All Bridgewater was in a ferment as we rode in, for King James’s forces were within four miles, on the Sedgemoor Plain, and it was likely that they would push on at once and storm the town. Some rude works had been thrown up on the Eastover side, behind which two brigades were drawn up in arms, while the rest of the army was held in reserve in the market-place and Castle Field. Towards afternoon, however, parties of our horse and peasants from the fen country came in with the news that there was no fear of an assault being attempted. The Royal troops had quartered themselves snugly in the little villages of the neighbourhood, and having levied contributions of cider and of beer from the farmers, they showed no sign of any wish to advance.
The town was full of women, the wives, mothers, and sisters of our peasants, who had come in from far and near to see their loved ones once more. Fleet Street or Cheapside upon a busy day are not more crowded than were the narrow streets and lanes of the Somersetshire town. Jack-booted, buff-coated troopers; scarlet militiamen; brown, stern-faced Tauntonians; serge-clad pikemen; wild, ragged miners; smockfrocked yokels; reckless, weather-tanned seamen; gaunt cragsmen from the northern coast — all pushed and jostled each other in a thick, many-coloured crowd. Everywhere among them were the country women, straw-bonneted and loud-tongued, weeping, embracing, and exhorting. Here and there amid the motley dresses and gleam of arms moved the dark, sombre figure of a Puritan minister, with sweeping sad-coloured mantle and penthouse hat, scattering abroad short fiery ejaculations and stern pithy texts of the old fighting order, which warmed the men’s blood like liquor. Ever and anon a sharp, fierce shout would rise from the people, like the yelp of a high-spirited hound which is straining at its leash and hot to be at the throat of its enemy.
Our regiment had been taken off duty whenever it was clear that Feversham did not mean to advance, and they were now busy upon the victuals which our night-foray had furnished. It was a Sunday, fresh and warm, with a clear, unclouded sky, and a gentle breeze, sweet with the smack of the country. All day the bells of the neighbouring villages rang out their alarm, pealing their music over the sunlit countryside. The upper windows and red-tiled roofs of the houses were crowded with pale-faced women and children, who peered out to eastward, where the splotches of crimson upon the dun-coloured moor marked the position of our enemies.
At four o’clock Monmouth held a last council of war upon the square tower out of which springs the steeple of Bridgewater parish church, whence a good view can be obtained of all the country round. Since my ride to Beaufort I had always been honoured with a summons to attend, in spite of my humble rank in the army. There were some thirty councillors in all, as many as the space would hold, soldiers and courtiers, Cavaliers and Puritans, all drawn together now by the bond of a common danger. Indeed, the near approach of a crisis in their fortunes had broken down much of the distinction of manner which had served to separate them. The sectary had lost something of his austerity and become flushed and eager at the prospect of battle, while the giddy man of fashion was hushed into unwonted gravity as he considered the danger of his position. Their old feuds were forgotten as they gathered on the parapet and gazed with set faces at the thick columns of smoke which rose along the sky-line.
King Monmouth stood among his chiefs, pale and haggard, with the dishevelled, unkempt look of a man whose distress of mind has made him forgetful of the care of his person. He held a pair of ivory glasses, and as he raised them to his eyes his thin white hands shook and twitched until it was grievous to watch him. Lord Grey handed his own glasses to Saxon, who leaned his elbows upon the rough stone breastwork and stared long and earnestly at the enemy.
‘They are the very men I have myself led,’ said Monmouth at last, in a low voice, as though uttering his thoughts aloud. ‘Over yonder at the right I see Dumbarton’s foot. I know these men well. They will fight. Had we them with us all would be well.’
‘Nay, your Majesty,’ Lord Grey answered with spirit, ‘you do your brave followers an injustice. They, too, will fight to the last drop of their blood in your quarrel.’
‘Look down at them!’ said Monmouth sadly, pointing at the swarming streets beneath us. ‘Braver hearts never beat in English breasts, yet do but mark how they brabble and clamour like clowns on a Saturday night. Compare them with the stern, orderly array of the trained battalions. Alas! that I should have dragged these honest souls from their little homes to fight so hopeless a battle!’
