THE SERGEANT, who was a great raw-boned west-countryman, pushed the gate open, and we were advancing up the winding pathway, when a stream of yellow light flooded out from a suddenly opened door, and we saw a dark squat figure dart through it into the inside of the house. At the same moment there rose up a babel of sounds, followed by two pistol shots, and a roaring, gasping hubbub, with clash of swords and storm of oaths. At this sudden uproar we all three ran at our topmost speed up the pathway and peered in through the open door, where we saw a scene such as I shall never forget while this old memory of mine can conjure up any picture of the past.
The room was large and lofty, with long rows of hams and salted meats dangling from the smoke-browned rafters, as is usual in Somersetshire farmhouses. A high black clock ticked in a corner, and a rude table, with plates and dishes laid out as for a meal, stood in the centre. Right in front of the door a great fire of wood faggots was blazing, and before this, to our unutterable horror, there hung a man head downwards, suspended by a rope which was knotted round his ankles, and which, passing over a hook in a beam, had been made fast to a ring in the floor. The struggles of this unhappy man had caused the rope to whirl round, so that he was spinning in front of the blaze like a joint of meat. Across the threshold lay a woman, the one whose cries had attracted us, but her rigid face and twisted body showed that our aid had come too late to save her from the fate which she had seen impending. Close by her two swarthy dragoons in the glaring red coats of the Royal army lay stretched across each other upon the floor, dark and scowling even in death. In the centre of the room two other dragoons were cutting and stabbing with their broad-swords at a thick, short, heavy-shouldered man, clad in coarse brown kersey stuff, who sprang about among the chairs and round the table with a long basket-hilted rapier in his hand, parrying or dodging their blows with wonderful adroitness, and every now and then putting in a thrust in return. Hard pressed as he was, his set resolute face, firm mouth, and bright well-opened eyes spoke of a bold spirit within, while the blood which dripped from the sleeve of one of his opponents proved that the contest was not so unequal as it might appear. Even as we gazed he sprang back to avoid a fierce rush of the furious soldiers, and by a quick sharp side stroke he severed the rope by which the victim was hung. The body fell with a heavy thud upon the brick floor, while the little swordsman danced off in a moment into another quarter of the room, still stopping or avoiding with the utmost ease and skill the shower of blows which rained upon him.
This strange scene held us spell-bound for a few seconds, but there was no time for delay, for a slip or trip would prove fatal to the gallant stranger. Rushing into the chamber, sword in hand, we fell upon the dragoons, who, outnumbered as they were, backed into a corner and struck out fiercely, knowing that they need expect no mercy after the devil’s work in which they had been engaged. Holloway, our sergeant of horse, springing furiously in, laid himself open to a thrust which stretched him dead upon the ground. Before the dragoon could disengage his weapon, Sir Gervas cut him down, while at the same moment the stranger got past the guard of his antagonist, and wounded him mortally in the throat. Of the four red-coats not one escaped alive, while the bodies of our sergeant and of the old couple who had been the first victims increased the horror of the scene.
“Poor Holloway is gone,” said I, placing my hand over his heart. “Who ever saw such a shambles? I feel sick and ill.”
“Here is eau-de-vie, if I mistake not,” cried the stranger, clambering up on a chair and reaching a bottle from the shelf. “Good, too, by the smell. Take a sup, for you are as white as a new-bleached sheet.”
“Honest warfare I can abide, but scenes like this make my blood run cold,” I answered, taking a gulp from the flask. I was a very young soldier then, my dears, but I confess that to the end of my campaigns any form of cruelty had the same effect upon me. I give you my word that when I went to London last fall the sight of an overworked, raw-backed cart-horse straining with its load, and flogged for not doing that which it could not do, gave me greater qualms than did the field of Sedgemoor, or that greater day when ten thousand of the flower of France lay stretched before the earthworks of Landen.
“The woman is dead,” said Sir Gervas, “and the man is also, I fear, past recovery. He is not burned, but suffers, I should judge, poor devil! from the rush of blood to the head.”
