The Yeoman Adventurer
By George Gough
A. D. Steel-Maitland, M.P.
In Gratitude and Admiration
I. THE GREAT JACK
II. THE SERGEANT OF DRAGOONS
III. MISTRESS MARGARET WAYNFLETE
IV. OUR JOURNEY COMMENCES
V. THE ANCIENT HIGH HOUSE
VI. MY LORD BROCTON
VII. THE RESULTS OF LOSING MY VIRGIL
VIII. THE CONJURER'S CAP
IX. MY CAREER AS A HIGHWAYMAN
XI. IN WHICH I SLIP
XII. THE GUEST-ROOM OF THE "RISING SUN"
XIII. PHARAOH'S KINE
XIV. "WAR HAS ITS RISKS"
XV. IN THE MOORLANDS
XVI. BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE
XVII. MY NEW HAT
XVIII. THE DOUBLE SIX
XIX. WHAT CAME OF FOPPERY
XX. THE COUNCIL AT DERBY
XXI. MASTER FREAKE KNOWS AT LAST
XXII. A BROTHER OF THE LAMP
XXIV. MY LORD BROCTON PILES UP HIS ACCOUNT
XXV. I SETTLE MY ACCOUNT WITH MY LORD BROCTON
XXVI. THE WAY OF A MAID WITH A MAN
EPILOGUE: THE LITTLE JACK
THE GREAT JACK
Our Kate, Joe Braggs, and I all had a hand in the beginning, and as great results grew in the end out of the small events of that December morning, I will set them down in order.
It began by my refusing point-blank to take Kate to the vicar's to watch the soldiers march by. I loved the vicar, the grave, sweet, childless old man who had been a second father to me since the sad day which made my mother a widow, and but for the soldiers nothing would have been more agreeable than to spend the afternoon with the old man and his books. But my heart would surely have broken had I gone. A caged linnet is a sorry enough sight in a withdrawing-room, but hang the cage on a tree in a sunlit garden, with free birds twittering and flitting about it, and you turn dull pain into shattering agony. The vicar's little study, with the rows of books he had made me know and love with some small measure of his own learning and passion, was the perch and seed-bowl of my cage, the things in it, after my sweet mother and saucy Kate, that made life possible, but still part of the cage, and it would have maddened me to hop and twitter there in sight of free men with arms in their hands and careers in front of them. Jack Dobson would march by, the sweetness of life for Kate—little dreamed she that I knew it—but for me the bitterness of death. Jack Dobson! I liked Jack, but not clinquant in crimson and gold, with spurs and sword clanking on the hard, frost-bitten road. I laughed at the idea; Jack Dobson, whom I had fought time and time again at school until I could lick him as easily as I could look at him; Jack Dobson, a jolly enough lad, who fought cheerily even when he knew a sound thrashing was in store for him, but all his brains were good for was to stumble through Arma virumque cano, and then whisper, "Noll, you can fire a gun and shoot a man, but how can you sing 'em?" And because his thin, shadowy, grasping father was a man of much outward substance and burgess for the ancient borough, Jack was cornet in my Lord Brocton's newly raised regiment of dragoons, this day marching with other of the Duke of Cumberland's troops from Lichfield to Stafford. And for me, the pride of old Bloggs for Latin and of all the lads for fighting, the most stirring deed of arms available was shooting rabbits. So, consuming inwardly with thoughts of my hard fate, I refused to go to the vicar's. Mother should go. For her it would be a real treat, and Kate would be the better under her quiet, seeing eyes.
"Well then," said Kate, "grump at home over your beastly Virgil." Mother, who understood as only mothers can, said nothing, and prepared my favourite dishes for dinner.
The meal over, and the house-place 'tidied,' which seldom meant more than the harassing of a few stray specks of dust, Kate in her best fripperies and mother in her churchgoing gown started for the vicar's. I stood in the porch and watched them across the cobbled yard and along the road till they dropped out of sight beyond the bridge.
Then Kate's share of these introductory events became manifest. Search high, search low, there was no sign of my dear, dumpy Virgil, in yellowing parchment with red edges. I found Kate's cookery-book, and would have flung it through the window, but my eye caught the quaint inscription on the fly-leaf, in her big, pot-hooky handwriting:
"KATHERINE WHEATMAN, her book, God give her grease to larn to cook.
At the Hanyards. Jul. 1739."
The simple words stung me like angry hornets. Our red-headed Kate was no scholar, but at any rate her reading was more useful in our little world than mine; for this was where she learned the artistry of the dainties and devices Jack Dobson and I were so fond of. And if I did not soon learn to do something well, even were it only how to farm my five hundred acres to a profit, Kate's cooking would really require the miraculous aid suggested in her unintentional and, to me, biting epigram. I put the book down, and gave over the hunt for my Virgil. It would probably be useless in any case, since Kate had a cunning all her own, and had surely bestowed it far beyond any searching of mine. I contented myself with a fair reprisal, stowing a stray ribbon of hers in my breeches' pocket, and sat down to smoke. My pipe would not draw, and I smashed it in trying to make it.
The tall oak clock tick-tocked on in the house-place, and Jane sang on at her churning in the dairy across the yard. I sat gazing at the fire, where I could see nothing but Jack Dobson in his martial grandeur, and I hated him for his greatness, and despised myself for my pettiness. All the same it was unendurable, and it was a relief to see Joe Braggs tiptoeing carefully across the yard dairywards. The rascal should have been patching a gap in the hedge of Ten-acres, and here he was, foraging for a jug of ale. He could wheedle Jane as easily as he could snare a rabbit, but I would scarify him out of his five senses, the hulk.
The singing stopped, and then the churning, and five minutes later I crept up to the kitchen door, which was ajar. There was my lord Joe, a jug of ale in hand, his free arm round Jane's neck. How endurable these two found life at the Hanyards! I caught a fragment of their gossip.
"Be there such things as rale quanes, Jin?"
"Of course," she replied. "There's pictures of 'em in one of Master Noll's books. Crowns on their yeds, too."
"There's one on 'em down 'tour house, Jin, but she ain't got no crown. But bless thee, wench, I'd sooner kiss thee than look at fifty quanes."
Jane yelped as I murdered an incipient kiss by knocking the jug out of his hand across the kitchen, but in kicking him out of doors I tripped over a bucket of water, and about half a score fine dace flopped miserably on the wet floor.
"Dunna carry on a' that'n, Master Noll," said Joe. "I only com' up t'ouse to bring you them daceys."
"And what the devil do I want with them?" said I angrily.
Joe knew me. He said, "There's a jack as big as a gate-post in that 'ole between the reeds along th' 'igh bonk."
He saw the cock of my eye, and went on: "I saw 'im this mornin', an' 'eard 'im. 'E made a splosh like a sack o' taters droppin' off the bridge. So I just copped 'e a few daceys, thinkin' as you'd be sure to go after 'im."
"Put them in some fresh water, Joe, and you, Jane, fill him another jug. I'll own up to Mistress Kate for smashing the other."
I fetched my rod and tackle, picked up the bucket of dace, and set off across the fields to the river. The bank nearer the house, and about three hundred yards from it, stood from two to six feet above the water, being lowest where a brick bridge carried the road to the village. The opposite bank was very low, and was fringed in summer with great masses of reeds and bulrushes, now withered down nearly to nothing, but still showing the pocket of deep water where the jack had "sploshed like a sack o' taters." It was opposite the highest part of our bank—the Hanyards was bounded by the river in this direction—and the bridge was about one hundred yards down-stream to my left. In a few minutes a fine dace was swimming in the gap as merrily as the tackle would let him.
For an hour or more I took short turns up and down the bank, just far enough from the edge to keep my cork in view. If the jack was there, he made no sign, and at length my sportsman's eagerness began to flag, and my eye roamed across the meadows to the church spire, under the shadow of which life as I could never know it was lilting merrily northwards. Here I was and here I should remain, like a cabbage, till Death pulled me up by the roots.
Worthy Master Walton says that angling is the contemplative man's recreation, and, having had in these later years much to con over in my mind, I know that he is right. But it is no occupation for a fuming man, and as I marched up and down I forgot all about my cork, till, with a short laugh that had the tail of a curse in it, I noted that a real gaff was a silly weapon with which to cut down an imaginary Highlander, and turned again to my angling.
And at that very moment a thing happened the like of which I had never seen before, and have not since seen in another ten years of fishing. My rod was jerked clean off the bank, and careered away down-stream so fast that I had to run hard to get level with it. Here was work indeed, and at that joyous moment I would not have changed places with Jack Dobson. Without ado, I jumped into the river, waded out, recovered the butt of my rod, and struck.
"As big as a gate-post." Joe was right. As I struck, the jack came to the surface. The great stretch of yellow belly and the monstrous length of vicious snout made my heart leap for joy. I would rather land him than command a regiment. My rod bent to a sickle as I fought him, giving him line and pulling in, again, again, and again. A dozen times I saw the black bars on his shimmering back as he came at me, evil in his red-rimmed eyes and danger in his cruel teeth, but the stout tackle stood it out. Sweat poured off my forehead though I was up to the waist in ice-cold water. Inch by inch I fought my way to the bank, and then fought on again to get close to the bridge, where I could scramble out.
