Chapter XXXII. Of the Onfall at Sedgemoor
However pressing our own private griefs and needs, we had little time now to dwell upon them, for the moment was at hand which was to decide for the time not only our own fates, but that of the Protestant cause in England. None of us made light of the danger. Nothing less than a miracle could preserve us from defeat, and most of us were of opinion that the days of the miracles were past. Others, however, thought otherwise. I believe that many of our Puritans, had they seen the heavens open that night, and the armies of the Seraphim and the Cherubim descending to our aid, would have looked upon it as by no means a wonderful or unexpected occurrence.
The whole town was loud with the preaching. Every troop or company had its own chosen orator, and sometimes more than one, who held forth and expounded. From barrels, from waggons, from windows, and even from housetops, they addressed the crowds beneath; nor was their eloquence in vain. Hoarse, fierce shouts rose up from the streets, with broken prayers and ejaculations. Men were drunk with religion as with wine. Their faces were flushed, their speech thick, their gestures wild. Sir Stephen and Saxon smiled at each other as they watched them, for they knew, as old soldiers, that of all causes which make a man valiant in deed and careless of life, this religious fit is the strongest and the most enduring.
In the evening I found time to look in upon my wounded friend, and found him propped up with cushions upon his couch, breathing with some pain, but as bright and merry as ever. Our prisoner, Major Ogilvy, who had conceived a warm affection for us, sat by his side and read aloud to him out of an old book of plays.
'This wound hath come at an evil moment,' said Reuben impatiently. 'Is it not too much that a little prick like this should send my men captainless into battle, after all our marching and drilling? I have been present at the grace, and am cut off from the dinner.'
'Your company hath been joined to mine,' I answered, 'though, indeed, the honest fellows are cast down at not having their own captain. Has the physician been to see you?'
'He has left even now,' said Major Ogilvy. 'He pronounces our friend to be doing right well, but hath warned me against allowing him to talk.'
'Hark to that, lad!' said I, shaking my finger at him. 'If I hear a word from you I go. You will escape a rough waking this night, Major. What think you of our chance?'
'I have thought little of your chance from the first,' he replied frankly. 'Monmouth is like a ruined gamester, who is now putting his last piece upon the board. He cannot win much, and he may lose all.'
'Nay, that is a hard saying,' said I. 'A success might set the whole of the Midlands in arms.'
'England is not ripe for it,' the Major answered, with a shake of his head. 'It is true that it has no fancy either for Papistry or for a Papist King, but we know that it is but a passing evil, since the next in succession, the Prince of Orange, is a Protestant. Why, then, should we risk so many evils to bring that about which time and patience must, perforce, accomplish between them? Besides, the man whom ye support has shown that he is unworthy of confidence. Did he not in his declaration promise to leave the choice of a monarch to the Commons? And yet, in less than a week, he proclaimed himself at Taunton Market Cross! Who could believe one who has so little regard for truth?'
'Treason, Major, rank treason,' I answered, laughing. 'Yet if we could order a leader as one does a coat we might, perchance, have chosen one of a stronger texture. We are in arms not for him, but for the old liberties and rights of Englishmen. Have you seen Sir Gervas?'
Major Ogilvy, and even Reuben, burst out laughing. 'You will find him in the room above,' said our prisoner. 'Never did a famous toast prepare herself for a court ball as he is preparing for his battle. If the King's troops take him they will assuredly think that they have the Duke. He hath been in here to consult us as to his patches, hosen, and I know not what beside. You had best go up to him.'
'Adieu, then, Reuben!' I said, grasping his hand in mine.
'Adieu, Micah! God shield you from harm,' said he.
'Can I speak to you aside, Major?' I whispered. 'I think,' I went on, as he followed me into the passage, 'that you will not say that your captivity hath been made very harsh for you. May I ask, therefore, that you will keep an eye upon my friend should we be indeed defeated this night? No doubt if Feversham gains the upper hand there will be bloody work. The hale can look after themselves, but he is helpless, and will need a friend.'
The Major pressed my hand. 'I swear to God,' he said, 'that no harm shall befall him.'
'You have taken a load from my heart,' I answered; 'I know that I leave him in safety. 'I can now ride to battle with an easy mind.' With a friendly smile the soldier returned to the sick-room, whilst I ascended the stair and entered the quarters of Sir Gervas Jerome.
He was standing before a table which was littered all over with pots, brushes, boxes, and a score of the like trifles, which he had either bought or borrowed for the occasion. A large hand-mirror was balanced against the wall, with rush-lights on either side of it. In front of this, with a most solemn and serious expression upon his pale, handsome face, the Baronet was arranging and re-arranging a white berdash cravat. His riding-boots were brightly polished, and the broken seam repaired. His sword-sheath, breastplate, and trappings were clear and bright. He wore his gayest and newest suit, and above all he had donned a most noble and impressive full-bottomed periwig, which drooped down to his shoulders, as white as powder could make it. From his dainty riding-hat to his shining spur there was no speck or stain upon him—a sad set-off to my own state, plastered as I was with a thick crust of the Sedgemoor mud, and disordered from having ridden and worked for two days without rest or repose.
'Split me, but you have come in good time!' he exclaimed, as I entered. 'I have even now sent down for a flask of canary. Ah, and here it comes!' as a maid from the inn tripped upstairs with the bottle and glasses. 'Here is a gold piece, my pretty dear, the very last that I have in the whole world. It is the only survivor of a goodly family. Pay mine host for the wine, little one, and keep the change for thyself, to buy ribbons for the next holiday. Now, curse me if I can get this cravat to fit unwrinkled!'
'There is nought amiss with it,' I answered. 'How can such trifles occupy you at such a time?'
'Trifles!' he cried angrily. 'Trifles! Well, there, it boots not to argue with you. Your bucolic mind would never rise to the subtle import which may lie in such matters—the rest of mind which it is to have them right, and the plaguey uneasiness when aught is wrong. It comes, doubtless, from training, and it may be that I have it more than others of my class. I feel as a cat who would lick all day to take the least speck from her fur. Is not the patch over the eyebrow happily chosen? Nay, you cannot even offer an opinion; I would as soon ask friend Marot, the knight of the pistol. Fill up your glass!'
'Your company awaits you by the church,' I remarked; 'I saw them as I passed.'
'How looked they?' he asked. 'Were they powdered and clean?'
