WHEN I opened my eyes I had some ado to recall where I was, but on sitting up it was brought home to me by my head striking the low ceiling with a sharp rap. On the other side of the cabin Silas Bolitho was stretched at full length with a red woollen nightcap upon his head, fast asleep and snoring. In the centre of the cabin hung a swing-table, much worn, and stained all over with the marks of countless glasses and pannikins. A wooden bench, screwed to the floor, completed the furniture, with the exception of a stand of muskets along one side. Above and below the berths in which we lay were rows of lockers, in which, doubtless, some of the more choice laces and silks were stowed. The vessel was rising and falling with a gentle motion, but from the flapping of canvas I judged that there was little wind. Slipping quietly from my couch, so as not to wake the mate, I stole upon deck.
We were, I found, not only becalmed, but hemmed in by a dense fog-bank which rolled in thick, choking wreaths all round us, and hid the very water beneath us. We might have been a ship of the air riding upon a white cloud-bank. Now and anon a little puff of breeze caught the foresail and bellied it out for a moment, only to let it flap back against the mast, limp and slack, once more. A sunbeam would at times break through the dense cloud, and would spangle the dead grey wall with a streak of rainbow colour, but the haze would gather in again and shut off the bright invader. Covenant was staring right and left with great questioning eyes. The crew were gathered along the bulwarks and smoking their pipes while they peered out into the dense fog.
“God den, Captain,” said Dicon, touching his fur cap. “We have had a rare run while the breeze lasted, and the mate reckoned before he turned in that we were not many miles from Bristol town.”
“In that case, my good fellow,” I answered, “ye can set me ashore, for I have not far to go.”
“We must e’en wait till the fog lifts,” said Long John. “There’s only one place along here, d’ye see, where we can land cargoes unquestioned. When it clears we shall turn her head for it, but until we can take our bearings it is anxious work wi’ the sands under our lee.”
“Keep a look-out there, Tom Baldock!” cried Dicon to a man in the bows. “We are in the track of every Bristol ship, and though there’s so little wind, a high-sparred craft might catch a breeze which we miss.”
“Sh!” said Long John suddenly, holding up his hand in warning. “Sh!”
We listened with all our ears, but there was no sound, save the gentle wash of the unseen waves against our sides.
“Call the mate!” whispered the seaman. “There’s a craft close by us. I heard the rattle of a rope upon her deck.”
Silas Bolitho was up in an instant, and we all stood straining our ears, and peering through the dense fog-bank. We had well-nigh made up our minds that it was a false alarm, and the mate was turning back in no very good humour, when a clear loud bell sounded seven times quite close to us, followed by a shrill whistle and a confused shouting and stamping.
“It’s a King’s ship,” growled the mate. “That’s seven bells, and the bo’sun is turning out the watch below.”
“It was on our quarter,” whispered one.
“Nay, I think it was on our larboard bow,” said another.
The mate held up his hand, and we all listened for some fresh sign of the whereabouts of our scurvy neighbour. The wind had freshened a little, and we were slipping through the water at four or five knots an hour. Of a sudden a hoarse voice was heard roaring at our very side. “’Bout ship!” it shouted. “Bear a hand on the lee-braces, there! Stand by the halliards! Bear a hand, ye lazy rogues, or I’ll be among ye with my cane, with a wannion to ye!”
“It is a King’s ship, sure enough, and she lies just there,” said Long John, pointing out over the quarter. “Merchant adventurers have civil tongues. It’s your blue-coated, gold-braided, swivel-eyed, quarter-deckers that talk of canes. Ha! did I not tell ye!”
As he spoke, the white screen of vapour rolled up like the curtain in a playhouse, and uncovered a stately war-ship, lying so close that we could have thrown a biscuit aboard. Her long, lean, black hull rose and fell with a slow, graceful rhythm, while her beautiful spars and snow-white sails shot aloft until they were lost in the wreaths of fog which still hung around her. Nine bright brass cannons peeped out at us from her portholes. Above the line of hammocks, which hung like carded wool along her bulwarks, we could see the heads of the seamen staring down at us, and pointing us out to each other. On the high poop stood an elderly officer with cocked hat and trim white wig, who at once whipped up his glass and gazed at us through it.
“Ahoy, there!” he shouted, leaning over the taffrail. “What lugger is that?”
