Chapter VI. Of the Letter that came from the Lowlands
In the morning I was up betimes, and went forthwith, after the country fashion, to our quest's room to see if there was aught in which I could serve him. On pushing at his door, I found that it was fastened, which surprised me the more as I knew that there was neither key nor bolt upon the inside. On my pressing against it, however, it began to yield, and I could then see that a heavy chest which was used to stand near the window had been pulled round in order to shut out any intrusion. This precaution, taken under my father's roof, as though he were in a den of thieves, angered me, and I gave a butt with my shoulder which cleared the box out of the way, and enabled me to enter the room.
The man Saxon was sitting up in bed, staring about him as though he were not very certain for the moment where he was. He had tied a white kerchief round his head by way of night bonnet, and his hard-visaged, clean-shaven face, looking out through this, together with his bony figure, gave him some resemblance to a gigantic old woman. The bottle of usquebaugh stood empty by his bedside. Clearly his fears had been realised, and he had had an attack of the Persian ague.
'Ah, my young friend!' he said at last. 'Is it, then, the custom of this part of the country to carry your visitor's rooms by storm or escalado in the early hours of the morning?'
'Is it the custom,' I answered sternly, 'to barricade up your door when you are sleeping under the roof-tree of an honest man? What did you fear, that you should take such a precaution?'
'Nay, you are indeed a spitfire,' he replied, sinking back upon the pillow, and drawing the clothes round him, 'a feuerkopf as the Germans call it, or sometimes tollkopf, which in its literal significance meaneth a fool's head. Your father was, as I have heard, a strong and a fierce man when the blood of youth ran in his veins; but you, I should judge, are in no way behind him. Know, then, that the bearer of papers of import, documenta preciosa sed periculosa, is bound to leave nought to chance, but to guard in every way the charge which hath been committed to him. True it is that I am in the house of an honest man, but I know not who may come or who may go during the hours of the night. Indeed, for the matter of that—but enough is said. I shall be with you anon.'
'Your clothes are dry and are ready for you,' I remarked.
'Enough! enough!' he answered. 'I have no quarrel with the suit which your father has lent me. It may be that I have been used to better, but they will serve my turn. The camp is not the court.'
It was evident to me that my father's suit was infinitely better, both in texture and material, than that which our visitor had brought with him. As he had withdrawn his head, however, entirely beneath the bedclothes, there was nothing more to be said, so I descended to the lower room, where I found toy father busily engaged fastening a new buckle to his sword-belt while my mother and the maid were preparing the morning meal.
'Come into the yard with me, Micah,' quoth my father; 'I would have a word with you.' The workmen had not yet come to their work, so we strolled out into the sweet morning air, and seated ourselves on the low stone bankment on which the skins are dressed.
'I have been out here this morning trying my hand at the broadsword exercise, 'said he; 'I find that I am as quick as ever on a thrust, but my cuts are sadly stiff. I might be of use at a pinch, but, alas! I am not the same swordsman who led the left troop of the finest horse regiment that ever followed a kettledrum. The Lord hath given, and the Lord hath taken away! Yet, if I am old and worn, there is the fruit of my loins to stand in my place and to wield the same sword in the same cause. You shall go in my place, Micah.'
'Go! Go whither?'
'Hush, lad, and listen! Let not your mother know too much, for the hearts of women are soft. When Abraham offered up his eldest born, I trow that he said little to Sarah on the matter. Here is the letter. Know you who this Dicky Rumbold is?'
'Surely I have heard you speak of him as an old companion of yours.'
'The same—a staunch man and true. So faithful was he—faithful even to slaying—that when the army of the righteous dispersed, he did not lay aside his zeal with his buff-coat. He took to business as a maltster at Hoddesdon, and in his house was planned the famous Rye House Plot, in which so many good men were involved.'
'Was it not a foul assassination plot?' I asked.
'Nay, nay, be not led away by terms! It is a vile invention of the malignants that these men planned assassination. What they would do they purposed doing in broad daylight, thirty of them against fifty of the Royal Guard, when Charles and James passed on their way to Newmarket. If the royal brothers got pistol-bullet or sword-stab, it would be in open fight, and at the risk of their attackers. It was give and take, and no murder.'
