Herbert Strang's Historical Series
WITH MARLBOROUGH TO MALPLAQUET
A Story of the Reign of Queen Anne
RICHARD STEAD Fellow of the Royal Historical Society
With Four Illustrations in Colour and a Map
NOW READY IN THIS SERIES.
WITH THE BLACK PRINCE: a Story of the Reign of Edward III. By HERBERT STRANG and RICHARD STEAD.
A MARINER OF ENGLAND: a Story of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth. By the same authors.
WITH MARLBOROUGH TO MALPLAQUET: a Story of the Reign of Queen Anne. By the same authors.
Other volumes to follow.
With Marlborough to Malplaquet
The object of this series is to encourage a taste for history among boys and girls up to thirteen or fourteen years of age. An attempt has been made to bring home to the young reader the principal events and movements of the periods covered by the several volumes.
If in these little stories historical fact treads somewhat closely upon the heels of fiction, the authors would plead the excellence of their intentions and the limitations of their space.
A BOUT AT SINGLESTICK
THE ATTACK ON THE COLLIERY
THE FIRE AT BINFIELD TOWERS
THE ROCK OF GIBRALTAR
COMRADES IN ARMS
"OUR OWN MEN, SIR!"
THE HARDEST FIGHT OF THEM ALL
A MOUNTED OFFICER CAME GALLOPING UP
"NOW!" CAME THE ORDER
GEORGE FOUND HIMSELF ENGAGED IN A HAND TO HAND ENCOUNTER
THE RESCUE OF MARLBOROUGH
MAP OF WESTERN EUROPE IN THE TIME OF QUEEN ANNE
A BOUT AT SINGLESTICK
"Get thee down, laddie, I tell thee."
This injunction, given for the third time, and in a broad north-country dialect, came from the guard of the York and Newcastle coach, a strange new thing in England. A wonderful vehicle the York and Newcastle coach, covering the eighty-six long miles between the two towns in the space of two-and-thirty hours, and as yet an object of delight, and almost of awe, to the rustics of the villages and small towns on that portion of the Great North Road.
It was the darkening of a stinging day in the latter part of December, in the year 1701—it wanted but forty-eight hours to Christmas Eve—when the coach pulled up at the principal inn of the then quiet little country town of Darlington, a place which roused itself from its general sleepiness only on market and fair days, or now, since the mail-coach had begun to run, on the arrival or departure of the marvellous conveyance, whose rattle over the cobble-stones drew every inhabitant of the main street to the door.
No reply coming from the boy on the roof, the guard went on, "Eh, but the lad must be frozen stark," and swinging himself up to the top of the coach, he seized the dilatory passenger by the arm, saying, "Now, my hearty, come your ways down; we gang na further to-day. Ye are as stiff as a frozen poker."
"And no wonder," came a voice from below; "'tis not a day fit for man or dog to be out a minute longer than necessary. Bring the bairn in, Charley." The invitation came from a kindly and portly dame, the hostess, who had come to the door to welcome such passengers as might be disposed to put up for the night at the inn.
"I don't think I can stir," the boy replied; "I'm about frozen."
He spoke in low tones and as if but half awake. He was, in fact, just dropping into a doze.
"Here, mates, catch hold," the guard cried, and without more ado the lad was lowered down to the little group of loafers who had come to see the sight and to pick up any stray penny that might be available. A minute later George Fairburn was rapidly thawing before the rousing fire in the inn's best parlour, and was gulping down the cup of hot mulled ale the good-natured landlady had put into his trembling hands.
"I'm all right, ma'am, now, and I'll go. Thank you and good night, ma'am."
"Go, Fairburn?" cried another boy of about his own age, who sat comfortably in the arm-chair by the cosy chimney corner. "Surely you are not going to turn out again this bitter night?"
"Indeed I am," was the somewhat ungracious reply; "my father is not a rich man, and I'm not going to put him to needless expense."
The other boy blushed, but the next moment his face resumed its usual pallor. He was tall for his fourteen years, but evidently not particularly strong. He had, in truth, somewhat of a bookish look, and his rounded shoulders already told of much poring over a student's tasks. Fairburn, on the other hand, though less tall, carried in his face and form all the evidence of robust good health.
"I've relatives somewhere in Darlington, Blackett," George explained, in a rather pleasanter tone, as if ashamed of his former surly speech, "and I'm going to hunt them up."
"Look here, Fairburn," said the other, springing from his seat and placing a patronizing hand on his companion's shoulder, "just make yourself comfortable here with me for the night, and I'll settle the bill for both of us in the morning." He spoke rather grandly, jingling the coins in his pocket the while.
"I can settle my own bills, thank you," answered Fairburn, a proud hot flush overspreading his face. And, seizing his little bag, the lad strode from the room and out of the inn, shivering as the chill northeasterly breeze caught him in the now dark and almost deserted street.
"Confound the fellow with his purse-proud patronage!" he muttered as he hurried along.
"Bless me, why is he so touchy?" Blackett was asking himself at the same moment. "We seem fated to quarrel, Fairburn's family and ours. Whose is the pride now, I wonder! Fairburn thinks a deal of his independence, as he calls it; I should call it simply pride, myself. But I might have known that he wouldn't accept my offer after his refusal of an inside place with me this morning, and after riding all those miles from York to-day in the bitter cold. Heigh-ho, the quarrel won't be of my seeking anyhow."
These two lads were both sons of colliery owners, and both pupils of the ancient school of St. Peter of York, the most notable foundation north of the Humber. But there the likeness ended. Matthew Blackett's father was a rich man and descended from generations of rich men. He owned a large colliery and employed many men and not a few ships. He was, moreover, a county magnate, and held his head high on Tyneside. In politics he was a strong supporter of the Tory party, and had never been easy under the rule of Dutch William. He was proud and somewhat arrogant, yet not wanting his good points. George Fairburn, on the other hand, was the son of a much smaller man, of one, in truth, who had by his energy and thrift become the proprietor of a small pit, of which he himself acted as manager. The elder Fairburn was of a sturdy independent character, his independence, however, sometimes asserting itself at the expense of his manners; that at least was the way Mr. Blackett put it. Fairburn had been thrown much in his boyhood among the Quakers, of which new sect there were several little groups in the northern counties. He was a firm Whig, and as firm a hater of the exiled James II. He had made some sacrifice to send his boy to a good school, being a great believer in education, at a time when men of his class were little disposed to set much store by book learning.
After breakfast by candlelight next morning the passengers for the coach assembled at the door of the inn. Blackett was already comfortably seated among his many and ample rugs and wraps when George Fairburn appeared, accompanied by a woman who made an odd figure in an ancient cloak many sizes too big for her, covering her from head to foot. It had, in fact, originally been a soldier's cloak, and had seen much hard service in the continental campaigns under William III. The good dame was very demonstrative in her affection, and kissed George again and again on both cheeks, with good sounding smacks, ere she would let him mount to the roof of the coach. Then she stood by the window and talked volubly in a rich northern brogue till the vehicle started, and even after, for George could see her gesticulations when he was far out of earshot.
"It is bitter cold, bairn," she had said for the third or fourth time, "and I doubt thou wilt be more dead than alive when thy father sees thee at Newcastle. But don't forget that pasty; 'tis good, for I made it myself. And there's the sup of summat comforting in the little bottle; don't forget that."
"Good-bye, aunt, and thank you over and over again," George called from the top of the coach. "Don't stay any longer in the freezing cold. I'm all right."
But the talkative and kindly old dame would not budge, and Blackett could not help smiling quietly in his corner. "What a curious old rustic!" he said to himself, "and she's the aunt, it appears." As for George himself, he was thinking much the same thing. "A good soul," he murmured to himself, "but, oh, so countrified!"
Fairburn's limbs were pretty stiff by the time the grand old cathedral and the castle of Durham standing proudly on their cliff above the river came in sight. There was an unwonted stir in the streets of the picturesque little city. My lord the bishop with a very great train was coming for the Christmas high services.
"Our bishop is a prince," explained the guard, who had had not a little talk with George on the way. "There are squires and baronets and lords in his train, and as for his servants and horses, why—" the good fellow spread out his hands in his sheer inability to describe the magnificence of the bishops of Durham.
"Yes," Fairburn made answer, "and I've heard or read that when a new bishop first comes to the see he is met at Croft bridge by all the big men of the county, who do homage to him as if he were a king."
The guard stared at a youngster, an outside and therefore a poor passenger too, who appeared so well informed, and then applied himself vigorously to his horn.
The afternoon was fast waning when the coach brought to its passengers the first glimpse of the blackened old fortress of Newcastle and the lantern tower of St. Nicholas. Fairburn, almost as helpless as on the previous afternoon, was speedily lifted down from his lofty perch by the strong arms of his father.
"Ah, my dear lad," the elder cried as he hugged George to his breast, "the mother has a store of good things ready for her bairn and for Christmas. And here is old Dapper ready to jog back with us and to his own Christmas Eve supper. How do you do, sir?"
