Blind Jack Of Knaresborough

: The Strange Story Book

This is the story of a blind man who did more, without any eyes at all,

than many people can do with two. For numbers of children need really to

be taught to use their eyes, or they will never see things that are

right under their noses; or else they will only see exactly what they

are looking for, and nothing besides.

Blind Jack's proper name was John Metcalfe, and he was born in the town

of Knaresboroug
in Yorkshire, in 1717. His parents seem to have been

comfortably off--small farmers perhaps, as we are told that Jack learned

to ride on his father's horses; and at four years old he was sent to

school, exactly as a child of working people would be now. The boy was

very quick and had a good memory and his teachers were proud of him, and

prophesied that he would be a great scholar, and who knew if some day he

might not be Lord Chancellor, or even Archbishop of Canterbury? The

Metcalfes quite agreed that nothing was more likely; but a sudden end

was put to these dreams when one morning Jack woke with a rash all over

his face and chest, and the doctor declared he had got small-pox.

Now in those times, before babies were vaccinated, small-pox was a most

terrible disease and very few lived through it without being marked in

one way or another. Jack was very ill, but he does not appear to have

been pitted like some of the other children who suffered from it, and

only his mother observed that when the crisis was over and the boy was

getting better every day, and beginning to chatter again, he did not, as

was usual with him, make remarks on the things he saw around him or out

of the window. Then a dreadful fear shot through her heart. Could it be

that he was blind? With great difficulty she controlled her voice and

answered the child's questions, but with every hour she understood more

clearly that what she dreaded had indeed come to pass. By and bye Jack

himself wondered why the curtains always seemed to be drawn in his room

and asked his mother to pull them back. She invariably had some good

excuse for his remaining in the dark, and little by little the truth

dawned on him also. We cannot guess at the poor boy's horror at his

fate, nor at his struggles to behave like a man, but as he grew

gradually accustomed to his darkness and became stronger, he made up his

mind, as other blind people have done, that if he was so unlucky as to

have lost his eyes, he would learn to get on just as well without them.

* * * * *

The bare idea of all he would do was exciting. As Jack sat by the fire

in the kitchen or lay curled up in the window-seat listening to the

horses which went by, he began to make his plans for the future. How

fortunate it was that he was able to ride already!--why, most of the

boys at school, who were not blind at all, had never been across a

horse's back, far less galloped at full speed up and down the street as

Jack had loved to do! So he, blind though he was, could do something

which they could not, and had the start of them! Now that he could walk

about the room without falling down from weakness he must lose no more

time, but try and learn the positions of the chairs and tables and count

exactly how many steps there were on the staircase, so that he might

soon run up and down them as fast as he did before. The next thing was

to trust himself in the street, and find his way about. He was rather

shy at first, and felt a little bewildered, but he would not go home

till he had gone as far as the baker's shop--up and down, up and down,

several times over.

'Well, I can go there all right, if mother sends me,' he said to

himself, and walked home in triumph to tell his parents.

Having once made a beginning, Jack never let a day pass without learning

to do something fresh, till by the time he was nine he could carry

messages to any part of Knaresborough as well as another boy. He had a

good many friends of his own age, and with them he would go on

expeditions into the woods near the town, and even climb trees after

birds' eggs. Very quickly the boys discovered that Jack was a better

climber than any of them. He was so light, and then he could tell by his

sense of touch if a branch was rotten, or whether he might trust himself

upon it, and it was not long before it was Jack who was always sent to

the top of the tree while the rest remained at the bottom. His mother

suffered agonies of fear at first during these hours that the boy was

away, but she knew it was no use trying to hinder him, and after a while

she ceased to trouble, as Jack never came to harm, and she had too much

to do in looking after the younger children to worry about him. It was

impossible to keep Jack in the house; if he was not in a tree, he was on

the back of a horse or exercising a couple of young hounds that his

father had given him; but when, about thirteen, he showed a liking for

music, she had him properly taught, in the hope of inducing him to stay

at home in the winter evenings.

