‘Take down this fellow’s statement,’ said the Duke to his scrivener. ‘Now, sirrah, it may not be known to you that his gracious Majesty the King hath conferred plenary powers upon me during these troubled times, and that I have his warrant to deal with all traitors without either jury or judge. You do bear a commission, I understand, in the rebellious body which is here described as Saxon’s regiment of Wiltshire Foot? Speak the truth for your neck’s sake.’
‘I will speak the truth for the sake of something higher than that, your Grace,’ I answered. ‘I command a company in that regiment.’
‘And who is this Saxon?’
‘I will answer all that I may concerning myself,’ said I, ‘but not a word which may reflect upon others.’
‘Ha!’ he roared, hot with anger. ‘Our pretty gentleman must needs stand upon the niceties of honour after taking up arms against his King. I tell you, sir, that your honour is in such a parlous state already that you may well throw it over and look to your safety. The sun is sinking in the west. Ere it set your life, too, may have set for ever.’
‘I am the keeper of my own honour, your Grace,’ I answered. ‘As to my life, I should not be standing here this moment if I had any great dread of losing it. It is right that I should tell you that my Colonel hath sworn to exact a return for any evil that may befall me, on you or any of your household who may come into his power. This I say, not as a threat, but as a warning, for I know him to be a man who is like to be as good as his word.’
‘Your Colonel, as you call him, may find it hard enough to save himself soon,’ the Duke answered with a sneer. ‘How many men hath Monmouth with him?’
I smiled and shook my head.
‘How shall we make this traitor find his tongue?’ he asked furiously, turning to his council.
‘I should clap on the thumbikins,’ said one fierce-faced old soldier.
‘I have known a lighted match between the fingers work wonders,’ another suggested. ‘Sir Thomas Dalzell hath in the Scottish war been able to win over several of that most stubborn and hardened race, the Western Covenanters, by such persuasion.’
‘Sir Thomas Dalzell,’ said a grey-haired gentleman, clad in black velvet, ‘hath studied the art of war among the Muscovites, in their barbarous and bloody encounters with the Turks. God forbid that we Christians of England should seek our examples among the skin-clad idolaters of a savage country.’
‘Sir William would like to see war carried out on truly courteous principles,’ said the first speaker. ‘A battle should be like a stately minuet, with no loss of dignity or of etiquette.’
‘Sir,’ the other answered hotly, ‘I have been in battles when you were in your baby-linen, and I handled a battoon when you could scarce shake a rattle. In leaguer or onfall a soldier’s work is sharp and stern, but I say that the use of torture, which the law of England hath abolished, should also be laid aside by the law of nations.’
‘Enough, gentlemen, enough!’ cried the Duke, seeing that the dispute was like to wax warm. ‘Your opinion, Sir William, hath much weight with us, and yours also, Colonel Hearn. We shall discuss this at greater length in privacy. Halberdiers, remove the prisoner, and let a clergyman be sent to look to his spiritual needs!’
‘Shall we take him to the strong room, your Grace?’ asked the Captain of the guard.
‘No, to the old Boteler dungeon,’ he replied; and I heard the next name upon the list called out, while I was led through a side door with a guard in front and behind me. We passed through endless passages and corridors, with heavy stop and clank of arms, until we reached the ancient wing. Here, in the corner turret, was a small, bare room, mouldy and damp, with a high, arched roof, and a single long slit in the outer wall to admit light. A small wooden couch and a rude chair formed the whole of the furniture. Into this I was shown by the Captain, who stationed a guard at the door, and then came in after me and loosened my wrists. He was a sad-faced man, with solemn sunken eyes and a dreary expression, which matched ill with his bright trappings and gay sword-knot.
‘Keep your heart up, friend,’ said he, in a hollow voice. ‘It is but a choke and a struggle. A day or two since we had the same job to do, and the man scarcely groaned. Old Spender, the Duke’s marshal, hath as sure a trick of tying and as good judgment in arranging a drop as hath Dun of Tyburn. Be of good heart, therefore, for you shall not fall into the hands of a bungler,’
‘I would that I could let Monmouth know that his letters were delivered,’ I exclaimed, seating myself on the side of the bed.