These last words were addressed to a gentleman who had just driven up in a well-appointed family equipage.
"I hope I see young Mr. Blackett well," Fairburn continued.
"Ah! 'tis you, Mr. Fairburn," said the great man condescendingly. "This is your boy? Looks a trifle cold, don't you think? 'Tis bitter weather for travelling outside."
And with the curtest possible nod to the father, and no recognition whatever of the son, Mr. Blackett linked his arm in Matthew's and strode away to his carriage.
George flushed, his father looked annoyed; then his face cleared.
"Come, lad," he said, "let us get along home."
Thursday, Christmas Day, and the Friday following passed quietly but happily in the little Fairburn family. The father was in excellent spirits, and he had much to tell his son of the prosperity that was at last coming. Orders were being booked faster than the modest staff of the colliery could execute them. Best of all, Fairburn had secured several important contracts with London merchants; this, too, against the competition of the great Blackett pit.
"The truth is," the elder explained, "Mr. Blackett is too big a man, and too easy-going to attend to his business as he should. But I suppose he's rich enough and can afford to be a trifle slack."
"Whereas my dad has energy and to spare," George put in with a smile, "and by that energy is taking the business out of the hands of the bigger man. The Blacketts won't be exactly pleased with us, eh?"
"They are not. And, more, I hear the Blackett pit is working only short time; it is more than likely that several of the men will have to be discharged soon, and then will come more soreness."
"We can't help that, dad," the boy commented, "it's a sort of war, this business competition, it seems to me, and all is fair in love and war, as the saying goes."
"True, my lad; yet I'm a peaceable man, and would fain enter into no quarrels."
On the Saturday afternoon a neighbour brought word up to the house that there was some sort of a squabble going on down at the river side.
"Better run along and see what is the matter, George," said the mother. "Father's gone to the town and won't be back till supper time."
So the boy pulled on his cap, twisted a big scarf about his neck, and made off to the Tyne, nearly a mile away.
He found a tremendous hubbub on the wharf, men pulling and struggling and cursing and fighting in vigorous fashion. What might be the right or the wrong of the quarrel, George did not know, and he had not time to inquire before he too was mixed up in the fray. The first thing that met his eye, in truth, was one of the crew of the Fairburn collier brig lying helpless on his back and at the mercy of a fellow who was showing him no favour, but was pounding away at the upturned face with one of his fists, whilst with the other hand he held a firm grip of his prostrate foeman.
"Let him get up, coward!" the lad shouted as he rushed to the spot. "Let him get up, I tell you, and fight it out fair and square."
The fellow was by no means disposed to give up the advantage he had obtained, however, and redoubled the vigour of his blows.
He was a strong thickset collier, not an easy man to tackle; but without more ado George flung himself at the bully, and toppled him over, the side of his head coming into violent collision with the rough planks of the landing-stage.
"Up with you, Jack!" George cried, and, seizing the hand of the prostrate sailor, he jerked him to his feet. Jack, however, was of little more use when he had been helped up, and staggered about in a dazed and aimless sort of way. He was, in truth, almost blind, his eyes scarce visible at all, so severe had been his punishment, while his face streamed with blood.
Meanwhile his antagonist had jumped to his feet, his face black with coaldust and distorted with fury.
"Two on ye!" he yelled with an oath, "then I must fend for myself," and he seized a broken broom handle that was lying near.
"A game of singlestick is it?" George replied gleefully, as he made a successful grab at another stick a couple of yards away. It was the handle of a shovel; there were several broken tools lying about the quay.
"Come on," said the boy, brandishing his short but heavy weapon, "this is quite in my line, I can tell you!"
It was a curious sight as the two rushed upon each other, so unequal did the antagonists seem. Bill, the collier, was tall as well as strongly built, and in the very prime of life; while George, though a sturdy lad for his age, was many inches shorter, and appeared at first sight an absurdly inadequate foeman.
In a moment the sticks were clattering merrily together, the lad hesitating not a whit, for he felt sure that he was at least a match for the other. George Fairburn had ever been an adept at all school games, and had spent many a leisure hour at singlestick. In vain did Bill endeavour to bring down his stick with furious whack upon the youngster's scalp; his blow was unfailingly parried. It was soon evident to the man that the boy was playing with him, and when twice or thrice he received a rap on his shoulder, his arm, his knuckles even, his fury got quite beyond his control, and he struck out blindly and viciously, forcing the lad backwards towards the edge of the wharf.
But Fairburn was not to be taken in that style. Slipping agilely out of the way, he planted another blow, this time on his opponent's head. In a trice Bill threw down his cudgel and, raising his heavy boot, endeavoured to administer a vicious kick. It was time to take to more effective tactics, and while the man's leg was poised in the air, George put in a thwack that made his skull resound, and threw him quite off his already unstable balance. Bill fell to the ground and lay there stunned, a roar of laughter hailing the exploit, with shouts of, "Thrashed by a lad; that's a grand come off for Bill Hutchinson!"
George now had time to look about him. He found that the enemy, whoever they might be, had been beaten off, and the crew of the Fairburn brig was in possession of the landing-stage.
"What is it all about, Jack?" he inquired of the man to whose rescue he had come.
"Why," returned Jack, "they are some of Blackett's men. They tried to shove us from our berth here, after we had made fast, and bring in their big schooner over there. Some of 'em are vexed, 'cos 'tis said there'll be no work for 'em soon. Your father's taking a lot of Blackett's trade, you see."
"Did they begin, Jack, or did you?"
"Begin? Why, it was a kind of mixed-up job, I reckon. We'd both had a drop of Christmas ale, you see—a drop extra, I mean—and—why, there it was."
"Well, you'll be sailing for London in a day or two," said George. "See that you keep out of the way of Blackett's men, or you'll find yourself in the lock-up and lose your place."
Then he walked away.
Mr. Fairburn was annoyed when he heard of the incident.
"I don't like it, George," he said. "There's no reason why there should be bad blood between Blackett's men and mine; but if they are going to make disturbances like this I shall have to take serious steps, and the coolness between Blackett and me will become an open enmity. 'As much as lieth in you,' says the Apostle, 'live peaceably with all men;' but there's a limit, and if Mr. Blackett can't keep his men in order, it will come to a fight between us."
The brig started in a couple of days for London, in fulfilment of an important contract that had for years fallen to Mr. Blackett, but now had been placed in the hands of his humbler but more energetic rival. Its departure was hailed by the shouts and threats of a gang of pitmen from the Blackett colliery, but nothing like another fight occurred, thanks to the vigilance of Fairburn the elder.
THE ATTACK ON THE COLLIERY
Not often has Europe been in a greater state of unrest than it was at the time this story opens. James II, the exiled King of England, had lately died in his French home, and his son, afterwards famous as the Old Pretender, had been acknowledged as the new English king by Louis XIV of France, to the joy of the many Jacobites England still contained, but to the dismay of the majority of Englishmen. There was likely to be dire trouble also respecting the vacant throne of Spain. There had been originally three candidates for the throne of the weakling Charles, not long dead—Philip of Anjou, whose claims had the powerful support of his grandfather, the ambitious Louis; Charles, the second son of the Emperor Leopold of Austria; and Joseph, the Electoral Prince of Bavaria. But the last mentioned had died, leaving the contest to Philip and Charles, the French and Austrian claimants. The rest of Europe was naturally in alarm when the already too-powerful Louis actually placed his grandson on the Spanish throne. Practically the step amounted on the part of France to an annexation of the once predominant kingdom of Spain with all its appanages. And when the Grand Monarque, as his flatterers called him, proceeded further to garrison the strongholds of the Netherlands, then a Spanish province, with his own troops, it was clear that Louis considered himself King both of France and Spain. As for the Protestants of Europe, their very existence seemed to be threatened by the designs of the French sovereign.
Who was there, then, to withstand the ambitious and arrogant Louis? There was but one great and effective opponent, William of Orange, King of England. He had spent his life in thwarting the ambitious policy of the French monarch, and so long as William lived Louis was sure of a vigorous and powerful antagonist. And William was preparing, in both his English and his Dutch dominions, for yet another conflict. War was indeed imminent; the sole question being when it would actually break out, and who would be ruler over England when it did. For William III was in feeble health; his death might occur any day, and his crown pass to his sister-in-law Anne. Such was the condition of affairs at the time George Fairburn left St. Peter's School at York.
January brought many new orders for the Fairburn pit, and the owner had work for more men. So greatly was his business increasing, that the proprietor of the little colliery came to a decision that seemed likely to affect his son's whole future life.
"What would you like to be, my lad?" he one day inquired abruptly.
"A soldier, dad," was the prompt reply, the boy regarding his father in some wonderment, nevertheless.
"A soldier, says the lad!" Fairburn exclaimed, no less surprised by the answer than George had been by the question. "It is the most detestable of all trades, that of soldiering, and about the most empty-stomached. Don't talk of such a thing, my good lad."
