Micah Clarke, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter 14

Of the Stiff-legged Parson and his Flock

Our road lay through Castle Carey and Somerton, which are small towns lying in the midst of a most beautiful pastoral country, well wooded and watered by many streams. The valleys along the centre of which the road lies are rich and luxuriant, sheltered from the winds by long rolling hills, which are themselves highly cultivated. Here and there we passed the ivy-clad turret of an old castle or the peaked gables of a rambling country house, protruding from amongst the trees and marking the country seat of some family of repute. More than once, when these mansions were not far from the road, we were able to perceive the unrepaired dints and fractures on the walls received during the stormy period of the civil troubles. Fairfax it seems had been down that way, and had left abundant traces of his visit. I have no doubt that my father would have had much to say of these signs of Puritan wrath had he been riding at our side.

The road was crowded with peasants who were travelling in two strong currents, the one setting from east to west, and the other from west to east. The latter consisted principally of aged people and of children, who were being sent out of harm’s way to reside in the less disturbed counties until the troubles should be over. Many of these poor folk were pushing barrows in front of them, in which a few bedclothes and some cracked utensils represented the whole of their worldly goods. Others more prosperous had small carts, drawn by the wild shaggy colts which are bred on the Somerset moors. What with the spirit of the half-tamed beasts and the feebleness of the drivers, accidents were not uncommon, and we passed several unhappy groups who had been tumbled with their property into a ditch, or who were standing in anxious debate round a cracked shaft or a broken axle.

The countrymen who were making for the West were upon the other hand men in the prime of life, with little or no baggage. Their brown faces, heavy boots, and smockfrocks proclaimed most of them to be mere hinds, though here and there we overtook men who, by their top-boots and corduroys, may have been small farmers or yeomen. These fellows walked in gangs, and were armed for the most part with stout oak cudgels, which were carried as an aid to their journey, but which in the hands of powerful men might become formidable weapons. From time to time one of these travellers would strike up a psalm tune, when all the others within earshot would join in, until the melody rippled away down the road. As we passed some scowled angrily at us, while others whispered together and shook their heads, in evident doubt as to our character and aims. Now and again among the people we marked the tall broad-brimmed hat and Geneva mantle which were the badges of the Puritan clergy.

‘We are in Monmouth’s country at last,’ said Saxon to me, for Reuben Lockarby and Sir Gervas Jerome had ridden on ahead. ‘This is the raw material which we shall have to lick into soldiership.’

‘And no bad material either,’ I replied, taking note of the sturdy figures and bold hearty faces of the men. ‘Think ye that they are bound for Monmouth’s camp, then?’

‘Aye, are they. See you yon long-limbed parson on the left — him with the pent-house hat. Markest thou not the stiffness wherewith he moves his left leg!’

‘Why, yes; he is travel-worn doubtless.’

‘Ho! ho!’ laughed my companion. ‘I have seen such a stiffness before now. The man hath a straight sword within he leg of his breeches. A regular Parliamentary tuck, I’ll warrant. When he is on safe ground he will produce it, aye, and use it too, but until he is out of all danger of falling in with the King’s horse he is shy of strapping it to his belt. He is one of the old breed by his cut, who:

“Call fire and sword and desolation,
A godly thorough reformation.”

Old Samuel hath them to a penstroke! There is another ahead of him there, with the head of a scythe inside his smock. Can you not see the outline? I warrant there is not one of the rascals but hath a pike-head or sickle-blade concealed somewhere about him. I begin to feel the breath of war once more, and to grow younger with it. Hark ye, lad! I am glad that I did not tarry at the inn.’

‘You seemed to be in two minds about it,’ said I.

