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Micah Clarke

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Looking down the road we could make out through the darkness a shadowy blur which soon resolved itself into man and horse. The rider was well-nigh abreast of us before he was aware of our presence, when he pulled up his steed in a strange, awkward fashion, and faced round in our direction.

‘Is Micah Clarke there?’ he said, in a voice which was strangely familiar to my ears.

‘I am Micah Clarke,’ said I.

‘And I am Reuben Lockarby,’ cried our pursuer, in a mock heroic voice. ‘Ah, Micah lad, I’d embrace you were it not that I should assuredly fall out of the saddle if I attempted it, and perchance drag you along. That sudden pull up well-nigh landed me on the roadway. I have been sliding off and clambering on ever since I bade goodbye to Havant. Sure, such a horse for slipping from under one was never bestridden by man.’

‘Good Heavens, Reuben!’ I cried in amazement, ‘what brings you all this way from home?’

‘The very same cause which brings you, Micah, and also Don Decimo Saxon, late of the Solent, whom methinks I see in the shadow behind you. How fares it, oh illustrious one?’

‘It is you, then, young cock of the woods!’ growled Saxon, in no very overjoyed voice.

‘No less a person,’ said Reuben. ‘And now, my gay cavalieros, round with your horses and trot on your way, for there is no time to be lost. We ought all to be at Taunton to-morrow.’

‘But, my dear Reuben,’ said I, ‘it cannot be that you are coming with us to join Monmouth. What would your father say? This is no holiday jaunt, but one that may have a sad and stern ending. At the best, victory can only come through much bloodshed and danger. At the worst, we are as like to wind up upon a scaffold as not.’

‘Forwards, lads, forwards!’ cried he, spurring on his horse, ‘it is all arranged and settled. I am about to offer my august person, together with a sword which I borrowed and a horse which I stole, to his most Protestant highness, James, Duke of Monmouth.’

‘But how comes it all?’ I asked, as we rode on together. ‘It warms my very heart to see you, but you were never concerned either in religion or in politics. Whence, then, this sudden resolution?’

‘Well, truth to tell,’ he replied, ‘I am neither a king’s man nor a duke’s man, nor would I give a button which sat upon the throne. I do not suppose that either one or the other would increase the custom of the Wheatsheaf, or want Reuben Lockarby for a councillor. I am a Micah Clarke man, though, from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet; and if he rides to the wars, may the plague strike me if I don’t stick to his elbow!’ He raised his hand excitedly as he spoke, and instantly losing his balance, he shot into a dense clump of bushes by the roadside whence his legs flapped helplessly in the darkness.

‘That makes the tenth,’ said he, scrambling out and clambering into his saddle once more. ‘My father used to tell me not to sit a horse too closely. “A gentle rise and fall,” said the old man. Egad, there is more fall than rise, and it is anything but gentle.’

‘Odd’s truth!’ exclaimed Saxon. ‘How in the name of all the saints in the calendar do you expect to keep your seat in the presence of an enemy if you lose it on a peaceful high-road?’

‘I can but try, my illustrious,’ he answered, rearranging his ruffled clothing. ‘Perchance the sudden and unexpected character of my movements may disconcert the said enemy.’

‘Well, well, there may be more truth in that than you are aware of,’ quoth Saxon, riding upon Lockarby’s bridle arm, so that there was scarce room for him to fall between us. ‘I had sooner fight a man like that young fool at the inn, who knew a little of the use of his weapon, than one like Micah here, or yourself, who know nothing. You can tell what the one is after, but the other will invent a system of his own which will serve his turn for the nonce. Ober-hauptmann Muller was reckoned to be the finest player at the small-sword in the Kaiser’s army, and could for a wager snick any button from an opponent’s vest without cutting the cloth. Yet was he slain in an encounter with Fahnfuhrer Zollner, who was a cornet in our own Pandour corps, and who knew as much of the rapier as you do of horsemanship. For the rapier, be it understood, is designed to thrust and not to cut, so that no man wielding it ever thinks of guarding a side-stroke. But Zollner, being a long-armed man, smote his antagonist across the face with his weapon as though it had been a cane, and then, ere he had time to recover himself, fairly pinked him. Doubtless if the matter were to do again, the Oberhauptmann would have got his thrust in sooner, but as it was, no explanation or excuse could get over the fact that the man was dead.’

‘If want of knowledge maketh a dangerous swordsman,’ quoth Reuben, ‘then am I even more deadly than the unpronounceable gentleman whom you have mentioned. To continue my story, however, which I broke off in order to step down from my horse, I found out early in the morning that ye were gone, and Zachary Palmer was able to tell me whither. I made up my mind, therefore, that I would out into the world also. To this end I borrowed a sword from Solomon Sprent, and my father having gone to Gosport, I helped myself to the best nag in his stables – for I have too much respect for the old man to allow one of his flesh and blood to go ill-provided to the wars. All day I have ridden, since early morning, being twice stopped on suspicion of being ill-affected, but having the good luck to get away each time. I knew that I was close at your heels, for I found them searching for you at the Salisbury Inn.’

Decimus whistled. ‘Searching for us?’ said he.

‘Yes. It seems that they had some notion that ye were not what ye professed to be, so the inn was surrounded as I passed, but none knew which road ye had taken.’

‘Said I not so?’ cried Saxon. ‘That young viper hath stirred up the regiment against us. We must push on, for they may send a party on our track.’

‘We are off the main road now, ‘I remarked; ‘even should they pursue us, they would be unlikely to follow this side track.’

‘Yet it would be wise to show them a clean pair of heels,’ said Saxon, spurring his mare into a gallop. Lockarby and I followed his example, and we all three rode swiftly along the rough moorland track.

