Sir Ludar A Story of the Days of the Great Queen Bess
By Talbot Baines Reed For regular readers of Reed's works this will be a surprise. Not a mention of a school or its inhabitants! Set in the late sixteenth century and couched in slightly archaic English, it narrates the adventures of an apprentice to a printer. But this young lad gets caught up in all sorts of adventures, and is especially drawn to Ludar, a young Irish rebel.
There is a good deal of travelling by sea, and though this sounds convincing as Reed writes it, there is not much depth in it. In other words you do not need a deep knowledge of rigging and seamanship to follow what is happening, as you do with, for instance, the work of W.H.G. Kingston.
There is a slightly dream-like feel about this book. We jump from one situation to the next without, sometimes, being sure how we got there.
Try the book for yourself, and see what you think. NH. SIR LUDAR A STORY OF THE DAYS OF THE GREAT QUEEN BESS
BY TALBOT BAINES REED
A STORY OF THE DAYS OF THE GREAT QUEEN BESS.
HOW I SAW MY QUEEN.
Every story, whether wise or foolish, grave or gay, must needs have a beginning. How it comes to pass that my story begins on a certain day in May, in the year of our Lord 1585, I can never, although I am far on in life now, properly explain.
For that was not the day on which I was born. That adventure had befallen me eighteen years before, at the parson's little house in Felton Regis. Most people who write their histories have a pride in dragging their readers back to the moment when they first hallooed defiance to this wicked world; but I, since I have clean forgotten the event, must e'en confess that my story does not begin there. A like adventure chanced often at the parsonage, and, at nine years of age, I reigned king absolute over a nursery full of her Majesty's subjects who called me brother, and quailed before my nod like Helots before the crest of a Spartan. But, as I say, all that is neither here nor there in my story.
Nor, in truth, is that grey September day, when, on the tail of a country hay-cart, I rode tremulously at my dear father's side into London; where, with much pomp and taking of oaths, I was bound apprentice, body and soul, to Master Robert Walgrave, the printer, in the presence of the worshipful Master, Wardens, and Assistants of the Company of Stationers, who enriched themselves by 2 shillings 6 pence at my father's cost, and looked upon me in a hungry way that made me tremble in my bones, and long to be out of their sight before they should order the bill of fare for their next feast. That was a day in my life truly, but it was ancient history when my story begins. I had grown a big lad since then, and was the king of Clubs without Temple Bar, and the terror of all young 'prentices for a mile round, who looked up with white cheeks when I swaggered by, and ran with their tails between their legs to hide behind counters and doorposts till I was out of sight.
No; nor yet does my story begin even at that sad day—alack!—when I stood by my widowed mother at the open grave of him who had been the pillar of our house and the pride of our lives. "Humphrey, my boy," she had said as she placed her hand on my arm and led me, like one in a dream, from the place, "it is God who has taken—He will surely also give. Shall I count all lost, with a stalwart arm like this to lean upon?" Then she kissed me, and I, for very shame, dried my eyes and held up my head. Ah me! that was but a year before; the world had still moved on, the grass covered his grave, and still my story lacked a beginning.
How comes it, then, that this day in May, of all others, should stand up like a wall, as I look back over my life, and seem to me the beginning of all things? Perhaps this history may show—or, perhaps, he who reads it may come to see that I was right when I said I could not explain it.
It was a great day in London, within and without Temple Bar; and for me, if for no other reason, it was famous, because on that day, for the first and last time, I saw the great Queen Elizabeth. About eight o'clock, while I stood, as was my wont, setting types in my master's shop, I looked from the window (as was also my wont), and spied two falconers in their green coats, with a trumpeter riding in the midst, ambling citywards. In a moment I dropped my stick (and with it, alack! a pieful of my master's types), and was out, cap and club, in the Strand, shouting till I was hoarse, "God save her Majesty!"
On the instant, from every shop far and near, darted 'prentices and journeymen, shouting and waving caps—some because they saw me do so, some because they guessed what was afoot, some because they saw, even now, the flutter of approaching pennons, and caught the winding of the royal huntsmen's horns along the Strand.
The Queen was coming!
I went mad that day with loyalty. I kicked my fellows for not shouting louder, and such as shouted not at all, I made to shout in a way they least expected. Through the open door of Master Straw's, the horologer's, I spied his two 'prentices, deaf to all the clamour, basely gorging a hasty pudding behind the bench.
"What!" shouted I, bursting in upon them, and seizing each by his cropped head, "what, ye gluttonous pair of porkers, is this the way you welcome her Majesty into our duchy? Is this a time for greasy pudding and smacking of lips? Come outside and shout, or I'll brain you with your own spoons."
Whereupon, forgetting what I did, I dipped the white face of each in his own mess, and dragged them forth, where, to do them justice, they shouted and howled as loud as any one.
And now the Strand overflowed from end to end with loyal citizens. From the windows above, the faces of the city madams beamed, and the white necks of their daughters craned; while behind, with half an eye on us clubs below, peeped, on tiptoe, the maids. At each shop-door stood the grave forms of our masters, thinking, perhaps, of a lost day's profits, and setting the cost thereof against the blessings of her Majesty's happy reign. At the roadside, beggar, scholar, yokel, knight, and noble jostled in a motley throng. But the sight of all that crowd was the 'prentices, who swarmed out into the road, and raised our shouts above the clanging of Saint Clement's bells and the trumpets of the Royal servants. 'Twas no pageant we had come out to see. Giants, and whales, and bottomless pits, and salvage men, and the like we could see to our hearts' content on Lord Mayor's Day; and the gilded barges and smoking cannon on the river's side. But it was not every day her Majesty ambled through the city on her hunting horse, and passed our way with her gallants for a day's sport in Epping woods.
As for me, I had no eyes or throat for any but that queenly woman, as she cantered boldly on her white palfrey, a pace or more ahead of her glittering courtiers. Had any one said to me that Elizabeth was that day neither young nor lovely—had anyone even dared to whisper that she was not divine—I would have brained him with my club where he stood. For a moment her head turned my way, she waved her hand—it had a little whip in it—and her lips moved to some words. Then as I rent the air with a "God save your Majesty!" she was past.
At Temple Bar, the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs, arrayed for the hunt, with buglers and dogs attending, stood across the way, and with mighty ceremony and palaver admitted her to the City. Woe betide them, for all their gold collars and maces, had they kept her out!
But the halt, short as it was, served our purpose. For there was no more going back to work on a day like this.
"To the front, clubs, and lead the way," shouted I, with what voice was left me.
It was enough for the lads without Temple Bar. They closed on me with a cheer, and followed me at the run, past the gaping Court ushers, past the royal jockeys, past the Queen herself (Heaven bless her!) past Lord Mayor, Sheriffs, and yapping beagles, through the echoing gates of Temple Bar, till we stood at the head of the procession, and longed, with a mighty longing, that someone might dispute the way with us.
But we had no work for our clubs that morning. As we moved forward, our body, like a growing snowball, was swelled by the 'prentices of each ward, shouting as lustily as we, "Make way!" and hurling defiance, like us, on all the Queen's foes by land and by sea. Even the gay sparks of the Temple gave us no handle for a sally, for they shouted with the best of us.
And so, down Fleet Street and in at the Ludgate, past the square tower of Saint Paul's, and along merry Cheap, we passed; our numbers swelling at every step, till it seemed as if all London was out escorting her Majesty through the city. As you passed below Bow Church you could scarcely hear the clanging of the bells for the shouting of the people.
At the New Exchange there was like to be a battle at last. For the 'prentices, of the Bridge had heard the uproar from afar, and swarmed down upon us in a flood, so that had we not held our own stoutly, we should have been driven back upon the royal huntress herself.
"Stand, if you be men, and fall in after us!" I shouted.
"Ho! ho!" answered they; "since when was the printer's devil outside the Bar made mayor of our town? Follow you us."
It was not a time for bandying words. From behind us came a shout, "Pass on, pass on; room for the Queen!" And at the word we charged forward, shoulder to shoulder, and brushed those unmannerly mercers and barber-surgeons aside as a torrent the nettles that grow on its bank. Let them follow as they list. The Queen went hunting to-day, and was not to be kept standing for a score of London Bridges, if we knew it.
After that we passed shouting up the Cornhill, and so on to the Bishop's Gate, where at length we halted and made a lane in our midst for her Majesty to ride through.
Never, I think, did monarch ride down a prouder road than that, walled four-deep for the length of two furlongs by youths who would fain have spilt their blood twice over to do her service, and who, since that was denied them, flung their shouts to heaven as she passed, and waved their caps club-high. I think, in truth, she needed no telling what kind of road it was, for as she cantered by her face was flushed and joyous, her head was erect, and the hand she waved clenched on the little whip, as though she grasped her people's hand. Then in a moment she was gone.
Thus for the first and only time did I set eyes on the great maiden Queen; and when all was over, and the clattering hoofs and yelping hounds and winding horns were lost in the distance, I came to myself and found I was both hungry and athirst.
The crowd melted away. Some returned the way they had come: some slunk back to their deserted shops: I to Finsbury Fields. For I accounted it a crime that day to work—I would as soon have set up types on Lord Mayor's Day. This day belonged to her Majesty, and I would e'en spend it in her service, wrestling and leaping in the meadows, and training my body to deeds of valour against her foes.
So I called on my clubs to follow me, and they came, and many besides; for those who might not see the Queen hunt might see her loyal citizens jump; and on a day like this it was odds if the nimblest 'prentices in all London were not there to make good sport.