'Nay, I had little leisure to observe. I saw that they were cutting their matches and arranging their priming.'
'I would that they had all snaphances,' he answered, sprinkling himself with scented water; 'the matchlocks are slow and cumbersome. Have you had wine enough?'
'I will take no more,' I answered.
'Then mayhap the Major may care to finish it. It is not often I ask help with a bottle, but I would keep my head cool this night. Let us go down and see to our men.'
It was ten o'clock when we descended into the street. The hubbub of the preachers and the shouting of the people had died away, for the regiments had fallen into their places, and stood silent and stern, with the faint light from the lamps and windows playing over their dark serried ranks. A cool, clear moon shone down upon us from amidst fleecy clouds, which drifted ever and anon across her face. Away in the north tremulous rays of light flickered up into the heavens, coming and going like long, quivering fingers. They were the northern lights, a sight rarely seen in the southland counties. It is little wonder that, coming at such a time, the fanatics should have pointed to them as signals from another world, and should have compared them to that pillar of fire which guided Israel through the dangers of the desert. The footpaths and the windows were crowded with women and children, who broke into shrill cries of fear or of wonder as the strange light waxed and waned.
'It is half after ten by St. Mary's clock,' said Saxon, as we rode up to the regiment. 'Have we nothing to give the men?'
'There is a hogshead of Zoyland cider in the yard of yonder inn,' said Sir Gervas. 'Here, Dawson, do you take those gold sleeve links and give them to mine host in exchange. Broach the barrel, and let each man have his horn full. Sink me, if they shall fight with nought but cold water in them.'
'They will feel the need of it ere morning,' said Saxon, as a score of pikemen hastened off to the inn. 'The marsh air is chilling to the blood.'
'I feel cold already, and Covenant is stamping with it,' said I. 'Might we not, if we have time upon our hands, canter our horses down the line?'
'Of a surety,' Saxon answered gladly, 'we could not do better;' so shaking our bridles we rode off, our horses' hoofs striking fire from the flint-paved streets as we passed.
Behind the horse, in a long line which stretched from the Eastover gate, across the bridge, along the High Street, up the Cornhill, and so past the church to the Pig Cross, stood our foot, silent and grim, save when some woman's voice from the windows called forth a deep, short answer from the ranks. The fitful light gleamed on scythes-blade or gun-barrel, and showed up the lines of rugged, hard set faces, some of mere children with never a hair upon their cheeks, others of old men whose grey beards swept down to their cross-belts, but all bearing the same stamp of a dogged courage and a fierce self-contained resolution. Here were still the fisher folk of the south. Here, too, were the fierce men from the Mendips, the wild hunters from Porlock Quay and Minehead, the poachers of Exmoor, the shaggy marshmen of Axbridge, the mountain men from the Quantocks, the serge and wool-workers of Devonshire, the graziers of Bampton, the red-coats from the Militia, the stout burghers of Taunton, and then, as the very bone and sinew of all, the brave smockfrocked peasants of the plains, who had turned up their jackets to the elbow, and exposed their brown and corded arms, as was their wont when good work had to be done. As I speak to you, dear children, fifty years rolls by like a mist in the morning, and I am riding once more down the winding street, and see again the serried ranks of my gallant companions. Brave hearts! They showed to all time how little training it takes to turn an Englishman into a soldier, and what manner of men are bred in those quiet, peaceful hamlets which dot the sunny slopes of the Somerset and Devon downs. If ever it should be that England should be struck upon her knees, if those who fight her battles should have deserted her, and she should find herself unarmed in the presence of her enemy, let her take heart and remember that every village in the realm is a barrack, and that her real standing army is the hardy courage and simple virtue which stand ever in the breast of the humblest of her peasants.
As we rode down the long line a buzz of greeting and welcome rose now and again from the ranks as they recognised through the gloom Saxon's tall, gaunt figure. The clock was on the stroke of eleven as we returned to our own men, and at that very moment King Monmouth rode out from the inn where he was quartered, and trotted with his staff down the High Street. All cheering had been forbidden, but waving caps and brandished arms spoke the ardour of his devoted followers. No bugle was to sound the march, but as each received the word the one in its rear followed its movements. The clatter and shuffle of hundreds of moving feet came nearer and nearer, until the Frome men in front of us began to march, and we found ourselves fairly started upon the last journey which many of us were ever to take in this world.
Our road lay across the Parret, through Eastover, and so along the winding track past the spot where Derrick met his fate, and the lonely cottage of the little maid. At the other side of this the road becomes a mere pathway over the plain. A dense haze lay over the moor, gathering thickly in the hollows, and veiling both the town which we had left and the villages which we were approaching. Now and again it would lift for a few moments, and then I could see in the moonlight the long black writhing line of the army, with the shimmer of steel playing over it, and the rude white standards flapping in the night breeze. Far on the right a great fire was blazing—some farmhouse, doubtless, which the Tangiers devils had made spoil of. Very slow our march was, and very careful, for the plain was, as Sir Stephen Timewell had told us, cut across by great ditches or rhines, which could not be passed save at some few places. These ditches were cut for the purpose of draining the marshes, and were many feet deep of water and of mud, so that even the horse could not cross them. The bridges were narrow, and some time passed before the army could get over. At last, however, the two main ones, the Black Ditch and the Langmoor Rhine, were safely traversed and a halt was called while the foot was formed in line, for we had reason to believe that no other force lay between the Royal camp and ourselves. So far our enterprise had succeeded admirably. We were within half a mile of the camp without mistake or accident, and none of the enemy's scouts had shown sign of their presence. Clearly they held us in such contempt that it had never occurred to them that we might open the attack. If ever a general deserved a beating it was Feversham that night. As he drew up upon the moor the clock of Chedzoy struck one.
'Is it not glorious?' whispered Sir Gervas, as we reined up upon the further side of the Langmoor Rhine. 'What is there on earth to compare with the excitement of this?'
'You speak as though it wore a cocking-match or a bull-baiting, 'I answered, with some little coldness. 'It is a solemn and a sad occasion. Win who will, English blood must soak the soil of England this night.'
'The more room for those who are left,' said he lightly. 'Mark over yonder the glow of their camp-fires amidst the fog. What was it that your seaman friend did recommend? Get the weather-gauge of them and board—eh? Have you told that to the Colonel?'