“The Lucy,” answered the mate, “bound from Porlock Quay to Bristol with hides and tallow. Stand ready to tack!” he added in a lower voice, “the fog is coming down again.”
“Ye have one of the hides with the horse still in it,” cried the officer. “Run down under our counter. We must have a closer look at ye.”
“Aye, aye, sir!” said the mate, and putting his helm hard down the boom swung across, and the Maria darted off like a scared seabird into the fog. Looking back there was nothing but a dim loom to show where we had left the great vessel. We could hear, however, the hoarse shouting of orders and the bustle of men.
“Look out for squalls, lads!” cried the mate. “He’ll let us have it now.”
He had scarcely spoken before there were half-a-dozen throbs of flame in the mist behind, and as many balls sung among our rigging. One cut away the end of the yard, and left it dangling; another grazed the bowsprit, and sent a puff of white splinters into the air.
“Warm work, Captain, eh?” said old Silas, rubbing his hands. “Zounds, they shoot better in the dark than ever they did in the light. There have been more shots fired at this lugger than she could carry wore she loaded with them. And yet they never so much as knocked the paint off her before. There they go again!”
A fresh discharge burst from the man-of-war, but this time they had lost all trace of us, and were firing by guess.
“That is their last bark, sir,” said Dicon.
“No fear. They’ll blaze away for the rest of the day,” growled another of the smugglers. “Why, Lor’ bless ye, it’s good exercise for the crew, and the ’munition is the King’s, so it don’t cost nobody a groat.”
“It’s well the breeze freshened,” said Long John. “I heard the creak o’ davits just after the first discharge. She was lowering her boats, or I’m a Dutchman.”
“The petter for you if you vas, you seven-foot stock-fish,” cried my enemy the cooper, whose aspect was not improved by a great strip of plaster over his eye. “You might have learned something petter than to pull on a rope, or to swab decks like a vrouw all your life.”
“I’ll set you adrift in one of your own barrels, you skin of lard,” said the seaman. “How often are we to trounce you before we knock the sauce out of you?”
“The fog lifts a little towards the land,” Silas remarked. “Methinks I see the loom of St. Austin’s Point. It rises there upon the starboard bow.”
“There it is, sure enough, sir!” cried one of the seamen, pointing to a dark cape which cut into the mist.
“Steer for the three-fathom creek then,” said the mate. “When we are on the other side of the point, Captain Clarke, we shall be able to land your horse and yourself. You will then be within a few hours’ ride of your destination.”
I led the old seaman aside, and having thanked him for the kindness which he had shown me, I spoke to him of the gauger, and implored him to use his influence to save the man.
“It rests with Captain Venables,” said he gloomily. “If we let him go what becomes of our cave?”
“Is there no way of insuring his silence?” I asked.
“Well, we might ship him to the Plantations,” said the mate. “We could take him to the Texel with us, and get Captain Donders or some other to give him a lift across the western ocean.”
“Do so,” said I, “and I shall take care that King Monmouth shall hear of the help which ye have given his messenger.”
“Well, we shall be there in a brace of shakes,” he remarked. “Let us go below and load your ground tier, for there is nothing like starting well trimmed with plenty of ballast in the hold.”
Following the sailor’s advice I went down with him and enjoyed a rude but plentiful meal. By the time that we had finished, the lugger had been run into a narrow creek, with shelving sandy banks on either side. The district was wild and marshy, with few signs of any inhabitants. With much coaxing and pushing Covenant was induced to take to the water, and swam easily ashore, while I followed in the smuggler’s dinghy. A few words of rough, kindly leave-taking were shouted after me; I saw the dinghy return, and the beautiful craft glided out to sea and faded away once more into the mists which still hung over the face of the waters.
Truly Providence works in strange ways, my children, and until a man comes to the autumn of his days he can scarce say what hath been ill-luck and what hath been good. For of all the seeming misfortunes which have befallen me during my wandering life, there is not one which I have not come to look upon as a blessing. And if you once take this into your hearts, it is a mighty help in enabling you to meet all troubles with a stiff lip; for why should a man grieve when he hath not yet determined whether what hath chanced may not prove to be a cause of rejoicing. Now here ye will perceive that I began by being dashed upon a stony road, beaten, kicked, and finally well-nigh put to death in mistake for another. Yet it ended in my being safely carried to my journey’s end, whereas, had I gone by land, it is more than likely that I should have been cut off at Weston; for, as I heard afterwards, a troop of horse were making themselves very active in those parts by blocking the roads and seizing all who came that way.
