The youth sheathed his sword, but was so overcome by his own easy defeat and the contemptuous way in which his opponent had dismissed him, that he turned and hurried out of the room. Meanwhile Decimus Saxon and the two officers set to work getting the table upon its legs and restoring the room to some sort of order, in which I did what I could to assist them.
‘I held three queens for the first time to-day,’ grumbled the soldier of fortune. ‘I was about to declare them when this young bantam flew at my throat. He hath likewise been the cause of our losing three flasks of most excellent muscadine. When he hath drunk as much bad wine as I have been forced to do, he will not be so hasty in wasting the good.’
‘He is a hot-headed youngster,’ the older officer replied, ‘and a little solitary reflection added to the lesson which you have taught him may bring him profit. As for the muscadine, that loss will soon be repaired, the more gladly as your friend here will help us to drink it.’
‘I was roused by the crash of weapons,’ said I, ‘and I scarce know now what has occurred.’
‘Why, a mere tavern brawl, which your friend’s skill and judgment prevented from becoming serious. I prythee take the rush-bottomed chair, and do you, Jack, order the wine. If our comrade hath spilled the last it is for us to furnish this, and the best the cellars contain. We have been having a hand at basset, which Mr. Saxon here playeth as skilfully as he wields the small-sword. It chanced that the luck ran against young Horsford, which doubtless made him prone to be quick in taking offence. Your friend in conversation, when discoursing of his experiences in foreign countries, remarked that the French household troops were to his mind brought to a higher state of discipline than any of our own regiments, on which Horsford fired up, and after a hot word or two they found themselves, as you have seen, at drawn bilbo. The boy hath seen no service, and is therefore over-eager to give proof of his valour.’
‘Wherein,’ said the tall officer, ‘he showed a want of thought towards me, for had the words been offensive it was for me, who am a senior captain and brevet-major, to take it up, and not for a slip of a cornet, who scarce knows enough to put his troop through the exercise.’
‘You say right, Ogilvy,’ said the other, resuming his seat by the table and wiping the cards which had been splashed by the wine.’ Had the comparison been made by an officer of Louis’s guard for the purpose of contumely and braggadocio, it would then indeed have become us to venture a passado. But when spoken by an Englishman of ripe experience it becomes a matter of instructive criticism, which should profit rather than annoy.’
‘True, Ambrose,’ the other answered. ‘Without such criticism a force would become stagnant, and could never hope to keep level with those continental armies, which are ever striving amongst themselves for increased efficacy.’
So pleased was I at these sensible remarks on the part of the strangers, that I was right glad to have the opportunity of making their closer acquaintance over a flask of excellent wine. My father’s prejudices had led me to believe that a King’s officer was ever a compound of the coxcomb and the bully, but I found on testing it that this idea, like most others which a man takes upon trust, had very little foundation upon truth. As a matter of fact, had they been dressed in less warlike garb and deprived of their swords and jack-boots, they would have passed as particularly mild-mannered men, for their conversation ran in the learned channels, and they discussed Boyle’s researches in chemistry and the ponderation of air with much gravity and show of knowledge. At the same time, their brisk bearing and manly carriage showed that in cultivating the scholar they hail not sacrificed the soldier.
‘May I ask, sir,’ said one of them, addressing Saxon, ‘whether in your wide experiences you have ever met with any of those sages and philosophers who have conferred such honour and fame upon France and Germany?’
My companion looked ill at ease, as one who feels that he has been taken off his ground. ‘There was indeed one such at Nurnberg,’ he answered, ‘one Gervinus or Gervanus, who, the folk said, could turn an ingot of iron into an ingot of gold as easily as I turn this tobacco into ashes. Old Pappenheimer shut him up with a ton of metal, and threatened to put the thumbikins upon him unless he changed it into gold pieces. I can vouch for it that there was not a yellow boy there, for I was captain of the guard and searched the whole dungeon through. To my sorrow I say it, for I had myself added a small iron brazier to the heap, thinking that if there should be any such change it would be as well that I should have some small share in the experiment.’