Probably I was half an hour in getting him there, but at last, by giving him suddenly a dozen yards of loose line to go at, I was able to climb on to the bank and check him before he got across to the stumps of the reeds. But here I met with disaster, for in climbing up I jerked the hook of my gaff out of my collar, where I had put it for safety, and it fell into the stream.
"Stick to the fish," said some one behind me, "and leave the hook to me."
"Thanks," said I briefly, for I was scant of breath, and continued the struggle.
A woman knelt on the bank, pulled the gaff in with a riding whip, plunged down a shapely hand and recovered it. Then she stood behind me, watching the fight. The jack, big and strong as he was, began to tire, and soon I had him making short, sharp spurts in the shallow water at our feet.
My new ally stood quietly on the bank, holding the gaff ready for the right moment. It came: a deft movement, a good pull together, and the great jack curled and bounced on the bank.
"Over thirty pounds if he's an ounce!" I cried gleefully.
"Well done, fisherman!" she said. "It was a splendid sight. I've watched you all along. When you jumped into the river, I thought you were going to drown yourself. You had been walking up and down in a most desperate and dejected fashion."
The raillery gave me courage to look into her eyes. I wondered if they were black, but decided that they were not, since her hair was the colour of wheat when it is ripening for the sickle and the summer sun falls on it at eve. And I, who am six feet in my socks, had hardly to lower my eyes to look into hers. Her face was beautiful beyond all imagining of mine. I had conjured up visions of Dido enthralled of Aeneas, of Cleopatra bending Antony to her whim. But the conscious art of my day-dreams had wrought no such marvel as here I saw in very flesh before me. I felt as one who drinks deep of some rich and rare vintage, and wonders why the gods have blessed him so. And further, as small things jostle big things in the mind, I knew that this was the real queen that had dazzled Joe Braggs.
"What do you call it?" she said, looking down at the fish.
"A jack, or pike, madam."
"'The tyrant of the watery plains,' as Mr. Pope calls him. You've heard of Mr. Pope, the poet?" She spoke as if 'No' was the inevitable answer.
"Strictly speaking, no, madam," said I gravely, "but I have read his so-called poems." She frowned. "Horace calls the jack," I continued, "lupus, the wolf-fish, as one may say, and a very good name too. Doubtless madam has heard of Horace."
My quip brought a glint into her eyes and a richer colour to her cheek. "Yes, heard of him," she said, with a trace of chagrin in her voice. "And now, O Nimrod of the watery plains, how far is it to the village smithy?"
"Just under a mile, madam."
"And how long does it take to shoe a horse?"
"How many shoes, madam?"
Again the glint in her eyes, and this time I saw some of the blue in them. "One, sir," she said shortly.
"Ten to fifteen minutes, madam."
"He's a very long time," she said under her breath.
"The smith is probably very busy to-day."
"Busy! Why so?"
"The dragoons may have found him much work," said I, merely my way of explaining the delay. But the words stabbed her. She laid a hand on my arm and cried gaspingly, "Dragoons! What do you mean? Quick!"
"The Duke of Cumberland is marching north from Lichfield against the Stuart, and Lord Brocton's dragoons are in the village."
"Brocton! O God! Brocton! My father is taken! And by Brocton!" She spoke aloud in her agitation, and I saw that she was cut to the quick. And I rejoiced, so strange is the human heart, that it was Lord Brocton's name that came in anguish off her tongue. Oh for one blow at the man whose father had harried mine into an untimely grave!
In sharp, frosty air sound travels far across the meadows of the Hanyards. The hills that hem the valley to the west perhaps act as a sounding board. Anyhow, further inquiry as to her trouble was stopped by the rattle of distant hoofs. We were standing now less than a dozen paces from the bridge. A straggling hedge, on a low bank, crossed flush up to the bridge by a stile, cut the field off from the road. I rushed to the stile, and cautiously pushed my head through near the ground. Half a mile of level road stretched to my right towards the village, and along it, and now less than six hundred yards away, a squad of dragoons was galloping towards us. The hedge was thin and leafless, and there was not cover enough for a rabbit. I ran back. "Dragoons," said I.
"After me," she replied carelessly, and I saw that danger for herself left her cold.
I kicked the great jack motionless, flung him to the foot of the bank under the hedge, and the rod after him, hurried her up to the stile, leaped into the water, took her in my arms, and carried her under the bridge. In less than a minute after I stopped wading, the dragoons clattered overhead.
Not an hour ago I had been aching for life and adventures, and here I was, up to the loins in water, with a goddess in my arms. Her right arm was round my neck, and her cheek so near that I felt her sweet, warm breath fanning my own. As the sounds died away, I turned and looked at her face, and I had my reward. Her eyes told me that she thanked and trusted me.
"Well done, fisherman!" she said for the second time.
"You're heavier than the jack," replied I, hitching her as far from the water as possible before wading back. A minute later I put her down on the bank with tumbled, yellow hair and face flaming red. I examined her critically, and cried triumphantly, "Not a stitch wet!"
THE SERGEANT OF DRAGOONS
I threw the jack across my shoulder and we started for the Hanyards. Madam offered no explanations, and I made no inquiries. It was obvious to me that the dragoons had gone on to the little hedge ale-house, a good, long mile away, where the road from the village struck into a roundabout road to Stafford. Here, in the "Bull and Mouth," Mother Braggs ruled by day and Master Joe by night, and here beyond a doubt the stranger lady had tarried while her father had gone on with the horses to the nearest smithy at Milford.
There was ample time to get to the Hanyards, but still, for safety's sake, we kept behind hedges as far as possible. She walked ahead, and I followed behind, water oozing out of my boots and breeches at every step, and the jack's tail flopping against my legs. Never had I gone home from fishing with such prizes. What pleased me most was her silence. It matched the trust in her eyes. Except for brief instructions as to the direction, no word passed until we gained the Hanyards from the rear, and I led her into the house-place unobserved by anyone.
"There is little time to talk," I began. "The dragoons are certain to come here, as this is the only house between the inn and the village. Your father is, you fear, a prisoner, and indeed it seems the only explanation of his absence. I do not ask why. I gather that there is no purpose to be served by your sharing his fate."
"Free, I may be able to help him. A prisoner, I should...." She stopped, hesitating.
"My Lord Brocton?" said I interrogatively. For the second time her face burned, and I saw in it shame and distress and fear. My lord was piling up a second account with me, and for humbling this proud beauty he should one day pay the price in full.
But it was time to act. I ran to the porch and roared out, "Jane! Jane! Where are you? Come here quick!"
Jane came running in from the kitchen. She stopped dead with surprise when she saw my companion, and could not even cackle on about the jack.
"Now, Jane, do exactly what I say. Take this lady upstairs and dress her as nearly like yourself as you can. It's good you are much of a height. Pack her own clothes carefully out of sight. Off, quick!"
They disappeared upstairs, and I watched the yard gate with eager eyes. No dragoons appeared, and in a short time madam and Jane were back in the house-place. Jane had done her work well. The great lady was now a fine country serving-wench, her shapeliness obscured in a homespun gown that fitted only where it touched, her feet in huge, rough boots, her yellow hair plastered back off her forehead and bunched into one of Jane's 'granny caps,' and indeed totally hidden by the large flap thereof, which in Jane's case served the purpose of "keepin' the draf out'n 'er neck-hole" when she was at work in the dairy. For my share of disguising, I now rubbed together some ruddle and dry soil, and the mixture gave a necessary touch of coarseness to her hands. Altogether she was changed out of recognition, even if, which was not the case, any of her pursuers had seen her previously.
"Jane," said I, "her name is Molly Brown. She has served here two years. Her mother lives at Colwich. Have you both got that?"
"Molly Brown—two years—mother at Colwich," said madam with a smile, and Jane repeated it after her.
"Now, Molly," said I, with an answering smile, "Jane will start you churning. It's an easy job. You just turn a handle till the butter comes. Do not flatter yourself that you'll get any butter, but I'll forgive you that. And, having learned from Jane how to pretend to do it, you need not churn in earnest till the dragoons ride into the yard. Listen to Jane, and you, Jane, for the next ten minutes, teach the lady how to talk Staffordshire fashion."
"Rate y'are, Master Noll," said Jane, who was plainly bursting with the importance of her task.
"First lesson, madam," said I. "'Rate y'are,' not 'Right you are!' It was not Mr. Pope's manner of speech, but it will suit your circumstances better. Off to the dairy, and leave the dragoons to me!"
"Rate y'are, Master Noll," said madam, and, our anxieties notwithstanding, we both joined in Jane's rattle of laughter.
