There was no delay in the work of slaughter. That very night the great gallows was erected outside the White Hart inn. Hour after hour we could hear the blows of mallets and the sawing of beams, mingled with the shoutings and the ribald choruses of the Chief Justice’s suite, who were carousing with the officers of the Tangiers regiment in the front room, which overlooked the gibbet. Amongst the prisoners the night was passed in prayer and meditation, the stout-hearted holding forth to their weaker brethren, and exhorting them to play the man, and to go to their death in a fashion which should be an example to true Protestants throughout the world. The Puritan divines had been mostly strung up off-hand immediately after the battle, but a few were left to sustain the courage of their flocks, and to show them the way upon the scaffold. Never have I seen anything so admirable as the cool and cheerful bravery wherewith these poor clowns faced their fate. Their courage on the battlefield paled before that which they showed in the shambles of the law. So amid the low murmur of prayer and appeals for mercy to God from tongues which never yet asked mercy from man, the morning broke, the last morning which many of us were to spend upon earth.
The court should have opened at nine, but my Lord Chief Justice was indisposed, having sat up somewhat late with Colonel Kirke. It was nearly eleven before the trumpeters and criers announced that he had taken his seat. One by one my fellow-prisoners were called out by name, the more prominent being chosen first. They went out from amongst us amid hand-shakings and blessings, but we saw and heard no more of them, save that a sudden fierce rattle of kettledrums would rise up now and again, which was, as our guards told us, to drown any dying words which might fall from the sufferers and bear fruit in the breasts of those who heard them. With firm steps and smiling faces the roll of martyrs went forth to their fate during the whole of that long autumn day, until the rough soldiers of the guard stood silent and awed in the presence of a courage which they could not but recognise as higher and nobler than their own. Folk may call it a trial that they received, and a trial it really was, but not in the sense that we Englishmen use it. It was but being haled before a Judge, and insulted before being dragged to the gibbet. The court-house was the thorny path which led to the scaffold. What use to put a witness up, when he was shouted down, cursed at, and threatened by the Chief Justice, who bellowed and swore until the frightened burghers in Fore Street could hear him? I have heard from those who were there that day that he raved like a demoniac, and that his black eyes shone with a vivid vindictive brightness which was scarce human. The jury shrank from him as from a venomous thing when he turned his baleful glance upon them. At times, as I have been told, his sternness gave place to a still more terrible merriment, and he would lean back in his seat of justice and laugh until the tears hopped down upon his ermine. Nearly a hundred were either executed or condemned to death upon that opening day.
I had expected to be amongst the first of those called, and no doubt I should have been so but for the exertions of Major Ogilvy. As it was, the second day passed, but I still found myself overlooked. On the third and fourth days the slaughter was slackened, not on account of any awakening grace on the part of the Judge, but because the great Tory landowners, and the chief supporters of the Government, had still some bowels of compassion, which revolted at this butchery of defenceless men. Had it not been for the influence which these gentlemen brought to bear upon the Judge, I have no doubt at all that Jeffreys would have hung the whole eleven hundred prisoners then confined in Taunton. As it was, two hundred and fifty fell victims to this accursed monster’s thirst for human blood.
On the eighth day of the assizes there were but fifty of us left in the wool warehouse. For the last few days prisoners had been tried in batches of ten and twenty, but now the whole of us were taken in a drove, under escort, to the court-house, where as many as could be squeezed in were ranged in the dock, while the rest were penned, like calves in the market, in the body of the hall. The Judge reclined in a high chair, with a scarlet dais above him, while two other Judges, in less elevated seats, were stationed on either side of him. On the right hand was the jury-box, containing twelve carefully picked men — Tories of the old school — firm upholders of the doctrines of non-resistance and the divine right of kings. Much care had been taken by the Crown in the choice of these men, and there was not one of them but would have sentenced his own father had there been so much as a suspicion that he leaned to Presbyterianism or to Whiggery. Just under the Judge was a broad table, covered with green cloth and strewn with papers. On the right hand of this were a long array of Crown lawyers, grim, ferret-faced men, each with a sheaf of papers in his hands, which they sniffed through again and again, as though they were so many bloodhounds picking up the trail along which they were to hunt us down. On the other side of the table sat a single fresh-faced young man, in silk gown and wig, with a nervous, shuffling manner. This was the barrister, Master Helstrop, whom the Crown in its clemency had allowed us for our defence, lest any should be bold enough to say that we had not had every fairness in our trial. The remainder of the court was filled with the servants of the Justices’ retinue and the soldiers of the garrison, who used the place as their common lounge, looking on the whole thing as a mighty cheap form of sport, and roaring with laughter at the rude banter and coarse pleasantries of his Lordship.
The clerk having gabbled through the usual form that we, the prisoners at the bar, having shaken off the fear of God, had unlawfully and traitorously assembled, and so onwards, the Lord Justice proceeded to take matters into his own hands, as was his wont.
‘I trust that we shall come well out of this!’ he broke out. ‘I trust that no judgment will fall upon this building! Was ever so much wickedness fitted into one court-house before? Who ever saw such an array of villainous faces? Ah, rogues, I see a rope ready for every one of ye! Art not afraid of judgment? Art not afraid of hell-fire? You grey-bearded rascal in the corner, how comes it that you have not had more of the grace of God in you than to take up arms against your most gracious and loving sovereign?’
‘I have followed the guidance of my conscience, my Lord,’ said the venerable cloth-worker of Wellington, to whom he spoke.
‘Ha, your conscience!’ howled Jeffreys. ‘A ranter with a conscience! Where has your conscience been these two months back, you villain and rogue? Your conscience will stand you in little stead, sirrah, when you are dancing on nothing with a rope round your neck. Was ever such wickedness? Who ever heard such effrontery? And you, you great hulking rebel, have you not grace enough to cast your eyes down, but must needs look justice in the face as though you were an honest man? Are you not afeared, sirrah? Do you not see death close upon you?’
