Micah Clarke/Chapter XIX

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Micah Clarke by Arthur Conan Doyle
Chapter XIX

Chapter XIX: Of a Brawl in the Night[edit]

Decimus Saxon refused to avail himself of Master Timewell's house and table for the reason, as I afterwards learned, that, the Mayor being a firm Presbyterian, he thought it might stand him in ill stead with the Independents and other zealots were he to allow too great an intimacy to spring up between them. Indeed, my dears, from this time onward this cunning man framed his whole life and actions in such a way as to make friends of the sectaries, and to cause them to look upon him as their leader. For he had a firm belief that in all such outbreaks as that in which we were engaged, the most extreme party is sure in the end to gain the upper hand. 'Fanatics,' he said to me one day, 'mean fervour, and fervour means hard work, and hard work means power.' That was the centre point of all his plotting and scheming.

And first of all he set himself to show how excellent a soldier he was, and he spared neither time nor work to make this apparent. From morn till midday, and from afternoon till night, we drilled and drilled until in very truth the shouting of the orders and the clatter of the arms became wearisome to our ears. The good burghers may well have thought that Colonel Saxon's Wiltshire foot were as much part of the market-place as the town cross or the parish stocks. There was much to be done in very little time, so much that many would have thought it hopeless to attempt it. Not only was there the general muster of the regiment, but we had each to practise our own companies in their several drills, and to learn as best we could the names and the wants of the men. Yet our work was made easier to us by the assurance that it was not thrown away, for at every gathering our bumpkins stood more erect, and handled their weapons more deftly. From cock-crow to sun-down the streets resounded with 'Poise your muskets! Order your muskets! Rest your muskets! Handle your primers!' and all the other orders of the old manual exercise.

As we became more soldierly we increased in numbers, for our smart appearance drew the pick of the new-comers into our ranks. My own company swelled until it had to be divided, and others enlarged in proportion. The baronet's musqueteers mustered a full hundred, skilled for the most part in the use of the gun. Altogether we sprang from three hundred to four hundred and fifty, and our drill improved until we received praise from all sides on the state of our men.

Late in the evening I was riding slowly back to the house of Master Timewell when Reuben clattered after me, and besought me to turn back with him to see a noteworthy sight. Though feeling little in the mood for such things, I turned Covenant and rode with him down the length of High Street, and into the suburb which is known as Shuttern, where my companion pulled up at a bare barn-like building, and bade me look in through the window.

The interior, which consisted of a single great hall, the empty warehouse in which wool had used to be stored, was all alight with lamps and candles. A great throng of men, whom I recognised as belonging to my own company, or that of my companion, lay about on either side, some smoking, some praying, and some burnishing their arms. Down the middle a line of benches had been drawn up, on which there were seated astraddle the whole hundred of the baronet's musqueteers, each engaged in plaiting into a queue the hair of the man who sat in front of him. A boy walked up and down with a pot of grease, by the aid of which with some whipcord the work was going forward merrily. Sir Gervas himself with a great flour dredger sat perched upon a bale of wool at the head of the line, and as quickly as any queue was finished he examined it through his quizzing glass, and if it found favour in his eyes, daintily powdered it from his dredger, with as much care and reverence as though it were some service of the Church. No cook seasoning a dish could have added his spices with more nicety of judgment than our friend displayed in whitening the pates of his company. Glancing up from his labours he saw our two smiling faces looking in at him through the window, but his work was too engrossing to allow him to leave it, and we rode off at last without having speech with him.

By this time the town was very quiet and still, for the folk in those parts were early bed-goers, save when some special occasion kept them afoot. We rode slowly together through the silent streets, our horses' hoofs ringing out sharp against the cobble stones, talking about such light matters as engage the mind of youth. The moon was shining very brightly above us, silvering the broad streets, and casting a fretwork of shadows from the peaks and pinnacles of the churches. At Master Timewell's courtyard I sprang from my saddle, but Reuben, attracted by the peace and beauty of the scene, rode onwards with the intention of going as far as the town gate.