Therefore we straggled in a long crowd to Moorgate—man and maid, noble and 'prentice, alderman and oyster-woman, jesting and scolding as we jostled one another in the narrow way, and rejoicing when at length we broke free into the pleasant meadows and smelt the sweetness of the early hay.
Already I spied sport, for there before us swaggered the mercers' 'prentices of London Bridge, ready to settle scores for the affront they had received at the New Exchange.
"Ho! ho!" quoth I, with vast content, "'tis time we had dinner, my lads, if it comes to that."
So we besieged the booths, and fortified ourselves with beef and ale, and felt ready for anything that might happen.
'Twas no battle after all; for, as ill-luck would have it, just as we faced them and bade them come on, the alderman of the Bridge Ward rode up.
"What! a shame on you to mar a day like this with your boyish wrangles! Is there no wrestling-ring, or shooting-butts, or leaping-fence where you can vent your rivalry, without flying at one another's throats like curs? Call you that loyalty? Have we no enemies better worth our mettle than fellow-Englishmen?"
This speech abashed us a little, and the captain of the Bridge 'prentices said, sulkily:
"I care not to break their heads, worship; there's little to be got out of that. Come, lads, we can find better sport in the juggler's booth."
"His worship came in a good hour for you," cried we. "Thank him you can slink away on your own legs this time, and need no one to drag you feet foremost off the Fields."
"Come, come," said the good alderman, "away with such foolish talk. Let's see a match struck up. I myself will give a new long-bow and a sheaf of arrows to the best jumper of you all. What say you? The highest leap and the broadest? Ho, there!" added he, calling a servant to him; "bid them clear a space for a match 'twixt the gallant 'prentices of the Bridge and the gallant 'prentices without Temple Bar. Come, boys; were I forty years younger I'd put you to it to distance me. But my jumping days are gone by, and I am but a judge."
Then we gave him a cheer, the bluff old boy; and, forgetting all our quarrel in the thought of the long-bow and arrows, we trooped at his horse's tail to the open space, and doffed our coats in readiness for the contest.
A great crowd stood round to see us jump. The scene remains in my mind's eye even now. 'Prentices, bare-headed, squatted cross-legged on the grass, bandying their noisy jests, and finding a laugh for everybody and everything. Behind them stood a motley throng of sightseers, men, women, and children, for the most part citizens, but interspersed here and there with gay groups of gentlefolk, and even some who wore the bright trappings of the Court. Behind them the beggars and pickpockets plied their arduous calling; and in the rear of all, at a little distance, wandered the horses of the gentles, cropping the fresh grass, with no eye to the achievements of Temple Bar or London Bridge. Beyond them soared the windmills and the hills of Isledon and Hoxton.
It was a scene familiar to me, for I had often taken it in before; and yet for a while to-day it seemed new, and my eye, as I waited at the post, wandered here and there to detect what it could be which made all seem so strange. After a while I discovered that, wherever else they roamed, my glances returned always to one bright spot, close by where stood a maiden.
It seemed to me I had never known what beauty meant till I looked on her. She was tall, and dressed more simply than many a citizen's wife, and yet her air was that of a goddess. Every movement of her head bore the signs of queenliness; and yet in every feature of her face lurked a sweetness irresistible. At first sight, as you saw her, tall, erect, with her short clustering hair and fearless eyes of blue, you would have been tempted to suppose her a boy in disguise. Yet if you looked a moment longer, the woman in her shone out in every step and gesture. Her cheeks glowed with health and maidenly modesty; and her eyes, that flashed on you one moment almost defiantly, dropped the next in coyness and delicious confusion.
She stood there, conspicuous and radiant amid the jostling crowd, yet wholly heedless of the glances and whispers and perplexity she drew forth. As for me, I scarcely knew where I was, and when the alderman cried, "Make ready, now," I obeyed him as a man in a dream.
But I recovered myself of a sudden when presently I saw the captain of the Bridge 'prentices, who was a shorter man than I, leap over the bar as high as his own shoulders, and heard the triumphal shouts of his fellows. After him, one by one, came the picked men of either side, but at each leap the bar sprung into the air, and the champions retired worsted from the contest.
Then came my turn. I dared to dart a hurried glance where stood the only onlooker whose applause I coveted. And she turned her head towards me.
So I took my run and cleared the bar.
"A match! a match!" cried the crowd, closing in a step; "a match between Will Peake and Humphrey Dexter."
"And take my sword and cloak," shouted a Bridge boy, who owned neither, "if Will Peake do not over-jump the printer's devil's head."
This made me angry. Not that I cared for the gibe; but because I disliked that one there should hear me called by so graceless a name.
Well, we jumped once more; but this time I dared not look anywhere, but straight before me. Yet I cleared the bar.
Whereupon the Bridge boys vaunted themselves more soberly, and he who had offered his cloak and sword now offered only his belt.
"Set the bar two points higher," I cried, "and clear me that, Will Peake, if you can."
At that our lads rent the air with shouts, and Will Peake pulled a long face. For the bar now stood level with his eyes, though it only reached my chin.
It fell out as I hoped. He jumped, and the bar sprang six yards into the air as he missed it.
Then our 'prentices made up for the silence of those of the Bridge; and this time the gamester offered not so much as a shoe lace.
For all that, I must clear the bar, if I was to make good my challenge; and I drew a long breath as I stood a moment and glanced round.
Yes. Her eyes of blue were on me, her lips were the least bit parted, and a glow of expectation was in her cheeks.
So I took my run and cleared the bar, with an inch to spare.
Then, as I heard nothing of the shouts which yet deafened me, and durst not so much as raise my eyes, the cheery alderman's voice cried:
"So Master Dexter hath won the high jump. See if he also win the broad. Clear away there, and stand back, good people, to give our brave lads fair play."
When I took courage at last to look up, I saw a sight which made the blood in my veins tingle.
She stood still where she was; but next to her had squeezed himself a smirking gallant, bravely bedizened, who looked round impudently into her face, and whispered something in her ear.
To me it seemed as if at first she was heedless of his presence, then, hearing him, she turned upon him a startled gaze, and, flushing angrily, moved a scornful pace away.
This I saw, while the alderman was saying—
"The first leap is yours, Master Dexter. See you set us a good lead."
I leapt, scarcely thinking what I did, and leapt badly; for though one by one the others failed to reach it, Will Peake reached it, and lit in my very footprints.
"A match again!" cried everyone, "and a close match, too!"
The gallant had made up to her again, and was tormenting her sweet ear once more with his whispers. She stood rigid like a statue with her eyes before her, showing only by the heaving of her bosom that she was aware of his unwelcome presence.
"You keep us waiting, lad," cried the alderman. "Jump, unless you mean to yield the victory to your adversary."
I jumped, listlessly again, and again alighted within an inch of my former distance. And once again, Will Peake landed in my very hoof- marks.
"A mortal match!" cried the crowd.
"One leap more," said the alderman, "and if that does not decide—"
He was there still, and, worse than before, had caught the little hand that hung at her side in his. The colour had gone from her face. I saw that she bit her lips, and for one moment her eyes looked up appealingly and, so it seemed to me, met mine.
Then with my heart swelling big within me, I walked to the starting- point, and ran for my last leap.
It was with all my might that I jumped now, and I cleared two good feet beyond my former distance; so that the onlookers could scarcely shout for amazement.
But I waited neither for their shouts nor for Will's jump, for I knew he could not reach me. With beating heart, and fingers digging into the palms of my hands, I walked straight to where she stood, pale and trembling. Her right hand was still his prisoner, and his cursed lips were still at her ear. But not for long.
Before he was aware, I had seized him with a grip which made him howl; and next moment he was reeling and staggering a dozen yards away in the midst of the enclosure. It all happened so quickly that even she seemed scarcely to know of her deliverance, till she saw him draw his sword and look round for me.
Then, to draw the combat away from her, I went on to meet him with my club; and before his first onset was done, his sword flew over his head in two pieces. It was an old trick, and cost nothing to a 'prentice outside Temple Bar. And while he looked round, bewildered, after his weapon, I took him by the nape of his neck and the cloth of his breeches, and walked with him to the pond hard by, where I left him, and so was well rid of him.
By this time the Fields were in an uproar. So intent had all been on the leaping, to see if Will Peake would equal my jump (which, Heaven help him! he could not do), that the gallant was swinging over the pond before anyone understood what was afoot. Then they broke up the ring and closed in on us, so that I, having dropped my burden amidst the duck-weed, was fain to lose myself among the crowd and give one and all the slip.
I thought I had done so, for while all stood gaping and jeering as they fished out the sputtering hero from his pea-green bath, I sauntered back unheeded to the place where last I had seen her for whose sake all the pother arose. At first I feared she had fled, but on looking I spied her in company with an elderly woman, who soothed and chid her in turn, and began to hurry her from the place.
But when she saw me, she brushed the old servant aside, and with a blush beckoned me to her. Shall I ever forget the vision of her, as she stood there, stately and beautiful, with hand outstretched, smiling on me with mingled pity for my shyness and gratitude for my service?
"My brave friend," said she, and her voice fell like music on my ears, "I have nothing but my poor thanks to give thee, but they are thine."
The crimson now came to my cheeks, for it hurt me to hear her talk of payment.
"I would gladly do it all again," said I.
"Nay," she laughed, "once is enough surely, at least for me."
