Micah Clarke, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter 27

Of the Affair near Keynsham Bridge

Monday, June 21, 1685, broke very dark and windy, with dull clouds moving heavily across the sky and a constant sputter of rain. Yet a little after daybreak Monmouth’s bugles were blowing in every quarter of the town, from Tone Bridge to Shuttern, and by the hour appointed the regiments had mustered, the roll had been called, and the vanguard was marching briskly out through the eastern gate. It went forth in the same order as it entered, our own regiment and the Taunton burghers bringing up the rear. Mayor Timewell and Saxon had the ordering of this part of the army between them, and being men who had seen much service, they drew the ordnance into a less hazardous position, and placed a strong guard of horse, a cannon’s shot in the rear, to meet any attempt of the Royal dragoons.

It was remarked on all sides that the army had improved in order and discipline during the three days’ halt, owing perchance to the example of our own unceasing drill and soldierly bearing. In numbers it had increased to nigh eight thousand, and the men were well fed and light of heart. With sturdy close-locked ranks they splashed their way through mud and puddle, with many a rough country joke and many a lusty stave from song or hymn. Sir Gervas rode at the head of his musqueteers, whose befloured tails hung limp and lank with the water dripping from them. Lockarby’s pikemen and my own company of scythesmen were mostly labourers from the country, who were hardened against all weathers, and plodded patiently along with the rain-drops glistening upon their ruddy faces. In front were the Taunton foot; behind, the lumbering train of baggage waggons, with the horse in the rear of them. So the long line wound its way over the hills.

At the summit, where the road begins to dip down upon the other side, a halt was called to enable the regiments to close up, and we looked back at the fair town which many of us were never to see again. From the dark walls and house roofs we could still mark the flapping and flutter of white kerchiefs from those whom we left behind. Reuben sat his horse beside me, with his spare shirt streaming in the wind and his great pikemen all agrin behind him, though his thoughts and his eyes were too far away to note them. As we gazed, a long thin quiver of sunshine slipped out between two cloud banks and gilded the summit of the Magdalene tower, with the Royal standard which still waved from it. The incident was hailed as a happy augury, and a great shout spread from rank to rank at the sight of it, with a waving of hats and a clattering of weapons. Then the bugles blew a fanfare, the drums struck up a point of war, Reuben thrust his shirt into his haversack, and on we marched through mud and slush, with the dreary clouds bending low over us, and buttressed by the no less dreary hills on either side. A seeker for omens might have said that the heavens were weeping over our ill-fated venture.

All day we trudged along roads which were quagmires, over our ankles in mud, until in the evening we made our way to Bridgewater, where we gained some recruits, and also some hundred pounds for our military chest, for it was a well-to-do place, with a thriving coast trade carried on down the River Parret. After a night in snug quarters we set off again in even worse weather than before. The country in these parts is a quagmire in the driest season, but the heavy rains had caused the fens to overflow, and turned them into broad lakes on either side of the road. This may have been to some degree in our favour, as shielding us from the raids of the King’s cavalry, but it made our march very slow. All day it was splashing and swashing through mud and mire, the rain-drops shining on the gun-barrels and dripping from the heavy-footed horses. Past the swollen Parret, through Eastover, by the peaceful village of Bawdrip, and over Polden Hill we made our way, until the bugles sounded a halt under the groves of Ashcot, and a rude meal was served out to the men. Then on again, through the pitiless rain, past the wooded park of Piper’s Inn, through Walton, where the floods were threatening the cottages, past the orchards of Street, and so in the dusk of the evening into the grey old town of Glastonbury, where the good folk did their best by the warmth of their welcome to atone for the bitterness of the weather.

The next morning was wet still and inclement, so the army made a short march to Wells, which is a good-sized town, well laid out, with a fine cathedral, which hath a great number of figures carved in stone and placed in niches on the outer side, like that which we saw at Salisbury. The townsfolk were strong for the Protestant cause, and the army was so well received that their victual cost little from the military chest. On this march we first began to come into touch with the Royal horse. More than once when the rain mist cleared we saw the gleam of arms upon the low hills which overlook the road, and our scouts came in with reports of strong bodies of dragoons on either flank. At one time they massed heavily upon our rear, as though planning a descent upon the baggage. Saxon, however, planted a regiment of pikes on either side, so that they broke up again and glinted off over the hills.

From Wells we marched upon the twenty-fourth to Shepton Mallet, with the ominous sabres and helmets still twinkling behind and on either side of us.

