The man Saxon was sitting up in bed, staring about him as though he were not very certain for the moment where he was. He had tied a white kerchief round his head by way of night bonnet, and his hard-visaged, clean-shaven face, looking out through this, together with his bony figure, gave him some resemblance to a gigantic old woman. The bottle of usquebaugh stood empty by his bedside. Clearly his fears had been realised, and he had had an attack of the Persian ague.
‘Ah, my young friend!’ he said at last. ‘Is it, then, the custom of this part of the country to carry your visitor’s rooms by storm or escalado in the early hours of the morning?’
‘Is it the custom,’ I answered sternly, ‘to barricade up your door when you are sleeping under the roof-tree of an honest man? What did you fear, that you should take such a precaution?’
‘Nay, you are indeed a spitfire,’ he replied, sinking back upon the pillow, and drawing the clothes round him, ‘a feuerkopf as the Germans call it, or sometimes tollkopf, which in its literal significance meaneth a fool’s head. Your father was, as I have heard, a strong and a fierce man when the blood of youth ran in his veins; but you, I should judge, are in no way behind him. Know, then, that the bearer of papers of import, documenta preciosa sed periculosa, is bound to leave nought to chance, but to guard in every way the charge which hath been committed to him. True it is that I am in the house of an honest man, but I know not who may come or who may go during the hours of the night. Indeed, for the matter of that – but enough is said. I shall be with you anon.’
‘Your clothes are dry and are ready for you,’ I remarked.
‘Enough! enough!’ he answered. ‘I have no quarrel with the suit which your father has lent me. It may be that I have been used to better, but they will serve my turn. The camp is not the court.’
It was evident to me that my father’s suit was infinitely better, both in texture and material, than that which our visitor had brought with him. As he had withdrawn his head, however, entirely beneath the bedclothes, there was nothing more to be said, so I descended to the lower room, where I found toy father busily engaged fastening a new buckle to his sword-belt while my mother and the maid were preparing the morning meal.
‘Come into the yard with me, Micah,’ quoth my father; ‘I would have a word with you.’ The workmen had not yet come to their work, so we strolled out into the sweet morning air, and seated ourselves on the low stone bankment on which the skins are dressed.
‘I have been out here this morning trying my hand at the broadsword exercise, ‘said he; ‘I find that I am as quick as ever on a thrust, but my cuts are sadly stiff. I might be of use at a pinch, but, alas! I am not the same swordsman who led the left troop of the finest horse regiment that ever followed a kettledrum. The Lord hath given, and the Lord hath taken away! Yet, if I am old and worn, there is the fruit of my loins to stand in my place and to wield the same sword in the same cause. You shall go in my place, Micah.’
‘Go! Go whither?’
‘Hush, lad, and listen! Let not your mother know too much, for the hearts of women are soft. When Abraham offered up his eldest born, I trow that he said little to Sarah on the matter. Here is the letter. Know you who this Dicky Rumbold is?’
‘Surely I have heard you speak of him as an old companion of yours.’
‘The same – a staunch man and true. So faithful was he – faithful even to slaying – that when the army of the righteous dispersed, he did not lay aside his zeal with his buff-coat. He took to business as a maltster at Hoddesdon, and in his house was planned the famous Rye House Plot, in which so many good men were involved.’
‘Was it not a foul assassination plot?’ I asked.
‘Nay, nay, be not led away by terms! It is a vile invention of the malignants that these men planned assassination. What they would do they purposed doing in broad daylight, thirty of them against fifty of the Royal Guard, when Charles and James passed on their way to Newmarket. If the royal brothers got pistol-bullet or sword-stab, it would be in open fight, and at the risk of their attackers. It was give and take, and no murder.’
He paused and looked inquiringly at me; but I could not truthfully say that I was satisfied, for an attack upon the lives of unarmed and unsuspecting men, even though surrounded by a bodyguard, could not, to my mind, be justified.