“If that be all it may well be cured,” remarked the stranger; and taking a small knife from his pocket, he rolled up the old man’s sleeve and opened one of his veins. At first only a few sluggish black drops oozed from the wound, but presently the blood began to flow more freely, and the injured man showed signs of returning sense.
“He will live,” said the little swordsman, putting his lancet back in his pocket. “And now, who may you be to whom I owe this interference which shortened the affair, though mayhap the result would have been the same had you left us to settle it amongst ourselves?”
“We are from Monmouth’s army,” I answered. “He lies at Bridgewater, and we are scouting and seeking supplies.”
“And who are you?” asked Sir Gervas. “And how came you into this ruffle? S’bud, you are a game little rooster to fight four such great cockerels!”
“My name is Hector Marot,” the man answered, cleaning out his empty pistols and very carefully reloading them. “As to who I am, it is a matter of small moment. Suffice it that I have helped to lessen Kirk’s horse by four of his rogues. Mark their faces, so dusky and sun-dried even in death. These men have learned warfare fighting against the heathen in Africa, and now they practise on poor harmless English folk the devil’s tricks which they have picked up amongst the savages. The Lord help Monmouth’s men should they be beaten! These vermin are more to be feared than hangman’s cord or headsman’s axe.”
“But how did you chance upon the spot at the very nick of time?” I asked.
“Why, marry, I was jogging down the road on my mare when I heard the clatter of hoofs behind me, and concealing myself in a field, as a prudent man would while the country is in its present state, I saw these four rogues gallop past. They made their way up to the farmhouse here, and presently from cries and other tokens I knew what manner of hell-fire business they had on hand. On that I left my mare in the field and ran up, when I saw them through the casement, tricing the good man up in front of his fire to make him confess where his wealth lay hidden, though indeed it is my own belief that neither he nor any other farmer in these parts hath any wealth left to hide, after two armies have been quartered in turn upon them. Finding that his mouth remained closed, they ran him up, as you saw, and would assuredly have toasted him like a snipe, had I not stepped in and winged two of them with my barkers. The others set upon me, but I pinked one through the forearm, and should doubtless have given a good account of both of them but for your incoming.”
“Right gallantly done!” I exclaimed. “But where have I heard your name before, Mr. Hector Marot?”
“Nay,” he answered, with a sharp, sidelong look, “I cannot tell that.”
“It is familiar to mine ear,” said I.
He shrugged his broad shoulders, and continued to look to the priming of his pistols, with a half-defiant and half-uneasy expression. He was a very sturdy, deep-chested man, with a stern, square-jawed face, and a white seam across his bronzed forehead as from a slash with a knife. He wore a gold-edged riding-cap, a jacket of brown sad-coloured stuff much stained by the weather, a pair of high rusty jack-boots, and a small bob-wig.
Sir Gervas, who had been staring very hard at the man, suddenly gave a start, and slapped his hand against his leg.
“Of course!” he cried. “Sink me, if I could remember where I had seen your face, but now it comes back to me very clearly.”
The man glanced doggedly from under his bent brows at each of us in turn. “It seems that I have fallen among acquaintances,” he said gruffly; “yet I have no memory of ye. Methinks, young sirs, that your fancy doth play ye false.”
“Not a whit,” the Baronet answered quietly, and, bending forward, he whispered a few words into the man’s ear, which caused him to spring from his seat and take a couple of quick strides forward, as though to escape from the house.
“Nay, nay!” cried Sir Gervas, springing between him and the door, “you shall not run away from us. Pshaw, man! never lay your hand upon your sword. We have had bloody work enough for one night. Besides, we would not harm you.”
“What mean ye, then? What would ye have?” he asked, glancing about like some fierce wild beast in a trap.
“I have a most kindly feeling to you, man, after this night’s work,” cried Sir Gervas. “What is it to me how ye pick up a living, as long as you are a true man at heart? Let me perish if I ever forget a face which I have once seen, and your bonne mine, with the trade-mark upon your forehead, is especially hard to overlook.”