‘I’ faith, they were delivered. Had you been the penny postman of Mr. Robert Murray, of whom we heard so much in London last spring, you could not have handed it in more directly. Why did you not talk the Duke fair? He is a gracious nobleman, and kind of heart, save when he is thwarted or angered. Some little talk as to the rebels’ numbers and dispositions might have saved you.’
‘I wonder that you, as a soldier, should speak or think of such a thing,’ said I coldly.
‘Well, well! Your neck is your own. If it please you to take a leap into nothing it were pity to thwart you. But his Grace commanded that you should have the chaplain. I must away to him.’
‘I prythee do not bring him,’ said I. ‘I am one of a dissenting stock, and I see that there is a Bible in yonder recess. No man can aid me in making my peace with God.’
‘It is well,’ he answered, ‘for Dean Hewby hath come over from Chippenham, and he is discoursing with our good chaplain on the need of self-denial, moistening his throat the while with a flask of the prime Tokay. At dinner I heard him put up thanks for what he was to receive, and in the same breath ask the butler how he dared to serve a deacon of the Church with a pullet without truffle dressing. But, perhaps, you would desire Dean Hewby’s spiritual help? No? Well, what I can do for you in reason shall be done, since you will not be long upon our hands. Above all, keep a cheery heart.’
He left the cell, but presently unlocked the door and pushed his dismal face round the corner. ‘I am Captain Sinclair, of the Duke’s household,’ he said, ‘should you have occasion to ask for me. You had best have spiritual help, for I do assure you that there hath been something worse than either warder or prisoner in this cell.’
‘What then?’ I asked.
‘Why, marry, nothing less than the Devil,’ he answered, coming in and closing the door. ‘It was in this way,’ he went on, sinking his voice: ‘Two years agone Hector Marot, the highwayman, was shut up in this very Boteler dungeon. I was myself on guard in the corridor that night, and saw the prisoner at ten o’clock sitting on that bed even as you are now. At twelve I had occasion to look in, as my custom is, with the hope of cheering his lonely hours, when lo, he was gone! Yes, you may well stare. Mine eyes had never been off the door, and you can judge what chance there was of his getting through the windows. Walls and floor are both solid stone, which might be solid rock for the thickness. When I entered there was a plaguy smell of brimstone, and the flame of my lanthorn burned blue. Nay, it is no smiling matter. If the Devil did not run away with Hector Marot, pray who did? for sure I am that no angel of grace could come to him as to Peter of old. Perchance the Evil One may desire a second bird out of the same cage, and so I tell you this that you may be on your guard against his assaults.’
‘Nay, I fear him not,’ I answered.
‘It is well,’ croaked the Captain. ‘Be not cast down!’ His head vanished, and the key turned in the creaking lock. So thick were the walls that I could hear no sound after the door was closed. Save for the sighing of the wind in the branches of the trees outside the narrow window, all was as silent as the grave within the dungeon.
Thus left to myself I tried to follow Captain Sinclair’s advice as to the keeping up of my heart, though his talk was far from being of a cheering nature. In my young days, more particularly among the sectaries with whom I had been brought most in contact, a belief in the occasional appearance of the Prince of Darkness, and his interference in bodily form with the affairs of men, was widespread and unquestioning. Philosophers in their own quiet chambers may argue learnedly on the absurdity of such things, but in a dim-lit dungeon, cut off from the world, with the grey gloaming creeping down, and one’s own fate hanging in the balance, it becomes a very different matter. The escape, if the Captain’s story were true, appeared to border upon the miraculous. I examined the walls of the cell very carefully. They were formed of great square stones cunningly fitted together. The thin slit or window was cut through the centre of a single large block. All over, as high as the hand could reach, the face of the walls was covered with letters and legends cut by many generations of captives. The floor was composed of old foot-worn slabs, firmly cemented together. The closest search failed to show any hole or cranny where a rat could have escaped, far less a man.
