Micah Clarke, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter 11

Of the Lonely Man and the Gold Chest

The strong yellow glare which had attracted us across the moor found its way out through a single narrow slit alongside the door which served the purpose of a rude window. As we advanced towards it the light changed suddenly to red, and that again to green, throwing a ghastly pallor over our faces, and especially heightening the cadaverous effect of Saxon’s austere features. At the same time we became aware of a most subtle and noxious odour which poisoned the air all round the cottage. This combination of portents in so lonely a spot worked upon the old man-at-arms’ superstitious feelings to such an extent that he paused and looked back at us inquiringly. Both Reuben and I were determined, however, to carry the adventure through, so he contented himself with falling a little behind us, and pattering to himself some exorcism appropriate to the occasion. Walking up to the door, I rapped upon it with the hilt of my sword and announced that we were weary travellers who were seeking a night’s shelter.

The first result of my appeal was a sound as of some one bustling rapidly about, with the clinking of metal and noise of the turning of locks. This died away into a hush, and I was about to knock once more when a crackling voice greeted us from the other side of the door.

‘There is little shelter here, gentlemen, and less provisions,’ it said. ‘It is but six miles to Amesbury, where at the Cecil Arms ye shall find, I doubt not, all that is needful for man and for beast.’

‘Nay, nay, mine invisible friend,’ quoth Saxon, who was much reassured by the sound of a human voice, ‘this is surely but a scurvy reception. One of our horses is completely foundered, and none of them are in very good plight, so that we could no more make for the Cecil Arms at Amesbury than for the Gruner Mann at Lubeck. I prythee, therefore, that you will allow us to pass the remainder of the night under your roof.’

At this appeal there was much creaking of locks and rasping of bolts, which ended in the door swinging slowly open, and disclosing the person who had addressed us.

By the strong light which shone out from behind him we could see that he was a man of venerable aspect, with snow-white hair and a countenance which bespoke a thoughtful and yet fiery nature. The high pensive brow and flowing beard smacked of the philosopher, but the keen sparkling eye, the curved aquiline nose, and the lithe upright figure which the weight of years had been unable to bend, were all suggestive of the soldier. His lofty bearing, and his rich though severe costume of black velvet, were at strange variance with the humble nature of the abode which he had chosen for his dwelling-place.

‘Ho!’ said he, looking keenly at us. ‘Two of ye unused to war, and the other an old soldier. Ye have been pursued, I see!’

‘How did you know that, then?’ asked Decimus Saxon.

‘Ah, my friend, I too have served in my time. My eyes are not so old but that they can tell when horses have been spurred to the utmost, nor is it difficult to see that this young giant’s sword hath been employed in something less innocent than toasting bacon. Your story, however, can keep. Every true soldier thinks first of his horse, so I pray that you will tether yours without, since I have neither ostler nor serving man to whom I may entrust them.’

The strange dwelling into which we presently entered had been prolonged into the side of the little hill against which it had been built, so as to form a very long narrow hall. The ends of this great room, as we entered, were wrapped in shadow, but in the centre was a bright glare from a brazier full of coals, over which a brass pipkin was suspended. Beside the fire a long wooden table was plentifully covered with curved glass flasks, basins, tubings, and other instruments of which I knew neither the name nor the purpose. A long row of bottles containing various coloured liquids and powders were arranged along a shelf, whilst above it another shelf bore a goodly array of brown volumes. For the rest there was a second rough-hewn table, a pair of cupboards, three or four wooden settles, and several large screens pinned to the walls and covered all over with figures and symbols, of which I could make nothing. The vile smell which had greeted us outside was very much worse within the chamber, and arose apparently from the fumes of the boiling, bubbling contents of the brazen pot.

‘Ye behold in me,’ said our host, bowing courteously to us, ‘the last of an ancient family. I am Sir Jacob Clancing of Snellaby Hall.’

‘Smellaby it should be, methinks,’ whispered Reuben, in a voice which fortunately did not reach the ears of the old knight.

