Chapter XXIX. Of the Great Cry from the Lonely House
And so our weary marching and counter-marching came at last to an end, and we found ourselves with our backs fairly against the wall, and the whole strength of the Government turned against us. Not a word came to us of a rising or movement in our favour in any part of England. Everywhere the Dissenters were cast into prison and the Church dominant. From north and east and west the militia of the counties was on its march against us. In London six regiments of Dutch troops had arrived as a loan from the Prince of Orange. Others were said to be on their way. The City had enrolled ten thousand men. Everywhere there was mustering and marching to succour the flower of the English army, which was already in Somersetshire. And all for the purpose of crushing some five or six thousand clodhoppers and fishermen, half-armed and penniless, who were ready to throw their lives away for a man and for an idea.
But this idea, my dear children, was a noble one, and one which a man might very well sacrifice all for, and yet feel that all was well spent. For though these poor peasants, in their dumb, blundering fashion, would have found it hard to give all their reasons in words, yet in the inmost heart of them they knew and felt that it was England's cause which they were fighting for, and that they were upholding their country's true self against those who would alter the old systems under which she had led the nations. Three more years made all this very plain, and showed that our simple unlettered followers had seen and judged the signs of the times more correctly than those who called themselves their betters. There are, to my thinking, stages of human progress for which the Church of Rome is admirably suited. Where the mind of a nation is young, it may be best that it should not concern itself with spiritual affairs, but should lean upon the old staff of custom and authority. But England had cast off her swaddling-clothes, and was a nursery of strong, thinking men, who would bow to no authority save that which their reason and conscience approved. It was hopeless, useless, foolish, to try to drive such men back into a creed which they had outgrown. Such an attempt was, however, being made, backed by all the weight of a bigoted king with a powerful and wealthy Church as his ally. In three years the nation would understand it, and the King would be flying from his angry people; but at present, sunk in a torpor after the long civil wars and the corrupt reign of Charles, they failed to see what was at stake, and turned against those who would warn them, as a hasty man turns on the messenger who is the bearer of evil tidings. Is it not strange, my dears, how quickly a mere shadowy thought comes to take living form, and grow into a very tragic reality? At one end of the chain is a king brooding over a point of doctrine; at the other are six thousand desperate men, chivied and chased from shire to shire, standing to bay at last amid the bleak Bridgewater marshes, with their hearts as bitter and as hopeless as those of hunted beasts of prey. A king's theology is a dangerous thing for his subjects.
But if the idea for which these poor men fought was a worthy one, what shall we say of the man who had been chosen as the champion of their cause? Alas, that such men should have had such a leader! Swinging from the heights of confidence to the depths of despair, choosing his future council of state one day and proposing to fly from the army on the next, he appeared from the start to be possessed by the very spirit of fickleness. Yet he had borne a fair name before this enterprise. In Scotland he had won golden opinions, not only for his success, but for the moderation and mercy with which he treated the vanquished. On the Continent he had commanded an English brigade in a way that earned praise from old soldiers of Louis and the Empire. Yet now, when his own head and his own fortunes were at stake, he was feeble, irresolute, and cowardly. In my father's phrase, 'all the virtue had gone out of him.' I declare when I have seen him riding among his troops, with his head bowed upon his breast and a face like a mute at a burying, casting an air of gloom and of despair all round him, I have felt that, even in case of success, such a man could never wear the crown of the Tudors and the Plantagenets, but that some stronger hand, were it that of one of his own generals, would wrest it from him.
I will do Monmouth the justice to say that from the time when it was at last decided to fight—for the very good reason that no other course was open—he showed up in a more soldierly and manlier spirit. For the first few days in July no means were neglected to hearten our troops and to nerve them for the coming battle. From morning to night we were at work, teaching our foot how to form up in dense groups to meet the charge of horse, and how to depend upon each other, and look to their officers for orders. At night the streets of the little town from the Castle Field to the Parret Bridge resounded with the praying and the preaching. There was no need for the officers to quell irregularities, for the troops punished them amongst themselves. One man who came out on the streets hot with wine was well-nigh hanged by his companions, who finally cast him out of the town as being unworthy to fight in what they looked upon as a sacred quarrel. As to their courage, there was no occasion to quicken that, for they were as fearless as lions, and the only danger was lest their fiery daring should lead them into foolhardiness. Their desire was to hurl themselves upon the enemy like a horde of Moslem fanatics, and it was no easy matter to drill such hot-headed fellows into the steadiness and caution which war demands.
Provisions ran low upon the third day of our stay in Bridgewater, which was due to our having exhausted that part of the country before, and also to the vigilance of the Royal Horse, who scoured the district round and cut off our supplies. Lord Grey determined, therefore, to send out two troops of horse under cover of night, to do what they could to refill the larder. The command of the small expedition was given over to Major Martin Hooker, an old Lifeguardsman of rough speech and curt manners, who had done good service in drilling the headstrong farmers and yeomen into some sort of order. Sir Gervas Jerome and I asked leave from Lord Grey to join the foray—a favour which was readily granted, since there was little stirring in the town.