‘When the plot failed,’ my father continued, ‘Rumbold had to fly for his life, but he succeeded in giving his pursuers the slip and in making his way to the Lowlands. There he found that many enemies of the Government had gathered together. Repeated messages from England, especially from the western counties and from London, assured them that if they would but attempt an invasion they might rely upon help both in men and in money. They were, however, at fault for some time for want of a leader of sufficient weight to carry through so large a project; but now at last they have one, who is the best that could have been singled out – none other than the well-beloved Protestant chieftain James, Duke of Monnmouth, son of Charles II.’
‘Illegitimate son,’ I remarked.
‘That may or may not be. There are those who say that Lucy Walters was a lawful wife. Bastard or no, he holds the sound principles of the true Church, and he is beloved by the people. Let him appear in the West, and soldiers will rise up like the flowers in the spring time.’
He paused, and led me away to the farther end of the yard, for the workmen had begun to arrive and to cluster round the dipping trough.
‘Monmouth is coming over,’ he continued, ‘and he expects every brave Protestant man to rally to his standard. The Duke of Argyle is to command a separate expedition, which will set the Highlands of Scotland in a blaze. Between them they hope to bring the persecutor of the faithful on his knees. But I hear the voice of the man Saxon, and I must not let him say that I have treated him in a churlish fashion. Here is the letter, lad. Read it with care, and remember that when brave men are striving for their rights it is fitting that one of the old rebel house of Clarke should be among them.’
I took the letter, and wandering off into the fields, I settled myself under a convenient tree, and set myself to read it. This yellow sheet which I now hold in my hand is the very one which was brought by Decimus Saxon, and read by me that bright May morning under the hawthorn shade. I give it to you as it stands;
‘To my friend and companion in the cause of the Lord, Joseph Clarke. – Know, friend, that aid and delivery is coming upon Israel, and that the wicked king and those who uphold him shall be smitten and entirely cast down, until their place in the land shall know them no more. Hasten, then, to testify to thy own faith, that in the day of trouble ye be not found wanting.
‘It has chanced from time to time that many of the suffering Church, both from our own land and from among the Scots, have assembled in this good Lutheran town of Amsterdam, until enough are gathered together to take a good work in hand. For amongst our own folk there are my Lord Grey of Wark, Wade, Dare of Taunton, Ayloffe, Holmes, Hollis, Goodenough, and others whom thou shalt know. Of the Scots there are the Duke of Argyle, who has suffered sorely for the Covenant, Sir Patrick Hume, Fletcher of Saltoun, Sir John Cochrane, Dr. Ferguson, Major Elphinstone, and others. To these we would fain have added Locke and old Hal Ludlow, but they are, as those of the Laodicean Church, neither cold nor warm.
‘It has now come to pass, however, that Monmouth, who has long lived in dalliance with the Midianitish woman known by the name of Wentworth, has at last turned him to higher things, and has consented to make a bid for the crown. It was found that the Scots preferred to follow a chieftain of their own, and it has therefore been determined that Argyle – M’Callum More, as the breechless savages of Inverary call him – shall command a separate expedition landing upon the western coast of Scotland. There he hopes to raise five thousand Campbells, and to be joined by all the Covenanters and Western Whigs, men who would make troops of the old breed had they but God-fearing officers with an experience of the chance of fields and the usages of war. With such a following he should be able to hold Glasgow, and to draw away the King’s force to the north. Ayloffe and I go with Argyle. It is likely that our feet may be upon Scottish ground before thy eyes read these words.