It is a very strange thing, my dears, to sit down in cold blood, and think that the chances are that within a few hours your pulses will have given their last throb, and your soul have sped away upon its final errand. Strange and very awesome! The man who rideth down into the press of the battle with his jaw set and his grip tight upon reign and sword-hilt cannot feel this, for the human mind is such that one emotion will ever push out another. Neither can the man who draws slow and catching breaths upon the bed of deadly sickness be said to have experience of it, for the mind weakened with disease can but submit without examining too closely that which it submits to. When, however, a young and hale man sits alone in quiet, and sees present death hanging over him, he hath such food for thought that, should he survive and live to be grey-headed, his whole life will be marked and altered by those solemn hours, as a stream is changed in its course by some rough bank against which it hath struck. Every little fault and blemish stands out clear in the presence of death, as the dust specks appear when the sunbeam shines into the darkened room. I noted them then, and I have, I trust, noted them ever since.
I was seated with my head bowed upon my breast, deeply buried in this solemn train of thoughts, when I was startled by hearing a sharp click, such as a man might give who wished to attract attention. I sprang to my feet and gazed round in the gathering gloom without being able to tell whence it came. I had well-nigh persuaded myself that my senses had deceived me, when the sound was repeated louder than before, and casting my eyes upwards I saw a face peering in at me through the slit, or part of a face rather, for I could but see the eye and corner of the cheek. Standing on my chair I made out that it was none other than the farmer who had been my companion upon the road.
‘Hush, lad!’ he whispered, with a warning forefinger pushed through the narrow crack. ‘Speak low, or the guard may chance to hear. What can I do for you?’
‘How did you come to know where I was?’ I asked in astonishment.
‘Whoy, mun,’ he answered, ‘I know as much of this ’ere house as Beaufort does himsel’. Afore Badminton was built, me and my brothers has spent many a day in climbing over the old Boteler tower. It’s not the first time that I have spoke through this window. But, quick; what can I do for you?’
‘I am much beholden to you, sir,’ I answered, ‘but I fear that there is no help which you can give me, unless, indeed, you could convey news to my friends in the army of what hath befallen me.’
‘I might do that,’ whispered Farmer Brown. ‘Hark ye in your ear, lad, what I never breathed to man yet. Mine own conscience pricks me at times over this bolstering up of a Papist to rule over a Protestant nation. Let like rule like, say I. At the ‘lections I rode to Sudbury, and I put in my vote for Maister Evans, of Turnford, who was in favour o’ the Exclusionists. Sure enough, if that same Bill had been carried, the Duke would be sitting on his father’s throne. The law would have said yes. Now, it says nay. A wonderful thing is the law with its yea, yea, and nay, nay, like Barclay, the Quaker man, that came down here in a leather suit, and ca’d the parson a steepleman. There’s the law. It’s no use shootin’ at it, or passin’ pikes through it, no, nor chargin’ at it wi’ a troop of horse. If it begins by saying “nay” it will say “nay” to the end of the chapter. Ye might as well fight wi’ the book o’ Genesis. Let Monmouth get the law changed, and it will do more for him than all the dukes in England. For all that he’s a Protestant, and I would do what I might to serve him.’
‘There is a Captain Lockarby, who is serving in Colonel Saxon’s regiment, in Monmouth’s army,’ said I. ‘Should things go wrong with me, I would take it as a great kindness if you would bear him my love, and ask him to break it gently, by word or by letter, to those at Havant. If I were sure that this would be done, it would be a great ease to my mind.’
‘It shall be done, lad,’ said the good farmer. ‘I shall send my best man and fleetest horse this very night, that they may know the straits in which you are. I have a file here if it would help you.’
‘Nay,’ I answered, ‘human aid can do little to help me here.’
‘There used to be a hole in the roof. Look up and see if you can see aught of it.’
‘It arches high above my head,’ I answered, looking upwards; ‘but there is no sign of any opening.’
‘There was one,’ he repeated. ‘My brother Roger hath swung himself down wi’ a rope. In the old time the prisoners were put in so, like Joseph into the pit. The door is but a new thing.’
