Chapter XXXIII. Of my Perilous Adventure at the Mill
At the base of the mill there stood a shed which was evidently used to stall the horses which brought the farmers' grain. Some grass was heaped up inside it, so I loosened Covenant's girths and left him to have a hearty meal. The mill itself appeared to be silent and empty. I climbed the steep wood ladder, and pushing the door open, walked into a round stone-flagged room, from which a second ladder led to the loft above. On one side of this chamber was a long wooden box, and all round the walls were ranged rows of sacks full of flour. In the fireplace stood a pile of faggots ready for lighting, so with the aid of my tinder-box I soon had a cheerful blaze. Taking a large handful of flour from the nearest bag I moistened it with water from a pitcher, and having rolled it out into a flat cake, proceeded to bake it, smiling the while to think of what my mother would say to such rough cookery. Very sure I am that Patrick Lamb himself, whose book, the 'Complete Court Cook,' was ever in the dear soul's left hand while she stirred and basted with her right, could not have turned out a dish which was more to my taste at the moment, for I had not even patience to wait for the browning of it, but snapped it up and devoured it half hot. I then rolled a second one, and having placed it before the fire, and drawn my pipe from my pocket, I set myself to smoke, waiting with all the philosophy which I could muster until it should be ready.
I was lost in thought, brooding sadly over the blow which the news would be to my father, when I was startled by a loud sneeze, which sounded as though it were delivered in my very ear. I started to my feet and gazed all round me, but there was nothing save the solid wall behind and the empty chamber before. I had almost come to persuade myself that I had been the creature of some delusion, when again a crashing sneeze, louder and more prolonged than the last, broke upon the silence. Could some one be hid in one of the bags? Drawing my sword I walked round pricking the great flour sacks, but without being able to find cause for the sound. I was still marvelling over the matter when a most extraordinary chorus of gasps, snorts, and whistles broke out, with cries of 'Oh, holy mother!' 'Blessed Redeemer!' and other such exclamations. This time there could be no doubt as to whence the uproar came. Rushing up to the great chest upon which I had been seated, I threw back the heavy lid and gazed in.
It was more than half full of flour, in the midst of which was floundering some creature, which was so coated and caked with the white powder, that it would have been hard to say that it was human were it not for the pitiable cries which it was uttering. Stooping down I dragged the man from his hiding-place, when he dropped upon his knees upon the floor and yelled for mercy, raising such a cloud of dust from every wriggle of his body that I began to cough and to sneeze. As the skin of powder began to scale off from him, I saw to my surprise that he was no miller or peasant, but was a man-at-arms, with a huge sword girt to his side, looking at present not unlike a frosted icicle, and a great steel-faced breastplate. His steel cap had remained behind in the flour-bin, and his bright red hair, the only touch of colour about him, stood straight up in the air with terror, as he implored me to spare his life. Thinking that there was something familiar about his voice, I drew my hand across his face, which set him yelling as though I had slain him. There was no mistaking the heavy cheeks and the little greedy eyes. It was none other than Master Tetheridge, the noisy town-clerk of Taunton.
But how much changed from the town-clerk whom we had seen strutting, in all the pomp and bravery of his office, before the good Mayor on the day of our coming to Somersetshire! Where now was the ruddy colour like a pippin in September? Where was the assured manner and the manly port? As he knelt his great jack-boots clicked together with apprehension, and he poured forth in a piping voice, like that of a Lincoln's Inn mumper, a string of pleadings, excuses, and entreaties, as though I were Feversham in person, and was about to order him to instant execution.
'I am but a poor scrivener man, your serene Highness,' he bawled. 'Indeed, I am a most unhappy clerk, your Honour, who has been driven into these courses by the tyranny of those above him. A more loyal man, your Grace, never wore neat's leather, but when the mayor says "Yes," can the clerk say "No"? Spare me, your lordship; spare a most penitent wretch, whose only prayer is that he may be allowed to serve King James to the last drop of his blood!'
'Do you renounce the Duke of Monmouth?' I asked, in a stern voice.
'I do—from my heart!' said he fervently.