In vain George entered into a defence of the military profession, referring to the many great soldiers with whom his school readings in the histories of Greece and Rome and England had made him more or less acquainted. Fairburn was not to be charmed, and with a deep sigh the boy gave up the contest. He was still more upset when his father proceeded to tell him that he would not return to St. Peter's, but would remain at home to assist in the business till a place could be secured for him in some great London house.
It was not a task he cared about; anybody could have done it, he thought, as he entered the weights on little tickets. But George had a large fund of common sense and a deep respect for his father. He did not grumble or sulk, but resolved that as he had to do the work he would do it thoroughly.
Half an hour later he started and flushed to see Mr. Blackett and Matthew, both well mounted, and followed by a groom in livery, come riding by. He trusted they would not notice him at his dusty and disagreeable task. Alas! the field path they were pursuing led close past the spot, and George observed the look of surprise on their faces when they saw him. The father gave no sign of recognition; Matthew looked uncomfortable and nodded in a shamefaced kind of way. George flushed, and for a moment felt a bitter anger surge within him; then he called himself a dolt for caring a straw what they thought of him. It was a little hard, however, to think that Matthew Blackett would be going back to his beloved school and studies, while he, also a Peterite, was engaged in such a humdrum task as weighing coal at the pit mouth.
His father's energy at this time was prodigious. Fairburn was afoot early and late. In spite of the cold and stormy weather of winter he made two or three trips to London in his collier brig, always to report on his return a notable addition to his trade. Once, too, on his homeward voyage, he had had himself put ashore a little north of Spurn, and had trudged the five and twenty miles to Hull, the rising port on the east coast. Then, after appointing an agent and starting what seemed likely to grow into a big business, he had tramped the hundred and twenty miles or more that separated him from Newcastle and his home, cutting a quaint figure on the road, with his old-fashioned hat and cloak, and his much-twisted and knotty oak stick. The result of all this energy was that when he was in a joking mood he would say, "We shall have to see about buying another pit, mother—Blackett's, perhaps, as I hear they have little going on there at present."
And indeed the Blackett colliery did at that time seem to be under a cloud. Trade fell off, and almost every week hands were discharged. Fairburn was secretly a little afraid of mischief from these out-of-works, especially when he himself was absent from home.
Towards the end of February England was startled by the news that King William had been thrown from his favourite steed Sorrel, at Hampton Court, and was lying in a precarious state, his collar-bone broken. A week or two later came the tidings of William's death, and of the proclamation of the Princess Anne as Queen.
The news had an extraordinary effect on Mr. Blackett. Ordering his coach, he drove in haste to his colliery, hoisted a big flag there, proclaimed a holiday on full pay, and sent for a copious supply of ale. His son Matthew, who had not gone back to school at York, amused himself and the men by firing unnumbered salvoes from a couple of small cannon he possessed.
"Now that Billy the Dutchman is out of the way," Squire Blackett cried exultingly, "Whiggery will soon be dead, and England will be ruled by its rightful sovereign, who will be assisted by lords and gentlemen of sound policy."
A huge banner was hoisted, and the Squire and his son headed a procession to the neighbouring villages. The jubilant colliery owner and his merry men took care to pass the Fairburn pit, with frantic cheerings and hallooings.
"What does it all mean?" George, who was in charge in the absence of his father, inquired of the old overlooker of the colliery.
"It means beer, George," the ancient replied, "beer and froth, and nothing else."
"Nothing else! I hope that is a true word, Saunders, that's all. I mislike the looks of some of those fellows."
"Why, to judge from all the whispers we hear," the overlooker commented, "we are like enough to get our backs well hazelled before long."
George gave a word of caution to the pitmen when they left work that afternoon.
"There are sure to be insults," he said, "but take no notice, and keep out of harm's way."
But the fates were against George and his pit that day. Hardly had the little gang of Fairburn colliers turned the corner of the lane when they were met by an excited mob carrying a huge sheet on which was rudely printed in big characters, "Down with all Whigs!"
"An insult to the gaffer, that's as plain as the nose on a man's face," cried one of the Fairburn fellows, and without more ado, he dashed forward and made a grab at the offending canvas. He was forestalled, however, a man of the opposing party deftly tripping him up and sending him sprawling into the mud. Before the unlucky pitman could rise the whole mob had surged over him, amidst shrieks of laughter.
On this the Fairburn men threw all George's cautions to the winds, and charged the mob. Instantly a hot fight was going on around the big banner. Even old Saunders, the overlooker, caught one of the opposition gang by the collar, crying, "Ye loons, what for are ye coming our way again? Ye ha' been once to-day, wi' your jibes and jeers; isn't that enough?"
"Jibes and jeers, old lad! Eh, there'll happen be mair than that afore bedtime."
Meanwhile there was rough work around the banner. In spite of the efforts of the bearers and their friends to protect the canvas, one of the Fairburn men had got a grip of it, and in a second the thing had been torn from its supporting poles, amid mingled cheers and execrations. The canvas itself was pulled hither and thither by the opposing gangs, each striving to retain possession of it. Bit by bit the banner was torn to pieces, the men fighting savagely for even the smallest shred of it, each man pocketing his piece as a trophy, till at length there was nothing of the thing left visible.
Cries of, "On to the pit wi' ye, lads!" were by this time plentiful, and with a dash the now much augmented mob surged in that direction. Under old Saunders the Fairburn men disputed every yard of the way, but they were entirely outnumbered, and were slowly but surely forced back upon the works they had so recently left. All had happened in the course of a very few minutes.
George, on his way to his home, some half mile away, had made scarce half the distance when his ears were assailed by the noise of conflict somewhere behind him. He stopped and listened, the yells growing louder and fiercer every instant. Then he darted back towards the pit, reaching the spot just in time to see his men make a dash for the shelter of the sheds around the mouth, followed by a howling, threatening mob.
In a moment the youngster sprang through the entrance of the largest of the sheds, and closed the door, shooting home the two thick rough bars of wood that did duty for bolts, amid shouts from his men of "The young gaffer! We'll all stick to him!" And in spite of his youth, George was at once installed as captain of the little Fairburn band. He had always been highly popular with the men of the colliery; they liked his entire freedom from vain show and swagger, and his pleasant-spoken manner.
"What have we in the way of weapons, lads?" he asked, taking a hasty glance round the dimly-lit shed. Darkness was coming on apace even outside; within the shed the men had to grope their way about.
There was very little that would serve, except a number of pickaxes, a few shovels, and two or three hayforks belonging to the stables. These were served out, and then one man found the master's gun, with a powder-flask and a handful of sparrow shot.
"Better let me have that," said George, quietly relieving the man of the weapon, the old overlooker approving with a "Aye, that's right; you'll keep a cooler head than Tom there."
The mob outside surged down on the door in force, and with loud yells. The door stood the shock, and the major part of the attackers in a trice turned their attention to the smaller buildings dotted here and there about the pit's mouth. One by one these sheds were pulled to pieces, to the ever-increasing delight of the mob. George and his men were powerless to stop the destruction.
"We must not venture out," the boy said, "unless the scoundrels turn their attention to the windlasses and the gear."
So his men had to grind their teeth in rage and look on helplessly.
As was expected, the rioters presently came back to the big shed, one of them, evidently the leader, advancing with a felling-axe.
"Keep back, rascal!" shouted George. "Keep from the door, or I'll put a few peppercorns into your hide."
From a chink in the door George recognized him as the very man he had so unceremoniously knocked from his perch and so merrily battered in the bout of singlestick that day on the landing-stage.
The fellow answered with a curse and lifted his axe to stave in the door. Before the weapon could descend a report rang out in the twilight, and with a scream the attacker sprang from the ground, and then fell to rubbing his legs vigorously.
"One on 'em peppered," remarked old Saunders grimly.
The crowd outside fell back in haste, and a burly fellow at that instant appearing on the scene with a small cask of ale on his shoulder, a diversion was caused. The fight was transferred to the circle round the ale barrel, the already half-crazy fellows struggling desperately to get at the liquor.
"By Jupiter!" cried George, seeing his opportunity in a moment, "now is our chance! Let them get fully occupied and we have them. Let them once return and they will be madder and more reckless than ever."
And seizing every man his weapon, the little party in the shed prepared to sally forth, old Saunders whispering to his next neighbour, "The lad is a game 'un, if ever I saw one."
Just as George was preparing to draw the bolts he caught sight of young Blackett. His old schoolfellow was haranguing the men, gesticulating violently, and pointing excitedly towards the large shed. Matthew had in reality just heard of the fray, and had at once run up to do what he could to stop it. But George Fairburn did not know this. "The knave!" he exclaimed, beside himself with anger, "he's the very ringleader of the party! He's kept himself till now in the background. But he shall pay for his pains!"
