IN the morning, after a breakfast furnished by the remains of our supper, we looked to our horses and prepared for our departure. Ere we could mount, however, our kindly host came running out to us with a load of armour in his arms.
“Come hither,” said he, beckoning to Reuben. “It is not meet, lad, that you should go bare-breasted against the enemy when your comrades are girt with steel. I have here mine own old breastplate and head-piece, which should, methinks, fit you, for if you have more flesh than I, I am a larger framework of a man. Ah, said I not so! Were’t measured for you by Silas Thomson, the court armourer, it could not grip better. Now on with the head-piece. A close fit again. You are now a cavalier whom Monmouth or any other leader might be proud to see ride beneath his banner.”
Both helmet and body-plates were of the finest Milan steel, richly inlaid with silver and with gold, and carved all over in rare and curious devices. So stern and soldierly was the effect, that the ruddy, kindly visage of our friend staring out of such a panoply had an ill-matched and somewhat ludicrous appearance.
“Nay, nay,” cried the old cavalier, seeing a smile upon our features, “it is but right that so precious a jewel as a faithful heart should have a fitting casket to protect it.”
“I am truly beholden to you, sir,” said Reuben; “I can scarce find words to express my thanks. Holy mother! I have a mind to ride straight back to Havant, to show them how stout a man-at-arms hath been reared amongst them.”
“It is steel of proof,” Sir Jacob remarked; “a pistol-bullet might glance from it. And you,” he continued, turning to me, “here is a small gift by which you shall remember this meeting. I did observe that you did cast a wistful eye upon my bookshelf. It is Plutarch’s lives of the ancient worthies, done into English by the ingenious Mr. Latimer. Carry this volume with you, and shape your life after the example of the giant men whose deeds are here set forth. In your saddle-bag I place a small but weighty packet, which I desire you to hand over to Monmouth upon the day of your arrival in his camp. As to you, sir,” addressing Decimus Saxon, “here is a slug of virgin gold for you, which may fashion into a pin or such like ornament. You may wear it with a quiet conscience, for it is fairly given to you and not filched from your entertainer whilst he slept.”
Saxon and I shot a sharp glance of surprise at each other at this speech, which showed that our words of the night before were not unknown to him. Sir Jacob, however, showed no signs of anger, but proceeded to point out our road and to advise us as to our journey.
“You must follow this sheep-track until you come on another and broader pathway which makes for the West,” said he. “It is little used, and there is small chance of your falling in with any of your enemies upon it. This path will lead you between the villages of Fovant and Hindon, and soon to Mere, which is no great distance from Bruton, upon the Somersetshire border.”
Thanking our venerable host for his great kindness towards us we gave rein to our horses, and left him once more to the strange solitary existence in which we had found him. So artfully had the site of his cottage been chosen, that when we looked back to give him a last greeting both he and his dwelling had disappeared already from our view, nor could we, among the many mounds and hollows, determine where the cottage lay which had given us such welcome shelter. In front of us and on either side the great uneven dun-coloured plain stretched away to the horizon, without a break in its barren gorse-covered surface. Over the whole expanse there was no sign of life, save for an occasional rabbit which whisked into its burrow on hearing our approach, or a few thin and hungry sheep, who could scarce sustain life by feeding on the coarse and wiry grass which sprang from the unfruitful soil.
The pathway was so narrow that only one of us could ride upon it at a time, but we presently abandoned it altogether, using it simply as a guide, and galloping along side by side over the rolling plain. We were all silent, Reuben meditating upon his new corslet, as I could see from his frequent glances at it; while Saxon, with his eyes half closed, was brooding over some matter of his own. For my own part, my thoughts ran upon the ignominy of the old soldier’s designs upon the gold chest, and the additional shame which rose from the knowledge that our host had in some way divined his intention. No good could come of an alliance with a man so devoid of all feelings of honour or of gratitude. So strongly did I feel upon it that I at last broke the silence by pointing to a cross path, which turned away from the one which we were pursuing, and recommending him to follow it, since he had proved that he was no fit company for honest men.
“By the living rood!” he cried, laying his hand upon the hilt of his rapier, “have you taken leave of your senses? These are words such as no honourable cavaliero can abide.”
“They are none the less words of truth,” I answered.
His blade flashed out in an instant, while his mare bounded twice her length under the sharp dig of his spurs.
“We have here,” he cried, reining her round, with his fierce lean face all of a quiver with passion, “an excellent level stretch on which to discuss the matter. Out with your bilbo and maintain your words.”
“I shall not stir a hair’s-breadth to attack you,” I answered. “Why should I, when I bear you no ill-will? If you come against me, however, I will assuredly beat you out of your saddle, for all your tricky sword play.” I drew my broadsword as I spoke, and stood upon my guard, for I guessed that with so old a soldier the onset would be sharp and sudden.
