Micah Clarke, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter 17

Of the Gathering in the Market-square

The fair town in which we now found ourselves was, although Monmouth had not yet reached it, the real centre of the rebellion. It was a prosperous place, with a great woollen and kersey trade, which gave occupation to as many as seven thousand inhabitants. It stood high, therefore, amongst English boroughs, being inferior only to Bristol, Norwich, Bath, Exeter, York, Worcester, and Nottingham amongst the country towns. Taunton had long been famous not only for its own resources and for the spirit of its inhabitants, but also for the beautiful and highly cultivated country which spread around it, and gave rise to a gallant breed of yeomen. From time immemorial the town had been a rallying-point for the party of liberty, and for many years it had leaned to the side of Republicanism in politics and of Puritanism in religion. No place in the kingdom had fought more stoutly for the Parliament, and though it had been twice besieged by Goring, the burghers, headed by the brave Robert Blake, had fought so desperately, that the Royalists had been compelled each time to retire discomfited. On the second occasion the garrison had been reduced to dog’s-flesh and horse-flesh, but no word of surrender had come either from them or their heroic commander, who was the same Blake under whom the old seaman Solomon Sprent had fought against the Dutch. After the Restoration the Privy Council had shown their recollection of the part played by the Somersetshire town, by issuing a special order that the battlements which fenced round the maiden stronghold should be destroyed. Thus, at the time of which I speak, nothing but a line of ruins and a few unsightly mounds represented the massive line of wall which had been so bravely defended by the last generation of townsmen. There were not wanting, however, many other relics of those stormy times. The houses on the outskirts were still scarred and splintered from the effects of the bombs and grenades of the Cavaliers. Indeed, the whole town bore a grimly martial appearance, as though she were a veteran among boroughs who had served in the past, and was not averse to seeing the flash of guns and hearing the screech of shot once more.

Charles’s Council might destroy the battlements which his soldiers had been unable to take, but no royal edict could do away with the resolute spirit and strong opinions of the burghers. Many of them, born and bred amidst the clash of civil strife, had been fired from their infancy by the tales of the old war, and by reminiscences of the great assault when Lunsford’s babe-eaters were hurled down the main breach by the strong arms of their fathers. In this way there was bred in Taunton a fiercer and more soldierly spirit than is usual in an English country town, and this flame was fanned by the unwearied ministerings of a chosen band of Nonconformist clergymen, amongst whom Joseph Alleine was the most conspicuous. No better focus for a revolt could have been chosen, for no city valued so highly those liberties and that creed which was in jeopardy.

A large body of the burghers had already set out to join the rebel army, but a good number had remained behind to guard the city, and these were reinforced by gangs of peasants, like the one to which we had attached ourselves, who had trooped in from the surrounding country, and now divided their time between listening to their favourite preachers and learning to step in line and to handle their weapons. In yard, street, and market-square there was marching and drilling, night, morning, and noon. As we rode out after breakfast the whole town was ringing with the shouting of orders and the clatter of arms. Our own friends of yesterday marched into the market-place at the moment we entered it, and no sooner did they catch sight of us than they plucked off their hats and cheered lustily, nor would they desist until we cantered over to them and took our places at their head.

‘They have vowed that none other should lead them,’ said the minister, standing by Saxon’s stirrup.

‘I could not wish to lead stouter fellows,’ said he. ‘Let them deploy into double line in front of the town-hall. So, so, smartly there, rear rank!’ he shouted, facing his horse towards them. ‘Now swing round into position. Keep your ground, left flank, and let the others pivot upon you. So — as hard and as straight as an Andrea Ferrara. I prythee, friend, do not carry your pike as though it were a hoe, though I trust you will do some weeding in the Lord’s vineyard with it. And you, sir, your musquetoon should be sloped upon your shoulder, and not borne under your arm like a dandy’s cane. Did ever an unhappy soldier find himself called upon to make order among so motley a crew! Even my good friend the Fleming cannot so avail here, nor does Petrinus, in his “De re militari,” lay down any injunctions as to the method of drilling a man who is armed with a sickle or a scythe.’

