Micah Clarke, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter 8

Of our Start for the Wars

All along the ridge of Portsdown Hill we had the lights of Portsmouth and of the harbour ships twinkling beneath us on the left, while on the right the Forest of Bere was ablaze with the signal fires which proclaimed the landing of the invader. One great beacon throbbed upon the summit of Butser, while beyond that, as far as eye could reach, twinkling sparks of light showed how the tidings were being carried north into Berkshire and eastward into Sussex. Of these fires, some were composed of faggots piled into heaps, and others of tar barrels set upon poles. We passed one of these last just opposite to Portchester, and the watchers around it, hearing the tramp of our horses and the clank of our arms, set up a loud huzza, thinking doubtless that we were King’s officers bound for the West.

Master Decimus Saxon had flung to the winds the precise demeanour which he had assumed in the presence of my father, and rattled away with many a jest and scrap of rhyme or song as we galloped through the darkness.

‘Gadzooks!’ said he frankly, ‘it is good to be able to speak freely without being expected to tag every sentence with a hallelujah or an amen.’

‘You were ever the leader in those pious exercises,’ I remarked drily.

‘Aye, indeed. You have nicked it there! If a thing must be done, then take a lead in it, whatever it may be. A plaguy good precept, which has stood me in excellent stead before now. I cannot bear in mind whether I told you how I was at one time taken prisoner by the Turks and conveyed to Stamboul. There were a hundred of us or more, but the others either perished under the bastinado, or are to this day chained to an oar in the Imperial Ottoman galleys, where they are like to remain until they die under the lash, or until some Venetian or Genoese bullet finds its way into their wretched carcasses. I alone came off with my freedom.’

‘And pray, how did you make your escape?’ I asked.

‘By the use of the wit wherewith Providence hath endowed me,’ he answered complacently; ‘for, seeing that their accursed religion is the blind side of these infidels, I did set myself to work upon it. To this end I observed the fashion in which our guard performed their morning and evening exercises, and having transformed my doublet into a praying cloth, I did imitate them, save only that I prayed at greater length and with more fervour.’

‘What!’ I cried in horror. ‘You did pretend to be a Mussulman?’

‘Nay, there was no pretence. I became a Mussulman. That, however, betwixt ourselves, as it might not stand me in very good stead with some Reverend Aminadab Fount-of-Grace in the rebel camp, who is no admirer of Mahmoud.’

I was so astounded at the impudence of this confession, coming from the mouth of one who had been leading the exercises of a pious Christian family, that I was fairly bereft of speech. Decimus Saxon whistled a few bars of a sprightly tune, and then continued —

‘My perseverance in these exercises soon led to my being singled out from among the other prisoners, until I so prevailed upon my gaolers that the doors were opened for me, and I was allowed out on condition of presenting myself at the prison gates once a day. What use, think ye, did I make of my freedom?’

‘Nay, you are capable of anything,’ said I.

‘I set off forthwith to their chief mosque — that of St. Sophia. When the doors opened and the muezzin called, I was ever the first to hurry into devotions and the last to leave them. Did I see a Mussulman strike his head upon the pavement, I would strike mine twice. Did I see him bend and bow, I was ready to prostrate myself. In this way ere long the piety of the converted Giaour became the talk of the city, and I was provided with a hut in which to make my sacred meditations. Here I might have done well, and indeed I had well-nigh made up my mind to set up as a prophet and write an extra chapter to the Koran, when some foolish trifle made the faithful suspicious of my honesty. It was but some nonsense of a wench being found in my hut by some who came to consult me upon a point of faith, but it was enough to set their heathen tongues wagging; so I thought it wisest to give them the slip in a Levantine coaster and leave the Koran uncompleted. It is perhaps as well, for it would be a sore trial to have to give up Christian women and pork, for their garlic-breathing houris and accursed kybobs of sheep’s flesh.’

We had passed through Fareham and Botley during this conversation, and were now making our way down the Bishopstoke road. The soil changes about here from chalk to sand, so that our horses’ hoofs did but make a dull subdued rattle, which was no bar to our talk — or rather to my companion’s, for I did little more than listen. In truth, my mind was so full of anticipations of what was before us, and of thoughts of the home behind, that I was in no humour for sprightly chatter. The sky was somewhat clouded, but the moon glinted out between the rifts, showing us the long road which wound away in front of us. On either side were scattered houses with gardens sloping down toward the road. The heavy, sickly scent of strawberries was in the air.