We passed through scattered belts of pinewood, where the wild cat howled and the owl screeched, and across broad stretches of fenland and moor, where the silence was only broken by the booming cry of the bittern or the fluttering of wild duck far above our heads. The road was in parts overgrown with brambles, and was so deeply rutted and so studded with sharp and dangerous hollows, that our horses came more than once upon their knees. In one place the wooden bridge which led over a stream had broken down, and no attempt had been made to repair it, so that we were compelled to ride our horses girth deep through the torrent. At first some scattered lights had shown that we were in the neighbourhood of human habitations, but these became fewer as we advanced, until the last died away and we found ourselves upon the desolate moor which stretched away in unbroken solitude to the shadowy horizon. The moon had broken through the clouds and now shone hazily through wreaths of mist, throwing a dim light over the wild scene, and enabling us to keep to the track, which was not fenced in in any way and could scarce be distinguished from the plain around it.

We had slackened our pace under the impression that all fear of pursuit was at an end, and Reuben was amazing us by an account of the excitement which had been caused in Havant by our disappearance, when through the stillness of the night a dull, muffled rat-tat-tat struck upon my ear. At the same moment Saxon sprang from his horse and listened intently with sidelong head.

‘Boot and saddle!’ he cried, springing into his seat again. ‘They are after us as sure as fate. A dozen troopers by the sound. We must shake them off, or goodbye to Monmouth.’

‘Give them their heads,’ I answered, and striking spurs into our steeds, we thundered on through the darkness. Covenant and Chloe were as fresh as could be wished, and soon settled down into a long springy gallop. Our friend’s horse however, had been travelling all day, and its long-drawn, laboured breathing showed that it could not hold out for long. Through the clatter of our horses’ hoofs I could still from time to time hear the ominous murmur from behind us.

‘This will never do, Reuben,’ said I anxiously, as the weary creature stumbled, and the rider came perilously near to shooting over its head.

‘The old horse is nearly foundered,’ he answered ruefully. ‘We are off the road now, and the rough ground is too much for her.’

‘Yes, we are off the track,’ cried Saxon over his shoulder – for he led us by a few paces. ‘Bear in mind that the Bluecoats have been on the march all day, so that their horses may also be blown. How in Himmel came they to know which road we took?’

As if in answer to his ejaculation, there rose out of the still night behind us a single, clear, bell-like note, swelling and increasing in volume until it seemed to fill the whole air with its harmony.

‘A bloodhound!’ cried Saxon.

A second sharper, keener note, ending in an unmistakable howl, answered the first.

‘Another of them,’ said he. ‘They have loosed the brutes that we saw near the Cathedral. Gad! we little thought when we peered over the rails at them, a few hours ago, that they would so soon be on our own track. Keep a firm knee and a steady seat, for a slip now would be your last.’

‘Holy mother!’ cried Reuben, ‘I had steeled myself to die in battle – but to be dogsmeat! It is something outside the contract.’

‘They hold them in leash,’ said Saxon, between his teeth, ‘else they would outstrip the horses and be lost in the darkness.

Could we but come on running water we might put them off our track.’

‘My horse cannot hold on at this pace for more than a very few minutes,’ Reuben cried. ‘If I break down, do ye go on, for ye must remember that they are upon your track and not mine. They have found cause for suspicion of the two strangers of the inn, but none of me.’

‘Nay, Reuben, we shall stand or fall together,’ said I sadly, for at every step his horse grew more and more feeble. ‘In this darkness they will make little distinction between persons.’

‘Keep a good heart,’ shouted the old soldier, who was now leading us by twenty yards or more. ‘We can hear them because the wind blows from that way, but it’s odds whether they have heard us. Methinks they slacken in their pursuit.’

‘The sound of their horses has indeed grown fainter,’ said I joyfully.

‘So faint that I can hear it no longer,’ my companion cried.

We reined up our panting steeds and strained our ears, but not a sound could we hear save the gentle murmur of the breeze amongst the whin-bushes, and the melancholy cry of the night-jar. Behind us the broad rolling plain, half light and half shadow, stretched away to the dim horizon without sign of life or movement. ‘We have either outstripped them completely, or else they have given up the chase,’ said I. ‘What ails the horses that they should tremble and snort?’

‘My poor beast is nearly done for,’ Reuben remarked, leaning forward and passing his hand down the creature’s reeking neck.

‘For all that we cannot rest,’ said Saxon. ‘We may not be out of danger yet. Another mile or two may shake us clear. But I like it not.’

‘Like not what?’

‘These horses and their terrors. The beasts can at times both see and hear more than we, as I could show by divers examples drawn from mine own experience on the Danube and in the Palatinate, were the time and place more fitting. Let us on, then, before we rest.’

The weary horses responded bravely to the call, and struggled onwards over the broken ground for a considerable time. At last we were thinking of pulling up in good earnest, and of congratulating ourselves upon having tired out our pursuers, when of a sudden the bell-like baying broke upon our ears far louder than it had been before – so loud, indeed, that it was evident that the dogs were close upon our heels.

‘The accursed hounds!’ cried Saxon, putting spurs to his horse and shooting ahead of us; ‘I feared as much. They have freed them from the leash. There is no escape from the devils, but we can choose the spot where we shall make our stand.’

‘Come on, Reuben,’ I shouted. ‘We have only to reckon with the dogs now. Their masters have let them loose, and turned back for Salisbury.’

‘Pray heaven they break their necks before they get there!’ he cried. ‘They set dogs on us as though we were rats in a cock-pit. Yet they call England a Christian country! It’s no use, Micah. Poor Dido can’t stir another step.’
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