I was still at work upon my girth buckles, undoing my harness, when of a sudden there came from the street a shouting and a rushing, with the clinking of blades, and my comrade's voice calling upon me for help. Drawing my sword I ran out. Some little way down there was a clear space, white with the moonshine, in the centre of which I caught a glimpse of the sturdy figure of my friend springing about with an activity for which I had never given him credit, and exchanging sword thrusts with three or four men who were pressing him closely. On the ground there lay a dark figure, and behind the struggling group Reuben's mare reared and plunged in sympathy with her master's peril. As I rushed down, shouting and waving my sword, the assailants took flight down a side street, save one, a tall sinewy swordsman, who rushed in upon Reuben, stabbing furiously at him, and cursing him the while for a spoil-sport. To my horror I saw, as I ran, the fellow's blade slip inside my friend's guard, who threw up his arms and fell prostrate, while the other with a final thrust dashed off down one of the narrow winding lanes which lead from East Street to the banks of the Tone.

'For Heaven's sake where are you hurt?' I cried, throwing myself upon my knees beside his prostrate body. 'Where is your injury, Reuben?'

'In the wind, mostly,' quoth he, blowing like a smithy bellows; 'likewise on the back of my pate. Give me your hand, I pray.'

'And are you indeed scathless?' I cried, with a great lightening of the heart as I helped him to his feet. 'I thought that the villain had stabbed you.'

'As well stab a Warsash crab with a bodkin,' said he. 'Thanks to good Sir Jacob Clancing, once of Snellaby Hall and now of Salisbury Plain, their rapiers did no more than scratch my plate of proof. But how is it with the maid?'

'The maid?' said I.

'Aye, it was to save her that I drew. She was beset by these night walkers. See, she rises! They threw her down when I set upon them.'

'How is it with you, Mistress?' I asked; for the prostrate figure had arisen and taken the form of a woman, young and graceful to all appearance, with her face muffled in a mantle. 'I trust that you have met with no hurt.'

'None, sir,' she answered, in a low, sweet voice, 'but that I have escaped is due to the ready valour of your friend, and the guiding wisdom of Him who confutes the plots of the wicked. Doubtless a true man would have rendered this help to any damsel in distress, and yet it may add to your satisfaction to know that she whom you have served is no stranger to you.' With these words she dropped her mantle and turned her face towards us in the moonlight.

'Good lack! it is Mistress Timewell!' I cried, in amazement.

'Let us homewards,' she said, in firm, quick tones. 'The neighbours are alarmed, and there will be a rabble collected anon. Let us escape from the babblement.'

Windows had indeed begun to clatter up in every direction, and loud voices to demand what was amiss. Far away down the street we could see the glint of lanthorns swinging to and fro as the watch hurried thitherwards. We slipped along in the shadow, however, and found ourselves safe within the Mayor's courtyard without let or hindrance.

'I trust, sir, that you have really met with no hurt,' said the maiden to my companion.

Reuben had said not a word since she had uncovered her face, and bore the face of a man who finds himself in some pleasant dream and is vexed only by the fear lest he wake up from it. 'Nay, I am not hurt,' he answered, 'but I would that you could tell us who these roving blades may be, and where they may be found.'

'Nay, nay,' said she, with uplifted finger, 'you shall not follow the matter further. As to the men, I cannot say with certainty who they may have been. I had gone forth to visit Dame Clatworthy, who hath the tertian ague, and they did beset me on my return. Perchance they are some who are not of my grandfather's way of thinking in affairs of State, and who struck at him through me. But ye have both been so kind that ye will not refuse me one other favour which I shall ask ye?'

We protested that we could not, with our hands upon our sword-hilts.

'Nay, keep them for the Lord's quarrel,' said she, smiling at the action. 'All that I ask is that ye will say nothing if this matter to my grandsire. He is choleric, and a little matter doth set him in a flame, so old as he is. I would not have his mind turned from the public needs to a private trifle of this sort. Have I your promises?'

'Mine,' said I, bowing.

'And mine,' said Lockarby.

'Thanks, good friends. Alack! I have dropped my gauntlet in the street. But it is of no import. I thank God that no harm has come to any one. My thanks once more, and may pleasant dreams await ye.' She sprang up the steps and was gone in an instant.