‘Hole or no hole, it cannot help me,’ I answered. ‘I have no means of climbing to it. Do not wait longer, kind friend, or you may find yourself in trouble.’
‘Good-bye then, my brave heart,’ he whispered, and the honest grey eye and corner of ruddy cheek disappeared from the casement. Many a time during the course of the long evening I glanced up with some wild hope that he might return, and every creak of the branches outside brought me on to the chair, but it was the last that I saw of Farmer Brown.
This kindly visit, short as it was, relieved my mind greatly, for I had a trusty man’s word that, come what might, my friends should, at least, have some news of my fate. It was now quite dark, and I was pacing up and down the little chamber, when the key turned in the door, and the Captain entered with a rushlight and a great bowl of bread and milk.
‘Here is your supper, friend,’ said he. ‘Take it down, appetite or no, for it will give you strength to play the man at the time ye wot of. They say it was beautiful to see my Lord Russell die upon Tower Hill. Be of good cheer! Folk may say as much of you. His Grace is in a terrible way. He walketh up and down, and biteth his lip, and clencheth his hands like one who can scarce contain his wrath. It may not be against you, but I know not what else can have angered him.’
I made no answer to this Job’s comforter, so he presently left me, placing the bowl upon the chair, with the rushlight beside it. I finished the food, and feeling the better for it, stretched myself upon the couch, and fell into a heavy and dreamless sleep. This may have lasted three or four hours, when I was suddenly awoken by a sound like the creaking of hinges. Sitting up on the pallet I gazed around me. The rushlight had burned out and the cell was impenetrably dark. A greyish glimmer at one end showed dimly the position of the aperture, but all else was thick and black. I strained my ears, but no further sound fell upon them. Yet I was certain that I had not been deceived, and that the noise which had aroused me was within my very chamber. I rose and felt my way slowly round the room, passing my hand over the walls and door. Then I paced backwards and forwards to test the flooring. Neither around me nor beneath me was there any change. Whence did the sound come from, then? I sat down upon the side of the bed and waited patiently in the hope of hearing it once again.
Presently it was repeated, a low groaning and creaking as though a door or shutter long disused was being slowly and stealthily opened. At the same time a dull yellow light streamed down from above, issuing from a thin slit in the centre of the arched roof above me. Slowly as I watched it this slit widened and extended as if a sliding panel were being pulled out, until a good-sized hole was left, through which I saw a head, looking down at me, outlined against the misty light behind it. The knotted end of a rope was passed through this aperture, and came dangling down to the dungeon floor. It was a good stout piece of hemp, strong enough to bear the weight of a heavy man, and I found, upon pulling at it, that it was firmly secured above. Clearly it was the desire of my unknown benefactor that I should ascend by it, so I went up hand over hand, and after some difficulty in squeezing my shoulders through the hole I succeeded in reaching the room above. While I was still rubbing my eyes after the sudden change from darkness into light, the rope was swiftly whisked up and the sliding shutter closed once more. To those who were not in the secret there was nothing to throw light upon my disappearance.
I found myself in the presence of a stout short man clad in a rude jerkin and leather breeches, which gave him somewhat the appearance of a groom. He wore a broad felt hat drawn down very low over his eyes, while the lower part of his face was swathed round with a broad cravat. In his hand he bore a horn lanthorn, by the light of which I saw that the room in which we were was of the same size as the dungeon beneath, and differed from it only in having a broad casement which looked out upon the park. There was no furniture in the chamber, but a great beam ran across it, to which the rope had been fastened by which I ascended.
‘Speak low, friend,’ said the stranger. ‘The walls are thick and the doors are close, yet I would not have your guardians know by what means you have been spirited away.’
‘Truly, sir,’ I answered, ‘I can scarce credit that it is other than a dream. It is wondrous that my dungeon should be so easily broken into, and more wondrous still that I should find a friend who would be willing to risk so much for my sake.’