‘Hark at that!’ cried Wade. ‘They do not think it hopeless, nor do we.’ As he spoke a wild shout rose from the dense crowd beneath, who were listening to a preacher who was holding forth from a window.
‘It is worthy Doctor Ferguson,’ said Sir Stephen Timewell, who had just come up. ‘He is as one inspired, powerfully borne onwards in his discourse. Verily he is even as one of the prophets of old. He has chosen for his text, “The Lord God of gods he knoweth and Israel he shall know. If it be in rebellion or if in transgression against the Lord, save us not this day.”’
‘Amen, amen!’ cried several of the Puritan soldiers devoutly, while another hoarse burst of shouting from below, with the clashing of scythe-blades and the clatter of arms, showed how deeply the people were moved by the burning words of the fanatic.
‘They do indeed seem to be hot for battle,’ said Monmouth, with a more sprightly look. ‘It may be that one who has commanded regular troops, as I have done, is prone to lay too much weight upon the difference which discipline and training make. These brave lads seem high of heart. What think you of the enemy’s dispositions, Colonel Saxon?’
‘By my faith, I think very little of them, your Majesty,’ Saxon answered bluntly. ‘I have seen armies drawn up in array in many different parts of the world and under many commanders. I have likewise read the section which treats of the matter in the “De re militari” of Petrinus Bellus, and in the works of a Fleming of repute, yet I have neither seen nor heard anything which can commend the arrangements which we see before us.’
‘How call you the hamlet on the left — that with the square ivy-clad church tower?’ asked Monmouth, turning to the Mayor of Bridgewater, a small, anxious-faced man, who was evidently far from easy at the prominence which his office had brought upon him.
‘Westonzoyland, your Honour — that is, your Grace — I mean, your Majesty,’ he stammered. ‘The other, two miles farther off, is Middlezoy, and away to the left, just on the far side of the rhine, is Chedzoy.’
‘The rhine, sir! What do you mean?’ asked the King, starting violently, and turning so fiercely upon the timid burgher, that he lost the little balance of wits which was left to him.
‘Why, the rhine, your Grace, your Majesty,’ he quavered. ‘The rhine, which, as your Majesty’s Grace cannot but perceive, is what the country folk call the rhine.’
‘It is a name, your Majesty, for the deep and broad ditches which drain off the water from the great morass of Sedgemoor,’ said Sir Stephen Timewell.
Monmouth turned white to his very lips, and several of the council exchanged significant glances, recalling the strange prophetic jingle which I had been the means of bringing to the camp. The silence was broken, however, by an old Cromwellian Major named Hollis, who had been drawing upon paper the position of the villages in which the enemy was quartered.
‘If it please your Majesty, there is something in their order which recalls to my mind that of the army of the Scots upon the occasion of the battle of Dunbar. Cromwell lay in Dunbar even as we lie in Bridgewater. The ground around, which was boggy and treacherous, was held by the enemy. There was not a man in the army who would not own that, had old Leslie held his position, we should, as far as human wisdom could see, have had to betake us to our ships, leave our stores and ordnance, and so make the best of our way to Newcastle. He moved, however, through the blessing of Providence, in such a manner that a quagmire intervened between his right wing and the rest of his army, on which Cromwell fell upon that wing in the early dawn, and dashed it to pieces, with such effect that the whole army fled, and we had the execution of them to the very gates of Leith. Seven thousand Scots lost their lives, but not more than a hundred or so of the honest folk. Now, your Majesty will see through your glass that a mile of bogland intervenes between these villages, and that the nearest one, Chedzoy, as I think they call it, might be approached without ourselves entering the morass. Very sure I am that were the Lord-General with us now he would counsel us to venture some such attack.’
‘It is a bold thing with raw peasants to attack old soldiers,’ quoth Sir Stephen Timewell. ‘Yet if it is to be done, I know well that there is not a man born within sound of the bells of St. Mary Magdalene who will flinch from it.’
‘You say well, Sir Stephen,’ said Monmouth. ‘At Dunbar Cromwell had veterans at his back, and was opposed to troops who had small experience of war.’