‘Aye, aye. She was a fine woman, and the quarters were comfortable. I do not gainsay it. But marriage, d’ye see, is a citadel that it is plaguy easy to find one’s way into, but once in old Tilly himself could not bring one out again with credit, I have known such a device on the Danube, where at the first onfall the Mamelukes have abandoned the breach for the very purpose of ensnaring the Imperial troops in the narrow streets beyond, from which few ever returned. Old birds are not caught with such wiles. I did succeed in gaining the ear of one of the gossips, and asking him what he could tell me of the good dame and her inn. It seemeth that she is somewhat of a shrew upon occasion, and that her tongue had more to do with her husband’s death than the dropsy which the leech put it down to. Again, a new inn hath been started in the village, which is well-managed, and is like to draw the custom from her. It is, too, as you have said, a dull sleepy spot. All these reasons weighed with me, and I decided that it would be best to raise my siege of the widow, and to retreat whilst I could yet do so with the credit and honours of war.’

‘’Tis best so,’ said I; ‘you could not have settled down to a life of toping and ease. But our new comrade, what think you of him?’

‘Faith!’ Saxon answered, ‘we shall extend into a troop of horse if we add to our number every gallant who is in want of a job. As to this Sir Gervas, however, I think, as I said at the inn, that he hath more mettle in him than one would judge at first sight. These young sprigs of the gentry will always fight, but I doubt if he is hardened enough or hath constancy enough for such a campaign as this is like to be. His appearance, too, will be against him in the eyes of the saints; and though Monmouth is a man of easy virtue, the saints are like to have the chief voice in his councils. Now do but look at him as he reins up that showy grey stallion and gazes back at us. Mark his riding-hat tilted over his eye, his open bosom, his whip dangling from his button-hole, his hand on his hip, and as many oaths in his mouth as there are ribbons to his doublet. Above all, mark the air with which he looks down upon the peasants beside him. He will have to change his style if he is to fight by the side of the fanatics. But hark! I am much mistaken if they have not already got themselves into trouble.’

Our friends had pulled up their horses to await our coming. They had scarce halted, however, before the stream of peasants who had been moving along abreast of them slackened their pace, and gathered round them with a deep ominous murmur and threatening gestures. Other rustics, seeing that there was something afoot, hurried up to help their companions. Saxon and I put spurs to our horses, and pushing through the throng, which was becoming every instant larger and more menacing, made our way to the aid of our friends, who were hemmed in on every side by the rabble. Reuben had laid his hand upon the hilt of his sword, while Sir Gervas was placidly chewing his toothpick and looking down at the angry mob with an air of amused contempt.

‘A flask or two of scent amongst them would not be amiss,’ he remarked; ‘I would I had a casting bottle.’

‘Stand on your guard, but do not draw,’ cried Saxon. ‘What the henker hath come over the chaw-bacons? They mean mischief. How now, friends, why this uproar?’

This question instead of allaying the tumult appeared to make it tenfold worse. All round us twenty deep were savage faces and angry eyes, with the glint here and there of a weapon half drawn from its place of concealment. The uproar, which had been a mere hoarse growl, began to take shape and form. ‘Down with the Papists!’ was the cry. ‘Down with the Prelatists!’ ‘Smite the Erastian butchers!’ ‘Smite the Philistine horsemen!’ ‘Down with them!’

A stone or two had already whistled past our ears, and we had been forced in self-defence to draw our swords, when the tall minister whom we had already observed shoved his way through the crowd, and by dint of his lofty stature and commanding voice prevailed upon them to be silent.

‘How say ye,’ he asked, turning upon us, ‘fight ye for Baal or for the Lord? He who is not with us is against us.’

‘Which is the side of Baal, most reverend sir, and which of the Lord?’ asked Sir Gervas Jerome. ‘Methinks if you were to speak plain English instead of Hebrew we might come to an understanding sooner.’

‘This is no time for light words,’ the minister cried, with a flush of anger upon his face. ‘If ye would keep your skins whole, tell me, are ye for the bloody usurper James Stuart, or are ye for his most Protestant Majesty King Monmouth?’

‘What! He hath come to the title already!’ exclaimed Saxon. ‘Know then that we are four unworthy vessels upon our way to offer our services to the Protestant cause.’

‘He lies, good Master Pettigrue, he lies most foully,’ shouted a burly fellow from the edge of the crowd. ‘Who ever saw a good Protestant in such a Punchinello dress as yonder? Is not Amalekite written upon his raiment? Is he not attired as becometh the bridegroom of the harlot of Rome? Why then should we not smite him?’