‘Shoulder scythe, port scythe, present scythe — mow!’ whispered Reuben to Sir Gervas, and the pair began to laugh, heedless of the angry frowns of Saxon.

‘Let us divide them,’ he said, ‘into three companies of eighty men. Or stay — how many musketeers have we in all? Five-and-fifty. Let them stand forward, and form the first line or company. Sir Gervas Jerome, you have officered the militia of your county, and have doubtless some knowledge of the manual exercise. If I am commandant of this force I hand over the captaincy of this company to you. It shall be the first line in battle, a position which I know you will not be averse to.’

‘Gad, they’ll have to powder their heads,’ said Sir Gervas, with decision.

‘You shall have the entire ordering of them,’ Saxon answered. ‘Let the first company take six paces to the front — so! Now let the pikemen stand out. Eighty-seven, a serviceable company! Lockarby, do you take these men in hand, and never forget that the German wars have proved that the best of horse has no more chance against steady pikemen than the waves against a crag. Take the captaincy of the second company, and ride at their head.’

‘Faith! If they don’t fight better than their captain rides,’ whispered Reuben, ‘it will be an evil business. I trust they will be firmer in the field than I am in the saddle.’

‘The third company of scythesmen I commit to your charge, Captain Micah Clarke,’ continued Saxon. ‘Good Master Joshua Pettigrue will be our field-chaplain. Shall not his voice and his presence be to us as manna in the wilderness, and as springs of water in dry places? The under-officers I see that you have yourselves chosen, and your captains shall have power to add to the number from those who smite boldly and spare not. Now one thing I have to say to you, and I speak it that all may hear, and that none may hereafter complain that the rules he serves under were not made clear to him. For I tell you now that when the evening bugle calls, and the helm and pike are laid aside, I am as you and you as I, fellow-workers in the same field, and drinkers from the same wells of life. Lo, I will pray with you, or preach with you, or hearken with you, or expound to you, or do aught that may become a brother pilgrim upon the weary road. But hark you, friends! when we are in arms and the good work is to be done, on the march, in the field, or on parade, then let your bearing be strict, soldierly, and scrupulous, quick to hear and alert to obey, for I shall have no sluggards or laggards, and if there be any such my hand shall be heavy upon them, yea, even to the cutting of them off. I say there shall be no mercy for such,’ here he paused and surveyed his force with a set face and his eyelids drawn low over his glinting, shifting eyes. ‘If, then,’ he continued, ‘there is any man among you who fears to serve under a hard discipline, let him stand forth now, and let him betake him to some easier leader, for I say to you that whilst I command this corps, Saxon’s regiment of Wiltshire foot shall be worthy to testify in this great and soul-raising cause.’

The Colonel stopped and sat silent upon his mare. The long lines of rustic faces looked up, some stolidly, some admiringly, some with an expression of fear at his stern, gaunt face and baneful eyes. None moved, however, so he continued.

‘Worthy Master Timewell, the Mayor of this fair town of Taunton, who has been a tower of strength to the faithful during these long and spirit-trying times, is about to inspect us when the others shall have assembled. Captains, to your companies then! Close up there on the musqueteers, with three paces between each line. Scythesmen, take ground to your left. Let the under-officers stand on the flanks and rear. So! ’tis smartly done for a first venture, though a good adjutant with a prugel after the Imperial fashion might find work to do.’

Whilst we were thus rapidly and effectively organising ourselves into a regiment, other bodies of peasantry more or less disciplined had marched into the market-square, and had taken up their position there. Those on our right had come from Frome and Radstock, in the north of Somersetshire, and were a mere rabble armed with flails, hammers, and other such weapons, with no common sign of order or cohesion save the green boughs which waved in their hat-bands. The body upon our left, who bore a banner amongst them announcing that they were men of Dorset, were fewer in number but better equipped, having a front rank, like our own, entirely armed with muskets.

