In the first quarter of the nineteenth century there lived at Dolphin House, Troy, a Mr Samuel Pinsent, ship-chandler, who by general consent was the funniest fellow that ever took up his abode in the town. He came originally from somewhere in the South Hams, but this tells us nothing, for the folk of the South Hams are a decent, quiet lot, and you might travel the district to-day from end to end without coming across the like of Mr Pinsent.
He was, in fact, an original. He could do nothing like an ordinary man, and he did everything jocosely, with a wink and a chuckle. To watch him, you might suppose that business was a first-class practical joke, and he invariably wound up a hard bargain by slapping his victim on the back. Some called him Funny Pinsent, others The Bester. Few liked him. Nevertheless he prospered, and in 1827 was chosen mayor of the borough.
In person, Mr Pinsent was spare and diminutive, with a bald head, a tuft of badger-gray hair over either ear, and a fresh-coloured, clean-shaven face, extraordinarily wrinkled about the face and at the corners of the eyes, which twinkled at you from under a pair of restless stivvery eyebrows. You had only to look at them and note the twitch of his lips to be warned of the man’s facetiousness.
Mr Pinsent’s office–for he had no shop-front, and indeed his stock-in-trade was not of a quality to invite inspection–looked out upon the Town Square; his back premises upon the harbour, across a patch of garden, terminated by a low wall and a blue-painted quay-door. I call it a garden because Mr Pinsent called it so; and, to be sure, it boasted a stretch of turf, a couple of flower-beds, a flagstaff, and a small lean-to greenhouse. But casks and coils of manilla rope, blocks, pumps, and chain-cables, encroached upon the amenities of the spot–its pebbled pathway, its parterres, its raised platform overgrown with nasturtiums, where Mr Pinsent sat and smoked of an evening and watched the shipping; the greenhouse stored sacks of ship-bread as well as pot-plants; and Mrs Salt, his housekeeper (he was unmarried), had attached a line to the flagstaff, and aired the washing thereon.
But the pride of the garden was its dovecote, formed of a large cider-barrel on a mast. The barrel was pierced with pigeon-holes, and fitted with ledges on which the birds stood to preen themselves. Mr Pinsent did not profess himself a fancier. His columbarium–a mixed collection of fantails and rocketers–had come to him by a side-wind of business, as offset against a bad debt; but it pleased him to sit on his terrace and watch the pretty creatures as they wheeled in flight over the harbour and among the masts of the shipping. They cost him nothing to keep, for he had always plenty of condemned pease on hand; and they multiplied in peace at the top of their mast, which was too smooth for any cat to climb.
One summer’s night, however, about midway in the term of his mayoralty, Mr Pinsent was awakened from slumber by a strange sound of fluttering. It came through the open window from the garden, and almost as he sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes it warned him that something serious was amiss with his dovecote. He flung off the bed-clothes and made a leap for the window.
The night was warm and windless, with a waning moon in the east, and as yet no tremble of the dawn below it. Around the foot of the dovecote the turf lay in blackest shadow; but a moon-ray overtopping the low ridge of Mr Garraway’s back premises (Mr Pinsent’s next-door neighbour on the left), illuminated the eastern side of the barrel, the projecting platform on which it rested, and a yard or more of the mast, from its summit down–or, to be accurate, it shed a pale radiance on a youthful figure, clinging there by its legs, and upon a hand and arm reaching over the platform to rob the roost.