‘I thank you, my worthy friend,’ said Sir Gervas, whose attire had moved this champion’s wrath. ‘If I were nearer I should give you some return for the notice which you have taken of me.’

‘What proof have we that ye are not in the pay of the usurper, and on your way to oppress the faithful?’ asked the Puritan divine.

‘I tell you, man,’ said Saxon impatiently, ‘that we have travelled all the way from Hampshire to fight against James Stuart. We will ride with ye to Monmouth’s camp, and what better proof could ye desire than that?’

‘It may be that ye do but seek an opportunity of escaping from our bondage,’ the minister observed, after conferring with one or two of the leading peasants. ‘It is our opinion, therefore, that before coming with us ye must deliver unto us your swords, pistols, and other carnal weapons.’

‘Nay, good sir, that cannot be,’ our leader answered. ‘A cavalier may not with honour surrender his blade or his liberty in the manner ye demand. Keep close to my bridle-arm, Clarke, and strike home at any rogue who lays hands on you.’

A hum of anger rose from the crowd, and a score of sticks and scythe-blades were raised against us, when the minister again interposed and silenced his noisy following.

‘Did I hear aright?’ he asked. ‘Is your name Clarke?’

‘It is,’ I answered.

‘Your Christian name?’

‘Micah.’

‘Living at?’

‘Havant.’

The clergyman conferred for a few moments with a grizzly-bearded, harsh-faced man dressed in black buckram who stood at his elbow.

‘If you are really Micah Clarke of Havant,’ quoth he, ‘you will be able to tell us the name of an old soldier, skilled in the German wars, who was to have come with ye to the camp of the faithful.’

‘Why, this is he,’ I answered; ‘Decimus Saxon is his name.’

‘Aye, aye, Master Pettigrue,’ cried the old man. ‘The very name given by Dicky Rumbold. He said that either the old Roundhead Clarke or his son would go with him. But who are these?’

‘This is Master Reuben Lockarby, also of Havant, and Sir Gervas Jerome of Surrey,’ I replied. ‘They are both here as volunteers desiring to serve under the Duke of Monmouth.’

‘Right glad I am to see ye, then,’ said the stalwart minister heartily. ‘Friends, I can answer for these gentlemen that they favour the honest folk and the old cause.’

At these words the rage of the mob turned in an instant into the most extravagant adulation and delight. They crowded round us, patting our riding-boots, pulling at the skirts of our dress, pressing our hands and calling down blessings upon our heads, until their pastor succeeded at last in rescuing us from their attentions and in persuading them to resume their journey. We walked our horses in the midst of them whilst the clergyman strode along betwixt Saxon and myself. He was, as Reuben remarked, well fitted to be an intermediary between us, for he was taller though not so broad as I was, and broader though not so tall as the adventurer. His face was long, thin, and hollow-cheeked, with a pair of great thatched eyebrows and deep sunken melancholy eyes, which lit up upon occasion with a sudden quick flash of fiery enthusiasm.

‘Joshua Pettigrue is my name, gentlemen,’ said he; ‘I am an unworthy worker in the Lord’s vineyard, testifying with voice and with arm to His holy covenant. These are my faithful flock, whom I am bringing westward that they may be ready for the reaping when it pleases the Almighty to gather them in.’

‘And why have you not brought them into some show of order or formation?’ asked Saxon. ‘They are straggling along the road like a line of geese upon a common when Michaelmas is nigh. Have you no fears? Is it not written that your calamity cometh suddenly — suddenly shall you be broken down without remedy?’

‘Aye, friend, but is it not also written, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding!” Mark ye, if I were to draw up my men in military fashion it would invite attention and attack from any of James Stuart’s horse who may come our way. It is my desire to bring my flock to the camp and obtain pieces for them before exposing them to so unequal a contest.’

‘Truly, sir, it is a wise resolution,’ said Saxon grimly, ‘for if a troop of horse came down upon these good people the pastor would find himself without his flock.’