‘Yet there is much good sense in what Major Hollis has said,’ remarked Lord Grey. ‘We must either fall on, or be gradually girt round and starved out. That being so, why not take advantage at once of the chance which Feversham’s ignorance or carelessness hath given us? To-morrow, if Churchill can prevail over his chief, I have little doubt that we shall find their camp rearranged, and so have cause to regret our lost opportunity.’
‘Their horse lie at Westonzoyland,’ said Wade. ‘The sun is so fierce now that we can scarce see for its glare and the haze which rises up from the marshes. Yet a little while ago I could make out through my glasses the long lines of horses picketed on the moor beyond the village. Behind, in Middlezoy, are two thousand militia, while in Chedzoy, where our attack would fall, there are five regiments of regular foot.’
‘If we could break those all would be well,’ cried Monmouth. ‘What is your advice, Colonel Buyse?’
‘My advice is ever the same,’ the German answered. ‘We are here to fight, and the sooner we get to work at it the better.’
‘And yours, Colonel Saxon? Do you agree with the opinion of your friend?’
‘I think with Major Hollis, your Majesty, that Feversham by his dispositions hath laid himself open to attack, and that we should take advantage of it forthwith. Yet, considering that trained men and a numerous horse have great advantage by daylight, I should be in favour of a camisado or night onfall.’
‘The same thought was in my mind,’ said Grey. ‘Our friends here know every inch of the ground, and could guide us to Chedzoy as surely in the darkness as in the day.’
‘I have heard,’ said Saxon, ‘that much beer and cider, with wine and strong waters, have found their way into their camp. If this be so we may give them a rouse while their heads are still buzzing with the liquor, when they shall scarce know whether it is ourselves or the blue devils which have come upon them.’
A general chorus of approval from the whole council showed that the prospect of at last coming to an engagement was welcome, after the weary marchings and delays of the last few weeks.
‘Has any cavalier anything to say against this plan?’ asked the King.
We all looked from one to the other, but though many faces were doubtful or desponding, none had a word to say against the night attack, for it was clear that our action in any case must be hazardous, and this had at least the merit of promising a better chance of success than any other. Yet, my dears, I dare say the boldest of us felt a sinking at the heart as we looked at our downcast, sad-faced leader, and asked ourselves whether this was a likely man to bring so desperate an enterprise to a success.
‘If all are agreed,’ said he, ‘let our word be “Soho,” and let us come upon them as soon after midnight as may be. What remains to be settled as to the order of battle may be left for the meantime. You will now, gentlemen, return to your regiments, and you will remember that be the upshot of this what it may, whether Monmouth be the crowned King of England or a hunted fugitive, his heart, while it can still beat, will ever bear in memory the brave friends who stood at his side in the hour of his trouble.’
At this simple and kindly speech a flush of devotion, mingled in my own case at least with a heart-whole pity for the poor, weak gentleman, swept over us. We pressed round him with our hands upon the hilts of our swords, swearing that we would stand by him, though all the world stood between him and his rights. Even the rigid and impassive Puritans were moved to a show of loyalty; while the courtiers, carried away by zeal, drew their rapiers and shouted until the crowd beneath caught the enthusiasm, and the air was full of the cheering. The light returned to Monmouth’s eye and the colour to his cheek as he listened to the clamour. For a moment at least he looked like the King which he aspired to be.
‘My thanks to ye, dear friends and subjects,’ he cried. ‘The issue rests with the Almighty, but what men can do will, I know well, be done by you this night. If Monmouth cannot have all England, six feet of her shall at least be his. Meanwhile, to your regiments, and may God defend the right!’
‘May God defend the right! cried the council solemnly, and separated, leaving the King with Grey to make the final dispositions for the attack.
‘These popinjays of the Court are ready enough to wave their rapiers and shout when there are four good miles between them and the foe,’ said Saxon, as we made our way through the crowd. ‘I fear that they will scarce be as forward when there is a line of musqueteers to be faced, and a brigade of horse perhaps charging down upon their flank. But here comes friend Lockarby, with news written upon his face.’
‘I have a report to make, Colonel,’ said Reuben, hurrying breathlessly up to us. ‘You may remember that I and my company were placed on guard this day at the eastern gates?’