Being now alone, my first care was to bathe my face and hands in a stream which ran down to the sea, and to wipe away any trace of my adventures of the night before. My cut was but a small one, and was concealed by my hair. Having reduced myself to some sort of order I next rubbed down my horse as best I could, and rearranged his girth and his saddle. I then led him by the bridle to the top of a sandhill hard by, whence I might gain some idea as to my position.
The fog lay thick upon the Channel, but all inland was very clear and bright. Along the coast the country was dreary and marshy, but at the other side a goodly extent of fertile plain lay before me, well tilled and cared for. A range of lofty hills, which I guessed to be the Mendips, bordered the whole skyline, and further north there lay a second chain in the blue distance. The glittering Avon wound its way over the country-side like a silver snake in a flower-bed. Close to its mouth, and not more than two leagues from where I stood, rose the spires and towers of stately Bristol, the Queen of the West, which was and still may be the second city in the kingdom. The forests of masts which shot up like a pinegrove above the roofs of the houses bore witness to the great trade both with Ireland and with the Plantations which had built up so flourishing a city.
As I knew that the Duke’s seat was miles on the Gloucestershire side of the city, and as I feared lest I might be arrested and examined should I attempt to pass the gates, I struck inland with intent to ride round the walls and so avoid the peril. The path which I followed led me into a country lane, which in turn opened into a broad highway crowded with travellers, both on horseback and on foot. As the troublous times required that a man should journey with his arms, there was naught in my outfit to excite remark, and I was able to jog on among the other horsemen without question or suspicion. From their appearance they were, I judged, country farmers or squires for the most part, who were riding into Bristol to hear the news, and to store away their things of price in a place of safety.
“By your leave, zur!” said a burly, heavy-faced man in a velveteen jacket, riding up upon my bridle-arm. “Can you tell me whether his Grace of Beaufort is in Bristol or at his house o’ Badminton?”
I answered that I could not tell, but that I was myself bound for his presence.
“He was in Bristol yestreen a-drilling o’ the train-bands,” said the stranger; “but, indeed, his Grace be that loyal, and works that hard for his Majesty’s cause, that he’s a’ ower the county, and it is but chance work for to try and to catch him. But if you are about to zeek him, whither shall you go?”
“I will to Badminton,” I answered, “and await him there. Can you tell me the way?”
“What! Not know the way to Badminton!” he cried, with a blank stare of wonder. “Whoy, I thought all the warld knew that. You’re not fra Wales or the border counties, zur, that be very clear.”
“I am a Hampshire man,” said I. “I have come some distance to see the Duke.”
“Aye, so I should think!” he cried, laughing loudly. “If you doan’t know the way to Badminton you doan’t know much! But I’ll go with you, danged if I doan’t, and I’ll show you your road, and run my chance o’ finding the Duke there. What be your name?”
“Micah Clarke is my name.”
“And Vairmer Brown is mine—John Brown by the register, but better knowed as the Vairmer. Tak’ this turn to the right off the high-road. Now we can trot our beasts and not be smothered in other folk’s dust. And what be you going to Beaufort for?”
“On private matters which will not brook discussion,” I answered.
“Lor’, now! Affairs o’ State belike,” said he, with a whistle. “Well, a still tongue saves many a neck. I’m a cautious man myself, and these be times when I wouldna whisper some o’ my thoughts—no, not into the ears o’ my old brown mare here—for fear I’d see her some day standing over against me in the witness-box.”
“They seem very busy over there,” I remarked, for we were now in full sight of the walls of Bristol, where gangs of men were working hard with pick and shovel improving the defences.
“Aye, they be busy sure enough, makin’ ready in case the rebels come this road. Cromwell and his tawnies found it a rasper in my vather’s time, and Monmouth is like to do the same.”
“It hath a strong garrison, too,” said I, bethinking me of Saxon’s advice at Salisbury. “I see two or three regiments out yonder on the bare open space.”
“They have four thousand foot and a thousand horse,” the farmer answered. “But the foot are only train-bands, and there’s no trusting them after Axminster. They say up here that the rebels run to nigh twenty thousand, and that they give no quarter. Well, if we must have civil war, I hope it may be hot and sudden, not spun out for a dozen years like the last one. If our throats are to be cut, let it be with a shairp knife, and not with a blunt hedge shears.”