‘I pray that ye be seated,’ he continued, ‘and that ye lay aside your plates and headpieces, and remove your boots. Consider this to be your inn, and behave as freely. Ye will hold me excused if for a moment I turn my attention from you to this operation on which I am engaged, which will not brook delay.’

Saxon began forthwith to undo his buckles and to pull off his harness, while Reuben, throwing himself into a chair, appeared to be too weary to do more than unfasten his sword-belt. For my own part, I was glad to throw off my gear, but I kept my attention all the while upon the movements of our host, whose graceful manners and learned appearance had aroused my curiosity and admiration.

He approached the evil-smelling pot, and stirred it up with a face which indicated so much anxiety that it was clear that he had pushed his courtesy to us so far as to risk the ruin of some important experiment. Dipping his ladle into the compound, he scooped some up, and then poured it slowly back into the vessel, showing a yellow turbid fluid. The appearance of it evidently reassured him, for the look of anxiety cleared away from his features, and he uttered an exclamation of relief. Taking a handful of a whitish powder from a trencher at his side he threw it into the pipkin, the contents of which began immediately to seethe and froth over into the fire, causing the flames to assume the strange greenish hue which we had observed before entering. This treatment had the effect of clearing the fluid, for the chemist was enabled to pour off into a bottle a quantity of perfectly watery transparent liquid, while a brownish sediment remained in the vessel, and was emptied out upon a sheet of paper. This done, Sir Jacob Clancing pushed aside all his bottles, and turned towards us with a smiling face and a lighter air.

‘We shall see what my poor larder can furnish forth,’ said he. ‘Meanwhile, this odour may be offensive to your untrained nostrils, so we shall away with it. He threw a few grains of some balsamic resin into the brazier, which at once filled the chamber with a most agreeable perfume. He then laid a white cloth upon the table, and taking from a cupboard a dish of cold trout and a large meat pasty, he placed them upon it, and invited us to draw up our settles and set to work.

‘I would that I had more toothsome fare to offer ye,’ said he. ‘Were we at Snellaby Hall, ye should not be put off in this scurvy fashion, I promise ye. This may serve, however, for hungry men, and I can still lay my hands upon a brace of bottles of the old Alicant.’ So saying, he brought a pair of flasks out from a recess, and having seen us served and our glasses filled, he seated himself in a high-backed oaken chair and presided with old-fashioned courtesy over our feast. As we supped, I explained to him what our errand was, and narrated the adventures of the night, without making mention of our destination.

‘You are bound for Monmouth’s camp,’ he said quietly, when I had finished, looking me full in the face with his keen dark eyes. ‘I know it, but ye need not fear lest I betray you, even were it in my power. What chance, think ye, hath the Duke against the King’s forces?’

‘As much chance as a farmyard fowl against a spurred gamecock, did he rely only on those whom he hath with him,’ Saxon answered. ‘He hath reason to think, however, that all England is like a powder magazine, and he hopes to be the spark to set it alight.’

The old man shook his head sadly. ‘The King hath great resources,’ he remarked. ‘Where is Monmouth to get his trained soldiers?’

‘There is the militia,’ I suggested.

‘And there are many of the old parliamentary breed, who are not too far gone to strike a blow for their belief,’ said Saxon. ‘Do you but get half-a-dozen broad-brimmed, snuffle-nosed preachers into a camp, and the whole Presbytery tribe will swarm round them like flies on a honey-pot. No recruiting sergeants will ever raise such an army as did Noll’s preachers in the eastern counties, where the promise of a seat by the throne was thought of more value than a ten-pound bounty. I would I could pay mine own debts with these same promises.’

‘I should judge from your speech, sir,’ our host observed, ‘that you are not one of the sectaries. How comes it, then, that you are throwing the weight of your sword and your experience into the weaker scale?’

‘For the very reason that it is the weaker scale,’ said the soldier of fortune. ‘I should gladly have gone with my brother to the Guinea coast and had no say in the matter one way or the other, beyond delivering letters and such trifles. Since I must be doing something, I choose to fight for Protestantism and Monmouth. It is nothing to me whether James Stuart or James Walters sits upon the throne, but the court and army of the King are already made up. Now, since Monmouth hath both courtiers and soldiers to find, it may well happen that he may be glad of my services and reward them with honourable preferment.’