Flinging back the bars, George dashed forth upon the ale-drinking group his little band following at his heels. With a shout they swooped down upon the foe, and in an instant a score of heads were broken, the luckless owners flung in all directions around the cask. One of the prostrate ones held the spigot in his hand, and the remainder of the liquor bubbled itself merrily to the ground.
So utterly unprepared were the fellows for the onset, and so mauled were they in the very first rush, that a general alarm was raised. In the darkening they imagined themselves surrounded by a strong reinforcement of the Fairburn party, and at once there was a wild stampede from the premises. Men and hobbledehoys stumbled off in hot haste, pursued by the victorious handful under George.
Not that George himself gave any heed to all this. At the very first he had dashed to the spot where Matthew Blackett was excitedly shouting to the rioters.
"Coward!" cried Fairburn, "to set on your scoundrelly fellows—"
"Set on the fellows!" Matthew began in amazement, but he got no farther.
"Up with your fists!" cried George, "and we will see which is the better man!"
There was no time for explanations, though young Blackett opened his mouth to speak. He had in truth but time to throw up his hands to ward off George's vigorous blow, and the next moment the fight was in full swing. Matthew was no coward, and once in for warm work, he played his part manfully. At it the two boys went, each hitting hard, and both coming in for a considerable share of pummelling. For a time none heeded them, every man having enough to do in other quarters. But at length they were surrounded by a small group of the Fairburn men who had now driven off the enemy and remained masters of the field.
Once or twice, when the two stopped a moment to recover breath, Matthew opened his mouth again to make an explanation, but as often his pride held him back, and he said nothing. So the fight went on.
How long this fierce duel might have lasted it is hard to say. But just as the boys were almost at the end of their strength there was an effective interruption. It was time, for both combatants were heavily punished. They had not been so ill-matched as one might at first sight have suspected. George was the stronger and harder fellow, but Matthew had the advantage in the matter of height, and more particularly in length of arm, which enabled him to get in a blow when his opponent's fell short; though the less robust of the two he had as much pluck as pride, and would have fought on to the last gasp.
The sound of clattering hoofs was heard, and, from opposite quarters, two horsemen dashed up. They were Mr. Blackett and the elder Fairburn.
THE FIRE AT BINFIELD TOWERS
The fight stopped even more suddenly than it had begun, and the two combatants stood away from each other, with hanging heads but with fists still clenched.
Fairburn took a glance around on the destruction, a thing he was able to do by the glare from some burning wreckage which had now got well into a blaze. Then his eyes wandered down to the two boys with their bruised and bleeding countenances, and finally up into Mr. Blackett's face.
"So this is the kind of thing your Tory and your Jacobite is capable of!" he remarked with stinging scorn to his richer rival.
"Don't you think, Mr. Fairburn," answered the Squire with dignified calmness, restraining himself marvellously well, "don't you think that instead of vilifying a cause as far above your comprehension as the majority of its advocates are above you in breeding, in education, in station, it would be more sensible to give me your help in attending to these poor misguided fellows lying wounded on all sides?"
Fairburn winced; his rival had certainly the advantage in the controversy, and none knew it better than the two boys. George did not fail to observe the little flush of satisfaction that for an instant lit up his antagonist's countenance, and, like his father, he too winced.
However, not another needless word was said, while the two men and their sons, with the help of some of the Fairburn colliers who were still on the spot, gave attention to the wounded and extinguished the burning rubbish. Then the Blacketts, father and son, raising their hats to the Fairburns, took their departure.
It may well be supposed that this series of unhappy incidents did not tend to narrow the breach between the two colliery owners and their people. Fairburn, unlike his old self, was greatly incensed, and talked much of prosecutions and so forth. But nothing came of it, the man's sound native sense presently leading him to adopt George's opinion. Said the boy, "Where would be the good, father? Their side got most of the broken heads anyhow, and that's enough for us." It was a youngster's view of the case, but it had its merits.
So Fairburn grumbled and rebuilt his few wrecked sheds, his grumblings dying out as the work proceeded. George's own thoughts were bitter enough, however, so far as Matthew Blackett was concerned. He could not get it out of his head that the young squire, as the folks around styled Matthew, was at the bottom of the riot and indeed secretly its ringleader.
A month or two passed away, and spring came. One day the elder Fairburn, on his return from London in his collier, made a great announcement.
"I've got you a grand place, my lad," he said. "It is in the office of Mr. Allan, one of the finest shipping-merchants in London. 'Tis a very great favour, and will be the making of you, if you prove to be the lad I take you to be. You are now fifteen, and it is time you went from home to try your fortune; in fact, you'll be all the better away from here—for certain reasons I need not go into. You are a lucky lad, George,—I wish I had had half your chance when I was in my teens."
The son knew very well from his father's tone and manner that it was useless to argue the matter with him. To London he would have to go, and he prepared to face the unwelcome prospect like a man.
Yet, to add to his chagrin and disappointment, there came to him just at that time the news that young Blackett was proposing to enter the army as soon as he was old enough. The Squire was anxious that his son should have a commission, and as he was wealthy, and his party was now decidedly winning in the political race, there would not only be no difficulties in Matthew's way, but a fine prospect of advancement for the youth.
"Who would have thought that that lanky weakling would choose a soldier's trade!" George Fairburn said to himself. "I had quite expected him to go to Oxford and become either a barrister or a bishop. He's a lucky fellow! And I—I am—well, never mind; it's silly to go on in this way. I don't like Blackett, but I am bound to confess he's got good fighting stuff in him."
When William III was on his deathbed he is reported to have said, "I see another scene, and could wish to live a little longer." His keen political foresight was soon confirmed. It was in March, 1702, he died; in the May of the same year war was proclaimed, the combination of powers known as the Grand Alliance on the one side, Louis XIV, the Grand Monarque, on the other. The nations belonging to the Grand Alliance were at first England, Holland, and the Empire; at later dates Sweden, Denmark, and most of the States of Germany came in, a strong league. But it was needed. Louis was the most powerful sovereign in Europe, and France the richest nation. To its resources were added those of Spain and her dependencies; for the most part, at any rate, for there were portions even of Spain which would have preferred the Archduke Charles to Philip of France, and it was the cause of Charles that England and the other members of the Alliance were espousing. Thus began the war known in history as the War of the Spanish Succession, which for several years gave work to some of the most remarkable generals in European story.
Of these great soldiers, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, or rather, as he was at the outbreak of the war, the Earl of Marlborough, was at once the most gifted with military genius and the most successful. He was now fifty-two years of age, and one of the leading men at the Court of Queen Anne. He had seen a fair amount of military service, and had earned the praise of William III, a judge of the first order in such matters. But the England of that day could not be blamed if it failed to foresee the brilliancy of fame with which its general would ere long surround himself.
He was known as a brave and an able officer, not much more, except that he was known also to be a great miser. His wife, Sarah Jennings, now the Countess of Marlborough, was in high favour with the new Queen; indeed, she was at that time the most influential subject in the kingdom.
To Marlborough, then, was given the command of the combined English and Dutch forces.
It needs no telling that the declaration of war, a war in which the greater part of Europe would most likely be involved, caused no small consternation among those whose business was with the sea and with shipping. Fairburn's business necessitated that his single brig should be constantly running to and from London, and it was early rumoured that French cruisers and privateers were prowling about the North Sea and the Channel. A schooner of considerable size, belonging to Squire Blackett, had, indeed, been chased, off the Norfolk coast, and had escaped only by the fact that it was lightly laden—it was returning in ballast to the Tyne—and by its superior sailing qualities. Such things brought home to every collier the realities of the situation. George's mother grew alarmed.
"Who knows," said the good woman, "whether the same Frenchman may not still be on the watch, and seize the Ouseburn Lassie and her cargo; and, worse than all, my dear boy on board of her?"
Her husband was not without his fears either, but George laughed at the notion of capture by a French vessel.
"I'll go and have a talk with old Abbott, the skipper," he said, "and see what he thinks about it."
"Well, George, my lad," the old salt said when the boy questioned him on the point, "it's like this. It's not impossible we may get a Frenchy down on us. But we shan't strike our colours if there's the least chance of doing anything by a bit of fighting. The master's a man of peace, but between you and me"—the old fellow sank his voice to a whisper—"I've got stowed away, unbeknown to him, four tidy little guns; real beauties they are, if small. You shall help me to use 'em on the Mounseers, if they won't leave us alone."
To a lad of George Fairburn's stamp such a prospect was glorious. "I'm quite ready to go, mother," he announced, "on the brig's very next trip." Mother and father made no reply, but the former turned away to hide her tears. The lad must go and begin his new life. For a few days all was bustle and preparation, George in the seventh heaven of delight. The long voyage in a grimy and uncomfortable collier had no terrors for him; he was too much accustomed to coal dust for that. And was there not a chance that before the Thames was reached he might see a brush with a Frenchman?