Then I wished the ground might swallow me, for I deemed she thought me a fool.
"She would come," put in the old servant in an accent which, though I had never heard it before, I took to be Scotch or Irish; "I told her myself what to expect among a crowd of rude, rascally City sparks, that don't know a lady when they see her, and when they do, don't know how to behave themselves. It serves her right, say I, and it's myself will see she frolics no more, I warrant you—a low, unmannerly pack of curs, with a plague on all of you."
"Never heed my old nurse," said the young lady, sweetly; "she and I were parted in the crowd, and but for you, brave lad, I might have rued my folly in coming hither more than I do. Thanks once more, and farewell. Come, Judy—thank good Master Dexter for taking better care of me than ever you did, and then come away."
I stood like a mule gaping after them as they went, unable to stir or say a word till they were lost to view. Then as I turned came a shout at my ears: "There he stands!—there stands the villain! Seize him and hold him fast. He shall learn what it is to assault a captain of the Queen's guard."
Ho! ho! There were a round dozen of them, and one on horseback. But I knew of two dozen better than they within call.
So I shouted, "Clubs, clubs, to the rescue!" and began to lay about me.
HOW I SERVED A DISORDERLY PRINTER.
My assailants were a mixed crew, some being lackeys of the half-drowned gallant, some constables of the watch, others idle swashbucklers ready to lend a hand to any cause and against any man for a pot of ale. But they took no advantage from hiring themselves against a poor 'prentice from without Temple Bar, for they got sore heads for their pains.
I myself could not do over much till my comrades arrived, for I was in an open place and could not see all sides of me at once. So, after three of them had gone down, I was well-nigh being mastered by the rest, but for the timely help of my honest club-fellows.
Foremost among these who should come but honest Will Peake, my late enemy, who, when it was a matter between 'prentices and Court bullies, forgot all old sores, and laid about him like a man. Behind him came a score or two of honest lads, some of my ward, some of others; and between us all you may judge if the numskulls who set upon me had a merry time of it. We left them mostly on the ground in a sorry plight, and the rest we sent packing back to them that owned them, with a message to send a few of better mettle than they if they wanted to catch us.
Then, as the messengers did not return, we gave loud cheers for the Queen, and went each our several ways.
As for me, I was in no humour for the noisy company even of my own fellows, and excused myself from a march home through the wards. I made a pretext to go and find my coat and cap, and let them depart without me.
For I was haunted yet by the memory of that fair face and the sweet music of her voice, and I wished to be alone.
Moreover, it vexed me grievously that any servant of so gracious a Queen as ours could be base enough to offer a helpless maiden a discourtesy, and that in chastising him I must needs put an affront on the dignity of her Majesty's Court. But that weighed less when I remembered what I had seen, and I would fain have had the doing of it all again, despite her gentle protest.
So I waited till the crowd was gone, and then paced, moodily enough, citywards.
But, at the entrance to the Fields, there overtook me a handful of horsemen, bravely equipped; amongst whom, as I looked round, I saw the author of all this mischief himself. His gay cloak hid the stains of the duck-weed, and as for his sword, he had borrowed another from one of his men. Mounted as he was, it was not likely he should notice a common 'prentice lad like me, yet I resolved notice me he should, even if I went to the pillory for it.
So I stood across the way, and said:
"Farewell, brave captain. The pond will be deeper next time, and Humphrey Dexter will be there to put you in it."
He turned about, crimson in face, and cursed savagely as he saw me—for he knew (or guessed, shrewdly enough), who I was. Then calling loudly to his servants:
"An angel to the man who catches the knave!" cried he. "Seize him, and bring him to me."
Whereat, being only one footman to a dozen horse, I gave a clean pair of heels.
I soon shook off my pursuers, who liked not the narrow alleys and winding lanes of our city, where their horses stumbled and they themselves missed their way. One only, whether from stubbornness or the hope of the angel, kept up the hue and cry, and, being mounted on a nimble pony, followed me close. At length it seemed shame to be running from a single man; so at the next corner I turned and waited for him. He ran at me with his weapon, and called loudly on the watch to help him, but I pulled him from his horse and had him up against the wall before he could cry again—yet not before he had pricked me in the arm with his blade.
He was a stout little man, and a brave one; but, by no fault of his, he was powerless in my grip. I wrenched the sword from his hand, and held him by the throat till he signalled a surrender.
"Tell me first your master's name. On your knees, and with an oath, lest I find you lie," said I, in none too sweet a mood.
He had naught else he could do; so, falling on his knees, took Heaven to witness that his master's name was David Merriman, a captain in her Majesty's service; lodging now at the Court, but presently about to join the Queen's forces in Ireland.
That was enough for me.
"Tell Master David Merriman I shall remember his name, and bid him remember mine against we meet next—and so farewell."
I left him puffing for breath against the wall, and departed. But hearing the watch raise a new hue and cry at my heels, I quickened my steps, and so after many a tedious circuit, ran into my master's shop just as he was about to bolt the door for the night.
He received me sourly, as indeed I expected.
"So," said he, "this is your faithful service which you swore to render me; and you a parson's son, that should know what an oath is."
He was for ever taunting me with my dear father's holy calling, and it vexed me to hear it.
"I am also under oath to serve my Queen," said I, "and I put that before all."
"And you serve her by drunkenness, and rioting, and breaking the heads of her loyal subjects! I have heard of you this day. How comes it that your fellow 'prentice Peter Stoupe—"
"A plague on Peter Stoupe!" said I, for I disliked him. "And as for drunkenness, I was never drunk in my life; nor, by my own leave, a rioter."
"By whose leave, then?" asked Master Walgrave.
"By the leave of them who behave themselves as knaves," said I, getting hot as I thought of Captain Merriman; "and had they twenty skulls, and a crown on each, I'd crack 'em."
"Had they no crowns, they would not be worth the cracking," said a cheerful voice behind us; and there stood Mistress Walgrave herself. "Come, husband," said she, soothingly, "be not too hard on Humphrey, he is but a lad. He serves us well most days, when the Queen is not to the front. I warrant thee, Robert, thou wast a merry 'prentice once thyself."
"That I never was," said Master Walgrave, with an acid face; "but get in with you, sirrah, and to bed. I had a mind to leave you on the other side of the door this night, to cool your hot blood." And he bolted the door, whilst I slunk up to my garret.
Peter Stoupe was already asleep and snoring; and as he lay clean across the bed, I must needs arouse him to take his own side and make room for me.
"What, Humphrey!—I give God thanks to see thee back," said he, drowsily; "I feared something was amiss. There was a rumour that you lodged this night in Newgate."
"You listened to a lie, then," said I.
"And it is not true, is it, that you naughtily assaulted a gentleman of the Court?"
"And what if I did?" I demanded.
"Alas! Humphrey, think of the trouble it is like to bring on our good master and mistress. Have you no thought for anyone but yourself? Yet, I give thanks thou art safe, so—far—my—good—Humpi—" and here he rolled off to sleep and left me in quiet.
Yet not in peace, for I could not sleep that night for many an hour. For my life seemed to have taken a strange turn round since morning. Before to-day I had thought the 'prentice's life the merriest life in the world. I had cared for nobody, and it had troubled me little if nobody cared for me. Strange that now I felt like a greyhound in the leash, longing to be anywhere but where I was.
Besides, I had more solid grounds for wakefulness. However well to-day I had given my pursuers the slip, I guessed I had not heard the last of Captain Merriman and his merry men. They would find me out; and I might yet become, as Peter had said, a lodger in Newgate, and, worse than that, a cause of trouble and distress to good Master Walgrave and his lady.
For, however poorly I esteemed my master, I could ill afford to bring harm on his family. For my mistress was ever my champion and my friend, and her children I was wont to love as my own brothers and sisters.
So I spent half the night kicking in my bed—of which kicks Master Peter received his full share—and rose very early, resolved to try what hard work could do to cure my unrest.
No one was stirring that I could hear, and I went down the stairs silently and took up my labour at the case. My stick lay on the floor, where I had dropped it the morning before, and, alack! the squabbled type lay there too, a sight to make a man sad. Slowly and painfully I saved what I could, and was setting myself to make good the rest, when my ears caught a strange sound below my feet. It was a beating sound, followed by the dull fall of something, and, on listening, it came and went every two or three minutes.
I had guessed more than once before now that under the house was a cellar, although I had never been there, nor, indeed, knew how to approach it. For there was no opening, front or back, to the outer world that I knew of, and, if there at all, it must be pitch-dark and hard to breathe in. And yet the noise I now heard, if it came from anywhere, came from below. I looked about carefully, hoping for a crack in the floor through which to solve the mystery. But crack there was none. Only as I looked further I saw that the reams of paper, which lay usually near the press, were moved somewhat to one side. Now, as my master was always particular that the paper should lie always in the same place, it seemed strange to me they should be so disturbed. But on going nearer I perceived the reason. For there, usually hidden to view, was now exposed a cunning trap-door, opened by a hinge and sunken ring in the boards.
Now, having found so much, it would have been out of all nature had I gone back to my work and thought no more of the matter; besides, the strange noise still continued. I lifted the door cautiously about an inch and peeped below.
The cellar—for cellar it was—was bright with the light of a lamp, by which I could plainly discern my master (or, as I believed for a moment, my master's ghost), with coat off, and sweating with the heat of the place, working like any journeyman at a printing-press, on which lay a forme of type, which he inked with his balls and struck off in print with the noises which had perplexed me above.