‘Hast ever slain a man in anger?’ asked Saxon, as we galloped along.

‘Never,’ I answered.

‘Ha! You will find that when you hear the clink of steel against steel, and see your foeman’s eyes, you will straightway forget all rules, maxims, and precepts of the fence which your father or others may have taught you.’

‘I have learned little of the sort,’ said I. My father did but teach me to strike an honest downright blow. This sword can shear through a square inch of iron bar.’

‘Scanderbeg’s sword must have Scanderbeg’s arm,’ he remarked. ‘I have observed that it is a fine piece of steel. One of the real old text-compellers and psalm-expounders which the faithful drew in the days of yore, when they would:

“Prove their religion orthodox,
By Apostolic blows and knocks.”

You have not fenced much, then?’

‘Scarce at all,’ said I.

‘It is as well. With an old and tried swordsman like myself, knowledge of the use of his weapon is everything; but with a young Hotspur of your temper, strength and energy go for much. I have oft remarked that those who are most skilled at the shooting of the popinjay, the cleaving of the Turk’s head, and other such sports, are ever laggards in the field. Had the popinjay a crossbow as well, and an arrow on the string, or had the Turk a fist as well as a head, our young gallant’s nerves would scarce be as steady over the business. I make no doubt, Master Clarke, that we shall make trusty comrades. What saith old Butler?

“Never did trusty squire with knight,
Or knight with squire ere jump more right.”

I have scarce dared to quote “Hudibras” for these weeks past, lest I should set the Covenant fermenting in the old man’s veins.’

‘If we are indeed to be comrades,’ said I sternly, ‘you must learn to speak with more reverence and less flippancy of my father, who would assuredly never have harboured you had he heard the tale which you have told me even now.’

‘Belike not,’ the adventurer answered, chuckling to himself. ‘It is a long stride from a mosque to a conventicle. But be not so hot-headed, my friend. You lack that repose of character which will come to you, no doubt, in your more mature years. What, man! within five minutes of seeing me you would have smitten me on the head with an oar, and ever since you have been like a bandog at my heels, ready to hark if I do but set my foot over what you regard as the straight line. Remember that you go now among men who fight on small occasion of quarrel. A word awry may mean a rapier thrust.’

‘Do you bear the same in mind,’ I answered hotly; ‘my temper is peaceful, but covert threats and veiled menace I shall not abide.’

‘Odd’s mercy!’ he cried. ‘I see that you will start carving me anon, and take me to Monmouth’s camp in sections. Nay, nay, we shall have fighting enow without falling out among ourselves. What houses are those on the left?’

‘The village of Swathling,’ I replied. ‘The lights of Bishopstoke lie to the right, in the hollow.’

‘Then we are fifteen miles on our way, and methinks there is already some faint flush of dawn in the east. Hullo, what have we here? Beds must be scarce if folks sleep on the highways.’

A dark blur which I had remarked upon the roadway in front of us had resolved itself as we approached into the figure of a man, stretched at full length, with his face downwards, and his head resting upon his crossed arms.

‘Some reveler, mayhap, from the village inn,’ I remarked.

‘There’s blood in the air,’ said Saxon, raising up his beak-like nose like a vulture which scents carrion. ‘Methinks he sleeps the sleep which knows no waking.’

He sprang down from his saddle, and turned the figure over upon his back. The cold pale light of the early dawn shimmering upon his staring eyes and colourless face showed that the old soldier’s instinct was correct, and that he had indeed drawn his last breath.

‘Here’s a pretty piece of work,’ said Saxon, kneeling by the dead man’s side and passing his hands over his pockets. ‘Footpads, doubtless. Not a stiver in his pockets, nor as much as a sleeve-link to help pay for the burial.’

‘How was he slain!’ I asked in horror, looking down at the poor vacant face, the empty house from which the tenant had departed.

‘A stab from behind and a tap on the head from the butt of a pistol. He cannot have been dead long, and yet every groat is gone. A man of position, too, I should judge from his dress — broadcloth coat by the feel, satin breeches, and silver buckles on his shoes. The rogues must have had some plunder with him. Could we but run across them, Clarke, it would be a great and grand thing.’

‘It would indeed,’ said I heartily. ‘What greater privilege than to execute justice upon such cowardly murderers!’