‘The stronger expedition starts with Monmouth, and lands at a fitting place in the West, where we are assured that we have many friends. I cannot name the spot lest this letter miscarry, but thou shalt hear anon. I have written to all good men along the coast, bidding them to be prepared to support the rising. The King is weak, and hated by the greater part of his subjects. It doth but need one good stroke to bring his crown in the dust. Monmouth will start in a few weeks, when his equipment is finished and the weather favourable. If thou canst come, mine old comrade, I know well that thou wilt need no bidding of mine to bring thee to our banner. Should perchance a peaceful life and waning strength forbid thy attendance, I trust that thou wilt wrestle for us in prayer, even as the holy prophet of old; and perchance, since I hear that thou hast prospered according to the things of this world, thou mayst be able to fit out a pikeman or two, or to send a gift towards the military chest, which will be none too plentifully lined. We trust not to gold, but to steel and to our own good cause, yet gold will be welcome none the less. Should we fall, we fall like men and Christians. Should we succeed, we shall see how the perjured James, the persecutor of the saints with the heart like a nether millstone, the man who smiled when the thumbs of the faithful were wrenched out of their sockets at Edinburgh – we shall see how manfully he can bear adversity when it falls to his lot. May the hand of the Almighty be over us!
‘I know little of the bearer of this, save that he professes to be of the elect. Shouldst thou go to Monmouth’s camp, see that thou take him with thee, for I hear that he hath had good experience in the German, Swedish, and Otttoman wars. – Yours in the faith of Christ, Richard Rumbold.
‘Present my services to thy spouse. Let her read Timothy chapter two, ninth to fifteenth verses.’
This long letter I read very carefully, and then putting it in my pocket returned indoors to my breakfast. My father looked at me, as I entered, with questioning eyes, but I had no answer to return him, for my own mind was clouded and uncertain.
That day Decimus Saxon left us, intending to make a round of the country and to deliver his letters, but promising to be back again ere long. We had a small mishap ere he went, for as we were talking of his journey my brother Hosea must needs start playing with my father’s powder-flask, which in some way went off with a sudden fluff, spattering the walls with fragments of metal. So unexpected and loud was the explosion, that both my father and I sprang to our feet; but Saxon, whose back was turned to my brother, sat four-square in his chair without a glance behind him or a shade of change in his rugged face. As luck would have it, no one was injured, not even Hosea, but the incident made me think more highly of our new acquaintance. As he started off down the village street, his long stringy figure and strange gnarled visage, with my father’s silver-braided hat cocked over his eye, attracted rather more attention than I cared to see, considering the importance of the missives which he bore, and the certainty of their discovery should he be arrested as a masterless man. Fortunately, however, the curiosity of the country folk did but lead them to cluster round their doors and windows, staring open-eyed, while he, pleased at the attention which he excited, strode along with his head in the air and a cudgel of mine twirling in his hand. He had left golden opinions behind him. My father’s good wishes had been won by his piety and by the sacrifices which he claimed to have made for the faith. My mother he had taught how wimples are worn amongst the Serbs, and had also demonstrated to her a new method of curing marigolds in use in some parts of Lithuania. For myself, I confess that I retained a vague distrust of the man, and was determined to avoid putting faith in him more than was needful. At present, however, we had no choice hut to treat him as an ambassador from friends.
And I? What was I to do? Should I follow my father’s wishes, and draw my maiden sword on behalf of the insurgents, or should I stand aside and see how events shaped themselves? It was more fitting that I should go than he. But, on the other hand, I was no keen religious zealot. Papistry, Church, Dissent, I believed that there was good in all of them, but that not one was worth the spilling of human blood. James might be a perjurer and a villain, but he was, as far as I could see, the rightful king of England, and no tales of secret marriages or black boxes could alter the fact that his rival was apparently an illegitimate son, and as such ineligible to the throne. Who could say what evil act upon the part of a monarch justified his people in setting him aside? Who was the judge in such a case? Yet, on the other hand, the man had notoriously broken his own pledges, and that surely should absolve his subjects from their allegiance. It was a weighty question for a country-bred lad to have to settle, and yet settled it must be, and that speedily. I took up my hat and wandered away down the village street, turning the matter over in my head.
