Chapter X. Of our Perilous Adventure on the Plain
We were not half a mile from the town before the roll of kettledrums and the blare of bugles swelling up musically through the darkness announced the arrival of the regiment of horse which our friends at the inn had been expecting.
'It is as well, perhaps,' said Saxon, 'that we gave them the slip, for that young springald might have smelled a rat and played us some ill-turn. Have you chanced to see my silken kerchief?'
'Not I,' I answered.
'Nay, then, it must have fallen from my bosom during our ruffle. I can ill afford to leave it, for I travel light in such matters. Eight hundred men, quoth the major, and three thousand to follow. Should I meet this same Oglethorpe or Ogilvy when the little business is over, I shall read him a lesson on thinking less of chemistry and more of the need of preserving military precautions. It is well always to be courteous to strangers and to give them information, but it is well also that the information should be false.'
'As his may have been,' I suggested.
'Nay, nay, the words came too glibly from his tongue. So ho, Chloe, so ho! She is full of oats and would fain gallop, but it is so plaguy dark that we can scarce see where we are going.'
We had been trotting down the broad high-road shimmering vaguely white in the gloom, with the shadowy trees dancing past us on either side, scarce outlined against the dark background of cloud. We were now coming upon the eastern edge of the great plain, which extends forty miles one way and twenty the other, over the greater part of Wiltshire and past the boundaries of Somersetshire. The main road to the West skirts this wilderness, but we had agreed to follow a less important track, which would lead us to our goal, though in a more tedious manner. Its insignificance would, we hoped, prevent it from being guarded by the King's horse. We had come to the point where this byroad branches off from the main highway when we heard the clatter of horses' hoofs behind us.
'Here comes some one who is not afraid to gallop,' I remarked.
'Halt here in the shadow!' cried Saxon, in a short, quick whisper. 'Have your blade loose in the scabbard. He must have a set errand who rides so fast o' nights.'
Looking down the road we could make out through the darkness a shadowy blur which soon resolved itself into man and horse. The rider was well-nigh abreast of us before he was aware of our presence, when he pulled up his steed in a strange, awkward fashion, and faced round in our direction.
'Is Micah Clarke there?' he said, in a voice which was strangely familiar to my ears.
'I am Micah Clarke,' said I.
'And I am Reuben Lockarby,' cried our pursuer, in a mock heroic voice. 'Ah, Micah lad, I'd embrace you were it not that I should assuredly fall out of the saddle if I attempted it, and perchance drag you along. That sudden pull up well-nigh landed me on the roadway. I have been sliding off and clambering on ever since I bade goodbye to Havant. Sure, such a horse for slipping from under one was never bestridden by man.'
'Good Heavens, Reuben!' I cried in amazement, 'what brings you all this way from home?'
'The very same cause which brings you, Micah, and also Don Decimo Saxon, late of the Solent, whom methinks I see in the shadow behind you. How fares it, oh illustrious one?'
'It is you, then, young cock of the woods!' growled Saxon, in no very overjoyed voice.
'No less a person,' said Reuben. 'And now, my gay cavalieros, round with your horses and trot on your way, for there is no time to be lost. We ought all to be at Taunton to-morrow.'
'But, my dear Reuben,' said I, 'it cannot be that you are coming with us to join Monmouth. What would your father say? This is no holiday jaunt, but one that may have a sad and stern ending. At the best, victory can only come through much bloodshed and danger. At the worst, we are as like to wind up upon a scaffold as not.'
'Forwards, lads, forwards!' cried he, spurring on his horse, 'it is all arranged and settled. I am about to offer my august person, together with a sword which I borrowed and a horse which I stole, to his most Protestant highness, James, Duke of Monmouth.'
'But how comes it all?' I asked, as we rode on together. 'It warms my very heart to see you, but you were never concerned either in religion or in politics. Whence, then, this sudden resolution?'