The last evening at home for him came, and he took a stroll to get a final look at the familiar surroundings. It was now the very heart of summer, the weather glorious: could any boy be sad at such a time, even though there was before him the parting from home, from an indulgent and much-loved mother, from a just and honourable as well as affectionate father? George whistled and sang as he wandered across the fields, careless whither his footsteps led him.
As fate would have it, he was proceeding generally in the direction of Mr. Blackett's great house, Binfield Towers, a mansion almost entirely hidden by thick woods from the public gaze. George knew these woods well, with their acres of bluebells and their breadths of primroses in the Spring, and their wealth of dogroses in June. He turned into the footpath that crossed the plantations, and presently found himself gazing at the mansion a hundred yards away. The place was almost new, the style that was known in later days as Queen Anne's. But George knew nothing of architectural styles, and was idly counting the multitude of windows when he was startled by a cracked old voice calling to him from the other side of the fence that separated the wood from the grassplots in front of the house.
"For God's sake, come along and help, my good lad," cried an old man in livery, beckoning him frantically.
"What's the matter?" George asked quickly.
"The house is on fire," was the reply, "and there's nobody at home but the women folk, except old Reuben, and he's just about as much use as me, and that's none at all, I reckon."
"Where's Mr. Blackett?" the lad asked as he cleared the fence at a bound, and stood by the old man's side on the lawn.
"Gone off to a party, and young Master Matthew with him. Run and do what you can, for Heaven's sake, and I'll follow."
George bounded across the grass like a hare, and bolted into the house without ceremony, for he now perceived smoke issuing from several of the front windows. In the hall he found old Reuben, the aged butler, whom Mr. Blackett still provided with a home, doing what he could to stay the progress of the flames, by throwing upon the burning staircase little pailfuls of water brought by the maid servants. But, in truth most of the women were screaming, and those who were not were fainting.
"I'm almost moidered with it all," the old fellow cried helplessly, to which the superannuated gardener, who now came wheezing in, added, "Aye, we're both on us moidered."
George glanced at the futile old couple, then cast his eye upwards, to the various stretches of the grand staircase which could be seen from the well below. Almost every length of the banisters was blazing, and the cracked and broken skylight above caused a fierce upward draught.
"It's at the top the water should be poured down," George cried, taking in the situation in an instant. "I'll see if I can get up." And in spite of the shouts of the old fellows, and the redoubled shrieks of the maids, the lad skipped up two or three of the flights that zigzagged up the staircase well.
At the second floor, however, he was almost overwhelmed by a great mass of smoke mingled with flame that shot suddenly out of the long corridor running right and left. Blinded, choked, scorched, George staggered back, tripped, and with a clatter fell down the six or eight steps he had mounted of that flight, and lay for a moment on the broad carpeted landing half-dazed. But speedily recovering himself, he perceived that the portion of the stairs from which he had just fallen was now blazing fiercely.
"It is useless!" he cried to himself, as he turned to descend to the servants below.
Then, before he had made two steps agonizing shrieks rang out from somewhere above, and he stopped dead, almost appalled.
"Miss Mary and Mrs. Maynard!" he heard the old men shout from below, and the cries of the women servants grew frantic, as the little band gazed terror-stricken upwards. George, too, cast his eyes aloft, and there, to his utter dismay, were dimly seen through the smoke a couple of female forms peeping from the topmost corridor.
He knew well enough by sight Mr. Blackett's little daughter of eleven and her governess, a stately old lady, said to be an impoverished relative of the Squire himself. The little pony chaise in which the two were wont to drive about the neighbourhood was, indeed, familiar to every soul in the district.
"We had forgotten them, we had forgotten them!" came a voice just below him, and there stood old Reuben, who had pulled himself up the steps a little way. "They are lost!" the aged servant moaned. "Oh dear, oh dear!" And the poor old fellow blundered down the steps again, weeping like a child.
"Is there any other staircase up to the top of the house?" the boy called after him.
"Only that in the servants' wing," was the reply, "and that is gone already. God help us all!"
"Any long ladders about? And the stablemen, where are they all?"
"Coachman with the Squire, the grooms gone off to the town for an hour or two." Reuben shook his head sorrowfully.
George waited no longer. With a bound he darted up the stairs again, and in a moment had reached the spot where the fire was fiercest. Without hesitation he dashed on, watching his chance after a big gust of smoke and flame had surged across the well. Through the fire he rushed, protecting his face with his arms, and stumbling blindly on. The worst was soon passed, and the next instant he had gained the top of the staircase.
"Save her—her!" Mrs. Maynard cried piteously, "leave me, and see to her, for mercy's sake!"
George caught the girl in his arms and prepared to make a dash down the staircase. But he drew back in dismay. A big piece of the burning banister below them fell with a crash and a shower of sparks to the bottom of the well.
"It is impossible!" he cried. "Let us see what can be done from one of the windows." And the three ran to the end of the corridor farthest away from the fire. Into a room George dashed, and threw up the window. It was Mary's playroom, and it was in this place that she and her governess had been till now too much frightened by the flames and smoke to make a dash for safety.
Alas! there was no way of escape. The height from the ground was too great; to leap meant certain death. George gazed frantically down and around, to see if any help was arriving. Not a soul was to be seen. Smoke was pouring from almost every window. The ladies were speechless with alarm when they saw the look of despair on the boy's face.
"Don't leave us!" Mary pleaded piteously.
"No, no!" cried George. "We'll find a way yet." But cheerfully as he spoke, in his heart he almost despaired.
It was but a few seconds the three had been in the playroom, but when they looked out into the corridor again, to their horror they found it blazing, the flames leaping towards them with astonishing bounds, carried along by the evening breeze that had sprung up. The sight seemed to drive Mrs. Maynard demented. With a shriek she darted away, sped along the burning passage, and before the boy and girl could realize the situation, she had dashed down the blazing staircase. The sound of a crash and a fearful scream reached their ears, telling their own tale. The girl clung to George, her head sank, and she fainted.
Desperate now, the lad placed her on the floor, and, thrusting his head from the window, perceived that he could clamber up the two or three feet of rain spout that ran close by, and gain a position on the roof just overhead. If he could gain that, he thought he might run to a further wing of the building that seemed at present untouched by the fire. But the girl, what of her? He cast his eyes about and descried two or three skipping ropes in a corner. Hastily he tied them end to end, fastened a portion round Mary's waist, his movements hastened by the burst of flame that just then shot into the room. Then clambering desperately to the roof, the rope in his teeth, he got a footing on the parapet, and began to haul up the fainting girl.
Hand over hand he hauled up the cord and its burden. The child was dangling between earth and sky when suddenly a great shout came from below. George glanced down, and there, running with up-turned horror-stricken face, was Matthew Blackett. Help at last! But had it come too late?
Matthew stopped short, unable to move a yard further, his eyes fixed upon the slight form hanging so dangerously high above him. It was truly an awful moment for both the lads, a moment never afterwards to be forgotten by either of them. The time of suspense was but seconds; it seemed years. But George, his knees firmly pressed against the low parapet wall that ran along the top in front of the house, had no difficulty in supporting the weight, and not too much in actually hauling up his living burden. Another moment and he had seized one arm with a strong grip; the next he had pulled the child to him on the roof.
"Safe! thank God!" he murmured, almost breathless with his exertions and still more with his agitation.
Safe! As if to mock him a great tongue of flame shot from the window from which rescuer and rescued had but now emerged, and a cry of despair rose from Matthew below.
"Run for the library!" Blackett shouted, a thought suddenly striking him. "Run, run!" And the boy pointed to a sort of wing, an addition to the mansion recently made by the Squire, and devoted to his books and the extensive and valuable collection of antiquities and curiosities of which he was very proud. This building was connected with the body of the house by only one small arched door, on the ground-floor.
George understood, and cautiously but rapidly edging his way along the broad leaden gutter behind the parapet, he drew the girl, by this time conscious once more, but dazed with fright, to the outlying portion of the roof, which was as yet untouched by the flames. He peered over for Matthew, but could see nothing of him.
For the moment the two were in no danger. But the flames were already licking the portion of the library immediately adjoining the house proper; soon the whole wing must be ablaze. The boy gazed wildly around, to see if there was any means, however risky or even desperate, by which escape might be made. He saw nothing but the slender branches of a magnificent yew that grew in the retired garden behind and close to the library. These boughs overtopped even the tall building, and some of them overhung the roof a little. But the nearest of them was ten feet above the heads of the two, and hopelessly out of reach. Would that some great gust of wind would drive those branches within clutching distance!
This tantalizing thought had hardly taken possession of George's mind when his attention was attracted by shouts from below. Peering down he was astonished to see Matthew rapidly climbing the yew. The same thought had struck him also! Up the climber swarmed, higher and higher. Then he began without hesitation to crawl along some of the topmost branches that overhung the library roof. Outwards he crept, embracing tightly half a dozen of the long thin boughs; they seemed but little more than twigs.
"You'll be dashed to pieces!" Mary cried; "go back, go back!"
"Haven't you a rope anywhere?" George asked eagerly.