“Suppose I be the same? What then?” the man asked sullenly.
“There is no suppose in the matter. I could swear to you. But I would not, lad—not if I caught you red-handed. You must know, Clarke, since there is none to overhear us, that in the old days I was a Justice of the Peace in Surrey, and that our friend here was brought up before me on a charge of riding somewhat late o’ night, and of being plaguey short with travellers. You will understand me. He was referred to assizes, but got away in the meanwhile, and so saved his neck. Right glad I am of it, for you will agree with me that he is too proper a man to give a tight-rope dance at Tyburn.”
“And I remember well now where I have heard your name,” said I. “Were you not a captive in the Duke of Beaufort’s prison at Badminton, and did you not succeed in escaping from the old Boteler dungeon?”
“Nay, gentlemen,” he replied, seating himself on the edge of the table, and carelessly swinging his legs, “since ye know so much it would be folly for me to attempt to deceive ye. I am indeed the same Hector Marot who hath made his name a terror on the great Western road, and who hath seen the inside of more prisons than any man in the south. With truth, however, I can say that though I have been ten years upon the roads, I have never yet taken a groat from the poor, or injured any man who did not wish to injure me. On the contrary, I have often risked life and limb to save those who were in trouble.”
“We can bear you out in that,” I answered, “for if these four red-coat devils have paid the price of their crimes, it is your doing rather than ours.”
“Nay, I can take little credit for that,” our new acquaintance answered. “Indeed, I had other scores to settle with Colonel Kirke’s horse, and was but too glad to have this breather with them.”
Whilst we were talking the men whom we had left with the horses had come up, together with some of the neighbouring farmers and cottagers, who were aghast at the scene of slaughter, and much troubled in their minds over the vengeance which might be exacted by the Royal troops next day.
“For Christ’s zake, zur,” cried one of them, an old ruddy-faced countryman, “move the bodies o’ these soldier rogues into the road, and let it zeem as how they have perished in a chance fight wi’ your own troopers loike. Should it be known as they have met their end within a varmhouse, there will not be a thatch left unlighted over t’ whole country side; as it is, us can scarce keep these murthering Tangiers devils from oor throats.”
“His request is in reason,” said the highwayman bluntly. “We have no right to have our fun, and then go our way leaving others to pay the score.”
“Well, hark ye,” said Sir Gervas, turning to the group of frightened rustics. “I’ll strike a bargain with ye over the matter. We have come out for supplies, and can scarce go back empty-handed. If ye will among ye provide us with a cart, filling it with such breadstuffs and greens as ye may, with a dozen bullocks as well, we shall not only screen ye in this matter, but I shall promise payment at fair market rates if ye will come to the Protestant camp for the money.”
“I’ll spare the bullocks,” quoth the old man whom we had rescued, who was now sufficiently recovered to sit up. “Zince my poor dame is foully murthered it matters little to me what becomes o’ the stock. I shall zee her laid in Durston graveyard, and shall then vollow you to t’ camp, where I shall die happy if I can but rid the earth o’ one more o’ these incarnate devils.”
“You say well, gaffer!” cried Hector Marot; “you show the true spirit. Methinks I see an old birding-piece on yonder hooks, which, with a brace of slugs in it and a bold man behind it, might bring down one of these fine birds for all their gay feathers.”
“Her’s been a true mate to me for more’n thirty year,” said the old man, the tears coursing down his wrinkled cheeks. “Thirty zeed-toimes and thirty harvests we’ve worked together. But this is a zeed-toime which shall have a harvest o’ blood if my right hand can compass it.”
“If you go to t’ wars, Gaffer Swain, we’ll look to your homestead,” said the farmer who had spoken before. “As to t’ greenstuffs as this gentleman asks for he shall have not one wainload but three, if he will but gi’ us half-an-hour to fill them up. If he does not tak them t’ others will, so we had raither that they go to the good cause. Here, Miles, do you wak the labourers, and zee that they throw the potato store wi’ the spinach and the dried meats into the waggons wi’ all speed.”