'Nay, this is no time for quips and cranks,' I answered gravely; 'the chances are that few of us will ever see to-morrow's sun rise.'
'I have no great curiosity to see it,' he remarked, with a laugh. 'It will be much as yesterday's. Zounds! though I have never risen to see one in my life, I have looked on many a hundred ere I went to bed.'
'I have told friend Reuben such few things as I should desire to be done in case I should fall,' said I. 'It has eased my mind much to know that I leave behind some word of farewell, and little remembrance to all whom I have known. Is there no service of the sort which I can do for you?'
'Hum!' said he, musing. 'If I go under, you can tell Araminta—nay, let the poor wench alone! Why should I send her messages which may plague her! Should you be in town, little Tommy Chichester would be glad to hear of the fun which we have had in Somerset. You will find him at the Coca Tree every day of the week between two and four of the clock. There is Mother Butterworth, too, whom I might commend to your notice. She was the queen of wet-nurses, but alas! cruel time hath dried up her business, and she hath need of some little nursing herself.'
'If I live and you should fall, I shall do what may be done for her,' said I. 'Have you aught else to say?'
'Only that Hacker of Paul's Yard is the best for vests,' he answered. 'It is a small piece of knowledge, yet like most other knowledge it hath been bought and paid for. One other thing! I have a trinket or two left which might serve as a gift for the pretty Puritan maid, should our friend lead her to the altar. Od's my life, but she will make him read some queer books! How now, Colonel, why are we stuck out on the moor like a row of herons among the sedges?'
'They are ordering the line for the attack,' said Saxon, who had ridden up during our conversation. 'Donnerblitz! Who ever saw a camp so exposed to an onfall? Oh for twelve hundred good horse—for an hour of Wessenburg's Pandours! Would I not trample them down until their camp was like a field of young corn after a hail-storm!'
'May not our horse advance?' I asked.
The old soldier gave a deep snort of disdain. 'If this fight is to be won it must be by our foot,' said he; 'what can we hope for from such cavalry? Keep your men well in hand, for we may have to bear the brunt of the King's dragoons. A flank attack would fall upon us, for we are in the post of honour.'
'There are troops to the right of us,' I answered, peering through the darkness.
'Aye! the Taunton burghers and the Frome peasants. Our brigade covers the right flank. Next us are the Mendip miners, nor could I wish for better comrades, if their zeal do not outrun their discretion. They are on their knees in the mud at this moment.'
'They will fight none the worse for that,' I remarked; 'but surely the troops are advancing!'
'Aye, aye!' cried Saxon joyously, plucking out his sword, and tying his handkerchief round the handle to strengthen his grip. 'The hour has come! Forwards!'
Very slowly and silently we crept on through the dense fog, our feet splashing and slipping in the sodden soil. With all the care which we could take, the advance of so great a number of men could not be conducted without a deep sonorous sound from the thousands of marching feet. Ahead of us were splotches of ruddy light twinkling through the fog which marked the Royal watch-fires. Immediately in front in a dense column our own horse moved forwards. Of a sudden out of the darkness there came a sharp challenge and a shout, with the discharge of a carbine and the sound of galloping hoofs. Away down the line we heard a ripple of shots. The first line of outposts had been reached. At the alarm our horse charged forward with a huzza, and we followed them as fast as our men could run. We had crossed two or three hundred yards of moor, and could hear the blowing of the Royal bugles quite close to us, when our horse came to a sudden halt, and our whole advance was at a standstill.
'Sancta Maria!' cried Saxon, dashing forward with the rest of us to find out the cause of the delay. 'We must on at any cost! A halt now will ruin our camisado.'
'Forwards, forwards!' cried Sir Gervas and I, waving our swords.
'It is no use, gentlemen,' cried a cornet of horse, wringing his hands; 'we are undone and betrayed. There is a broad ditch without a ford in front of us, full twenty feet across!'
'Give me room for my horse, and I shall show ye the way across!' cried the Baronet, backing his steed. 'Now, lads, who's for a jump?'
'Nay, sir, for God's sake!' said a trooper, laying his hand upon his bridle. 'Sergeant Sexton hath sprung in even now, and horse and man have gone to the bottom!'
'Let us see it, then!' cried Saxon, pushing his way through the crowd of horsemen. We followed close at his heels, until we found ourselves on the borders of the vast trench which impeded our advance.
To this day I have never been able to make up my mind whether it was by chance or by treachery on the part of our guides that this fosse was overlooked until we stumbled upon it in the dark. There are some who say that the Bussex Rhine, as it is called, is not either deep or broad, and was, therefore, unmentioned by the moorsmen, but that the recent constant rains had swollen it to an extent never before known. Others say that the guides had been deceived by the fog, and taken a wrong course, whereas, had we followed another track, we might have been able to come upon the camp without crossing the ditch. However that may be, it is certain that we found it stretching in front of us, broad, black, and forbidding, full twenty feet from bank to bank, with the cap of the ill-fated sergeant just visible in the centre as a mute warning to all who might attempt to ford it.
'There must be a passage somewhere,' cried Saxon furiously. 'Every moment is worth a troop of horse to them. Where is my Lord Grey? Hath the guide met with his deserts?'
'Major Hollis hath hurled the guide into the ditch,' the young cornet answered. 'My Lord Grey hath ridden along the bank seeking for a ford.'
I caught a pike out of a footman's hand, and probed into the black oozy mud, standing myself up to the waist in it, and holding Covenant's bridle in my left hand. Nowhere could I touch bottom or find any hope of solid foothold.
'Here, fellow!' cried Saxon, seizing a trooper by the arm. 'Make for the rear! Gallop as though the devil were behind you! Bring up a pair of ammunition waggons, and we shall see whether we cannot bridge this infernal puddle.'
'If a few of us could make a lodgment upon the other side we might make it good until help came,' said Sir Gervas, as the horseman galloped off upon his mission.
All down the rebel line a fierce low roar of disappointment and rage showed that the whole army had met the same obstacle which hindered our attack. On the other side of the ditch the drums beat, the bugles screamed, and the shouts and oaths of the officers could be heard as they marshalled their men. Glancing lights in Chedzoy, Westonzoyland, and the other hamlets to left and right, showed how fast the alarm was extending. Decimus Saxon rode up and down the edge of the fosse, pattering forth foreign oaths, grinding his teeth in his fury, and rising now and again in his stirrups to shake his gauntleted hands at the enemy.