‘Being desirous of seeing all that I could of the enemy, I clambered up a lofty tree which stands just without the town. From this post, by the aid of a glass, I was able to make out their lines and camp. Whilst I was gazing I chanced to observe a man slinking along under cover of the birch-trees half-way between their lines and the town. Watching him, I found that he was indeed moving in our direction. Presently he came so near that I was able to distinguish who it was — for it was one whom I know — but instead of entering the town by my gate he walked round under cover of the peat cuttings, and so made his way doubtless to some other entrance. He is a man, however, who I have reason to believe has no true love for the cause, and it is my belief that he hath been to the Royal camp with news of our doings, and hath now come back for further information.’
‘Aye!’ said Saxon, raising his eyebrows. ‘And what is the man’s name?’
‘His name is Derrick, one time chief apprentice to Master Timewell at Taunton, and now an officer in the Taunton foot.’
‘What, the young springald who had his eye upon pretty Mistress Ruth! Now, out on love, if it is to turn a true man into a traitor! But methought he was one of the elect? I have heard him hold forth to the pikemen. How comes it that one of his kidney should lend help to the Prelatist cause?’
‘Love again,’ quoth I. ‘This same love is a pretty flower when it grows unchecked, but a sorry weed if thwarted.’
‘He hath an ill-feeling towards many in the camp,’ said Reuben, ‘and he would ruin the army to avenge himself on them, as a rogue might sink a ship in the hope of drowning one enemy. Sir Stephen himself hath incurred his hatred for refusing to force his daughter into accepting his suit. He has now returned into the camp, and I have reported the matter to you, that you may judge whether it would not be well to send a file of pikemen and lay him by the heels lest he play the spy once more.’
‘Perhaps it would be best so,’ Saxon answered, full of thought, ‘and yet no doubt the fellow would have some tale prepared which would outweigh our mere suspicions. Could we not take him in the very act?’
A thought slipped into my head. I had observed from the tower that there was a single lonely cottage about a third of the way to the enemy’s camp, standing by the road at a place where there were marshes on either side. Any one journeying that way must pass it. If Derrick tried to carry our plans to Feversham he might be cut off at this point by a party placed to lie in wait for him.
‘Most excellent!’ Saxon exclaimed, when I had explained the project. ‘My learned Fleming himself could not have devised a better rusus belli. Do ye convey as many files as ye may think fit to this point, and I shall see that Master Derrick is primed up with some fresh news for my Lord Feversham.’
‘Nay, a body of troops marching out would set tongues wagging,’ said Reuben. ‘Why should not Micah and I go ourselves?’
‘That would indeed be better.’ Saxon answered. ‘But ye must pledge your words, come what may, to be back at sundown, for your companies must stand to arms an hour before the advance.’
We both gladly gave the desired promise; and having learned for certain that Derrick had indeed returned to the camp, Saxon undertook to let drop in his presence some words as to the plans for the night, while we set off at once for our post. Our horses we left behind, and slipping out through the eastern gate we made our way over bog and moor, concealing ourselves as best we could, until we came out upon the lonely roadway, and found ourselves in front of the house.
It was a plain, whitewashed, thatch-roofed cottage, with a small board above the door, whereon was written a notice that the occupier sold milk and butter. No smoke reeked up from the chimney, and the shutters of the window were closed, from which we gathered that the folk who owned it had fled away from their perilous position. On either side the marsh extended, reedy and shallow at the edge, but deeper at a distance, with a bright green scum which covered its treacherous surface. We knocked at the weather-blotched door, but receiving, as we expected, no reply, I presently put my shoulder against it and forced the staple from its fastenings.
There was but a single chamber within, with a straight ladder in the corner, leading through a square hole in the ceiling to the sleeping chamber under the roof. Three or four chairs and stools were scattered over the earthen floor, and at the side a deal table with the broad brown milk basins upon it. Green blotches upon the wall and a sinking in of one side of the cottage showed the effect of its damp, marsh-girt position.