‘Look there!’ quoth he, holding down his lanthorn so as to cast its light on the part of the floor where the panel was fitted. Can you not see how old and crumbled is the stone-work which surrounds it? This opening in the roof is as old as the dungeon itself, and older far than the door by which you were led into it. For this was one of those bottle-shaped cells or oubliettes which hard men of old devised for the safe keeping of their captives. Once lowered through this hole into the stone-girt pit a man might eat his heart out, for his fate was sealed. Yet you see that the very device which once hindered escape has now brought freedom within your reach.’
‘Thanks to your clemency, your Grace,’ I answered, looking keenly at my companion.
‘Now out on these disguises!’ he cried, peevishly pushing back the broad-edged hat and disclosing, as I expected, the features of the Duke. ‘Even a blunt soldier lad can see through my attempts at concealment. I fear, Captain, that I should make a bad plotter, for my nature is as open — well, as thine is. I cannot better the simile.’
‘Your Grace’s voice once heard is not easily forgot,’ said I.
‘Especially when it talks of hemp and dungeons,’ he answered, with a smile. ‘But if I clapped you into prison, you must confess that I have made you amends by pulling you out again at the end of my line, like a minnow out of a bottle. But how came you to deliver such papers in the presence of my council?’
‘I did what I could to deliver them in private,’ said I. ‘I sent you a message to that effect.’
‘It is true,’ he answered; ‘but such messages come in to me from every soldier who wishes to sell his sword, and every inventor who hath a long tongue and a short purse. How could I tell that the matter was of real import?’
‘I feared to let the chance slip lest it might never return,’ said I. ‘I hear that your Grace hath little leisure during these times.’
‘I cannot blame you,’ he answered, pacing up and down the room. ‘But it was untoward. I might have hid the despatches, yet it would have roused suspicions. Your errand would have leaked out. There are many who envy my lofty fortunes, and who would seize upon a chance of injuring me with King James. Sunderland or Somers would either of them blow the least rumour into a flame which might prove unquenchable. There was naught for it, therefore, but to show the papers and to turn a harsh face on the messenger. The most venomous tongue could not find fault in my conduct. What course would you have advised under such circumstances?’ ‘The most direct,’ I answered. ‘Aye, aye, Sir. Honesty. Public men have, however, to pick their steps as best they may, for the straight path would lead too often to the cliff-edge. The Tower would be too scanty for its guests were we all to wear our hearts upon our sleeves. But to you in this privacy I can tell my real thoughts without fear of betrayal or misconstruction. On paper I will not write one word. Your memory must be the sheet which bears my answer to Monmouth. And first of all, erase from it all that you have heard me say in the council-room. Let it be as though it never were spoken. Is that done?’
‘I understand that it did not really represent your Grace’s thoughts.’
‘Very far from it, Captain. But prythee tell me what expectation of success is there among the rebels themselves? You must have heard your Colonel and others discuss the question, or noted by their bearing which way their thoughts lay. Have they good hopes of holding out against the King’s troops?’
‘They have met with naught but success hitherto,’ I answered.
‘Against the militia. But they will find it another thing when they have trained troops to deal with. And yet — and yet!— One thing I know, that any defeat of Feversham’s army would cause a general rising throughout the country. On the other hand, the King’s party are active. Every post brings news of some fresh levy. Albemarle still holds the militia together in the west. The Earl of Pembroke is in arms in Wiltshire. Lord Lumley is moving from the east with the Sussex forces. The Earl of Abingdon is up in Oxfordshire. At the university the caps and gowns are all turning into head-pieces and steel fronts. James’s Dutch regiments have sailed from Amsterdam. Yet Monmouth hath gained two fights, and why not a third? They are troubled waters — troubled waters!’ The Duke paced backwards and forwards with brows drawn down, muttering all this to himself rather than to me, and shaking his head like one in the sorest perplexity.
‘I would have you tell Monmouth,’ he said at last, ‘that I thank him for the papers which he hath sent me, and that I will duly read and weigh them. Tell him also that I wish him well in his enterprise, and would help him were it not that I am hemmed in by those who watch me closely, and who would denounce me were I to show my true thoughts. Tell him that, should he move his army into these parts, I may then openly declare myself; but to do so now would be to ruin the fortunes of my house, without in any way helping him. Can you bear him that message?’