Then I pulled up the trap and called out:
"Master Walgrave, spare yourself so much toil, I pray you, and let me help you."
He turned round, with a face the colour of dough, like a man who had just received an arrow in his vitals; then he rushed as if to put out the lamp. But his presence of mind returned before he got that length, and he demanded of me angrily enough how I dared to play the spy on him and come where I was not bidden.
I replied I was no spy, and, as for coming where I was not bidden, had I known who it was down there I would have stayed where I was. But, being there, might I help him, I asked, at the work? He answered angrily, "No," and bade me begone. Whereupon I returned to my case, and waited till he should come up to the earth's surface.
Meanwhile I recalled not a few rumours I had heard about Master Walgrave. One was, that, though he was only licenced to have one press, and seemed to have no more, yet (it was whispered of some), he had another in hiding, which now I found to be true. Moreover, as I was in Stationers' Hall one day, a month or more ago, to pay the fee for a register, I overheard Timothy Ryder the beadle and another talking about my master.
"He prints more than he registers," said one.
"And he should have his ears cropped for his pains," said Timothy, "did I but know where to have him."
Then seeing that I waited (for they had forgot to give me my acquittance), they dropped talking suddenly.
By all this I guessed that my master was no favourite with them of Stationers' Hall, and, moreover, that he was addicted to disorderly practices contrary to the Acts binding printers. But so well did he keep his own secret, and so busy was I with my own affairs, that it all passed from my mind, and now only returned when I saw that what had been said of him was true.
He came up from below presently, and I was ready for him. "Master," said I, "I have displeased you against my will, and I have seen what you would fain have kept a secret. You shall find it remains safe with me, for I am your 'prentice and bound to you. Therefore cheer up."
He brightened at this.
"You are a good lad," said he. "It concerns no one what I do below. 'Tis an amusement of my own, no more."
As he stood there, pale and anxious, with weary eyes, it seemed to me an amusement which yielded him but little sport. However, I did not dispute the matter, and we said no more about it.
But after that day I observed that my master, although he seemed to like me less, was more sparing of his bitter words than heretofore. Whereby I guessed plainly enough that the amusement he spoke of, were it to come to the ears of the Master and Wardens of the Company, would get him into no little trouble.
Mistress Walgrave, his wife, as I said, was ever my good friend. She was no common woman, and how those two made a match of it always puzzled me. Before she came to England (so she had told me often), she lived at Rochelle, in France, where her first husband was a merchant in lace. Then, when he died of the plague ten years ago, she came with her two young children (the elder being but five years), to her mother's home in Kent, where Robert Walgrave, being on a visit to Canterbury, met her, and offered her marriage. And in truth she had been the brightness of his house ever since, and her two French children, Jeannette and Prosper, now tall girl and boy, lived with her, as did some three other urchins who called Master Walgrave father. Sweet Jeannette was my favourite; for she was lame, and had her mother's cheery smile, and thought ill of no one, least of all of me whom she called her big crutch, and tormented by talking French.
Many a summer afternoon, when work was slack, I carried her to the water-side, where she might sit and watch the river flowing past. And to reward me she made me read her about King Arthur and his knights, and stories from Mr Chaucer's book; much of which I understood not, though (being a printer's 'prentice), I knew the words.
One still evening as we sat thus, not a week after my adventure in Finsbury Fields, she broke in on my reading with—
"Voila, see there, Master Humphrey; mais, comme elle est jolie!"
"I don't know what you say, when you talk like that, mistress," said I; for I liked not the French jargon, although by dint of long suffering it I had a better guess at the meaning of it often than I cared to own.
"Look, I say," said she, "would not she be a queen of beauty for the knights of old to fight for?"
I looked where she pointed; and there, gliding within a few yards of us, passed a boat, and in it, drinking in the beauty of the evening, sat a maiden, at sight of whom I felt the blood desert my cheeks, and the hand that held the book tremble. Her old companion was beside her dozing, and the waterman lugged lazily at his oars, humming an air to himself.
Jeannette, happily, was looking not at me but at her, and so my troubled looks escaped her.
"I never saw a face more fair," said she. "'Tis like a picture out of Mr Chaucer's book. And now that she is past, the day seems darker. Go on reading, please, kind Master Humphrey."
I tried to go on, but I blundered and lost my place, while my eyes tried to follow the boat.
Would she but have looked round! Could she but have known who it was that watched her! Could I myself have dared even to shout or call!
Alas! the boat glided by, and her form, stately, erect, fearless, lost itself in the distance. What dreamed she—a queen—of an uncouth London 'prentice?
"Master Dexter," said Jeannette's soft voice presently, "for five whole minutes you have been trying to read one little sentence, and it still lacks an ending. What ails you?"
"Nothing, mistress; but I am a bad scholar and the words are hard; I pray you forgive me. Besides it grows late. 'Tis time we went in."
So I carried her in to her mother, and then ran wildly back to the river's edge, if by good hap I might see that lady return, or at least catch sight of her boat in the far distance. But I did neither. The tide still ran out, and amongst the many boats that dotted the water citywards who was to say which was hers?
As I returned by way of the Temple to my master's house, I met Peter Stoupe, my fellow 'prentice.
"I am glad I met thee," he said. "A man came to me just now in the shop and said, 'Be you Humphrey Dexter?' I told him no, and asked him what he wanted. He told me that was his business. I bade him wait where he was and I would fetch you, for I had seen you go out; but he went away grumbling, saying he would choose his own time, not mine. Alas! Humphrey, you have brought us all into sad trouble by your naughty ways."
"What trouble are you in, sirrah?" said I, wrathfully. "It matters little to you what comrade is laid by the heels, so that you get your platter full, morning and evening."
"But our good master and mistress—" he began.
But I waited not for him and went quickly home.
That night my master called me as I was going to my bed, and said, "Humphrey, there is like to be sad trouble here on your account. A warrant, I am told, is out to seize you, you know best for what; but, if it be true, you struck a gentleman of the Queen's household—"
"I struck a dog who affronted a defenceless maiden," said I, "and I put him in the pond, to boot, and I care not if I go to the cage for it."
"But I care. If I harbour you here I am like to receive the punishment which belongs to you. And if I give you up I lose a good 'prentice. I can say thus much for you."
"Then," said I, not heeding his flattery, "I had better go away myself."
I never guessed he would take to this; but, to my surprise, he did.
"I and your mistress think so, too, Humphrey. Whilst the hue and cry lasts you are better anywhere than here. When it has ceased, you may safely return. Meanwhile, as fortune will have it, I can employ you still in my service."
Then he told me how he desired to send a letter to a friend of his at Oxford, which, being of the gravest importance, he wished delivered by a trusty messenger—as he took me to be. Therefore, if I was ready to forward him in the matter, I might avoid my pursuers, and do him a service to boot.
I hailed the offer with joy and thankfulness. I longed for a change somewhere, I cared not where, and, if skulk I must, an errand like this would please me vastly more than hiding for a week in my master's cellar.
"Be secret," said he (meaning, I suppose, Stoupe). "To-morrow early be ready to start to Kingston, where you may get a horse. Meanwhile your mistress is herself making you a cloak which shall be proof against all weathers. So good-night, Humphrey, and see you rouse yourself betimes in the morning."
HOW I RODE POST-HASTE TO OXFORD.
The summer sun had not been up long before I too was out of bed. Early as the hour was, my master and mistress were both astir, and bade me make a hearty meal in view of my journey.
While I ate, my master said:
"As the tide runs now, Humphrey, you may make a good part of your journey by water, and 'twill do you no harm to be your own waterman."
"Indeed no," said I; for I hated to sit idle in a boat.
"Should you reach Brentford on the flood, there are many who will ease you of your craft, and bring her back. Meanwhile 'tis an easy road by the river's bank to Kingston. We have a good friend there, one Master Udal, the minister, with whom this letter will procure you a welcome, and at his house you are to lie to-night. He will lend you a horse and put you on the way to Oxford."
"And see here, Humphrey," said my mistress, holding up a brave cloak of dark red cloth, as long as to my knee, "here is what will comfort you against the cold morning air, and change you into a veritable highwayman on the road."
It was a brave cloak indeed, so weighty and well padded, that had my journey been not to Oxford, but to the Poles, it would not have been amiss.
"See you take care of it," continued my good mistress.
"It is your gift and your making," said I, "so I can readily promise that."
"I can lend you a hat to match it," said my master, "and a sword."
"I have a sword of my own," said I, proudly, for I had taken one from Mr Merriman's bully, a week ago.
"Well, well. The weather promises fair for your journey. Do whatever the minister bids you, and return speedily when your business is over. Here is a purse which will cover all your needs, with something to bring back to me at the end. And so, farewell, Humphrey. Be secret, and talk to no one on the way without necessity."
My mistress also bade me farewell, and between them they hurried me off to the wherry. In my haste I was near leaving behind me my brave new cloak. But my master, seizing it, came with it angrily, and said:
"Is this your care, sirrah! If you end your journey no better than you begin it, 'twill be little enough to boast of."
Which I considered fuss enough about a matter which concerned only my own person, and not his errand. For what was my cloak to him? Yet I felt ashamed to have neglected my mistress' kindness, and I told him so, whereat he was pacified.