He paused and looked inquiringly at me; but I could not truthfully say that I was satisfied, for an attack upon the lives of unarmed and unsuspecting men, even though surrounded by a bodyguard, could not, to my mind, be justified.
'When the plot failed,' my father continued, 'Rumbold had to fly for his life, but he succeeded in giving his pursuers the slip and in making his way to the Lowlands. There he found that many enemies of the Government had gathered together. Repeated messages from England, especially from the western counties and from London, assured them that if they would but attempt an invasion they might rely upon help both in men and in money. They were, however, at fault for some time for want of a leader of sufficient weight to carry through so large a project; but now at last they have one, who is the best that could have been singled out—none other than the well-beloved Protestant chieftain James, Duke of Monnmouth, son of Charles II.'
'Illegitimate son,' I remarked.
'That may or may not be. There are those who say that Lucy Walters was a lawful wife. Bastard or no, he holds the sound principles of the true Church, and he is beloved by the people. Let him appear in the West, and soldiers will rise up like the flowers in the spring time.'
He paused, and led me away to the farther end of the yard, for the workmen had begun to arrive and to cluster round the dipping trough.
'Monmouth is coming over,' he continued, 'and he expects every brave Protestant man to rally to his standard. The Duke of Argyle is to command a separate expedition, which will set the Highlands of Scotland in a blaze. Between them they hope to bring the persecutor of the faithful on his knees. But I hear the voice of the man Saxon, and I must not let him say that I have treated him in a churlish fashion. Here is the letter, lad. Read it with care, and remember that when brave men are striving for their rights it is fitting that one of the old rebel house of Clarke should be among them.'
I took the letter, and wandering off into the fields, I settled myself under a convenient tree, and set myself to read it. This yellow sheet which I now hold in my hand is the very one which was brought by Decimus Saxon, and read by me that bright May morning under the hawthorn shade. I give it to you as it stands;
'To my friend and companion in the cause of the Lord, Joseph Clarke.—Know, friend, that aid and delivery is coming upon Israel, and that the wicked king and those who uphold him shall be smitten and entirely cast down, until their place in the land shall know them no more. Hasten, then, to testify to thy own faith, that in the day of trouble ye be not found wanting.
'It has chanced from time to time that many of the suffering Church, both from our own land and from among the Scots, have assembled in this good Lutheran town of Amsterdam, until enough are gathered together to take a good work in hand. For amongst our own folk there are my Lord Grey of Wark, Wade, Dare of Taunton, Ayloffe, Holmes, Hollis, Goodenough, and others whom thou shalt know. Of the Scots there are the Duke of Argyle, who has suffered sorely for the Covenant, Sir Patrick Hume, Fletcher of Saltoun, Sir John Cochrane, Dr. Ferguson, Major Elphinstone, and others. To these we would fain have added Locke and old Hal Ludlow, but they are, as those of the Laodicean Church, neither cold nor warm.
'It has now come to pass, however, that Monmouth, who has long lived in dalliance with the Midianitish woman known by the name of Wentworth, has at last turned him to higher things, and has consented to make a bid for the crown. It was found that the Scots preferred to follow a chieftain of their own, and it has therefore been determined that Argyle—M'Callum More, as the breechless savages of Inverary call him—shall command a separate expedition landing upon the western coast of Scotland. There he hopes to raise five thousand Campbells, and to be joined by all the Covenanters and Western Whigs, men who would make troops of the old breed had they but God-fearing officers with an experience of the chance of fields and the usages of war. With such a following he should be able to hold Glasgow, and to draw away the King's force to the north. Ayloffe and I go with Argyle. It is likely that our feet may be upon Scottish ground before thy eyes read these words.