'Well, truth to tell,' he replied, 'I am neither a king's man nor a duke's man, nor would I give a button which sat upon the throne. I do not suppose that either one or the other would increase the custom of the Wheatsheaf, or want Reuben Lockarby for a councillor. I am a Micah Clarke man, though, from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet; and if he rides to the wars, may the plague strike me if I don't stick to his elbow!' He raised his hand excitedly as he spoke, and instantly losing his balance, he shot into a dense clump of bushes by the roadside whence his legs flapped helplessly in the darkness.
'That makes the tenth,' said he, scrambling out and clambering into his saddle once more. 'My father used to tell me not to sit a horse too closely. "A gentle rise and fall," said the old man. Egad, there is more fall than rise, and it is anything but gentle.'
'Odd's truth!' exclaimed Saxon. 'How in the name of all the saints in the calendar do you expect to keep your seat in the presence of an enemy if you lose it on a peaceful high-road?'
'I can but try, my illustrious,' he answered, rearranging his ruffled clothing. 'Perchance the sudden and unexpected character of my movements may disconcert the said enemy.'
'Well, well, there may be more truth in that than you are aware of,' quoth Saxon, riding upon Lockarby's bridle arm, so that there was scarce room for him to fall between us. 'I had sooner fight a man like that young fool at the inn, who knew a little of the use of his weapon, than one like Micah here, or yourself, who know nothing. You can tell what the one is after, but the other will invent a system of his own which will serve his turn for the nonce. Ober-hauptmann Muller was reckoned to be the finest player at the small-sword in the Kaiser's army, and could for a wager snick any button from an opponent's vest without cutting the cloth. Yet was he slain in an encounter with Fahnfuhrer Zollner, who was a cornet in our own Pandour corps, and who knew as much of the rapier as you do of horsemanship. For the rapier, be it understood, is designed to thrust and not to cut, so that no man wielding it ever thinks of guarding a side-stroke. But Zollner, being a long-armed man, smote his antagonist across the face with his weapon as though it had been a cane, and then, ere he had time to recover himself, fairly pinked him. Doubtless if the matter were to do again, the Oberhauptmann would have got his thrust in sooner, but as it was, no explanation or excuse could get over the fact that the man was dead.'
'If want of knowledge maketh a dangerous swordsman,' quoth Reuben, 'then am I even more deadly than the unpronounceable gentleman whom you have mentioned. To continue my story, however, which I broke off in order to step down from my horse, I found out early in the morning that ye were gone, and Zachary Palmer was able to tell me whither. I made up my mind, therefore, that I would out into the world also. To this end I borrowed a sword from Solomon Sprent, and my father having gone to Gosport, I helped myself to the best nag in his stables—for I have too much respect for the old man to allow one of his flesh and blood to go ill-provided to the wars. All day I have ridden, since early morning, being twice stopped on suspicion of being ill-affected, but having the good luck to get away each time. I knew that I was close at your heels, for I found them searching for you at the Salisbury Inn.'
Decimus whistled. 'Searching for us?' said he.
'Yes. It seems that they had some notion that ye were not what ye professed to be, so the inn was surrounded as I passed, but none knew which road ye had taken.'
'Said I not so?' cried Saxon. 'That young viper hath stirred up the regiment against us. We must push on, for they may send a party on our track.'
'We are off the main road now, 'I remarked; 'even should they pursue us, they would be unlikely to follow this side track.'
'Yet it would be wise to show them a clean pair of heels,' said Saxon, spurring his mare into a gallop. Lockarby and I followed his example, and we all three rode swiftly along the rough moorland track.
We passed through scattered belts of pinewood, where the wild cat howled and the owl screeched, and across broad stretches of fenland and moor, where the silence was only broken by the booming cry of the bittern or the fluttering of wild duck far above our heads. The road was in parts overgrown with brambles, and was so deeply rutted and so studded with sharp and dangerous hollows, that our horses came more than once upon their knees. In one place the wooden bridge which led over a stream had broken down, and no attempt had been made to repair it, so that we were compelled to ride our horses girth deep through the torrent. At first some scattered lights had shown that we were in the neighbourhood of human habitations, but these became fewer as we advanced, until the last died away and we found ourselves upon the desolate moor which stretched away in unbroken solitude to the shadowy horizon. The moon had broken through the clouds and now shone hazily through wreaths of mist, throwing a dim light over the wild scene, and enabling us to keep to the track, which was not fenced in in any way and could scarce be distinguished from the plain around it.