To our surprise it had still one inmate within its walls. In the centre of the room, facing the door as we entered, stood a little bright, golden-haired maid, five or six years of age. She was clad in a clean white smock, with trim leather belt and shining buckle about her waist. Two plump little legs with socks and leathern boots peeped out from under the dress, stoutly planted with right foot in advance as one who was bent upon holding her ground. Her tiny head was thrown back, and her large blue eyes were full of mingled wonder and defiance. As we entered the little witch flapped her kerchief at us, and shooed as though we were two of the intrusive fowl whom she was wont to chevy out of the house. Reuben and I stood on the threshold, uncertain, and awkward, like a pair of overgrown school lads, looking down at this fairy queen whose realms we had invaded, in two minds whether to beat a retreat or to appease her wrath by soft and coaxing words.
‘Go ‘way!’ she cried, still waving her hands and shaking her kerchief. ‘Go ‘way! Granny told me to tell any one that came to go ‘way!’
‘But if they would not go away, little mistress,’ asked Reuben, ‘what were you to do then?’
‘I was to drive them ‘way,’ she answered, advancing boldly against us with many flaps. ‘You bad man!’ she continued, flashing out at me, ‘you have broken granny’s bolt.’
‘Nay, I’ll mend it again,’ I answered penitently, and catching up a stone I soon fastened the injured staple. ‘There, mistress, your granddam will never tell the difference.’
‘Ye must go ‘way all the same,’ she persisted; ‘this is granny’s house, not yours.’
What were we to do with this resolute little dame of the marshes? That we should stay in the house was a crying need, for there was no other cover or shelter among the dreary bogs where we could hide ourselves. Yet she was bent upon driving us out with a decision and fearlessness which might have put Monmouth to shame.
‘You sell milk,’ said Reuben. ‘We are tired and thirsty, so we have come to have a horn of it.’
‘Nay,’ she cried, breaking into smiles, ‘will ye pay me just as the folk pay granny? Oh, heart alive! but that will be fine!’ She skipped up on to a stool and filled a pair of deep mugs from the basins upon the table. ‘A penny, please!’ said she.
It was strange to see the little wife hide the coin away in her smock, with pride and joy in her innocent face at this rare stroke of business which she had done for her absent granny. We bore our milk away to the window, and having loosed the shutters we seated ourselves so as to have an outlook down the road.
‘For the Lord’s sake, drink slow!’ whispered Reuben, under his breath. ‘We must keep on swilling milk or she will want to turn us out.’
‘We have paid toll now,’ I answered; ‘surely she will let us bide.’
‘If you have done you must go ‘way,’ she said firmly.
‘Were ever two men-at-arms so tyrannised over by a little dolly such as this!’ said I, laughing. ‘Nay, little one, we shall compound with you by paying you this shilling, which will buy all your milk. We can stay here and drink it at our ease.’
‘Jinny, the cow, is just across the marsh,’ quoth she. ‘It is nigh milking time, and I shall fetch her round if ye wish more.’
‘Now, God forbid!’ cried Reuben. ‘It will end in our having to buy the cow. Where is your granny, little maid?’
‘She hath gone into the town,’ the child answered. ‘There are bad men with red coats and guns coming to steal and to fight, but granny will soon make them go ‘way. Granny has gone to set it all right.’
‘We are fighting against the men with the red coats, my chuck,’ said I; ‘we shall take care of your house with you, and let no one steal anything.’
‘Nay, then ye may stay,’ quoth she, climbing up upon my knee as grave as a sparrow upon a bough. ‘What a great boy you are!’
‘And why not a man?’ I asked.
‘Because you have no beard upon your face. Why, granny hath more hair upon her chin than you. Besides, only boys drink milk. Men drink cider.’
‘Then if I am a boy I shall be your sweetheart,’ said I.
‘Nay, indeed!’ she cried, with a toss of her golden locks. ‘I have no mind to wed for a while, but Giles Martin of Gommatch is my sweetheart. What a pretty shining tin smock you have, and what a great sword! Why should people have these things to harm each other with when they are in truth all brothers?’
‘Why are they all brothers, little mistress?’ asked Reuben.
‘Because granny says that they are all the children of the great Father,’ she answered. ‘If they have all one father they must be brothers, mustn’t they?’
‘Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, Micah,’ quoth Reuben, staring out of the window.
‘You are a rare little marsh flower,’ I said, as she clambered up to grasp at my steel cap. ‘Is it not strange to think, Reuben, that there should be thousands of Christian men upon either side of us, athirst for each other’s lives, and here between them is a blue-eyed cherub who lisps out the blessed philosophy which would send us all to our homes with softened hearts and hale bodies?’