That evening we were at Keynsham Bridge, less than two leagues from Bristol as the crow flies, and some of our horse forded the river and pushed on almost to the walls.

By morning the rain clouds had at last cleared, so Reuben and I rode slowly up one of the sloping green hills which rose behind the camp, in the hope of gaining some sight of the enemy. Our men we left littered about upon the grass, trying to light fires with the damp sticks, or laying out their clothes to dry in the sunshine. A strange-looking band they were, coated and splashed with mud from head to heel, their hats all limp and draggled, their arms rusted, and their boots so worn that many walked barefoot, and others had swathed their kerchiefs round their feet. Yet their short spell of soldiering had changed them from honest-faced yokels into fierce-eyed, half-shaven, gaunt-cheeked fellows, who could carry arms or port pikes as though they had done nought else since childhood.

The plight of the officers was no better than that of the men, nor should an officer, my dears, when he is upon service, ever demean himself by partaking of any comfort which all cannot share with him. Let him lie by a soldier’s fire and eat a soldier’s fare, or let him hence, for he is a hindrance and a stumbling-block. Our clothes were pulp, our steel fronts red with rust, and our chargers as stained and splashed as though they had rolled in the mire. Our very swords and pistols were in such a plight that we could scarce draw the one or snap the other. Sir Gervas alone succeeded in keeping his attire and his person as neat and as dainty as ever. What he did in the watches of the night, and how he gained his sleep, hath ever been a mystery to me, for day after day he turned out at the bugle call, washed, scented, brushed, with wig in order, and clothes from which every speck of mud had been carefully removed. At his saddle-bow he bore with him the great flour dredger which we saw him use at Taunton, and his honest musqueteers had their heads duly dusted every morning, though in an hour their tails would be as brown as nature made them, while the flour would be trickling in little milky streams down their broad backs, or forming in cakes upon the skirts of their coats. It was a long contest between the weather and the Baronet, but our comrade proved the victor.

‘There was a time when I was called plump Reuben,’ quoth my friend, as we rode together up the winding track. ‘What with too little that is solid and too much that is liquid I am like to be skeleton Reuben ere I see Havant again. I am as full of rain-water as my father’s casks are of October. I would, Micah, that you would wring me out and hang me to dry upon one of these bushes.’

‘If we are wet, King James’s men must be wetter,’ said I, ‘for at least we have had such shelter as there was.’

‘It is poor comfort when you are starved to know that another is in the same plight. I give you my word, Micah, I took in one hole of my sword-belt on Monday, two on Tuesday, one yesterday, and one today. I tell you, I am thawing like an icicle in the sun.’

‘If you should chance to dwindle to nought,’ said I, laughing, ‘what account are we to give of you in Taunton? Since you have donned armour and taken to winning the hearts of fair maidens, you have outstripped us all in importance, and become a man of weight and substance.’

‘I had more substance and weight ere I began trailing over the countryside like a Hambledon packman,’ quoth he. ‘But in very truth and with all gravity, Micah, it is a strange thing to feel that the whole world for you, your hopes, your ambitions, your all, are gathered into so small a compass that a hood might cover it, and two little pattens support it. I feel as if she were my own higher self, my loftier part, and that I, should I be torn from her, would remain for ever an incomplete and half-formed being. With her, I ask nothing else. Without her, all else is nothing.’

‘But have you spoken to the old man?’ I asked. ‘Are you indeed betrothed?’

‘I have spoken to him,’ my friend answered, ‘but he was so busy in filling ammunition cases that I could not gain his attention. When I tried once more he was counting the spare pikes in the Castle armoury with a tally and an ink-horn. I told him that I had come to crave his granddaughter’s hand, on which he turned to me and asked, “which hand?” with so blank a stare that it was clear that his mind was elsewhere. On the third trial, though, the day that you did come back from Badminton, I did at last prefer my request, but he flashed out at me that this was no time for such fooleries, and he bade me wait until King Monmouth was on the throne, when I might ask him again. I warrant that he did not call such things fooleries fifty years ago, when he went a-courting himself.’

‘At least he did not refuse you,’ said I. ‘It is as good as a promise that; should the cause be successful, you shall be so too.’