We had slackened our pace under the impression that all fear of pursuit was at an end, and Reuben was amazing us by an account of the excitement which had been caused in Havant by our disappearance, when through the stillness of the night a dull, muffled rat-tat-tat struck upon my ear. At the same moment Saxon sprang from his horse and listened intently with sidelong head.
'Boot and saddle!' he cried, springing into his seat again. 'They are after us as sure as fate. A dozen troopers by the sound. We must shake them off, or goodbye to Monmouth.'
'Give them their heads,' I answered, and striking spurs into our steeds, we thundered on through the darkness. Covenant and Chloe were as fresh as could be wished, and soon settled down into a long springy gallop. Our friend's horse however, had been travelling all day, and its long-drawn, laboured breathing showed that it could not hold out for long. Through the clatter of our horses' hoofs I could still from time to time hear the ominous murmur from behind us.
'This will never do, Reuben,' said I anxiously, as the weary creature stumbled, and the rider came perilously near to shooting over its head.
'The old horse is nearly foundered,' he answered ruefully. 'We are off the road now, and the rough ground is too much for her.'
'Yes, we are off the track,' cried Saxon over his shoulder—for he led us by a few paces. 'Bear in mind that the Bluecoats have been on the march all day, so that their horses may also be blown. How in Himmel came they to know which road we took?'
As if in answer to his ejaculation, there rose out of the still night behind us a single, clear, bell-like note, swelling and increasing in volume until it seemed to fill the whole air with its harmony.
'A bloodhound!' cried Saxon.
A second sharper, keener note, ending in an unmistakable howl, answered the first.
'Another of them,' said he. 'They have loosed the brutes that we saw near the Cathedral. Gad! we little thought when we peered over the rails at them, a few hours ago, that they would so soon be on our own track. Keep a firm knee and a steady seat, for a slip now would be your last.'
'Holy mother!' cried Reuben, 'I had steeled myself to die in battle—but to be dogsmeat! It is something outside the contract.'
'They hold them in leash,' said Saxon, between his teeth, 'else they would outstrip the horses and be lost in the darkness.
Could we but come on running water we might put them off our track.'
'My horse cannot hold on at this pace for more than a very few minutes,' Reuben cried. 'If I break down, do ye go on, for ye must remember that they are upon your track and not mine. They have found cause for suspicion of the two strangers of the inn, but none of me.'
'Nay, Reuben, we shall stand or fall together,' said I sadly, for at every step his horse grew more and more feeble. 'In this darkness they will make little distinction between persons.'
'Keep a good heart,' shouted the old soldier, who was now leading us by twenty yards or more. 'We can hear them because the wind blows from that way, but it's odds whether they have heard us. Methinks they slacken in their pursuit.'
'The sound of their horses has indeed grown fainter,' said I joyfully.
'So faint that I can hear it no longer,' my companion cried.
We reined up our panting steeds and strained our ears, but not a sound could we hear save the gentle murmur of the breeze amongst the whin-bushes, and the melancholy cry of the night-jar. Behind us the broad rolling plain, half light and half shadow, stretched away to the dim horizon without sign of life or movement. 'We have either outstripped them completely, or else they have given up the chase,' said I. 'What ails the horses that they should tremble and snort?'
'My poor beast is nearly done for,' Reuben remarked, leaning forward and passing his hand down the creature's reeking neck.
'For all that we cannot rest,' said Saxon. 'We may not be out of danger yet. Another mile or two may shake us clear. But I like it not.'
'Like not what?'
'These horses and their terrors. The beasts can at times both see and hear more than we, as I could show by divers examples drawn from mine own experience on the Danube and in the Palatinate, were the time and place more fitting. Let us on, then, before we rest.'
The weary horses responded bravely to the call, and struggled onwards over the broken ground for a considerable time. At last we were thinking of pulling up in good earnest, and of congratulating ourselves upon having tired out our pursuers, when of a sudden the bell-like baying broke upon our ears far louder than it had been before—so loud, indeed, that it was evident that the dogs were close upon our heels.
