By J. S. FLETCHER
ALL that day there had been much coming and going along the road, and Prissy and myself had found it no easy matter to supply the wants of our customers. There was rumour of more fighting before the Castle of Pontefract, not five miles from our door, for Cromwell himself was in camp, and had come there fully minded to bring the siege to an end. But there he had been foiled, for the garrison was inclined to hold out for the King as long as was possible; and so the matter went on, and now and then when one came along the road from the north he would pause to tell us what was toward, and of the sallyings and excursions made by the besieged and such-like. But, in good sooth, we never needed any reminder of the siege, for there were few days went by without our hearing the rumble and roar of the cannon which the besiegers had planted round the castle. Yet all these fightings and brawlings affected us but little, save that occasionally the Parliamentarians would come down on us for straw and fodder, carrying it away whether we would or no, and paying not over high a price for it. But, as my man Gregory said, "It might ha' been that the King's folk would ha' paid naught at all," which was likely and reasonable enough, seeing that all the land belonged to His Majesty.
It was near six o'clock of a somewhat dullish evening—I cannot now remember whether it was in the last week of November or the first week in December—and there had been a bit o' peace for Prissy and for me during the last half-hour. In our kitchen sat Dick Pritchett, the smith, Peter Whipp, the wright, and old John, the mouldy-warp catcher, who had come there to hear the news and drink their mugs of ale. And, since there had been rumour all day of this and that, they must needs talk of naught but the wars, and the King, and Cromwell, and such-like matters. But I, being wearied out, sat in the corner of the settle, and listened to them without taking a share in their discourse. "God send," said I to myself, "that no more travellers trouble us to-night."
"They tell me," says Peter Whipp, for the twentieth time, "that the King will have his head cut off. It seems a 'nation strange thing to do wi' a crowned king; but we abide in strange times."
"Ah!" says John, "so we do. Parlous strange. Wars and rumours of wars. Give me my own trade," says he, sticking his old nose into his mug; "'tis more peaceful compared wi' all this fighting and star-chambering."
"But the King's head will be cut off," says Peter again. "So says them that knows—and so it will be. And it puts me i' mind o' Scripture, seeing that it's written, 'He hath put down the mighty from their seats and hath exalted them of low degree,' which is mighty comfortable words for some of us that are neither princes nor lords. And moreover——."
It was then that I glanced towards the door and saw the man standing there. A tallish, thick-set man he was, with a noticeable face under his great hat, and a pair of eyes that brought your own to attention quicker than a sergeant's word of command. There was naught lovely about him; rather, he was a plain-faced man, and had a bottle-nose, or somewhat inclining that way, and his beard grew in tufts and patches. I think his nose-end was reddish in hue, and there were warts upon it and his cheeks, but the fire in his eyes was such that you saw naught but it after you had once allowed it to draw your gaze. As for the dress of the man, it was a dull-coloured strong stuff of little ornament, and the breeches were thrust into great boots of undressed leather that fell in careless folds about the man's ankles. There was no feather in his hat, nor a bit of colour about him save a broad sash of scarlet that crossed his chest, and supported a great sword that clinked against his spurs when he stepped forward into the firelight. A noticeable man, as I said before.
He walked into my kitchen, and looked at the four of us, and his eyes travelled to Dick Pritchett's leather apron. And then he spoke.
"Friend," says he, in a harsh voice, "it would become thee better to be in thy smithy, attentive to thy business, than to sit here carousing in idleness."
"What the murrain!" begins Dick, but the strange man looked at him, and he said no more.
"Are we, then, to have no joy of our lives?" says John Mouldywarp, who was afraid of none. But the stranger looked at him, too, and silenced him, and from him his glance travelled to Dick Pritchett again.
"Friend," says he, "go thy ways home, and there wilt find a horse tied to thy door. He lacks a shoe; replace it, friend, and bring him to me at the door here in half-an-hour."
"I ha' finished work for the day," says Dick surlily, and never lifting his eye from his pot.
"I said in half-an-hour," says the man; and Dick got to his feet and made for the door.
"God save us!" says John Mouldywarp. The stranger looked at me.
"By your leave, landlord," says he, and takes a seat near the hearth. But I knew this was none of your common tavern-callers, and "Will it please you to step into the parlour, sir?" says I, getting on my legs. "My daughter shall light you there."
"Nay, friend," says he, "I am very well accommodated where I am, I thank you. 'Tis a chill air without, and your parlour is doubtless cold—let me bide by your fire."
"Why, sir," says I, "there are few days that we have not cause to light a fire there, but to-day has been filled with business from early morning, and I doubt that Prissy has had occasion——."
"Aye," says he, as much, I think, to himself as to me, "much marching and countermarching, and goings to and fro, and all the rest on't, no doubt. Let thy lass draw me a pint of ale," he says.
But when Prissy had brought it, he never once raised the pewter to his lips.
He looked at her as she sat it down.
"The Lord give thee grace, maiden," says he. And after that he turned to the fire, and sat there, moody and silent, staring at the flames. He had pulled his great sword round to the front, and now sat resting his hands on its hilt, and he propped his chin on his hands. And there was something in him that forbade me to break in on his silence, for he was one of those men that carry something about them which makes other men think of high matters. But John Mouldywarp was as blind as the vermin that he did trade upon, and withal talkative as a jay. He could never abear to keep silence, even at a burying, and so he presently begins to chatter like a magpie in a thorn-tree.
"A dull day, master," says he, "and yet a lively one, what with all these fightings and strivings and gathering of great armies of battle."
But the man by the fireside never spoke.
"By your great sword," says John, "and your harness," he says, "and your pistols," he says, "I take you to be a man of war. I am a man of war myself," he says, laughing at his own wit, "but 'tis in a peaceful fashion, so far as I am concerned. I do execution upon the mouldy-warps as all know—faith, they are creatures of a surprising cleverness."
The stranger looked round at him.
"Aye, friend," says he, "you have observed them much, no doubt. A peaceful trade, in truth—it were well if all things that work in the dark could be so easily dealt with."
"Or if all wars were so easily managed," says John, still wagging his tongue. "Is there much news to-day, sir?"
But here Peter broke in again.
"They will cut off the King's head!" says he. "Yes, they will cut it off. 'Tis a strange use to put a king to, seemingly, but do it they will," and he dips his nose in his pint pot.
"What makes thee think that, friend?" says he at the fire, with a sharp look at Peter; but Peter had no answer, being of a dull nature, and he only nodded gravely, and said again, "They will cut off the King's head."
"You are a Parliament man, master," says old John Mouldywarp slyly, "or I shouldn't say that if cutting off the King's head will rid us o' the war, they are welcome to do it. For sure 'tis a grievous thing to see a nation divided against itself—father against son, and son——"
But the man at the fireside seemed to be suddenly filled with a rare emotion, and I saw his face work and twitch. "True, friend, true," says he hurriedly. "The Lord send us peace in His own time. There are three," he says, and again I thought that he spoke to himself, rather than the company, "that do earnestly desire it—yes, and with a great desire. But the ways of the Lord are mysterious—who shall fathom them?" he says. There was a sound outside. "My horse," says he, and goes to the door. Without stood Dick Pritchett, holding the horse, and with him a trooper, who saluted the stranger as he strode out. "I ha' made a good job on't, honoured sir," says Dick, uncommon civil, as the man got into his saddle. And he stood barehead as they rode away. But when they had disappeared in the darkness "Lord be good to us," says he, "and who do you think yonder man with the bottle-nose was? May I never stick fork into flesh again if it was not Cromwell himself! And since I ha' shod his horse," says Dick, "'Od's faith, I'll have another pint!"