'For whom are ye?' shouted a hoarse voice out of the haze.
'For the King!' roared the peasants in answer.
'For which King?' cried the voice.
'For King Monmouth!'
'Let them have it, lads!' and instantly a storm of musket bullets whistled and sung about our ears. As the sheet of flame sprang out of the darkness the maddened, half-broken horses dashed wildly away across the plain, resisting the efforts of the riders to pull them up. There are some, indeed, who say that those efforts were not very strong, and that our troopers, disheartened at the check at the ditch, were not sorry to show their heels to the enemy. As to my Lord Grey, I can say truly that I saw him in the dim light among the flying squadrons, doing all that a brave cavalier could do to bring them to a stand. Away they went, however, thundering through the ranks of the foot and out over the moor, leaving their companions to bear the whole brunt of the battle.
'On to your faces, men!' shouted Saxon, in a voice which rose high above the crash of the musketry and the cries of the wounded. The pikemen and scythesmen threw themselves down at his command, while the musqueteers knelt in front of them, loading and firing, with nothing to aim at save the burning matches of the enemy's pieces, which could be seen twinkling through the darkness. All along, both to the right and the left, a rolling fire had broken out, coming in short, quick volleys from the soldiers, and in a continuous confused rattle from the peasants. On the further wing our four guns had been brought into play, and we could hear their dull growling in the distance.
'Sing, brothers, sing!' cried our stout-hearted chaplain, Master Joshua Pettigrue, bustling backwards and forwards among the prostrate ranks. 'Let us call upon the Lord in our day of trial!' The men raised a loud hymn of praise, which swelled into a great chorus as it was taken up by the Taunton burghers upon our right and the miners upon our left. At the sound the soldiers on the other side raised a fierce huzza, and the whole air was full of clamour.
Our musqueteers had been brought to the very edge of the Bussex Rhine, and the Royal troops had also advanced as far as they were able, so that there were not five pikes'-lengths between the lines. Yet that short distance was so impassable that, save for the more deadly fire, a quarter of a mile might have divided us. So near were we that the burning wads from the enemy's muskets flew in flakes of fire over our heads, and we felt upon our faces the hot, quick flush of their discharges. Yet though the air was alive with bullets, the aim of the soldiers was too high for our kneeling ranks, and very few of the men were struck. For our part, we did what we could to keep the barrels of our muskets from inclining upwards. Saxon, Sir Gervas, and I walked our horses up and down without ceasing, pushing them level with our sword-blades, and calling on the men to aim steadily and slowly. The groans and cries from the other side of the ditch showed that some, at least, of our bullets had not been fired in vain.
'We hold our own in this quarter,' said I to Saxon. 'It seems to me that their fire slackens.'
'It is their horse that I fear,' he answered. 'They can avoid the ditch, since they come from the hamlets on the flank. They may be upon us at any time.'
'Hullo, sir!' shouted Sir Gervas, reining up his steed upon the very brink of the ditch, and raising his cap in salute to a mounted officer upon the other side. 'Can you tell me if we have the honour to be opposed to the foot guards?'
'We are Dumbarton's regiment, sir,' cried the other. 'We shall give ye good cause to remember having met us.'
'We shall be across presently to make your further acquaintance,' Sir Gervas answered, and at the same moment rolled, horse and all, into the ditch, amid a roar of exultation from the soldiers. Half-a-dozen of his musqueteers sprang instantly, waist deep, into the mud, and dragged our friend out of danger, but the charger, which had been shot through the heart, sank without a struggle.
'There is no harm!' cried the Baronet, springing to his feet, 'I would rather fight on foot like my brave musqueteers.' The men broke out a-cheering at his words, and the fire on both sides became hotter than ever. It was a marvel to me, and to many more, to see these brave peasants with their mouths full of bullets, loading, priming, and firing as steadily as though they had been at it all their lives, and holding their own against a veteran regiment which has proved itself in other fields to be second to none in the army of England.
The grey light of morning was stealing over the moor, and still the fight was undecided. The fog hung about us in feathery streaks, and the smoke from our guns drifted across in a dun-coloured cloud, through which the long lines of red coats upon the other side of the rhine loomed up like a battalion of giants. My eyes ached and my lips prinkled with the smack of the powder. On every side of me men were falling fast, for the increased light had improved the aim of the soldiers. Our good chaplain, in the very midst of a psalm, had uttered a great shout of praise and thanksgiving, and so passed on to join those of his parishioners who were scattered round him upon the moor. Hope-above Williams and Keeper Milson, under-officers, and among the stoutest men in the company, were both down, the one dead and the other sorely wounded, but still ramming down charges, and spitting bullets into his gun-barrel. The two Stukeleys of Somerton, twins, and lads of great promise, lay silently with grey faces turned to the grey sky, united in death as they had been in birth. Everywhere the dead lay thick amid the living. Yet no man flinched from his place, and Saxon still walked his horse among them with words of hope and praise, while his stern, deep-lined face and tall sinewy figure were a very beacon of hope to the simple rustics. Such of my scythesmen as could handle a musket were thrown forward into the fighting line, and furnished with the arms and pouches of those who had fallen.
Ever and anon as the light waxed I could note through the rifts in the smoke and the fog how the fight was progressing in other parts of the field. On the right the heath was brown with the Taunton and Frome men, who, like ourselves, were lying down to avoid the fire. Along the borders of the Bussex Rhine a deep fringe of their musqueteers were exchanging murderous volleys, almost muzzle to muzzle, with the left wing of the same regiment with which we were engaged, which was supported by a second regiment in broad white facings, which I believe to have belonged to the Wiltshire Militia. On either bank of the black trench a thick line of dead, brown on the one side, and scarlet on the other, served as a screen to their companions, who sheltered themselves behind them and rested their musket-barrels upon their prostrate bodies. To the left amongst the withies lay five hundred Mendip and Bagworthy miners, singing lustily, but so ill-armed that they had scarce one gun among ten wherewith to reply to the fire which was poured into them. They could not advance, and they would not retreat, so they sheltered themselves as best they might, and waited patiently until their leaders might decide what was to be done. Further down for half a mile or more the long rolling cloud of smoke, with petulant flashes of flame spurting out through it, showed that every one of our raw regiments was bearing its part manfully. The cannon on the left had ceased firing. The Dutch gunners had left the Islanders to settle their own quarrels, and were scampering back to Bridgewater, leaving their silent pieces to the Royal Horse.