They went off to the dairy, and I began my own preparations. I displayed the great jack in full view on the table, forestalling Kate's housewifely objections by disposing him on an old coat of mine, so that he should not mess the table. In the house-place he looked much finer and longer than in the open air, and I gloated over him as he lay there. I longed to change my clothes, not so much for comfort's sake as to cut a better figure in her eyes; but I dared not run the risk of not being at hand when the dragoons arrived. I drew a quart jug of ale, threw most of it away, got down a horn drinking-cup, drank a little, spilled some down my clothes, slopped some on the table, made up the fire, and sat down to wait. It was now about half-past three, the straw-coloured sun was perching on the hill-tops, and darkness would soon be drawing on apace.
For perhaps a quarter of an hour I sat there, living over again the precious minutes under the bridge, when the clatter of hoofs awakened me to the realities of the situation. Peeping cautiously past the edge of the blind, I saw the dragoons—there were six of them—ride up to the gate. Sharp orders rang out, and three of the men dismounted, including him who had given the orders, and came up the yard. One stayed at the gate to mind the horses, and the other two trotted off on the scout round the fields near the farm.
I slipped back to my chair, and let my chin drop on my chest, as if I were dozing in drink.
Some one said at the porch door, "In the King's name!" I took no notice, and they crowded, jingling and noisy, into the porch. Again sharp commands were given; the two men grounded their arms with a clang on the stone floor of the porch, and waited there. The man in command stepped forward into the firelight and said crisply, "In the King's name!"
It was idle to pretend any longer. I raised my head and blinked drunkenly at him. Then I filled the horn, sang thickly and with beery gusto, "Here's a health unto His Majesty," and said, "Fill up and drink, whoever you are, and shut the door. It's damned cold."
He had little, red, ferrety eyes, and they looked fiercely at me —fiercely but not suspiciously, I thought. He waved my hospitality aside, and said, "You are Oliver Wheatman?"
"Oliver Wheatman of the Hanyards, Esquire, at His Majesty's service to command," I replied with great gravity, and filled another horn of ale. I might pretend to be drunk, but I could not, unfortunately, pretend to drink, and it was strongish ale. He made a motion to stop me—welcome proof that he believed me tipsy in fact—and said, "Master Wheatman, the less drunken you are, the better you will answer my questions."
"Sir," said I, draining off the horn, "I can drink and talk with any man living, and, drunk or sober, I only answer the questions of my friends. So get a horn off the dresser—I'm a bit tired—fill up, and tell me what you want. D'you happen to be of my Lord Brocton's regiment?"
"Then you'll be as drunk as me before you've finished with the Hanyards. Our ale goes to the head most damnably quick, let me tell you. You tell my dear old butty, the worshipful Master Jack Dobson, that I've caught a jack half as thick and more than half as long as himself. Here it be. Fetch a horn, I tell you, and drink to me and the two jacks—Jack Dobson and this jack beauty here."
He was getting no nearer to the object of his visit, and, perhaps thinking it would be well to humour me, he fetched a horn and tried our Hanyards ale. This gave me a chance of taking stock of him.
He was a thin, wiry man of middle height and middle age. Such a face I had never seen. The first sight of it made me suck in my breath as if I had touched the edge of a razor. The bridge half of his nose had gone, or he had never had it, and the lower half was stuck like a dab of putty midway between mouth and eyebrows. His little, beady eyes were set in large, shallow sockets, giving him an owl-like appearance. A mouth originally large enough, and thickly lipped like a negro's, had been extended, as it seemed, to his left ear by a savage sword slash which had healed very badly. He had an air of mean, perky intelligence, as of one of low rank and no breeding who had for many years been accustomed to cringe to the great and domineer over smaller fry than himself. Some sort of military rank he had, judging by his stained and frayed but once gaudy jacket. He carried a tuck of unusual length, stretching along his left side from heel to armpit, and a couple of pistols were stuck in his belt.
He put down the horn, smacked his lips, and began:
"Master Wheatman, I am searching for a Jacobite spy—a woman. We took her father up at the 'Barley Mow,' and I learned from a man of yours that the daughter was at his mother's ale-house down the road. She is not there, and left to walk to meet her father, she said. She has certainly not done that, and I have called to see if she is hiding here or hereabouts."
"By gad, we'll nab her if she is," said I heartily. "She's not been through that gate in the last half-hour, for it takes me that to drink yon jug dry, and I started with it full. But I'll ask the maids. Mother and our Kate are at the parson's yonder, gaping at you chaps. I dare say you saw them."
"No," said he doubtingly.
One of the men stepped out of the porch, saluted, and, being bidden to speak, informed his officer that he had seen Lord Brocton and Mr. Cornet Dobson talking to two ladies.
"That'd be they," I said, and going with unsteady steps to the door, I vigorously shouted, "Jin, Moll, Jin, Moll, come here! They're in the dairy," I added by way of explanation.
The crucial moment came. Jane and 'Moll' scurried across the yard like rabbits, but stopped at the porch door with well-simulated surprise at the sight of the dragoons.
"Gom, I thawt 'e'd set the house a-fire," said Jane thankfully, addressing the company at large, and she bravely bustled through and shrilled at me, "At it again, when your mother's out; y'd better get off to bed afore she comes in. She'll drunk yer."
Jane's acting was so much better than mine that I nearly lost my head at being thus crudely accused before 'Moll,' but she went on remorselessly, addressing the dragoon, "Dunna upset him for God's sake, Master Squaddy. 'E'm a hell-hound when 'e'm gotten a sup of beer in'im."
"Don't trouble, my good girl. I'm used to his sort. Leave him to me and answer my questions. The truth or the jail, my girl."
"Yow," sniffed Jane, "he'd snap yow in two like a carrot. Bed's best place for 'im. He's as wet as thatch with his silly jacking."
"Jane," said I, "never mind me. I'm neither dry enough nor drunk enough to go to bed yet. Captain here wants to ask you and Moll some questions. Stop clacking at me like a hen at a weasel and listen to him."
Jane went through the ordeal easily, appealing to 'Moll' for verification at every turn, and so cleverly that the latter appeared to be as much under examination as herself. Moreover, Jane stood square in the firelight, but so as to keep 'Moll' shouldered behind the chimney in comparative gloom. They'd been churning all afternoon, the butter was there to be seen, stacks of it; nobody had been in or near the yard; the gate had never clicked once, and nobody could open it without being heard in the dairy. She overwhelmed the dragoon with her demonstrations of the impossibility of anybody coming up the yard without her or 'Moll' knowing it.
"That's all right, Jane," said I, at length. "But she could easily have got into the house or into the stables without you or Moll seeing her. Let's all have a look for her. Unless she's small enough to creep into a rat-hole, we'll soon find her."
Sergeant Radford—to give him his name and rank, which I learned later from Jack Dobson—agreed to this, and in my joy at knowing that the ordeal was over, I was on the point of forgetting that I was drunk till I caught the clear eyes of madam fixed in warning on me. Jane acted as leader to the two dragoons in overhauling the barns and stabling, while 'Moll,' the sergeant, and I searched the house as closely as if we were looking for a lost guinea. Of course our efforts were futile, slow as we were so as not to outpace my drunken footsteps, and careful as we were so as to satisfy the keen eyes of the sergeant, who was very evidently on no new job so far as he was concerned. 'Moll' too seemed jealous of Jane's laurels, and went thoroughly into the business. She and the serjeant peeped together under beds and into closets, and she laughed brazenly at certain not very obscure hints of his as to the great services I should render to the search-party if I kept my eye on the house-place. She even said, "Master Noll, don't 'e think as 'ow th' ale be gettin' flat downstairs? It wunna be wuth drinkin' if y'ain't sharp."
The result was, that in about half an hour a thoroughly satisfied and rather tired assembly filled the house-place, for the two scouts rode up to the porch with the news that they, too, had found no trace of the fugitive. With the sergeant's leave I sent the five dragoons into the kitchen with the two maids to have a jug of ale apiece, while he stayed with me in the house-place, to crack a bottle of wine.
I hoped, but in vain, that he would tell me news of the stranger's father, but he was too wary for that, and I did not dare to ask him. He made close inquiries as to the lie of the land hereabouts, and I pointed out that there was a field-path leading plainly to the village from the other side of the bridge and coming out at an obscure stile at the back of the "Barley Mow." The spy might have taken that and become alarmed. She could then avoid the village by another plain path, and so get ahead of the troops on the Stafford road.
"But what for? Who's to help her there, Master Wheatman?"
"Ask me another, Captain," said I. "But a wise woman would know where to find friends, and Stafford's full of papishes, burn 'em!"
"There's Bulbrook and Pippin Pat and Ducky Bellows; there's old sack-face, the parson there, as good as a papist, very near. You keep your eyes on those big houses in the East Gate. As for me, look at that back and breast and good broad-sword there. Damn me if I don't rub 'em up and come and have a ding with 'em at these rebels. On Naseby Field they were, Captain, long before your time and mine, but they did good work against these same bloody Stuarts. Crack t'other bottle, there's a good fellow. I'm dry with talking and wet with fishing, and it'll do me good."