‘Your logic is sound,’ said our host, ‘save only that you have omitted the very great chance which you will incur of losing your head if the Duke’s party are borne down by the odds against them.’

‘A man cannot throw a main without putting a stake on the board,’ said Saxon.

‘And you, young sir,’ the old man asked, ‘what has caused you to take a hand in so dangerous a game?’

‘I come of a Roundhead stock,’ I answered, ‘and my folk have always fought for the liberty of the people and the humbling of tyranny. I come in the place of my father.’

‘And you, sir?’ our questioner continued, looking at Reuben.

‘I have come to see something of the world, and to be with my friend and companion here,’ he replied.

‘And I have stronger reasons than any of ye,’ Sir Jacob cried, ‘for appearing in arms against any man who bears the name of Stuart. Had I not a mission here which cannot be neglected, I might myself be tempted to hie westward with ye, and put these grey hairs of mine once more into the rough clasp of a steel headpiece. For where now is the noble castle of Snellaby, and where those glades and woods amidst which the Clancings have grown up, and lived and died, ere ever Norman William set his foot on English soil? A man of trade — a man who, by the sweat of his half-starved workers, had laid by ill-gotten wealth, is now the owner of all that fair property. Should I, the last of the Clancings, show my face upon it, I might be handed over to the village beadle as a trespasser, or scourged off it perhaps by the bowstrings of insolent huntsmen.’

‘And how comes so sudden a reverse of fortune?’ I asked.

‘Fill up your glasses!’ cried the old man, suiting the action to the word. ‘Here’s a toast for you! Perdition to all faithless princes! How came it about, ye ask? Why, when the troubles came upon the first Charles, I stood by him as though he had been mine own brother. At Edgehill, at Naseby, in twenty skirmishes and battles, I fought stoutly in his cause, maintaining a troop of horse at my own expense, formed from among my own gardeners, grooms, and attendants. Then the military chest ran low, and money must be had to carry on the contest. My silver chargers and candlesticks were thrown into the melting-pot, as were those of many another cavalier. They went in metal and they came out as troopers and pikemen. So we tided over a few months until again the purse was empty, and again we filled it amongst us. This time it was the home farm and the oak trees that went. Then came Marston Moor, and every penny and man was needed to repair that great disaster. I flinched not, but gave everything. This boiler of soap, a prudent, fat-cheeked man, had kept himself free from civil broils, and had long had a covetous eye upon the castle. It was his ambition, poor worm, to be a gentleman, as though a gabled roof and a crumbling house could ever make him that. I let him have his way, however, and threw the sum received, every guinea of it, into the King’s coffers. And so I held out until the final ruin of Worcester, when I covered the retreat of the young prince, and may indeed say that save in the Isle of Man I was the last Royalist who upheld the authority of the crown. The Commonwealth had set a price upon my head as a dangerous malignant, so I was forced to take my passage in a Harwich ketch, and arrived in the Lowlands with nothing save my sword and a few broad pieces in my pocket.’

‘A cavalier might do well even then,’ remarked Saxon. ‘There are ever wars in Germany where a man is worth his hire. When the North Germans are not in arms against the Swedes or French, the South Germans are sure to be having a turn with the janissaries.’

‘I did indeed take arms for a time in the employ of the United Provinces, by which means I came face to face once more with mine old foes, the Roundheads. Oliver had lent Reynolds’s brigade to the French, and right glad was Louis to have the service of such seasoned troops. ‘Fore God, I stood on the counterscarp at Dunkirk, and I found myself, when I should have been helping the defence, actually cheering on the attack. My very heart rose when I saw the bull-dog fellows clambering up the breach with their pikes at the trail, and never quavering in their psalm-tune, though the bullets sung around them as thick as bees in the hiving time. And when they did come to close hugs with the Flemings, I tell you they set up such a rough cry of soldierly joy that my pride in them as Englishmen overtopped my hatred of them as foes. However, my soldiering was of no great duration, for peace was soon declared, and I then pursued the study of chemistry, for which I had a strong turn, first with Vorhaager of Leyden, and later with De Huy of Strasburg, though I fear that these weighty names are but sounds to your ears.’