“Then we had best set about our part of the contract,” said Hector Marot. With the aid of our troopers he carried out the four dragoons and our dead sergeant, and laid them on the ground some way down the lane, leading the horses all round and between their bodies, so as to trample the earth, and bear out the idea of a cavalry skirmish. While this was doing, some of the labourers had washed down the brick floor of the kitchen and removed all traces of the tragedy. The murdered woman had been carried up to her own chamber, so that nothing was left to recall what had occurred, save the unhappy farmer, who sat moodily in the same place, with his chin resting upon his stringy work-worn hands, staring out in front of him with a stony, empty gaze, unconscious apparently of all that was going on around him.
The loading of the waggons had been quickly accomplished, and the little drove of oxen gathered from a neighbouring field. We were just starting upon our return journey when a young countryman rode up, with the news that a troop of the Royal Horse were between the camp and ourselves. This was grave tidings, for we were but seven all told, and our pace was necessarily slow whilst we were hampered with the supplies.
“How about Hooker?” I suggested. “Should we not send after him and give him warning?”
“I’ll goo at once,” said the countryman. “I’m bound to zee him if he be on the Athelney road.” So saying he set spurs to his horse and galloped off through the darkness.
“While we have such volunteer scouts as this,” I remarked, “it is easy to see which side the country folk have in their hearts. Hooker hath still the better part of two troops with him, so surely he can hold his own. But how are we to make our way back?”
“Zounds, Clarke! let us extemporise a fortress,” suggested Sir Gervas. “We could hold this farmhouse against all comers until Hooker returns, and then join our forces to his. Now would our redoubtable Colonel be in his glory, to have a chance of devising cross-fires, and flanking-fires, with all the other refinements of a well-conducted leaguer.”
“Nay,” I answered, “after leaving Major Hooker in a somewhat cavalier fashion, it would be a bitter thing to have to ask his help now that there is danger.”
“Ho, ho!” cried the Baronet. “It does not take a very deep lead-line to come to the bottom of your stoical philosophy, friend Micah. For all your cold-blooded stolidity you are keen enough where pride or honour is concerned. Shall we then ride onwards, and chance it? I’ll lay an even crown that we never as much as see a red coat.”
“If you will take my advice, gentlemen,” said the highwayman, trotting up upon a beautiful bay mare, “I should say that your best course is to allow me to act as guide to you as far as the camp. It will be strange if I cannot find roads which shall baffle these blundering soldiers.”
“A very wise and seasonable proposition,” cried Sir Gervas. “Master Marot, a pinch from my snuff-box, which is ever a covenant of friendship with its owner. Adslidikins, man! though our acquaintance at present is limited to my having nearly hanged you on one occasion, yet I have a kindly feeling towards you, though I wish you had some more savoury trade.”
“So do many who ride o’ night,” Marot answered, with a chuckle. “But we had best start, for the east is whitening, and it will be daylight ere we come to Bridgewater.”
Leaving the ill-omened farmhouse behind us we set off with all military precautions, Marot riding with me some distance in front, while two of the troopers covered the rear. It was still very dark, though a thin grey line on the horizon showed that the dawn was not far off. In spite of the gloom, however, our new acquaintance guided us without a moment’s halt or hesitation through a network of lanes and bypaths, across fields and over bogs, where the waggons were sometimes up to their axles in bog, and sometimes were groaning and straining over rocks and stones. So frequent were our turnings, and so often did we change the direction of our advance, that I feared more than once that our guide was at fault; yet, when at last the first rays of the sun brightened the landscape we saw the steeple of Bridgewater parish church shooting up right in front of us.
“Zounds, man! you must have something of the cat in you to pick your way so in the dark,” cried Sir Gervas, riding up to us. “I am right glad to see the town, for my poor waggons have been creaking and straining until my ears are weary with listening for the snap of the axle-bar. Master Marot, we owe you something for this.”
“Is this your own particular district?” I asked, “or have you a like knowledge of every part of the south?”