‘By my faith,’ cried Reuben, ‘if a man could by his own single blade bring that about, there is none who hath so strong an interest in it as I. No, not Monmouth himself! The apprentice Derrick hath for a long time raised his eyes to his master’s daughter, and the old man was ready to have him as a son, so much was he taken by his godliness and zeal. Yet I have learned from a side-wind that he is but a debauched and low-living man, though he covers his pleasures with a mask of piety. I thought as you did think that he was at the head of the roisterers who tried to bear Mistress Ruth away, though, i’ faith, I can scarce think harshly of them, since they did me the greatest service that ever men did yet. Meanwhile I have taken occasion, ere we left Wells two nights ago, to speak to Master Derrick on the matter, and to warn him as he loved his life to plan no treachery against her.

‘And how took he this mild intimation?’ I asked.

‘As a rat takes a rat trap. Snarled out some few words of godly hatred, and so slunk away.’

‘On my life, lad,’ said I, ‘you have been having as many adventures in your own way as I in mine. But here we are upon the hill-top, with as fair an outlook as man could wish to have.’

Just beneath us ran the Avon, curving in long bends through the woodlands, with the gleam of the sun striking back from it here and there, as though a row of baby suns had been set upon a silver string. On the further side the peaceful, many-hued country, rising and falling in a swell of cornfields and orchards, swept away to break in a fringe of forest upon the distant Malverns. On our right were the green hills near Bath and on our left the rugged Mendips, with queenly Bristol crouching behind her forts, and the grey channel behind flecked with snow-white sails. At our very feet lay Keynsham Bridge, and our army spotted in dark patches over the green fields, the smoke of their fires and the babble of their voices floating up in the still summer air.

A road ran along the Somersetshire bank of the Avon, and down this two troops of our horse were advancing, with intent to establish outposts upon our eastern flank. As they jangled past in somewhat loose order, their course lay through a pine-wood, into which the road takes a sharp bend. We were gazing down at the scene when, like lightning from a cloud, a troop of the Horse Guards wheeled out into the open, and breaking from trot to canter, and from canter to gallop, dashed down in a whirlwind of blue and steel upon our unprepared squadrons. A crackle of hastily unslung carbines broke from the leading ranks, but in an instant the Guards burst through them and plunged on into the second troop. For a space the gallant rustics held their own, and the dense mass of men and horses swayed backwards and forwards, with the swirling sword-blades playing above them in flashes of angry light. Then blue coats began to break from among the russet, the fight rolled wildly back for a hundred paces, the dense throng was split asunder, and the Royal Guards came pouring through the rent, and swerved off to right and left through hedges and over ditches, stabbing and hacking at the fleeing horsemen. The whole scene, with the stamping horses, tossing manes, shouts of triumph or despair, gasping of hard-drawn breath and musical clink and clatter of steel, was to us upon the hill like some wild vision, so swiftly did it come and so swiftly go. A sharp, stern bugle-call summoned the Blues back into the road, where they formed up and trotted slowly away before fresh squadrons could come up from the camp. The sun gleamed and the river rippled as ever, and there was nothing save the long litter of men and horses to mark the course of the hell blast which had broken so suddenly upon us.

As the Blues retired we observed that a single officer brought up the rear, riding very slowly, as though it went much against his mood to turn his back even to an army. The space betwixt the troop and him was steadily growing greater, yet he made no effort to quicken his pace, but jogged quietly on, looking back from time to time to see if he were followed. The same thought sprang into my comrade’s mind and my own at the same instant, and we read it in each other’s faces.

‘This path,’ cried he eagerly. ‘It brings us out beyond the grove, and is in the hollow all the way.’

‘Lead the horses until we get on better ground,’ I answered. ‘We may just cut him off if we are lucky.’

There was no time for another word, for we hurried off down the uneven track, sliding and slipping on the rain-soaked turf. Springing into our saddles we dashed down the gorge, through the grove, and so out on to the road in time to see the troop disappear in the distance, and to meet the solitary officer face to face.

He was a sun-burned, high-featured man, with black mustachios, mounted on a great raw-boned chestnut charger. As we broke out on to the road he pulled up to have a good look at us. Then, having fully made up his mind as to our hostile intent, he drew his sword, plucked a pistol out of his holster with his left hand, and gripping the bridle between his teeth, dug his spurs into his horse’s flanks and charged down upon us at the top of his speed. As we dashed at him, Reuben on his bridle arm and I on the other, he cut fiercely at me, and at the same moment fired at my companion. The ball grazed Reuben’s cheek, leaving a red weal behind it like a lash from a whip, and blackening his face with the powder. His cut, however, fell short, and throwing my arm round his waist as the two horses dashed past each other, I plucked him from the saddle and drew him face upwards across my saddlebow. Brave Covenant lumbered on with his double burden, and before the Guards had learned that they had lost their officer, we had brought him safe, in spite of his struggles and writhings, to within sight of Monmouth’s camp.