I pressed him to stay and 'have a good set to,' but he refused, and after drinking enough to keep me dizzy for a week, he nipped out and ordered his men to horse. I walked to the gate with him. He thanked me for my help and good cheer, and said it was quite clear that the spy was nowhere in or near the Hanyards. I renewed my greetings to Cornet Dobson and even sent my respects to his lordship. Off they rode, and it was with a thankful heart that, remembering my happy condition in time, I stumbled back up the yard to the house-place, where madam and beaming Jane were awaiting me.
MISTRESS MARGARET WAYNFLETE
Jane had taken the lady back to the house-place and was hovering around her, with little of the grace of a maid-of-honour to be sure, but with a heartiness and zeal that more than atoned for any lack of style. From mother's withdrawing-room I fetched our chief household god, a small ancient silver goblet, and, filling it with wine, offered it to the stranger with what I supposed, no doubt wrongly, to be a modish bow. She drank a little, and then, at my urging, a little more.
"Madam," I said, "I think you do not need to be 'Molly Brown' any longer. Yon dragooner is quite certain that you are not here, and we can safely take advantage of his opinion. As for you, Jane, you've done splendidly, and I heartily thank you." I re-filled the goblet and handed it to Jane, saying, "Drink, Jane, to madam's good luck."
The honest girl blushed with joy at my words, and as for drinking wine out of the famous silver goblet of the Hanyards—such a distinction, as she conceived it, was reward enough for anything.
"Thanks are payment all too poor for what you have done, sir," said madam, "and any words of mine would make them poorer still. But, sir, I do thank you most heartily. And you, too, Jane, have done me splendid service. You are as brave and clever as you are bonny and pretty."
"Madam," said I, bowing low, "you are too kind to my services, which have, indeed, been rather crudely performed."
"Not so," she replied, "but with shrewd, ready wit and certain judgment. I cannot imagine myself in a tighter corner than at the bridge, and your device had the effective simplicity of genius. Your plan here was, to be sure, commonplace, but it, too, required caution and good acting, and you and Jane supplied both. It was nicer than popping me into some musty priest's hole, though I expect this ancient building has one."
I looked at the wall as half expecting the sword of Captain Smite-and-spare-not Wheatman to rattle to the ground under this awful insinuation.
"The only use our family has found for priests, madam," I said, "has been, I fear, to hunt them like vermin. As a Wheatman of the Hanyards, I'm afraid I'm a degenerate."
"You'll not even be that much longer if I keep you from getting into some dry clothes. And, if Jane is willing, I will make myself myself. I would fain be on."
With a sweet smile and a gracious curtsy, she followed the ready Jane upstairs.
I removed all traces of what had taken place, and carried my precious jack into the pantry, where I hung him in safety. He should be set up by Master Whatcot of Stafford as a trophy and memento in honour of this great day. I then hurried off to my room to attend to my own appearance, and indeed I needed it, for I was caked with mud up to my knees and soaking wet up to my waist. For the first time in my life I was grieved to the bone at the inadequacy of my wardrobe, and even when I had donned my Sunday best my appearance was undoubtedly villainous from the London point of view. I feathered myself as finely as my resources permitted, but it was a homely, uncouth yeoman that raced downstairs and awaited her coming. I drew the curtains, lit the candles, kicked the fire into a blaze, and built it up with fresh logs.
It would be impossible for me to set down the hubbub of thoughts and ideas that filled my mind. I had been plunged into a new world, and floundered about in it pretty hopelessly, I can tell you. The days of knight-errantry had come over again, and chance, mightier even than King Arthur, had commanded me to serve a sweet lady in distress. But I had had no training, no preliminary squireship, in which I could learn how things were done by watching brave and accomplished knights do them. I had lived among the parts of speech, not among the facts of life. I could hit a bird on the wing, snare a rabbit, ride like a saddle, angle for jack and trout, strike like a sledge-hammer, swim like a fish—and that was all. I knew, too, every turn and track and tree for miles round; and that might be something now, and indeed, as will be seen, turned out my most precious accomplishment. Some people said I was as proud as Lucifer, others that I was as meek as a mouse, and I once overheard our Kate tell Priscilla Dobson, Jack's vinegary sister, that both were right—which confounded me, for our 'Copper Nob,' as I used to call her, was a shrewd little woman. Still, such as I was, the stranger lady should have me, an she would, as her squire, to the last breath in my body. Only let me get out of my cabbage-bed, only give me a man's work to do, and I would ask for no more. Neither for love nor for liking would I crave, but just for the work and the joy of it.
The yard gate clicked, and a moment later mother and Kate came in.
"Oh, Noll, it's been grand!" burst out Kate. "I wish you'd been there. There were hundreds upon hundreds of soldiers, horse and foot, and guns and wagons without end. Lord Brocton was there, and Sir Ralph Sneyd, who is just a duck, and a nasty-looking major with his face all over blotches. And they saw us, and crowded into the vicar's to talk to us."
"And what about Jack Dobson?"
"Oh, Oliver, what have you got your best clothes on for?"
"Because I got wet through catching a great jack. But never mind my best clothes. How did Jack look in his uniform?"
"A lot better than Lord Brocton, or anyone else there, if you must know," she said, jerking the words at me, with her cheeks near the colour of her hair.
"Can he talk sense yet?"
"He talked like the modest gentleman he is," said my mother, "and looked nearly as handsome as my own boy. He sent his loving greetings to you, and would fain have come to see you but his duties would not allow of it."
Of course my gibes at Jack were all purely foolish and jealous, and, moreover, I could now afford to be truthful; so I said, "If Jack doesn't do better, as well as look better, than my Lord Brocton, I'll thrash him soundly when he gets back. But he will. He's a rare one is Master Jack, and by a long chalk the pluckiest soul, boy or man, I've ever come across. And he'll learn sense, of the sort he wants, as fast as anybody when the time comes."
"Of course the lad will," said mother, taking off her long cloak, and Kate, when mother turned to hang it on its accustomed hook, gave a swift peck at my cheek with her lips, and whispered, "You dear old Noll!"
All this time I had been listening with strained ears for footsteps on the stairs. Now I heard them, and waited anxiously. The door opened, and Jane came in, upright and important. She curtsyed to my mother, announced, "Mistress Margaret Waynflete," and my goddess came into the room.
Straight up to my mother she walked,—a poor word to describe her sweet and stately motion, et vera incessu patuit dea, as the master has it,—curtsied low and nobly to her and said, "Mistress Wheatman, I am a stranger in distress, and should have been in danger but for your son, who has served me and saved me as only a brave and courteous gentleman could."
I had ever loved my mother dearly, but I loved her proudly now, for the greatest dame in the land could not have done better than this sweet, simple mother of mine. Without surprise or hesitation, she took Mistress Waynflete's hands in her own, and said, "Dear lady, anyone in distress is welcome here, and Oliver has done just as I would have him do. And this is my daughter, Kate, who will share our anxiety to help you."
And then I was proud of our Kate, Kate with the red hair and the milk-white face, the saucy eye and the shrewd tongue, Kate with the tradesman's head and the heart of gold. She shook madam warmly by the hand, and led her to my great arm-chair in the ingle-nook as to a throne that was hers of right.
Thus was Mistress Waynflete made welcome to the Hanyards.
Mother and Kate took their accustomed seats on the cosy settle beside the hearth. I sat on a three-legged stool in front of the fire, and Jane flitted about as quietly as a bat, laying the table for our evening meal.
Never had the house-place at the Hanyards looked so fair. The firelight danced on the black oak wainscot which age and polishing had made like unto ebony, and the row of pewter plates on the top shelf of the dresser glimmered in their obscurity like a row of moons. Our special pride, a spice-cupboard of solid mahogany, ages old, glowed red across the room, and from the neighbouring wall the great sword and back-and-breast with which Smite-and-spare-not Wheatman, Captain of Horse, had done service at Naseby, seemed to twinkle congratulations to me as one not unworthy of my name. Not an unsuitable frame, perhaps, this ancient, goodly house-place, for the beautiful picture now in it, on which I looked as often as I dared with furtive eyes of admiration.
She told her story with simple directness. Her father's name was Christopher Waynflete, a soldier by profession, who had seen service in many parts of the Continent and had attained the rank of Colonel in the Swedish army. Her mother she had never known, for she had died when Mistress Margaret was but a few months old, and her father had maintained an unbroken reticence on the subject. Some six months ago, Colonel Waynflete had returned to England to settle, desiring to obtain some military employment, a plan which his long service and professional knowledge seemed to make feasible. In London he made the acquaintance of the Earl of Ridgeley, to whom, indeed, he bore a letter of introduction from a Swedish diplomat in Paris. Through the Earl he had met Lord Brocton, the Earl's only son and heir. The Colonel's hope of employment in the army had not been realized, and this and certain other reasons, which she did not specify, had embittered him against the Government. Not having any real allegiance to King George, whom he had never served, and who now refused his services, he easily entered into the plans of certain influential Jacobites in London whose acquaintance he had made. Three days previously he had set out from London to join Prince Charles. For certain reasons (again she did not give details) she was unwilling to be separated from her father, at any rate not until circumstances made it necessary for them to part, and then the plan was that she should go to Chester, with which city she was inclined to think her father had some old connexion, and stay there with the wife of a certain cathedral dignitary of secret but strong Jacobite inclinations. Colonel Waynflete's connexion with the Jacobite cause had, naturally, been kept secret, but she was almost certain that Lord Brocton had discovered it through a certain spy and toady of his, one Major Tixall.