“What say you to a stoup of cider?” I asked, for we were passing an ivy-clad inn, with “The Beaufort Arms” printed upon the sign.
“With all my heart, lad,” my companion answered. “Ho, there! two pints of the old hard-brewed! That will serve to wash the dust down. The real Beaufort Arms is up yonder at Badminton, for at the buttery hatch one may call for what one will in reason and never put hand to pocket.”
“You speak of the house as though you knew it well,” said I.
“And who should know it better?” asked the sturdy farmer, wiping his lips, as we resumed our journey. “Why, it seems but yesterday that I played hide-and-seek wi’ my brothers in the old Boteler Castle, that stood where the new house o’ Badminton, or Acton Turville, as some calls it, now stands. The Duke hath built it but a few years, and, indeed, his Dukedom itself is scarce older. There are some who think that he would have done better to stick by the old name that his forebears bore.”
“What manner of man is the Duke?” I asked.
“Hot and hasty, like all of his blood. Yet when he hath time to think, and hath cooled down, he is just in the main. Your horse hath been in the water this morning, vriend.”
“Yes,” said I shortly, “he hath had a bath.”
“I am going to his Grace on the business of a horse,” quoth my companion. “His officers have pressed my piebald four-year-old, and taken it without a ‘With your leave,’ or ‘By your leave,’ for the use of the King. I would have them know that there is something higher than the Duke, or even than the King. There is the English law, which will preserve a man’s goods and his chattels. I would do aught in reason for King James’s service, but my piebald four-year-old is too much.”
“I fear that the needs of the public service will override your objection,” said I.
“Why it is enough to make a man a Whig,” he cried. “Even the Roundheads always paid their vair penny for every pennyworth they had, though they wanted a vair pennyworth for each penny. I have heard my father say that trade was never so brisk as in ’forty-six, when they were down this way. Old Noll had a noose of hemp ready for horse-stealers, were they for King or for Parliament. But here comes his Grace’s carriage, if I mistake not.”
As he spoke a great heavy yellow coach, drawn by six cream-coloured Flemish mares, dashed down the road, and came swiftly towards us. Two mounted lackeys galloped in front, and two others all in light blue and silver liveries rode on either side.
“His Grace is not within, else there had been an escort behind,” said the farmer, as we reined our horses aside to let the carriage pass. As they swept by he shouted out a question as to whether the Duke was at Badminton, and received a nod from the stately bewigged coachman in reply.
“We are in luck to catch him,” said Farmer Brown. “He’s as hard to find these days as a crake in a wheatfield. We should be there in an hour or less. I must thank you that I did not take a fruitless journey into Bristol. What did you say your errand was?”
I was again compelled to assure him that the matter was not one of which I could speak with a stranger, on which he appeared to be huffed, and rode for some miles without opening his mouth. Groves of trees lined the road on either side, and the sweet smell of pines was in our nostrils. Far away the musical pealing of a bell rose and fell on the hot, close summer air. The shelter of the branches was pleasant, for the sun was very strong, blazing down out of a cloudless heaven, and raising a haze from the fields and valleys.
“’Tis the bell from Chipping Sodbury,” said my companion at last, wiping his ruddy face. “That’s Sodbury Church yonder over the brow of the hill, and here on the right is the entrance of Badminton Park.”
High iron gates, with the leopard and griffin, which are the supporters of the Beaufort arms, fixed on the pillars which flanked them, opened into a beautiful domain of lawn and grass land with clumps of trees scattered over it, and broad sheets of water, thick with wild fowl. At every turn as we rode up the winding avenue some new beauty caught our eyes, all of which were pointed out and expounded by Farmer Brown, who seemed to take as much pride in the place as though it belonged to him. Here it was a rockery where a thousand bright-coloured stones shone out through the ferns and creepers which had been trained over them. There it was a pretty prattling brook, the channel of which had been turned so as to make it come foaming down over a steep ledge of rocks. Or perhaps it was some statue of nymph or sylvan god, or some artfully built arbour overgrown with roses or honeysuckle. I have never seen grounds so tastefully laid out, and it was done, as all good work in art must be done, by following Nature so closely that it only differed from her handiwork in its profusion in so narrow a compass. A few years later our healthy English taste was spoiled by the pedant gardening of the Dutch with their straight flat ponds, and their trees all clipped and in a line like vegetable grenadiers. In truth, I think that the Prince of Orange and Sir William Temple had much to answer for in working this change, but things have now come round again, I understand, and we have ceased to be wiser than Nature in our pleasure-grounds.