'The accursed hounds!' cried Saxon, putting spurs to his horse and shooting ahead of us; 'I feared as much. They have freed them from the leash. There is no escape from the devils, but we can choose the spot where we shall make our stand.'
'Come on, Reuben,' I shouted. 'We have only to reckon with the dogs now. Their masters have let them loose, and turned back for Salisbury.'
'Pray heaven they break their necks before they get there!' he cried. 'They set dogs on us as though we were rats in a cock-pit. Yet they call England a Christian country! It's no use, Micah. Poor Dido can't stir another step.'
As he spoke, the sharp fierce bay of the hounds rose again, clear and stern on the night air, swelling up from a low hoarse growl to a high angry yelp. There seemed to be a ring of exultation in their wild cry, as though they knew that their quarry was almost run to earth.
'Not another step!' said Reuben Lockarby, pulling up and drawing his sword. 'If I must fight, I shall fight here.'
'There could be no better place,' I replied. Two great jagged rocks rose before us, jutting abruptly out of the ground, and leaving a space of twelve or fifteen feet between them. Through this gap we rode, and I shouted loudly for Saxon to join us. His horse, however, had been steadily gaining upon ours, and at the renewed alarm had darted off again, so that he was already some hundred yards from us. It was useless to summon him, even could he hear our voices, for the hounds would be upon us before he could return.
'Never heed him,' I said hurriedly. 'Do you rein your steed behind that rock, and I behind this. They will serve to break the force of the attack. Dismount not, but strike down, and strike hard.'
On either side in the shadow of the rock we waited in silence for our terrible pursuers. Looking back at it, my dear children, I cannot but think that it was a great trial on such young soldiers as Reuben and myself to be put, on the first occasion of drawing our swords, into such a position. For I have found, and others have confirmed my opinion, that of all dangers that a man is called upon to face, that arising from savage and determined animals is the most unnerving. For with men there is ever the chance that some trait of weakness or of want of courage may give you an advantage over them, but with fierce beasts there is no such hope. We knew that the creatures to whom we were opposed could never be turned from our throats while there was breath in their bodies. One feels in one's heart, too, that the combat is an unequal one, for your life is precious at least to your friends, while their lives, what are they? All this and a great deal more passed swiftly through our minds as we sat with drawn swords, soothing our trembling horses as best we might, and waiting for the coming of the hounds.
Nor had we long to wait. Another long, deep, thunderous bay sounded in our ears, followed by a profound silence, broken only by the quick shivering breathing of the horses. Then suddenly, and noiselessly, a great tawny brute, with its black muzzle to the earth, and its overhung cheeks napping on either side, sprang into the band of moonlight between the rocks, and on into the shadow beyond. It never paused or swerved for an instant, but pursued its course straight onwards without a glance to right or to left. Close behind it came a second, and behind that a third, all of enormous size, and looking even larger and more terrible than they were in the dim shifting light. Like the first, they took no notice of our presence, but bounded on along the trail left by Decimus Saxon.
The first and second I let pass, for I hardly realised that they so completely overlooked us. When the third, however, sprang out into the moonlight, I drew my right-hand pistol from its holster, and resting its long barrel across my left forearm, I fired at it as it passed. The bullet struck the mark, for the brute gave a fierce howl of rage and pain, but true to the scent it never turned or swerved. Lockarby fired also as it disappeared among the brushwood, but with no apparent effect. So swiftly and so noiselessly did the great hounds pass, that they might have been grim silent spirits of the night, the phantom dogs of Herne the hunter, but for that one fierce yelp which followed my shot.
'What brutes!' my companion ejaculated; 'what shall we do, Micah?'
'They have clearly been laid on Saxon's trail,' said I. 'We must follow them up, or they will be too many for him. Can you hear anything of our pursuers?'
'They have given up the chase, then, and let the dogs loose as a last resource. Doubtless the creatures are trained to return to the town. But we must push on, Reuben, if we are to help our companion.'