"Pimples all over his face?" broke in Kate.
"Yes," said Mistress Waynflete, with a little shudder.
"He was in the village this afternoon with Lord Brocton," returned Kate.
"Peace, dear one," said mother, "our turn is coming. Be as quiet as Oliver."
"Oliver, mother dear, hasn't seen Major Tixall, whose face is enough to make an owl talk, let alone a magpie like me."
Her right ear was near enough to me, the stool being big and I bigger, so I pinched the pretty little pink shell, and whispered in it, "Shut up, Kit, and think of Jack," which effectually silenced her.
Mistress Waynflete had little more to tell. They had travelled rapidly, avoiding Coventry and Lichfield, where the royal forces had assembled, but bending west so as to get by unfrequented roads to Stafford, and so on to the main north road along which the Prince was now reported to be marching. Just outride the "Bull and Mouth" her horse had cast a shoe. Leaving her to rest in the ale-house, the Colonel had gone on with the horses to the nearest smithy at Milford. He was quite unaware of the northward movement of troops from Lichfield, and was under the impression that he was now well beyond the danger zone. We had heard from the serjeant of his capture.
Kate, at mother's request, took up the tale here. The road past the Hanyards to the village enters the main road abruptly, and clumps of elms prevent anyone travelling along it from seeing what is happening in the village. The vicarage is opposite the smithy and the inn, and when mother and Kate got there, only a few dragoons were about. They watched the Colonel ride up, leading his daughter's horse, and saw him turn round at once and attempt to go back as soon as he caught sight of the dragoons; but a larger body, under the command of Major Tixall, cantered in at the moment and, trapped between the two bodies, the Colonel had been compelled to surrender. He was kept until my Lord Brocton's arrival nearly an hour later, and had then been sent on to Stafford under a strong guard.
This was the only fresh piece of information that was of any importance. There is a jail at Stafford, and no doubt the Colonel was by now lodged in it.
"I fear that my views, or at any rate my father's views, make me a dangerous guest," said Mistress Waynflete, "though your kindness has made me a welcome one."
"Madam," I said coldly, "the only politics I know is that my Lord Brocton is fighting against the Stuart, and if by fighting for the Stuart I can get in a fair blow at my Lord Brocton, I fight for the Stuart."
"Oliver," said mother, "it is wrong—I say nothing about its wisdom—to choose sides in such matters on grounds of personal enmity."
"Lord Brocton's a beast," said Kate shortly.
Mistress Waynflete had turned a richer colour at the mention of Brocton's name, but at Kate's words she became scarlet, and for that I vowed I would knock him on the head as ruthlessly as if he were a buck rabbit as soon as I got the chance.
She recovered and continued her story, but as it only concerned my share in the day's doings, it is unnecessary to repeat it here. She told it, however, in such kind terms, that I made an end to my discomfort by going to fetch the great jack for mother and Kate to look at. When returning, however, I could not help hearing Kate say to Mistress Waynflete, "Without a 'by your leave'?"
"As indifferently as if I had been a bag of flour," was the cool reply. And I had dithered like an aspen leaf!
"I suppose he half drowned you?"
"On the contrary, there was not a wet stitch on me."
"Oliver," added my mother, "has not many things to do that are worth his doing, but what he finds he does well."
"Such as catching jack," said I, staggering in with my heavy load. It was admired unstintingly, and was indeed worthy of all praise.
"Supper is ready, mam," said Jane; "and Joe says he knowed it wor as big as a gate-post."
"And where is Joe?"
"In the kitchen, Master Noll."
"Give him a good supper, not much ale, and that small, and tell him to stop there. I shall want him." Then, turning to Mistress Waynflete, I went on: "There's one way, and only one, into Stafford that's perfectly safe to-night. Joe and I will row you there. Now, mother, I'm hungrier than the great jack ever was."
OUR JOURNEY COMMENCES
I have already said that the river was the boundary of the Hanyards on the side towards the village. About a hundred yards above the pocket of deep water where the jack had lain, I had built a little covered dock, and here I kept a craft, half boat and half punt, which I used for my fishing, and in which mother and Kate could lie on cushions while I rowed them on the river on warm summer nights. It was heavy and ungainly, but very comfortable, and as safe as the ark.
Joe received the information that he was to row to Stafford as cheerfully as an invitation to a jug of beer, and went off whistling to get the boat ready.
Everything that care could suggest was done for Mistress Waynflete's comfort. Jane carried down to the boat two huge stone beer bottles, filled with boiling water. Mother insisted on madam taking her thick hooded cloak, shaped like a fashionable domino, and covering her from head to ankles. Kate slipped into my pocket a pint flask of her extra special concoction of peppermint cordial, the best possible companion on a night like this. Jane came back and returned again laden with rugs and cushions, and soon reported that the boat was ready.
Mother and Kate, with Jane behind them, came to the garden gate to bid us farewell. Little was said, for Mistress Waynflete was too moved by their kindness to say much, and I was too preoccupied. Madam kissed them all in turn and murmured a good-bye. I kissed mother and Kate, and they wished me a good voyage and a safe return. We turned our faces riverward and started.
It was now nearly eight o'clock. The night was pitch-dark, the sky star-studded and moonless. It was freezing hard, the keen air stung our faces, the tiniest twig was finger-thick with hoar-frost, and the grass crunched under our feet at every step. I went ahead as guide, and in five minutes we arrived at the dock, where Joe, the boat out, cushioned and trim for the voyage, was vigorously slapping his hands crosswise round his waist to keep them warm. He held the boat up to the bank, I stepped in, handed in Mistress Waynflete, bestowed her with all possible comfort, settled by her side, and took the ropes. Then Joe, clambering in, pushed off and the voyage began.
It was up-stream, but fortunately the current was gentle, though there was a fair amount of water coming down. There was, or rather would have been on an ordinary night, no danger of discovery, since the river was half a mile from the main road at our starting-place, and ran still farther away from it for nearly two miles. Then came the one possible danger-spot on such a night as this, with the road occupied by troops on the march. A long bend in the river took it so close to the road that the yard of a wayside inn ran right down to the water. If we got safely past this, all danger would be over till we ran sheer up to the ruined wall of the town. The moon would not rise for two hours, so there was ample time for our row of about five miles.
"I trust you are comfortable, madam?" I said.
"Comfortable and warm and cosy," she replied. "But for my fears for my father I should even be happy, for it has never before been my lot, and I have wandered far and wide over half Europe, to experience such and so much kindness in one day from perfect strangers."
"I am, indeed, happy in my mother and sister. They are pearls of great price."
"None better in all Staffordsheer," said Joe.
"You have rendered me a greater service than you know of, and I must not let you leave yourself out." To hide a note of wistfulness in her voice, she added mischievously, "Must I, Joe?"
"Yow could find wus'n' Wheatman o' th' 'Anyards," said Joe, with sturdy precision of praise.
"Is he really a hell-hound, Joe, when he's got a sup of beer in him? I've no clear notion what a hell-hound is, but clearly it means something as bad, say, as a janissary—the worst animal I ever came across."
"Sup o' beer in 'im," snorted Joe contemptuously. "He dunna really know what beer is, my lady. It's a grand thing is beer, if y'll only tak' enough of it to do y' good, but there's no vartue in half a pint of it. I've told 'im that lots of times. But it's God's truth, my lady, 'e dunna want no beer, dunna Master Noll, to mak 'im 'it like the kick of a 'oss. I on'y brought 'im a few daceys up t'ouse this mawnin', an'—"
"You row harder, Joe, and yawp less," said I, interrupting him. "Between you and Jane I shan't have a rag of character left."
"Sup o' beer in him," he growled, and spat loudly on his hands. Joe looked at all men as potential customers of the "Bull and Mouth," and judged them accordingly.
"I know the worst about you now, Master Wheatman, and by way of providing you with a less embarrassing topic of conversation, you might tell me what we shall do when we get to Stafford."
"We are going to Marry-me-quick's."
She started so abruptly that I laughed outright, and Joe rumbled like an overloaded wagon. I explained.
"We shall approach the town on the south side where the wall comes down to the river. 'Marry-me-quick' is not, as you seem to suppose, a disagreeable process, but an agreeable old woman who lives in a cottage which backs on to the river. Every schoolboy in the town knows her by that name, which is also the name of a kind of toffee she makes, and by the sale of which she earns a modest living. I cannot tell you how the name originated, but there it is. I went to the grammar school in the town, and in my time I must have bought and consumed some hundredweights of her 'marry-me-quick.' In her tiny cottage you may rest in safety while I hunt up Jack Dobson and learn what has been done with your father."
"An' if I'd got a shilling," said the irrepressible Joe, "for every pat of butter I've taken owd Marry-me-quick, I'd—I'd—"
He seemed lost for words, so I assisted him, and paid him back at the same time, by saying, "Pluck up courage enough to speak to Jane."
