|Home -> James H. Barry Press -> The Great Diamond Hoax - Chapter VIII|
Nephew of Celebrated English Leader Takes Hand in Conspiracy, and also Figures in Amusing Near-Duel.
I did not return to California after my visit to the seat of war until late in the month of July, 1862. Everything seemed in regular shape for outfitting a privateer. But again the Comstock Lode interfered. Speculation was fast and furious. Of those who subscribed to the fund of $250,000 to carry on the enterprise only two remained steadfast, Mr. Ridgley Greathouse and myself. Greathouse was connected with some of the well-known families of the South and of California. He was a man of unusual courage and determination. We laid our heads together and decided to go ahead alone.
At this point we gained an unexpected ally. As he cuts quite a figure in this story, especially in the great diamond hoax, I might as well explain the strange way in which we met.
Mr. Alfred Rubery was a young English gentleman of fortune and culture, with the roving disposition and love of venture that was part of the make of high-strung Englishmen of his day. Traveling in the South just before the war, he had acquired an admiration for its aristocracy. Thus happened something that seemed paradoxical. Rubery was the favorite nephew of John Bright, the great English statesman and publicist. It was due to his influence and leadership among the laboring masses that England declined to interfere in favor of the Confederate States when its industries were ruined and the industrial classes starving, because the cotton staples from the South, on which they depended, were suddenly cut off. Thus, while John Bright, across the Atlantic, was resolutely upholding the North, his dear nephew in San Francisco was openly expressly sympathy for the South.
Sectional feeling at that period was so intense that the slightest word brought on a quarrel. One evening Rubery met a young officer, Lieutenant Tompkins, stationed at Fort Point, scion of a prominent family of New York. Somehow the subject of the war was broached. High words followed, and Tompkins made a remark that touched Rubery's honor. The latter simply said, "You will hear from me, sir," and left the room.
The code duello was still in full force. Though a cause of instant dismissal from the army, no officer would hesitate for a moment to refuse satisfaction to a gentleman who considered himself aggrieved. Rubery sought a friend of mine and asked him to bear his challenge. He was on the point of leaving for Oregon to attend to some of my business. For that reason he turned the young Englishman over to me.
Now, when a man chose his second, he placed his life entirely in his hands. It became at once my duty to examine certain details. The challenged party had the right to name the weapons, and I knew Tompkins to be an expert swordsman. I asked my man about his saber experience. He admitted that he had some knowledge of carving ham, but as to carving anything else he was as ignorant as a child. I tried him at pistol practice and found that, with extra good luck, at ten paces he could hit a barn.
To go into a duel under such conditions was downright madness. I told Rubery that I could not suffer him to be a chopping-block for a Yankee or to be coolly potted while he was shooting at the sun. I advised him that he must take time to practice with swords and pistols. But the Englishman would not be denied. I never saw a man so determined. He said he would rather die a thousand times than survive an unresented public insult. Having no alternative, I carried Rubery's challenge to Tompkins at Fort Point.
Lieutenant Tompkins referred me to his friend, Quartermaster Judson, whom I met without delay. I found he had little stomach for the duel, not because he or his principal were afraid, but because they dreaded dismissal from the service. He admitted that his principal was in the wrong and asked if there were any reasonable terms to adjust the difference. I told him I was instructed by my principal to accept nothing but a written retraction of the offensive language. "That is out of the question," said Judson. "We are wasting time. Let us proceed to details."
"Proceeding to details" was quite a formal function in the code. Arrangements for the slaughter of a couple of human beings were always discussed over a bottle of wine, in a spirit of friendly benevolence. Judson produced the refreshments, filled my glass, handed it to me standing, left his own unfilled and sat down.
Now, in Southwestern Kentucky, where I was raised, gentlemen always drank together. To offer wine or corn juice to an equal and not partake yourself was an almost unpardonable affront. You might do that without offense to an humble dependent, but not to one of the same social rank.
I had determined that the duel should not take place and was watching for any chance to spar for time. This seemed to offer an "opening." Of course, Judson had not the most remote idea of being discourteous. But I assumed to think otherwise. I looked as indignant as posible, dashed the glass on the floor, slapped my hat on my head and left the apartment before the astonished quartermaster had time to catch his breath. A few hours later my second, Captain Fluson, a famous duelist, waited on Judson with my challenge.
I hope no one will imagine I am bragging. I took not the slightest chance in sending the challenge and knew it very well. No man was compelled to accept a challenge without a full knowledge of the nature of his offense. If a person wanted to fight you just for his own amusement or because he disapproved of the cut of your coat, no one was expected to humor him, and a man of honor could properly refuse to consider a challenge based on trivial grounds or even kick the bearer out of doors. As soon as my second presented himself to Judson, just as I expected, he asked to be informed in what way he had given offense to Mr. Harpending. My second explained the deadly nature of the one-sided invitation to drink, according to the usages of Southwestern Kentucky, whereat the quartermaster laughed and said he was ignorant of any such custom; that he had never had the remotest intention of being discourteous and asked that this explanation be given me before going further.
Of course, I had to appear immensely gratified. I wrote Judson, expressing my entire satisfaction, apologized for my own hasty conclusion, and asked him to dinner. We had a jolly sort of time and over black coffee we discussed the proposed Rubery-Tompkins duel. Both agreed it was a shame to see two fine young fellows fill each other with lead and decided to co-operate to prevent it. We managed to bring the principals together and after a lot of diplomacy on all sides Tompkins agreed to a written retraction of the insulting language, Rubery promising that it should never be exhibited unless he were charged with cowardice as a result of the billiard-hall incident.
Everything terminated in a dinner party and the incident was closed.
Rubery and I, thus strangely brought together, became inseparable. We were nearly of an age, both crazy for adventure, both devoted to the South. It was not, therefore, strange that I confided to him all my plans of outfitting a privateer. When he learned the details he became almost idiotic with delight. "Now, we're getting somewhere," he cried. "Let me be your associate and count me in to the limit."
That is how the nephew of John Bright became associated with Greathouse and myself in an effort to destroy the commerce of the Pacific Coast and how he came to loom largely in what was known to history as the "Chapman piracy case."
Nephew of John Bright, the great British publicist.
[Reproduced from old photograph.]