As we drew near the house we came on a large extent of level sward on which a troop of horse were exercising, who were raised, as my companion informed me, entirely from the Duke’s own personal attendants. Passing them we rode through a grove of rare trees and came out on a broad space of gravel which lay in front of the house. The building itself was of great extent, built after the new Italian fashion, rather for comfort than for defence; but on one wing there remained, as my companion pointed out, a portion of the old keep and battlements of the feudal castle of the Botelers, looking as out of place as a farthingale of Queen Elizabeth joined to a court dress fresh from Paris. The main doorway was led up to by lines of columns and a broad flight of marble steps, on which stood a group of footmen and grooms, who took our horses when we dismounted. A grey-haired steward or major-domo inquired our business, and on learning that we wished to see the Duke in person, he told us that his Grace would give audience to strangers in the afternoon at half after three by the clock. In the meantime he said that the guests’ dinner had just been laid in the hall, and it was his master’s wish that none who came to Badminton should depart hungry. My companion and I were but too glad to accept the steward’s invitation, so having visited the bath-room and attended to the needs of the toilet, we followed a footman, who ushered us into a great room where the company had already assembled.
The guests may have numbered fifty or sixty, old and young, gentle and simple, of the most varied types and appearance. I observed that many of them cast haughty and inquiring glances round them, in the pauses between the dishes, as though each marvelled how he came to be a member of so motley a crew. Their only common feature appeared to be the devotion which they showed to the platter and the wine flagon. There was little talking, for there were few who knew their neighbours. Some were soldiers who had come to offer their swords and their services to the King’s lieutenant; others were merchants from Bristol, with some proposal or suggestion anent the safety of their property. There were two or three officials of the city, who had come out to receive instructions as to its defence, while here and there I marked the child of Israel, who had found his way there in the hope that in times of trouble he might find high interest and noble borrowers. Horse-dealers, saddlers, armourers, surgeons, and clergymen completed the company, who were waited upon by a staff of powdered and liveried servants, who brought and removed the dishes with the silence and deftness of long training.
The room was a contrast to the bare plainness of Sir Stephen Timewell’s dining-hall at Taunton, for it was richly panelled and highly decorated all round. The floor was formed of black and white marble, set in squares, and the walls were of polished oak, and bore a long line of paintings of the Somerset family, from John of Gaunt downwards. The ceiling, too, was tastefully painted with flowers and nymphs, so that a man’s neck was stiff ere he had done admiring it. At the further end of the hall yawned a great fireplace of white marble, with the lions and lilies of the Somerset arms carved in oak above it, and a long gilt scroll bearing the family motto, “Mutare vel timere sperno.” The massive tables at which we sat were loaded with silver chargers and candelabra, and bright with the rich plate for which Badminton was famous. I could not but think that, if Saxon could clap eyes upon it, he would not be long in urging that the war be carried on in this direction.
After dinner we were all shown into a small ante-chamber, set round with velvet settees, where we were to wait till the Duke was ready to see us. In the centre of this room there stood several cases, glass-topped and lined with silk, wherein were little steel and iron rods, with brass tubes and divers other things, very bright and ingenious, though I could not devise for what end they had been put together. A gentleman-in-waiting came round with paper and ink-horn, making notes of our names and of our business. Him I asked whether it might not be possible for me to have an entirely private audience.
“His Grace never sees in private,” he replied. “He has ever his chosen councillors and officers in attendance.”
“But the business is one which is only fit for his own ear,” I urged.
“His Grace holds that there is no business fit only for his own ear,” said the gentleman. “You must arrange matters as best you can when you are shown in to him. I will promise, however, that your request be carried to him, though I warn you that it cannot be granted.”
I thanked him for his good offices, and turned away with the farmer to look at the strange little engines within the cases.
“What is it?” I asked. “I have never seen aught that was like it.”
