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
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
* * * * *
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
'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
'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,'
'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.