But it was no easy thing for me to think seriously of anything in the hamlet; for I was in some way, my dear children, though I say it myself, a favourite with the young and with the old, so that I could not walk ten paces without some greeting or address. There were my own brothers trailing behind me, Baker Mitford’s children tugging at my skirts, and the millwright’s two little maidens one on either hand. Then, when I had persuaded these young rompers to leave me, out came Dame Fullarton the widow, with a sad tale about how her grindstone had fallen out of its frame, and neither she nor her household could lift it in again. That matter I set straight and proceeded on my way; but I could not pass the sign of the Wheatsheaf without John Lockarby, Reuben’s father, plunging out at me and insisting upon my coming in with him for a morning cup.
‘The best glass of mead in the countryside, and brewed under my own roof,’ said he proudly, as he poured it into the flagon. ‘Why, bless you, master Micah, a man with a frame like yours wants store o’ good malt to keep it up wi’.’
‘And malt like this is worthy of a good frame to contain it,’ quoth Reuben, who was at work among the flasks.
‘What think ye, Micah?’ said the landlord. ‘There was the Squire o’ Milton over here yester morning wi’ Johnny Ferneley o’ the Bank side, and they will have it that there’s a man in Fareham who could wrestle you, the best of three, and find your own grip, for a good round stake.’
‘Tut! tut!’ I answered; ‘you would have me like a prize mastiff, showing my teeth to the whole countryside. What matter if the man can throw me, or I him?’
‘What matter? Why, the honour of Havant,’ quoth he. ‘Is that no matter? But you are right,’ he continued, draining off his horn. ‘What is all this village life with its small successes to such as you? You are as much out of your place as a vintage wine at a harvest supper. The whole of broad England, and not the streets of Havant, is the fit stage for a man of your kidney. What have you to do with the beating of skins and the tanning of leather?’
‘My father would have you go forth as a knight-errant, Micah,’ said Reuben, laughing. ‘You might chance to get your own skin beaten and your own leather tanned.’
‘Who ever knew so long a tongue in so short a body?’ cried the innkeeper. ‘But in good sooth, Master Micah, I am in sober earnest when I say that you are indeed wasting the years of your youth, when life is sparkling and clear, and that you will regret it when you have come to the flat and flavourless dregs of old age.’
‘There spoke the brewer,’ said Reuben; ‘but indeed, Micah, my father is right, for all that he hath such a hops-and-water manner of putting it.’
‘I will think over it,’ I answered, and with a nod to the kindly couple proceeded on my way.
Zachariah Palmer was planing a plank as I passed. Looking up he bade me good-morrow.
‘I have a book for you, lad,’ he said.
‘I have but now finished the “Comus,”’ I answered, for he had lent me John Milton’s poem. ‘But what is this new book, daddy?’
‘It is by the learned Locke, and treateth of states and statecraft. It is but a small thing, but if wisdom could show in the scales it would weigh down many a library. You shall have it when I have finished it, to-morrow mayhap or the day after. A good man is Master Locke. Is he not at this moment a wanderer in the Lowlands, rather than bow his knee to what his conscience approved not of?’
‘There are many good men among the exiles, are there not?’ said I.
‘The pick of the country,’ he answered. ‘Ill fares the land that drives the highest and bravest of its citizens away from it. The day is coming, I fear, when every man will have to choose betwixt his beliefs and his freedom. I am an old man, Micah boy, but I may live long enough to see strange things in this once Protestant kingdom.’
‘But if these exiles had their way,’ I objected, ‘they would place Monmouth upon the throne, and so unjustly alter the succession.’
‘Nay, nay,’ old Zachary answered, laying down his plane. ‘If they use Monmouth’s name, it is but to strengthen their cause, and to show that they have a leader of repute. Were James driven from the throne, the Commons of England in Parliament assembled would be called upon to name his successor. There are men at Monmouth’s back who would not stir unless this were so.’
‘Then, daddy,’ said I, ‘since I can trust you, and since you will tell me what you do really think, would it be well, if Monmouth’s standard be raised, that I should join it?’