“My range,” said he, lighting his short, black pipe, “is from Kent to Cornwall, though never north of the Thames or Bristol Channel. Through that district there is no road which is not familiar to me, nor as much as a break in the hedge which I could not find in blackest midnight. It is my calling. But the trade is not what it was. If I had a son I should not bring him up to it. It hath been spoiled by the armed guards to the mail-coaches, and by the accursed goldsmiths, who have opened their banks and so taken the hard money into their strong boxes, giving out instead slips of paper, which are as useless to us as an old newsletter. I give ye my word that only a week gone last Friday I stopped a grazier coming from Blandford fair, and I took seven hundred guineas off him in these paper cheques, as they call them—enough, had it been in gold, to have lasted me for a three month rouse. Truly the country is coming to a pretty pass when such trash as that is allowed to take the place of the King’s coinage.”
“Why should you persevere in such a trade?” said I. “Your own knowledge must tell you that it can only lead to ruin and the gallows. Have you ever known one who has thriven at it?”
“That have I,” he answered readily. “There was Kingston Jones, who worked Hounslow for many a year. He took ten thousand yellow boys on one job, and, like a wise man, he vowed never to risk his neck again. He went into Cheshire, with some tale of having newly arrived from the Indies, bought an estate, and is now a flourishing country gentleman of good repute, and a Justice of the Peace into the bargain. Zounds, man! to see him on the bench, condemning some poor devil for stealing a dozen eggs, is as good as a comedy in the playhouse.”
“Nay! but,” I persisted, “you are a man, judging from what we have seen of your courage and skill in the use of your weapons, who would gain speedy preferment in any army. Surely it were better to use your gifts to the gaining of honour and credit, than to make them a stepping-stone to disgrace and the gallows?”
“For the gallows I care not a clipped shilling,” the highwayman answered, sending up thick blue curls of smoke into the morning air. “We have all to pay nature’s debt, and whether I do it in my boots or on a feather bed, in one year or in ten, matters as little to me as to any soldier among you. As to disgrace, it is a matter of opinion. I see no shame myself in taking a toll upon the wealth of the rich, since I freely expose my own skin in the doing of it.”
“There is a right and there is a wrong,” I answered, “which no words can do away with, and it is a dangerous and unprofitable trick to juggle with them.”
“Besides, even if what you have said were true as to property,” Sir Gervas remarked, “it would not hold you excused for that recklessness of human life which your trade begets.”
“Nay! it is but hunting, save that your quarry may at any time turn round upon you, and become in turn the hunter. It is, as you say, a dangerous game, but two can play at it, and each has an equal chance. There is no loading of the dice, or throwing of fulhams. Now it was but a few days back that, riding down the high-road, I perceived three jolly farmers at full gallop across the fields with a leash of dogs yelping in front of them, and all in pursuit of one little harmless bunny. It was a bare and unpeopled countryside on the border of Exmoor, so I bethought me that I could not employ my leisure better than by chasing the chasers. Odd’s wouns! it was a proper hunt. Away went my gentlemen, whooping like madmen, with their coat skirts flapping in the breeze, chivying on the dogs, and having a rare morning’s sport. They never marked the quiet horseman who rode behind them, and who without a ‘yoick!’ or ‘hark-a-way!’ was relishing his chase with the loudest of them. It needed but a posse of peace officers at my heels to make up a brave string of us, catch-who-catch-can, like the game the lads play on the village green.”
“And what came of it?” I asked, for our new acquaintance was laughing silently to himself.
“Well, my three friends ran down their hare, and pulled out their flasks, as men who had done a good stroke of work. They were still hobnobbing and laughing over the slaughtered bunny, and one had dismounted to cut off its ears as the prize of their chase, when I came up at a hand-gallop. ‘Good-morrow, gentlemen,’ said I, ‘we have had rare sport.’ They looked at me blankly enough, I promise you, and one of them asked me what the devil I did there, and how I dared to join in a private sport. ‘Nay, I was not chasing your hare, gentlemen,’ said I. ‘What then, fellow?’ asked one of them. ‘Why, marry, I was chasing you,’ I answered, ‘and a better run I have not had for years.’ With that I lugged out my persuaders, and made the thing clear in a few words, and I’ll warrant you would have laughed could you have seen their faces as they slowly dragged the fat leather purses from their fobs. Seventy-one pounds was my prize that morning, which was better worth riding for than a hare’s ears.”