"That's rate, Master Noll."
"Is Jane so very fond of money, Joe?" asked Mistress Waynflete curiously.
"No," said Joe. "She ain't grasping, ain't Jin. She told me t'nate, she c'd 'ave 'ad a mint of money if she'd liked, but she wouldna tak' it. Said it would 'a' burnt 'er fingers. 'More fool yow,' says I; 'it'd 'a' soon gotten cowd weather like this'n.' But Jin's all rate. Er'll never bre'k 'er arm at church door, wunna Jin."
I explained to Mistress Waynflete that a woman who broke her arm at the church door was a housewifely maiden who became a slatternly housewife after marriage. "There's no fear of Jane doing that," she replied; "she's as good as the guineas she would not take."
For a space silence fell on us. All my attention was required to keep the boat clear of the banks, for the little river turned and twisted through its meadows like a hunted hare. There was only the starlight to steer by, but I had fished every yard of the river, and knew it so well that I gave Joe a clear channel to row in. Not a sound jarred on the rhythmic purr of the oars in the rowlocks and the gentle lapping of the stream against the bow. This day had God been very good to me. This was life as I would have it; work to do for brain and brawn, and a woman to do it for who was worth the uttermost that was in me. Romance had flushed the drab night of my life with a rosy dawn, and my heart was lifted up within me. If it faded away, there would at least be the memory of it. But it might not fade. I was under no illusions as to the stiffness of my task. I was matched against the powers that be, against my Lord Brocton, whose ability to work this maiden ill was increased a thousandfold by his military authority. I saw my way into Stafford, and I saw no more, not even my way out of it, and least of all my way out of it with the Colonel rescued and restored to his daughter. Mistress Waynflete had been so determined in her decision to follow her father that perhaps she had some plan in mind. She said nothing if she had, and if she had, it would, I supposed, depend on her woman's power of influencing Brocton. The future was as black as the outlook along the river, but I faced it eagerly.
She broke the silence: "The last boat I was in was a gondola. It was on a perfect night in a Venetian June, the sky a sapphire sprinkled with diamonds, the warm, scent-laden air filled with murmurings and snatches of song. And there was no danger."
"Romance, perchance," said I.
"You cannot have a one-sided romance. Romance is an atmosphere breathed by two, not an emotion felt by one. To be sure, he was the most appallingly in earnest lover woman ever had. He wept for a kiss with his fingers twiddling on the hilt of his stiletto. Dear heart, these Italians!"
"I should like to meet his countship," said I energetically.
"Yes, he was a count, with a pedigree as long as the Rialto, and he had not two silver piastres to rub against each other. He was the handsomest man I have even seen. Fortunately, we left Venice before he had quite decided that it was time to dig his knife into me."
"You speak lightly of your danger, madam," I said coldly.
"A hot-blooded Italian with a stiletto in his hand is a much more desirable creature, let me tell you, than a cold-blooded Englishman with the devil in his heart. That fiery little count, conceited and poverty-stricken, did at any rate pay me the compliment of thinking for at least a fortnight that I was a patch of heaven fallen in his way, whereas to your cold-livered English lord I am no more than an appetizing dish."
She was not speaking lightly now, but with cold, concentrated anger. I remembered the reticencies of her statement at the Hanyards, and began to see dimly some of the connecting links in her story. My Lord Brocton's character was well enough known to be the subject of common talk at our market ordinaries. My very manhood shamed me in the presence of this queenly woman, marked down by a titled blackguard as his quarry, and I sat still, fists tightly clenched on the tiller-ropes, and said nothing, waiting for her to speak again.
"I have seen to-day, Master Wheatman," she said, "a sight I have never seen before—a beautiful English maiden growing up to womanhood in the calm and safety of an English country home. You will be tempted, I know, to envy me my wanderings, my experiences, my freedom, but, believe me, I would rather be your sweet Kate in the quiet of the Hanyards."
"It isn't as quiet as it might be when Jack's about," said I, seeking to change the current of her thoughts. Then I had to tell her all about Jack, and our boyish escapades and fightings and friendings, and because I had earlier in the day though evil of dear Jack, I now could say nothing good enough about him.
It was time to relieve Joe at the oars. At first he would not agree, for, he said, he'd been "lagging a bit during the day 'long o' them squaddies," and wanted to put in a day's work.
"You will, before you've done, Joe, for you've got to pull the boat back. So have a swig of beer and we'll change over. And madam shall acknowledge the virtues of our Kate's peppermint cordial."
Joe shipped his oars and reached out for his bottle of beer. I got out the flask and said in a sing-song voice: "Take two gallons of the best Hollands money can buy, and add thereto, first, four pounds of choice Barbados sugar, and, secondly, two bushels of freshly gathered leaves of the plant peppermint. Steep together for a whole moon, stirring the concoction every four hours during the daytime, and as often as you wake o' nights. Strain through a piece of linen, if you've got one; if not, do what our Kate did this year, use a fair maiden's silk stocking. The result is a drink fit for the gods, and, indeed, one which may even be offered to goddesses. Drink, madam!"
She was laughing merrily before I had finished. "Kate's stocking sounds the most innocent ingredient in it, Master Wheatman, but I must try her skill in brewing."
She did so, and pronounced it excellent but strong. I tried it too, rather more copiously, I confess. Indeed, it was good, but to me, I know, the charm of the cordial this time lay in the thought of the rich red lips that had touched the flask before mine.
Joe and I then changed places, and I kept hard at the oars until we came to the reach which ran close up to the "Why Not." Here Joe resumed the oars and I the ropes.
"This is the only danger-spot," I said. "Yonder are the lights of the ale-house. On an ordinary night there would be no one about, even if it mattered if there were, but to-night, when it does matter, there are thousands of soldiers on the march, and there is some risk of our being observed."
In another five minutes or so we heard faint snatches of song and bursts of applause, and shouting and laughing. The "Why Not" was now about a hundred yards ahead on our left. On the right the bank was lined with willows which, not having been pollarded for many years, stretched their long, thin branches well over the river. I ran the boat as far under them as I could. Joe pulled with short, soft strokes, and we crept slowly along. For a minute the lighted windows were obscured by the outhouses, and just as I caught sight of them again, a door was flung open, and the jumble of noises swelled into a roar of jeering laughter. A young woman flew out, heedlessly and noisily as a flustered hen, and a burly soldier lurched after her down the yard. At a whisper, Joe shipped his oars, and I ran the boat right into the bank. I grabbed in the dark for a hold-to, and luckily seized the roots of a willow. At his end Joe did the same. We hardly dared to breathe as we watched the doings on the other bank.
Lust, of blood or worse, and the fear of it, were there. The lighted windows and the open door made every movement of the man and the girl clearly visible. No one followed them. It was so ordinary an event to the company, perhaps that it was not worth while leaving mirth and beer to see the issue. But all serious elements in their affair changed abruptly and to our instant jeopardy. On the very edge of the water the girl, knowing her whereabouts to an inch, turned cleverly. The man, a stranger obviously, ran on and pitched clean and far into the river, while she, laughing and triumphant, scuttled back to the house. Her tale brought out at once a spurt of men, yelling with joy, to watch the fun. Some of them had snatched up lanterns and lighted candles, and they were followed later by a fresh, older, shrieking woman who carried a huge, burning brand plucked from the hearth.
Happily for us the river was shallow, for a couple of strokes would have brought the man clean into us. The shock of the icy water sobered him. He splashed and spluttered to his feet, climbed up the bank like a giant water-rat, and would have slunk towards the house; but the rabble were on him before he had taken a dozen paces, and tormented him till he roared like a wounded bull. The woman with the brand cried out on him with vile words that made my face burn in the dark, and belaboured him about the head with her blazing cudgel. At every blow a shower of sparks flew out that drove his rollicking mates into a ring around them at a safe distance away. The man must have been set afire had he not been soused in the river beforehand. None of his fellows tried to help him, just as before none had tried to hinder him. It was his look out either way, and they enjoyed his discomfiture with all the gusto of children. At last the breathless woman and the cowed man came to a parley, the result of which was that, with a whoop of "pots round," they all crowded back into the ale-house, and we were once more alone on the river.
"The ordeal by water and by fire," I said. "Push out, Joe."
"Gom! Owd Bess give 'im sock," he replied, and levered the nose of the boat into midstream again.
Although there was no real need for it, the escape kept us all quiet. I persuaded Mistress Waynflete to lie down, so as to avoid the biting wind that was sweeping across the river, and Joe and I by turns made such progress that in less than an hour we drew up to the town meadow.
The greatest caution was now necessary, since we saw that the bridge leading into the town was thronged with people, many carrying lanterns or torches. The town wall ran parallel to the river, on our right, with a narrow fringe of meadow between them. Here the wall was for the most part tumbled into ruins, and in the gaps stood little cottages, built in part of the stones that had once formed the wall. In one of these lived little old Marry-me-quick, Mistress Martha Tonks, to give her her christening name, and we ran up to the bank level with her place without being observed from the bridge, although it was only a few boat-lengths distant.