'One more spurt, then, little Dido,' cried Reuben; 'can you muster strength for one more? Nay, I have not the heart to put spurs to you. If you can do it, I know you will.'
The brave mare snorted, as though she understood her riders words, and stretched her weary limbs into a gallop. So stoutly did she answer the appeal that, though I pressed Covenant to his topmost speed, she was never more than a few strides behind him.
'He took this direction,' said I, peering anxiously out into the darkness. 'He can scarce have gone far, for he spoke of making a stand. Or, perhaps, finding that we are not with him, he may trust to the speed of his horse.'
'What chance hath a horse of outstripping these brutes?' Reuben answered. 'They must run him to earth, and he knows it. Hullo! what have we here?'
A dark dim form lay stretched in the moonlight in front of us. It was the dead body of a hound—the one evidently at which I had fired.
'There is one of them disposed of, 'I cried joyously; 'we have but two to settle with now.'
'As I spoke we heard the crack of two pistol-shots some little distance to the left. Heading our steeds in that direction, we pressed on at the top of our speed. Presently out of the darkness in front of us there arose such a roaring and a yelping as sent the hearts into our mouths. It was not a single cry, such as the hounds had uttered when they were on the scent, but a continuous deep-mouthed uproar, so fierce and so prolonged, that we could not doubt that they had come to the end of their run.
'Pray God that they have not got him down!' cried Reuben, in a faltering voice.
The same thought had crossed my own mind, for I have heard a similar though lesser din come from a pack of otter hounds when they had overtaken their prey and were tearing it to pieces. Sick at heart, I drew my sword with the determination that, if we were too late to save our companion, we should at least revenge him upon the four-footed fiends. Bursting through a thick belt of scrub and tangled gorse bushes, we came upon a scene so unlike what we had expected that we pulled up our horses in astonishment.
A circular clearing lay in front of us, brightly illuminated by the silvery moonshine. In the centre of this rose a giant stone, one of those high dark columns which are found all over the plain, and especially in the parts round Stonehenge. It could not have been less than fifteen feet in height, and had doubtless been originally straight, but wind and weather, or the crumbling of the soil, had gradually suffered it to tilt over until it inclined at such an angle that an active man might clamber up to the summit. On the top of this ancient stone, cross-legged and motionless, like some strange carved idol of former days, sat Decimus Saxon, puffing sedately at the long pipe which was ever his comfort in moments of difficulty. Beneath him, at the base of the monolith, as our learned men call them, the two great bloodhounds were rearing and springing, clambering over each other's backs in their frenzied and futile eagerness to reach the impassive figure perched above them, while they gave vent to their rage and disappointment in the hideous uproar which had suggested such terrible thoughts to our mind.
We had little time, however, to gaze at this strange scene, for upon our appearance the hounds abandoned their helpless attempts to reach Saxon, and flew, with a fierce snarl of satisfaction, at Reuben and myself. One great brute, with flaring eyes and yawning mouth, his white fangs glistening in the moonlight, sprang at my horse's neck; but I met him fair with a single sweeping cut, which shore away his muzzle, and left him wallowing and writhing in a pool of blood. Reuben, meanwhile, had spurred his horse forward to meet his assailant; but the poor tired steed flinched at the sight of the fierce hound, and pulled up suddenly, with the result that her rider rolled headlong into the very jaws of the animal. It might have gone ill with Reuben had he been left to his own resources. At the most he could only have kept the cruel teeth from his throat for a very few moments; but seeing the mischance, I drew my remaining pistol, and springing from my horse, discharged it full into the creature's flank while it struggled with my friend. With a last yell of rage and pain it brought its fierce jaws together in one wild impotent snap, and then sank slowly over upon its side, while Reuben crawled from beneath it, scared and bruised, but none the worse otherwise for his perilous adventure.
'I owe you one for that, Micah,' he said gratefully. 'I may live to do as much for you.'