It was in the summer after this that Blind Jack made friends with some

bad boys, whose chief delight consisted of robbing cherry orchards; not

so much, if the truth be told, for the sake of the cherries, as for the

pleasure of doing what they ought not. One hot night Jack stole quietly

to the window of the room which he shared with his little brothers, and

swinging himself down through the branches of a tree as lightly as a

cat, was over the garden wall in a moment and in the street. Once there

he ran quickly to the porch of the parish church, reaching it as the

clock struck twelve, and just as the rest of the band, who were waiting

for him there, had almost given him up. They set off silently to the

orchard and soon had gathered a large basket of ripe cherries, which had

been intended by the farmer's wife for the Knaresborough market next

day. Enchanted with their booty, the young thieves hurried back in order

to eat the cherries comfortably and warmly inside the church. They were

in the highest spirits and felt that after their success they were

capable of capturing a fort or holding an army at bay. So seizing the

big iron ring on the church door which lifted the latch, one of the

leaders exclaimed loudly:

'A tankard of ale here!' as if he was entering a tavern. Of course he

meant nothing, but from within a voice answered:

'You are at the wrong house.' This so startled the boys that they were

struck dumb, hardly believing their ears, till Metcalfe whispered


'Didn't you hear something speak in the church?' This put their own

fears into words, and, as one boy, they all turned and fled. When they

had put a long distance between themselves and the churchyard they

stopped, feeling quite brave again, and began to discuss the matter and

what the voice could have been; but as none of their guesses satisfied

them, they determined to go back and try to find out for themselves.

As soon as they were again in the churchyard path, they saw bright

lights in the church and at once fancied it was on fire. This idea was

delightful to them, as they foresaw all kinds of fun in helping to put

it out. But before they even had time to open the west door in the

porch, they heard once more the latch being lifted from the inside. All

their old terror returned, and they rushed home as fast as they could,

the sexton's son even jumping into his mother's bed for protection.

The laugh against him was loudest of all next day, when it was

discovered that the supposed fire was only some candles lit by the

sexton himself, who was in the church with the grave-digger, opening a

vault for a funeral which was to take place early in the morning; and

the voice which had so frightened the boys was that of the grave-digger.

For some time the young thieves were jeered at by the whole town, and

grew to hate the very sight of a cherry, so the adventure had one good

result, for they let the orchards alone.

Metcalfe now had to amuse himself in some other way, and as many of his

friends used to meet every evening in order to bathe in the pools of the

river Nidd, he would not be left behind, and persuaded one of them to

teach him to swim and dive. Of course, all those things would have been

impossible if he had been the least nervous or frightened, but Blind

Jack did not know what fear was of any earthly thing. At least he had

thought at the time that the voice and the lights in the church were

ghostly, and anybody might be afraid of ghostly manifestations. But

with the air and the shouts of other boys about him, he was as brave as

a lion, and soon could swim farther and dive deeper than any of them.

The Nidd is one of those rivers which easily rise and fall, and it is

full of 'holes,' as they are called, where the water swirls and eddies,

and whatever is swept over them by the current always stops for a moment

and then slowly sinks. In some strange way which was never explained by

him, Jack contrived to reach these holes without being drawn into the

eddies, and it quickly became a regular trade with him to rescue with

the aid of a hooked stick anything which had sunk in the pool. In this

way he drew up several pieces of valuable wood, a quantity of wool swept

into the river by a sudden flood, and even the body of a drowned man.

* * * * *

Jack was now about fifteen and was famous throughout Knaresborough,

which had grown quite proud of him. He had continued to practise his

violin, and everybody declared that never were country-dances danced

with such spirit as when Jack was the fiddler. So very speedily he got

an engagement as one of a band of four musicians to appear at the

Assembly Rooms once a fortnight, where a ball was given, and was invited

besides to many other places round about. In this very year too, 1732,

he was offered the post of fiddler at Harrogate, for the old man who had

held it for seventy years, and was now a hundred, could no longer play

briskly enough to please the young people. Jack's only assistant was a

boy younger than himself, whom he took about everywhere. Perhaps they

both rode pillion--that is, one behind the other; for Jack had saved up

his earnings and bought a horse, of which he was very fond. On its back

he was to be seen at Ripon or Boroughbridge or many other towns, and

when people were tired of giving balls, Metcalfe would run his horse at

the small races, of which there are so many in Yorkshire. Here he met

with some of the gentlemen who lived in the neighbourhood, and as they

all admired the cleverness and courage with which he had triumphed

over his blindness, and found him besides an amusing companion, they

made friends with him and sometimes invited him to stay in their houses

and hunt with them. To Mr. Barlow, of Middleton near York, he once paid

a visit of six months, and while there became acquainted with a

celebrated musician called Hebdin, who begged him to come and see him,

so that they might practise together. Jack accepted the kind offer

gladly, and when no hunting was to be had he went to York, and would

play for hours in the old house near the walls.