“By all the saints in heaven!” cried Reuben, “which ever of ye strikes first at the other I’ll snap this pistol at his head. None of your jokes, Don Decimo, for by the Lord I’ll let drive at you if you were my own mother’s son. Put up your sword, for the trigger falls easy, and my finger is a twitching.”
“Curse you for a spoil-sport!” growled Saxon, sulkily sheathing his weapon. “Nay, Clarke,” he added, after a few moments of reflection, “this is but child’s play, that two camarados with a purpose in view should fall out over such a trifle. I, who am old enough to be your father, should have known better than to have drawn upon you, for a boy’s tongue wags on impulse and without due thought. Do but say that you have said more than you meant.”
“My way of saying it may have been over plain and rough,” I answered, for I saw that he did but want a little salve where my short words had galled him. “At the same time, our ways differ from your ways, and that difference must be mended, or you can be no true comrade of ours.”
“All right, Master Morality,” quoth he, “I must e’en unlearn some of the tricks of my trade. Od’s feet, man, if ye object to me, what the henker would ye think of some whom I have known? However, let that pass. It is time that we were at the wars, for our good swords will not bide in their scabbards.
“The trenchant blade, Toledo trusty,
You cannot think a thought but old Samuel hath been before you.”
“Surely we shall be at the end of this dreary plain presently,” Reuben cried. “Its insipid flatness is enough to set the best of friends by the ears. We might be in the deserts of Libya instead of his most graceless Majesty’s county of Wiltshire.”
“There is smoke over yonder, upon the side of that hill,” said Saxon, pointing to the southward.
“Methinks I see one straight line of houses there,” I observed, shading my eyes with my hand. “But it is distant, and the shimmer of the sun disturbs the sight.”
“It must be the hamlet of Hindon,” said Reuben. “Oh, the heat of this steel coat! I wonder if it were very un-soldierly to slip it off and tie it about Dido’s neck. I shall be baked alive else, like a crab in its shell. How say you, illustrious, is it contravened by any of those thirty-nine articles of war which you bear about in your bosom?”
“The bearing of the weight of your harness, young man,” Saxon answered gravely, “is one of the exercises of war, and as such only attainable by such practice as you are now undergoing. You have many things to learn, and one of them is not to present petronels too readily at folk’s heads when you are on horseback. The jerk of your charger’s movement even now might have drawn your trigger, and so deprived Monmouth of an old and tried soldier.”
“There would be much weight in your contention,” my friend answered, “were it not that I now bethink me that I had forgot to recharge my pistol since discharging it at that great yellow beast yesternight.”
Decimus Saxon shook his head sadly. “I doubt we shall never make a soldier of you,” he remarked. “You fall from your horse if the brute does but change his step, you show a levity which will not jump with the gravity of the true soldado, you present empty petronels as a menace, and finally, you crave permission to tie your armour—armour which the Cid himself might be proud to wear—around the neck of your horse. Yet you have heart and mettle, I believe, else you would not be here.”
“Gracias, Signor!” cried Reuben, with a bow which nearly unhorsed him; “the last remark makes up for all the rest, else had I been forced to cross blades with you, to maintain my soldierly repute.”
“Touching that same incident last night,” said Saxon, “of the chest filled, as I surmise, with gold, which I was inclined to take as lawful plunder, I am now ready to admit that I may have shown an undue haste and precipitance, considering that the old man treated us fairly.”
“Say no more of it,” I answered, “if you will but guard against such impulses for the future.”
“They do not properly come from me,” he replied, “but from Will Spotterbridge, who was a man of no character at all.”
“And how comes he to be mixed up in the matter?” I asked curiously.
“Why, marry, in this wise. My father married the daughter of this same Will Spotterbridge, and so weakened a good old stock by an unhealthy strain. Will was a rake-hell of Fleet Street in the days of James, a chosen light of Alsatia, the home of bullies and of brawlers. His blood hath through his daughter been transmitted to the ten of us, though I rejoice to say that I, being the tenth, it had by that time lost much of its virulence, and indeed amounts to little more than a proper pride, and a laudable desire to prosper.”
“How, then, has it affected the race?” I asked.
“Why,” he answered, “the Saxons of old were a round-faced, contented generation, with their ledgers in their hands for six days and their bibles on the seventh. If my father did but drink a cup of small beer more than his wont, or did break out upon provocation into any fond oath, as ‘Od’s niggers!’ or ‘Heart alive!’ he would mourn over it as though it were the seven deadly sins. Was this a man, think ye, in the ordinary course of nature to beget ten long lanky children, nine of whom might have been first cousins of Lucifer, and foster-brothers of Beelzebub?”
“It was hard upon him,” remarked Reuben.