‘Truly,’ said Saxon, ‘there seemeth to be some fatal attraction in this same chemistry, for we met two officers of the Blue Guards in Salisbury, who, though they were stout soldierly men in other respects, had also a weakness in that direction.’

‘Ha!’ cried Sir Jacob, with interest. ‘To what school did they belong?’

‘Nay, I know nothing of the matter,’ Saxon answered, ‘save that they denied that Gervinus of Nurnberg, whom I guarded in prison, or any other man, could transmute metals.’

‘For Gervinus I cannot answer,’ said our host, ‘but for the possibility of it I can pledge my knightly word. However, of that anon. The time came at last when the second Charles was invited back to his throne, and all of us, from Jeffrey Hudson, the court dwarf, up to my Lord Clarendon, were in high feather at the hope of regaining our own once more. For my own claim, I let it stand for some time, thinking that it would be a more graceful act for the King to help a poor cavalier who had ruined himself for the sake of his family without solicitation on his part. I waited and waited, but no word came, so at last I betook myself to the levee and was duly presented to him. “Ah,” said he, greeting me with the cordiality which he could assume so well, “you are, if I mistake not, Sir Jasper Killigrew?” “Nay, your Majesty,” I answered, “I am Sir Jacob Clancing, formerly of Snellaby Hall, in Staffordshire;” and with that I reminded him of Worcester fight and of many passages which had occurred to us in common. “Od’s fish!” he cried, “how could I be so forgetful! And how are all at Snellaby?” I then explained to him that the Hall had passed out of my hands, and told him in a few words the state to which I had been reduced. His face clouded over and his manner chilled to me at once. “They are all on to me for money and for places,” he said, “and truly the Commons are so niggardly to me that I can scarce be generous to others. However, Sir Jacob, we shall see what can be done for thee,” and with that he dismissed me. That same night the secretary of my Lord Clarendon came to me, and announced with much form and show that, in consideration of my long devotion and the losses which I had sustained, the King was graciously pleased to make me a lottery cavalier.’

‘And pray, sir, what is a lottery cavalier?’ I asked.

‘It is nothing else than a licensed keeper of a gambling-house. This was his reward to me. I was to be allowed to have a den in the piazza of Covent Garden, and there to decoy the young sparks of the town and fleece them at ombre. To restore my own fortunes I was to ruin others. My honour, my family, my reputation, they were all to weigh for nothing so long as I had the means of bubbling a few fools out of their guineas.’

‘I have heard that some of the lottery cavaliers did well,’ remarked Saxon reflectively.

‘Well or ill, it way no employment for me. I waited upon the King and implored that his bounty would take another form. His only reply was that for one so poor I was strangely fastidious. For weeks I hung about the court — I and other poor cavaliers like myself, watching the royal brothers squandering upon their gaming and their harlots sums which would have restored us to our patrimonies. I have seen Charles put upon one turn of a card as much as would have satisfied the most exacting of us. In the parks of St. James, or in the Gallery at Whitehall, I still endeavoured to keep myself before his eyes, in the hope that some provision would be made for me. At last I received a second message from him. It was that unless I could dress more in the mode he could dispense with my attendance. That was his message to the old broken soldier who had sacrificed health, wealth, position, everything in the service of his father and himself.’

‘Shameful!’ we cried, all three.

‘Can you wonder, then, that I cursed the whole Stuart race, false-hearted, lecherous, and cruel? For the Hall, I could buy it back tomorrow if I chose, but why should I do so when I have no heir?’

‘Ho, you have prospered then!’ said Decimus Saxon, with one of his shrewd sidelong looks. ‘Perhaps you have yourself found out how to convert pots and pans into gold in the way you have spoken of. But that cannot be, for I see iron and brass in this room which would hardly remain there could you convert it to gold.’

‘Gold has its uses, and iron has its uses,’ said Sir Jacob oracularly. ‘The one can never supplant the other.’