The good townsmen of Taunton, with their wives and their daughters, had meanwhile been assembling on the balconies and at the windows which overlooked the square, whence they might have a view of the pageant. The grave, square-bearded, broadclothed burghers, and their portly dames in velvet and three-piled taffeta, looked down from every post of vantage, while here and there a pretty, timid face peeping out from a Puritan coif made good the old claim, that Taunton excelled in beautiful women as well as in gallant men. The side-walks were crowded with the commoner folk — old white-bearded wool-workers, stern-faced matrons, country lasses with their shawls over their heads, and swarms of children, who cried out with their treble voices for King Monmouth and the Protestant succession.

‘By my faith!’ said Sir Gervas, reining back his steed until he was abreast of me, ‘our square-toed friends need not be in such post-haste to get to heaven when they have so many angels among them on earth. Gad’s wounds, are they not beautiful? Never a patch or a diamond amongst them, and yet what would not our faded belles of the Mall or the Piazza give for their innocence and freshness?’

‘Nay, for Heaven’s sake do not smile and bow at them,’ said I. ‘These courtesies may pass in London, but they may be misunderstood among simple Somerset maidens and their hot-headed, hard-handed kinsfolk.’

I had hardly spoken before the folding-doors of the town-hall were thrown open, and a procession of the city fathers emerged into the market-place. Two trumpeters in parti-coloured jerkins preceded them, who blew a flourish upon their instruments as they advanced. Behind came the aldermen and councilmen, grave and reverend elders, clad in their sweeping gowns of black silk, trimmed and tippeted with costly furs. In rear of these walked a pursy little red-faced man, the town clerk, bearing a staff of office in his hand, while the line of dignitaries was closed by the tall and stately figure of Stephen Timewell, Mayor of Taunton.

There was much in this magistrate’s appearance to attract attention, for all the characteristics of the Puritan party to which he belonged were embodied and exaggerated in his person. Of great height he was and very thin, with a long-drawn, heavy eyelidded expression, which spoke of fasts and vigils. The bent shoulders and the head sunk upon the breast proclaimed the advances of age, but his bright steel-grey eyes and the animation of his eager face showed how the enthusiasm of religion could rise superior to bodily weakness. A peaked, straggling grey beard descended half-way to his waist, and his long snow-white hairs fluttered out from under a velvet skull-cap. The latter was drawn tightly down upon his head, so as to make his ears protrude in an unnatural manner on either side, a custom which had earned for his party the title of ‘prickeared,’ so often applied to them by their opponents. His attire was of studious plainness and sombre in colour, consisting of his black mantle, dark velvet breeches, and silk hosen, with velvet bows upon his shoes instead of the silver buckles then in vogue. A broad chain of gold around his neck formed the badge of his office. In front of him strutted the fat red-vested town clerk, one hand upon his hip, the other extended and bearing his wand of office, looking pompously to right and left, and occasionally bowing as though the plaudits were entirely on his own behalf. This little man had tied a huge broadsword to his girdle, which clanked along the cobble stones when he walked and occasionally inserted itself between his legs, when he would gravely cock his foot over it again and walk on without any abatement of his dignity. At last, finding these interruptions become rather too frequent, he depressed the hilt of his great sword in order to elevate the point, and so strutted onwards like a bantam cock with a tingle straight feather in its tail.

Having passed round the front and rear of the various bodies, and inspected them with a minuteness and attention which showed that his years had not dulled his soldier’s faculties, the Mayor faced round with the evident intention of addressing us. His clerk instantly darted in front of him, and waving his arms began to shout ‘Silence, good people! Silence for his most worshipful the Mayor of Taunton! Silence for the worthy Master Stephen Timewell!’ until in the midst of his gesticulations and cries he got entangled once more with his overgrown weapon, and went sprawling on his hands and knees in the kennel.

‘Silence yourself, Master Tetheridge,’ said the chief magistrate severely. ‘If your sword and your tongue were both clipped, it would be as well for yourself and us. Shall I not speak a few words in season to these good people but you must interrupt with your discordant bellowings?’