“On him! Nay, the hardship was all with us. If he with his eyes open chose to marry the daughter of an incarnate devil like Will Spotterbridge, because she chanced to be powdered and patched to his liking, what reason hath he for complaint? It is we, who have the blood of this Hector of the taverns grafted upon our own good honest stream, who have most reason to lift up our voices.”
“Faith, by the same chain of reasoning,” said Reuben, “one of my ancestors must have married a woman with a plaguy dry throat, for both my father and I are much troubled with the complaint.”
“You have assuredly inherited a plaguy pert tongue,” growled Saxon. “From what I have told you, you will see that our whole life is a conflict between our natural Saxon virtue and the ungodly impulses of the Spotterbridge taint. That of which you have had cause to complain yesternight is but an example of the evil to which I am subjected.”
“And your brothers and sisters?” I asked; “how hath this circumstance affected them?” The road was bleak and long, so that the old soldier’s gossip was a welcome break to the tedium of the journey.
“They have all succumbed,” said Saxon, with a groan. “Alas, alas! they were a goodly company could they have turned their talents to better uses. Prima was our eldest born. She did well until she attained womanhood. Secundus was a stout seaman, and owned his own vessel when he was yet a young man. It was remarked, however, that he started on a voyage in a schooner and came back in a brig, which gave rise to some inquiry. It may be, as he said, that he found it drifting about in the North Sea, and abandoned his own vessel in favour of it, but they hung him before he could prove it. Tertia ran away with a north-country drover, and hath been on the run ever since. Quartus and Nonus have been long engaged in busying themselves over the rescue of the black folk from their own benighted and heathen country, conveying them over by the shipload to the plantations, where they may learn the beauties of the Christian religion. They are, however, men of violent temper and profane speech, who cherish no affection for their younger brother. Quintus was a lad of promise, but he found a hogshead of rumbo which was thrown up from a wreck, and he died soon afterwards. Sextus might have done well, for he became clerk to Johnny Tranter the attorney; but he was of an enterprising turn, and he shifted the whole business, papers, cash, and all to the Lowlands, to the no small inconvenience of his employer, who hath never been able to lay hands either on one or the other from that day to this. Septimus died young. As to Octavius, Will Spotterbridge broke out early in him, and he was slain in a quarrel over some dice, which were said by his enemies to be so weighted that the six must ever come upwards. Let this moving recital be a warning to ye, if ye are fools enough to saddle yourselves with a wife, to see that she hath no vice in her, for a fair face is a sorry make-weight against a foul mind.”
Reuben and I could not but laugh over this frank family confession, which our companion delivered without a sign of shame or embarrassment. “Ye have paid a heavy price for your father’s want of discretion,” I remarked. “But what in the name of fate is this upon our left?”
“A gibbet, by the look of it,” said Saxon, peering across at the gaunt framework of wood, which rose up from a little knoll. “Let us ride past it, for it is little out of our way. They are rare things in England, though by my faith there were more gallows than milestones when Turenne was in the Palatinate. What between the spies and traitors who were bred by the war, the rascally Schwartzritter and Lanzknechte, the Bohemian vagabonds, and an occasional countryman who was put out of the way lest he do something amiss, there was never such a brave time for the crows.”
As we approached this lonely gibbet we saw that a dried-up wisp of a thing which could hardly be recognised as having once been a human being was dangling from the centre of it. This wretched relic of mortality was secured to the cross-bar by an iron chain, and flapped drearily backwards and forwards in the summer breeze. We had pulled up our horses, and were gazing in silence at this sign-post of death, when what had seemed to us to be a bundle of rags thrown down at the foot of the gallows began suddenly to move, and turned towards us the wizened face of an aged woman, so marked with evil passions and so malignant in its expression that it inspired us with even more horror than the unclean thing which dangled above her head.
“Gott in Himmel!” cried Saxon, “it is ever thus! A gibbet draws witches as a magnet draws needles. All the hexerei of the country side will sit round one, like cats round a milk-pail. Beware of her! she hath the evil eye!”
“Poor soul! It is the evil stomach that she hath,” said Reuben, walking his horse up to her. “Whoever saw such a bag of bones! I warrant that she is pining away for want of a crust of bread.”
The creature whined, and thrust out two skinny claws to grab the piece of silver which our friend had thrown down to her. Her fierce dark eyes and beak-like nose, with the gaunt bones over which the yellow parchment-like skin was stretched tightly, gave her a fear-inspiring aspect, like some foul bird of prey, or one of those vampires of whom the story-tellers write.
“What use is money in the wilderness?” I remarked; “she cannot feed herself upon a silver piece.”
She tied the coin hurriedly into the corner of her rags, as though she feared that I might try to wrest it from her. “It will buy bread,” she croaked.
“But who is there to sell it, good mistress?” I asked.