'And I owe ye both one,' said Saxon, who had scrambled down from his place of refuge. 'I pay my debts, too, whether for good or evil. I might have stayed up there until I had eaten my jack-boots, for all the chance I had of ever getting down again. Sancta Maria! but that was a shrewd blow of yours, Clarke! The brute's head flew in halves like a rotten pumpkin. No wonder that they stuck to my track, for I have left both my spare girth and my kerchief behind me, which would serve to put them on Chloe's scent as well as mine own.'
'And where is Chloe?' I asked, wiping my sword.
'Chloe had to look out for herself. I found the brutes gaining on me, you see, and I let drive at them with my barkers; but with a horse flying at twenty mile an hour, what chance is there for a single slug finding its way home?' Things looked black then, for I had no time to reload, and the rapier, though the king of weapons in the duello, is scarce strong enough to rely upon on an occasion like this. As luck would have it, just as I was fairly puzzled, what should I come across but this handy stone, which the good priests of old did erect, as far as I can see, for no other purpose than to provide worthy cavalieros with an escape from such ignoble and scurvy enemies. I had no time to spare in clambering up it, for I had to tear my heel out of the mouth of the foremost of them, and might have been dragged down by it had he not found my spur too tough a morsel for his chewing. But surely one of my bullets must have readied its mark.' Lighting the touch-paper in his tobacco-box, he passed it over the body of the hound which had attacked me, and then of the other.
'Why, this one is riddled like a sieve,' he cried. 'What do you load your petronels with, good Master Clarke?'
'With two leaden slugs.'
'Yet two leaden slugs have made a score of holes at the least! And of all things in this world, here is the neck of a bottle stuck in the brute's hide!'
'Good heavens!' I exclaimed. 'I remember. My dear mother packed a bottle of Daffy's elixir in the barrel of my pistol.'
'And you have shot it into the bloodhound!' roared Reuben. 'Ho! ho! When they hear that tale at the tap of the Wheatsheaf, there will be some throats dry with laughter. Saved my life by shooting a dog with a bottle of Daffy's elixir!'
'And a bullet as well, Reuben, though I dare warrant the gossips will soon contrive to leave that detail out. It is a mercy the pistol did not burst. But what do you propose to do now, Master Saxon?'
'Why, to recover my mare if it can anywise be done,' said the adventurer.' Though on this vast moor, in the dark, she will be as difficult to find as a Scotsman's breeches or a flavourless line in "Hudibras."'
'And Reuben Lockarby's steed can go no further,' I remarked. 'But do mine eyes deceive me, or is there a glimmer of light over yonder?'
'A Will-o'-the-wisp,' said Saxon.
Yet I confess that it burns steady and clear, as though it came from lamp, candle, rushlight, lanthorn, or other human agency.'
'Where there is light there is life,' cried Reuben. 'Let us make for it, and see what chance of shelter we may find there.'
'It cannot come from our dragoon friends,' remarked Decimus. 'A murrain on them! how came they to guess our true character; or was it on the score of some insult to the regiment that that young Fahnfuhrer has set them on our track? If I have him at my sword's point again, he shall not come off so free. Well, do ye lead your horses, and we shall explore this light, since no better course is open to us.'
Picking our way across the moor, we directed our course for the bright point which twinkled in the distance; and as we advanced we hazarded a thousand conjectures as to whence it could come. If it were a human dwelling, what sort of being could it be who, not content with living in the heart of this wilderness, had chosen a spot so far removed from the ordinary tracks which crossed it? The roadway was miles behind us, and it was probable that no one save those driven by such a necessity as that which had overtaken us would ever find themselves in that desolate region. No hermit could have desired an abode more completely isolated from all communion with his kind.
As we approached we saw that the light did indeed come from a small cottage, which was built in a hollow, so as to be invisible from any quarter save that from which we approached it. In front of this humble dwelling a small patch of ground had been cleared of shrub, and in the centre of this little piece of sward our missing steed stood grazing at her leisure upon the scanty herbage. The same light which had attracted us had doubtless caught her eye, and drawn her towards it by hopes of oats and of water. With a grunt of satisfaction Saxon resumed possession of his lost property, and leading her by the bridle, approached the door of the solitary cottage.
"An ignis fatuus that bewitches, And leads men into pools and ditches."