“Did they not raise the country on your track?” I asked.
“Nay! When Brown Alice is given her head she flies faster than the news. Rumour spreads quick, but the good mare’s stride is quicker still.”
“And here we are within our own outposts,” quoth Sir Gervas. “Now, mine honest friend—for honest you have been to us, whatever others may say of you—will you not come with us, and strike in for a good cause? Zounds, man! you have many an ill deed to atone for, I’ll warrant. Why not add one good one to your account, by risking your life for the reformed faith?”
“Not I,” the highwayman answered, reining up his horse. “My own skin is nothing, but why should I risk my mare in such a fool’s quarrel? Should she come to harm in the ruffle, where could I get such another? Besides, it matters nothing to her whether Papist or Protestant sits on the throne of England—does it, my beauty?”
“But you might chance to gain preferment,” I said. “Our Colonel, Decimus Saxon, is one who loves a good swordsman, and his word hath power with King Monmouth and the council.”
“Nay, nay!” cried Hector Marot gruffly. “Let every man stick to his own trade. Kirke’s Horse I am ever ready to have a brush with, for a party of them hung old blind Jim Houston of Milverton, who was a friend of mine. I have sent seven of the red-handed rogues to their last account for it, and might work through the whole regiment had I time. But I will not fight against King James, nor will I risk the mare, so let me hear no more of it. And now I must leave ye, for I have much to do. Farewell to you!”
“Farewell, farewell!” we cried, pressing his brown horny hands; “our thanks to you for your guidance.” Raising his hat, he shook his bridle and galloped off down the road in a rolling cloud of dust.
“Rat me, if I ever say a word against the thieves again!” said Sir Gervas. “I never saw a man wield sword more deftly in my life, and he must be a rare hand with a pistol to bring those two tall fellows down with two shots. But look over there, Clarke! Can you not see bodies of red-coats?”
“Surely I can,” I answered, gazing out over the broad, reedy, dead-coloured plain, which extended from the other side of the winding Parret to the distant Polden Hills. “I can see them over yonder in the direction of Westonzoyland, as bright as the poppies among corn.”
“There are more upon the left, near Chedzoy,” quoth Sir Gervas. “One, two, three, and one yonder, and two others behind—six regiments of foot in all. Methinks I see the breastplates of horse over there, and some sign of ordnance too. Faith! Monmouth must fight now, if he ever hopes to feel the gold rim upon his temples. The whole of King James’s army hath closed upon him.”
“We must get back to our command, then,” I answered. “If I mistake not, I see the flutter of our standards in the market-place.” We spurred our weary steeds forward, and made our way with our little party and the supplies which we had collected, until we found ourselves back in our quarters, where we were hailed by the lusty cheers of our hungry comrades. Before noon the drove of bullocks had been changed into joints and steaks, while our green stuff and other victuals had helped to furnish the last dinner which many of our men were ever destined to eat. Major Hooker came in shortly after with a good store of provisions, but in no very good case, for he had had a skirmish with the dragoons, and had lost eight or ten of his men. He bore a complaint straightway to the council concerning the manner in which we had deserted him; but great events were coming fast upon us now, and there was small time to inquire into petty matters of discipline. For myself, I freely confess, looking back on it, that as a soldier he was entirely in the right, and that from a strict military point of view our conduct was not to be excused. Yet I trust, my dears, even now, when years have weighed me down, that the scream of a woman in distress would be a signal which would draw me to her aid while these old limbs could bear me. For the duty which we owe to the weak overrides all other duties and is superior to all circumstances, and I for one cannot see why the coat of the soldier should harden the heart of the man.