The carpenter stroked his white beard and pondered for a while. ‘It is a pregnant question,’ he said at last, ‘and yet methinks that there is but one answer to it, especially for your father’s son. Should an end be put to James’s rule, it is not too late to preserve the nation in its old faith; but if the disease is allowed to spread, it may be that even the tyrant’s removal would not prevent his evil seed from sprouting. I hold, therefore, that should the exiles make such an attempt, it is the duty of every man who values liberty of conscience to rally round them. And you, my son, the pride of the village, what better use could you make of your strength than to devote it to helping to relieve your country of this insupportable yoke? It is treasonable and dangerous counsel – counsel which might lead to a short shrift and a bloody death – but, as the Lord liveth, if you were child of mine I should say the same.’
So spoke the old carpenter with a voice which trembled with earnestness, and went to work upon his plank once more, while I, with a few words of gratitude, went on my way pondering over what he had said to me. I had not gone far, however, before the hoarse voice of Solomon Sprent broke in upon my meditations.
‘Hoy there! Ahoy!’ he bellowed, though his mouth was but a few yards from my ear. ‘Would ye come across my hawse without slacking weigh? Clew up, d’ye see, clew up!’
‘Why, Captain,’ I said, ‘I did not see you. I was lost in thought.’
‘All adrift and without look-outs,’ quoth he, pushing his way through the break in the garden hedge. ‘Odd’s niggars, man! friends are not so plentiful, d’ye see, that ye need pass ‘em by without a dip o’ the ensign. So help me, if I had had a barker I’d have fired a shot across your bows.’
‘No offence, Captain,’ said I, for the veteran appeared to be nettled; ‘I have much to think of this morning.’
‘And so have I, mate,’ he answered, in a softer voice. ‘What think ye of my rig, eh?’ He turned himself slowly round in the sunlight as he spoke, and I perceived that he was dressed with unusual care. He had a blue suit of broadcloth trimmed with eight rows of buttons, and breeches of the same material with great bunches of ribbon at the knee. His vest was of lighter blue picked out with anchors in silver, and edged with a finger’s-breadth of lace. His boot was so wide that he might have had his foot in a bucket, and he wore a cutlass at his side suspended from a buff belt, which passed over his right shoulder.
‘I’ve had a new coat o’ paint all over,’ said he, with a wink. ‘Carramba! the old ship is water-tight yet. What would ye say, now, were I about to sling my hawser over a little scow, and take her in tow?’
‘A cow!’ I cried.
‘A cow! what d’ye take me for? A wench, man, and as tight a little craft as ever sailed into the port of wedlock.’
‘I have heard no better news for many a long day,’ said I; ‘I did not even know that you were betrothed. When thou is the wedding to be?’
‘Go slow, friend – go slow, and heave your lead-line! You have got out of your channel, and are in shoal water. I never said as how I was betrothed.’
‘What then?’ I asked.
‘I am getting up anchor now, to run down to her and summon her. Look ye, lad,’ he continued, plucking off his cap and scratching his ragged locks; ‘I’ve had to do wi’ wenches enow from the Levant to the Antilles – wenches such as a sailorman meets, who are all paint and pocket. It’s but the heaving of a hand grenade, and they strike their colours. This is a craft of another guess build, and unless I steer wi’ care she may put one in between wind and water before I so much as know that I am engaged. What think ye, heh? Should I lay myself boldly alongside, d’ye see, and ply her with small arms, or should I work myself clear and try a long range action? I am none of your slippery, grease-tongued, long-shore lawyers, but if so be as she’s willing for a mate, I’ll stand by her in wind and weather while my planks hold out.’
‘I can scarce give advice in such a case,’ said I, ‘for my experience is less than yours. I should say though that you had best speak to her from your heart, in plain sailor language.’
‘Aye, aye, she can take it or leave it. Phoebe Dawson it is, the sister of the blacksmith. Let us work back and have a drop of the right Nants before we go. I have an anker newly come, which never paid the King a groat.’
‘Nay, you had best leave it alone,’ I answered.
‘Say you so? Well, mayhap you are right. Throw off your moorings, then, and clap on sail, for we must go.’
‘But I am not concerned,’ said I.
‘Not concerned! Not – ’ he was too much overcome to go on, and could but look at me with a face full of reproach. ‘I thought better of you, Micah. Would you let this crazy old hulk go into action, and not stand by to fire a broadside?’
‘What would you have me do then?’
‘Why, I would have you help me as the occasion may arise. If I start to board her, I would have you work across the bows so as to rake her. Should I range, up on the larboard quarter, do you lie, on the starboard. If I get crippled, do you draw her fire until I refit. What, man, you would not desert me!’
The old seaman’s tropes and maritime conceits were not always intelligible to me, but it was clear that he had set his heart upon my accompanying him, which I was equally determined not to do. At last by much reasoning I made him understand that my presence would be more hindrance than help, and would probably be fatal to his chances of success.