‘I have seen that before now, my Lord, and I was not afeared,’ I answered.
‘Generation of vipers!’ he cried, throwing up his hands. ‘The best of fathers! The kindest of kings! See that my words are placed upon the record, clerk! The most indulgent of parents! But wayward children must, with all kindness, be flogged into obedience. Here he broke into a savage grin. ‘The King will save your own natural parents all further care on your account. If they had wished to keep ye, they should have brought ye up in better principles. Rogues, we shall be merciful to ye — oh, merciful, merciful! How many are here, recorder?’
‘Fifty and one, my Lord.’
‘Oh, sink of villainy! Fifty and one as arrant knaves as ever lay on a hurdle! Oh, what a mass of corruption have we here! Who defends the villains?’
‘I defend the prisoners, your Lordship,’ replied the young lawyer.
‘Master Helstrop, Master Helstrop!’ cried Jeffreys, shaking his great wig until the powder flew out of it; ‘you are in all these dirty cases, Master Helstrop. You might find yourself in a parlous condition, Master Helstrop. I think sometimes that I see you yourself in the dock, Master Helstrop. You may yourself soon need the help of a gentleman of the long robe, Master Helstrop. Oh, have a care! Have a care!’
‘The brief is from the Crown, your Lordship,’ the lawyer answered, in a quavering voice.
‘Must I be answered back, then!’ roared Jeffreys, his black eyes blazing with the rage of a demon. ‘Am I to be insulted in my own court? Is every five-groat piece of a pleader, because he chance to have a wig and a gown, to browbeat the Lord Justice, and to fly in the face of the ruling of the Court? Oh, Master Helstrop, I fear that I shall live to see some evil come upon you!’
‘I crave your Lordship’s pardon!’ cried the faint-hearted barrister, with his face the colour of his brief.
‘Keep a guard upon your words and upon your actions?’ Jeffreys answered, in a menacing voice. ‘See that you are not too zealous in the cause of the scum of the earth. How now, then? What do these one and fifty villains desire to say for themselves? What is their lie? Gentlemen of the jury, I beg that ye will take particular notice of the cut-throat faces of these men. ’Tis well that Colonel Kirke hath afforded the Court a sufficient guard, for neither justice nor the Church is safe at their hands.’
‘Forty of them desire to plead guilty to the charge of taking up arms against the King,’ replied our barrister.
‘Ah!’ roared the Judge. ‘Was ever such unparalleled impudence? Was there ever such brazen effrontery? Guilty, quotha! Have they expressed their repentance for this sin against a most kind and long-suffering monarch! Put down those words on the record, clerk!’
‘They have refused to express repentance, your Lordship!’ replied the counsel for the defence.
‘Oh, the parricides! Oh, the shameless rogues!’ cried the Judge. ‘Put the forty together on this side of the enclosure. Oh, gentlemen, have ye ever seen such a concentration of vice? See how baseness and wickedness can stand with head erect! Oh, hardened monsters! But the other eleven. How can they expect us to believe this transparent falsehood — this palpable device? How can they foist it upon the Court?’
‘My Lord, their defence hath not yet been advanced!’ stammered Master Helstrop.
‘I can sniff a lie before it is uttered,’ roared the Judge, by no means abashed. ‘I can read it as quick as ye can think it. Come, come, the Court’s time is precious. Put forward a defence, or seat yourself, and let judgment be passed.’
‘These men, my Lord,’ said the counsel, who was trembling until the parchment rattled in his hand. ‘These eleven men, my Lord —’
‘Eleven devils, my Lord,’ interrupted Jeffreys.
‘They are innocent peasants, my Lord, who love God and the King, and have in no wise mingled themselves in this recent business. They have been dragged from their homes, my Lord, not because there was suspicion against them, but because they could not satisfy the greed of certain common soldiers who were balked of plunder in-’
‘Oh, shame, shame!’ cried Jeffreys, in a voice of thunder. ‘Oh, threefold shame, Master Helstrop! Are you not content with bolstering up rebels, but you must go out of your way to slander the King’s troops? What is this world coming to? What, in a word, is the defence of these rogues?’
‘An alibi, your Lordship.’
‘Ha! The common plea of every scoundrel. Have they witnesses?’
‘We have here a list of forty witnesses, your Lordship. They are waiting below, many of them having come great distances, and with much toil and trouble.’
‘Who are they? What are they?’ cried Jeffreys.
‘They are country folk, your Lordship. Cottagers and farmers, the neighbours of these poor men, who knew them well, and can speak as to their doings.’
‘Cottagers and farmers!’ the Judge shouted. ‘Why, then, they are drawn from the very class from which these men come. Would you have us believe the oath of those who are themselves Whigs, Presbyterians, Somersetshire ranters, the pothouse companions of the men whom we are trying? I warrant they have arranged it all snugly over their beer — snugly, snugly, the rogues!’
‘Will you not hear the witnesses, your Lordship?’ cried our counsel, shamed into some little sense of manhood by this outrage.
‘Not a word from them, sirrah,’ said Jeffreys. ‘It is a question whether my duty towards my kind master the King — write down “kind master,” clerk — doth not warrant me in placing all your witnesses in the dock as the aiders and abettors of treason.’
‘If it please your Lordship,’ cried one of the prisoners, ‘I have for witnesses Mr. Johnson, of Nether Stowey, who is a good Tory, and also Mr. Shepperton, the clergyman.’
‘The more shame to them to appear in such a cause,’ replied Jeffreys. ‘What are we to say, gentlemen of the jury, when we see county gentry and the clergy of the Established Church supporting treason and rebellion in this fashion? Surely the last days are at hand! You are a most malignant and dangerous Whig to have so far drawn them from their duty.’
‘But hear me, my Lord!’ cried one of the prisoners.
‘Hear you, you bellowing calf!’ shouted the Judge. ‘We can hear naught else. Do you think that you are back in your conventicle, that you should dare to raise your voice in such a fashion? Hear you, quotha! We shall hear you at the end of a rope, ere many days.’