“It is the work of the mad Marquis of Worcester,” quoth he. “He was the Duke’s grandfather. He was ever making and devising such toys, but they were never of any service to himself or to others. Now, look ye here! This wi’ the wheels were called the water-engine, and it was his crazy thought that, by heating the water in that ere kettle, ye might make the wheels go round, and thereby travel along iron bars quicker nor a horse could run. ’Oons! I’d match my old brown mare against all such contrivances to the end o’ time. But to our places, for the Duke is coming.”
We had scarce taken our seats with the other suitors, when the folding-doors were flung open, and a stout, thick, short man of fifty, or thereabouts, came bustling into the room, and strode down it between two lines of bowing clients. He had large projecting blue eyes, with great pouches of skin beneath them, and a yellow, sallow visage. At his heels walked a dozen officers and men of rank, with flowing wigs and clanking swords. They had hardly passed through the opposite door into the Duke’s own room, when the gentleman with the list called out a name, and the guests began one after the other to file into the great man’s presence.
“Methinks his Grace is in no very gentle temper,” quoth Farmer Brown. “Did you not mark how he gnawed his nether lip as he passed?”
“He seemed a quiet gentleman enough,” I answered. “It would try Job himself to see all these folk of an afternoon.”
“Hark at that!” he whispered, raising his finger. As he spoke the sound of the Duke’s voice in a storm of wrath was heard from the inner chamber, and a little sharp-faced man came out and flew through the ante-chamber as though fright had turned his head.
“He is an armourer of Bristol,” whispered one of my neighbours. “It is likely that the Duke cannot come to terms with him over a contract.”
“Nay,” said another. “He supplied Sir Marmaduke Hyson’s troop with sabres, and it is said that the blades will bend as though they were lead. Once used they can never be fitted back into the scabbard again.”
“The tall man who goes in now is an inventor,” quoth the first. “He hath the secret of some very grievous fire, such as hath been used by the Greeks against the Turks in the Levant, which he desires to sell for the better fortifying of Bristol.”
The Greek fire seemed to be in no great request with the Duke, for the inventor came out presently with his face as red as though it had been touched by his own compound. The next upon the list was my honest friend the farmer. The angry tones which greeted him promised badly for the fate of the four-year-old, but a lull ensued, and the farmer came out and resumed his seat, rubbing his great red hands with satisfaction.
“Ecod!” he whispered. “He was plaguy hot at first, but he soon came round, and he hath promised that if I pay for the hire of a dragooner as long as the war shall last I shall have back the piebald.”
I had been sitting all this time wondering how in the world I was to conduct my business amid the swarm of suppliants and the crowd of officers who were attending the Duke. Had there been any likelihood of my gaining audience with him in any other way I should gladly have adopted it, but all my endeavours to that end had been useless. Unless I took this occasion I might never come face to face with him at all. But how could he give due thought or discussion to such a matter before others? What chance was there of his weighing it as it should be weighed? Even if his feelings inclined him that way, he dared not show any sign of wavering when so many eyes were upon him. I was tempted to feign some other reason for my coming, and trust to fortune to give me some more favourable chance for handing him my papers. But then that chance might never arrive, and time was pressing. It was said that he would return to Bristol next morning. On the whole, it seemed best that I should make the fittest use I could of my present position in the hope that the Duke’s own discretion and self-command might, when he saw the address upon my despatches, lead to a more private interview.
I had just come to this resolution when my name was read out, on which I rose and advanced into the inner chamber. It was a small but lofty room, hung in blue silk with a broad gold cornice. In the centre was a square table littered over with piles of papers, and behind this sat his Grace with full-bottomed wig rolling down to his shoulders, very stately and imposing. He had the same subtle air of the court which I had observed both in Monmouth and in Sir Gervas, which, with his high bold features and large piercing eyes, marked him as a leader of men. His private scrivener sat beside him, taking notes of his directions, while the others stood behind in a half circle, or took snuff together in the deep recess of the window.
“Make a note of Smithson’s order,” he said, as I entered. “A hundred pots and as many fronts and backs to be ready by Tuesday; also six score snaphances for the musqueteers, and two hundred extra spades for the workers. Mark that the order be declared null and void unless fulfilled within the time appointed.”
“It is so marked, your Grace.”
“Captain Micah Clarke,” said the Duke, reading from the list in front of him. “What is your wish, Captain?”
“One which it would be better if I could deliver privately to your Grace,” I answered.