‘A narrow shave, friend,’ quoth Reuben, with his hand to his cheek. ‘He hath tattooed my face with powder until I shall be taken for Solomon Sprent’s younger brother.’

‘Thank God that you are unhurt,’ said I. ‘See, our horse are advancing along the upper road. Lord Grey himself rides at their head. We had best take our prisoner into camp, since we can do nought here.’

‘For Christ’s sake, either slay me or set me down!’ he cried. ‘I cannot bear to be carried in this plight, like a half-weaned infant, through your campful of grinning yokels.’

‘I would not make sport of a brave man,’ I answered. ‘If you will give your word to stay with us, you shall walk between us.’

‘Willingly,’ said he, scrambling down and arranging his ruffled attire. ‘By my faith, sirs, ye have taught me a lesson not to think too meanly of mine enemies. I should have ridden with my troop had I thought that there was a chance of falling in with outposts or videttes.’

‘We were upon the hill before we cut you off,’ quoth Reuben. ‘Had that pistol ball been a thought straighter, it is I that should have been truly the cut-off one. Zounds, Micah! I was grumbling even now that I had fallen away, but had my cheek been as round as of old the slug had been through it.’

‘Where have I seen you before?’ asked our captive, bending his dark eyes upon me. ‘Aye, I have it! It was in the inn at Salisbury, where my light-headed comrade Horsford did draw upon an old soldier who was riding with you. Mine own name is Ogilvy — Major Ogilvy of the Horse Guards Blue. I was right glad that ye did come off safely from the hounds. Some word had come of your errand after your departure, so this same Horsford with the Mayor and one or two other Tantivies, whose zeal methinks outran their humanity, slipped the dogs upon your trail.’

‘I remember you well,’ I answered. ‘You will find Colonel Decimus Saxon, my former companion, in the camp. No doubt you will be shortly exchanged for some prisoner of ours.’

‘Much more likely to have my throat cut,’ said he, with a smile. ‘I fear that Feversham in his present temper will scarce pause to make prisoners, and Monmouth may be tempted to pay him back in his own coin. Yet it is the fortune of war, and I should pay for my want of all soldierly caution. Truth to tell, my mind was far from battles and ruses at the moment, for it had wandered away to aqua-regia and its action upon the metals, until your appearance brought me back to soldiership.’

‘The horse are out of sight,’ said Reuben, looking backwards, ‘ours as well as theirs. Yet I see a clump of men over yonder at the other side of the Avon, and there on the hillside can you not see the gleam of steel?’

‘There are foot there,’ I answered, puckering my eyes. ‘It seems to me that I can discern four or five regiments and as many colours of horse. King Monmouth should know of this with all speed.’

‘He does know of it,’ said Reuben. ‘Yonder he stands under the trees with his council about him. See, one of them rides this way!’

A trooper had indeed detached himself from the group and galloped towards us. ‘If you are Captain Clarke, sir,’ he said, with a salute, ‘the King orders you to join his council.’

‘Then I leave the Major in your keeping, Reuben,’ I cried. ‘See that he hath what our means allow.’ So saying I spurred my horse, and soon joined the group who were gathered round the King. There were Grey, Wade, Buyse, Ferguson, Saxon, Hollis, and a score more, all looking very grave, and peering down the valley with their glasses. Monmouth himself had dismounted, and was leaning against the trunk of a tree, with his arms folded upon his breast, and a look of white despair upon his face. Behind the tree a lackey paced up and down leading his glossy black charger, who pranced and tossed his lordly mane, a very king among horses.

‘You see, friends,’ said Monmouth, turning lack-lustre eyes from one leader to another, ‘Providence would seem to be against us. Some new mishap is ever at our heels.’

‘Not Providence, your Majesty, but our own negligence,’ cried Saxon boldly. ‘Had we advanced on Bristol last night, we might have been on the right side of the ramparts by now.’

‘But we had no thought that the enemy’s foot was so near!’ exclaimed Wade.

‘I told ye what would come of it, and so did Oberst Buyse and the worthy Mayor of Taunton,’ Saxon answered. ‘However, there is nought to be gained by mourning over a broken pipkin. We must e’en piece it together as best we may.’

‘Let us advance on Bristol, and put oor trust in the Highest,’ quoth Ferguson. ‘If it be His mighty will that we should tak’ it, then shall we enter into it, yea, though drakes and sakers lay as thick as cobblestanes in the streets.’

