mention, have led me to suspect the robber is one of your servants; and I have come hither with an officer, who is duly empowered to institute a search, and, if necessary, make an arrest.”

“Gracious Heaven! Can it be possible! exclaimed the eldest of the three ladies, throwing up her hands, while the others seemed petrified with astonishment. “I think there must be some mistake, sir!” she continued; “I cannot believe we have such a villain in our household!”

“For your sakes, ladies, I hope not,” said the revered gentleman; “but if there is, it will be all the better for you to have him discovered at once, and so I trust you will permit the officer and myself to make a proper examination!”

“Certainly, by all means–we have no desire to screen a highway robber–and if you succeed in discovering the villain, all we ask is that he may receive his just deserts. How will you proceed, gentlemen? What can we do to aid you?”

“I think it will be best to call all your servants into one apartment–females as well as males,” replied the Rev. Mr. Nugent; “and as fast as we examine them, let them pass into some small room–an adjoining one, if convenient–from which there is no exit save through the door of entrance. This will facilitate matters, in case we should wish to re-examine. In calling them together, however, permit me to caution you against giving any hint of the purpose for which they are required, as the robber, if among them, might in that case make his escape.”

“Your directions shall be followed to the letter,” said the eldest of the sisters, at once quitting the saloon.

During her absence, the Rev. Mr. Nugent entered into conversation with the two remaining ladies, assured them they had nothing to fear, and then quietly introduced a foreign topic, and made himself so delightfully entertaining, that they almost forgot the painful business which had brought him into their presence.

Miss Wilbrook was absent some quarter of an hour, and then returned to say that everything was in readiness for the proposed examination. She then conducted her visitors into a plainly furnished apartment, where all the servants were in waiting, and requested Mr. Nugent to make known his business to them, which he did in a few words. All seemed greatly astonished that a crime of such magnitude should be fixed, even by suspicion, upon any of their number, and each expressed his or her willingness to be questioned and searched.

“You may all be innocent,” said the priest, “and I hope, for the sake of these estimable ladies, you are–and if you are, of course you have nothing to fear. By-the-by,” he said, addressing Miss Wilbrook, “I think, with your permission, I will change my plan a little, and let them all enter the small room first, and so examine each separately as I call them out.”

“As you please, sir,” said the lady, opening a door into an adjoining apartment, and bidding her servants enter it. “It has another door on the opposite side,” she said, “but I have locked that, and here is the key.”

“Very good,” returned the priest, glancing into the other room; “that will answer our purpose perfectly. Let me see! You have a key to this door also? Ah, yes–here it is in the lock. I will just turn it for a few moments,” he added, as the last servant entered, “as I have something further to say privately to you, ladies.”

He nodded to his companion, who quietly drew a pistol, and stepped to the door leading out of the apartment they were in.

“Now, ladies,” pursued the reverend gentleman, in the same polite and courteous tone, “I am almost sorry to be obliged to undeceive you in respect to our real business here; but the fact is, you see, I am not exactly a clergyman, and instead of being robbed myself, it is my profession to rob others, and–There! There! Now do not be alarmed! We are not going to hurt you. I assure you, we are the most harmless creatures in the world, when well treated–though the devil does sometimes get into us when our wishes are crossed and our plans thwarted. Now we know there is a good deal of treasure in this elegant mansion–money, plate and so forth–and if one of you will have the kindness to accompany me and point it out, I will take it in charge, and the two others can remain here and entertain my friend during my absence. Come, Miss Wilbrook, may I not hope you will condescend to be my fair guide? ‘For this occasion only,’ as they say on the playbills.”

On discovering the real character of their visitors, the ladies had become very much alarmed, and had sunk down on the nearest seats, where they now sat, pale and trembling, knowing themselves completely in the power of the villains, but not knowing what they had to fear from them. On being addressed by name, Miss Wilbrook replied:

“If it is treasure only you seek I can soon show you all there is in the house; and will do so at once, if you will promise to depart quietly without doing any violence to persons or property.”

“Assuredly, madam, we promise all that, on our sacred honors! And as we are quite as anxious to hasten our leave as you are to have us, I trust you will oblige us by executing your part of the agreement with dispatch.”

Miss Wilbrook lost no time in placing before the robbers all the money and plate in the house; and then drawing a diamond ring from her finger, and producing a beautiful gold watch, she extended them to the principal highwayman, with the remark:

“I suppose you wish to deprive us of all our personal jewelry, also?”

It would have been a study for an artist to have seen the serio-comic look of surprise and offended dignity of the gallant captain as he heard these cruel words. Stepping back a pace and lifting his right hand deprecatingly, he exclaimed:

“Good gracious, madam, what do you take us for? We are not common thieves and pick-pockets–we never robbed a lady in our lives! No, no, no, ladies–be sure your personal property is perfectly safe. We shall only rob you of one thing more–a kiss all round–which, being a great gain to us and no actual loss to you, should not particularly disturb your equanimity.”

This the captain and his companion now proceeded to take, the ladies remaining rather passive under the operation, probably because they knew resistance would be worse than useless. The robbers then hurriedly divided the spoils between them, and prepared to leave.

“You will excuse our turning the lock on you!” said the captain, as he stood at the door, ready to depart. “You will easily get your freedom after we have gone. And now, kind ladies, farewell! To your children, if you should ever have any, this little episode in your peaceful, happy lives, will be a tale of novelty and interest. Our compliments to them, and to your worthy brother when he returns; and pray tell all your friends how astonished and frightened you were, when, after being robbed in the most polite and gentlemanly manner, the spokesman announced himself and companion as being none other than the terrible highwaymen, CAPTAINS THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT.

On hearing these fearful names the ladies did indeed utter involuntary cries of astonishment and alarm. Captain Thunderbolt, the speaker, instantly closed the door and locked it; and in less than two minutes the imprisoned ladies heard the clattering of horse’s hoofs, as the robbers dashed away down the road.

This is no fancy sketch–but, in good, sober truth, one of the almost daily romantic exploits of those two notorious highwaymen, who for years kept half of Great Britain in an uproar, and astonished the world with their successful daring. The horses they rode had recently been taken on the road from a baronet and his servant. A few miles further on, they exchanged them with two gentlemen whom they met; and that very night, at an inn where they stopped, the landlord, on suspicion, sent for some soldiers, who succeeded in arresting Thunderbolt, and taking him before a magistrate, who locked him up in his own dwelling, intending to send him to prison the next day. Lightfoot, who had effected his escape, disguised himself, mingled with the crowd, and was actually present at the examination. During the night he managed to set fire to the building, and, in the confusion and alarm which ensued, both the robbers effected their escape, and went boldly forward to new deeds of daring rascality.