‘Pooh! pooh!’ he cried. ‘Justice is a slippery dame, and hath a two-edged sword in her hand. We may have enough of justice in our character as rebels to give us a surfeit of it. I would fain overtake these robbers that we may relieve them of their spolia opima, together with any other wealth which they may have unlawfully amassed. My learned friend the Fleming layeth it down that it is no robbery to rob a robber. But where shall we conceal this body?’

‘Wherefore should we conceal it?’ I asked.

‘Why, man, unused to war or the precautions of a warrior, you must yet see that should this body be found here, there will be a hue and cry through the country, and that strangers like ourselves will be arrested on suspicion. Should we clear ourselves, which is no very easy matter, the justice will at least want to know whence we come and whither we go, which may lead to inquiries that may bode us little good. I shall therefore take the liberty, mine unknown and silent friend, of dragging you into yon bushes, where for a day or two at least you are like to lie unobserved, and so bring no harm upon honest men.’

‘For God’s sake do not treat it so unkindly,’ I cried, springing down from my horse and laying my hand upon my companion’s arm. ‘There is no need to trail it in so unseemly a fashion. If it must be moved hence, I shall carry it with all due reverence. ‘So saying, I picked the body up in my arms, and bearing it to a wayside clump of yellow gorse bushes, I laid it solemnly down and drew the branches over it to conceal it.

‘You have the thews of an ox and the heart of a woman, ‘muttered my companion. ‘By the Mass, that old white-headed psalm-singer was right; for if my memory serves me, he said words to that effect. A few handfuls of dust will hide the stains. Now we may jog upon our way without any fear of being called upon to answer for another man’s sins. Let me but get my girth tightened and we may soon be out of danger’s way.’

‘I have had to do,’ said Saxon, as we rode onwards, ‘with many gentry of this sort, with Albanian brigands, the banditti of Piedmont, the Lanzknechte and Freiritter of the Rhine, Algerine picaroons, and other such folk. Yet I cannot call to mind one who hath ever been able to retire in his old age on a sufficient competence. It is but a precarious trade, and must end sooner or later in a dance on nothing in a tight cravat, with some kind friend tugging at your legs to ease you of any breath that you might have left.’

‘Nor does that end all,’ I remarked.

‘No. There is Tophet behind and the flames of hell. So our good friends the parsons tell us. Well, if a man is to make no money in this world, be hanged at the end of it, and finally burn for ever, he hath assuredly wandered on to a thorny track. If, on the other hand, one could always lay one’s hands on a well-lined purse, as those rogues have done to-night, one might be content to risk something in the world to come.’

‘But what can the well-filled purse do for them?’ said I. ‘What will the few score pieces which these bloodthirsty wretches have filched from this poor creature avail them when their own hour of death comes round?’

‘True,’ said Saxon dryly; ‘they may, however, prove useful in the meantime. This you say is Bishopstoke. What are the lights over yonder?’

‘They come, I think, from Bishop’s Waltham,’ I answered.

‘We must press on, for I would fain be in Salisbury before it is broad day. There we shall put our horses up until evening and have some rest, for there is nothing gained by man or beast coming jaded to the wars. All this day the western roads will be crowded with couriers, and mayhap patrolled by cavalry as well, so that we cannot show our faces upon it without a risk of being stopped and examined. Now if we lie by all day, and push on at dusk, keeping off the main road and making our way across Salisbury Plain and the Somersetshire downs, we shall be less likely to come to harm.’

‘But what if Monmouth be engaged before we come up to him?’ I asked.

‘Then we shall have missed a chance of getting our throats cut. Why, man, supposing that he has been routed and entirely dispersed, would it not be a merry conceit for us to appear upon the scene as two loyal yeomen, who had ridden all the way from Hampshire to strike in against the King’s enemies? We might chance to get some reward in money or in land for our zeal. Nay, frown not, for I was but jesting. Breathe our horses by walking them up this hill. My jennet is as fresh as when we started, but those great limbs of thine are telling upon the grey.’