‘We scarce think, your Lordship,’ said one of the Crown lawyers, springing to his feet amid a great rustling of papers, ‘we scarce think that it is necessary for the Crown to state any case. We have already heard the whole tale of this most damnable and execrable attempt many times over. The men in the dock before your Lordship have for the most part confessed to their guilt, and of those who hold out there is not one who has given us any reason to believe that he is innocent of the foul crime laid to his charge. The gentlemen of the long robe are therefore unanimously of opinion that the jury may at once be required to pronounce a single verdict upon the whole of the prisoners.’
‘Which is —?’ asked Jeffreys, glancing round at the foreman —
‘Guilty, your Lordship,’ said he, with a grin, while his brother jurymen nodded their heads and laughed to one another.
‘Of course, of course! guilty as Judas Iscariot!’ cried the Judge, looking down with exultant eyes at the throng of peasants and burghers before him. ‘Move them a little forwards, ushers, that I may see them to more advantage. Oh, ye cunning ones! Are ye not taken? Are ye not compassed around? Where now can ye fly? Do ye not see hell opening at your feet? Eh? Are ye not afraid? Oh, short, short shall be your shrift!’ The very devil seemed to be in the man, for as he spoke he writhed with unholy laughter, and drummed his hand upon the red cushion in front of him. I glanced round at my companions, but their faces were all as though they had been chiselled out of marble. If he had hoped to see a moist eye or a quivering lip, the satisfaction was denied him.
‘Had I my way,’ said he, ‘there is not one of ye but should swing for it. Aye, and if I had my way, some of those whose stomachs are too nice for this work, and who profess to serve the King with their lips while they intercede for his worst enemies, should themselves have cause to remember Taunton assizes. Oh, most ungrateful rebels! Have ye not heard how your most soft-hearted and compassionate monarch, the best of men — put it down in the record, clerk — on the intercession of that great and charitable statesman, Lord Sunderland — mark it down, clerk — hath had pity on ye? Hath it not melted ye? Hath it not made ye loathe yourselves? I declare, when I think of it’— here, with a sudden catching of the breath, he burst out a-sobbing, the tears running down his cheeks —‘when I think of it, the Christian forbearance, the ineffable mercy, it doth bring forcibly to my mind that great Judge before whom all of us — even I— shall one day have to render an account. Shall I repeat it, clerk, or have you it down?’
‘I have it down, your Lordship.’
‘Then write “sobs” in the margin. ’Tis well that the King should know our opinion on such matters. Know, then, you most traitorous and unnatural rebels, that this good father whom ye have spurned has stepped in between yourselves and the laws which ye have offended. At his command we withhold from ye the chastisement which ye have merited. If ye can indeed pray, and if your soul-cursing conventicles have not driven all grace out of ye, drop on your knees and offer up thanks when I tell ye that he hath ordained that ye shall all have a free pardon.’ Here the Judge rose from his seat as though about to descend from the tribunal, and we gazed upon each other in the utmost astonishment at this most unlooked-for end to the trial. The soldiers and lawyers were equally amazed, while a hum of joy and applause rose up from the few country folk who had dared to venture within the accursed precincts.
‘This pardon, however,’ continued Jeffreys, turning round with a malicious smile upon his face, ‘is coupled with certain conditions and limitations. Ye shall all be removed from here to Poole, in chains, where ye shall find a vessel awaiting ye. With others ye shall be stowed away in the hold of the said vessel, and conveyed at the King’s expense to the Plantations, there to be sold as slaves. God send ye masters who will know by the free use of wood and leather to soften your stubborn thoughts and incline your mind to better things.’ He was again about to withdraw, when one of the Crown lawyers whispered something across to him.
‘Well thought of, coz,’ cried the Judge. ‘I had forgot. Bring back the prisoners, ushers! Perhaps ye think that by the Plantations I mean his Majesty’s American dominions. Unhappily, there are too many of your breed in that part already. Ye would fall among friends who might strengthen ye in your evil courses, and so risk your salvation. To send ye there would be to add one brand to another and yet hope to put out the fire. By the Plantations, therefore, I mean Barbadoes and the Indies, where ye shall live with the other slaves, whose skins may be blacker than yours, but I dare warrant that their souls are more white.’ With this concluding speech the trial ended, and we were led back through the crowded streets to the prison from which we had been brought. On either side of the street, as we passed, we could see the limbs of former companions dangling in the wind, and their heads grinning at us from the tops of poles and pikes. No savage country in the heart of heathen Africa could have presented a more dreadful sight than did the old English town of Taunton when Jeffreys and Kirke had the ordering of it. There was death in the air, and the townsfolk crept silently about, scarcely daring to wear black for those whom they had loved and lost, lest it should be twisted into an act of treason.
We were scarce back in the wool-house once more when a file of guards with a sergeant entered, escorting a long, pale-faced man with protruding teeth, whose bright blue coat and white silk breeches, gold-headed sword, and glancing shoe-buckles, proclaimed him to be one of those London exquisites whom interest or curiosity had brought down to the scene of the rebellion. He tripped along upon his tiptoes like a French dancing-master, waving his scented kerchief in front of his thin high nose, and inhaling aromatic salts from a blue phial which he carried in his left hand.
‘By the Lard!’ he cried, ‘but the stench of these filthy wretches is enough to stap one’s breath. It is, by the Lard! Smite my vitals if I would venture among them if I were not a very rake hell. Is there a danger of prison fever, sergeant? Heh?’
‘They are all sound as roaches, your honour,’ said the under-officer, touching his cap.
‘Heh, heh!’ cried the exquisite, with a shrill treble laugh. ‘It is not often ye have a visit from a person of quality, I’ll warrant. It is business, sergeant, business! “Auri sacra fames”— you remember what Virgilius Maro says, sergeant?’