The tide served me some three hours and more, in which time, by dint of hard rowing, I reached Brentford, where I left the boat. Being weary and hot (for the sun was now high and fierce), I resolved to dine before I went farther, and sought the nearest tavern for that purpose. It was an ill-looking place, and kept by an ill-looking host; but hunger is no respecter of persons; and, as he called me "your worship," and set before me a brave leg of pork, with ale to keep it in countenance, I forgave him his ugly face, and fell to without more ado. When I came to pay him, and pulled out the purse my master had given me, he grew monstrous civil, and offered to take me across the ferry himself.
Which he did, with one of his men. And, half-way across, the two set upon me with one accord, and thought to rob me. But I, being new to travel, and so suspecting everybody, was ready for them, and knocked their heads soundly together for their pains. I also lightened the boat of my host's servant, bidding him get to shore some other way. So my host, fearing a like ducking for himself, took me over quietly enough, and never asked a fare.
From there I floundered through the swamps, with the river on my right hand, till I came to Kingston, where it was not long till I found Master Udal's house.
He was a little grave man, whom I might have swallowed at a gulp, and yet he had an air about him I durst not disobey, and an eye which, when I caught it, made me think of my sins. He asked me many questions about Master Walgrave and his manner of life, which I answered plainly, all except one or more that concerned the secret press in the cellar.
"Your master keepeth one press out of sight?" said he.
"If that be so," said I, "'tis no wonder if I know nothing of it."
"Then, he labours at it himself, without your aid?"
"If you say so, sir, no doubt but he does."
Master Udal smiled again.
"Thou'rt good at a secret, lad, and I'll tempt thee no more."
Whereupon he did what was worse, and began to question me about my own ways, and that searchingly, so that I was fain to plead weariness, and asked for my bed. This was even worse; for, being a lonely man, he had but one bed in the house, and that was his own. And that he might have the more of my company, he came to bed too.
He was a good man—this Master Udal—for he prayed long with me at the bedside, and talked comfortingly to me about my home, and the snares of my city life. But with his grave talk he would not let me rest. Even when we lay in bed, and it was too dark to see his face, I felt his eye upon me still, and was fain to confess myself to him, like a Papist to his priest. But when I told him tremblingly that I loved a maiden, he gave a grunt of displeasure and turned over on his side, and left me in peace.
And so that fair maiden, little as she knew it, rescued me that night from a great tribulation; and it were strange if, in gratitude, I did not dream of her.
Master Udal roused me betimes, and after reading again my master's letter, asked me, was I a horseman? I said I could sit a horse with any 'prentice in Finsbury Fields, even at the water leap. Then he asked, had I a cloak? I said, proudly, yes, my dear mistress had given me one, with which I would not part for two others as good. He said that was right, unless Master Penry wished it.
"Who is Master Penry, then?" I demanded.
"Him you go to see at Oxford—and you are to do everything he tells you, even if it be to part with your cloak. Here is a letter to him, at Saint Alban Hall. You are to go to him privately, and submit to him in all things."
It all seemed strange enough to me, but I said I would do as I was bidden. For all that, I resolved that if it came to parting with my brave cloak to a stranger, I would be hard put to it before I suffered so much wrong to my mistress' goodness.
Then Master Udal instructed me carefully as to the way, showing me by what roads I should ride, and where I should halt for the night. He also cautioned me about speaking to strangers by the way, and bade me beware lest I fell among thieves.
Then he went to the stable and fetched his horse—a sorry nag, and ill accustomed to my heavy weight. Then he fetched me some food to carry in the saddle-bag; and, after a prayer that God would protect me and further the business on hand, he let me go.
I was glad to be alone in the sweet summer morning air, with the lark carolling high above my head, and the new-mown hay scenting the meadows, and the early sun slanting through the lime trees, and the half-awakened cattle standing to watch me as I passed. It was enough to make any heart glad, and if I myself sang in tune with the birds as I ambled in, it was because I could not help it.
The road was hard to find betwixt Kingston and Hounslow, for it was across country, and the narrow lanes twisted and twined so that, had it not been for the sun, I should soon not have known if I was going north, south, east, or west. Except a few yokels trudging to their work, and now and then a blithe milkmaid calling to her cows, I met no one. These looked hard at me, and wondered what such a one as I, in cloak and sword and hat, wanted there at that hour. But I let them guess, and pushed on, along the river's bank, to Twickenham, and then over the wild heath, and through the woods, till at last I came to Hounslow, where I halted to rest my beast.
As I was leaving that place, there overtook me an important-looking man with two men-servants, mounted, following him. He seemed friendly disposed and talkative, and as he too was going to Oxford, we agreed to join company, and fell into conversation. He asked me my errand and I replied, truly enough, I went to visit a gentleman at Oxford. He told me, with not a little bluster, he too went to wait upon a gentleman at Oxford, but he guessed the varlet would get little joy out of his visit.
"Why," said I, "are you an officer of the courts of law, or a bailiff?"
"Yes and no," said he. "I serve a great master, and go to catch a great rogue."
Then, being warmed by the ale he had had at Hounslow and my questions, he told me he was no other than the Bishop of London's man; and that wind had come to his Grace that some evil-disposed persons had been issuing a wicked and scandalous libel against the Queen and her bishops and clergy, and that the arch offender in this bad business was known to be a certain—he would not say who—at Oxford. He told me how he would give a finger off his hand to have the rascal laid by the heels, ay, and the printer too, who had vilely lent himself to the business. He waxed so fierce and eloquent in defence of the good bishops, that I promised him, should my urgent errand in any way permit it, he might count on me to assist him in his righteous hue and cry. For I loathed all that set itself up to vex our gracious Queen and the peaceful order of her kingdom. The man commended my loyalty, and we talked of other matters— he doing the most of it—till we came to Colnbrook, where, finding my nag slow, and his business being very urgent, he left me and rode forward; appointing to meet me two days hence at the inn at Iffley, should I still be of a mind to do him and the bishop a service.
All this talk had made me uneasy, for he had hinted broadly that a close watch was being kept on all disorderly printers; and I, remembering my master's press in the cellar, hoped no suspicion might attach to him, and resolved to warn him when I returned home.
From Colnbrook I rode solitary in the heat of the day. So hot was it that I was tempted to take off my cloak and lay it across the saddle in front of me. It was my vanity and the pride of being seen in so brave a garment that hindered me; and it fell out well that it was so. For just over the heath, as you come upon Topley, there sprang out upon me a rider, who without any parley let fly at me with a pistol; and but that the ball, badly aimed, glanced off from the stiff padding of my cloak, I had not been here to tell this tale.
Before he could load again I spurred my horse, hoping to close with him. But the wretched jade was no match in pace for his, and he got away. But not before I had let fly my club at him, from twelve yards away, and dealt him a crack on the cheek that should have caused him to bear me in mind for a week. I expected him back after that, but being dazed by the blow, and seeing that I was not the gentleman he took me for, he spurred off; and I, waiting only to pick up my club and make sure that the bullet had done me no harm, did the same, and rode on to Maidenhead.
Here an odd adventure befel me; for, going to the inn of the place where I meant to lie that night, I found it in possession of a roystering crew of gallants, who sat and quaffed their sack and sang lustily, roaring and quarrelling enough to deafen a man. When, by dint of hard pushing, I had made myself a seat at the table and called for my supper—for I was hungry—they gave over their wrangling and began to look hard at me. There was much whispering among them, and one said:
"I know the rogue in spite of his cloak. Call me an ass if there be not a shaven crown under that hat of his."
"If you mean by that," said another cavalier, "that he's a Jesuit—"
Here the company took up the word. "A Jesuit!—a Jesuit!" they cried, and at the sudden accusation I turned crimson and blushed like a girl.
"Smelt out?" cried the company. "To the gallows with him!" Then it seemed to me to be time to go.
"Who called Jesuit?" said I, pulling out my sword.
They laughed at this, and one of them cried:
"If you be not, drink to the Queen, where you stand, and confound her enemies!"
I took off my hat, that they might see I wore no monkish tonsure, and drank.
"That shows nothing," cried another. "They might curse the Pope himself, and yet be all the better Jesuits."
"A crew of cowards," said another, "who never dare be what they seem or seem what they are—"
"Then," said I, "if that be so, I can easily prove I am a true and loyal subject of the Queen. Let who will come on, two at a time, and take back his lie at the point of my sword." And I put my back up to the wall and cast my cloak back over my shoulder.
Whereat they laughed again, and he who had spoken first said:
"If I doubted it before, I am sure of it now, for no one but a Jesuit could feign a swagger like that. Come, let's hang him and have done with him."
"Come on," said I. "I tell you I'm no Jesuit, but a loyal London 'prentice, on a message for my master to Oxford. If you hold it English that twenty men should set upon one, then—"
"What! a plague on you!" cried my opponent, before I could finish. "Why did you not say what you were before? We have something better to do than hang 'prentices. Get you gone—a stick to your back is what you want, unmannerly dog."
"Fetch it then," said I, "for before I leave here I shall finish my supper, and if you like not my company, you may go elsewhere."
I think they were abashed at that, for they tried to laugh it off, and go on with their carouse. Indeed I think they meant only to frighten me all the while, so perhaps I was a fool to take it all in earnest. However that be, I finished my supper and bade them all good-night; whereat they laughed again. Then, as an hour of daylight remained, I called for my horse and resolved to ride to the next inn and lie there for the night.