"Every rope and ladder locked up in the stable yard," was the breathless reply, "and the men away. This is our only chance. Catch hold."
As Matthew spoke, the end of the long swaying branches, swinging ever lower, came down to the roof, and a good yard or more of the greenery was within George's grasp. Matthew lay at full length on his collection of boughs in order that his weight might keep the ends down. It was a precarious position truly, but Matthew was very light, and had absolutely no fear for himself.
"Lash her well to three or four of the strongest of the boughs," he said hurriedly; "give the rope half a dozen good turns about her waist and the boughs. They are yew and very tough. Quick!"
Hardly knowing what he was doing, George obeyed. He was a bit of a sailor, and in a couple of minutes he had bound the child to the branches in a way to satisfy even Matthew, who still lay amongst the foliage, some three yards away.
"Now cling for your life to the rest of the branches you've got, Fairburn, till I go down to the long thick arm there below. Can you hold?"
"Yes!" cried the other cheerfully, light beginning to dawn upon him. "I can hold on; you go down."
Matthew moved down, and the branches, relieved of their burden, began to exert a considerable upward pull. But the weight of the boy and the girl held down the ends, and they awaited Matthew's call. It soon came, though the interval of waiting seemed an age.
"Now then!" came the shout, and George could see his quondam enemy firmly seated on a stout branch that had been cut shorter, its foliage having interfered with the light of one of the windows of the library. Matthew was sitting astride, his legs firmly gripping the branch. "Now drop yourselves over," he went on. "You'll fall right on the top of me, and I'll grab you. Throw one arm round Mary's waist, and then seize the branches with both hands and stick tight."
"I'll stick like a leech," George replied, "but it's a fearful drop."
"There's no other way, none! See! the blaze has caught the library roof behind you! It will be upon you in another minute. Drop over, for pity's sake!"
George set his teeth, placed one arm round the child's slender form, gripped hard a handful of the pliant boughs, and dropped over the parapet, Mary closing her eyes in her mortal fright. With a huge swing the branches bent, and in an instant the two were swaying a good fifteen feet below, George almost jerked from his hold. The boughs creaked but did not snap.
"Thank heaven!" cried Matthew, "I have you!" And reaching up, he got a grip of George's foot and dragged down the swinging pair.
"Grab the branch with your legs, Fairburn! and I'll cut Mary clear."
No sooner said than done. By the aid of a good clasp-knife Matthew severed the cords and secured his little sister, her weight, however, as it came upon him, almost knocking him from his perch. But he held desperately, and in another moment had Mary on the branch beside him. Then George, throwing his legs apart, suddenly loosed his hold of the branches and dropped also astride of the bough, which he grasped tight with both hands. He swung round and hung from the branch head downwards. But the next minute he had righted himself, and was ready to help with Mary.
The rescue was complete. To guide the child along the branch, towards the middle of the tree, and then to lower her from limb to limb of the old yew was mere play to the two boys. The three dropped the last four or five feet to earth just as a man rushed forward with a great cry, to clasp in his arms the fainting girl.
"God is merciful!" he ejaculated. It was Squire Blackett, who had arrived just in time to see his beloved child saved from an awful fate.
For a few moments father and children clung to each other. When at length they looked round to express their gratitude to the plucky rescuer, he was nowhere to be seen. Seeing a great crowd of the Blackett pitmen arrive with a run, George had felt that he could be of no more use, and slipping into the wood had made for home. He wanted no thanks, and moreover the brig was to sail at four in the morning, at which time the tide would serve.
"He's gone—George has gone!" cried Matthew.
"We can never repay him," murmured Mr. Blackett. "We must go on to see him at the earliest moment in the morning."
When Mr. Blackett, with Matthew and the rescued Mary, drove early next day to the Fairburns' house, it was only to learn that George had sailed for London some hours before. There was no help for it, and all they could do was to overwhelm the father and mother with words of gratitude and praise. They informed the Fairburns that by the exertions of the men the library and its contents had been saved; the rest of the mansion was left a wreck. Mrs. Maynard had been drawn from the mass of burning rubbish at the foot of the staircase, and was now lying between life and death.
George had had a bad quarter of an hour at the parting from his parents, but by the time the vessel felt the swell of the open sea he was full of spirits again. The sea voyage, even in a dirty collier, was a delight. Then there was London the wonderful at the end of it, and he had long desired to see the great capital of which he had heard and read so much.
The London of Queen Anne's reign was not the huge overgrown London of our own day. But it was a notable city, and to George Fairburn and his contemporaries the grandest city in the world. The Great Fire had taken place but twenty years before George was born, yet already the city had risen from its ashes, with wider and nobler streets, and with a multitude of handsome churches which Wren had built. The new and magnificent St. Paul's, the great architect's proudest work, was rapidly approaching completion. George's father had witnessed the opening for worship of a portion of the cathedral five years before, and soon the stupendous dome, which was beginning to tower high above the city, would be finished. Sir Thomas Gresham's Exchange, the centre of the business life of the city, had been replaced by another and not less noble edifice. The great capital contained a population of well over half a million souls, a number that seemed incredible to those who knew only Bristol, and York, and Norwich, the English cities next in size. The houses stretched continuously from the city boundary to Westminster, and soon the two would be but one vast town. George had heard much of London Bridge, with its shops and its incessant stream of passengers and vehicles, and he hoped to visit the pleasant villages of Kensington and Islington, and many another that lay within a walk of great London. He hoped one day, too, to get a glimpse of some of the clever wits, Mat Prior, Wycherley, Dick Steele, and others, who haunted the coffee-houses of the capital, and of the rising young writer, Mr. Addison, not to mention a greater than them all, the incomparable Sir Isaac Newton. For George had ever been a great reader, even while he loved a good game as well as any boy in the land.
It was many a long year, however, ere George Fairburn was destined to see the mighty capital. Once fairly at sea, the skipper brought out and mounted his four little guns, to the lad's huge joy.
"You mean business, captain," he remarked with a merry laugh.
"I do, if there comes along a Frenchy who won't leave us alone," the old fellow replied, "leastways if she isn't too big a craft for us altogether."
The evening was coming in, the town of Yarmouth faintly visible through the haze, when suddenly the crew of the Ouseburn Lassie became aware of a big vessel in the offing.
"She's giving chase, by thunder!" cried the skipper, after he had taken a long look through the glass; and all was excitement on board the brig. Anxiously all hands watched the stranger, and at last the shout went up, "She's a Frenchy!"
"Aye, and a big 'un at that," somebody added.
Hastily the preparations were made to receive her, though the captain shook his head even as he gave his orders.
"It's no go," he whispered to George. "We've got these four small guns, but what's the good? We've nobody to man 'em; only a couple on 'em, leastways. And the Frenchman's a monster."
"We'll show them a bit of fight all the same," George put in eagerly. The old salt shook his head again.
Quickly the big vessel overhauled the collier brig, and signals were made to pull down her flag, whereupon the Englishman grunted.
Within a minute a puff was seen, and a round shot whizzed close past the Ouseburn Lassie's bows.
"Give them a reply!" George urged in great excitement.
"Wait a bit, my lad," and the skipper bided his time.
"Now!" came the order at length, and a couple of eight-pound balls flew straight to the Frenchman.
"Well hit!" shouted the Englishmen, as a shower of splinters was seen to fly upwards from the enemy's deck.
"It's enough to show 'em we've got mettle in us," growled the old captain, "and that's all we can say."
His words were justified, for the next moment there came another flash, and with a crash the brig's mast went by the board.
"Done for!" groaned the skipper. "We shall see the inside of a French prison, I reckon."
The enemy's long boat put out with a crew four times that of the brig. Within a quarter of an hour the Englishmen had all been transferred to the Louis Treize, and an officer and half a dozen men left in charge of the prize. The Frenchman at once set a course for Dunkirk, and, with a spanking breeze behind her, she made the port in fifteen hours. The noon of the next day saw George Fairburn and his companions clapped into a French prison.
"A bonny come off," the old skipper grumbled, "but we shall ha' to make the best on it."
It will not be forgotten that the war just begun was, to put it bluntly, a war to determine which of two indifferent princes, Philip of France and Charles of Austria, should have the Spanish crown. Lord Peterborough declared that it was not worth his country's while to fight for such "a pair of louts."
Into the war, however, England had thrown herself, under the direction of Harley, the famous Tory minister now in power, at home, and with Marlborough as commander-in-chief of both the English and the Dutch forces abroad. The General's first aim was to take back from Louis XIV all those fortresses in the Spanish Netherlands which had been seized and garrisoned by the French troops as if the country were a French possession.
He started from Kaiserwoerth, a town on the Rhine, which his troops had captured from one of Louis's chief allies, the Elector of Cologne, before Marlborough arrived to take command. Venloo was taken in gallant style, and then the important city of Liege, on the Meuse. The result of the campaign was that the French had been chased from the Lower Rhine, and Holland, much to its relief, made far more safe from attack. Returning to England, the victorious commander was given a grand reception. And no wonder, for it was the first time for many a year that the French had received a real check.
