We huddled in the trees and waited.
It was cold sitting there, and I had brought no gloves. I sat and watched a spider spin his web, then broke it so that I could watch him start building again.
And still we waited.
We waited as groups of farmers took the path; we waited as carts travelled with their loads; we watched the stagecoach roar by with steam billowing from the horses’ nostrils. Then, finally, we saw a lone man walking down the road, looking anxiously around him. 'Here comes our mark,' whispered John.
Nervously, I watched the man approach. I hoped some others would appear so that it wouldn't have to happen, so we wouldn't need to see our plan through. I felt cold sweat accumulate on my brow and trickle down past my temple. I flexed my hands, attempting to remove the stiffness from my fingers. I checked again, but not a single unsuspecting saviour came. When the man was but five yards from us and after a final glance both ways along the road, we leapt from cover. 'I will take your cash, good sir, if you please,' announced my companion loudly.
The man started and moved to run. I acted without thinking, grasping his collar and holding him tight.
'I do suggest, Sir, that it is better for your well-being to accommodate my friend,' I told him.
'But.. But I have nothing!' the man exclaimed.
'You do, Sir, for I can see it tucked inside your coat,' I told him, for indeed I could see a leather pouch from my vantage point several inches higher than he. He paused. Then, feeling my hand tighten on his collar, he reluctantly extracted his purse and handed it over.
Taking it, John turned away.
'No, my friend,' I told him, 'we take the excess. Do not leave the poor man completely penniless. Leave him a shilling, for I feel we can afford to be generous having so recently come into money.' John looked at me as if I had taken leave of my senses. But I stood steadfast, and so he rummaged in the pouch, extracted a shilling, and returned it to the victim. With that, I pushed the man away from me, and John and I sprinted across the road, through the gate and into the field, where we ran, laughing like the very devil, until the road was no longer in sight. We avoided the usual paths and roadways on the way back to our village, not wanting to be seen and identified as coming from Oadby.
As Wigston came into sight, we paused and divided the spoils. There was more than four weeks' wages in the pouch, and I was delighted by the outcome. Then we split up, not wanting to be seen returning to the village together. My route took me past Tommy Ross's cottage. I felt strangely exhilarated, and wanted Tommy to join me for a drink, and so I rapped on the door.
His mother appeared and waved me inside. I had never been into Tommy's house, and being from a fairly prosperous family myself, I was shocked by what I found inside. Although clean, the place was so meagrely furnished that I was forced to stand or as best I could, for the ceiling was very low. Tommy sheepishly rose to greet me. 'George!' he exclaimed. 'What brings you here on a cold night like this?'
'Tommy. I, er.. well, I wondered if you would like to join me for a drink this evening.'
'Georgie, I have no money left,' he told me, embarrassment reddening his cheeks, 'nor will I have until I am paid this coming Friday, as you well know.'
'I have some money.' I looked at the remains of the clearly frugal meal I had interrupted. 'I never knew, Tommy. I didn't realise.'
'Never realised what?' asked Tommy, bristling.
'I never realised how p... I mean, how difficult life is for you.'
'Well, as you see, it is,' he muttered defensively. 'Father died some years ago, and the only money we have is the pittance I earn. I do try to keep up with you all, and Mother insists that I must socialise, but it is difficult, I admit it.' And then I did what I would always remember as a key moment in my working life: I rummaged in my pocket and extracted a shiny crown, before turning to his mother. 'Mrs Ross, madam, I assure you, I had no idea life was so difficult for you. No idea whatsoever. I cannot stand by whilst my friend's family has such difficulties. I have here a crown, which I can easily spare. Please, tomorrow, buy good food and drink, for the family of a friend of mine is my family also, and my family cannot be allowed to continue in penury like this. I shall make sure of it.' Mrs Ross stared at the shiny crown, drawn, yet unwilling to accept charity.
'I assure you, madam, this is not charity. This is a friend helping out another friend in the sure knowledge that, were the situation reversed, I could expect exactly the same assistance.' Reluctantly, she took the proffered money, and then kissed my hand. 'Thank you, dear Georgie. We shall not forget.'
I took her hand and kissed it back. 'I am counting on it,' I said, little realising how prophetic that statement was.
How did I come to this? How did I become a thief when I had been born to a reasonably well-off family? Well, I had lived only nineteen summers, a mere
stripling but nevertheless big for my age. When I was not working, I was normally to be found in one of the local hostelries with a tankard in my hand-usually
singing or dancing, or both. We were a merry bunch of lads, but perhaps somewhat more boisterous for the tastes of other patrons.
One of my drinking companions was John Green, a local villain who kept himself in beer by robbing travellers along the main road to the East near Oadby.
But he was great fun with a belly full of ale, and as I was by far stronger and bigger than him I felt secure that he would not try to rob me.
He was, however, several years older, so had a wealth of experience in the ways of the world that far exceeded my own-and thus he knew how to get his own way
with a callow youth such as I.
One evening, there were only the two of us drinking together, so we were just sitting quietly by the door.
'George, are you interested in making some more bits?' he asked me with a furtive look around to make sure no-one was listening.
'Always,' I laughed. 'You know I run out of funds by Tuesday every week!' 'Leicester Market is tomorrow, and the farmers return home in the evening with full purses. With someone of your strength beside me, I could take more of them, and we could share the proceeds. At the moment, I can only take those of a small build.' I pondered on this. The idea of having enough money to continue carousing through the week was very appealing, but I was nervous about his proposition.
'What if we get caught?'
'We run,' he said casually. I can usually outstrip most men, and I know you have at least a yard on me.'
'Will they not report it to the peace officers?'
'Of course they will. But unless they know us, how will they be able to identify us? We will be sitting down to a frothing pint of ale here in the village before they can get to a peace officer. It's not as if we're talking about robbing anyone here in the village.' I thought about this and, with that pondering, I realised that all he was saying was true-but it didn't feel right. I did, however, want to be able to afford to enjoy myself every day and I could feel the temptation gradually winning. 'But most farmers are as poor as church mice!'
'Not true,' he argued simply. 'Some are, I grant you, but have you seen the price of bread of late? Most make plenty from their crops and so are very wealthy. But they are unwilling to spend the money on buying themselves a rich lifestyle; it's just a few more guineas to add to the trunkful they already have.' I thought for a moment. John was so persuasive. It didn't seem right, but...
'Very well, I will do it. Just the once to start with, then I shall see how I feel.'
'But,' I cautioned, 'we rob no poor men. Only the rich ones!'
'Of course!' He clapped me on the back. 'We'll make a great team, you and I.'
I was less sure, but even so, I smiled back at him. And thus, the deal was made.
Of course, I didn't go out thieving every night, but just a few times each month. I earned a modest wage as a frame knitter and had convinced myself that my little robberies were simply to top up my wage so that I could go out every night. I don't think I even thought of these bonuses as wrong, as criminal; it was as if I were simply collecting what was due to me.