The busybody gathered himself together and slunk behind the group of councilmen, while the Mayor slowly ascended the steps of the market cross. From this position he addressed us, speaking in a high piping voice which gathered strength as he proceeded, until it was audible at the remotest corners of the square.

‘Friends in the faith,’ he said, ‘I thank the Lord that I have been spared in my old age to look down upon this goodly assembly. For we of Taunton have ever kept the flame of the Covenant burning amongst us, obscured it may be at times by time-servers and Laodiceans, but none the less burning in the hearts of our people. All round us, however, there was a worse than Egyptian darkness, where Popery and Prelacy, Arminianism, Erastianism, and Simony might rage and riot unchecked and unconfined. But what do I see now? Do I see the faithful cowering in their hiding-places and straining their ears for the sound of the horsehoof’s of their oppressors? Do I see a time-serving generation, with lies on their lips and truth buried in their hearts? No! I see before me godly men, not from this fair city only, but from the broad country round, and from Dorset, and from Wiltshire, and some even as I hear from Hampshire, all ready and eager to do mighty work in the cause of the Lord. And when I see these faithful men, and when I think that every broad piece in the strong boxes of my townsmen is ready to support them, and when I know that the persecuted remnant throughout the country is wrestling hard in prayer for us, then a voice speaks within me and tells me that we shall tear down the idols of Dagon, and build up in this England of ours such a temple of the true faith that not Popery, nor Prelacy, nor idolatry, nor any other device of the Evil One shall ever prevail against it.’

A deep irrepressible hum of approval burst from the close ranks of the insurgent infantry, with a clang of arms as musquetoon or pike was grounded upon the stone pavement.

Saxon half-turned his fierce face, raising an impatient hand, and the hoarse murmur died away among our men, though our less-disciplined companions to right and left continued to wave their green boughs and to clatter their arms. The Taunton men opposite stood grim and silent, but their set faces and bent brows showed that their townsman’s oratory had stirred the deep fanatic spirit which distinguished them.

‘In my hands,’ continued the Mayor, drawing a roll of paper from his bosom, ‘is the proclamation which our royal leader hath sent in advance of him. In his great goodness and self-abnegation he had, in his early declaration given forth at Lyme, declared that he should leave the choice of a monarch to the Commons of England, but having found that his enemies did most scandalously and basely make use of this his self-denial, and did assert that he had so little confidence in his own cause that he dared not take publicly the title which is due to him, he hath determined that this should have an end. Know, therefore, that it is hereby proclaimed that James, Duke of Monmouth, is now and henceforth rightful King of England; that James Stuart, the Papist and fratricide, is a wicked usurper, upon whose head, dead or alive, a price of five thousand guineas is affixed; and that the assembly now sitting at Westminster, and calling itself the Commons of England, is an illegal assembly, and its acts are null and void in the sight of the law. God bless King Monmouth and the Protestant religion!’

The trumpeters struck up a flourish and the people huzzaed, but the Mayor raised his thin white hands as a signal for silence. ‘A messenger hath reached me this morning from the King,’ he continued. ‘He sends a greeting to all his faithful Protestant subjects, and having halted at Axminster to rest after his victory, he will advance presently and be with ye in two days at the latest.

‘Ye will grieve to hear that good Alderman Rider was struck down in the thick of the fray. He hath died like a man and a Christian, leaving all his worldly goods, together with his cloth-works and household property, to the carrying on of the war. Of the other slain there are not more than ten of Taunton birth. Two gallant young brothers have been cut off, Oliver and Ephraim Hollis, whose poor mother —’

‘Grieve not for me, good Master Timewell,’ cried a female voice from the crowd. ‘I have three others as stout, who shall all be offered in the same quarrel.’

‘You are a worthy woman, Mistress Hollis,’ the Mayor answered, ‘and your children shall not be lost to you. The next name upon my list is Jesse Trefail, then come Joseph Millar, and Aminadab Holt —’

An elderly musqueteer in the first line of the Taunton foot pulled his hat down over his brows and cried out in a loud steady voice, ‘The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.’