While these things were going on in the Netherlands, another leader under the Grand Alliance, Prince Louis of Baden, took Landau, on the Rhine, from the French. In Italy, too, the allies triumphed, the gallant Prince Eugene, presently to be the warm and life-long friend of Marlborough, defeating the French brilliantly at Cremona, a fortunate thing for the Empire, which was thus secured from a French invasion through the Tyrol.
To crown the successes of the Grand Alliance during the campaign of 1702, the first of the war, the brave sailor Sir George Rooke, following the Spanish galleons and the French war vessels into the harbour of Vigo, destroyed the greater number of them. It was a repetition of Drake's famous expedition to "singe the King of Spain's beard."
All these things happened while George Fairburn and other English prisoners ate their hearts out in captivity at Dunkirk. The lad chafed under the surveillance to which he was subjected, and never passed a day without turning over in his mind some scheme of escape. How it was to be done, he did not see. But he waited for his chance, and meanwhile, partly to avoid being suspected, and partly to while away the hours he made friends with the soldiers on guard. He already knew a little French, and with his natural quickness he soon made rapid progress. At the end of a month he could get along capitally in the language; at the end of three months he could speak the tongue fluently; at the end of nine months—for thus did his term of captivity drag itself out—he was, so far as the language was concerned, almost a Frenchman. Thus the winter passed, and the spring of 1703 came round, George Fairburn still an inmate of a French prison, hopeless of escape, so far as he could see.
But his chance came at last suddenly and unexpectedly. One morning he was escorted to the Hotel de Ville, to interpret for an officer examining a batch of English prisoners who had been brought in from the Netherlands border. The way to the town lay at no great distance from the shore, and he observed how a boat lay close in on the low sandy beach, no owner in sight. His heart leapt into his mouth, and he had much ado to keep himself from betraying his thoughts by the flush that mantled hotly on his cheek.
One, two, three hundred paces the boat was left behind. Now or never! Instantly the lad started off back to the spot, his feet flying across the sand.
A shout broke from the throats of his astonished guards, and a half score of bullets whistled after the runaway. George ducked his head and sped on unhurt. A second volley did little more harm than the first, merely grazing the lobe of his right ear. The race was furious, but the lusty English lad was far and away the superior of the heavy Frenchmen. He gained the boat, the enemy still a hundred paces behind. The painter was loosely wound round a large stone, and in a trice George had leapt with it into the little craft. He had just time to give a vigorous shove off before the pursuers came up, the foremost dashing into the sea after him.
Splash through the water rushed the French soldiers in full chase. Already they were beginning to cheer, for the leading man had all but grabbed the boat, and the prisoner was as good as retaken. George looked down for something with which to strike, for he did not intend to submit without a struggle, but there was no oar on board. There had been a small boat-hook, but that he had left sticking in the sand when he gave his lusty shove off. The pursuer, up to his neck in water, seized the boat, and for a moment his chin rested on the side. But the next instant the lad had kicked out with the clumsy wooden shoes he wore, and the soldier fell back half stunned into the sea. The rest of the fellows instantly raised their guns, but George did not wince; he perceived what they in their wild scamper after him had not noticed, that they had dragged their muskets through the water, and for the time had rendered the weapons useless. The boy laughed in spite of his predicament, as he hastily ran up the little sail.
The breeze at once caught the canvas, and the bark moved briskly away. But two of the soldiers, who had not entered the sea, hastily reloading—they had not done so hitherto, after the recent discharges—levelled their pieces at the retreating prisoner. George flung himself to the bottom of the boat as he saw the move, and the bullets whistled harmlessly overhead. Springing up again, he perceived that he was now beyond range, and with a shout of joy he waved his cap triumphantly. The whole escape had been planned and successfully carried out in the space of five minutes. He was free!
But his joy was presently tempered by the thought of what might follow. That the men would endeavour to give chase he well knew; indeed he could make out their forms running in search of another boat. However, he had gained a start; that was something. As to whither he was destined to be driven, or how he was to get food and water, these things were for the present of less consequence than the fact that he was free.
Fortune favoured him, for within ten minutes a thickness came on, and soon the boat was enveloped in fog. The chase was now rendered impossible to the enemy. Hour after hour George kept his sail hoisted, driving briskly he knew not whither.
"I am bound," said he to himself, "to stumble upon either the English or the Dutch coast, and in either case I shall be among friends." Thus the lad comforted himself.
The day wore on, and he was becoming ravenously hungry. He would have given much for a basin of even the prison soupe maigre. The sky was darkening and he began to feel drowsy; he resigned himself to a night of hunger. All at once he heard shouts, and the hull of a big vessel loomed up within a few yards of him. He was instantly wide awake. Was the stranger French? Thank Heaven, no! She was Dutch built, and as her flag showed, Dutch owned. Hurrah!
His cheer attracted the attention of the crew, and much wondering the sailors drew him up on deck. "A Frenchman," was the verdict in gruff Dutch. George did not understand Dutch, but he instantly guessed their meaning.
"Not I," he cried, in English, and was delighted to be answered in the same tongue by the skipper.
George's account of his escape, translated by the captain, set the fat Dutchmen a-rolling. And, after the lad had had the good square meal the skipper ordered for him, he spent the evening in going over his adventures again. The jolly-hearted English lad became an immediate favourite with the sailors and the soldiers, for, as he soon learnt, the ship was a Dutch transport carrying troops and stores for the war in Spain.
"Where are we, sir?" George inquired of the skipper next morning when he came on deck, to find a clear sky, and land faintly seen on the starboard bow.
"Off the Isle of Wight, my lad," replied the Dutchman.
"Can't you put me ashore, captain?" he pleaded.
The master smiled and shook his head.
"Impossible, boy; you must go with us to Spain. And here comes a gentleman to speak with you."
An officer in military uniform approached, and the boy touched his cap. With the skipper as interpreter the major made George an offer of service under him.
"We want fellows of your sort," he said. "And there will be brave doings in Spain, and plenty of good pay, and glory to be won. Besides, you will be fighting under one of your own countrymen, most likely Sir George Rooke himself. Say the word, my good lad."
George's face flushed.
"I have always wanted to be a soldier, sir," he stammered.
"Of course you have, my lad. Then we may take it that the matter is settled. Good luck go with you, my boy."
Here then was George Fairburn, who ought to have been driving a quill in the office of Mr. Allan, shipping merchant, of London, sailing to join the allied forces in Spain, and to fight against the French. His head swam with the thought of it.
But what of George's friends at home all this long while? When Fairburn learnt that his brig had not arrived in port, though she had been spoken in Boston Deeps by another collier which was returning to the Tyne, his heart misgave him. There had been a bad storm on the coast; it seemed only too likely that the Ouseburn Lassie had gone down in it! When week after week passed without news it seemed more and more likely that the vessel had foundered in the gale. News of captures by French privateers usually filtered through sooner or later; but for long there were no tidings of the Ouseburn Lassie. The Blacketts did what they could to console the bereaved parents, but father and mother would not be comforted. At length, months afterwards, they learnt in a casual way that a collier had been captured off Yarmouth by a French privateer, about the time the Ouseburn Lassie was making her trip; at least that was the construction the Yarmouth salts who saw the affair from the shore put upon the movements of the two vessels. So a ray of hope came to Fairburn and his wife.
"The lad will be somewhere in a French prison," the father said, "and some day he will be set free and come home to us again."
The spring of 1703 brought Matthew Blackett's seventeenth birthday, and with it an ensign's commission in a well-reputed regiment of foot. He already stood six feet one in his stockings, and mighty proud he felt when his lanky figure was clothed in his gay uniform.
"Perhaps I shall come across George in my wanderings," he said, when he went to bid a very friendly adieu to the Fairburns. "Won't it be jolly if we do meet!" And the parents were constrained to smile in spite of their sadness.
One of the commonest subjects of conversation in our days is the state of "political parties," and every child of school age can tell you which is "the party in power." Three hundred years ago such expressions would not have been understood at all, in their modern sense, and "government by party" was a thing as yet undreamed of. Usually the strongest man of his time, whether sovereign or subject, was the real ruler in England. Elizabeth, for instance, was the sole mistress in her own realm, though even she was greatly helped by the famous minister Burleigh. In later times a Strafford, a Laud, an Oliver Cromwell, a Clarendon presided over the destinies of England.
But in the second half of the seventeenth century there began that division of politicians into two sides or parties which has continued ever since. This division sprang, no doubt, from the civil wars between King and Parliament, between Cavalier and Roundhead. By the times of Queen Anne the terms Whig and Tory, replaced in our days for the most part by Liberal and Conservative, had come into common use, and no one who desires to understand the history of her reign can wholly neglect the movements of these two opposing parties in politics. For Marlborough—with his wife—may be said to be the last powerful statesman who ruled England without the formal and acknowledged help of party. Since then the "party in power" has always, through its chief member, the Prime Minister, and his Cabinet, been the actual ruler in the State.