‘Well, well,’ he grumbled at last, ‘I’ve been concerned in no such expedition before. An’ it be the custom for single ships to engage, I’ll stand to it alone. You shall come with me as consort, though, and stand to and fro in the offing, or sink me if I stir a step.’
My mind was full of my father’s plans and of the courses which lay before me. There seemed to be no choice, however, as old Solomon was in dead earnest, but to lay the matter aside for the moment and see the upshot of this adventure.
‘Mind, Solomon,’ said I, ‘I don’t cross the threshold.’
‘Aye, aye, mate. You can please yourself. We have to beat up against the wind all the way. She’s on the look-out, for I hailed her yesternight, and let her know as how I should bear down on her about seven bells of the morning watch.’
I was thinking as we trudged down the road that Phoebe would need to be learned in sea terms to make out the old man’s meaning, when he pulled up short and clapped his hands to his pockets.
‘Zounds!’ he cried, ‘I have forgot to bring a pistol.’
‘In Heaven’s name!’ I said in amazement, ‘what could you want with a pistol?’
‘Why, to make signals with,’ said he. ‘Odds me that I should have forgot it! How is one’s consort to know what is going forward when the flagship carries no artillery? Had the lass been kind I should have fired one gun, that you might know it.’
‘Why,’ I answered, ‘if you come not out I shall judge that all is well. If things go amiss I shall see you soon.’
‘Aye – or stay! I’ll hoist a white jack at the port-hole. A white jack means that she hath hauled down her colours. Nombre de Dios, when I was a powder-boy in the old ship Lion, the day that we engaged the Spiritus Sanctus of two tier o’ guns – the first time that ever I heard the screech of ball – my heart never thumped as it does now. What say ye if we run back with a fair wind and broach that anker of Nants?’
‘Nay, stand to it, man,’ said I; for by this time, we had come to the ivy-clad cottage behind which was the village smithy. ‘What, Solomon! an English seaman never feared a foe, either with petticoats or without them.’
‘No, curse me if he did!’ quoth Solomon, squaring his shoulders, ‘never a one, Don, Devil, or Dutchman; so here goes for her!’ So saying he made his way into the cottage, leaving me standing by the garden wicket, half amused and half annoyed at this interruption to my musings.
As it proved, the sailor had no very great difficulty with his suit, and soon managed to capture his prize, to use his own language. I heard from the garden the growling of his gruff voice, and a good deal of shrill laughter ending in a small squeak, which meant, I suppose, that he was coming to close quarters. Then there was silence for a little while, and at last I saw a white kerchief waving from the window, and perceived, moreover, that it was Phoebe herself who was fluttering it. Well, she was a smart, kindly-hearted lass, and I was glad in my heart that the old seaman should have such a one to look after him.
Here, then, was one good friend settled down finally for life. Another warned me that I was wasting my best years in the hamlet. A third, the most respected of all, advised me openly to throw in my lot with the insurgents, should the occasion arise. If I refused, I should have the shame of seeing my aged father setting off for the wars, whilst I lingered at home. And why should I refuse? Had it not long been the secret wish of my heart to see something of the great world, and what fairer chance could present itself? My wishes, my friend’s advice, and my father’s hopes all pointed in the one direction.
‘Father,’ said I, when I returned home, ‘I am ready to go where you will.’
‘May the Lord be glorified!’ he cried solemnly. ‘May He watch over your young life, and keep your heart steadfast to the cause which is assuredly His!’
And so, my dear grandsons, the great resolution was taken, and I found myself committed to one side in the national quarrel.
Chapter VII. Of the Horseman who rode from the West
My father set to work forthwith preparing for our equipment, furnishing Saxon out as well as myself on the most liberal scale, for he was determined that the wealth of his age should be as devoted to the cause as was the strength of his youth. These arrangements had to be carried out with the most extreme caution, for there were many Prelatists in the village, and in the present disturbed state of the public mind any activity on the part of so well known a man would have at once attracted attention. So carefully did the wary old soldier manage matters, however, that we soon found ourselves in a position to start at an hour’s notice, without any of our neighbours being a whit the wiser.
His first move was to purchase through an agent two suitable horses at Chichester fair, which were conveyed to the stables of a trusty Whig farmer living near Portchester, who was ordered to keep them until they were called for. Of these animals one was a mottled grey, of great mettle and power, standing seventeen and a half hands high, and well up to my weight, for in those days, my dears, I had not laid on flesh, and weighed a little under sixteen stone for all my height and strength. A critic might have said that Covenant, for so I named my steed, was a trifle heavy about the head and neck, but I found him a trusty, willing brute, with great power and endurance. Saxon, who when fully accoutred could scarce have weighed more than twelve stone, had a light bay Spanish jennet, of great speed and spirit. This mare he named Chloe, ‘after a godly maiden of his acquaintance,’ though, as my father remarked, there was a somewhat ungodly and heathenish smack about the appellation. These horses and their harness were bought and held ready without my father appearing in the matter in any way.