'The stronger expedition starts with Monmouth, and lands at a fitting place in the West, where we are assured that we have many friends. I cannot name the spot lest this letter miscarry, but thou shalt hear anon. I have written to all good men along the coast, bidding them to be prepared to support the rising. The King is weak, and hated by the greater part of his subjects. It doth but need one good stroke to bring his crown in the dust. Monmouth will start in a few weeks, when his equipment is finished and the weather favourable. If thou canst come, mine old comrade, I know well that thou wilt need no bidding of mine to bring thee to our banner. Should perchance a peaceful life and waning strength forbid thy attendance, I trust that thou wilt wrestle for us in prayer, even as the holy prophet of old; and perchance, since I hear that thou hast prospered according to the things of this world, thou mayst be able to fit out a pikeman or two, or to send a gift towards the military chest, which will be none too plentifully lined. We trust not to gold, but to steel and to our own good cause, yet gold will be welcome none the less. Should we fall, we fall like men and Christians. Should we succeed, we shall see how the perjured James, the persecutor of the saints with the heart like a nether millstone, the man who smiled when the thumbs of the faithful were wrenched out of their sockets at Edinburgh—we shall see how manfully he can bear adversity when it falls to his lot. May the hand of the Almighty be over us!
'I know little of the bearer of this, save that he professes to be of the elect. Shouldst thou go to Monmouth's camp, see that thou take him with thee, for I hear that he hath had good experience in the German, Swedish, and Otttoman wars.—Yours in the faith of Christ, Richard Rumbold.
'Present my services to thy spouse. Let her read Timothy chapter two, ninth to fifteenth verses.'
This long letter I read very carefully, and then putting it in my pocket returned indoors to my breakfast. My father looked at me, as I entered, with questioning eyes, but I had no answer to return him, for my own mind was clouded and uncertain.
That day Decimus Saxon left us, intending to make a round of the country and to deliver his letters, but promising to be back again ere long. We had a small mishap ere he went, for as we were talking of his journey my brother Hosea must needs start playing with my father's powder-flask, which in some way went off with a sudden fluff, spattering the walls with fragments of metal. So unexpected and loud was the explosion, that both my father and I sprang to our feet; but Saxon, whose back was turned to my brother, sat four-square in his chair without a glance behind him or a shade of change in his rugged face. As luck would have it, no one was injured, not even Hosea, but the incident made me think more highly of our new acquaintance. As he started off down the village street, his long stringy figure and strange gnarled visage, with my father's silver-braided hat cocked over his eye, attracted rather more attention than I cared to see, considering the importance of the missives which he bore, and the certainty of their discovery should he be arrested as a masterless man. Fortunately, however, the curiosity of the country folk did but lead them to cluster round their doors and windows, staring open-eyed, while he, pleased at the attention which he excited, strode along with his head in the air and a cudgel of mine twirling in his hand. He had left golden opinions behind him. My father's good wishes had been won by his piety and by the sacrifices which he claimed to have made for the faith. My mother he had taught how wimples are worn amongst the Serbs, and had also demonstrated to her a new method of curing marigolds in use in some parts of Lithuania. For myself, I confess that I retained a vague distrust of the man, and was determined to avoid putting faith in him more than was needful. At present, however, we had no choice hut to treat him as an ambassador from friends.
And I? What was I to do? Should I follow my father's wishes, and draw my maiden sword on behalf of the insurgents, or should I stand aside and see how events shaped themselves? It was more fitting that I should go than he. But, on the other hand, I was no keen religious zealot. Papistry, Church, Dissent, I believed that there was good in all of them, but that not one was worth the spilling of human blood. James might be a perjurer and a villain, but he was, as far as I could see, the rightful king of England, and no tales of secret marriages or black boxes could alter the fact that his rival was apparently an illegitimate son, and as such ineligible to the throne. Who could say what evil act upon the part of a monarch justified his people in setting him aside? Who was the judge in such a case? Yet, on the other hand, the man had notoriously broken his own pledges, and that surely should absolve his subjects from their allegiance. It was a weighty question for a country-bred lad to have to settle, and yet settled it must be, and that speedily. I took up my hat and wandered away down the village street, turning the matter over in my head.
