Peveril of the Peak, by Walter Scott

Chapter 42

—— On fair ground

I could beat forty of them!

CORIOLANUS.

It doubtless occurred to many that were present at the trial we have described, that it was managed in a singular manner, and that the quarrel, which had the appearance of having taken place between the Court and the Crown Counsel, might proceed from some private understanding betwixt them, the object of which was the miscarriage of the accusation. Yet though such underhand dealing was much suspected, the greater part of the audience, being well educated and intelligent, had already suspected the bubble of the Popish Plot, and were glad to see that accusations, founded on what had already cost so much blood, could be evaded in any way. But the crowd, who waited in the Court of Requests, and in the hall, and without doors, viewed in a very different light the combination, as they interpreted it, between the Judge and the Attorney-General, for the escape of the prisoners.

Oates, whom less provocation than he had that day received often induced to behave like one frantic with passion, threw himself amongst the crowd, and repeated till he was hoarse, “Theay are stoifling the Plaat! — theay are straangling the Plaat! — My Laard Justice and Maaster Attarney are in league to secure the escape of the plaaters and Paapists!”

“It is the device of the Papist whore of Portsmouth,” said one.

“Of old Rowley himself,” said another.

“If he could be murdered by himself, why hang those that would hinder it!” exclaimed a third.

“He should be tried,” said a fourth, “for conspiring his own death, and hanged in terrorem.”

In the meanwhile, Sir Geoffrey, his son, and their little companion, left the hall, intending to go to Lady Peveril’s lodgings, which had been removed to Fleet Street. She had been relieved from considerable inconvenience, as Sir Geoffrey gave Julian hastily to understand, by an angel, in the shape of a young friend, and she now expected them doubtless with impatience. Humanity, and some indistinct idea of having unintentionally hurt the feelings of the poor dwarf, induced the honest Cavalier to ask this unprotected being to go with them. “He knew Lady Peveril’s lodgings were but small,” he said; “but it would be strange, if there was not some cupboard large enough to accommodate the little gentleman.”

The dwarf registered this well-meant remark in his mind, to be the subject of a proper explanation, along with the unhappy reminiscence of the trencher-hornpipe, whenever time should permit an argument of such nicety.

And thus they sallied from the hall, attracting general observation, both from the circumstances in which they had stood so lately, and from their resemblance, as a wag of the Inner Temple expressed it, to the three degrees of comparison, Large, Lesser, Least. But they had not passed far along the street, when Julian perceived that more malevolent passions than mere curiosity began to actuate the crowd which followed, and, as it were, dogged their motions.

“There go the Papist cut-throats, tantivy for Rome!” said one fellow.

“Tantivy to Whitehall, you mean!” said another.

“Ah! the bloodthirsty villains!” cried a woman: “Shame, one of them should be suffered to live, after poor Sir Edmondsbury’s cruel murder.”

“Out upon the mealy-mouthed Jury, that turned out the bloodhounds on an innocent town!” cried a fourth.

In short, the tumult thickened, and the word began to pass among the more desperate, “Lambe them, lads; lambe them!”— a cant phrase of the time, derived from the fate of Dr. Lambe, an astrologer and quack, who was knocked on the head by the rabble in Charles the First’s time.

Julian began to be much alarmed at these symptoms of violence, and regretted that they had not gone down to the city by water. It was now too late to think of that mode of retreating, and he therefore requested his father in a whisper, to walk steadily forward towards Charing Cross, taking no notice of the insults which might be cast upon them, while the steadiness of their pace and appearance might prevent the rabble from resorting to actual violence. The execution of this prudent resolution was prevented after they had passed the palace, by the hasty disposition of the elder Sir Geoffrey, and the no less choleric temper of Galfridus Minimus, who had a soul which spurned all odds, as well of numbers as of size.

“Now a murrain take the knaves, with their hollowing and whooping,” said the large knight; “by this day, if I could but light on a weapon, I would cudgel reason and loyalty into some of their carcasses!”

“And I also,” said the dwarf, who was toiling to keep up with the longer strides of his companions, and therefore spoke in a very phthisical tone. —“I also will cudgel the plebeian knaves beyond measure — he! — hem!”