At the beginning of Anne's reign the Whigs were leading in matters of state, but presently Rochester and Nottingham, the former a very strong Tory, came into power. Later on, in 1703, the former was replaced by a more moderate Tory, Harley, and in the following year St. John succeeded Nottingham. The truth was, Marlborough, beginning to see that he was more likely to receive support in his great wars from the Whig side, was working gradually towards the placing of their party in office, though he himself had all along been a Tory. Thus it was that he tried to rule with a coalition, or a mixture of Whigs and Tories. This was in the year 1705, a little after the time to which this story has as yet been carried. But Marlborough and his Duchess were still the real power in the land.
We may rejoin George Fairburn, some three weeks after the day when he had been picked up by the Dutch transport. With others he had been landed in the Tagus, and at once drafted into one of the regiments under the Earl of Galway, a Frenchman by birth, but now, having been driven out of France by the persecutions he and the rest of the Protestants had had to endure, a general in the English army. George learned that Portugal had joined the Grand Alliance, in consequence of the Methuen Treaty between her and England, by which Portuguese wines were to be admitted into English ports at a lower customs duty than those of other countries. This step on the part of Portugal had greatly enraged the French King, and he had poured his troops into Spain. The Allies, therefore, were preparing to attack Spain from the eastern and the western sides of the Peninsula at the same time. So George and his comrades began their march eastward, while the gallant admiral Sir George Rooke was attacking Barcelona on the opposite coast.
It was a new life for the English lad, and the heavy marches in a hot climate tried him. But he was growing into a stout youth, and was not afraid of a bit of hard work.
"Besides," he would say to himself, when disposed to grumble, "am I not a soldier? And isn't that what I've always wanted to be? And I might have been chained up in a French prison still! A thousand times better be here, even in this scorching place."
If it seemed odd to the lad that the English soldiers were commanded by a Frenchman, it was still stranger that the French forces they were marching to meet were under an Englishman. Yet so it was; the commander of Louis's army in Spain being the Duke of Berwick, a son of James II and Arabella Churchill, Marlborough's sister. The two generals were well matched, according to the opinion that prevailed among the troops.
Weeks passed, and as yet George Fairburn had seen no actual fighting. He was all eager to get into action, and was not much comforted by the declaration of the old sergeant under whom he marched.
"Bide your time, my lad," the veteran would say, "you will get your full share of fighting; enough to satisfy even a fire-eater such as I can see you're going to be."
One evening, to his intense delight, the lad was sent forward with a skirmishing party, a report having come in that the enemy was concealed somewhere in one of the wooded valleys of the neighbourhood. After a cautious march of three or four miles, the little company, commanded by a lieutenant of foot, dropped down into a dingle, at the bottom of which ran a stream almost everywhere hidden by the thick growth of trees. The men were startled, on turning a corner in the break-neck path, to see below them the French flag flying from what appeared to be an old mill. Scattered about were the roofs of a dozen cottages, and at the doors could be perceived a number of soldiers lolling at their ease.
"The enemy, by Jove!" whispered George, who was leading in his usual eager fashion, pointing out the flag and the hamlet to the lieutenant. "Wouldn't it be a good joke to whip off their flag from that old mill, sir!"
The officer laughed at the notion; he was not much more than a boy himself.
"My lad," said he, "we must know how many the enemy are first."
"I'll climb to the roof there, and from it I can see right down into the village and command a view of everything in it."
"Do you mean to say, youngster, that you would risk it?" the officer asked in surprise.
"Oh, wouldn't I, sir," the lad replied with flushed face. "Say the word, sir, please."
The lieutenant nodded, saying, "It's worth it. But be cautious."
The soldiers looked on while the boy carried out his freak, for such they judged his bit of reconnoitring to be. Cautiously George crept towards the mill, the sloping roof of which came almost down to the very hill side. Tying a wisp of long grass and weeds round each boot, he crawled noiselessly up till within a foot or two of the ridge. He paused a moment to gaze down the dingle. There, well seen from his vantage point, a couple of miles away, ran a far larger valley, which was filled with tents. "The enemy's main body!" he thought. He waved his arm in the direction of the camp, but his comrades did not understand the action, as they stood peering down upon the lad from among the trees higher up the slope.
Now flat on his face the boy ventured to peep over the roof ridge down into the village street at no great distance below. Not an eye was directed upwards, so far as he could see, the men laughing and chattering gaily as they drank. Then the temptation seized him, and in a moment he had lifted the flag from the old chimney in which the staff was loosely set. "I'm in for it now!" he cried to himself, as he slid like an avalanche down the roof, leapt to the ground, and made off up the steep slope towards his comrades, the flag triumphantly in his hand.
He had reached a spot half way up when suddenly wild shouts were heard from below, and at the same instant a bullet whistled close past his ear. A little turn in the path had discovered his head to the enemy.
"In for a penny, in for a pound," shouted the lieutenant, and the Englishmen prepared to receive the French soldiers dashing up to the attack. George stumbled on unhurt, but fell at his officer's feet, utterly breathless. There he lay, unable to rise, while shots were rapidly exchanged. For a minute's space it was hot work, but then the French began to fall back, and with a shout the English handful followed. Fairburn pulled himself together and stood on the edge of the rock-shelf where he had fallen breathless. To his horror, he saw a Frenchman on the shelf below, taking deliberate aim at the lieutenant.
With a loud cry, the lad sprang down upon the enemy, regardless of the steepness of the place, and in an instant the man was locked in his arms, just as the musket report came. Down the two fell, bounding over two or three shelves of rock, and then pitching headlong some twenty or thirty feet into the thick brushwood below.
"You have saved my life, my lad; you are an Englishman worth knowing," were the next words the boy heard.
They came buzzing into George's ears some ten minutes later, when, the brush with the French over, the Englishmen were hastening back to report to the General.
"What happened when I fell, sir?" George asked with curiosity, as the officer walked by the side of the litter. He was astounded to learn that the Frenchman had been found still held in tight grip, his neck broken. The enemy had been put to the rout and had fled, leaving their flag behind them. Moreover, the French camp a couple of miles away had been spied.
"You have three ribs broken, Fairburn," the officer went on, "and you've got about as many bruises as there are days in a year. But what of that. By Jerusalem! I wish the honour had fallen to me!"
"I don't mind the wounds a bit, sir," George answered, cheerfully, "so long as I've been of some use."
The next day no less a person than the great Earl of Galway himself came to speak to the wounded lad.
"I have heard from your lieutenant here the tale of your doings yesterday," he said, with a smile. "You are a boy of pluck. You are done for so far as the present campaign is concerned, and must be sent back to hospital. But there's work cut out yet for a lad of your mettle."
George heard all this praise as if in a dream. He was never sure in after years whether the Earl had really said so much. But Lieutenant Fieldsend, who was destined to become his comrade on many a hard-fought field, and his warm friend for life, was always prepared to tell the full and correct story.
THE ROCK OF GIBRALTAR
"This is better than lying on one's back in hospital, sir, and better than dodging about in a close-packed transport."
The words came from George Fairburn, as with his officer, Lieutenant Fieldsend, he stood surveying, from its northern vicinity, the far-famed Rock of Gibraltar. It was the summer of 1704. His doings since the day of his injuries in the dingle are soon recorded. After months of sickness and a winter of inaction, his service under Lord Galway had come to an end, much to his disgust at first. With others, he had been sent on board a vessel and carried round the coast of Spain to the neighbourhood of Barcelona, where Sir George Rooke was operating. The new troops had arrived too late. The Admiral, despairing of making any impression on the strongly-fortified Barcelona, was about to sail for home. On the way the idea had come to Sir George that the commanding fortress of Gibraltar would be worth trying for. He had accordingly landed a number of troops on the narrow isthmus of flat land that joins the rock and town of Gibraltar to the mainland.
"Yes, Fairburn," the lieutenant replied, with a laugh, "my Lord Galway foretold that you had work cut out for you. Here it is, I fancy, and plenty of it."
It was a striking sight on which the two friends looked—for though the one was but a private and the other a commissioned officer, yet by this time Fieldsend and Fairburn had begun their life-long friendship. Away in front of them towered the huge irregular mass called the Rock of Gibraltar, or, more commonly, simply "the Rock," with the little town clustered at its base and on its gentler slopes. To their right was the indentation in the coast known as the Bay of Gibraltar, which was protected by a long stone-built jetty, the Old Mole. From this protection ran a stout sea defence called the Line Wall, with two or three strong bastions. This wall ended at another projection, the New Mole. But neither the Line Wall nor the New Mole was visible from the spot where George and his superior stood. Filling all the narrow neck of connecting ground were the allied forces just landed, five thousand of them. Immediately in front stood the only outlet from the city on its north side, the Land Point gate.