'Then prepare to die!' I roared, whipping out my sword, 'for I am one of his officers.'
At the sight of the steel the wretched clerk gave a perfect bellow of terror, and falling upon his face he wriggled and twisted, until looking up he perceived that I was laughing. On that he crawled up on to his knees once more, and from that to his feet, glancing at me askance, as though by no means assured of my intentions.
'You must remember me, Master Tetheridge,' I said. 'I am Captain Clarke, of Saxon's regiment of Wiltshire foot. I am surprised, indeed, that you should have fallen away from that allegiance to which you did not only swear yourself, but did administer the oath to so many others.'
'Not a whit, Captain, not a whit!' he answered, resuming his old bantam-cock manner as soon as he saw that there was no danger. 'I am upon oath as true and as leal a man as ever I was.'
'That I can fully believe,' I answered.
'I did but dissimulate,' he continued, brushing the flour from his person. 'I did but practise that cunning of the serpent which should in every warrior accompany the courage of the lion. You have read your Homer, doubtless. Eh? I too have had a touch of the humanities. I am no mere rough soldier, however stoutly I can hold mine own at sword-play. Master Ulysses is my type, even as thine, I take it, is Master Ajax.'
'Methinks that Master Jack-in-the-box would fit you better,' said I. 'Wilt have a half of this cake? How came you in the flour-bin?'
'Why, marry, in this wise,' he answered, with his mouth full of dough. 'It was a wile or ruse, after the fashion of the greatest commanders, who have always been famous for concealing their movements, and lurking where they were least expected. For when the fight was lost, and I had cut and hacked until my arm was weary and my edge blunted, I found that I was left alone alive of all the Taunton men. Were we on the field you could see where I had stood by the ring of slain which would be found within the sweep of my sword-arm. Finding that all was lost and that our rogues were fled, I mounted our worthy Mayor's charger, seeing that the gallant gentleman had no further need for it, and rode slowly from the field. I promise you that there was that in my eye and bearing which prevented their horse from making too close a pursuit of me. One trooper did indeed throw himself across my path, but mine old back-handed cut was too much for him. Alas, I have much upon my conscience? I have made both widows and orphans. Why will they brave me when—God of mercy, what is that?'
''Tis but my horse in the stall below,' I answered.
'I thought it was the dragoons,' quoth the clerk, wiping away the drops which had started out upon his brow. 'You and I would have gone forth and smitten them.'
'Or climbed into the flour-bin,' said I.
'I have not yet made clear to you how I came there,' he continued. 'Having ridden, then, some leagues from the field, and noting this windmill, it did occur to me that a stout man might single-handed make it good against a troop of horse. We have no great love of flight, we Tetheridges. It may be mere empty pride, and yet the feeling runs strong in the family. We have a fighting strain in us ever since my kinsman followed Ireton's army as a sutler. I pulled up, therefore, and had dismounted to take my observations, when my brute of a charger gave the bridle a twitch, jerked itself free, and was off in an instant over hedges and ditches. I had, therefore, only my good sword left to trust to. I climbed up the ladder, and was engaged in planning how the defence could best be conducted, when I heard the clank of hoofs, and on the top of it you did ascend from below. I retired at once into ambush, from which I should assuredly have made a sudden outfall or sally, had the flour not so choked my breathing that I felt as though I had a two-pound loaf stuck in my gizzard. For myself, I am glad that it has so come about, for in my blind wrath I might unwittingly have done you an injury. Hearing the clank of your sword as you did come up the ladder, I did opine that you were one of King James's minions, the captain, perchance, of some troop in the fields below.'
'All very clear and explicit, Master Tetheridge,' said I, re-lighting my pipe. 'No doubt your demeanour when I did draw you from your hiding-place was also a mere cloak for your valour. But enough of that. It is to the future that we have to look. What are your intentions?'
'To remain with you, Captain,' said he.
'Nay, that you shall not,' I answered; 'I have no great fancy for your companionship. Your overflowing valour may bring me into ruffles which I had otherwise avoided.'