“Ah, you are he who desired private audience? Well, Captain, these are my council and they are as myself. So we may look upon ourselves as alone. What I may hear they may hear. Zounds, man, never stammer and boggle, but out with it!”
My request had roused the interest of the company, and those who were in the window came over to the table. Nothing could have been worse for the success of my mission, and yet there was no help for it but to deliver my despatches. I can say with a clear conscience, without any vainglory, that I had no fears for myself. The doing of my duty was the one thought in my mind. And here I may say once for all, my dear children, that I am speaking of myself all through this statement with the same freedom as though it were another man. In very truth the strong active lad of one-and-twenty was another man from the grey-headed old fellow who sits in the chimney corner and can do naught better than tell old tales to the youngsters. Shallow water gives a great splash, and so a braggart has ever been contemptible in my eyes. I trust, therefore, that ye will never think that your grandad is singing his own praises, or setting himself up as better than his neighbours. I do but lay the facts, as far as I can recall them, before ye with all freedom and with all truth.
My short delay and hesitation had sent a hot flush of anger into the Duke’s face, so I drew the packet of papers from my inner pocket and handed them to him with a respectful bow. As his eyes fell upon the superscription, he gave a sudden start of surprise and agitation, making a motion as though to hide them in his bosom. If this were his impulse he overcame it, and sat lost in thought for a minute or more with the papers in his hand. Then with a quick toss of the head, like a man who hath formed his resolution, he broke the seals and cast his eyes over the contents, which he then threw down upon the table with a bitter laugh.
“What think ye, gentlemen!” he cried, looking round with scornful eyes; “what think ye this private message hath proved to be? It is a letter from the traitor Monmouth, calling upon me to resign the allegiance of my natural sovereign and to draw my sword in his behalf! If I do this I am to have his gracious favour and protection. If not, I incur sequestration, banishment, and ruin. He thinks Beaufort’s loyalty is to be bought like a packman’s ware, or bullied out of him by ruffling words. The descendant of John of Gaunt is to render fealty to the brat of a wandering playwoman!”
Several of the company sprang to their feet, and a general buzz of surprise and anger greeted the Duke’s words. He sat with bent brows, beating his foot against the ground, and turning over the papers upon the table.
“What hath raised his hopes to such mad heights?” he cried. “How doth he presume to send such a missive to one of my quality? Is it because he hath seen the backs of a parcel of rascally militiamen, and because he hath drawn a few hundred chawbacons from the plough’s tail to his standard, that he ventures to hold such language to the President of Wales? But ye will be my witnesses as to the spirit in which I received it?”
“We can preserve your Grace from all danger of slander on that point,” said an elderly officer, while a murmur of assent from the others greeted the remark.
“And you!” cried Beaufort, raising his voice and turning his flashing eyes upon me; “who are you that dare to bring such a message to Badminton? You had surely taken leave of your senses ere you did set out upon such an errand!”
“I am in the hands of God here as elsewhere,” I answered, with some flash of my father’s fatalism. “I have done what I promised to do, and the rest is no concern of mine.”
“You shall find it a very close concern of thine,” he shouted, springing from his chair and pacing up and down the room; “so close as to put an end to all thy other concerns in this life. Call in the halberdiers from the outer hall! Now, fellow, what have you to say for yourself?”
“There is naught to be said,” I answered.
“But something to be done,” he retorted in a fury. “Seize this man and secure his hands!”
Four halberdiers who had answered the summons closed in upon me and laid hands on me. Resistance would have been folly, for I had no wish to harm the men in the doing of their duty. I had come to take my chance, and if that chance should prove to be death, as seemed likely enough at present, it must be met as a thing foreseen. I thought of those old-time lines which Master Chillingfoot, of Petersfield, had ever held up to our admiration—
“Non civium ardor prava jubentium
Here was the “vultus instantis tyranni,” in this stout, be-wigged, lace-covered, yellow-faced man in front of me. I had obeyed the poet in so far that my courage had not been shaken. I confess that this spinning dust-heap of a world has never had such attractions for me that it would be a pang to leave it. Never, at least, until my marriage—and that, you will find, alters your thoughts about the value of your life, and many other of your thoughts as well. This being so, I stood erect, with my eyes fixed upon the angry nobleman, while his soldiers were putting the gyves about my wrists.