It was about eleven o'clock on a moonless night that we sallied out of Bridgewater, intending to explore the country in the direction of Boroughbridge and Athelney. We had word that there was no large body of the enemy in that quarter, and it was a fertile district where good store of supplies might be hoped for. We took with us four empty waggons, to carry whatever we might have the luck to find. Our commander arranged that one troop should ride before these and one behind, while a small advance party, under the charge of Sir Gervas, kept some hundreds of paces in front. In this order we clattered out of the town just as the late bugles were blowing, and swept away down the quiet shadowy roads, bringing anxious peering faces to the casements of the wayside cottages as we whirled past in the darkness.
That ride comes very clearly before me as I think of it. The dark loom of the club-headed willows flitting by us, the moaning of the breeze among the withies, the vague, blurred figures of the troopers, the dull thud of the hoofs, and the jingling of scabbard against stirrup—eye and ear can both conjure up those old-time memories. The Baronet and I rode in front, knee against knee, and his light-hearted chatter of life in town, with his little snatches of verse or song from Cowley or Waller, were a very balm of Gilead to my sombre and somewhat heavy spirit.
'Life is indeed life on such a night as this,' quoth he, as we breathed in the fresh country air with the reeks of crops and of kine. 'Rabbit me! but you are to be envied, Clarke, for having been born and bred in the country! What pleasures has the town to offer compared to the free gifts of nature, provided always that there be a perruquier's and a snuff merchant's, and a scent vendor's, and one or two tolerable outfitters within reach? With these and a good coffee-house and a playhouse, I think I could make shift to lead a simple pastoral life for some months.'
'In the country,' said I, laughing, 'we have ever the feeling that the true life of mankind, with the growth of knowledge and wisdom, are being wrought out in the towns.'
'Ventre Saint-Gris! It was little knowledge or wisdom that I acquired there,' he answered. 'Truth to tell, I have lived more and learned more during these few weeks that we have been sliding about in the rain with our ragged lads, than ever I did when I was page of the court, with the ball of fortune at my feet. It is a sorry thing for a man's mind to have nothing higher to dwell upon than the turning of a compliment or the dancing of a corranto. Zounds, lad! I have your friend the carpenter to thank for much. As he says in his letter, unless a man can get the good that is in him out, he is of loss value in the world than one of those fowls that we hear cackling, for they at least fulfill their mission, if it be only to lay eggs. Ged, it is a new creed for me to be preaching!'
'But,' said I, 'when you were a wealthy man you must have been of service to some one, for how could one spend so much money and yet none be the better?'
'You dear bucolic Micah!' he cried, with a gay laugh. 'You will ever speak of my poor fortune with bated breath and in an awestruck voice, as though it were the wealth of the Indies. You cannot think, lad, how easy it is for a money-bag to take unto itself wings and fly. It is true that the man who spends it doth not consume the money, but passes it on to some one who profits thereby. Yet the fault lies in the fact that it was to the wrong folk that we passed our money, thereby breeding a useless and debauched class at the expense of honest callings. Od's fish, lad! when I think of the swarms of needy beggars, the lecherous pimps, the nose-slitting bullies, the toadies and the flatterers who were reared by us, I feel that in hatching such a poisonous brood our money hath done what no money can undo. Have I not seen them thirty deep of a morning when I have held my levee, cringing up to my bedside—'
'Your bedside!' I exclaimed.
'Aye! it was the mode to receive in bed, attired in laced cambric shirt and periwig, though afterwards it was permitted to sit up in your chamber, but dressed a la negligence, in gown and slippers. The mode is a terrible tyrant, Clarke, though its arm may not extend as far as Havant. The idle man of the town must have some rule of life, so he becomes a slave to the law of the fashions. No man in London was more subject to it than myself. I was regular in my irregularities, and orderly in my disorders. At eleven o'clock to the stroke, up came my valet with the morning cup of hippocras, an excellent thing for the qualms, and some slight refection, as the breast of an ortolan or wing of a widgeon. Then came the levee, twenty, thirty, or forty of the class I have spoken of, though now and then perhaps there might be some honest case of want among them, some needy man-of-letters in quest of a guinea, or pupil-less pedant with much ancient learning in his head and very little modern coinage in his pocket. It was not only that I had some power of mine own, but I was known to have the ear of my Lord Halifax, Sidney Godolphin, Lawrence Hyde, and others whose will might make or mar a man. Mark you those lights upon the left! Would it not be well to see if there is not something to be had there?'
'Hooker hath orders to proceed to a certain farm,' I answered. 'This we could take upon our return should we still have space. We shall be back here before morning.'