‘Never heard the gentleman speak, sir — at least not to my knowledge, sir,’ said the sergeant.
‘Heh, heh! Never heard him speak, heh? That will do for Slaughter’s, sergeant. That will set them all in a titter at Slaughter’s. Pink my soul! but when I venture on a story the folk complain that they can’t get served, for the drawers laugh until there is no work to be got out of them. Oh, lay me bleeding, but these are a filthy and most ungodly crew! Let the musqueteers stand close, sergeant, lest they fly at me.’
‘We shall see to that, your honour.’
‘I have a grant of a dozen of them, and Captain Pogram hath offered me twelve pounds a head. But they must be brawny rogues — strong and brawny, for the voyage kills many, sergeant, and the climate doth also tell upon them. Now here is one whom I must have. Yes, in very truth he is a young man, and hath much life in him and much strength. Tick him off, sergeant, tick him off!’
‘His name is Clarke,’ said the soldier. ‘I have marked him down.’
‘If this is the clerk I would I had a parson to match him,’ cried the fop, sniffing at his bottle. ‘Do you see the pleasantry, sergeant. Heh, heh! Does your sluggish mind rise to the occasion? Strike me purple, but I am in excellent fettle! There is yonder man with the brown face, you can mark him down. And the young man beside him, also. Tick him off. Ha, he waves his hand towards me! Stand firm, sergeant! Where are my salts? What is it, man, what is it?’
‘If it plaize your han’r,’ said the young peasant, ‘if so be as you have chose me to be of a pairty, I trust that you will allow my vaither yander to go with us also.’
‘Pshaw, pshaw!’ cried the fop, ‘you are beyond reason, you are indeed! Who ever heard of such a thing? Honour forbids it! How could I foist an old man upon mine honest friend, Captain Pogram. Fie, fie! Split me asunder if he would not say that I had choused him! There is yonder lusty fellow with the red head, sergeant! The blacks will think he is a-fire. Those, and these six stout yokels, will make up my dozen.’
‘You have indeed the pick of them,’ said the sergeant.
‘Aye, sink me, but I have a quick eye for horse, man, or woman! I’ll pick the best of a batch with most. Twelve twelves, close on a hundred and fifty pieces, sergeant, and all for a few words, my friend, all for a few words. I did but send my wife, a demmed handsome woman, mark you, and dresses in the mode, to my good friend the secretary to ask for some rebels. “How many?” says he. “A dozen will do,” says she. It was all done in a penstroke. What a cursed fool she was not to have asked for a hundred! But what is this, sergeant, what is this?’
A small, brisk, pippin-faced fellow in a riding-coat and high boots had come clanking into the wool-house with much assurance and authority, with a great old-fashioned sword trailing behind him, and a riding-whip switching in his hand.
‘Morning, sergeant!’ said he, in a loud, overbearing voice. ‘You may have heard my name? I am Master John Wooton, of Langmere House, near Dulverton, who bestirred himself so for the King, and hath been termed by Mr. Godolphin, in the House of Commons, one of the local pillars of the State. Those were his words. Fine, were they not? Pillars, mark ye, the conceit being that the State was, as it were, a palace or a temple, and the loyal men so many pillars, amongst whom I also was one. I am a local pillar. I have received a Royal permit, sergeant, to choose from amongst your prisoners ten sturdy rogues whom I may sell as a reward to me for my exertions. Draw them up, therefore, that I may make my choice!’
‘Then, sir, we are upon the same errand,’ quoth the Londoner, bowing with his hand over his heart, until his sword seemed to point straight up to the ceiling. ‘The Honourable George Dawnish, at your service! Your very humble and devoted servant, sir! Yours to command in any or all ways. It is a real joy and privilege to me, sir, to make your distinguished acquaintance. Hem!’
The country squire appeared to be somewhat taken aback at this shower of London compliments. ‘Ahem, sir! Yes, sir!’ said he, bobbing his head. ‘Glad to see you, sir! Most damnably so! But these men, sergeant? Time presses, for tomorrow is Shepton market, and I would fain see my old twenty-score boar once more before he is sold. There is a beefy one. I’ll have him.’
‘Ged, I’ve forestalled you,’ cried the courtier. ‘Sink me, but it gives me real pain. He is mine.’
‘Then this,’ said the other, pointing with his whip.
‘He is mine, too. Heh, heh, heh! Strike me stiff, but this is too funny!’
‘Od’s wounds! How many are yours!’ cried the Dulverton squire.
‘A dozen. Heh, heh! A round dozen. All those who stand upon this side. Pink me, but I have got the best of you there! The early bird — you know the old saw!’
‘It is a disgrace,’ the squire cried hotly. ‘A shame and a disgrace. We must needs fight for the King and risk our skins, and then when all is done, down come a drove of lacqueys in waiting, and snap up the pickings before their betters are served.’
‘Lacqueys in waiting, sir!’ shrieked the exquisite. ‘S’death, sir! This toucheth mine honour very nearly! I have seen blood flow, yes, sir, and wounds gape on less provocation. Retract, sir, retract!’
‘Away, you clothes-pole!’ cried the other contemptuously. ‘You are come like the other birds of carrion when the fight is o’er. Have you been named in full Parliament? Are you a local pillar? Away, away, you tailor’s dummy!’
‘You insolent clodhopper!’ cried the fop. ‘You most foul-mouthed bumpkin! The only local pillar that you have ever deserved to make acquaintance with is the whipping-post. Ha, sergeant, he lays his hand upon his sword! Stop him, sergeant, stop him, or I may do him an injury.’
‘Nay, gentlemen,’ cried the under officer. ‘This quarrel must not continue here. We must have no brawling within the prison. Yet there is a level turf without, and as fine elbow-room as a gentleman could wish for a breather.’