‘It is your only son, Master Holt,’ said the Mayor, ‘but the Lord also sacrificed His only Son that you and I might drink the waters of eternal life. The others are Path of Light Regan, James Fletcher, Salvation Smith, and Robert Johnstone.’

The old Puritan gravely rolled up his papers, and having stood for a few moments with his hands folded across his breast in silent prayer, he descended from the market cross, and moved off, followed by the aldermen and councilmen. The crowd began likewise to disperse in sedate and sober fashion, with grave earnest faces and downcast eyes. A large number of the countryfolk, however, more curious or less devout than the citizens, gathered round our regiment to see the men who had beaten off the dragoons.

‘See the mon wi’ a face like a gerfalcon,’ cried one, pointing to Saxon; ‘’tis he that slew the Philistine officer yestreen, an’ brought the faithful off victorious.’

‘Mark ye yon other one,’ cried an old dame, ‘him wi’ the white face an’ the clothes like a prince. He’s one o’ the Quality, what’s come a’ the way froe Lunnon to testify to the Protestant creed. He’s a main pious gentleman, he is, an’ if he had bided in the wicked city they’d ha’ had his head off, like they did the good Lord Roossell, or put him in chains wi’ the worthy Maister Baxter.’

‘Marry come up, gossip,’ cried a third. ‘The girt mun on the grey horse is the soldier for me. He has the smooth cheeks o’ a wench, an’ limbs like Goliath o’ Gath. I’ll war’nt he could pick up my old gaffer Jones an’ awa’ wi’ him at his saddle-bow, as easy as Towser does a rotten! But here’s good Maister Tetheridge, the clerk, and on great business too, for he’s a mun that spares ne time ne trooble in the great cause.’

‘Room, good people, room! ‘cried the little clerk, bustling up with an air of authority. ‘Hinder not the high officials of the Corporation in the discharge of their functions. Neither should ye hamper the flanks of fighting men, seeing that you thereby prevent that deploying and extending of the line which is now advocated by many high commanders. I prythee, who commands this cohort, or legion rather, seeing that you have auxiliary horse attached to it?’

‘’Tis a regiment, sirrah,’ said Saxon sternly. ‘Colonel Saxon’s regiment of Wiltshire foot, which I have the honour to command.’

‘I beg your Colonelship’s pardon, ‘cried the clerk nervously, edging away from the swarthy-faced soldier. ‘I have heard speak of your Colonelship, and of your doings in the German wars. I have myself trailed a pike in my youth and have broken a head or two, aye, and a heart or two also, when I wore buff and bandolier.’

‘Discharge your message,’ said our Colonel shortly.

‘’Tis from his most worshipful the Mayor, and is addressed to yourself and to your captains, who are doubtless these tall cavaliers whom I see on either side of me. Pretty fellows, by my faith! but you and I know well, Colonel, that a little trick of fence will set the smallest of us on a level with the brawniest. Now I warrant that you and I, being old soldiers, could, back to back, make it good against these three gallants.’

‘Speak, fellow,’ snarled Saxon, and reaching out a long sinewy arm he seized the loquacious clerk by the lappet of his gown, and shook him until his long sword clattered again.

‘How, Colonel, how?’ cried Master Tetheridge, while his vest seemed to acquire a deeper tint from the sudden pallor of his face. ‘Would you lay an angry hand upon the Mayor’s representative? I wear a bilbo by my side, as you can see. I am also somewhat quick and choleric, and warn you therefore not to do aught which I might perchance construe into a personal slight. As to my message, it was that his most worshipful the Mayor did desire to have word with you and your captains in the town-hall.’

‘We shall be there anon,’ said Saxon, and turning to the regiment he set himself to explain some of the simpler movements and exercises, teaching his officers as well as his men, for though Sir Gervas knew something of the manual, Lockarby and I brought little but our good-will to the task. When the order to dismiss was at last given, our companies marched back to their barracks in the wool warehouse, while we handed over our horses to the grooms from the White Hart, and set off to pay our respects to the Mayor.

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