'Nay, nay! I shall moderate my spirit,' he cried. 'In such troublous times you will find yourself none the worse for the company of a tried fighting man.'
'Tried and found wanting,' said I, weary of the man's braggart talk. 'I tell you I will go alone.'
'Nay, you need not be so hot about it,' he exclaimed, shrinking away from me. 'In any case, we had best stay here until nightfall, when we may make our way to the coast.'
'That is the first mark of sense that you have shown,' said I. 'The King's horse will find enough to do with the Zoyland cider and the Bridgewater ale. If we can pass through, I have friends on the north coast who would give us a lift in their lugger as far as Holland. This help I will not refuse to give you, since you are my fellow in misfortune. I would that Saxon had stayed with me! I fear he will be taken!'
'If you mean Colonel Saxon,' said the clerk, 'I think that he also is one who hath much guile as well as valour. A stern, fierce soldier he was, as I know well, having fought back to back with him for forty minutes by the clock, against a troop of Sarsfield's horse. Plain of speech he was, and perhaps a trifle inconsiderate of the honour of a cavalier, but in the field it would have been well for the army had they had more such commanders.'
'You say truly,' I answered; 'but now that we have refreshed ourselves it is time that we bethought us of taking some rest, since we may have far to travel this night. I would that I could lay my hand upon a flagon of ale.'
'I would gladly drink to our further acquaintanceship in the same,' said my companion, 'but as to the matter of slumber that may be readily arranged. If you ascend that ladder you will find in the loft a litter of empty sacks, upon which you can repose. For myself, I will stay down here for a while and cook myself another cake.'
'Do you remain on watch for two hours and then arouse me,' I replied. 'I shall then keep guard whilst you sleep.' He touched the hilt of his sword as a sign that he would be true to his post, so not without some misgivings I climbed up into the loft, and throwing myself upon the rude couch was soon in a deep and dreamless slumber, lulled by the low, mournful groaning and creaking of the sails.
I was awoken by steps beside me, and found that the little clerk had come up the ladder and was bending over me. I asked him if the time had come for me to rouse, on which he answered in a strange quavering voice that I had yet an hour, and that he had come up to see if there was any service which he could render me. I was too weary to take much note of his slinking manner and pallid cheeks, so thanking him for his attention, I turned over and was soon asleep once more.
My next waking was a rougher and a sterner one. There came a sudden rush of heavy feet up the ladder, and a dozen red-coats swarmed into the room. Springing on to my feet I put out my hand for the sword which I had laid all ready by my side, but the trusty weapon had gone. It had been stolen whilst I slumbered. Unarmed and taken at a vantage, I was struck down and pinioned in a moment. One held a pistol to my head, and swore that he would blow my brains out if I stirred, while the others wound a coil of rope round my body and arms, until Samson himself could scarce have got free. Feeling that my struggles were of no possible avail, I lay silent and waited for whatever was to come. Neither now nor at any time, dear children, have I laid great store upon my life, but far less then than now, for each of you are tiny tendrils which bind me to this world. Yet, when I think of the other dear ones who are waiting for me on the further shore, I do not think that even now death would seem an evil thing in my eyes. What a hopeless and empty thing would life be without it!
Having lashed my arms, the soldiers dragged me down the ladder, as though I had been a truss of hay, into the room beneath, which was also crowded with troopers. In one corner was the wretched scrivener, a picture of abject terror, with chattering teeth and trembling knees, only prevented from falling upon the floor by the grasp of a stalwart corporal. In front of him stood two officers, one a little hard brown man with dark twinkling eyes and an alert manner, the other tall and slender, with a long golden moustache, which drooped down half-way to his shoulders. The former had my sword in his hand, and they were both examining the blade curiously.
'It is a good bit of steel, Dick,' said one, putting the point against the stone floor, and pressing down until he touched it with the handle. 'See, with what a snap it rebounds! No maker's name, but the date 1638 is stamped upon the pommel. Where did you get it, fellow?' he asked, fixing his keen gaze upon my face.
'It was my father's before me,' I answered.
'Then I trust that he drew it in a better quarrel than his son hath done,' said the taller officer, with a sneer.