‘Nay, that could never be!’ cried Master Pettigrue with fervour. ‘Say rather that pastor, flock, and all would find their way along the thorny track of martyrdom to the new Jerusalem. Know, friend, that I have come from Monmouth in order to conduct these men to his standard. I received from him, or rather from Master Ferguson, instructions to be on the lookout for ye and for several others of the faithful we expect to join us from the East. By what route came ye?’

‘Over Salisbury Plain and so through Bruton.’

‘And saw ye or met ye any of our people upon the way?’

‘None,’ Saxon answered. ‘We left the Blue Guards at Salisbury, however, and we saw either them or some other horse regiment near this side of the Plain at the village of Mere.’

‘Ah, there is a gathering of the eagles,’ cried Master Joshua Pettigrue, shaking his head. ‘They are men of fine raiment, with war-horses and chariots and trappings, like the Assyrians of old, yet shall the angel of the Lord breathe upon them in the night. Yea, He shall cut them off utterly in His wrath, and they shall be destroyed.’

‘Amen! Amen!’ cried as many of the peasants as were within earshot.

‘They have elevated their horn, Master Pettigrue,’ said the grizzly-haired Puritan. ‘They have set up their candlestick on high — the candlestick of a perverse ritual and of an idolatrous service. Shall it not be dashed down by the hands of the righteous?’

‘Lo, this same candle waxed big and burned sooty, even as an offence to the nostrils, in the days of our fathers,’ cried a burly red-faced man, whose dress proclaimed him to be one of the yeoman class. ‘So was it when Old Noll did get his snuffing shears to work upon it. It is a wick which can only be trimmed by the sword of the faithful.’ A grim laugh from the whole party proclaimed their appreciation of the pious waggery of their companion.

‘Ah, Brother Sandcroft,’ cried the pastor, ‘there is much sweetness and manna hidden in thy conversation. But the way is long and dreary. Shall we not lighten it by a song of praise? Where is Brother Thistlethwaite, whose voice is as the cymbal, the tabor, and the dulcimer?’

‘Lo, most pious Master Pettigrue,’ said Saxon, ‘I have myself at times ventured to lift up my voice before the Lord.’ Without any further apology he broke out in stentorian tones into the following hymn, the refrain of which was caught up by pastor and congregation.

The Lord He is a morion
That guards me from all wound;
The Lord He is a coat of mail
That circles me all round.
Who then fears to draw the sword,
And fight the battle of the Lord?

The Lord He is the buckler true
That swings on my left arm;
The Lord He is the plate of proof
That shieldeth me from harm.
Who then fears to draw the sword,
And fight the battle of the Lord?

Who then dreads the violent,
Or fears the man of pride?
Or shall I flee from two or three
If He be by my side?
Who then fears to draw the sword,
And fight the battle of the Lord!

My faith is like a citadel
Girt round with moat and wall,
No mine, or sap, or breach, or gap
Can ere prevail at all.
Who then fears to draw the sword,
And fight the battle of the Lord?

Saxon ceased, but the Reverend Joshua Pettigrue waved his long arms and repeated the refrain, which was taken up again and again by the long column of marching peasants.

‘It is a godly hymn,’ said our companion, who had, to my disgust and to the evident astonishment of Reuben and Sir Gervas, resumed the snuffling, whining voice which he had used in the presence of my father. ‘It hath availed much on the field of battle.’

‘Truly,’ returned the clergyman, ‘if your comrades are of as sweet a savour as yourself, ye will be worth a brigade of pikes to the faithful,’ a sentiment which raised a murmur of assent from the Puritans around. ‘Since, sir,’ he continued, ‘you have had much experience in the wiles of war, I shall be glad to hand over to you the command of this small body of the faithful, until such time as we reach the army.’

‘It is time, too, in good faith, that ye had a soldier at your head,’ Decimus Saxon answered quietly. ‘My eyes deceive me strangely if I do not see the gleam of sword and cuirass upon the brow of yonder declivity. Methinks our pious exercises have brought the enemy upon us.’

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