I had no cause to complain of the company here (it was the house midway betwixt Maidenhead and Henley, as you come to Bisham), for I had the place to myself. Nor did I wonder at that when I saw the pig-sty of an inn which it was. The landlord, a villainous-looking rogue, demanded to finger my money before he would admit me; and as for my horse, I had to see to him myself, for there was no one about the place to do it for me. However, a night's lodging was all I wanted, and, having brought away the stable key in my pocket, I pulled my bed across the chamber floor, wrapped myself up in my cloak, and slept like the seven sleepers.
The man eyed me surlily enough in the morning, and told me, if I doubted his honesty, I might go and lie somewhere else next time; which I promised to do, for I guessed when he talked of honesty that he had tried to steal my horse in the night, and being baulked of that, had had it in his mind to rob me. We parted in dudgeon; but I felt well out of that place with my purse in my pocket and my horse under me.
As I rode through Henley, who should overtake me but a troop of horsemen, among whom I recognised not a few of the roysterers who had used me so scurvily at Maidenhead the night before. I drew aside to let them pass, for I wanted none of their company. But one—he who had voted to hang me—came up in a friendly way.
"Come, lad," said he, "look not glum; our gallants will have their jest."
"'Tis no jest to call a loyal subject of the Queen a Jesuit, still less to hang him," said I.
"Well, well," said he, "next time we'll call thee Puritan and burn thee—that will make the balance straight. Meanwhile join us, and scour that frown off thy visage," and he clapped me on the back with a whack which made my nag prick up her ears and jump a foot off the ground.
It took me some time to follow his last advice; but as the fellow seemed honest, though a fool, and he and his comrades made little more pace than I did, I made the best of what I could not help, and ambled beside him at the tail of the troop.
Then he told me that they were going to Wales to get together provisions for an expedition to Ireland, and offered me good pay and plenty of knocks if I would only join them.
"We shall have a merry time of it," said he, "with a merry man for captain."
At this I pricked my ears.
"What is his name?" asked I.
"What I say: Captain Merriman, a gallant officer, and a desperate man of war."
"I know he is that," said I, with the blood rushing to my temples.
"You know him, then?" said the man, "and you will join us. Ho! ho! Who would thought I could find him such a recruit?"
"Before I serve under your Captain Merriman," said I, losing temper, "you may do what you promised last night, and hang me up on the nearest tree."
He stared at me when I said that.
"Why, what mean you?"
"That is my business," said I, shortly; "but if you would take him a message, you may tell him there is as good duck-weed in Ireland as ever there is in Finsbury Fields, and that Humphrey Dexter says so."
The man burst into a laugh.
"Did ever I see such blustering roarers as you city 'prentices? I warrant you Captain Merriman will shake in his shoes when I tell him. I do not know if I should not run you through the body for talking thus of a gallant gentleman; but I'll spare thee, Humphrey, this time: 'tis too hot to fight."
"Not for me," said I, "if that is what you mean."
He laughed again at that.
"Come along," said he, clapping me again on the back, "join us, and you shall tell Captain Merriman all about the duck-weed yourself; and a proud man he will be, I warrant you."
I was sorry now I had bragged, for nothing but contempt came from it, as indeed, had I been a little wiser, I might have known. So I said no more about the matter, and let my comrade talk, which he did to his heart's content, telling me of the battles he had fought in, and the spoils he had taken, and the triumphs he had seen.
Thus talking, we beguiled the time till we came to where we had to part company; for the troop went by way of Abingdon, whereas I, following Master Udal's directions, continued on the east bank of the river to Oxford. He bade me think over what he had said about joining the wars, and told me where he might be found during the next week or two.
"Ask for Tom Price," said he; "they all know me. And on the day you're Lord Mayor of London, which I take it is not far hence, find me a humble seat below the salt at your lordship's table; and so farewell."
I felt it lonely enough after my company had left; besides which, I clean lost my way, and was forced at last to seek the river and guide myself by that. Heavy work it was; for the river's bank was swampy and often impassable with bushes and woods, so that I had to go miles out of my way to circumvent them, leading my horse by the hand. At last, when I hardly knew where I was, night fell; and worn-out with weariness and hunger, I made for the first house I could see—which chanced to be an inn—and resolved to go no farther that night.
Had I gone on, I am certain of one thing, which is, that this veritable history would never have been written. For I should not then have met the wild person who, just as I stood unharnessing my nag at the door, dashed past me and flung himself into the house.
HOW I MET A RUNAWAY SCHOLAR.
As I entered the poor kitchen of the inn—for it was a sorry shed altogether—there rose to meet me a figure which, if I live to Methuselah's age, I shall not easily forget. He was tall and had the limbs of a giant. His hair was tawny and inclined to red, and hung in disorderly waves on his shoulders. His raiment—for he had flung his scholar's cap and robe to a corner of the room—was poor and ragged, and seemed scarcely to hang together on his brawny back. His arms were long and nervous, and the hands at the end of them twitched uneasily even while the rest of his body was motionless. His carriage was erect and martial, and you knew not whether to admire most the weight and solidity of the man as he stood still, or the tiger-like spring in every limb when he moved.
Yet it was not one of these things which made me stand almost in awe as I saw him. It was his face, which, if ever a man's face deserved the name, was beautiful. I cannot explain why; for I have seen features more finely carved and better proportioned in faces which never seemed to me so beautiful as his. I have seen more strength of mouth, more light of eyes, many a time, and yet never looked twice; I have seen faces as noble which never struck me as his did. I know not how it was. I think it was the expression which moulded all his face into a look, partly wild, partly noble, partly sad, and wholly gentle. For as you watched it, it changed like an April day from cloud to fair, from thunder to lightning, from night to day; yet whatever came or went, the look of a gentle man remained.
Man, did I say? He was scarcely my senior, even if he was my equal in years; and his beardless chin and the boyish glow on his cheek made him seem younger than he was.
But why all this picture-drawing of a stray Oxford student, whom, while I talk about him, I keep standing in front of me on the floor of that poor kitchen? You shall hear.
It was not to do me obeisance that he rose as I entered. His dirk was drawn and his face was thunderous as he took a step forward and spoke.
"I want you not! So leave me."
My Lord Burleigh himself could not have spoken the words more royally, although he would have spoken them with less music and more of an English accent in his voice.
Now, moved as I was by the look of my companion, it offended me to hear a loyal London 'prentice talked to thus like a dog, or, worse, like the drawer of the inn.
"By your leave," said I, and it was not often I said as much to any man, "unless you be the landlord of the place, I have as good a right to be here as you."
"Then," said he, solemnly and, as I thought, sadly, "guard yourself." I whipped out my sword. In my boastfulness, I thought I had too great an advantage with my long weapon against his short and not too highly- tempered blade, and I resolved with myself not to run him through if I could otherwise satisfy him. But my tune changed as soon as we closed. I could do nothing. My fine thrusts and parries wherewith I was wont to set Finsbury Fields a-gaping all went for nothing. He got in at me over my guard, under my guard, beside my guard, and through my guard. Nor could I even do myself justice. For while I fenced, I was fascinated by the flashing of his eyes and the noble gracefulness of his every motion. In two minutes he had me disarmed, pinned up against the wall, as helpless as a silly ox in the grip of a tiger.
It mortified me as much as anything to find that when he had me thus at his mercy he dropped me half disdainfully, half pitifully, and put his dirk back into its sheath.
"Will you go now?"
"No," said I, doggedly. For so chapfallen was I that I wished nothing better than that he should do his worst with me.
At that he looked at me in solemn perplexity, and I expected to see his hand back at his girdle. But, to my confusion, he only shrugged his shoulders and turned away.
This completed my humbling; for no man had ever disdained me thus before. I might easily have reached my sword, which lay at my feet, and run him through before he could face round; yet he did not even deign to notice me, and walked slowly to the fire, where he sat with his back to me.
I could stand it no longer, and crossed the room to face him.
"You have beaten me," said I—and the words were hard to say—"take my sword, for, by heaven, I will never wear it again, and fare you well."
The cloud on his face broke into sunlight as he sprang to his feet, and, taking my arm, said—
"No. Stay here and let us be friends. I am too poor to offer thee supper, but here's my hand."
I took his hand like one in a dream. I could not help it, strange as it seemed.
"Sir," said I, "whoever you be, I strike hands on one condition only, that is, that you sup to-night with me. I'm a London 'prentice, but I know when I meet my match."
What that had to do with his supping with me, I know not; but I was so flurried with my late defeat and my enemy's sudden friendliness, that I scarcely knew what I said.
"If that be the price, I must even pay it," said he, solemnly, "so long as we be friends."
So I called to the man of the house to bring us food quickly, and, while it was coming, set myself to know more of my new comrade.
Yet when I came to question him I felt abashed. For he looked so grave and noble that, despite his ragged clothes, it seemed presumptuous to ask him who he was. While I doubted how to begin, he spared me the trouble.
"Are you going to Oxford?" said he.
"I am," said I. "I was to reach there this night, but lost my way; and even yet do not know how near I am."
"Not an hour from the cursed place," said he, giving his student's cap, which lay on the floor at his feet, a little kick.
"Then it agrees not with you?" said I.
"Agrees!" said he, and then dropped silent, far more eloquently than if he had spoken a volume.
"Pray, sir," said I, after an awkward pause, "do you know one Master Penry of Saint Alban Hall?"
He laughed at that.
"The Welshman? Verily, I know him. What do you want with him?"
"I am to deliver him a letter from my master. Can you take me to him?"
"No," said my companion, "for I shall never enter Oxford again."
"Is your term done, then?" I asked.
"For me it is," said he. "I have been here two months, and will have no more of it."