‘Aye! aye! On to Bristol! God with us!’ cried several of the Puritans excitedly.

‘But it is madness — dummheit — utter foolishness,’ Buyse broke in hotly. ‘You have the chance and you will not take it. Now the chance is gone and you are all eager to go. Here is an army of, as near as I can judge, five thousand men on the right side of the river. We are on the wrong side, and yet you talk of crossing and making a beleaguering of Bristol without breaching-pieces or spades, and with this force in our rear. Will the town make terms when they can see from their ramparts the van of the army which comes to help them? Or does it assist us in fighting the army to have a strong town beside us, from which horse and foot can make an outfall upon our flank? I say again that it is madness.’

What the German soldier said was so clearly the truth that even the fanatics were silenced. Away in the east the long shimmering lines of steel, and the patches of scarlet upon the green hillside, were arguments which the most thoughtless could not overlook.

‘What would you advise, then?’ asked Monmouth moodily, tapping his jewelled riding-whip against his high boots.

‘To cross the river and come to hand-grips with them ere they can get help from the town,’ the burly German answered bluntly. ‘I cannot understand what we are here for if it be not to fight. If we win, the town must fall. If we lose, We have had a bold stroke for it, and can do no more.’

‘Is that your opinion, too, Colonel Saxon?’ the King asked.

‘Assuredly, your Majesty, if we can fight to advantage. We can scarce do that, however, by crossing the river on a single narrow bridge in the face of such a force. I should advise that we destroy this Keynsham Bridge, and march down this southern bank in the hope of forcing a fight in a position which we may choose.’

‘We have not yet summoned Bath,’ said Wade. ‘Let us do as Colonel Saxon proposes, and let us in the meantime march in that direction and send a trumpet to the governor.’

‘There is yet another plan,’ quoth Sir Stephen Timewell, ‘which is to hasten to Gloucester, to cross the Severn there, and so march through Worcestershire into Shropshire and Cheshire. Your Majesty has many friends in those parts.’

Monmouth paced up and down with his hand to his forehead like one distrait. ‘What am I to do,’ he cried at last, ‘in the midst of all this conflicting advice, when I know that not only my own success, but the lives of these poor faithful peasants and craftsmen depend upon my resolution?’

‘With all humbleness, your Majesty,’ said Lord Grey, who had just returned with the horse, ‘I should suggest, since there are only a few troops of their cavalry on this side of the Avon, that we blow up the bridge and move onwards to Bath, whence we can pass into Wiltshire, which we know to be friendly.’

‘So be it!’ cried the King, with the reckless air of one who accepts a plan, not because it is the best, but because he feels that all are equally hopeless. ‘What think you, gentlemen?’ he added, with a bitter smile. ‘I have heard news from London this morning, that my uncle has clapped two hundred merchants and others who are suspected of being true to their creed into the Tower and the Fleet. He will have one half of the nation mounting guard over the other half ere long.’

‘Or the whole, your Majesty, mounting guard over him,’ suggested Wade. ‘He may himself see the Traitor’s Gate some of these mornings.’

‘Ha, ha! Think ye so? think ye so!’ cried Monmouth, rubbing his hands and brightening into a smile. ‘Well, mayhap you have nicked the truth. Who knows? Henry’s cause seemed a losing one until Bosworth Field settled the contention. To your charges, gentlemen. We shall march in half-an-hour. Colonel Saxon and you, Sir Stephen, shall cover the rear and guard the baggage — a service of honour with this fringe of horse upon our skirts.’

The council broke up forthwith, every man riding off to his own regiment. The whole camp was in a stir, bugles blowing and drums rattling, until in a very short time the army was drawn up in order, and the forlorn of cavalry had already started along the road which leads to Bath. Five hundred horse with the Devonshire militiamen were in the van. After them in order came the sailor regiment, the North Somerset men, the first Taunton regiment of burghers, the Mendip and Bagworthy miners, the lace and wool-workers of Honiton, Wellington, and Ottery St. Mary; the woodmen, the graziers, the marsh-men, and the men from the Quantock district. Behind were the guns and the baggage, with our own brigade and four colours of horse as a rearguard. On our march we could see the red coats of Feversham keeping pace with us upon the other side of the Avon. A large body of his horse and dragoons had forded the stream and hovered upon our skirts, but Saxon and Sir Stephen covered the baggage so skilfully, and faced round so fiercely with such a snarl of musketry whenever they came too nigh, that they never ventured to charge home.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/doyle/arthur_conan/micah/chapter27.html

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