One night during the session of 1746 this old Judge went down in his chair to wait in one of the rooms of the House of Lords for the result of a division in which he and his order were interested.
This over, he was about to return to his house close by, in his chair; but the night had become so soft and fine that he changed his mind, sent it home empty, and with two footmen, each with a flambeau, set out on foot in preference. Gout had made him rather a slow pedestrian. It took him some time to get through the two or three streets he had to pass before reaching his house.
In one of those narrow streets of tall houses, perfectly silent at that hour, he overtook, slowly as he was walking, a very singular-looking old gentleman.
He had a bottle-green coat on, with a cape to it, and large stone buttons, a broad-leafed low-crowned hat, from under which a big powdered wig escaped; he stooped very much, and supported his bending knees with the aid of a crutch-handled cane, and so shuffled and tottered along painfully.
"I ask your pardon, sir," said this old man, in a very quavering voice, as the burly Judge came up with him, and he extended his hand feebly towards his arm.
Mr. Justice Harbottle saw that the man was by no means poorly dressed, and his manner that of a gentleman.
The Judge stopped short, and said, in his harsh peremptory tones, "Well, sir, how can I serve you?"
"Can you direct me to Judge Harbottle's house? I have some intelligence of the very last importance to communicate to him."
"Can you tell it before witnesses?" asked the Judge.
"By no means; it must reach his ear only," quavered the old man earnestly.
"If that be so, sir, you have only to accompany me a few steps farther to reach my house, and obtain a private audience; for I am Judge Harbottle."
With this invitation the infirm gentleman in the white wig complied very readily; and in another minute the stranger stood in what was then termed the front parlour of the Judge's house, tête-à-tête with that shrewd and dangerous functionary.
He had to sit down, being very much exhausted, and unable for a little time to speak; and then he had a fit of coughing, and after that a fit of gasping; and thus two or three minutes passed, during which the Judge dropped his roquelaure on an arm-chair, and threw his cocked-hat over that.
The venerable pedestrian in the white wig quickly recovered his voice. With closed doors they remained together for some time.
There were guests waiting in the drawing-rooms, and the sound of men's voices laughing, and then of a female voice singing to a harpsichord, were heard distinctly in the hall over the stairs; for old Judge Harbottle had arranged one of his dubious jollifications, such as might well make the hair of godly men's heads stand upright for that night.
This old gentleman in the powdered white wig, that rested on his stooped shoulders, must have had something to say that interested the Judge very much; for he would not have parted on easy terms with the ten minutes and upwards which that conference filched from the sort of revelry in which he most delighted, and in which he was the roaring king, and in some sort the tyrant also, of his company.
The footman who showed the aged gentleman out observed that the Judge's mulberry-coloured face, pimples and all, were bleached to a dingy yellow, and there was the abstraction of agitated thought in his manner, as he bid the stranger good-night. The servant saw that the conversation had been of serious import, and that the Judge was frightened.
Instead of stumping upstairs forthwith to his scandalous hilarities, his profane company, and his great china bowl of punch—the identical bowl from which a bygone Bishop of London, good easy man, had baptised this Judge's grandfather, now clinking round the rim with silver ladles, and hung with scrolls of lemon-peel—instead, I say, of stumping and clambering up the great staircase to the cavern of his Circean enchantment, he stood with his big nose flattened against the window-pane, watching the progress of the feeble old man, who clung stiffly to the iron rail as he got down, step by step, to the pavement.
The hall-door had hardly closed, when the old Judge was in the hall bawling hasty orders, with such stimulating expletives as old colonels under excitement sometimes indulge in now-a-days, with a stamp or two of his big foot, and a waving of his clenched fist in the air. He commanded the footman to overtake the old gentleman in the white wig, to offer him his protection on his way home, and in no case to show his face again without having ascertained where he lodged, and who he was, and all about him.
"By —-, sirrah! if you fail me in this, you doff my livery to-night!"
Forth bounced the stalwart footman, with his heavy cane under his arm, and skipped down the steps, and looked up and down the street after the singular figure, so easy to recognize.
What were his adventures I shall not tell you just now.
The old man, in the conference to which he had been admitted in that stately panelled room, had just told the Judge a very strange story. He might be himself a conspirator; he might possibly be crazed; or possibly his whole story was straight and true.