"But are you free to leave?" I asked—for my curiosity was roused.
"Free!" said he: "I am here, that is enough. If my tutor come after me, there will be two men who will never see Oxford again."
I pitied his tutor, whoever he was, when he said that.
"But where are you going then?" I asked.
"To-night I shall lie here. The man of the place is my friend, and will shelter me, though I have nothing to pay him. To-morrow I shall take the road."
Here our supper came in: a fine big trout from the river, and a dish which mine host called mutton, but which I smelt to be venison.
It smote me to the heart to mark the struggle in my comrade's face to keep down the ravenous joy which for a moment hailed the coming in of these good things. But the ecstasy lasted only a moment, and when I bade him fall to, he said indifferently he had no appetite and wanted nothing.
"But it was a bargain," said I.
So he took a small helping. It plainly cut him to the quick to receive hospitality from a 'prentice, and he would, I think, as soon have starved, but for his promise.
I feigned not to notice what he took; yet I could not help marking the hungry way in which he devoured what was on his platter. Then when it was done, he rose and went to his seat at the fireplace, while I finished my supper at the table.
Before I had done, I filled my cup, as was my wont, and drank to Her Majesty, bidding my guest do the same.
He came gravely to the table at that, and filled a mug of ale to the brim. "Here's to my Queen," said he.
This struck me as odd, for his tone and manner were as if he were drinking to another toast than mine. Yet I did not dare to question him about it, and only hoped so noble a youth was one of Her Majesty's loyal servants.
Our host had but one small room with a single bed in it to offer us, which accordingly we shared for the night. Nor was it long before we were each sound asleep, forgetful of our troubles and quarrels and weariness.
Before we fell over, however, my comrade said:
"When go you into Oxford?"
"To-morrow, betimes," said I, "for my message is urgent."
"You will have trouble enough," said he. "There is little love between town and gown there, and unless you like knocks, you had better send your letter by the hand of one who does."
"I mind no knocks," said I, groaning a little at the memory of some I had received that very evening; "besides, I am bound to give my letter by my own hand."
"Then," said he, "take my cap and gown: they are no use to me and may be a passport to you. Lend me your cloak in exchange. It will serve to hide me, while it would but betray you as an intruder inside Oxford."
"This cloak," said I, "is the gift of my dear mistress in London. But perhaps your advice is good. I will go into Oxford in a scholar's garb, and you meanwhile shall shelter here in my cloak till I return about noon. Is it a bargain?"
"As you please," said he, and fell asleep.
I was the more pleased with this exchange, as I remembered what Master Udal had said concerning the fancy Master Penry might take for my brave cloak. It would be safer here, protecting my comrade, than flaunting in the eyes of the ravenous youth of Oxford.
When I arose next morning with the sun, my bedfellow still slept heavily. I could not forbear taking a look at him as he lay there. His face in sleep, with all the care and unrest out of it, looked like that of some boyish, resolute Greek divinity. His arm was flung carelessly behind his head, and the tawny hair which strayed over the pillow served as a setting for his fine-cut features.
But I had no time for admiring Greek divinities just then; and slipping on the scholar's robe and cap, which, to my thinking, made me a monstrous fine fellow, I left my own cloak at his bedside, and, taking my letter, started on my errand, afoot.
In the clear morning I could plainly see the towers of the city ahead of me before I had been long on the road. But it is one thing to see and another to touch. The inn where I had lain was at the river's bank, and yet no road seemed to lead to it or from it. As for mounting the river bank, that was impossible, by reason of the thickets which crowded down to the water's edge. I had to tramp inland, through marsh and quagmire, in which more than once I thought to end my days, till, after much searching, I hit upon the road which led to the city. Before I entered it the bells were clanging from a score of steeples, and many a hurrying form, clad like myself, crossed my path.
As I gained the east bridge, there was no small tumult in progress. For a handful of scholars, on their way to morning lecture, had fallen foul of a handful of yeomen bound for the fields, and were stoutly disputing the passage. When I appeared, I was claimed at once by the scholars as one of them, and willy-nilly, had to throw in my lot with them. The fight was a sharp one, for the yeomen had their sticks and shares and sickles, and laid stoutly about, whereas the scholars were unarmed, all except a few. At last, when two of our side had been pitched head first over the bridge, our leaders seemed inclined to parley; but the countrymen, puffed up with success, and calling to mind, perhaps, some old grievance, called, "No quarter! To the river with them, everyone," and closed in.
Then the scholars had to fight for their lives; and I, forgetting I was not really one of them, girt my gown about me, and, shouting to them to follow me, charged the varlets. They were sorry then they had not ended the matter sooner. Two or three of them went over the bridge to look for our comrades beneath, others were soundly cudgelled with their own sticks, while our fists slowly did the rest. All of a sudden up rode two or three horsemen, at whose coming our men showed signs of panic, while the townsmen cheered loudly and made a fresh stand. This vexed me sorely, for I had supposed the battle at an end. Wherefore, I made for the chief horseman, and, putting out all my strength, pulled him off his horse. Scarcely had I done so when my comrades behind raised a shout of "'Tis the Mayor!—'tis the Mayor! Fly!—fly!" and off they made, dragging me with them. To think that I, a loyal London apprentice, should have lived to assault a mayor! But there was no time for excuses or reproaches. The citizens were at our heels shouting and threatening, and as they followed, the whole town turned out in hue and cry. One by one the gownsmen dodged like rabbits into their holes, leaving me, who knew nothing of the city, almost alone. At last the enemy were almost up to me, and I was expecting every moment to be taken and perhaps hanged, when, as good luck would have it, just as I turned a corner, there faced me a wall not so high but that a good leaper might get over it. Over I scrambled just as the pack in full cry rushed round the corner.
Then I laughed as I heard their yapping, and grumbling, and questioning what had become of me. But I gave them no time to find out, for, crossing the garden into which I had fallen, I quickly slipped out at the gate into a fair cloistered square where, adjusting my battle- stained gown, I marched boldly up to the house at the gate and knocked.
A porter came at my summons and demanded, surlily enough, what I wanted.
"I am a fresh man here," said I, "and have lost my way. I pray you direct me to Saint Alban Hall."
"Saint Alban Hall?" said he. "Art thou a scholar of Saint Alban Hall?"
"No," said I, "but I bear a message to one there, Master Penry by name."
"How comes it," demanded the porter, who, by the tone of him, might have been the chancellor himself, "that you wear that gown, sirrah?"
"That is my business," said I, seeing it was no profit to talk civilly to him, "and if you want not to see your neck wrung, give over questions, and tell me where is Saint Alban Hall."
He grew red in the face as I gripped his arm, which he could by no means get free till I let him.
"This is Saint Alban Hall," said he, "and Master Penry lives over my lodging."
Then I thought it better to be civil to the fellow, as he guessed I had no business there in a college gown. So I gave him a groat, and bad him take me up forthwith.
Master Penry was a lean, wrathful-visaged Welshman, with deep grey eyes, and a large forehead, and a mass of straight black hair down his neck. As I entered his room, which was disordered and dirty, he was pacing to and fro, talking or praying aloud in his native tongue. He let me stand there a minute or two, amazed at his jargon, and scarcely knowing whether I had lit upon a sane man or not. Then he stopped suddenly in front of me and scanned me.
"Well?" said he, in good English.
"Are you Master Penry?" I asked.
"I am. You have a message for me?"
"I have; from Master Walgrave. Here it is," said I, putting the letter into his hand.
He tore it open and read it eagerly, and, as he did so, his face relaxed into a grim smile.
"That is well, so far," said he. Then, looking hard at me, he added, "Have you ridden from London in that disguise?"
"No," said I, "this gown was lent me by a friend to protect me against annoyance from the wild men of the town."
His face suddenly turned pale and passionate.
"Then where is the cloak your master speaks of in this letter?"
"The cloak!" I knew from the very first there would be trouble about that, and I was glad now I had left it behind in the safe keeping of my comrade at the inn.
"What is my cloak to you?" said I, not relishing the tone of his voice, "I have given it away to my friend."
"Fool and jackass!" said he, gnashing his teeth, "do you know you have ruined me and your master by this?"
"No, I do not," said I, "and as for the foul names you call me, take them back on the instant, or I swear I will ram them down your mouth!"
He took no notice whatever of my wrath, but went on, breaking in on his speech every now and then with Welsh words which I took to be curses.
"You must get it back at any price," said he. "Lose not a moment! Where is this friend? Who is he? If he resist you, you must slay him, so as you get it back. If it fall into the hands of an enemy, you and I, ay and your master, and all that belongs to you will perish. Ah, the folly of the man to trust such a missive to this thick-headed blunderer! What time lost, what labour wasted, what peril run, what ruin on our holy cause!"
I was well out of temper by this time, and, but that he looked so miserable and ill-fed, I would have rattled his bones a bit. At last:
"That cloak," said he, coming up to me, "contained papers sent by your master to me; which, if they be found on any one's person, mean Tyburn. Do you understand that?"
"Yes," said I, beginning to see the drift of his coil, "and if you had told me so at first, I had been half-way back to get it by this time. Heaven is my witness, you are welcome to the cloak if that is what it contains; and I doubt not my friend will give it up to do you a pleasure."
"Hasten!" cried he, with tears of vexation in his eyes, "there is not a moment to be lost—nay, I will go with you. Where did you leave it? Come!"
"Nay," said I, remembering it for the first time, "I am not very sure where it was. 'Twas at a river-side inn, about four miles from here."