‘Yet these officers,’ I remarked, ‘did declare to us that it was but a superstition of the vulgar.’

‘Then these officers did show that their knowledge was less than their prejudice. Alexander Setonius, a Scot, was first of the moderns to achieve it. In the month of March 1602 he did change a bar of lead into gold in the house of a certain Hansen, at Rotterdam, who hath testified to it. He then not only repeated the same process before three learned men sent by the Kaiser Rudolph, but he taught Johann Wolfgang Dienheim of Freibourg, and Gustenhofer of Strasburg, which latter taught it to my own illustrious master —’

‘Who in turn taught it to you,’ cried Saxon triumphantly. ‘I have no great store of metal with me, good sir, but there are my head-piece, back and breast-plate, taslets and thigh-pieces, together with my sword, spurs, and the buckles of my harness. I pray you to use your most excellent and praiseworthy art upon these, and I will promise within a few days to bring round a mass of metal which shall be more worthy of your skill.’

‘Nay, nay,’ said the alchemist, smiling and shaking his head. ‘It can indeed be done, but only slowly and in order, small pieces at a time, and with much expenditure of work and patience. For a man to enrich himself at it he must labour hard and long; yet in the end I will not deny that he may compass it. And now, since the flasks are empty and your young comrade is nodding in his chair, it will perhaps be as well for you to spend as much of the night as is left in repose.’ He drew several blankets and rugs from a corner and scattered them over the floor. ‘It is a soldier’s couch,’ he remarked; ‘but ye may sleep on worse before ye put Monmouth on the English throne. For myself, it is my custom to sleep in an inside chamber, which is hollowed out of the hill.’ With a few last words and precautions for our comfort he withdrew with the lamp, passing through a door which had escaped our notice at the further end of the apartment.

Reuben, having had no rest since he left Havant, had already dropped upon the rugs, and was fast asleep, with a saddle for a pillow. Saxon and I sat for a few minutes longer by the light of the burning brazier.

‘One might do worse than take to this same chemical business,’ my companion remarked, knocking the ashes out of his pipe. ‘See you yon iron-bound chest in the corner?’

‘What of it?’

‘It is two thirds full of gold, which this worthy gentleman hath manufactured.’

‘How know you that?’ I asked incredulously.

‘When you did strike the door panel with the hilt of your sword, as though you would drive it in, you may have heard some scuttling about, and the turning of a lock. Well, thanks to my inches, I was able to look through yon slit in the wall, and I saw our friend throw something into the chest with a chink, and then lock it. It was but a glance at the contents, yet I could swear that that dull yellow light could come from no metal but gold. Let us see if it be indeed locked.’ Rising from his seat he walked over to the box and pulled vigorously at the lid.

‘Forbear, Saxon, forbear!’ I cried angrily. ‘What would our host say, should he come upon you?’

‘Nay, then, he should not keep such things beneath his roof. With a chisel or a dagger now, this might be prized open.’

‘By Heaven!’ I whispered, ‘if you should attempt it I shall lay you on your back.’

‘Well, well, young Anak! it was but a passing fancy to see the treasure again. Now, if he were but well favoured to the King, this would be fair prize of war. Marked ye not that he claimed to have been the last Royalist who drew sword in England? and he confessed that he had been proscribed as a malignant. Your father, godly as he is, would have little compunction in despoiling such an Amalekite. Besides, bethink you, he can make more as easily as your good mother maketh cranberry dumplings.’

‘Enough said!’ I answered sternly. ‘It will not bear discussion. Get ye to your couch, lest I summon our host and tell him what manner of man he hath entertained.’

With many grumbles Saxon consented at last to curl his long limbs up upon a mat, whilst I lay by his side and remained awake until the mellow light of morning streamed through the chinks between the ill-covered rafters. Truth to tell, I feared to sleep, lest the freebooting habits of the soldier of fortune should be too strong for him, and he should disgrace us in the eyes of our kindly and generous entertainer. At last, however, his long-drawn breathing assured me that he was asleep, and I was able to settle down to a few hours of welcome rest.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:33