I stepped cautiously out and tiptoed to her back window. There the ancient maiden was, busily engaged in the manufacture of her staple, no doubt in anticipation of a greater demand for it in these stirring days, when much extra money would be passing around in the town, and many pennies thereof would dribble into the pockets of the youngsters. I lifted the latch and stepped in. She squeaked with affright till she saw who it was, and then turned her note into a gurgle of astonishment.
"Are you alone?" I asked. She nodded. "Just a minute then, and I'll be back again, with a visitor. Keep quiet!"
I returned to the boat, and as I was obliged to move as stealthily as a cat, I could not help, as I approached, hearing Joe say emphatically, "I wunna." I cursed him silent, without troubling to ask what he was objecting to, and handed Mistress Waynflete out.
"Now, Joe," I whispered, "off you go back! The moon will be up in a few minutes, and you ought to do it in an hour. You can sit in the kitchen all to-morrow to make up for this."
"Jin said 'er'd sit up for me," he said, and I was glad he had such a good motive to keep him up to his hard task.
"Good-bye, Joe," said Mistress Waynflete, shaking the good fellow warmly by the hand. "Give my loving remembrances to your mistresses and to Jane. Say how grateful I am."
"Good-bye, my lady," he said simply, "and God bless you." So that only I could hear him, he added, "Tak' good keer on 'er, Master Noll. Jin's awful sot on 'er, and wunna luk at me if any 'arm 'appens 'er."
I gripped his hard hand, gave him my parting message home, and then crouched and pushed the boat into and down the stream. As I lifted my hand from her and she glided into the blackness, I felt in my heart that the last link with the old life was broken. Then, as I rose to my feet, a hand was placed on my arm, and I tingled in every fibre at this sweet link with the new life.
THE ANCIENT HIGH HOUSE
I had found Mistress Tonks in her little back room, where she manufactured marry-me-quick by day and slept by night. Her cottage contained only one other room, serving as shop and living room, and fronting on a narrow lane which turned abruptly from the main street at the bridge-end to follow the curve of the walls. By the time I returned with Mistress Waynflete she had shuttered the window of the shop, snuffed the candles, and stirred the fire into a blaze.
Marry-me-quick was an ancient, wizened, little woman, so small that she hardly escaped being a dwarf, humpbacked, and inexpressibly ugly. In times not so long gone by she would assuredly have burned as a witch, and many supposed her to be in league with the evil one. But in actual fact she was a cheery, voluble, and warm-hearted little body, and one on whom I could rely to serve us in this pinch.
"Mistress Tonks," I said, "I want you to shelter this lady for the night."
"To be sure," chirped the little woman. "Luckily I've kept the sojers off. Every house in the town is full of 'em, and the Mayor's at his wits' end to know how to stuff 'em all in. I should think a score of 'em have come here, in ones, and twos, and threes; and when I stood bold up to them and said, 'Do you want any marry-me-quick?' they were off like scared rabbits. A great, sweet lady like you wouldn't think it, of course, but it's a godsend at times for a lone woman when she's ugly enough to turn cream sour, and somedeal crooked o' the body into the bargain."
"I shall certainly desire some marry-me-quick," said Mistress Waynflete, deftly evading the awkward conclusion of this speech, "for Master Wheatman has described it in terms that make my mouth water. And though you do not want to billet soldiers, you will, I know, befriend a soldier's daughter."
"I should befriend the devil's dam, asking your ladyship's pardon, if Master Wheatman brought her here. I'm a little, lone, ugly woman, but Master Noll always stood by me. The lads, drat 'em, were for ever pinching Master Dobson's bull's-eyes and gingerbread, and him mayor of the town, though he's got lots grander than that since, but they never pinched any marry-me-quick, not in Master Noll's time. But he's gone now, and I'm not as nimble as I used to be. Jesus help me, how he had used to fight! He used to put my heart in my mouth, coming in here all blood and muck to wash himself afore he went home. But take your things off and make yourself at home."
"I'm afraid you'll hear a too full and too true account of me, madam, while I am away," said I. "Soldiers are likely to call, but you can leave Mistress Tonks to deal with them. Still, please discard your own jacket and hat, and wear mother's domino. It's homely and country-like, and you must pull the hood over your head, since, if your hair has been described, and any soldier who calls has heard of it, he will have to be blind not to notice it."
"Yes, it's dreadful stuff," she said, with amusing meekness.
"So dreadful, madam," said I soberly, "that all England cannot match it. Therefore you must hide it, lest it should shock some poor soldier who comes seeking a billet and finds it."
She took off her hat, preparing to do what I asked, and the wondrous yellow hair, coils upon coils of it, was revealed. "Jesus help me," said little Marry-me-quick in a hushed voice, "the back of her head looks like a harvest moon. If the same God that made her ladyship made me, we shall begin life in heaven with a row, that's all I've got to say."
I smiled at the quaint conceit of the little woman, which lost its irreverence towards God in its reverence for His handiwork. "Now mother Tonks," said I, "I leave this lady in your charge for a time while I go into the town to see Master Dobson. I may be away some time, and you'll get us some supper. Anything you have will do."
"Anything I have?" she echoed scornfully. "I've got one of them rabbits you sent me last market day by that lozzicking Joe Braggs, but he's a good gorby is Joe"—here her voice softened, and madam smiled agreement—"and this frost has kept it as sweet as a nut. If you're not too hungry to wait, I'll make you some rabbit-stew."
"Rabbit-stew? I'll wait for that, and I'm sure Mistress Waynflete will," said I.
"I'll live on marry-me-quick in the meantime," she replied, laughing.
"I leave you then in good hands, and hope to come back with cheerful news," I said, bowing low, and stepped forth on my errand.
I turned to the left and fifty paces brought me into the main street. A gun and a train of wagons were rumbling over the bridge, convoyed by a handful of dragoons and a riff-raff of noisy lads and lasses. Late and cold as it was, the main street was thronged as on a fair day at noon. Most of the shops, especially those that dealt in provisions, were open and full of vociferous customers, while every alehouse was a pandemonium. The street was choked with townspeople and soldiery; lanterns flickered and torches flamed; oath and jest, bravado and buffoonery, filled the air.
I pushed my way to the market-place. Here about a dozen guns were parked, and at least a hundred horses tethered. At each corner a huge fire cracked and roared. The town hall was a blaze of light, and I heard from passersby that the mayor and council had been in session since noon. The current rumour was that the Stuart, with fifty thousand Highlanders, savages who disembowelled women for sport and roasted children for food, had sacked Manchester and was now marching south, with hell in his heart and desolation in his train. If one-hundredth of it were true, the worthy mayor had his work cut out, for the town was so ill-found that it would have fallen to a bombardment of turnips.
I took my stand on the town-hall steps to scan the scene and collect my thoughts. And here I had the best of luck, for who should come clanking down the steps but Jack Dobson. I had no need to envy him now, having better work on hand than his, but even if the mood of the midday had been prevailing, it would have disappeared before his hearty greeting.
"Noll, by gad, Noll," he cried, wringing my hand joyously. "I am glad to see you, bully-boy; I thought you were sulking in your tent like—like, you know his name, the fellow old Bloggs was always yarning about."
"Iphigenia," said I.
"Was that the chap?" he said cheerily. "And now I've got you, come along to the house. I've more to tell you than there is in all your silly old Virgil, and it's alive, man, alive, alive. That's why it suits me. Come along, Noll. Lord Brocton's supping and staying with dad, so's Sneyd, and a lot more, and you'll hear all the news. Brocton's a beast, and I'm glad I'm an officer, if it's only a cornet in his rotten dragoons. There'll be one beast less in the world, I'm thinking, before long."
"What's he done to upset you?"
"I say, Noll," was his reply, "Kate did look sweet this afternoon. I was glad to have her come and see me off to the wars. I only had a few snatches of talk with her. Brocton was for ever finding me something to do, rot him, but she did look sweet."
"All right, if she did. Never mind our Kate."
"Never mind your Kate, you barbarian, you one-eyed anthropathingamy! Oh, Noll, old friend"—there was a catch in his voice as he dragged me into the entry at the side of old Comfit's shop,—"she's your Kate now, but if I come back, I want her to be my Kate. Don't breathe a word to her, Noll, unless I never come back,—war has its risks, Noll, and I'm going to take 'em all,—but if I never come back, Noll, just tell Kate that I loved her."
A plump of townspeople yelled their way past the entry, and their torches lit up his fresh, boyish face, all alight with the enthusiasms of war and love. I clasped his hand, and we looked into each other's eyes.
"I'm glad to tell you, Noll."
"I'm glad to hear it, Jack. Come back, for Kate's sake."
The good fellow bubbled with joy at the meaning in my words, and we continued our way up the entry, intending a detour where we could talk in quiet, but before we had got out of the glare of the torches, he stopped me, looked searchingly at me and said, "Old Noll, there's more in your head now than Virgil." This confirmed my suspicion that Master Jack Dobson was learning in his way more than I had learned in mine.
"Farming," said I. "Tell me why Brocton is a beast."