'In as good, though not in a better,' I returned. 'That sword hath always been drawn for the rights and liberties of Englishmen, and against the tyranny of kings and the bigotry of priests.'
'What a tag for a playhouse, Dick,' cried the officer. 'How doth it run? "The bigotry of kings and the tyranny of priests." Why, if well delivered by Betterton close up to the footlights, with one hand upon his heart and the other pointing to the sky, I warrant the pit would rise at it.'
'Very like,' said the other, twirling his moustache. 'But we have no time for fine speeches now. What are we to do with the little one?'
'Hang him,' the other answered carelessly.
'No, no, your most gracious honours,' howled Master Tetheridge, suddenly writhing out of the corporal's grip and flinging himself upon the floor at their feet. 'Did I not tell ye where ye could find one of the stoutest soldiers of the rebel army? Did not I guide ye to him? Did not I even creep up and remove his sword lest any of the King's subjects be slain in the taking of him? Surely, surely, ye would not use me so scurvily when I have done ye these services? Have I not made good my words? Is he not as I described him, a giant in stature and of wondrous strength? The whole army will bear me out in it, that he was worth any two in single fight. I have given him over to ye. Surely ye will let me go!'
'Very well delivered—plaguily so!' quoth the little officer, clapping the palm of one hand softly against the back of the other. 'The emphasis was just, and the enunciation clear. A little further back towards the wings, corporal, if you please. Thank you! Now, Dick, it is your cue.'
'Nay, John, you are too absurd!' cried the other impatiently. 'The mask and the buskins are well enough in their place, but you look upon the play as a reality and upon the reality as but a play. What this reptile hath said is true. We must keep faith with him if we wish that others of the country folk should give up the fugitives. There is no help for it!'
'For myself I believe in Jeddart law,' his companion answered. 'I would hang the man first and then discuss the question of our promise. However, pink me if I will obtrude my opinion on any man!'
'Nay, it cannot be,' the taller said. 'Corporal, do you take him down. Henderson will go with you. Take from him that plate and sword, which his mother would wear with as good a grace. And hark ye, corporal, a few touches of thy stirrup leathers across his fat shoulders might not be amiss, as helping him to remember the King's dragoons.'
My treacherous companion was dragged off, struggling and yelping, and presently a series of piercing howls, growing fainter and fainter as he fled before his tormentors, announced that the hint had been taken. The two officers rushed to the little window of the mill and roared with laughter, while the troopers, peeping furtively over their shoulders, could not restrain themselves from joining in their mirth, from which I gathered that Master Tetheridge, as, spurred on by fear, he hurled his fat body through hedges and into ditches, was a somewhat comical sight.
'And now for the other,' said the little officer, turning away from the window and wiping the tears of laughter from his face. 'That beam over yonder would serve our purpose. Where is Hangman Broderick, the Jack Ketch of the Royals?'
'Here I am, sir,' responded a sullen, heavy-faced trooper, shuffling forward; 'I have a rope here with a noose.'
'Throw it over the beam, then. What is amiss with your hand, you clumsy rogue, that you should wear linen round it?'
'May it please you, sir,' the man answered, 'it was all through an ungrateful, prick-eared Presbyterian knave whom I hung at Gommatch. I had done all that could be done for him. Had he been at Tyburn he could scarce have met with more attention. Yet when I did put my hand to his neck to see that all was as it should be, he did fix me with his teeth, and hath gnawed a great piece from my thumb.'
'I am sorry for you,' said the officer. 'You know, no doubt, that the human bite under such circumstances is as deadly as that of the mad dog, so that you may find yourself snapping and barking one of these fine mornings. Nay, turn not pale! I have heard you preach patience and courage to your victims. You are not afraid of death?'
'Not of any Christian death, your Honour. Yet, ten shillings a week is scarce enough to pay a man for an end like that!'
'Nay, it is all a lottery,' remarked the Captain cheerily. 'I have heard that in these cases a man is so drawn up that his heels do beat a tattoo against the back of his head. But, mayhap, it is not as painful as it would appear. Meanwhile, do you proceed to do your office.'