He had been there one day at the end of his visit to Mr. Barlow, trying

over a new piece of music before going home to his parents at

Knaresborough, which was a long ride even for him. By this time he could

find his way through all the principal streets, and as he was passing

the George Inn, the landlord ran out and told him that a gentleman was

dining there who wanted to reach Harrogate that night, but that as he

was a stranger he must have a guide.

'You can be as good a guide as anybody,' added the man, 'if you are

going that way.'

'Yes, I can,' answered Metcalfe; 'but you mustn't tell him I am blind,

or he won't believe it.'

'Oh! I'll take care,' replied the landlord. 'Wait here! he will be out

in a minute,' and the stranger was only too thankful to start at once,

for it was getting late. He insisted, however, that Jack should be given

a cup of wine before they set forth, as the landlord had made some

excuse for his refusal to enter the inn.

The gentleman and his guide were passing the corner of Ousegate, when

Jack was startled at hearing a shout of 'There goes Squire Barlow's

Blind Huntsman,' but he perceived from the manner in which his companion

continued the conversation that if the words had reached his ears, they

had no meaning for him. They rode steadily on for some distance,

Metcalfe carefully placing himself a little in front, so that the

gentleman should only see part of his face when he turned to answer his

questions. Once or twice he had some fears as to whether he was taking

the right road or not, but by long practice he had so sharpened his

other senses that the slightest sign was sufficient for him. He could

tell by the feeling of the wind or the echo of the horses' hoofs if they

were in the open country, or if a wall ran along one side of the road,

and he could detect at once the presence of water. All through that long

ride he only made one mistake and that his companion never guessed. He

bent down to open the gate, but as it was seven months since he had

passed that way he approached it at the wrong side, which he perceived

instantly when his hand touched the hinges. However, he did not lose his

presence of mind, and quickly backed his horse, exclaiming as he did so:

'Confound thee! thou always goest to the gate heel instead of the head.'

'He does seem a little awkward,' observed the gentleman. 'Let me try:

mine is rather good at a gate,' and as he spoke he rode forward and

swung it open.

It was now quite dark, and though of course that made no difference to

Metcalfe, his companion had much ado to see his way. However, he

followed his guide carefully and at length they found themselves in the

streets of Knaresborough.

'Let us stop and have a bottle of wine,' said the stranger, for he was

tired from being so many hours in the saddle; but Jack told him that the

horses were too hot to think of halting, and they pressed on. By and bye

as they were passing under an oil lamp hung by a chain across the road,

a boy cried out:

'That's Blind Jack!'

'Not he,' answered another; 'that fellow is much too dark.' Jack

chuckled to himself as he listened to them, but never turned his head.

Over the bridge they went and into the forest.

'What is that light I see?' asked the gentleman when they had gone a

little distance. His guide guessed that it must be a will-o'-the-wisp

from some swampy ground that lay there, but was careful not to betray

himself by saying so lest he should be mistaken.

'Do you not see two lights?' he inquired by way of making some answer;

'one on the right and the other on the left.'

'No; I can only distinguish one--one on the right,' replied the


'Then that is Harrogate,' said Jack. 'We shall soon be there now,' and

in a quarter of an hour they drew rein in the courtyard of the Granby

inn. Early hours were kept in those days and the ostler had gone to bed,

so Jack, who knew the place well, stabled the horses himself after

rubbing them down. He then went into the inn where his companion was

seated by the fire, with a pewter pot of hot spiced wine beside him.

'You must be as cold and tired as I am,' observed the gentleman; 'it is

your turn to have a drink.' To his surprise, Metcalfe, who happened to

be thinking of something else, stretched out his hand at first very wide

of the mark, a fact which did not escape the stranger's eye, though Jack

at once recollected himself, and, noting from what direction the voice

proceeded, picked up the tankard, took a good draught and left the room.

'My guide must have drunk a good deal, landlord, since we arrived,' then

said the gentleman.

'And what makes you think so, sir?' asked the landlord.

'Well, his eyes look so odd, and he fumbled about so after the tankard.'

'Yes, sir? Why, don't you know he is blind?'

'Blind!' echoed the stranger; 'impossible!'

'Yes, sir, as blind as a bat.'

'Blind!' repeated the gentleman again. 'Call him back. I should like to

speak to him,' and as Jack entered he exclaimed:

'My friend, is it really true that you are blind?'

'It is indeed, sir. I lost my sight when I was six years old.'

'Had I known that, I would not have ventured with you for a hundred


'And I, sir, would not have lost my way for a thousand,' answered Jack

with a laugh, as he pocketed the two guineas held out to him.