This proposal did not appear to commend itself to either of the angry gentlemen, who proceeded to exchange the length of their swords, and to promise that each should hear from the other before sunset. Our owner, as I may call him, the fop, took his departure at last, and the country squire having chosen the next ton swaggered off, cursing the courtiers, the Londoners, the sergeant, the prisoners, and above all, the ingratitude of the Government which had made him so small a return for his exertions. This was but the first of many such scenes, for the Government, in endeavouring to satisfy the claims of its supporters, had promised many more than there were prisoners. I am grieved to say that I have seen not only men, but even my own countrywomen, and ladies of title to boot, wringing their hands and bewailing themselves because they were unable to get any of the poor Somersetshire folk to sell as slaves. Indeed, it was only with difficulty that they could be made to see that their claim upon Government did not give them the right of seizing any burgher or peasant who might come in their way, and shipping him right off for the Plantations.
Well, my dear grandchildren, from night to night through this long and weary winter I have taken you back with me into the past, and made you see scenes the players in which are all beneath the turf, save that perhaps here and there some greybeard like myself may have a recollection of them. I understand that you, Joseph, have every morning set down upon paper that which I have narrated the night before. It is as well that you should do so, for your own children and your children’s children may find it of interest, and even perhaps take a pride in hearing that their ancestors played a part in such scenes. But now the spring is coming, and the green is bare of snow, so that there are better things for you to do than to sit listening to the stories of a garrulous old man. Nay, nay, you shake your heads, but indeed those young limbs want exercising and strengthening and knitting together, which can never come from sitting toasting round the blaze. Besides, my story draws quickly to an end now, for I had never intended to tell you more than the events connected with the Western rising. If the closing part hath been of the dreariest, and if all doth not wind up with the ringing of bells and the joining of hands, like the tales in the chap-books, you must blame history and not me. For Truth is a stern mistress, and when one hath once started off with her one must follow on after the jade, though she lead in flat defiance of all the rules and conditions which would fain turn that tangled wilderness the world into the trim Dutch garden of the story-tellers.
Three days after our trial we were drawn up in North Street in front of the Castle with others from the other prisons who were to share our fate. We were placed four abreast, with a rope connecting each rank, and of these ranks I counted fifty, which would bring our total to two hundred. On each side of us rode dragoons, and in front and behind were companies of musqueteers to prevent any attempt at rescue or escape. In this order we set off upon the tenth day of September, amidst the weeping and wailing of the townsfolk, many of whom saw their sons or brothers marching off into exile without their being able to exchange a last word or embrace with them. Some of these poor folk, doddering old men and wrinkled, decrepit women, toiled for miles after us down the high-road, until the rearguard of foot faced round upon them, and drove them away with curses and blows from their ramrods.
That day we made our way through Yeovil and Sherborne, and on the morrow proceeded over tho North Downs as far as Blandford, where we were penned together like cattle and left for the night. On the third day we resumed our march through Wimbourne and a line of pretty Dorsetshire villages — the last English villages which most of us were destined to see for many a long year to come. Late in the afternoon the spars and rigging of the shipping in Poole Harbour rose up before us, and in another hour we had descended the steep and craggy path which leads to the town. Here we were drawn up upon the quay opposite the broad-decked, heavy-sparred brig which was destined to carry us into slavery. Through all this march we met with the greatest kindness from tho common people, who flocked out from their cottages with fruit and with milk, which they divided amongst us. At other places, at, the risk of their lives, Dissenting ministers came forth and stood by the wayside, blessing us as we passed, in spite of the rough jeers and oaths of the soldiers.
We were marched aboard and led below by the mate of the vessel, a tall red-faced seaman with ear-rings in his ears, while the captain stood on the poop with his legs apart and a pipe in his mouth, checking us off one by one by means of a list which he held in his hand. As he looked at the sturdy build and rustic health of the peasants, which even their long confinement had been unable to break down, his eyes glistened, and he rubbed his big red hands together with delight.
‘Show them down, Jem!’ he kept shouting to the mate. ‘Stow them safe, Jem! There’s lodgings for a duchess down there, s’help me, there’s lodgings for a duchess! Pack ’em away!’
One by one we passed before the delighted captain, and down the steep ladder which led into the hold. Here we were led along a narrow passage, on either side of which opened the stalls which were prepared for us. As each man came opposite to the one set aside for him he was thrown into it by the brawny mate, and fastened down with anklets of iron by the seaman armourer in attendance. It was dark before we were all secured, but the captain came round with a lanthorn to satisfy himself that all his property was really safe. I could hear the mate and him reckoning the value of each prisoner, and counting what he would fetch in the Barbadoes market.
‘Have you served out their fodder, Jem?’ he asked, flashing his light into each stall in turn. ‘Have you seen that they had their rations?’
‘A rye bread loaf and a pint o’ water,’ answered the mate.
‘Fit for a duchess, s’help me!’ cried the captain. ‘Look to this one, Jem. He is a lusty rogue. Look to his great hands. He might work for years in the rice-swamps ere the land crabs have the picking of him.’
‘Aye, we’ll have smart bidding amid the settlers for this lot. ‘Cod, captain, but you have made a bargain of it! Od’s bud! you have done these London fools to some purpose.’
‘What is this?’ roared the captain. ‘Here is one who hath not touched his allowance. How now, sirrah, art too dainty in the stomach to eat what your betters have eaten before you?’
‘I have no hairt for food, zur,’ the prisoner answered.
‘What, you must have your whims and fancies! You must pick and you must choose! I tell you, sirrah, that you are mine, body and soul! Twelve good pieces I paid for you, and now, forsooth, I am to be told that you will not eat! Turn to it at this instant, you saucy rogue, or I shall have you triced to the triangles!’
‘Here is another,’ said the mate, ‘who sits ever with his head sunk upon his breast without spirit or life.’
‘Mutinous, obstinate dog!’ cried the captain. ‘What ails you then? Why have you a face like an underwriter in a tempest?’
‘If it plaize you, zur,’ the prisoner answered, ‘Oi do but think o’ m’ ould mother at Wellington, and woonder who will kape her now that Oi’m gone!’