Three or four troopers caught me by the arms, but I shook them off as best I might, and walked with, as I trust, a steady step and a cheerful face under the beam, which was a great smoke-blackened rafter passing from one side of the chamber to the other. The rope was thrown over this, and the noose placed round my neck with trembling fingers by the hangman, who took particular care to keep beyond the range of my teeth. Half-a-dozen dragoons seized the further end of the coil, and stood ready to swing me into eternity. Through all my adventurous life I have never been so close upon the threshold of death as at that moment, and yet I declare to you that, terrible as my position was, I could think of nothing but the tattoo marks upon old Solomon Sprent's arm, and the cunning fashion in which he had interwoven the red and the blue. Yet I was keenly alive to all that was going on around me. The scene of the bleak stone-floored room, the single narrow window, the two lounging elegant officers, the pile of arms in the corner, and even the texture of the coarse red serge and the patterns of the great brass buttons upon the sleeve of the man who held me, are all stamped clearly upon my mind.
'We must do our work with order,' remarked the taller Captain, taking a note-book from his pocket. 'Colonel Sarsfield may desire some details. Let me see! This is the seventeenth, is it not?'
'Four at the farm and five at the cross-roads,' the other answered, counting upon his fingers. 'Then there was the one whom we shot in the hedge, and the wounded one who nearly saved himself by dying, and the two in the grove under the hill. I can remember no more, save those who were strung up in 'Bridgewater immediately after the action.'
'It is well to do it in an orderly fashion,' quoth the other, scribbling in his book. 'It is very well for Kirke and his men, who are half Moors themselves, to hang and to slaughter without discrimination or ceremony, but we should set them a better example. What is your name, sirrah?'
'My name is Captain Micah Clarke,' I answered.
The two officers looked at each other, and the smaller one gave a long whistle. 'It is the very man!' said he. 'This comes of asking questions! Rat me, if I had not misgivings that it might prove to be so. They said that he was large of limb.'
'Tell me, sirrah, have you ever known one Major Ogilvy of the Horse Guards Blue?' asked the Captain.
'Seeing that I had the honour of taking him prisoner,' I replied, 'and seeing also that he hath shared soldier's fare and quarters with me ever since, I think I may fairly say that I do know him.'
'Cast loose the cord!' said the officer, and the hangman reluctantly slipped the cord over my head once more. 'Young man, you are surely reserved for something great, for you will never be nearer your grave until you do actually step into it. This Major Ogilvy hath made great interest both for you and for a wounded comrade of yours who lies at Bridgewater. Your name hath been given to the commanders of horse, with orders to bring you in unscathed should you be taken. Yet it is but fair to tell you that though the Major's good word may save you from martial law, it will stand you in small stead before a civil judge, before whom ye must in the end take your trial.'
'I desire to share the same lot and fortune as has befallen my companions-in-arms,' I answered.
'Nay, that is but a sullen way to take your deliverance,' cried the smaller officer. 'The situation is as flat as sutler's beer. Otway would have made a bettor thing of it. Can you not rise to the occasion? Where is she?'
'She! Who?' I asked.
'She. The she. The woman. Your wife, sweetheart, betrothed, what you will.'
'There is none such,' I answered.
'There now! What can be done in a case like that?' cried he despairingly. 'She should have rushed in from the wings and thrown herself upon your bosom. I have seen such a situation earn three rounds from the pit. There is good material spoiling here for want of some one to work it up.'
'We have something else to work up, Jack,' exclaimed his companion impatiently. 'Sergeant Gredder, do you with two troopers conduct the prisoner to Gommatch Church. It is time that we were once more upon our way, for in a few hours the darkness will hinder the pursuit.'
At the word of command the troopers descended into the field where their horses were picketed, and were speedily on the march once more, the tall Captain leading them, and the stage-struck cornet bringing up the rear. The sergeant to whose care I had been committed—a great square-shouldered, dark-browed man—ordered my own horse to be brought out, and helped me to mount it. He removed the pistols from the holsters, however, and hung them with my sword at his own saddle-bow.