Among the crowd who thronged around them, impeded, and did all but assault them, was a mischievous shoemaker’s apprentice, who, hearing this unlucky vaunt of the valorous dwarf, repaid it by flapping him on the head with a boot which he was carrying home to the owner, so as to knock the little gentleman’s hat over his eyes. The dwarf, thus rendered unable to discover the urchin that had given him the offence, flew with instinctive ambition against the biggest fellow in the crowd, who received the onset with a kick on the stomach, which made the poor little champion reel back to his companions. They were now assaulted on all sides; but fortune complying with the wish of Sir Geoffrey the larger, ordained that the scuffle should happen near the booth of a cutler, from amongst whose wares, as they stood exposed to the public, Sir Geoffrey Peveril snatched a broadsword, which he brandished with the formidable address of one who had for many a day been in the familiar practice of using such a weapon. Julian, while at the same time he called loudly for a peace-officer, and reminded the assailants that they were attacking inoffensive passengers, saw nothing better for it than to imitate his father’s example, and seized also one of the weapons thus opportunely offered.

When they displayed these demonstrations of defence, the rush which the rabble at first made towards them was so great as to throw down the unfortunate dwarf, who would have been trampled to death in the scuffle, had not his stout old namesake cleared the rascal crowd from about him with a few flourishes of his weapon, and seizing on the fallen champion, put him out of danger (except from missiles), by suddenly placing him on the bulk-head, that is to say, the flat wooden roof of the cutler’s projecting booth. From the rusty ironware, which was displayed there, the dwarf instantly snatched an old rapier and target, and covering himself with the one, stood making passes with the other, at the faces and eyes of the people in the street; so much delighted with his post of vantage, that he called loudly to his friends who were skirmishing with the riotous on more equal terms as to position, to lose no time in putting themselves under his protection. But far from being in a situation to need his assistance, the father and son might easily have extricated themselves from the rabble by their own exertions, could they have thought of leaving the mannikin in the forlorn situation, in which, to every eye but his own, he stood like a diminutive puppet, tricked out with sword and target as a fencing-master’s sign.

Stones and sticks began now to fly very thick, and the crowd, notwithstanding the exertions of the Peverils to disperse them with as little harm as possible, seemed determined on mischief, when some gentlemen who had been at the trial, understanding that the prisoners who had been just acquitted were in danger of being murdered by the populace, drew their swords, and made forward to effect their rescue, which was completed by a small party of the King’s Life Guards, who had been despatched from their ordinary post of alarm, upon intelligence of what was passing. When this unexpected reinforcement arrived, the old jolly Knight at once recognised, amidst the cries of those who then entered upon action, some of the sounds which had animated his more active years.

“Where be these cuckoldly Roundheads,” cried some. —“Down with the sneaking knaves!” cried others. —“The King and his friends, and the devil a one else!” exclaimed a third set, with more oaths and d — n me’s, than, in the present more correct age, it is necessary to commit to paper.

The old soldier, pricking up his ears like an ancient hunter at the cry of the hounds, would gladly have scoured the Strand, with the charitable purpose, now he saw himself so well supported, of knocking the London knaves, who had insulted him, into twiggen bottles; but he was withheld by the prudence of Julian, who, though himself extremely irritated by the unprovoked ill-usage which they had received, saw himself in a situation in which it was necessary to exercise more caution than vengeance. He prayed and pressed his father to seek some temporary place of retreat from the fury of the populace, while that prudent measure was yet in their power. The subaltern officer, who commanded the party of the Life Guards, exhorted the old Cavalier eagerly to the same sage counsel, using, as a spice of compulsion, the name of the King; while Julian strongly urged that of his mother. The old Knight looked at his blade, crimsoned with cross-cuts and slashes which he had given to the most forward of the assailants, with the eye of one not half sufficed.

“I would I had pinked one of the knaves at least — but I know not how it was, when I looked on their broad round English faces, I shunned to use my point, and only sliced the rogues a little.”

“But the King’s pleasure,” said the officer, “is, that no tumult be prosecuted.”

“My mother,” said Julian, “will die with fright, if the rumour of this scuffle reaches her ere we see her.”

“Ay, ay,” said the Knight, “the King’s Majesty and my good dame — well, their pleasure be done, that’s all I can say — Kings and ladies must be obeyed. But which way to retreat, since retreat we must?”

Julian would have been at some loss to advise what course to take, for everybody in the vicinity had shut up their shops, and chained their doors, upon observing the confusion become so formidable. The poor cutler, however, with whose goods they made so free, offered them an asylum on the part of his landlord, whose house served as a rest for his shop, and only intimated gently, he hoped the gentleman would consider him for the use of his weapons.