‘A day of this child would sicken me for over of soldiering,’ Reuben answered. ‘The cavalier and the butcher become too near of kin, as I listen to her.’
‘Perhaps both are equally needful,’ said I, shrugging my shoulders. ‘We have put our hands to the plough. But methinks I see the man for whom we wait coming down under the shadow of yonder line of pollard willows.’
‘It is he, sure enough,’ cried Reuben, peeping through the diamond-paned window.
‘Then, little one, you must sit here,’ said I, raising her up from my knee and placing her on a chair in a corner. ‘You must be a brave lass and sit still, whatever may chance. Will you do so?’
She pursed up her rosy lips and nodded her head.
‘He comes on apace, Micah,’ quoth my comrade, who was still standing by the casement. ‘Is he not like some treacherous fox or other beast of prey?’
There was indeed something in his lean, black-clothed figure and swift furtive movements which was like some cruel and cunning animal. He stole along under shadow of the stunted trees and withies, with bent body and gliding gait, so that from Bridgewater it would be no easy matter for the most keen-sighted to see him. Indeed, he was so far from the town that he might safely have come out from his concealment and struck across the moor, but the deep morass on either side prevented him from leaving the road until he had passed the cottage.
As he came abreast of our ambush we both sprang out from the open door and barred his way. I have heard the Independent minister at Emsworth give an account of Satan’s appearance, but if the worthy man had been with us that day, he need not have drawn upon his fancy. The man’s dark face whitened into a sickly and mottled pallor, while he drew back with a long sharp intaking of the breath and a venomous flash from his black eyes, glancing swiftly from right to left for some means of escape. For an instant his hand shot towards his sword-hilt, but his reason told him that he could scarce expect to fight his way past us. Then he glanced round, but any retreat would lead him back to the men whom he had betrayed. So he stood sullen and stolid, with heavy, downcast face and shifting, restless eye, the very type and symbol of treachery.
‘We have waited some time for you, Master John Derrick,’ said I. ‘You must now return with us to the town.’
‘On what grounds do you arrest me?’ he asked, in hoarse, broken tones. ‘Where is your warranty? Who hath given you a commission to molest travellers upon the King’s highway?’
‘I have my Colonel’s commission,’ I answered shortly. ‘You have been once already to Feversham’s camp this morning.’
‘It is a lie,’ he snarled fiercely. ‘I do but take a stroll to enjoy the air.’
‘It is the truth,’ said Reuben. ‘I saw you myself on your return. Let us see that paper which peeps from your doublet.’
‘We all know why you should set this trap for me,’ Derrick cried bitterly. ‘You have set evil reports afloat against me, lest I stand in your light with the Mayor’s daughter. What are you that you should dare to raise your eyes to her! A mere vagrant and masterless man, coming none know whence. Why should you aspire to pluck the flower which has grown up amongst us? What had you to do with her or with us? Answer me!’
‘It is not a matter which I shall discuss, save at a more fitting time and place,’ Reuben answered quietly. ‘Do you give over your sword and come back with us. For my part, I promise to do what I can to save your life. Should we win this night, your poor efforts can do little to harm us. Should we lose, there may be few of us left to harm.’
‘I thank you for your kindly protection,’ he replied, in the same white, cold, bitter manner, unbuckling his sword as he spoke, and walking slowly up to my companion. ‘You can take this as a gift to Mistress Ruth,’ he said, presenting the weapon in his left hand, ‘and this!’ he added, plucking a knife from his belt and burying it in my poor friend’s side.