The battle was in this state when there rose a cry of 'The King, the King!' and Monmouth rode through our ranks, bare-headed and wild-eyed, with Buyse, Wade, and a dozen more beside him. They pulled up within a spear's-length of me, and Saxon, spurring forward to meet them, raised his sword to the salute. I could not but mark the contrast between the calm, grave face of the veteran, composed yet alert, and the half frantic bearing of the man whom we were compelled to look upon as our leader.
'How think ye, Colonel Saxon?' he cried wildly. 'How goes the fight? Is all well with ye? What an error, alas! what an error! Shall we draw off, eh? How say you?'
'We hold our own here, your Majesty,' Saxon answered. 'Methinks had we something after the nature of palisados or stockados, after the Swedish fashion, we might even make it good against the horse.'
'Ah, the horse!' cried the unhappy Monmouth. 'If we get over this, my Lord Grey shall answer for it. They ran like a flock of sheep. What leader could do anything with such troops? Oh, lack-a-day, lack-a-day! Shall we not advance?'
'There is no reason to advance, your Majesty, now that the surprise has failed,' said Saxon. 'I had sent for carts to bridge over the trench, according to the plan which is commended in the treatise, "De vallis et fossis," but they are useless now. We can but fight it out as we are.'
'To throw troops across would be to sacrifice them,' said Wade. 'We have lost heavily, Colonel Saxon, but I think from the look of yonder bank that ye have given a good account of the red-coats.'
'Stand firm! For God's sake, stand firm!' cried Monmouth distractedly. 'The horse have fled, and the cannoniers also. Oh! what can I do with such men? What shall I do? Alas, alas!' He set spurs to his horse and galloped off down the line, still ringing his hands and uttering his dismal wailings. Oh, my children, how small, how very small a thing is death when weighed in the balance with dishonour! Had this man but borne his fate silently, as did the meanest footman who followed his banners, how proud and glad would we have been to have discoursed of him, our princely leader. But let him rest. The fears and agitations and petty fond emotions, which showed upon him as the breeze shows upon the water, are all stilled now for many a long year. Let us think of the kind heart and forget the feeble spirit.
As his escort trooped after him, the great German man-at-arms separated from them and turned back to us. 'I am weary of trotting up and down like a lust-ritter at a fair,' said he. 'If I bide with ye I am like to have my share of any fighting which is going. So, steady, mein Liebchen. That ball grazed her tail, but she is too old a soldier to wince at trifles. Hullo, friend, where is your horse?'
'At the bottom of the ditch,' said Sir Gervas, scraping the mud off his dress with his sword-blade. ''Tis now half-past two,' he continued, 'and we have been at this child's-play for an hour and more. With a line regiment, too! It is not what I had looked forward to!'
'You shall have something to console you anon,' cried the German, with his eyes shining. 'Mein Gott! Is it not splendid? Look to it, friend Saxon, look to it!'
It was no light matter which had so roused the soldier's admiration. Out of the haze which still lay thick upon our right there twinkled here and there a bright gleam of silvery light, while a dull, thundering noise broke upon our ears like that of the surf upon a rocky shore. More and more frequent came the fitful flashes of steel, louder and yet louder grew the hoarse gathering tumult, until of a sudden the fog was rent, and the long lines of the Royal cavalry broke out from it, wave after wave, rich in scarlet and blue and gold, as grand a sight as ever the eye rested upon. There was something in the smooth, steady sweep of so great a body of horsemen which gave the feeling of irresistible power. Rank after rank, and line after line, with waving standards, tossing manes, and gleaming steel, they poured onwards, an army in themselves, with either flank still shrouded in the mist. As they thundered along, knee to knee and bridle to bridle, there came from them such a gust of deep-chested oaths with the jangle of harness, the clash of steel, and the measured beat of multitudinous hoofs, that no man who hath not stood up against such a whirlwind, with nothing but a seven-foot pike in his hand, can know how hard it is to face it with a steady lip and a firm grip.
But wonderful as was the sight, there was, as ye may guess, my dears, little time for us to gaze upon it. Saxon and the German flung themselves among the pikemen and did all that men could do to thicken their array. Sir Gervas and I did the same with the scythesmen, who had been trained to form a triple front after the German fashion, one rank kneeling, one stooping, and one standing erect, with weapons advanced. Close to us the Taunton men had hardened into a dark sullen ring, bristling with steel, in the centre of which might be seen and heard their venerable Mayor, his long beard fluttering in the breeze, and his strident voice clanging over the field. Louder and louder grew the roar of the horse. 'Steady, my brave lads,' cried Saxon, in trumpet tones. 'Dig the pike-butt into the earth! Best it on the right foot! Give not an inch! Steady!' A great shout went up from either side, and then the living wave broke over us.
What hope is there to describe such a scene as that—the crashing of wood, the sharp gasping cries, the snorting of horses, the jar when the push of pike met with the sweep of sword! Who can hope to make another see that of which he himself carries away so vague and dim an impression? One who has acted in such a scene gathers no general sense of the whole combat, such as might be gained by a mere onlooker, but he has stamped for ever upon his mind just the few incidents which may chance to occur before his own eyes. Thus my memories are confined to a swirl of smoke with steel caps and fierce, eager faces breaking through it, with the red gaping nostrils of horses and their pawing fore-feet as they recoiled from the hedge of steel. I see, too, a young beardless lad, an officer of dragoons, crawling on hands and knees under the scythes, and I hear his groan as one of the peasants pinned him to the ground. I see a bearded, broad-faced trooper riding a grey horse just outside the fringe of the scythes, seeking for some entrance, and screaming the while with rage. Small things imprint themselves upon a man's notice at such a time. I even marked the man's strong white teeth and pink gums. At the same time I see a white-faced, thin-lipped man leaning far forward over his horse's neck and driving at me with his sword point, cursing the while as only a dragoon can curse. All these images start up as I think of that fierce rally, during which I hacked and cut and thrust at man and horse without a thought of parry or of guard. All round rose a fierce babel of shouts and cries, godly ejaculations from the peasants and oaths from the horsemen, with Saxon's voice above all imploring his pikemen to stand firm. Then the cloud of horse-men recoiled, circling off over the plain, and the shout of triumph from my comrades, and an open snuff-box thrust out in front of me, proclaimed that we had seen the back of as stout a squadron as ever followed a kettledrum.