This important point having been settled, there was the further question of arms to be discussed, which gave rise to much weighty controversy between Decimus Saxon and my father, each citing many instances from their own experiences where the presence or absence of some taslet or arm-guard had been of the deepest import to the wearer. Your great-grandfather had set his heart upon my wearing the breastplate which still bore the dints of the Scottish spears at Dunbar, but on trying it on we found it was too small for me. I confess that this was a surprise, for when I looked back at the awe with which I had regarded my father’s huge proportions, it was marvellous to me to have this convincing proof that I had outgrown him. By ripping down the side-leather and piercing holes through which a lace could be passed, my mother managed to arrange it so that I could wear it without discomfort. A pair of taslets or thigh-pieces, with guards for the upper arm and gauntlets, were all borrowed from the old Parliamentary equipment, together with the heavy straight sword and pair of horse pistols which formed the usual weapons of a cavalier. My father had chosen me a head-piece in Portsmouth, fluted, with good barrets, padded inside with soft leather, very light and yet very strong. When fully equipped, both Saxon and my father agreed that I had all that was requisite for a well-appointed soldier. Saxon had purchased a buff-coat, a steel cap, and a pair of jack-boots, so that with the rapier and pistols which my father had presented him with, he was ready to take the field at any time.
There would, we hoped, be no great difficulty in our reaching Monmouth’s forces when the hour came. In those troublous times the main roads were so infested by highwaymen and footpads, that it was usual for travellers to carry weapons and even armour for their protection. There was no reason therefore why our appearance should excite suspicion. Should questions be asked, Saxon had a long story prepared, to the effect that we were travelling to join Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort, to whose household we belonged. This invention he explained to me, with many points of corroboration which I was to furnish, but when I said positively that I should rather be hanged as a rebel than speak a falsehood, he looked at me open-eyed, and shook his head as one much shocked. A few weeks of campaigning, he said, would soon cure me of my squeamishness. For himself, no more truthful child had ever carried a horn-book, but he had learned to lie upon the Danube, and looked upon it as a necessary part of the soldier’s upbringing. ‘For what are all stratagems, ambuscades, and outfalls but lying upon a large scale?’ he argued. ‘What is an adroit commander but one who hath a facility for disguising the truth? When, at the battle of Senlac, William the Norman ordered his men to feign flight in order that they might break his enemy’s array, a wile much practised both by the Scythians of old and by the Croats of our own day, pray what is it but the acting of a lie? Or when Hannibal, having tied torches to the horns of great droves of oxen, caused the Roman Consuls to imagine that his army was in retreat, was it not a deception or infraction of the truth? – a point well brought out by a soldier of repute in the treatise “An in bello dolo uti liceat; an apud hostes falsiloquio uti liceat.” And so if, after these great models, I in order to gain mine ends do announce that we are bound to Beaufort when we are in truth making for Monmouth, is it not in accord with the usages of war and the customs of great commanders?’ All which specious argument I made no attempt to answer, beyond repeating that he might avail himself of the usage, but that he must not look to me for corroboration. On the other hand, I promised to hold my speech and to say nothing which might hamper him, with which pledge he was forced to be contented.
And now at last, my patient listeners, I shall be able to carry you out of the humble life of the village, and to cease my gossip of the men who were old when I was young, and who are now lying this many a year in the Bedhampton churchyard. You shall come with me now, and you shall see England as it was in those days, and you shall hear of how we set forth to the wars, and of all the adventures which overtook us. And if what I tell you should ever chance to differ from what you have read in the book of Mr. Coke or of Mr. Oldmixon, or of any one else who has set these matters down in print, do ye bear in mind that I am telling of what I saw with these very eyes, and that I have helped to make history, which is a higher thing than to write it.
It was, then, towards nightfall upon the twelfth day of June 1685 that the news reached our part of the country that Monmouth had landed the day before at Lyme, a small seaport on the boundary between Dorsetshire and Devonshire. A great beacon blaze upon Portsdown Hill was the first news that we had of it, and then came a rattling and a drumming from Portsmouth, where the troops were assembled under arms. Mounted messengers clattered through the village street with their heads low on their horses’ necks, for the great tidings must be carried to London, that the Governor of Portsmouth might know how to act. (Note B, Appendix.) We were standing at our doorway in the gloaming, watching the coming and the going, and the line of beacon fires which were lengthening away to the eastward, when a little man galloped up to the door and pulled his panting horse up.
‘Is Joseph Clarke here?’ he asked.
‘I am he,’ said my father.
‘Are these men true?’ he whispered, pointing with his whip at Saxon and myself. ‘Then the trysting-place is Taunton. Pass it on to all whom ye know. Give my horse a bait and a drink, I beg of ye, for I must get on my way.’