It was done in an instant — so suddenly that I had neither time to spring between, nor to grasp his intention before the wounded man sank gasping on the ground, and the knife tinkled upon the pathway at my feet. The villain set up a shrill cry of triumph, and bounding back in time to avoid the savage sword thrust which I made at him, he turned and fled down the road at the top of his speed. He was a far lighter man than I, and more scantily clad, yet I had, from my long wind and length of limb, been the best runner of my district, and he soon learned by the sound of my feet that he had no chance of shaking me off. Twice he doubled as a hare does when the hound is upon him, and twice my sword passed within a foot of him, for in very truth I had no more thought of mercy than if he had been a poisonous snake who had fastened his fangs into my friend before my eyes. I never dreamed of giving nor did he of claiming it. At last, hearing my steps close upon him and my breathing at his very shoulder, he sprang wildly through the reeds and dashed into the treacherous morass. Ankle-deep, knee-deep, thigh-deep, waist-deep, we struggled and staggered, I still gaining upon him, until I was within arm’s-reach of him, and had whirled up my sword to strike. It had been ordained, however, my dear children, that he should die not the death of a man, but that of the reptile which he was, for even as I closed upon him he sank of a sudden with a gurgling sound, and the green marsh scum met above his head. No ripple was there and no splash to mark the spot. It was sudden and silent, as though some strange monster of the marshes had seized him and dragged him down into the depths. As I stood with upraised sword still gazing upon the spot, one single great bubble rose and burst upon the surface, and then all was still once more, and the dreary fens lay stretched before me, the very home of death and of desolation. I know not whether he had indeed come upon some sudden pit which had engulfed him, or whether in his despair he had cast himself down of set purpose. I do but know that there in the great Sedgemoor morass are buried the bones of the traitor and the spy.
I made my way as best I could through the oozy clinging mud to the margin, and hastened back to where Reuben was lying. Bending over him I found that the knife had pierced through the side leather which connected his back and front plates, and that the blood was not only pouring out of the wound, but was trickling from the corner of his mouth. With trembling fingers I undid the straps and buckles, loosened the armour, and pressed my kerchief to his side to staunch the flow.
‘I trust that you have not slain him, Micah,’ he said of a sudden, opening his eyes.
‘A higher power than ours has judged him, Reuben,’ I answered.
‘Poor devil! He has had much to embitter him,’ he murmured, and straightway fainted again. As I knelt over him, marking the lad’s white face and laboured breathing, and bethought me of his simple, kindly nature and of the affection which I had done so little to deserve, I am not ashamed to say, my dears, albeit I am a man somewhat backward in my emotions, that my tears were mingled with his blood.
As it chanced, Decimus Saxon had found time to ascend the church tower for the purpose of watching us through his glass and seeing how we fared. Noting that there was something amiss, he had hurried down for a skilled chirurgeon, whom he brought out to us under an escort of scythesmen. I was still kneeling by my senseless friend, doing what an ignorant man might to assist him, when the party arrived and helped me to bear him into the cottage, out of the glare of the sun. The minutes were as hours while the man of physic with a grave face examined and probed the wound.
‘It will scarce prove fatal,’ he said at last, and I could have embraced him for the words. ‘The blade has glanced on a rib, though the lung is slightly torn. We shall hear him back with us to the town.’
‘You hear what he says,’ said Saxon kindly. ‘He is a man whose opinion is of weight —
“A skilful leach is better far,
Than half a hundred men of war.”
Cheer up, man! You are as white as though it were your blood and not his which was drained away. Where is Derrick?’
‘Drowned in the marshes,’ I answered.
‘’Tis well! It will save us six feet of good hemp. But our position here is somewhat exposed, since the Royal Horse might make a dash at us. Who is this little maid who sits so white and still in the corner.’
‘’Tis the guardian of the house. Her granny has left her here.’
‘You had better come with us. There may be rough work here ere all is over.’
‘Nay, I must wait for granny,’ she answered, with the tears running down her cheeks.
‘But how if I take you to granny, little one,’ said I. ‘We cannot leave you here. ‘I held out my arms, and the child sprang into them and nestled up against my bosom, sobbing as though her heart would break. ‘Take me away,’ she cried; ‘I’se frightened.’
I soothed the little trembling thing as best I might, and bore her off with me upon my shoulder. The scythesmen had passed the handles of their long weapons through the sleeves of their jerkins in such a way as to form a couch or litter, upon which poor Reuben was laid. A slight dash of colour had come back to his cheeks in answer to some cordial given him by the chirurgeon, and he nodded and smiled at Saxon. Thus, pacing slowly, we returned to Bridgewater, where Reuben was carried to our quarters, and I bore the little maid of the marshes to kind townsfolk, who promised to restore her to her home when the troubles were over.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08