‘And what is that to me?’ shouted the brutal seaman. ‘How can you arrive at your journey’s end sound and hearty if you sit like a sick fowl upon a perch? Laugh, man, and be merry, or I will give you something to weep for. Out on you, you chicken-hearted swab, to sulk and fret like a babe new weaned! Have you not all that heart could desire? Give him a touch with the rope’s-end, Jem, if ever you do observe him fretting. It is but to spite us that he doth it.’
‘If it please your honour,’ said a seaman, coming hurriedly down from the deck, ‘there is a stranger upon the poop who will have speech with your honour.’
‘What manner of man, sirrah?’
‘Surely he is a person of quality, your honour. He is as free wi’ his words as though he were the captain o’ the ship. The boatswain did but jog against him, and he swore so woundily at him and stared at him so, wi’ een like a tiger-cat, that Job Harrison says we have shipped the devil himsel.’ The men don’t like the look of him, your honour!’
‘Who the plague can this spark be?’ said the skipper. ‘Go on deck, Jem, and tell him that I am counting my live stock, and that I shall be with him anon.’
‘Nay, your honour! There will trouble come of it unless you come up. He swears that he will not bear to be put off, and that he must see you on the instant.’
‘Curse his blood, whoever he be!’ growled the seaman. ‘Every cock on his own dunghill. What doth the rogue mean? Were he the Lord High Privy Seal, I would have him to know that I am lord of my own quarter-deck!’ So saying, with many snorts of indignation, the mate and the captain withdrew together up the ladder, banging the heavy hatchways down as they passed through.
A single oil-lamp swinging from a beam in the centre of the gangway which led between the rows of cells was the only light which was vouchsafed us. By its yellow, murky glimmer we could dimly see the great wooden ribs of the vessel, arching up on either side of us, and crossed by the huge beams which held the deck. A grievous stench from foul bilge water poisoned the close, heavy air. Every now and then, with a squeak and a clutter, a rat would dart across the little zone of light and vanish in the gloom upon the further side. Heavy breathing all round me showed that my companions, wearied out by their journey and their sufferings, had dropped into a slumber. From time to time one could hear the dismal clank of fetters, and the start and incatching of the breath, as some poor peasant, fresh from dreams of his humble homestead amid the groves of the Mendips, awoke of a sudden to see the great wooden coffin around him, and to breathe the venomous air of the prison ship.
I lay long awake full of thought both for myself and for the poor souls around me. At last, however, the measured swash of the water against the side of the vessel and the slight rise and fall had lulled me into a sleep, from which I was suddenly aroused by the flashing of a light in my eyes. Sitting up, I found several sailors gathered about me, and a tall man with a black cloak swathed round him swinging a lanthorn over me.
‘That is the man,’ he said.
‘Come, mate, you are to come on deck!’ said the seaman armourer. With a few blows from his hammer he knocked the irons from my feet.
‘Follow me!’ said the tall stranger, and led the way up the hatchway ladder. It was heavenly to come out into the pure air once more. The stars were shining brightly overhead. A fresh breeze blew from the shore, and hummed a pleasant tune among the cordage. Close beside us the lights of the town gleamed yellow and cheery. Beyond, the moon was peeping over the Bournemouth hills.
‘This way, sir,’ said the sailor, ‘right aft into the cabin, sir.’
Still following my guide, I found myself in the low cabin of the brig. A square shining table stood in the centre, with a bright swinging lamp above it. At the further end in the glare of the light sat the captain — his face shining with greed and expectation. On the table stood a small pile of gold pieces, a rum-flask, glasses, a tobacco-box, and two long pipes.
‘My compliments to you, Captain Clarke,’ said the skipper, bobbing his round bristling head. ‘An honest seaman’s compliments to you. It seems that we are not to be shipmates this voyage, after all.’
‘Captain Micah Clarke must do a voyage of his own,’ said the stranger.
At the sound of his voice I sprang round in amazement. ‘Good Heavens!’ I cried, ‘Saxon!’
‘You have nicked it,’ said he, throwing down his mantle and showing the well-known face and figure of the soldier of fortune. ‘Zounds, man! if you can pick me out of the Solent, I suppose that I may pick you out of this accursed rat-trap in which I find you. Tie and tie, as we say at the green table. In truth, I was huffed with you when last we parted, but I have had you in my mind for all that.’
‘A seat and a glass, Captain Clarke,’ cried the skipper. ‘Od’s bud! I should think that you would be glad to raise your little finger and wet your whistle after what you have gone through.’
I seated myself by the table with my brain in a whirl. ‘This is more than I can fathom,’ said I. ‘What is the meaning of it, and how comes it about?’
‘For my own part, the meaning is as clear as the glass of my binnacle,’ quoth the seaman. ‘Your good friend Colonel Saxon, as I understand his name to be, has offered me as much as I could hope to gain by selling you in the Indies. Sink it, I may be rough and ready, but my heart is in the right place! Aye, aye! I would not maroon a man if I could set him free. But we have all to look for ourselves, and trade is dull.’
‘Then I am free!’ said I.
‘You are free,’ he answered. ‘There is your purchase-money upon the table. You can go where you will, save only upon the land of England, where you are still an outlaw under sentence.’
‘How have you done this, Saxon?’ I asked. ‘Are you not afraid for yourself?’
‘Ho, ho!’ laughed the old soldier. ‘I am a free man, my lad! I hold my pardon, and care not a maravedi for spy or informer. Who should I meet but Colonel Kirke a day or so back. Yes, lad! I met him in the street, and I cocked my hat in his face. The villain laid his hand upon his hilt, and I should have out bilbo and sent his soul to hell had they not come between us. I care not the ashes of this pipe for Jeffreys or any other of them. I can snap this finger and thumb at them, so! They would rather see Decimus Saxon’s back than his face, I promise ye!’
‘But how comes this about?’ I asked.
