Micah Clarke, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter 36

Of the End of it All

And so, my dear children, I come to the end of the history of a failure — a brave failure and a noble one, but a failure none the less. In three more years England was to come to herself, to tear the fetters from her free limbs, and to send James and his poisonous brood flying from her shores even as I was flying then. We had made the error of being before our time. Yet there came days when folk thought kindly of the lads who had fought so stoutly in the West, and when their limbs, gathered from many a hangman’s pit and waste place, were borne amid the silent sorrow of a nation to the pretty country burial-grounds where they would have chosen to lie. There, within the sound of the bell which from infancy had called them to prayer, beneath the turf over which they had wandered, under the shadow of those Mendip and Quantock Hills which they loved so well, these brave hearts lie still and peaceful, like tired children in the bosom of their mother. Requiescant-requiescant in pace!

Not another word about myself, dear children. This narrative doth already bristle with I’s, as though it were an Argus which is a flash of wit, though I doubt if ye will understand it. I set myself to tell ye the tale of the war in the West, and that tale ye have heard, nor will I be coaxed or cajoled into one word further. Ah! ye know well how garrulous the old man is, and that if you could but get to Flushing with him he would take ye to the wars of the Empire, to William’s Court, and to the second invasion of the West, which had a better outcome than the first. But not an inch further will I budge. On to the green, ye young rogues! Have ye not other limbs to exercise besides your ears, that ye should be so fond of squatting round grandad’s chair? If I am spared to next winter, and if the rheumatiz keeps away, it is like that I may take up once more the broken thread of my story.

Of the others I can only tell ye what I know. Some slipped out of my ken entirely. Of others I have heard vague and incomplete accounts. The leaders of the insurrection got off much more lightly than their followers, for they found that the passion of greed was even stronger than the passion of cruelty. Grey, Buyse, Wade, and others bought themselves free at the price of all their possessions. Ferguson escaped. Monmouth was executed on Tower Hill, and showed in his last moments some faint traces of that spirit which spurted up now and again from his feeble nature, like the momentary flash of an expiring fire.

My father and my mother lived to see the Protestant religion regain its place once more, and to see England become the champion of the reformed faith upon the Continent. Three years later I found them in Havant much as I had left them, save that there were more silver hairs amongst the brown braided tresses of my mother, and that my father’s great shoulders were a trifle bowed and his brow furrowed with the lines of care. Hand in hand they passed onwards down life’s journey, the Puritan and the Church woman, and I have never despaired of the healing of religious feud in England since I have seen how easy it is for two folks to retain the strongest belief in their own creeds, and yet to bear the heartiest love and respect for the professor of another. The days may come when the Church and the Chapel may be as a younger and an elder brother, each working to one end, and each joying in the other’s success. Let the contest between them be not with pike and pistol, not with court and prison; but let the strife be which shall lead the higher life, which shall take the broader view, which shall boast the happiest and best cared-for poor. Then their rivalry shall be not a curse, but a blessing to this land of England.

Reuben Lockarby was ill for many months, but when he at last recovered he found a pardon awaiting him through the interest of Major Ogilvy. After a time, when the troubles were all blown over, he married the daughter of Mayor Timewell, and he still lives in Taunton, a well-to-do and prosperous citizen. Thirty years ago there was a little Micah Lockarby, and now I am told that there is another, the son of the first, who promises to be as arrant a little Roundhead as ever marched to the tuck of drum.

Of Saxon I have heard more than once. So skilfully did he use his hold over the Duke of Beaufort, that he was appointed through his interest to the command of an expedition which had been sent to chastise the savages of Virginia, who had wrought great cruelties upon the settlers. There he did so out-ambush their ambushes, and out-trick their most cunning warriors, that he hath left a great name among them, and is still remembered there by an Indian word which signifieth ‘The long-legged wily one with the eye of a rat.’ Having at last driven the tribes far into the wilderness he was presented with a tract of country for his services, where he settled down. There he married, and spent the rest of his days in rearing tobacco and in teaching the principles of war to a long line of gaunt and slab-sided children. They tell me that a great nation of exceeding strength and of wondrous size promises some day to rise up on the other side of the water. If this should indeed come to pass, it may perhaps happen that these young Saxons or their children may have a hand in the building of it. God grant that they may never let their hearts harden to the little isle of the sea, which is and must ever be the cradle of their race.

Solomon Sprent married and lived for many years as happily as his friends could wish. I had a letter from him when I was abroad, in which he said that though his consort and he had started alone on the voyage of wedlock, they were now accompanied by a jolly-boat and a gig. One winter’s night when the snow was on the ground he sent down for my father, who hurried up to his house. He found the old man sitting up in bed, with his flask of rumbo within reach, his tobacco-box beside him, and a great brown Bible balanced against his updrawn knees. He was breathing heavily, and was in sore distress.

‘I’ve strained a plank, and have nine feet in the well,’ said he. ‘It comes in quicker than I can put it out. In truth, friend, I have not been seaworthy this many a day, and it is time that I was condemned and broken up.’

My father shook his head sadly as he marked his dusky face and laboured breathing. ‘How of your soul?’ he asked.