‘Alchemy, transmutation of metals, and the like have been set aside by true science,’ remarked the taller officer. ‘Even old Sir Thomas Browne of Norwich, who is ever ready to plead the cause of the ancients, can find nothing to say in favour of it. From Trismegistus downwards through Albertus Magnus, Aquinas, Raymond Lullius, Basil Valentine, Paracelsus, and the rest, there is not one who has left more than a cloud of words behind him.’
‘Nor did the rogue I mention,’ said Saxon. ‘There was another, Van Helstatt, who was a man of learning, and cast horoscopes in consideration of some small fee or honorarium. I have never met so wise a man, for he would talk of the planets and constellations as though he kept them all in his own backyard. He made no more of a comet than if it were a mouldy china orange, and he explained their nature to us, saying that they were but common stars which had had a hole knocked in them, so that their insides or viscera protruded. He was indeed a philosopher!’
‘And did you ever put his skill to the test?’ asked one of the officers, with a smile.
‘Not I, forsooth, for I have ever kept myself clear of black magic or diablerie of the sort. My comrade Pierce Scotton, who was an Oberst in the Imperial cavalry brigade, did pay him a rose noble to have his future expounded. If I remember aright, the stars said that he was over-fond of wine and women – he had a wicked eye and a nose like a carbuncle. ‘They foretold also that he would attain a marshal’s baton and die at a ripe age, which might well have come true had he not been unhorsed a month later at Ober-Graustock, and slain by the hoofs of his own troop. Neither the planets nor even the experienced farrier of the regiment could have told that the brute would have foundered so completely.’
The officers laughed heartily at my companion’s views, and rose from their chairs, for the bottle was empty and the evening beginning to draw in. ‘We have work to do here,’ said the one addressed as Ogilvy. ‘Besides, we must find this foolish boy of ours, and tell him that it is no disgrace to be disarmed by so expert a swordsman. We have to prepare the quarters for the regiment, who will be up to join Churchill’s forces not later than to-night. Ye are yourselves bound for the West, I understand?’
‘We belong to the Duke of Beaufort’s household,’ said Saxon.
‘Indeed! I thought ye might belong to Portman’s yellow regiment of militia. I trust that the Duke will muster every man he can, and make play until the royal forces come up.’
‘How many will Churchill bring?’ asked my companion carelessly.
‘Eight hundred horse at the most, but my Lord Feversham will follow after with close on four thousand foot.’
‘We may meet on the field of battle, if not before,’ said I, and we bade our friendly enemies a very cordial adieu.
‘A skilful equivoque that last of yours, Master Micah,’ quoth Decimus Saxon, ‘though smacking of double dealing in a truth-lover like yourself. If we meet them in battle I trust that it may be with chevaux-de-frise of pikes and morgenstierns before us, and a litter of caltrops in front of them, for Monmouth has no cavalry that could stand for a moment against the Royal Guards.’
‘How came you to make their acquaintance?’ I asked.
‘I slept a few hours, but I have learned in camps to do with little rest. Finding you in sound slumber, and hearing the rattle of the dice-box below, I came softly down and found means to join their party – whereby I am a richer man by fifteen guineas, and might have had more had that young fool not lugged out at me, or had the talk not turned afterwards upon such unseemly subjects as the laws of chemistry and the like. Prythee, what have the Horse Guards Blue to do with the laws of chemistry? Wessenburg of the Pandours would, even at his own mess table, suffer much free talk – more perhaps than fits in with the dignity of a leader. Had his officers ventured upon such matter as this, however, there would have been a drum-head court-martial, or a cashiering at the least.’
Without stopping to dispute either Master Saxon’s judgment or that of Wessenburg of the Pandours, I proposed that we should order an evening meal, and should employ the remaining hour or two of daylight in looking over the city. The principal sight is of course the noble cathedral, which is built in such exact proportion that one would fail to understand its great size did one not actually enter it and pace round the long dim aisles. So solemn were its sweeping arches and the long shafts of coloured light which shone through the stained-glass windows, throwing strange shadows amongst the pillars, that even my companion, albeit not readily impressed, was silent and subdued. It was a great prayer in stone.
On our way back to the inn we passed the town lock-up, with a railed space in front of it, in which three great black-muzzled bloodhounds were stalking about, with fierce crimsoned eyes and red tongues lolling out of their mouths. They were used, a bystander told us, for the hunting down of criminals upon Salisbury Plain, which had been a refuge for rogues and thieves, until this means had been adopted for following them to their hiding-places. It was well-nigh dark before we returned to the hostel, and entirely so by the time that we had eaten our suppers, paid our reckoning, and got ready for the road.