But it was no easy thing for me to think seriously of anything in the hamlet; for I was in some way, my dear children, though I say it myself, a favourite with the young and with the old, so that I could not walk ten paces without some greeting or address. There were my own brothers trailing behind me, Baker Mitford's children tugging at my skirts, and the millwright's two little maidens one on either hand. Then, when I had persuaded these young rompers to leave me, out came Dame Fullarton the widow, with a sad tale about how her grindstone had fallen out of its frame, and neither she nor her household could lift it in again. That matter I set straight and proceeded on my way; but I could not pass the sign of the Wheatsheaf without John Lockarby, Reuben's father, plunging out at me and insisting upon my coming in with him for a morning cup.
'The best glass of mead in the countryside, and brewed under my own roof,' said he proudly, as he poured it into the flagon. 'Why, bless you, master Micah, a man with a frame like yours wants store o' good malt to keep it up wi'.'
'And malt like this is worthy of a good frame to contain it,' quoth Reuben, who was at work among the flasks.
'What think ye, Micah?' said the landlord. 'There was the Squire o' Milton over here yester morning wi' Johnny Ferneley o' the Bank side, and they will have it that there's a man in Fareham who could wrestle you, the best of three, and find your own grip, for a good round stake.'
'Tut! tut!' I answered; 'you would have me like a prize mastiff, showing my teeth to the whole countryside. What matter if the man can throw me, or I him?'
'What matter? Why, the honour of Havant,' quoth he. 'Is that no matter? But you are right,' he continued, draining off his horn. 'What is all this village life with its small successes to such as you? You are as much out of your place as a vintage wine at a harvest supper. The whole of broad England, and not the streets of Havant, is the fit stage for a man of your kidney. What have you to do with the beating of skins and the tanning of leather?'
'My father would have you go forth as a knight-errant, Micah,' said Reuben, laughing. 'You might chance to get your own skin beaten and your own leather tanned.'
'Who ever knew so long a tongue in so short a body?' cried the innkeeper. 'But in good sooth, Master Micah, I am in sober earnest when I say that you are indeed wasting the years of your youth, when life is sparkling and clear, and that you will regret it when you have come to the flat and flavourless dregs of old age.'
'There spoke the brewer,' said Reuben; 'but indeed, Micah, my father is right, for all that he hath such a hops-and-water manner of putting it.'
'I will think over it,' I answered, and with a nod to the kindly couple proceeded on my way.
Zachariah Palmer was planing a plank as I passed. Looking up he bade me good-morrow.
'I have a book for you, lad,' he said.
'I have but now finished the "Comus,"' I answered, for he had lent me John Milton's poem. 'But what is this new book, daddy?'
'It is by the learned Locke, and treateth of states and statecraft. It is but a small thing, but if wisdom could show in the scales it would weigh down many a library. You shall have it when I have finished it, to-morrow mayhap or the day after. A good man is Master Locke. Is he not at this moment a wanderer in the Lowlands, rather than bow his knee to what his conscience approved not of?'
'There are many good men among the exiles, are there not?' said I.
'The pick of the country,' he answered. 'Ill fares the land that drives the highest and bravest of its citizens away from it. The day is coming, I fear, when every man will have to choose betwixt his beliefs and his freedom. I am an old man, Micah boy, but I may live long enough to see strange things in this once Protestant kingdom.'
'But if these exiles had their way,' I objected, 'they would place Monmouth upon the throne, and so unjustly alter the succession.'
'Nay, nay,' old Zachary answered, laying down his plane. 'If they use Monmouth's name, it is but to strengthen their cause, and to show that they have a leader of repute. Were James driven from the throne, the Commons of England in Parliament assembled would be called upon to name his successor. There are men at Monmouth's back who would not stir unless this were so.'
'Then, daddy,' said I, 'since I can trust you, and since you will tell me what you do really think, would it be well, if Monmouth's standard be raised, that I should join it?'