‘Aye!’ said Solomon, ‘that’s a cargo that we carry under our hatches, though we can’t see it, and had no hand in the stowing of it. I’ve been overhauling the sailing orders here, and the ten articles of war, but I can’t find that I’ve gone so far out of my course that I may not hope to come into the channel again.’

‘Trust not in yourself, but in Christ,’ said my father.

‘He is the pilot, in course,’ replied the old seaman. ‘When I had a pilot aboard o’ my ship, however, it was my way always to keep my own weather eye open, d’ye see, and so I’ll do now. The pilot don’t think none the worse of ye for it. So I’ll throw my own lead line, though I hear as how there are no soundings in the ocean of God’s mercy. Say, friend, d’ye think this very body, this same hull o’ mine, will rise again?’

‘So we are taught,’ my father answered.

‘I’d know it anywhere from the tattoo marks,’ said Solomon. ‘They was done when I was with Sir Christopher in the West Indies, and I’d be sorry to part with them. For myself, d’ye see, I’ve never borne ill-will to any one, not even to the Dutch lubbers, though I fought three wars wi’ them, and they carried off one of my spars, and be hanged to them! If I’ve let daylight into a few of them, d’ye see, it’s all in good part and by way of duty. I’ve drunk my share — enough to sweeten my bilge-water — but there are few that have seen me cranky in the upper rigging or refusing to answer to my helm. I never drew pay or prize-money that my mate in distress was not welcome to the half of it. As to the Polls, the less said the better. I’ve been a true consort to my Phoebe since she agreed to look to me for signals. Those are my papers, all clear and aboveboard. If I’m summoned aft this very night by the great Lord High Admiral of all, I ain’t afeared that He’ll clap me into the bilboes, for though I’m only a poor sailor man, I’ve got His promise in this here book, and I’m not afraid of His going back from it.’

My father sat with the old man for some hours and did all that he could to comfort and assist him, for it was clear that he was sinking rapidly. When he at last left him, with his faithful wife beside him, he grasped the brown but wasted hand which lay above the clothes.

‘I’ll see you again soon,’ he said.

‘Yes. In the latitude of heaven,’ replied the dying seaman. His foreboding was right, for in the early hours of the morning his wife, bending over him, saw a bright smile upon his tanned, weather-beaten face. Raising himself upon his pillow he touched his forelock, as is the habit of sailor-men, and so sank slowly and peacefully back into the long sleep which wakes when the night has ceased to be.

You will ask me doubtless what became of Hector Marot and of the strange shipload which had set sail from Poole Harbour. There was never a word heard of them again, unless indeed a story which was spread some months afterwards by Captain Elias Hopkins, of the Bristol ship Caroline, may be taken as bearing upon their fate. For Captain Hopkins relates that, being on his homeward voyage from our settlements, he chanced to meet with thick fogs and a head wind in the neighbourhood of the great cod banks. One night as he was beating about, with the weather so thick that he could scarce see the truck of his own mast, a most strange passage befell him. For as he and others stood upon the deck, they heard to their astonishment the sound of many voices joined in a great chorus, which was at first faint and distant, but which presently waxed and increased until it appeared to pass within a stone-throw of his vessel, when it slowly died away once more and was lost in the distance. There were some among the crew who set the matter down as the doing of the evil one, but, as Captain Elias Hopkins was wont to remark, it was a strange thing that the foul fiend should choose West-country hymns for his nightly exercise, and stranger still that the dwellers in the pit should sing with a strong Somersetshire burr. For myself, I have little doubt that it was indeed the Dorothy Fox which had swept past in the fog, and that the prisoners, having won their freedom, were celebrating their delivery in true Puritan style. Whether they were driven on to the rocky coast of Labrador, or whether they found a home in some desolate land whence no kingly cruelty could harry them, is what must remain for ever unknown.

Zachariah Palmer lived for many years, a venerable and honoured old man, before he, too, was called to his fathers. A sweet and simple village philosopher he was, with a child’s heart in his aged breast. The very thought of him is to me as the smell of violets; for if in my views of life and in my hopes of the future I differ somewhat from the hard and gloomy teaching of my father, I know that I owe it to the wise words and kindly training of the carpenter. If, as he was himself wont to say, deeds are everything in this world and dogma is nothing, then his sinless, blameless life might be a pattern to you and to all. May the dust lie light upon him!

One word of another friend — the last mentioned, but not the least valued. When Dutch William had been ten years upon the English throne there was still to be seen in the field by my father’s house a tall, strong-boned horse, whose grey skin was flecked with dashes of white. And it was ever observed that, should the soldiers be passing from Portsmouth, or should the clank of trumpet or the rattle of drum break upon his ear, he would arch his old neck, throw out his grey-streaked tail, and raise his stiff knees in a pompous and pedantic canter. The country folk would stop to watch these antics of the old horse, and then the chances are that one of them would tell the rest how that charger had borne one of their own village lads to the wars, and how, when the rider had to fly the country, a kindly sergeant in the King’s troops had brought the steed as a remembrance of him to his father at home. So Covenant passed the last years of his life, a veteran among steeds, well fed and cared for, and much given, mayhap, to telling in equine language to all the poor, silly country steeds the wonderful passages which had befallen him in the West.

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