Reuben and I unharnessed our horses and saw them cared for in silence. We then entered the house and ascended to our chambers, still without a word. Outside his room door my friend paused.

'I have heard that long man's voice before, Micah,' said he.

'And so have I,' I answered. 'The old man must beware of his 'prentices. I have half a mind to go back for the little maiden's gauntlet.'

A merry twinkle shot through the cloud which hid gathered on Reuben's brow. He opened his left hand and showed me the doe-skin glove crumpled up in his palm.

'I would not barter it for all the gold in her grandsire's coffers,' said he, with a sudden outflame, and then half-laughing, half-blushing at his own heat, he whisked in and left me to my thoughts.

And so I learned for the first time, my dears, that my good comrade had been struck by the little god's arrows. When a man's years number one score, love springs up in him, as the gourd grew in the Scriptures, in a single night. I have told my story ill if I have not made you understand that my friend was a frank, warm-hearted lad of impulse, whose reason seldom stood sentry over his inclinations. Such a man can no more draw away from a winning maid than the needle can shun the magnet. He loves as the mavis sings or the kitten plays. Now, a slow-witted, heavy fellow like myself, in whose veins the blood has always flowed somewhat coolly and temperately, may go into love as a horse goes into a shelving stream, step by step, but a man like Reuben is kicking his heels upon the bank one moment, and is over ears in the deepest pool the nest.

Heaven only knows what match it was that had set the tow alight. I can but say that from that day on my comrade was sad and cloudy one hour, gay and blithesome the next. His even flow of good spirits had deserted him, and he became as dismal as a moulting chicken, which has ever seemed to me to be one of the strangest outcomes of what poets have called the joyous state of love. But, indeed, pain and pleasure are so very nearly akin in this world, that it is as if they were tethered in neighbouring stalls, and a kick would at any time bring down the partition. Here is a man who is as full of sighs as a grenade is of powder, his face is sad, his brow is downcast, his wits are wandering; yet if you remark to him that it is an ill thing that he should be in this state, he will answer you, as like as not, that he would not exchange it for all the powers and principalities. Tears to him are golden, and laughter is but base coin. Well, my dears, it is useless for me to expound to you that which I cannot myself understand. If, as I have heard, it is impossible to get the thumb-marks of any two men to be alike, how can we expect their inmost thoughts and feelings to tally? Yet this I can say with all truth, that when I asked your grandmother's hand I did not demean myself as if I were chief mourner at a funeral. She will bear me out that I walked up to her with a smile upon my face, though mayhap there was a little flutter at my heart, and I took her hand and I said--but, lack-a-day, whither have I wandered? What has all this to do with Taunton town and the rising of 1685?

On the night of Wednesday, June 17, we learned that the King, as Monmouth was called throughout the West, was lying less than ten miles off with his forces, and that he would make his entry into the loyal town of Taunton the next morning. Every effort was made, as ye may well guess, to give him a welcome which should be worthy of the most Whiggish and Protestant town in England. An arch of evergreens had already been built up at the western gate, bearing the motto, 'Welcome to King Monmouth!' and another spanned the entrance to the market-place from the upper window of the White Hart Inn, with 'Hail to the Protestant Chief!' in great scarlet letters. A third, if I remember right, bridged the entrance to the Castle yard, but the motto on it has escaped me. The cloth and wool industry is, as I have told you, the staple trade of the town, and the merchants had no mercy on their wares, but used them freely to beautify the streets. Rich tapestries, glossy velvets, and costly brocades fluttered from the windows or lined the balconies. East Street, High Street, and Fore Street were draped from garret to basement with rare and beautiful fabrics, while gay flags hung from the roofs on either side, or fluttered in long festoons from house to house. The royal banner of England floated from the lofty tower of St. Mary Magdalene, while the blue ensign of Monmouth waved from the sister turret of St. James. Late into the night there was planing and hammering, working and devising, until when the sun rose upon Thursday, June 18, it shone on as brave a show of bunting and evergreen as ever graced a town. Taunton had changed as by magic from a city into a flower garden.