The patch of light in the east had increased and broadened, and the sky was mottled with little pink feathers of cloud. As we passed over the low hills by Chandler’s Ford and Romsey we could see the smoke of Southampton to the south-east, and the broad dark expanse of the New Forest with the haze of morning hanging over it. A few horsemen passed us, pricking along, too much engrossed in their own errand to inquire ours. A couple of carts and a long string of pack-horses, laden principally with bales of wool, came straggling along a byroad, and the drivers waved their broad hats to us and wished us God-speed. At Dunbridge the folk were just stirring, and paused in taking down the cottage shutters to come to the garden railings and watch us pass. As we entered Dean, the great red sun pushed its rosy rim over the edge of the horizon, and the air was filled with the buzz of insects and the sweet scent of the morning. We dismounted at this latter village, and had a cup of ale while resting and watering the horses. The landlord could tell us nothing about the insurgents, and indeed seemed to care very little about the matter one way or the other. ‘As long as brandy pays a duty of six shillings and eightpence a gallon, and freight and leakage comes to half a crown, while I am expected to sell it at twelve shillings, it matters little to me who is King of England. Give me a king that will prevent the hop-blight and I am his man.’ Those were the landlord’s politics, and I dare say a good many more were of his way of thinking.

From Dean to Salisbury is all straight road with moor, morass, and fenland on either side, broken only by the single hamlet of Aldersbury, just over the Wiltshire border. Our horses, refreshed by the short rest, stepped out gallantly, and the brisk motion, with the sunlight and the beauty of the morning, combined to raise our spirits and cheer us after the depression of the long ride through the darkness, and the incident of the murdered traveller. Wild duck, widgeon, and snipe flapped up from either side of the road at the sound of the horses’ hoofs, and once a herd of red deer sprang to their feet from among the ferns and scampered away in the direction of the forest. Once, too, when passing a dense clump of trees, we saw a shadowy white creature half hidden by the trunks, which must, I fancy, have been one of those wild cattle of which I have heard the peasants speak, who dwell in the recesses of the southern woods, and are so fierce and intractable that none dare approach them. The breadth of the view, the keenness of the air, and the novelty of the sense of having great work to do, all combined to send a flush of life through my veins such as the quiet village existence had never been able to give. My more experienced companion felt the influence too, for he lifted up a cracked voice and broke into a droning chant, which he assured me was an Eastern ode which had been taught him by the second sister of the Hospodar of Wallachia.

‘Anent Monmouth,’ he remarked, coming back suddenly to the realities of our position. ‘It is unlikely that he can take the field for some days, though much depends upon his striking a blow soon, and so raising the courage of his followers before the King’s troops can come down upon him. He has, mark ye, not only his troops to find, but their weapons, which is like to prove a more difficult matter. Suppose he can raise five thousand men — and he cannot stir with less — he will not have one musket in five, so the rest must do as they can with pikes and bills, or such other rude arms as they can find. All this takes time, and though there may be skirmishes, there can scarce be any engagement of import before we arrive.’

‘He will have been landed three or four days ere we reach him,’ said I.

‘Hardly time for him with his small staff of officers to enrol his men and divide them into regiments. I scarce expect to find him at Taunton, though we were so directed. Hast ever heard whether there are any rich Papists in those parts?’

‘I know not,’ I replied.

‘If so there might be plate chests and silver chargers, to say nothing of my lady’s jewels and other such trifles to reward a faithful soldier. What would war be without plunder! A bottle without the wine — a shell without the oyster. See the house yonder that peeps through the trees. I warrant there is a store of all good things under that roof, which you and I might have for the asking, did we but ask with our swords in our grip. You are my witness that your father did give and not lend me this horse.’

‘Why say you that, then?’

‘Lest he claim a half of whatever booty I may chance to gain. What saith my learned Fleming under the heading “an qui militi equum praebuit, praedae ab eo captae particeps esse debeat?” which signifieth “whether he who lendeth a horse hath a claim on the plunder of him who borroweth it.” In this discourse he cites a case wherein a Spanish commander having lent a steed to one of his captains, and the said captain having captured the general of the enemy, the commander did sue him for a half share of the twenty thousand crowns which formed the ransom of the prisoner. A like case is noted by the famous Petrinus Bellus in his book “De Re Militari,” much read by leaders of repute.’ [Note C. Appendix.]

‘I can promise you,’ I answered, ‘that no such claim shall ever be made by my father upon you. See yonder, over the brow of the hill, how the sun shines upon the high cathedral tower, which points upwards with its great stone finger to the road that every man must travel.’

‘There is good store of silver and plate in these same churches,’ quoth my companion. ‘I remember that at Leipsic, when I was serving my first campaign, I got a candlestick, which I was forced to sell to a Jew broker for a fourth of its value; yet even at his price it sufficed to fill my haversack with broad pieces.’