The carpenter stroked his white beard and pondered for a while. 'It is a pregnant question,' he said at last, 'and yet methinks that there is but one answer to it, especially for your father's son. Should an end be put to James's rule, it is not too late to preserve the nation in its old faith; but if the disease is allowed to spread, it may be that even the tyrant's removal would not prevent his evil seed from sprouting. I hold, therefore, that should the exiles make such an attempt, it is the duty of every man who values liberty of conscience to rally round them. And you, my son, the pride of the village, what better use could you make of your strength than to devote it to helping to relieve your country of this insupportable yoke? It is treasonable and dangerous counsel—counsel which might lead to a short shrift and a bloody death—but, as the Lord liveth, if you were child of mine I should say the same.'
So spoke the old carpenter with a voice which trembled with earnestness, and went to work upon his plank once more, while I, with a few words of gratitude, went on my way pondering over what he had said to me. I had not gone far, however, before the hoarse voice of Solomon Sprent broke in upon my meditations.
'Hoy there! Ahoy!' he bellowed, though his mouth was but a few yards from my ear. 'Would ye come across my hawse without slacking weigh? Clew up, d'ye see, clew up!'
'Why, Captain,' I said, 'I did not see you. I was lost in thought.'
'All adrift and without look-outs,' quoth he, pushing his way through the break in the garden hedge. 'Odd's niggars, man! friends are not so plentiful, d'ye see, that ye need pass 'em by without a dip o' the ensign. So help me, if I had had a barker I'd have fired a shot across your bows.'
'No offence, Captain,' said I, for the veteran appeared to be nettled; 'I have much to think of this morning.'
'And so have I, mate,' he answered, in a softer voice. 'What think ye of my rig, eh?' He turned himself slowly round in the sunlight as he spoke, and I perceived that he was dressed with unusual care. He had a blue suit of broadcloth trimmed with eight rows of buttons, and breeches of the same material with great bunches of ribbon at the knee. His vest was of lighter blue picked out with anchors in silver, and edged with a finger's-breadth of lace. His boot was so wide that he might have had his foot in a bucket, and he wore a cutlass at his side suspended from a buff belt, which passed over his right shoulder.
'I've had a new coat o' paint all over,' said he, with a wink. 'Carramba! the old ship is water-tight yet. What would ye say, now, were I about to sling my hawser over a little scow, and take her in tow?'
'A cow!' I cried.
'A cow! what d'ye take me for? A wench, man, and as tight a little craft as ever sailed into the port of wedlock.'
'I have heard no better news for many a long day,' said I; 'I did not even know that you were betrothed. When thou is the wedding to be?'
'Go slow, friend—go slow, and heave your lead-line! You have got out of your channel, and are in shoal water. I never said as how I was betrothed.'
'What then?' I asked.
'I am getting up anchor now, to run down to her and summon her. Look ye, lad,' he continued, plucking off his cap and scratching his ragged locks; 'I've had to do wi' wenches enow from the Levant to the Antilles—wenches such as a sailorman meets, who are all paint and pocket. It's but the heaving of a hand grenade, and they strike their colours. This is a craft of another guess build, and unless I steer wi' care she may put one in between wind and water before I so much as know that I am engaged. What think ye, heh? Should I lay myself boldly alongside, d'ye see, and ply her with small arms, or should I work myself clear and try a long range action? I am none of your slippery, grease-tongued, long-shore lawyers, but if so be as she's willing for a mate, I'll stand by her in wind and weather while my planks hold out.'
'I can scarce give advice in such a case,' said I, 'for my experience is less than yours. I should say though that you had best speak to her from your heart, in plain sailor language.'
'Aye, aye, she can take it or leave it. Phoebe Dawson it is, the sister of the blacksmith. Let us work back and have a drop of the right Nants before we go. I have an anker newly come, which never paid the King a groat.'
'Nay, you had best leave it alone,' I answered.
'Say you so? Well, mayhap you are right. Throw off your moorings, then, and clap on sail, for we must go.'
'But I am not concerned,' said I.
'Not concerned! Not—' he was too much overcome to go on, and could but look at me with a face full of reproach. 'I thought better of you, Micah. Would you let this crazy old hulk go into action, and not stand by to fire a broadside?'