Before we set off I bethought me of the paper which my mother had slipped into my hand on parting, and drawing it from my pouch I read it by the rushlight in our chamber. It still bore the splotches of the tears which she had dropped on it, poor soul, and ran in this wise: —
‘Instructions from Mistress Mary Clarke to her son Micah, on the twelfth day of June in the year of our Lord sixteen hundred and eighty-five.
‘On occasion of his going forth, like David of old, to do battle with the Goliath of Papistry, which hath overshadowed and thrown into disrepute that true and reverent regard for ritual which should exist in the real Church of England, as ordained by law.
‘Let these points be observed by him, namely, to wit:
‘1. Change your hosen when the occasion serves. You have two pairs in your saddle-bag, and can buy more, for the wool work is good in the West.
‘2. A hare’s foot suspended round the neck driveth away colic.
‘3. Say the Lord’s Prayer night and morning. Also read the scriptures, especially Job, the Psalms, and the Gospel according to St. Matthew.
‘4. Daffy’s elixir possesses extraordinary powers in purifying the blood and working off all phlegms, humours, vapours, or rheums. The dose is five drops. A small phial of it will be found in the barrel of your left pistol, with wadding around it lest it come to harm.
‘5. Ten golden pieces are sewn into the hem of your under doublet. Touch them not, save as a last resource.
‘6. Fight stoutly for the Lord, and yet I pray you, Micah, be not too forward in battle, but let others do their turn also.
Press not into the heart of the fray, and yet flinch not from the standard of the Protestant faith.
‘And oh, Micah, my own bright boy, come back safe to your mother, or my very heart will break!
‘And the deponent will ever pray.’
The sudden gush of tenderness in the last few lines made the tears spring to my eyes, and yet I could scarce forbear from smiling at the whole composition, for my dear mother had little time to cultivate the graces of style, and it was evidently her thought that in order to make her instructions binding it was needful to express them in some sort of legal form. I had little time to think over her advice, however, for I had scarce finished reading it before the voice of Decimus Saxon, and the clink of the horses’ hoofs upon the cobble-stones of the yard, informed me that all was ready for our departure.
Chapter X. Of our Perilous Adventure on the Plain
We were not half a mile from the town before the roll of kettledrums and the blare of bugles swelling up musically through the darkness announced the arrival of the regiment of horse which our friends at the inn had been expecting.
‘It is as well, perhaps,’ said Saxon, ‘that we gave them the slip, for that young springald might have smelled a rat and played us some ill-turn. Have you chanced to see my silken kerchief?’
‘Not I,’ I answered.
‘Nay, then, it must have fallen from my bosom during our ruffle. I can ill afford to leave it, for I travel light in such matters. Eight hundred men, quoth the major, and three thousand to follow. Should I meet this same Oglethorpe or Ogilvy when the little business is over, I shall read him a lesson on thinking less of chemistry and more of the need of preserving military precautions. It is well always to be courteous to strangers and to give them information, but it is well also that the information should be false.’
‘As his may have been,’ I suggested.
‘Nay, nay, the words came too glibly from his tongue. So ho, Chloe, so ho! She is full of oats and would fain gallop, but it is so plaguy dark that we can scarce see where we are going.’
We had been trotting down the broad high-road shimmering vaguely white in the gloom, with the shadowy trees dancing past us on either side, scarce outlined against the dark background of cloud. We were now coming upon the eastern edge of the great plain, which extends forty miles one way and twenty the other, over the greater part of Wiltshire and past the boundaries of Somersetshire. The main road to the West skirts this wilderness, but we had agreed to follow a less important track, which would lead us to our goal, though in a more tedious manner. Its insignificance would, we hoped, prevent it from being guarded by the King’s horse. We had come to the point where this byroad branches off from the main highway when we heard the clatter of horses’ hoofs behind us.
‘Here comes some one who is not afraid to gallop,’ I remarked.
‘Halt here in the shadow!’ cried Saxon, in a short, quick whisper. ‘Have your blade loose in the scabbard. He must have a set errand who rides so fast o’ nights.’