‘I shall do so, your Grace.
‘Tell me,’ he asked, ‘how doth Monmouth bear himself in this enterprise?’
‘Like a wise and gallant leader,’ I answered.
‘Strange,’ he murmured; ‘it was ever the jest at court that he had scarce energy or constancy enough to finish a game at ball, but would ever throw his racquet down ere the winning point was scored. His plans were like a weather-vane, altered by every breeze. He was constant only in his inconstancy. It is true that he led the King’s troops in Scotland, but all men knew that Claverhouse and Dalzell were the real conquerors at Bothwell Bridge. Methinks he resembles that Brutus in Roman history who feigned weakness of mind as a cover to his ambitions.’
The Duke was once again conversing with himself rather than with me, so that I made no remark, save to observe that Monmouth had won the hearts of the lower people.
‘There lies his strength,’ said Beaufort. ‘The blood of his mother runs in his veins. He doth not think it beneath him to shake the dirty paw of Jerry the tinker, or to run a race against a bumpkin on the village green. Well, events have shown that he hath been right. These same bumpkins have stood by him when nobler friends have held aloof. I would I could see into the future. But you have my message, Captain, and I trust that, if you change it in the delivery, it will be in the direction of greater warmth and kindliness. It is time now that you depart, for within three hours the guard is changed, and your escape will be discovered.’
‘But how depart?’ I asked.
‘Through here,’ he answered, pushing open the casement, and sliding the rope along the beam in that direction. ‘The rope may be a foot or two short, but you have extra inches to make matters even. When you have reached the ground, take the gravel path which turns to the right, and follow it until it leads you to the high trees which skirt the park. The seventh of these hath a bough which shoots over the boundary wall. Climb along the bough, drop over upon the other side, and you will find my own valet waiting with your horse. Up with you, and ride, haste, haste, post-haste, for the south. By morn you should be well out of danger’s way.’
‘My sword?’ I asked.
‘All your property is there. Tell Monmouth what I have said, and let him know that I have used you as kindly as was possible.’
‘But what will your Grace’s council say when they find that I am gone?’ I asked.
‘Pshaw, man! Never fret about that! I will off to Bristol at daybreak, and give my council enough to think of without their having time to devote to your fate. The soldiers will but have another instance of the working of the Father of Evil, who hath long been thought to have a weakness for that cell beneath us. Faith, if all we hear be true, there have been horrors enough acted there to call up every devil out of the pit. But time presses. Gently through the casement! So! Remember the message.’
‘Adieu, your Grace!’ I answered, and seizing the rope slipped rapidly and noiselessly to the ground, upon which he drew it up and closed the casement. As I looked round, my eye fell upon the dark narrow slit which opened into my cell, and through which honest Farmer Brown had held converse with me. Half-an-hour ago I had been stretched upon the prison pallet without a hope or a thought of escape. Now I was out in the open with no hand to stay me, breathing the air of freedom with the prison and the gallows cast off from me, as the waking man casts off his evil dreams. Such changes shake a man’s soul, my children. The heart that can steel itself against death is softened by the assurance of safety. So I have known a worthy trader bear up manfully when convinced that his fortunes had been engulfed in the ocean, but lose all philosophy on finding that the alarm was false, and that they had come safely through the danger. For my own part, believing as I do that there is nothing of chance in the affairs of this world, I felt that I had been exposed to this trial in order to dispose me to serious thought, and that I had been saved that I might put those thoughts into effect. As an earnest of my endeavour to do so I knelt down on the green sward, in the shadow of the Boteler turret, and I prayed that I might come to be of use on the earth, and that I might be helped to rise above my own wants and interests, to aid forward whatever of good or noble might be stirring in my days. It is well-nigh fifty years, my dears, since I bowed my spirit before the Great Unknown in the moon-tinted park of Badminton, but I can truly say that from that day to this the aims which I laid down for myself have served me as a compass over the dark waters of life — a compass which I may perchance not always follow — for flesh is weak and frail, but which hath, at least, been ever present, that I might turn to it in seasons of doubt and of danger.