The aged gentleman in the bottle-green coat, in finding himself alone with Mr. Justice Harbottle, had become agitated. He said,
"There is, perhaps you are not aware, my lord, a prisoner in Shrewsbury jail, charged with having forged a bill of exchange for a hundred and twenty pounds, and his name is Lewis Pyneweck, a grocer of that town."
"Is there?" says the Judge, who knew well that there was.
"Yes, my lord," says the old man.
"Then you had better say nothing to affect this case. If you do, by —-, I'll commit you! for I'm to try it," says the judge, with his terrible look and tone.
"I am not going to do anything of the kind, my lord; of him or his case I know nothing, and care nothing. But a fact has come to my knowledge which it behoves you to well consider."
"And what may that fact be?" inquired the Judge; "I'm in haste, sir, and beg you will use dispatch."
"It has come to my knowledge, my lord, that a secret tribunal is in process of formation, the object of which is to take cognisance of the conduct of the judges; and first, of your conduct, my lord; it is a wicked conspiracy."
"Who are of it?" demands the Judge.
"I know not a single name as yet. I know but the fact, my lord; it is most certainly true."
"I'll have you before the Privy Council, sir," says the Judge.
"That is what I most desire; but not for a day or two, my lord."
"And why so?"
"I have not as yet a single name, as I told your lordship; but I expect to have a list of the most forward men in it, and some other papers connected with the plot, in two or three days."
"You said one or two just now."
"About that time, my lord."
"Is this a Jacobite plot?"
"In the main I think it is, my lord."
"Why, then, it is political. I have tried no State prisoners, nor am like to try any such. How, then, doth it concern me?"
"From what I can gather, my lord, there are those in it who desire private revenges upon certain judges."
"What do they call their cabal?"
"The High Court of Appeal, my lord."
"Who are you, sir? What is your name?"
"Hugh Peters, my lord."
"That should be a Whig name?"
"It is, my lord." "Where do you lodge, Mr. Peters?"
"In Thames Street, my lord, over against the sign of the 'Three Kings.'"
"'Three Kings?' Take care one be not too many for you, Mr. Peters! How come you, an honest Whig, as you say, to be privy to a Jacobite plot? Answer me that."
"My lord, a person in whom I take an interest has been seduced to take a part in it; and being frightened at the unexpected wickedness of their plans, he is resolved to become an informer for the Crown."
"He resolves like a wise man, sir. What does he say of the persons? Who are in the plot? Doth he know them?"
"Only two, my lord; but he will be introduced to the club in a few days, and he will then have a list, and more exact information of their plans, and above all of their oaths, and their hours and places of meeting, with which he wishes to be acquainted before they can have any suspicions of his intentions. And being so informed, to whom, think you, my lord, had he best go then?"
"To the king's attorney-general straight. But you say this concerns me, sir, in particular? How about this prisoner, Lewis Pyneweck? Is he one of them?"
"I can't tell, my lord; but for some reason, it is thought your lordship will be well advised if you try him not. For if you do, it is feared 'twill shorten your days."
"So far as I can learn, Mr. Peters, this business smells pretty strong of blood and treason. The king's attorney-general will know how to deal with it. When shall I see you again, sir?"
"If you give me leave, my lord, either before your lordship's court sits, or after it rises, to-morrow. I should like to come and tell your lordship what has passed."
"Do so, Mr. Peters, at nine o'clock to-morrow morning. And see you play me no trick, sir, in this matter; if you do, by —-, sir, I'll lay you by the heels!"
"You need fear no trick from me, my lord; had I not wished to serve you, and acquit my own conscience, I never would have come all this way to talk with your lordship."
"I'm willing to believe you, Mr. Peters; I'm willing to believe you, sir."
And upon this they parted.
"He has either painted his face, or he is consumedly sick," thought the old Judge.
The light had shown more effectually upon his features as he turned to leave the room with a low bow, and they looked, he fancied, unnaturally chalky.
"D—- him!" said the Judge ungraciously, as he began to scale the stairs: "he has half-spoiled my supper."
But if he had, no one but the Judge himself perceived it, and the evidence was all, as any one might perceive, the other way.