“They sell it at Fovant, and they sell it at Hindon,” she answered. “I bide here o’ days, but I travel at night.”
“I warrant she does, and on a broomstick,” quoth Saxon; “but tell us, mother, who is it who hangs above your head?”
“It is he who slew my youngest born,” cried the old woman, casting a malignant look at the mummy above her, and shaking a clenched hand at it which was hardly more fleshy than its own. “It is he who slew my bonny boy. Out here upon the wide moor he met him, and he took his young life from him when no kind hand was near to stop the blow. On that ground there my lad’s blood was shed, and from that watering hath grown this goodly gallows-tree with its fine ripe fruit upon it. And here, come rain, come shine, shall I, his mother, sit while two bones hang together of the man who slew my heart’s darling.” She nestled down in her rags as she spoke, and leaning her chin upon her hands stared up with an intensity of hatred at the hideous remnant.
“Come away, Reuben,” I cried, for the sight was enough to make one loathe one’s kind. “She is a ghoul, not a woman.”
“Pah! it gives one a foul taste in the mouth,” quoth Saxon. “Who is for a fresh gallop over the Downs? Away with care and carrion!
“Sir John got on his bonny brown steed,
Hark away, lads, with a loose rein and a bloody heel!”
We spurred our steeds and galloped from the unholy spot as fast as our brave beasts could carry us. To all of us the air had a purer flavour and the heath a sweeter scent by contrast with the grim couple whom we had left behind us. What a sweet world would this be, my children, were it not for man and his cruel ways!
When we at last pulled up we had set some three or four miles between the gibbet and ourselves. Right over against us, on the side of a gentle slope, stood a bright little village, with a red-roofed church rising up from amidst a clump of trees. To our eyes, after the dull sward of the plain, it was a glad sight to see the green spread of the branches and the pleasant gardens which girt the hamlet round. All morning we had seen no sight of a human being, save the old hag upon the moor and a few peat-cutters in the distance. Our belts, too, were beginning to be loose upon us, and the remembrance of our breakfast more faint.
“This,” said I, “must be the village of Mere, which we were to pass before coming to Bruton. We shall soon be over the Somersetshire border.”
“I trust that we shall soon be over a dish of beefsteaks,” groaned Reuben. “I am well-nigh famished. So fair a village must needs have a passable inn, though I have not seen one yet upon my travels which would compare with the old Wheatsheaf.”
“Neither inn nor dinner for us just yet,” said Saxon. “Look yonder to the north, and tell me what you see.”
On the extreme horizon there was visible a long line of gleaming, glittering points, which shone and sparkled like a string of diamonds. These brilliant specks were all in rapid motion, and yet kept their positions to each other.
“What is it, then?” we both cried.
“Horse upon the march,” quoth Saxon. “It may be our friends of Salisbury, who have made a long day’s journey; or, as I am inclined to think, it may be some other body of the King’s horse. They are far distant, and what we see is but the sun shining on their casques; yet they are bound for this very village, if I mistake not. It would be wisest to avoid entering it, lest the rustics set them upon our track. Let us skirt it and push on for Bruton, where we may spare time for bite and sup.”
“Alas, alas! for our dinners!” cried Reuben ruefully. “I have fallen away until my body rattles about, inside this shell of armour, like a pea in a pod. However, lads, it is all for the Protestant faith.”
“One more good stretch to Bruton, and we may rest in peace,” said Saxon. “It is ill dining when a dragoon may be served up as a grace after meat. Our horses are still fresh, and we should be there in little over an hour.”
We pushed on our way accordingly, passing at a safe distance from Mere, which is the village where the second Charles did conceal himself after the battle of Worcester. The road beyond was much crowded by peasants, who were making their way out of Somersetshire, and by farmers’ waggons, which were taking loads of food to the West, ready to turn a few guineas either from the King’s men or from the rebels. We questioned many as to the news from the war, but though we were now on the outskirts of the disturbed country, we could gain no clear account of how matters stood, save that all agreed that the rising was on the increase. The country through which we rode was a beautiful one, consisting of low swelling hills, well tilled and watered by numerous streamlets. Crossing over the river Brue by a good stone bridge, we at last reached the small country town for which we had been making, which lies embowered in the midst of a broad expanse of fertile meadows, orchards, and sheep-walks. From the rising ground by the town we looked back over the plain without seeing any traces of the troopers. We learned, too, from an old woman of the place, that though a troop of the Wiltshire Yeomanry had passed through the day before, there were no soldiers quartered at present in the neighbourhood. Thus assured we rode boldly into the town, and soon found our way to the principal inn. I have some dim remembrance of an ancient church upon an eminence, and of a quaint stone cross within the market-place, but assuredly, of all the recollections which I retain of Bruton there is none so pleasing as that of the buxom landlady’s face, and of the steaming dishes which she lost no time in setting before us.