'We must get supplies, if I have to ride back to Surrey for them,' said he. 'Rat me, if I dare look my musqueteers in the face again unless I bring them something to toast upon the end of their ramrods! They had little more savoury than their own bullets to put in their mouths when I left them. But I was speaking of old days in London. Our time was well filled. Should a man of quality incline to sport there was ever something to attract him. He might see sword-playing at Hockley, or cocking at Shoe Lane, or baiting at Southwark, or shooting at Tothill Fields. Again, he might walk in the physic gardens of St. James's, or go down the river with the ebb tide to the cherry orchards at Rotherhithe, or drive to Islington to drink the cream, or, above all, walk in the Park, which is most modish for a gentleman who dresses in the fashion. You see, Clarke, that we were active in our idleness, and that there was no lack of employment. Then as evening came on there were the playhouses to draw us, Dorset Gardens, Lincoln's Inn, Drury Lane, and the Queen's—among the four there was ever some amusement to be found.'
'There, at least, your time was well employed,' said I; 'you could not hearken to the grand thoughts or lofty words of Shakespeare or of Massinger without feeling some image of them in your own soul.'
Sir Gervas chuckled quietly. 'You are as fresh to me, Micah, as this sweet country air,' said he. 'Know, thou dear babe, that it was not to see the play that we frequented the playhouse.'
'Then why, in Heaven's name?' I asked.
'To see each other,' he answered. 'It was the mode, I assure you, for a man of fashion to stand with his back turned to the stage from the rise of the curtain to the fall of it. There were the orange wenches to quiz—plaguey sharp of tongue the hussies are, too—and there were the vizards of the pit, whose little black masks did invite inquiry, and there were the beauties of the town and the toasts of the Court, all fair mark for our quizzing-glasses. Play, indeed! S'bud, we had something better to do than to listen to alexandrines or weigh the merits of hexameters! 'Tis true that if La Jeune were dancing, or if Mrs. Bracegirdle or Mrs. Oldfield came upon the boards, we would hum and clap, but it was the fine woman that we applauded rather than the actress.'
'And when the play was over you went doubtless to supper and so to bed?'
'To supper, certainly. Sometimes to the Rhenish House, sometimes to Pontack's in Abchurch Lane. Every one had his own taste in that matter. Then there were dice and cards at the Groom Porter's or under the arches at Covent Garden, piquet, passage, hazard, primero—what you choose. After that you could find all the world at the coffee-houses, where an arriere supper was often served with devilled bones and prunes, to drive the fumes of wine from the head. Zounds, Micah! If the Jews should relax their pressure, or if this war brings us any luck, you shall come to town with me and shall see all these things for yourself.'
'Truth to tell, it doth not tempt me much,' I answered. 'Slow and solemn I am by nature, and in such scenes as you have described I should feel a very death's head at a banquet.'
Sir Gervas was about to reply, when of a sudden out of the silence of the night there rose a long-drawn piercing scream, which thrilled through every nerve of our bodies. I have never heard such a wail of despair. We pulled up our horses, as did the troopers behind us, and strained our ears for some sign as to whence the sound proceeded, for some were of opinion that it came from our right and some from our left. The main body with the waggons had come up, and we all listened intently for any return of the terrible cry. Presently it broke upon us again, wild, shrill, and agonised: the scream of a woman in mortal distress.
'Tis over there, Major Hooker,' cried Sir Gervas, standing up in his stirrups and peering through the darkness. 'There is a house about two fields off. I can see some glimmer, as from a window with the blind drawn.'
'Shall we not make for it at once?' I asked impatiently, for our commander sat stolidly upon his horse as though by no means sure what course he should pursue.
'I am here, Captain Clarke,' said he, 'to convey supplies to the army, and I am by no means justified in turning from my course to pursue other adventures.'
'Death, man! there is a woman in distress,' cried Sir Gervas. 'Why, Major, you would not ride past and let her call in vain for help? Hark, there she is again!' As he spoke the wild scream rang out once more from the lonely house.
'Nay, I can abide this no longer,' I cried, my blood boiling in my veins; 'do you go on your errand, Major Hooker, and my friend and I shall leave you here. We shall know how to justify our action to the King. Come, Sir Gervas!'
'Mark ye, this is flat mutiny, Captain Clarke,' said Hooker; 'you are under my orders, and should you desert me you do so at your peril.'
'In such a case I care not a groat for thy orders,' I answered hotly. Turning Covenant I spurred down a narrow, deeply-rutted lane which led towards the house, followed by Sir Gervas and two or three of the troopers. At the same moment I heard a sharp word of command from Hooker and the creaking of wheels, showing that he had indeed abandoned us and proceeded on his mission.
'He is right,' quoth the Baronet, as we rode down the lane; 'Saxon or any other old soldier would commend his discipline.'
'There are things which are higher than discipline,' I muttered. 'I could not pass on and leave this poor soul in her distress. But see—what have we here?'
A dark mass loomed in front of us, which proved as we approached to be four horses fastened by their bridles to the hedge.
'Cavalry horses, Captain Clarke!' cried one of the troopers who had sprung down to examine them. 'They have the Government saddle and holsters. Here is a wooden gate which opens on a pathway leading to the house.'
'We had best dismount, then,' said Sir Gervas, jumping down and tying his horse beside the others. 'Do you, lads, stay by the horses, and if we call for ye come to our aid. Sergeant Holloway, you can come with us. Bring your pistols with you!'