"He thinks every pretty woman a butterfly for his filthy fingers to crush the beauty out of. But if he rolls his beast's tongue round one name, either he or I will want that ferryman chap. What's his name?"
"Charon," said I, forgetting to tease him.
"That's him, Charon, I'm sure you're right this time. I wasn't sure about the sulky old boy in the tent. I always thought Iphi-something was the one that got his throat—Abram and Isaac sort of tale without any ram and thicket at the end of it—but of course you'll be right."
"And what sort of dragoons are you cornet of?" I asked.
"They give me the bats, Noll. There's about two hundred town-sweepings, not worth powder and shot, who want tying on their horses, and hardly know butt from bayonet, and there's another two hundred better men, got together coming along, or in the country around Lichfield. Sneyd, a rattling good fellow, and I have tossed for stations, and when it comes to a battle he's to lead the yokels and I'm to follow behind, kicking the scum of London into the firing-line. Damn 'em. But I'll kick 'em right enough. Then there's Major Tixall—major, by gad—a slinking cut-throat, with a face the colour of pigs' liver. What he's majoring it for, Brocton and the devil alone know. The only good thing is we've got a first-rate drill sergeant. He's Brocton's toady, and for that I don't like him, but he does know his business, I must say that for him."
"Big-headed man, with a mouth slit up to his left ear?" said I, seizing the welcome opportunity.
"How the deuce do you know?" asked Jack, astonished.
"He came searching the Hanyards this afternoon for a Jacobite spy, a woman. But he didn't find her. She slipped through his fingers somehow. I understood from big-mouth that you'd caught her father. What have you done with him? Is he crow's meat yet?"
"No, for some reason or other, which is a mystery to me, Brocton sent him on with the van."
"No, farther on. Their orders are to push into Stone to-day, and Newcastle to-morrow. They ought to be in touch with the enemy there. Of course it's not certain which way they'll come, and if they come this way, Noll, mark you, we've made a mistake. We ought to have waited for 'em at Milford. We could have blown 'em to bits from the top of the hills, long before they could have got at us."
Our talk had brought us to an alley containing a side entrance to Master Dobson's fine, old, timbered house, the pride of the town and known there as the "Ancient High House." It stood on the main street of the town, which led from the bridge to the market-place. For a moment I was undecided, since I had obtained the news that mattered most, but I had only been out a short time, the rabbit-stew would not be ready, Mistress Waynflete was safe and comfortable, and might prefer to be alone, it was possible that I might learn something further—and on these grounds I decided that it would be well worth while to accept Jack's invitation. I therefore followed him into the withdrawing-room. Here I paid due courtesies to buxom Mistress Dobson and Mistress Priscilla Dobson, Jack's oldest sister, a wasp-waisted bundle of formalities, for ever curtsying and coquetting, after the London mode as she fondly imagined. My back fairly ached with answering bobs and bows before we had drunk our part of a dish of tea, which Mistress Dobson had brewed wherewith to refresh herself after the toils of hospitality, but at last I jerked my way out at Jack's heels, and we climbed to the stately barrel-roofed room where the great ones were assembled.
Horseshoe-wise round a mighty fire of logs, with a small table covered with decanters and glasses between each pair, some dozen men sat at their wine. There was, of course, Master Dobson, his meagre body all a twitter with importance, sitting in the centre of the bend, opposite the fire, whence he could survey all his guests at once, and urge them on with their carousing.
"My son returneth, my lord," he said, "with news from the worshipful the Mayor, and he hath brought with him a worthy yeoman, one Master Wheatman, who—"
"Of the Hanyards, Esquire," said I in a testy whisper.
"Ha, yes," he corrected and compromised, "Master Wheatman of the Hanyards, a loyal subject of His Gracious Majesty."
"The best friend and hardest hitter in broad Staffordshire," added Jack heartily.
I stepped into the horseshoe and made a bow general to the company, and a lower one for the benefit of my Lord Brocton, who sat next to the hearth in pride of place and comfort. Some years older than I, but not yet thirty, handsome as a god carved by Phidias, but with drink and devilment already marking him out for a damned soul, he sat there, the idol of that lord-worshipping company. The only vacant chair was on his left. It was Jack's place, earned by his father's guineas, which had remained vacant during his absence. The good lad, I record it with pride, notwithstanding a forbidding glance from his father, motioned me towards it, and fetched a glass and poured out wine for me. As I was stepping forward his lordship was good enough to address me.
"Ha, Master Wheatman of the Hanyards,"—there was a sneer in his voice, —"it is well I see thee on the right side, or, by gad and His Gracious Majesty, we'd have that other five hundred acres of yours." He tossed off a bumper of wine and added, "Or a solatium, Master Wheatman, a solatium."
I caught Jack's eye as I stepped right into the middle of the group. To my astonishment it was glowing with anger. Did he not think I could take care of myself? Really Jack was becoming mysterious, but I supposed that as I was Kate's brother he was feeling unusually interested in my welfare. For my own part I was quite comfortable, and I replied easily, "As a matter of fact, my lord, I have chosen my side expressly on account of the well-known propensities of your lordship's family."
For a full minute nothing was heard in the room but the cracking and sputtering of the fire. This was not because of what I had said, though no one present, and he least of all, could be fool enough to misunderstand it, but because of its effect on him. Then, as now, blood flowed like water on far lighter occasions than this, and Brocton, with all his faults, was a ready fighter. For once, however, his fingers did not seek his sword hilt, but fumbled with his empty glass, and his face went white as the ashes at his feet. At length he recovered himself somewhat.
"The loyal propensities of my family are well known to all men," he said.
"And its determination to profit by them," I retorted coldly, and plumped me down at his side.
Right opposite me was the rector, a gross, sack-faced, ignorant jolt-head, jowled like a pig and dew-lapped like an ox. Nature had meant him for a butcher, but, being a by-blow of a great house, a discerning patron had diverted him bishopward. In a voice husky with feeling and wine, he said, "Surely it is the part of a gracious king to reward such faithful service as that of the noble Earl of Ridgeley and my Lord Brocton."
"Decidedly, your reverence," I answered briskly, "and of others too, and if, as seems likely, the Highlanders have left a vacant deanery or two behind them, I hope your loyal services and pastoral life will be suitably rewarded with one."
Here Jack drew up another chair and I moved to make more room, so that he could sit next to Brocton, to whom he was soon detailing in eager whispers the result of his visit to the town hall. The others took up the broken links of talk, and this gave me an opportunity of inspecting the company.
There could be no doubt about the man on my left. His vicious, pimply face manifested him Major Tixall, and Mistress Margaret's shudder was easily accounted for. He turned his shoulder to me and talked to another officer, who, so far, was only in his apprenticeship at the same game. Beyond were two other officers of a wholly different stamp, and the one who smiled at me with his eyes I took to be Sir Ralph Sneyd, a young Staffordshire baronet of high repute. Then came Master Dobson, separating the military sheep from the civilian goats. There was the Friday-faced clothier and mercer, Master Allwood, strange company here since he was the elder of a dissenting congregation in the town, and therefore well separated from his reverence. The worthy mercer's dissent did not extend, so rumour had it, to the making of hard bargains, and doubtless he was for once hob-nobbing with the great in respect of his long purse rather than of his long prayers. Other townsmen, whose names I did not know or cannot recall, separated deacon from rector.
The last man in the company, sitting opposite to his lordship, was a stranger, and by far the man best worth looking at in the room. He had drawn back a little, either out of the heat of the fire or to avoid his reverence's vinous gossip as much as possible. Except that he was certainly neither soldier nor parson, and probably not a lawyer, I could make nothing of him. He had a massive head and a resolute and intelligent face. He wore no wig and his hair was grey and closely cropped. I judged him to be a man nearing sixty, but he appeared strong and vigorous. He was dressed with rich unostentation, in grey jacket and breeches, with a lighter grey, silver-buttoned waistcoat, and stockings to match.
There was only one thing to be talked about in any company in Stafford that night. What was going to happen? What of truth and substance was there in the rumours that filled all mouths? At Master Dobson's two currents of opinion ran violently in opposite directions. The soldiers on my left were of course certain that the Stuart Prince and his Highland rabble would be driven back. The towns-people opposite were equally impressed with the fact that so far he had not been driven back but had carried all before him.
Sir Ralph had been stoutly maintaining that the rebellion was hopeless. "There's no getting away from it, Sir Ralph," squeaked Master Dobson, summing up for the doubtful townsmen; "between the rebels and us this night there's not thirty miles nor three hundred men, and you've so far only got about two thousand men in Stafford. I'm as loyal a man as any in England, but there's no getting away from that."
"Nobody wants to get away from it, Master Dobson," replied Sir Ralph. "Any body of men with arms in their hands and the knack of using them, can march much farther than the Highlanders have come, if no other body of armed men stands in their way. The Stuart Prince's march will come to an end just as soon as he is opposed, and we're here to oppose him."
Master Dobson was still gloomy. "What sort of men have you got? Raw militia lads, young recruits, and newly raised dragoons form at least half of your force in Stafford."