But if we could claim it as a victory, the army in general could scarce say as much. None but the very pick of the troops could stand against the flood of heavy horses and steel-clad men. The Frome peasants were gone, swept utterly from the field. Many had been driven by pure weight and pressure into the fatal mud which had checked our advance. Many others, sorely cut and slashed, lay in ghastly heaps all over the ground which they had held. A few by joining our ranks had saved themselves from the fate of their companions. Further off the men of Taunton still stood fast, though in sadly diminished numbers. A long ridge of horses and cavaliers in front of them showed how stern had been the attack and how fierce the resistance. On our left the wild miners had been broken at the first rush, but had fought so savagely, throwing themselves upon the ground and stabbing upwards at the stomachs of the horses, that they had at last beaten off the dragoons. The Devonshire militiamen, however, had been scattered, and shared the fate of the men of Frome. During the whole of the struggle the foot upon the further bank of the Bussex Rhine were pouring in a hail of bullets, which our musqueteers, having to defend themselves against the horse, were unable to reply to.
It needed no great amount of soldierly experience to see that the battle was lost, and that Monmouth's cause was doomed. It was broad daylight now, though the sun had not yet risen. Our cavalry was gone, our ordnance was silent, our line was pierced in many places, and more than one of our regiments had been destroyed. On the right flank the Horse Guards Blue, the Tangiers Horse, and two dragoon regiments were forming up for a fresh attack. On the left the foot-guards had bridged the ditch and were fighting hand to hand with the men from North Somerset. In front a steady fire was being poured into us, to which our reply was feeble and uncertain, for the powder carts had gone astray in the dark, and many were calling hoarsely for ammunition, while others were loading with pebbles instead of ball. Add to this that the regiments which still held their ground had all been badly shaken by the charge, and had lost a third of their number. Yet the brave clowns sent up cheer after cheer, and shouted words of encouragement and homely jests to each other, as though a battle were but some rough game which must as a matter of course be played out while there was a player left to join in it.
'Is Captain Clarke there?' cried Decimus Saxon, riding up with his sword-arm flecked with blood. 'Ride over to Sir Stephen Timewell and tell him to join his men to ours. Apart we shall be broken—together we may stand another charge.'
Setting spurs to Covenant I rode over to our companions and delivered the message. Sir Stephen, who had been struck by a petronel bullet, and wore a crimsoned kerchief bound round his snow-white head, saw the wisdom of the advice, and moved his townsmen as directed. His musqueteers being better provided with powder than ours did good service by keeping down for a time the deadly fire from across the fosse.
'Who would have thought it of him?' cried Sir Stephen, with flashing eyes, as Buyse and Saxon rode out to meet him. 'What think ye now of our noble monarch, our champion of the Protestant cause?'
'He is no very great Krieger,' said Buyse. 'Yet perhaps it may be from want of habit as much as from want of courage.'
'Courage!' cried the old Mayor, in a voice of scorn. 'Look over yonder and behold your King.' He pointed out over the moor with a finger which shook as much from anger as from age. There, far away, showing up against the dark peat-coloured soil, rode a gaily-dressed cavalier, followed by a knot of attendants, galloping as fast as his horse would carry him from the field of battle. There was no mistaking the fugitive. It was the recreant Monmouth.
'Hush!' cried Saxon, as we all gave a cry of horror and execration; 'do not dishearten our brave lads! Cowardice is catching and will run through an army like the putrid fever.'
'Der Feigherzige!' cried Buyse, grinding his teeth. 'And the brave country folk! It is too much.'
'Stand to your pikes, men!' roared Saxon, in a voice of thunder, and we had scarce time to form our square and throw ourselves inside of it, before the whirlwind of horse was upon us once more. When the Taunton men had joined us a weak spot had been left in our ranks, and through this in an instant the Blue Guards smashed their way, pouring through the opening, and cutting fiercely to right and left. The burghers on the one side and our own men on the other replied by savage stabs from their pikes and scythes, which emptied many a saddle, but while the struggle was at its hottest the King's cannon opened for the first time with a deafening roar upon the other side of the rhine, and a storm of balls ploughed their way through our dense ranks, leaving furrows of dead and wounded behind them. At the same moment a great cry of 'Powder! For Christ's sake, powder!' arose from the musqueteers whose last charge had been fired. Again the cannon roared, and again our men were mowed down as though Death himself with his scythe were amongst us. At last our ranks were breaking. In the very centre of the pikemen steel caps were gleaming, and broadswords rising and falling. The whole body was swept back two hundred paces or more, struggling furiously the while, and was there mixed with other like bodies which had been dashed out of all semblance of military order, and yet refused to fly. Men of Devon, of Dorset, of Wiltshire, and of Somerset, trodden down by horse, slashed by dragoons, dropping by scores under the rain of bullets, still fought on with a dogged, desperate courage for a ruined cause and a man who had deserted them. Everywhere as I glanced around me were set faces, clenched teeth, yells of rage and defiance, but never a sound of fear or of submission. Some clambered up upon the cruppers of the riders and dragged them backwards from their saddles. Others lay upon their faces and hamstrung the chargers with their scythe-blades, stabbing the horsemen before they could disengage themselves. Again and again the guards crashed through them from side to side, and yet the shattered ranks closed up behind them and continued the long-drawn struggle. So hopeless was it and so pitiable that I could have found it in my heart to wish that they would break and fly, were it not that on the broad moor there was no refuge which they could make for. And all this time, while they struggled and fought, blackened with powder and parched with thirst, spilling their blood as though it were water, the man who called himself their King was spurring over the countryside with a loose rein and a quaking heart, his thoughts centred upon saving his own neck, come what might to his gallant followers.
Large numbers of the foot fought to the death, neither giving nor receiving quarter; but at last, scattered, broken, and without ammunition, the main body of the peasants dispersed and fled across the moor, closely followed by the horse. Saxon, Buyse, and I had done all that we could to rally them once more, and had cut down some of the foremost of the pursuers, when my eye fell suddenly upon Sir Gervas, standing hatless with a few of his musqueteers in the midst of a swarm of dragoons. Spurring our horses we cut a way to his rescue, and laid our swords about us until we had cleared off his assailants for the moment.