'What would you have me do then?'
'Why, I would have you help me as the occasion may arise. If I start to board her, I would have you work across the bows so as to rake her. Should I range, up on the larboard quarter, do you lie, on the starboard. If I get crippled, do you draw her fire until I refit. What, man, you would not desert me!'
The old seaman's tropes and maritime conceits were not always intelligible to me, but it was clear that he had set his heart upon my accompanying him, which I was equally determined not to do. At last by much reasoning I made him understand that my presence would be more hindrance than help, and would probably be fatal to his chances of success.
'Well, well,' he grumbled at last, 'I've been concerned in no such expedition before. An' it be the custom for single ships to engage, I'll stand to it alone. You shall come with me as consort, though, and stand to and fro in the offing, or sink me if I stir a step.'
My mind was full of my father's plans and of the courses which lay before me. There seemed to be no choice, however, as old Solomon was in dead earnest, but to lay the matter aside for the moment and see the upshot of this adventure.
'Mind, Solomon,' said I, 'I don't cross the threshold.'
'Aye, aye, mate. You can please yourself. We have to beat up against the wind all the way. She's on the look-out, for I hailed her yesternight, and let her know as how I should bear down on her about seven bells of the morning watch.'
I was thinking as we trudged down the road that Phoebe would need to be learned in sea terms to make out the old man's meaning, when he pulled up short and clapped his hands to his pockets.
'Zounds!' he cried, 'I have forgot to bring a pistol.'
'In Heaven's name!' I said in amazement, 'what could you want with a pistol?'
'Why, to make signals with,' said he. 'Odds me that I should have forgot it! How is one's consort to know what is going forward when the flagship carries no artillery? Had the lass been kind I should have fired one gun, that you might know it.'
'Why,' I answered, 'if you come not out I shall judge that all is well. If things go amiss I shall see you soon.'
'Aye—or stay! I'll hoist a white jack at the port-hole. A white jack means that she hath hauled down her colours. Nombre de Dios, when I was a powder-boy in the old ship Lion, the day that we engaged the Spiritus Sanctus of two tier o' guns—the first time that ever I heard the screech of ball—my heart never thumped as it does now. What say ye if we run back with a fair wind and broach that anker of Nants?'
'Nay, stand to it, man,' said I; for by this time, we had come to the ivy-clad cottage behind which was the village smithy. 'What, Solomon! an English seaman never feared a foe, either with petticoats or without them.'
'No, curse me if he did!' quoth Solomon, squaring his shoulders, 'never a one, Don, Devil, or Dutchman; so here goes for her!' So saying he made his way into the cottage, leaving me standing by the garden wicket, half amused and half annoyed at this interruption to my musings.
As it proved, the sailor had no very great difficulty with his suit, and soon managed to capture his prize, to use his own language. I heard from the garden the growling of his gruff voice, and a good deal of shrill laughter ending in a small squeak, which meant, I suppose, that he was coming to close quarters. Then there was silence for a little while, and at last I saw a white kerchief waving from the window, and perceived, moreover, that it was Phoebe herself who was fluttering it. Well, she was a smart, kindly-hearted lass, and I was glad in my heart that the old seaman should have such a one to look after him.
Here, then, was one good friend settled down finally for life. Another warned me that I was wasting my best years in the hamlet. A third, the most respected of all, advised me openly to throw in my lot with the insurgents, should the occasion arise. If I refused, I should have the shame of seeing my aged father setting off for the wars, whilst I lingered at home. And why should I refuse? Had it not long been the secret wish of my heart to see something of the great world, and what fairer chance could present itself? My wishes, my friend's advice, and my father's hopes all pointed in the one direction.
'Father,' said I, when I returned home, 'I am ready to go where you will.'
'May the Lord be glorified!' he cried solemnly. 'May He watch over your young life, and keep your heart steadfast to the cause which is assuredly His!'
And so, my dear grandsons, the great resolution was taken, and I found myself committed to one side in the national quarrel.