Julian was hastily revolving whether they ought, in prudence, to accept this man’s invitation, aware, by experience, how many trepans, as they were then termed, were used betwixt two contending factions, each too inveterate to be very scrupulous of the character of fair play to an enemy, when the dwarf, exerting his cracked voice to the uttermost, and shrieking like an exhausted herald, from the exalted station which he still occupied on the bulk-head, exhorted them to accept the offer of the worthy man of the mansion. “He himself,” he said, as he reposed himself after the glorious conquest in which he had some share, “had been favoured with a beatific vision, too splendid to be described to common and mere mortal ears, but which had commanded him, in a voice to which his heart had bounded as to a trumpet sound, to take refuge with the worthy person of the house, and cause his friends to do so.”

“Vision!” said the Knight of the Peak — “sound of a trumpet! — the little man is stark mad.”

But the cutler, in great haste, intimated to them that their little friend had received an intimation from a gentlewoman of his acquaintance, who spoke to him from the window, while he stood on the bulk-head, that they would find a safe retreat in his landlord’s; and desiring them to attend to two or three deep though distant huzzas, made them aware that the rabble were up still, and would soon be upon them with renewed violence, and increased numbers.

The father and son, therefore, hastily thanked the officer and his party, as well as the other gentlemen who had volunteered in their assistance, lifted little Sir Geoffrey Hudson from the conspicuous post which he had so creditably occupied during the skirmish, and followed the footsteps of the tenant of the booth, who conducted them down a blind alley and through one or two courts, in case, as he said, any one might have watched where they burrowed, and so into a back-door. This entrance admitted them to a staircase carefully hung with straw mats to exclude damp, from the upper step of which they entered upon a tolerably large withdrawing-room, hung with coarse green serge edged with gilded leather, which the poorer or more economical citizens at that time use instead of tapestry or wainscoting.

Here the poor cutler received from Julian such a gratuity for the loan of the swords, that he generously abandoned the property to the gentlemen who had used them so well; “the rather,” he said, “that he saw, by the way they handed their weapons, that they were men of mettle, and tall fellows.”

Here the dwarf smiled on him courteously, and bowed, thrusting at the same time, his hand into his pocket, which however, he withdrew carelessly probably because he found he had not the means of making the small donation which he had meditated.

The cutler proceeded to say, as he bowed and was about to withdraw, that he saw there would be merry days yet in Old England, and that Bilboa blades would fetch as good a price as ever. “I remember,” he said, “gentlemen, though I was then but a ‘prentice, the demand for weapons in the years forty-one and forty-two; sword blades were more in request than toothpicks, and Old Ironsides, my master, took more for rascally Provant rapiers, than I dare ask nowadays for a Toledo. But, to be sure, a man’s life then rested on the blade he carried; the Cavaliers and Roundheads fought every day at the gates of Whitehall, as it is like, gentlemen, by your good example, they may do again, when I shall be enabled to leave my pitiful booth, and open a shop of better quality. I hope you will recommend me, gentlemen, to your friends. I am always provided with ware which a gentleman may risk his life on.”

“Thank you, good friend,” said Julian, “I prithee begone. I trust we shall need thy ware no more for some time at least.”

The cutler retired, while the dwarf hollowed after him downstairs, that he would call on him soon, and equip himself with a longer blade, and one more proper for action; although, he said, the little weapon he had did well enough for a walking-sword, or in a skirmish with such canaille as they had been engaged with.

The cutler returned at this summons, and agreed to pleasure the little man with a weapon more suitable to his magnanimity; then, as if the thought had suddenly occurred to him, he said, “But, gentlemen, it will be wild work to walk with your naked swords through the Strand, and it can scarce fail to raise the rabble again. If you please, while you repose yourselves here, I can fit the blades with sheaths.”

The proposal seemed so reasonable, that Julian and his father gave up their weapons to the friendly cutler, an example which the dwarf followed, after a moment’s hesitation, not caring, as he magnificently expressed it, to part so soon with the trusty friend which fortune had but the moment before restored to his hand. The man retired with the weapons under his arm; and, in shutting the door behind him, they heard him turn the key.

“Did you hear that?” said Sir Geoffrey to his son —“and we are disarmed!”

Julian, without reply, examined the door, which was fast secured; and then looked at the casements, which were at a storey’s height from the ground, and grated besides with iron. “I cannot think,” he said, after a moment’s pause, “that the fellow means to trepan us; and, in any event, I trust we should have no difficulty in forcing the door, or otherwise making escape. But, before resorting to such violent measures, I think it is better to give the rabble leisure to disperse, by waiting this man’s return with our weapons within a reasonable time, when, if he does not appear, I trust we shall find little difficulty in extricating ourselves.” As he spoke thus, the hangings were pulled aside, and from a small door which was concealed behind them, Major Bridgenorth entered the room.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29