'Jump up behind me!' I cried. 'We can make good our escape.'
He looked up smiling and shook his head. 'I stay with my company,' said he.
'Your company!' Saxon cried. 'Why, man, you are mad! Your company is cut off to the last man.'
'That's what I mean,' he answered, flicking some dirt from his cravat. 'Don't ye mind! Look out for yourselves. Goodbye, Clarke! Present my compliments to—' The dragoons charged down upon us again. We were all borne backwards, fighting desperately, and when we could look round the Baronet was gone for ever. We heard afterwards that the King's troops found upon the field a body which they mistook for that of Monmouth, on account of the effeminate grace of the features and the richness of the attire. No doubt it was that of our undaunted friend, Sir Gervas Jerome, a name which shall ever be dear to my heart. When, ten years afterwards, we heard much of the gallantry of the young courtiers of the household of the French King, and of the sprightly courage with which they fought against us in the Lowlands at Steinkirk and elsewhere, I have always thought, from my recollection of Sir Gervas, that I knew what manner of men they were.
And now it was every man for himself. In no part of the field did the insurgents continue to resist. The first rays of the sun shining slantwise across the great dreary plain lit up the long line of the scarlet battalions, and glittered upon the cruel swords which rose and fell among the struggling drove of resistless fugitives. The German had become separated from us in the tumult, and we knew not whether he lived or was slain, though long afterwards we learned that he made good his escape, only to be captured with the ill-fated Duke of Monmouth. Grey, Wade, Ferguson, and others had contrived also to save themselves, while Stephen Timewell lay in the midst of a stern ring of his hard-faced burghers, dying as he had lived, a gallant Puritan Englishman. All this we learned afterwards. At present we rode for our lives across the moor, followed by a few scattered bodies of horse, who soon abandoned their pursuit in order to fasten upon some more easy prey.
We were passing a small clump of alder bushes when a loud manly voice raised in prayer attracted our attention. Pushing aside the branches, we came upon a man, seated with his back up against a great stone, cutting at his own arm with a broad-bladed knife, and giving forth the Lord's prayer the while, without a pause or a quiver in his tone. As he glanced up from his terrible task we both recognised him as one Hollis, whom I have mentioned as having been with Cromwell at Dunbar. His arm had been half severed by a cannon-ball, and he was quietly completing the separation in order to free himself from the dangling and useless limb. Even Saxon, used as he was to all the forms and incidents of war, stared open-eyed and aghast at this strange surgery; but the man, with a short nod of recognition, went grimly forward with his task, until, even as we gazed, he separated the last shred which held it, and lay over with blanched lips which still murmured the prayer. (1) We could do little to help him, and, indeed, might by our halt attract his pursuers to his hiding-place; so, throwing him down my flask half filled with water, we hastened on upon our way. Oh, war, my children, what a terrible thing it is! How are men cozened and cheated by the rare trappings and prancing steeds, by the empty terms of honour and of glory, until they forget in the outward tinsel and show the real ghastly horror of the accursed thing! Think not of the dazzling squadrons, nor of the spirit-stirring blare of the trumpets, but think of that lonely man under the shadow of the alders, and of what he was doing in a Christian age and a Christian land. Surely I, who have grown grey in harness, and who have seen as many fields as I have years of my life, should be the last to preach upon this subject, and yet I can clearly see that, in honesty, men must either give up war, or else they must confess that the words of the Redeemer are too lofty for them, and that there is no longer any use in pretending that His teaching can be reduced to practice. I have seen a Christian minister blessing a cannon which had just been founded, and another blessing a war-ship as it glided from the slips. They, the so-called representatives of Christ, blessed these engines of destruction which cruel man has devised to destroy and tear his fellow-worms. What would we say if we read in Holy Writ of our Lord having blessed the battering-rams and the catapults of the legions? Would we think that it was in agreement with His teaching? But there! As long as the heads of the Church wander away so far from the spirit of its teaching as to live in palaces and drive in carriages, what wonder if, with such examples before them, the lower clergy overstep at times the lines laid down by their great Master?
Looking back from the summit of the low hills which lie to the westward of the moor, we could see the cloud of horse-men streaming over the bridge of the Parret and into the town of Bridgewater, with the helpless drove of fugitives still flying in front of them. We had pulled up our horses, and were looking sadly and silently back at the fatal plain, when the thud of hoofs fell upon our ears, and, turning round, we found two horsemen in the dress of the guards riding towards us. They had made a circuit to cut us off, for they were riding straight for us with drawn swords and eager gestures.
'More slaughter,' I said wearily. 'Why will they force us to it?'
Saxon glanced keenly from beneath his drooping lids at the approaching horsemen, and a grim smile wreathed his face in a thousand lines and wrinkles.
'It is our friend who set the hounds upon our track at Salisbury,' he said. 'This is a happy meeting. I have a score to settle with him.'
It was, indeed, the hot-headed young comet whom we had met at the outset of our adventures. Some evil chance had led him to recognise the tall figure of my companion as we rode from the field, and to follow him, in the hope of obtaining revenge for the humiliation which he had met with at his hands. The other was a lance-corporal, a man of square soldierly build, riding a heavy black horse with a white blaze upon its forehead.
Saxon rode slowly towards the officer, while the trooper and I fixed our eyes upon each other.
'Well, boy,' I heard my companion say, 'I trust that you have learned to fence since we met last.'
The young guardsman gave a snarl of rage at the taunt, and an instant afterwards the clink of their sword-blades showed that they had met. For my own part I dared not spare a glance upon them, for my opponent attacked me with such fury that it was all that I could do to keep him off. No pistol was drawn upon either side. It was an honest contest of steel against steel. So constant were the corporal's thrusts, now at my face, now at my body, that I had never an opening for one of the heavy cuts which might have ended the matter. Our horses spun round each other, biting and pawing, while we thrust and parried, until at last, coming together knee to knee, we found ourselves within sword-point, and grasped each other by the throat. He plucked a dagger from his belt and struck it into my left arm, but I dealt him a blow with my gauntleted hand, which smote him off his horse and stretched him speechless upon the plain. Almost at the same moment the cornet dropped from his horse, wounded in several places. Saxon sprang from his saddle, and picking the soldier's dagger from the ground, would have finished them both had I not jumped down also and restrained him. He flashed round upon me with so savage a face that I could see that the wild-beast nature within him was fairly roused.