The path to the right led through groves and past carp ponds for a mile or more, until I reached the line of trees which skirted the boundary wall. Not a living thing did I see upon my way, save a herd of fallow-deer, which scudded away like swift shadows through the shimmering moonshine. Looking back, the high turrets and gables of the Boteler wing stood out dark and threatening against the starlit sky. Having reached the seventh tree, I clambered along the projecting bough which shot over the park wall, and dropped down upon the other side, where I found my good old dapple-grey awaiting me in the charge of a groom. Springing to my saddle, I strapped my sword once more to my side, and galloped off as fast as the four willing feet could carry me on my return journey.
All that night I rode hard without drawing bridle, through sleeping hamlets, by moon-bathed farmhouses, past shining stealthy rivers, and over birch-clad hills. When the eastern sky deepened from pink into scarlet, and the great sun pushed his rim over the blue north Somerset hills, I was already far upon my journey. It was a Sabbath morning, and from every village rose the sweet tinkling and calling of the bells. I bore no dangerous papers with me now, and might therefore be more careless as to my route. At one point I was questioned by a keen-eyed toll-keeper as to whence I came, but my reply that I was riding direct from his Grace of Beaufort put an end to his suspicions. Further down, near Axbridge, I overtook a grazier who was jogging into Wells upon his sleek cob. With him I rode for some time, and learned that the whole of North Somerset, as well as south, was now in open revolt, and that Wells, Shepton Mallet, and Glastonbury were held by armed volunteers for King Monmouth. The royal forces had all retired west, or east, until help should come. As I rode through the villages I marked the blue flag upon the church towers, and the rustics drilling upon the green, without any sign of trooper or dragoon to uphold the authority of the Stuarts.
My road lay through Shepton Mallet, Piper’s Inn, Bridgewater, and North Petherton, until in the cool of the evening I pulled up my weary horse at the Cross Hands, and saw the towers of Taunton in the valley beneath me. A flagon of beer for the rider, and a sieveful of oats for the steed, put fresh mettle into both of us, and we were jogging on our way once more, when there came galloping down the side of the hill about forty cavaliers, as hard as their horses could carry them. So wild was their riding that I pulled up, uncertain whether they were friend or foe, until, as they came whirling towards me, I recognised that the two officers who rode in front of them were none other than Reuben Lockarby and Sir Gervas Jerome. At the sight of me they flung up their hands, and Reuben shot on to his horse’s neck, where he sat for a moment astride of the mane, until the brute tossed him back into the saddle.
‘It’s Micah! It’s Micah!’ he gasped, with his mouth open, and the tears hopping down his honest face.
‘Od’s pitlikins, man, how did you come here?’ asked Sir Gervas, poking me with his forefinger as though to see if I were really of flesh and blood. ‘We were leading a forlorn of horse into Beaufort’s country to beat him up, and to burn his fine house about his ears if you had come to harm. There has just come a groom from some farmer in those parts who hath brought us news that you were under sentence of death, on which I came away with my wig half frizzled, and found that friend Lockarby had leave from Lord Grey to go north with these troopers. But how have you fared?’
‘Well and ill,’ I answered, wringing their kindly hands. ‘I had not thought last night to see another sun rise, and yet ye see that I am here, sound in life and limb. But all these things will take some time in the telling.’
‘Aye, and King Monmouth will be on thorns to see you. Right about, my lads, and back for the camp. Never was errand so rapidly and happily finished as this of ours. It would have fared ill with Badminton had you been hurt.’
The troopers turned their horses and trotted slowly back to Taunton, while I rode behind them between my two faithful friends, hearing from them all that had occurred in my absence, and telling my own adventures in return. The night had fallen ere we rode through the gates, where I handed Covenant over to the Mayor’s groom, and went direct to the castle to deliver an account of my mission.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08