* * * * *

Metcalfe, as we know, was fond of races, like a true Yorkshire-man, and

he often ran his horse for private bets. On one occasion he laid a wager

with some other young men that he would win what would now be called a

point-to-point race--that is, posts were set up at different places for

the distance of a mile, and the competitors were bound to pass each of

them. The whole course was three miles, and they were obliged to go

round it three times. Every man was to ride his own horse, and as it

seemed almost impossible that even Blind Jack should be able to stick to

the course, the odds were heavy against him.

On the morning of the race Jack might have been seen by anyone who had

got up early enough, going round to the four inns that Knaresborough

contained, and coming away from each with a big dinner-bell in his hand,

and numbers of little ones in a bag. These he distributed among his

friends, and ordered them to stand out at every post, and at a certain

number of yards in between. As the bells were to be rung in turn, he had

a perfect chain of sound to guide him the entire distance. With the help

of this, he felt he had no reason to fear any rivals, and, as his horse

was both fast and steady, he easily won the race.

When the cheers of the crowd had somewhat died down, a gentleman named

Skelton came up to Metcalfe and offered to make a bet with him that he

would not gallop a certain horse of his for a hundred and fifty yards,

and pull him up within two hundred. The horse chosen was noted for

having a very hard mouth, and to be ready to bolt at every opportunity.

Metcalfe never refused a wager and accepted this one eagerly, but

stipulated that he should be allowed to select his own ground.

'Very well,' answered Skelton; 'but remember there must be no hedges or

walls. Do you agree to that?'

'I agree,' said Metcalfe; 'see that the stakes are deposited, and I will

let you know later where the wager shall come off.'

The day was fixed for the following Saturday, and the night before,

Skelton received a message bidding him to be at the old Spa not far from

Harrogate at eleven o'clock. He arrived punctually, but found Metcalfe

and his horse there before him. Now Blind Jack knew what Skelton did

not, that about a hundred and fifty yards from the old Spa there was a

very large bog, in which three weeks earlier a traveller had got stuck

in the dark, and would inevitably have been sucked down had not Jack

heard his cries and managed to rescue him. The few minutes before the

appearance of Skelton had been used by the cunning youth to place a

friend near the entrance of the bog, with orders to stand with his back

to the wind and sing a song at the top of his voice. This was to be

Blind Jack's guide to the direction he wanted.

'I am quite ready, you see,' he cried, as Skelton rode up. 'Give the

word and I will start.'

'Go!' said Skelton, and away the horse bounded at the top of his speed

straight into the bog, which held him like a vice. Cautiously Metcalfe

dismounted and picked his way as well as he was able till he was on firm

ground again, when he demanded the money he had won, which was at once

handed over to him. He then went back to extricate his horse, but this

was no easy matter, for, in his flounderings to get free, the poor beast

had only sunk deeper and deeper. However, by the help of two or three

men who had been watching the wager, this was at last accomplished, and

Jack rode smilingly home, both man and horse covered with dirt up to

their necks.

* * * * *

Jack grew up a great deal more quickly than most boys, and by the time

he was twenty had fallen very much in love with a girl called Dorothy

Benson, who lived at Harrogate. For a long while they only met secretly,

as both well knew that the elder Bensons would never allow their

daughter to marry a man who was not only poor and blind, but earned his

living by fiddling at balls all over the country.

Matters were in this state when Jack, who had not been to Harrogate for

seven months, suddenly heard that he had a rival. This was a prosperous

shoemaker called Dickinson, much favoured by Dolly's parents, and they

seemed to have pressed her so hard to accept the man that she consented

to have the banns published in church. This news woke up Metcalfe, who,

thinking he had won Dolly's heart, was taking things rather easily, and

he at once resolved that Miss Benson should be the wife of no one but

himself, and after much consideration he laid his plans.

Now Dickinson, in order to celebrate his marriage, had arranged to give

a dinner to two hundred of his workpeople, and this took place on a

Saturday in his native parish of Kirkby-Overblow. The wedding was fixed

for Monday, and for some reason it was to be at Knaresborough, though

the breakfast was to be held at Harrogate.

On the Sunday Blind Jack came to Harrogate and was riding past the hotel

of the Royal Oak, when he was startled at the sound of a voice close to

him saying:

'One wants to speak with you.' He pulled up his horse in surprise, but

instantly recognised the voice to be that of a maid of the Bensons. She

turned towards the stables, telling him to follow, and there was

Mistress Dolly herself, anxious and excited, as he guessed by the tremor

of her tone as she said:

'I knew you would come, so I sent for you.'