'What hast thou to do?' he snarled. 'Let go!'
'Nay, nay! Blood enough hath been shed,' said I. 'Let them lie.'
'What mercy would they have had upon us?' he cried passionately, struggling to get his wrist free. 'They have lost, and must pay forfeit.'
'Not in cold blood,' I said firmly. 'I shall not abide it.'
'Indeed, your lordship,' he sneered, with the devil peeping out through his eyes. With a violent wrench he freed himself from my grasp, and springing back, picked up the sword which he had dropped.
'What then?' I asked, standing on my guard astride of the wounded man.
He stood for a minute or more looking at me from under his heavy-hung brows, with his whole face writhing with passion. Every instant I expected that he would fly at me, but at last, with a gulp in his throat, he sheathed his rapier with a sharp clang, and sprang back into the saddle.
'We part here,' he said coldly. 'I have twice been on the verge of slaying you, and the third time might be too much for my patience. You are no fit companion for a cavalier of fortune. Join the clergy, lad; it is your vocation.'
'Is this Decimus Saxon who speaks, or is it Will Spotterbridge?' I asked, remembering his jest concerning his ancestry, but no answering smile came upon his rugged face. Gathering up his bridle in his left hand, he shot one last malignant glance at the bleeding officer, and galloped off along one of the tracks which lead to the southward. I stood gazing after him, but he never sent so much as a hand-wave back, riding on with a rigid neck until he vanished in a dip in the moor.
'There goes one friend,' thought I sadly, 'and all forsooth because I will not stand by and see a helpless man's throat cut. Another friend is dead on the field. A third, the oldest and dearest of all, lies wounded at Bridgewater, at the mercy of a brutal soldiery. If I return to my home I do but bring trouble and danger to those whom I love. Whither shall I turn?' For some minutes I stood irresolute beside the prostrate guardsmen, while Covenant strolled slowly along cropping the scanty herbage, and turning his dark full eyes towards me from time to time, as though to assure me that one friend at least was steadfast. Northward I looked at the Polden Hills, southwards, at the Blackdowns, westward at the long blue range of the Quantocks, and eastward at the broad fen country; but nowhere could I see any hope of safety. Truth to say, I felt sick at heart and cared little for the time whether I escaped or no.
A muttered oath followed by a groan roused me from my meditations. The corporal was sitting up rubbing his head with a look of stupid astonishment upon his face, as though he were not very sure either of where he was or how he came there. The officer, too, had opened his eyes and shown other signs of returning consciousness. His wounds were clearly of no very serious nature. There was no danger of their pursuing me even should they wish to do so, for their horses had trotted off to join the numerous other riderless steeds who were wandering all over the moorlands. I mounted, therefore, and rode slowly away, saving my good charger as much as possible, for the morning's work had already told somewhat heavily upon him.
There were many scattered bodies of horse riding hither and thither over the marshes, but I was able to avoid them, and trotted onwards, keeping to the waste country until I found myself eight or ten miles from the battlefield. The few cottages and houses which I passed wore deserted, and many of them bore signs of having been plundered. Not a peasant was to be seen. The evil fame of Kirke's lambs had chased away all those who had not actually taken arms. At last, after riding for three hours, I bethought me that I was far enough from the main line of pursuit to be free from danger, so I chose out a sheltered spot where a clump of bushes overhung a little brook. There, seated upon a bank of velvet moss, I rested my weary limbs, and tried to wash the stains of battle from my person.
It was only now when I could look quietly at my own attire that it was brought home to me how terrible the encounter must have been in which I had been engaged, and how wonderful it was that I had come off so scatheless. Of the blows which I had struck in the fight I had faint remembrance, yet they must have been many and terrible, for my sword edge was as jagged and turned as though I had hacked for an hour at an iron bar. From head to foot I was splashed and crimsoned with blood, partly my own, but mostly that of others. My headpiece was dinted with blows. A petronel bullet had glanced off my front plate, striking it at an angle, and had left a broad groove across it. Two or three other cracks and stars showed where the good sheet of proof steel had saved me. My left arm was stiff and well-nigh powerless from the corporal's stab, but on stripping off my doublet and examining the place, I found that though there had been much bleeding the wound was on the outer side of the bone, and was therefore of no great import. A kerchief dipped in water and bound tightly round it eased the smart and stanched the blood. Beyond this scratch I had no injuries, though from my own efforts I felt as stiff and sore all over as though I had been well cudgelled, and the slight wound got in Wells Cathedral had reopened and was bleeding. With a little patience and cold water, however, I was able to dress it and to tie myself up as well as any chirurgeon in the kingdom.
Having seen to my injuries I had now to attend to my appearance, for in truth I might have stood for one of those gory giants with whom the worthy Don Bellianis of Greece and other stout champions were wont to contend. No woman or child but would have fled at the sight of me, for I was as red as the parish butcher when Martinmas is nigh. A good wash, however, in the brook soon removed those traces of war, and I was able to get the marks off my breastplate and boots. In the case of my clothes, however, it was so hopeless to clean them that I gave it up in despair. My good old horse had been never so much as grazed by steel or bullet, so that with a little watering and tending he was soon as fresh as ever, and we turned our backs on the streamlet a better-favoured pair than we had approached it.
It was now going on to mid-day, and I began to feel very hungry, for I had tasted nothing since the evening before. Two or three houses stood in a cluster upon the moor, but the blackened walls and scorched thatch showed that it was hopeless to expect anything from them. Once or twice I spied folk in the fields or on the roadway; but at sight of an armed horseman they ran for their lives, diving into the brushwood like wild animals. At one place, where a high oak tree marked the meeting of three roads, two bodies dangling from one of the branches showed that the fears of the villagers were based upon experience. These poor men had in all likelihood been hanged because the amount of their little hoardings had not come up to the expectations of their plunderers; or because, having given all to one band of robbers, they had nothing with which to appease the next. At last, when I was fairly weary of my fruitless search for food, I espied a windmill standing upon a green hill at the other side of some fields. Judging from its appearance that it had escaped the general pillage, I took the pathway which branched away to it from the high-road. (Note J, Appendix)