It chanced that Saxon’s mare had gained a stride or two upon mine whilst he spoke, so that I was able to get a good view of him without turning my head. I had scarce had light during our ride to see how his harness sat upon him, but now I was amazed on looking at him to mark the change which it had wrought in the man. In his civil dress his lankiness and length of limb gave him an awkward appearance, but on horse-back, with his lean, gaunt face looking out from his steel cap, his breastplate and buff jacket filling out his figure, and his high boots of untanned leather reaching to the centre of his thighs, he looked the veteran man-at-arms which he purported to be. The ease with which he sat his horse, the high, bold expression upon his face, and the great length of his arms, all marked him as one who could give a good account of himself in a fray. In his words alone I could have placed little trust, but there was that in his bearing which assured even a novice like myself that he was indeed a trained man of war.

‘That is the Avon which glitters amongst the trees,’ I remarked. ‘We are about three miles from Salisbury town.’

‘It is a noble spire,’ said he, glancing at the great stone spire in front of us. ‘The men of old would seem to have spent all their days in piling stones upon stones. And yet we read of tough battles and shrewd blows struck, showing that they had some time for soldierly relaxation, and were not always at this mason work.’

‘The Church was rich in those days,’ I answered, shaking my bridle, for Covenant was beginning to show signs of laziness. ‘But here comes one who might perhaps tell us something of the war.’

A horseman who bore traces of having ridden long and hard was rapidly approaching us. Both rider and steed were grey with dust and splashed with mire, yet he galloped with loosened rein and bent body, as one to whom every extra stride is of value.

‘What ho, friend!’ cried Saxon, reining his mare across the road so as to bar the man’s passage. ‘What news from the West?’

‘I must not tarry,’ the messenger gasped, slackening his speed for an instant. ‘I bear papers of import from Gregory Alford, Mayor of Lyme, to Ins Majesty’s Council. The rebels make great head, and gather together like bees in the swarming time. There are some thousands in arms already, and all Devonshire is on the move. The rebel horse under Lord Grey hath been beaten back from Bridport by the red militia of Dorset, but every prickeared Whig from the Channel to the Severn is making his way to Monmouth.’ With this brief summary of the news he pushed his way past us and clattered on in a cloud of dust upon his mission.

‘The broth is fairly on the fire, then,’ quoth Decimus Saxon, as we rode onwards. ‘Now that skins have been slit the rebels may draw their swords and fling away their scabbards, for it’s either victory for them or their quarters will be dangling in every market town of the county. Heh, lad? we throw a main for a brave stake.’

‘Marked ye that Lord Grey had met with a check,’ said I.

‘Pshaw! it is of no import. A cavalry skirmish at the most, for it is impossible that Monmouth could have brought his main forces to Bridport; nor would he if he could, for it is out of his track. It was one of those three-shots-and-a-gallop affrays, where each side runs away and each claims the victory. But here we are in the streets of Salisbury. Now leave the talking to me, or your wrong-headed truthfulness may lay us by the heels before our time.’

Passing down the broad High Street we dismounted in front of the Blue Boar inn, and handed our tired horses over to the ostler, to whom Saxon, in a loud voice, and with many rough military oaths, gave strict injunctions as to their treatment. He then clanked into the inn parlour, and throwing himself into one chair with his feet upon another, he summoned the landlord up before him, and explained our needs in a tone and manner which should give him a due sense of our quality.

‘Of your best, and at once,’ quoth he. ‘Have your largest double-couched chamber ready with your softest lavender-scented sheets, for we have had a weary ride and must rest. And hark ye, landlord, no palming off your stale, musty goods as fresh, or of your washy French wines for the true Hainault vintage. I would have you to understand that my friend here and I are men who meet with some consideration in the world, though we care not to speak our names to every underling. Deserve well of us, therefore, or it may be the worse for you.’

This speech, combined with my companion’s haughty manner and fierce face, had such an effect upon the landlord that he straightway sent us in the breakfast which had been prepared for three officers of the Blues, who were waiting for it in the next apartment. This kept them fasting for another half-hour, and we could hear their oaths and complaints through the partition while we were devouring their capon and venison pie. Having eaten a hearty meal and washed it down with a bottle of Burgundy we sought our room, and throwing our tired limbs upon the bed, were soon in a deep slumber.

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