'Well, lass,' he answered, pretending not to care, though his heart was

beating fast; 'thou's going to have a merry day to-morrow; am I to be

the fiddler?'

'Thou never shalt fiddle at my wedding,' replied she.

'Why--what have I done?' asked Metcalfe, bent on teasing her; but she

only answered darkly that matters might not end as some folks thought

they would, and she might wish things done another way. But, though her

words might not have seemed very plain to another person, Metcalfe


'What! Wouldst thou rather have me? Canst thou bear starving?'

'Yes,' said she; 'with thee I can.'

So that was settled, and nothing remained but to arrange when and how

Dolly could escape from the house.

'Thou must put a light in thy window when everyone is asleep to-night,'

said Jack.

'A light!' cried Dolly; 'but what good is that to thee?'

'Ay, a light; and as for the "good," leave that to me,' answered Jack,

who had already thought of a friend to help him. 'And now farewell, lest

they should seek for thee.'

That evening he went to a trusty man, who was ostler at the inn of the

World's End, and told him his story.

'Canst thou borrow thy master's mare for the night?' asked Jack

anxiously. 'She is used to carry double, and my horse is not.'

'Ay, if she is in her stable before morning,' replied the ostler; and

then Jack begged him to be at Raffle's shop at ten o'clock, and to

whistle when he got there by way of a signal.

Ten o'clock found them both at the appointed place, but they had to wait

some time before the ostler announced that the promised light was in the

window. Leaving both horses tied up a little way off--for Metcalfe had

brought his own--they stole up to the Bensons' house and gave a faint

tap at the door. Dolly was expecting Jack and came out, shutting the

door after her.

'Not so fast,' said he; 'hast thou not brought any gowns? It would be

well, as thou mayst not see thy mother for some time; and where is thy

new pillion and cloth that thy father gavest thee?'

'Oh dear!' she replied, 'I had forgotten all that. I have nineteen or

twenty gowns, and sure, I cannot bring them all. The pillion is in the

other part of the house, but we must have it. As the door is shut, I

will wake my sister, but she can keep a silent tongue.' She then threw

some gravel at her sister's window, which, like her own, looked out on

to the street, and in another moment the door was opened by Mistress


'I want my new tabby gown and the pillion,' whispered Dolly; and her

sister, who knew more about the whole affair than Dolly had any idea of,

showed no surprise at her request or at the sight of the two men

standing in the shadow.

'The pillion? But it is in the room where Dickinson is lying,' she

answered in some dismay.

'Oh, never mind, I will get it!' said Dolly, and, going upstairs, softly

entered the room, which was lit by moonlight, and took up the pillion

and cloth, which had been placed on a chair.

'Who is that?' asked Dickinson, awakened by her entrance.

'It is only me,' said the girl; 'I've come to fetch the pillion, so that

I may brush it and have it ready for to-morrow.'

'That's well thought on,' replied the bridegroom; and, turning on his

pillow, he fell asleep again.

Metcalfe smiled as he heard the latch lifted, and took the pillion from

her. The ostler put it on his master's mare, then jumping into the

saddle, swung Dolly up behind him. Metcalfe mounted his own horse, and

they rode away twelve miles to the house of a clergyman whom he had

often met on the hunting field. The good man took some time to wake, but

at length he came down, and, when he found out what was required of him,

hurried into his gown and bands without asking questions, and in a few

minutes Dorothy Benson had become Mistress John Metcalfe. This time it

was Jack who mounted the landlord's mare, and leaving Dolly at the house

of a much-astonished friend five miles from Harrogate, himself placed

the borrowed animal in its stall at the World's End. He was only just in

time, for the landlord had taken a fancy to start early for

Knaresborough, and it would have gone hard with the ostler had the mare

not been in its place.

Then Jack went to the Queen's Head, and played his fiddle as he often

did, while the guests were breakfasting.

By this time Dolly's elopement had been discovered, but nobody suspected

Jack of being concerned in it till a young man, who had been one of the

girl's suitors and had noticed more than her family had done, told her

brother that he had better go and question Blind Jack. The culprit, when

asked, at once told the whole story and declared that he had only stolen

Dolly away from her home because he knew that her parents would never

consent to their marriage.

And in this he was right, for they both vowed that if they ever met him

they would kill him; and it was not till Dolly had some children to show

them, that she was taken into favour again.