‘Why, marry, it is no mystery. Cunning old birds are not to be caught with chaff. When I left you I made for a certain inn where I could count upon finding a friend. There I lay by for a while, en cachette, as the Messieurs call it, while I could work out the plan that was in my head. Donner wetter! but I got a fright from that old seaman friend of yours, who should be sold as a picture, for he is of little use as a man. Well, I bethought me early in the affair of your visit to Badminton, and of the Duke of B. We shall mention no names, but you can follow my meaning. To him I sent a messenger, to the effect that I purposed to purchase my own pardon by letting out all that I knew concerning his double dealing with the rebels. The message was carried to him secretly, and his answer was that I should meet him at a certain spot by night. I sent my messenger instead of myself, and he was found in the morning stiff and stark, with more holes in his doublet than ever the tailor made. On this I sent again, raising my demands, and insisting upon a speedy settlement. He asked my conditions. I replied, a free pardon and a command for myself. For you, money enough to land you safely in some foreign country where you can pursue the noble profession of arms. I got them both, though it was like drawing teeth from his head. His name hath much power at Court just now, and the King can refuse him nothing. I have my pardon and a command of troops in New England. For you I have two hundred pieces, of which thirty have been paid in ransom to the captain, while twenty are due to me for my disbursements over the matter. In this bag you will find the odd hundred and fifty, of which you will pay fifteen to the fishermen who have promised to see you safe to Flushing.’
I was, as you may readily believe, my dear children, bewildered by this sudden and most unlooked-for turn which events had taken. When Saxon had ceased to speak I sat as one stunned, trying to realise what he had said to me. There came a thought into my head, however, which chilled the glow of hope and of happiness which had sprung up in me at the thought of recovering my freedom. My presence had been a support and a comfort to my unhappy companions. Would it not be a cruel thing to leave them in their distress? There was not one of them who did not look to me in his trouble, and to the best of my poor power I had befriended and consoled them. How could I desert them now?
‘I am much beholden to you, Saxon,’ I said at last, speaking slowly and with some difficulty, for the words were hard to utter. ‘But I fear that your pains have been thrown away. These poor country folk have none to look after or assist them. They are as simple as babes, and as little fitted to be landed in a strange country. I cannot find it in my heart to leave them!’
Saxon burst out laughing, and leaned back in his seat with his long legs stretched straight out and his hands in his breeches pockets.
‘This is too much!’ he said at last. ‘I saw many difficulties in my way, yet I did not foresee this one. You are in very truth the most contrary man that ever stood in neat’s leather. You have ever some outlandish reason for jibbing and shying like a hot-blooded, half-broken colt. Yet I think that I can overcome these strange scruples of yours by a little persuasion.’
‘As to the prisoners, Captain Clarke,’ said the seaman, ‘I’ll be as good as a father to them. S’help me, I will, on the word of an honest sailor! If you should choose to lay out a trifle of twenty pieces upon their comfort, I shall see that their food is such as mayhap many of them never got at their own tables. They shall come on deck, too, in watches, and have an hour or two o’ fresh air in the day. I can’t say fairer!’
‘A word or two with you on deck!’ said Saxon. He walked out of the cabin and I followed him to the far end of the poop, where we stood leaning against the bulwarks. One by one the lights had gone out in the town, until the black ocean beat against a blacker shore.
‘You need not have any fear of the future of the prisoners,’ he said, in a low whisper. ‘They are not bound for the Barbadoes, nor will this skinflint of a captain have the selling of them, for all that he is so cocksure. If he can bring his own skin out of the business, it will be more than I expect. He hath a man aboard his ship who would think no more of giving him a tilt over the side than I should.’
‘What mean you, Saxon?’ I cried.
‘Hast ever heard of a man named Marot?’
‘Hector Marot! Yes, surely I knew him well. A highwayman he was, but a mighty stout man with a kind heart beneath a thief’s jacket.’
‘The same. He is as you say a stout man and a resolute swordsman, though from what I have seen of his play he is weak in stoccado, and perhaps somewhat too much attached to the edge, and doth not give prominence enough to the point, in which respect he neglects the advice and teaching of the most noteworthy fencers in Europe. Well, well, folk differ on this as on every other subject! Yet it seems to me that I would sooner be carried off the field after using my weapon secundum artem, than walk off unscathed after breaking the laws d’escrime. Quarte, tierce, and saccoon, say I, and the devil take your estramacons and passados!’
‘But what of Marot?’ I asked impatiently.
‘He is aboard,’ said Saxon. ‘It appears that he was much disturbed in his mind over the cruelties which were inflicted on the country folk after the battle at Bridgewater. Being a man of a somewhat stern and fierce turn of mind, his disapproval did vent itself in actions rather than words. Soldiers were found here and there over the countryside pistolled or stabbed, and no trace left of their assailant. A dozen or more were cut off in this way, and soon it came to be whispered about that Marot the highwayman was the man that did it, and the chase became hot at his heels.’
‘Well, and what then?’ I asked, for Saxon had stopped to light his pipe at the same old metal tinder-box which he had used when first I met him. When I picture Saxon to myself it is usually of that moment that I think, when the red glow beat upon his hard, eager, hawk-like face, and showed up the thousand little seams and wrinkles which time and care had imprinted upon his brown, weather-beaten skin. Sometimes in my dreams that face in the darkness comes back to me, and his half-closed eyelids and shifting, blinky eyes are turned towards me in his sidelong fashion, until I find myself sitting up and holding out my hand into empty space, half expecting to feel another thin sinewy hand close round it. A bad man he was in many ways, my dears, cunning and wily, with little scruple or conscience; and yet so strange a thing is human nature, and so difficult is it for us to control our feelings, that my heart warms when I think of him, and that fifty years have increased rather than weakened the kindliness which I hear to him.