'Shall I tie his feet under the horse's belly?' asked one of the dragoons.
'Nay, the lad hath an honest face,' the sergeant answered. 'If he promises to be quiet we shall cast free his arms.'
'I have no desire to escape,' said I.
'Then untie the rope. A brave man in misfortune hath ever my goodwill, strike me dumb else! Sergeant Gredder is my name, formerly of Mackay's and now of the Royals—as hard-worked and badly-paid a man as any in his Majesty's service. Right wheel, and down the pathway! Do ye ride on either side, and I behind! Our carbines are primed, friend, so stand true to your promise!'
'Nay, you can rely upon it,' I answered.
'Your little comrade did play you a scurvy trick,' said the sergeant, 'for seeing us ride down the road he did make across to us, and bargained with the Captain that his life should be spared, on condition that he should deliver into our hands what he described as one of the stoutest soldiers in the rebel army. Truly you have thews and sinews enough, though you are surely too young to have seen much service.'
'This hath been my first campaign,' I answered.
'And is like to be your last,' he remarked, with soldierly frankness. 'I hear that the Privy Council intend to make such an example as will take the heart out of the Whigs for twenty years to come. They have a lawyer coming from London whose wig is more to be feared than our helmets. He will slay more men in a day than a troop of horse in a ten-mile chase. Faith! I would sooner they took this butcher-work into their own hands. See those bodies on yonder tree. It is an evil season when such acorns grow upon English oaks.'
'It is an evil season,' said I, 'when men who call themselves Christians inflict such vengeance upon poor simple peasants, who have done no more than their conscience urged them. That the leaders and officers should suffer is but fair. They stood to win in case of success, and should pay forfeit now that they have lost. But it goes to my heart to see those poor godly country folk so treated.'
'Aye, there is truth in that,' said the sergeant. 'Now if it were some of these snuffle-nosed preachers, the old lank-haired bell-wethers who have led their flocks to the devil, it would be another thing. Why can they not conform to the Church, and be plagued to them? It is good enough for the King, so surely it is good enough for them; or are their souls so delicate that they cannot satisfy themselves with that on which every honest Englishman thrives? The main road to Heaven is too common for them. They must needs have each a by-path of their own, and cry out against all who will not follow it.'
'Why,' said I, 'there are pious men of all creeds. If a man lead a life of virtue, what matter what he believes?
'Let a man keep his virtue in his heart,' quoth Sergeant Gredder. 'Let him pack it deep in the knapsack of his soul. I suspect godliness which shows upon the surface, the snuffling talk, the rolling eyes, the groaning and the hawking. It is like the forged money, which can be told by its being more bright and more showy than the real.'
'An apt comparison!' said I. 'But how comes it, sergeant, that you have given attention to these matters? Unless they are much belied, the Royal Dragoons find other things to think of.'
'I was one of Mackay's foot,' he answered shortly. 'I have heard of him,' said I. 'A man, I believe, both of parts and of piety.'
'That, indeed, he is,' cried Sergeant Gredder warmly. 'He is a man stern and soldierly to the outer eye, but with the heart of a saint within him. I promise you there was little need of the strapado in his regiment, for there was not a man who did not fear the look of sorrow in his Colonel's eyes far more than he did the provost-marshal.'
During the whole of our long ride I found the worthy sergeant a true follower of the excellent Colonel Mackay, for he proved to be a man of more than ordinary intelligence, and of serious and thoughtful habit. As to the two troopers, they rode on either side of me as silent as statues; for the common dragoons of those days could but talk of wine and women, and were helpless and speechless when aught else was to the fore. When we at last rode into the little village of Gommatch, which overlooks the plain of Sedgemoor, it was with regret on each side that I bade my guardian adieu. As a parting favour I begged him to take charge of Covenant for me, promising to pay a certain sum by the month for his keep, and commissioning him to retain the horse for his own use should I fail to claim him within the year. It was a load off my mind when I saw my trusty companion led away, staring back at me with questioning eyes, as though unable to understand the separation. Come what might, I knew now that, he was in the keeping of a good man who would see that no harm befell him.