"And who is your friend? Is he a true man?"
"I know not that either," said I. "He is a valiant man, and hath a dirk at his girdle; and I pity the man who tries to take the cloak from him by force."
Master Penry made another speech to himself in Welsh.
"Fool!" exclaimed he, half blubbering. "This precious missive you leave at an inn you know not where; with a man you know not whom; and yet your master speaks of you as a trusty lad. Bah! Lead on!"
I swallowed my wrath and obeyed him. He stalked impatiently at my side, saying nothing, but urging me forward so that I could scarcely keep pace with him. I was in luck, in one way, to have his escort; for as I came near the East Bridge, there lurked not a few of the townsmen who had been in the fight when I assaulted the Mayor. Seeing me with Master Penry, who, I suppose, was a man of some standing, they did not look twice at me; else I might have been caught, and put to rest my limbs in the cage. When we had crossed the bridge, and were in the country, my companion suddenly stopped.
"This friend of yours," said he, "with the dirk in his girdle. Was he a scholar?"
"He lent me this gown," said I.
"I know not. He spoke good English, with a foreign trip of the tongue."
"A great big boy, with wild fair hair, and hands that never are still?"
"The very man. You know him?"
"Do I know him? For two months I have endured the pains of the lost through him. A wild, untameable savage, subject to no laws, a heathen, a butcher, a scoffer at things holy, an idler, a highwayman, a traitor, a rebel, an Irish Papist wolf-hound! Do I know my own pupil? And—oh my God!—is it he who has the coat? Oh, we are doubly lost! Knaves, fools, all conspire to ruin us!"
I let him run on, for he was like one demented. But you may suppose I opened my eyes as I heard this brave character of my new friend.
"Your pupil, is he?" said I at last; "then I counsel you to stay where you are; for he will assuredly eat you alive if he gets you."
The Welshman paid no head to this warning, but rushed on, jabbering in Welsh to himself, and groaning, ay, and even sobbing now and then in his excitement.
At last, after an hour's hard work, we came to where I had found the road that morning. Then, for another hour, I dragged him through the swamps and marshes. His strength had begun to fail him long ere we reached the river's bank; and he was fain, when at last we felt solid earth under our feet, to cry a halt.
"I must rest for one moment," said he, puffing and panting and clutching at his side in a way that made me sorry for him. Then he fell on his knees and prayed in his own tongue, and before he was done, sunk half- fainting on a tree-trunk.
"Master Penry," said I, helping him from the ground, "you are not fit to go on. I pray you, let me go alone. This pupil of yours is my friend, and will give me the cloak. Stay here, unless you would spoil all; for assuredly if he see you, he will turn at bay and yield nothing. The inn is but a mile from here. In less than an hour I will be back with the cloak, that I vow."
He had no strength in him to protest. So I left him there and ran on towards the inn.
HOW I PARTED WITH MY CLOAK.
My mind was all in confusion as I hurried forward to the river-side inn. Everything seemed to be going wrong with me, and I wished heartily I was back in London with my fellow 'prentices, and my kind mistress, and the sweet Jeannette. They, at least, believed in me; but here, everyone with one consent conspired to tell me I was but a fool. I had made myself a laughing-stock at Maidenhead; I had been pinned up against the wall, by a boy my own age, in this place; I had assaulted a Mayor at Oxford; I had parted with my cloak, which contained life and death in the lining of it, to a stranger; and more than all, I had given my love to a fellow who, if the Welshman was right, was a horrible traitor and Papist! A fine piece of work, verily, and little wonder if my conceit was somewhat abated after it all!
Yet, as I ran on, I thought more about my wild friend at the inn, than about any one else. I could hardly believe him to be a rogue; although all that the Welshman said of him tallied with my own observation. Nay, more, to my dismay, I found by my heart that even were he all the rogue he was painted, I could scarcely bring myself to like him the less.
"At least," thought I, "if he be a knave, he is an honest one; and my cloak will be safe with him."
As I came to the inn, which I had scarcely yet seen by daylight, it seemed gayer and more bustling that I had found it last night. Three brave horses stood saddled and bridled at the door, and voices of good cheer from within showed me that mine host was having some little custom for his sack. I wondered if my solemn scholar was of the party, or whether, the better to avoid detection, he still lay abed.
As I entered, I recognised the chief of the four men who sat at the table as my friend the Bishop's man, whom I had met on the road two days ago, but whom, as well as my promise to meet him to-day, I had since clean forgotten. He hailed me gaily, as if he expected me.
"Welcome, lad; you are a man of your word. I knew you would come. Come and join us, there is brave sport afoot."
I coloured up, to be thus commended for what I did not merit.
"Indeed," said I, "I—I am glad to meet you again, but—but (how I stammered), just now I am looking for my friend."
"What! Have you not done your errand?" said he. "You told me it was in Oxford."
"It was. I have done it—but I left a friend here. Mine host," said I, turning to the man of the place, "is my comrade astir yet?"
The host crammed his apron in his mouth to keep in a laugh.
"Astir! Sir Ludar astir! I warrant thee half the bucks in Shotover Wood are astir too before now."
"What!" said I, my face falling suddenly, "is he gone then?"
"An hour since; and by your leave, young sir," added mine host, "I would take leave to remind your grandeur that the score of last night's supper, and a trifle my lord took for his breakfast, with the shoeing and meat of the horse, and the price of your night's lodging, awaits your noble acquittance."
"Gone!" cried I, not heeding all the rest. "And did he leave aught for me?"
"I doubt not he left his blessing, but nothing else."
"But my cloak, he had my cloak."
"If he have it not still, ay, and the nag too, it will be because he has met a stronger man than ever I saw yet on earth," said mine host.
"But the cloak!" roared I, "that cloak had papers in it; it was—"
Here the Bishop's man put down his mug and pricked up his ears.
"Which way did he go?" cried I. "Saddle me my horse. I must overtake him or all is lost."
"Papers?" said the Bishop's man. "What sort of papers, prithee?"
"I know not," said I. "Oh, that cursed cloak!"
"Harkee, my lad," said the man sternly, "answer me two questions, if you will."
He laid hold of my arm, and looked so menacing that I was fairly taken aback.
"And if I do not," said I, as I began suddenly to see what it all led to.
"Then in the Queen's name I shall know what to do with you," said he, beckoning to his three men, who rose and approached me.
I was fairly in a corner now, for a man who held the Queen's warrant was not one lightly to be resisted. Yet what could I tell him?
"Let me hear your questions," said I, as civilly as I could, and edging a little towards the door, "perhaps I can answer them."
"That's a wise lad," said he, mollified, "I know you are but a tool— men, stand back there—I blame you not for doing your duty, but you must tell me here, the name of the man, your master, who sent you this errand, and the name of him to whom you bore it."
"I can tell you neither," said I.
He turned to his men, but before they could rise, I had rushed to the door and was outside. A key stood in the outside of the lock, which mine host used to turn and take with him when business called him to leave his inn empty. I had just time to turn this and vault on one of the three horses, when the window was flung open and the leader of the band sprang on to the casement.
But he was too late; for before he could level his musket at me, I was twenty yards away at a gallop, leading by the bridle the two spare horses which had stood at the door beside the one I rode.
The shot, badly aimed, whistled past my ear, and served to urge on the horses to a wilder pace, so that, before even the party was outside, hallooing after me, I was a furlong off, plunging deep into the wood.
I had no time to think if I had done well or ill, or what the upshot of it all was like to be. Time enough for that when I had won clear. The led horses, after their first fright, jibbed at the reins and struggled to get free. So, as they checked my speed, I let them go, and saw them plunge away among the trees, no easy capture for their lawful owners. Meanwhile, I dashed forward whithersoever the horse took me. I remember, even amid my panic, what a delight it was to sit astride of so noble a beast, who seemed to scorn my weight, and skim the earth as lightly as if he carried a child. Had it been my own sorry nag I should long since have been by the heels.
Once clear of the wood I suddenly sighted Oxford towers to my left, and found myself on the road by which I had passed but an hour ago with the angry Welshman. I had forgotten him, and 'twas well for him that I had.
I had no mind to put myself again within reach of his worship, the Mayor of Oxford, and his merry men; so I tugged my right rein and kept my horse's head turned to the wooded hills northward. There, thought I, I can at least find time to draw breath and determine what must be done next. To the forest I sped, then, marvelling at the pace of my brave horse, and wondering if the Bishop's man was yet on the road at my heels.
On the steeper ground my horse slackened a bit, but I urged him forward till we were deep in the wood, with a choice of four or five paths, any of which led, heaven knows where. Here I let him stand and get his wind, while I turned over in my mind what should be my best course.
While I was debating, to my surprise, my horse pricked up his ears and gave a loud neigh, which was answered from no great distance by another. At first I supposed his companions had followed us, or that our pursuers were nearer than I reckoned for. But, on listening, I perceived that the strange horse was ahead of us, not behind. I therefore moved slowly forward in the direction of the sound. What was my surprise when I saw my own poor nag tethered to a tree, with my cloak—the cause of all this trouble—laid carelessly over his back.
Master Penry's wild pupil was nowhere near, yet I scarce gave him a thought at the time, so overjoyed was I to recover my long-lost prize. I sprang from my borrowed horse, letting him stray where he would, and fell upon the garment like a mother on her lost child, except that I, having taken it to my arms, whipped out my knife and proceeded to rip it up from top to bottom.