‘I had heard,’ quoth he, puffing slowly at his pipe, ‘that Marot was a man of this kidney, and also that he was so compassed round that he was in peril of capture. I sought him out, therefore, and held council with him. His mare, it seems, had been slain by some chance shot, and as he was much attached to the brute, the accident made him more savage and more dangerous than ever. He had no heart, he said, to continue in his old trade. Indeed, he was ripe for anything — the very stuff out of which useful tools are made. I found that in his youth he had had a training for the sea. When I heard that, I saw my way in the snap of a petronel.’
‘What then?’ I asked. ‘I am still in the dark.’
‘Nay, it is surely plain enough to you now. Marot’s end was to baffle his pursuers and to benefit the exiles. How could he do this better than by engaging as a seaman aboard this brig, the Dorothy Fox, and sailing away from England in her? There are but thirty of a crew. Below hatches are close on two hundred men, who, simple as they may be, are, as you and I know, second to none in the cut-and-thrust work, without order or discipline, which will be needed in such an affair. Marot has but to go down amongst them some dark night, knock off their anklets, and fit them up with a few stanchions or cudgels. Ho, ho, Micah! what think you? The planters may dig their plantations themselves for all the help they are like to get from West countrymen this bout.’
‘It is, indeed, a well-conceived plan,’ said I. ‘It is a pity, Saxon, that your ready wit and quick invention hath not had a fair field. You are, us I know well, as fit to command armies and to order campaigns as any man that ever bore a truncheon.’
‘Mark ye there!’ whispered Saxon, grasping me by the arm. ‘See where the moonlight falls beside the hatchway! Do you not see that short squat seaman who stands alone, lost in thought, with his head sunk upon his breast? It is Marot! I tell you that if I were Captain Pogram I would rather have the devil himself, horns, hoofs, and tail, for my first mate and bunk companion, than have that man aboard my ship. You need not concern yourself about the prisoners, Micah. Their future is decided.’
‘Then, Saxon,’ I answered, ‘it only remains for me to thank you, and to accept the means of safety which you have placed within my reach.’
‘Spoken like a man,’ said he; ‘is there aught which I may do for thee in England? though, by the Mass, I may not be here very long myself, for, as I understand, I am to be entrusted with the command of an expedition that is fitting out against the Indians, who have ravaged the plantations of our settlers. It will be good to get to some profitable employment, for such a war, without either fighting or plunder, I have never seen. I give you my word that I have scarce fingered silver since the beginning of it. I would not for the sacking of London go through with it again.’
‘There is a friend whom Sir Gervas Jerome did commend to my care,’ I remarked; ‘I have, however, already taken measures to have his wishes carried out. There is naught else save to assure all in Havant that a King who hath battened upon his subjects, as this one of ours hath done, is not one who is like to keep his seat very long upon the throne of England. When he falls I shall return, and perhaps it may be sooner than folk think.’
‘These doings in the West have indeed stirred up much ill-feeling all over the country,’ said my companion. ‘On all hands I hear that there is more hatred of the King and of his ministers than before the outbreak. What ho, Captain Pogram, this way! We have settled the matter, and my friend is willing to go.’
‘I thought he would tack round,’ the captain said, staggering towards us with a gait which showed that he had made the rum bottle his companion since we had left him. ‘S’help me, I was sure of it! Though, by the Mass, I don’t wonder that he thought twice before leaving the Dorothy Fox, for she is fitted up fit for a duchess, s’help me! Where is your boat?’
‘Alongside,’ replied Saxon; ‘my friend joins with me in hoping that you, Captain Pogram, will have a pleasant and profitable voyage.’
‘I am cursedly beholden to him,’ said the captain, with a flourish of his three-cornered hat.
‘Also that you will reach Barbadoes in safety.’
‘Little doubt of that!’ quoth the captain.
‘And that you will dispose of your wares in a manner which will repay you for your charity and humanity.’
‘Nay, these are handsome words,’ cried the captain. ‘Sir, I am your debtor.’
A fishing-boat was lying alongside the brig. By the murky light of the poop lanterns I could see the figures upon her deck, and the great brown sail all ready for hoisting. I climbed the bulwark and set my foot upon the rope-ladder which led down to her.
‘Good-bye, Decimus!’ said I.
‘Good-bye, my lad! You have your pieces all safe?’
‘I have them.’
‘Then I have one other present to make you. It was brought to me by a sergeant of the Royal Horse. It is that, Micah, on which you must now depend for food, lodging, raiment, and all which you would have. It is that to which a brave man can always look for his living. It is the knife wherewith you can open the world’s oyster. See, lad, it is your sword!’
‘The old sword! My father’s sword!’ I cried in delight, as Saxon drew from under his mantle and handed to me the discoloured, old-fashioned leathern sheath with the heavy brass hilt which I knew so well.
‘You are now,’ said he, ‘one of the old and honourable guild of soldiers of fortune. While the Turk is still snarling at the gates of Vienna there will ever be work for strong arms and brave hearts. You will find that among these wandering, fighting men, drawn from all climes and nations, the name of Englishman stands high. Well I know that it will stand none the lower for your having joined the brotherhood. I would that I could come with you, but I am promised pay and position which it would be ill to set aside. Farewell, lad, and may fortune go with you!’
I pressed the rough soldier’s horny hand, and descended into the fishing-boat. The rope that held us was cast off, the sail mounted up, and the boat shot out across the bay. Onward she went and on, through the gathering gloom — a gloom as dark and impenetrable as the future towards which my life’s bark was driving. Soon the long rise and fall told us that we were over the harbour bar and out in the open channel. On the land, scattered twinkling lights at long stretches marked the line of the coast. As I gazed backwards a cloud trailed off from the moon, and I saw the hard lines of the brig’s rigging stand out against the white cold disk. By the shrouds stood the veteran, holding to a rope with one hand, and waving the other in farewell and encouragement. Another groat cloud blurred out the light, and that lean sinewy figure with its long extended arm was the last which I saw for a weary time of the dear country where I was born and bred.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08