Master Stephen Timewell had busied himself in these preparations, but he had borne in mind at the same time that the most welcome sight which he could present to Monmouth's eyes was the large body of armed men who were prepared to follow his fortunes. There were sixteen hundred in the town, two hundred of which were horse, mostly well armed and equipped. These were disposed in such a way that the King should pass them in his progress. The townsmen lined the market-place three deep from the Castle gate to the entrance to the High Street; from thence to Shuttern, Dorsetshire, and Frome peasants were drawn up on either side of the street; while our own regiment was stationed at the western gate. With arms well burnished, serried ranks, and fresh sprigs of green in every bonnet, no leader could desire a better addition to his army. When all were in their places, and the burghers and their wives had arrayed themselves in their holiday gear, with gladsome faces and baskets of new-cut flowers, all was ready for the royal visitor's reception.

'My orders are,' said Saxon, riding up to us as we sat our horses reside our companions, 'that I and my captains should fall in with the King's escort as he passes, and so accompany him to the market-place. Your men shall present arms, and shall then stand their ground until we return.'

We all three drew our swords and saluted.

'If ye will come with me, gentlemen, and take position to the right of the gate here,' said he, 'I may be able to tell ye something of these folk as they pass. Thirty years of war in many climes should give me the master craftsman's right to expound to his apprentices.'

We all very gladly followed his advice, and passed out through the gate, which was now nothing more than a broad gap amongst the mounds which marked the lines of the old walls. 'There is no sign of them yet,' I remarked, as we pulled up upon a convenient hillock. 'I suppose that they must come by this road which winds through the valley before us.'

'There are two sorts of bad general,' quoth Saxon, 'the man who is too fast and the man who is too slow. His Majesty's advisers will never be accused of the former failing, whatever other mistakes they may fall into. There was old Marshal Grunberg, with whom I did twenty-six months' soldiering in Bohemia. He would fly through the country pell-mell, horse, foot, and artillery, as if the devil were at his heels. He might make fifty blunders, but the enemy had never time to take advantage. I call to mind a raid which we made into Silesia, when, after two days or so of mountain roads, his Oberhauptmann of the staff told him that it was impossible for the artillery to keep up. "Lass es hinter!" says he. So the guns were left, and by the evening of the next day the foot were dead-beat. "They cannot walk another mile!" says the Oberhauptmann. "Lassen Sie hinter!" says he. So on we went with the horse--I was in his Pandour regiment, worse luck! But after a skirmish or two, what with the roads and what with the enemy, our horses were foundered and useless. "The horses are used up!" says the Oberhauptmann. "Lassen Sie hinter!" he cries; and I warrant that he would have pushed on to Prague with his staff, had they allowed him." General Hinterlassen" we called him after that.'

'A dashing commander, too,' cried Sir Gervas. 'I would fain have served under him.'

'Aye, and he had a way of knocking his recruits into shape which would scarce be relished by our good friends here in the west country,' said Saxon. 'I remember that after the leaguer of Salzburg, when we had taken the castle or fortalice of that name, we were joined by some thousand untrained foot, which had been raised in Dalmatia in the Emperor's employ. As they approached our lines with waving of hands and blowing of bugles, old Marshal Hinterlassen discharged a volley of all the cannon upon the walls at them, killing three score and striking great panic into the others. "The rogues must get used to standing fire sooner or later," said he, "so they may as well commence their education at once."'

'He was a rough schoolmaster,' I remarked. 'He might have left that part of the drill to the enemy.'

'Yet his soldiers loved him,' said Saxon. 'He was not a man, when a city had been forced, to inquire into every squawk of a woman, or give ear to every burgess who chanced to find his strong-box a trifle the lighter. But as to the slow commanders, I have known none to equal Brigadier Baumgarten, also of the Imperial service. He would break up his winter-quarters and sit down before some place of strength, where he would raise a sconce here, and sink a sap there, until his soldiers were sick of the very sight of the place. So he would play with it, as a cat with a mouse, until at last it was about to open its gates, when, as like as not, he would raise the leaguer and march back into his winter-quarters. I served two campaigns under him without honour, sack, plunder, or emolument, save a beggarly stipend of three gulden a day, paid in clipped money, six months in arrear. But mark ye the folk upon yonder tower! They are waving their kerchiefs as though something were visible to them.'

'I can see nothing,' I answered, shading my eyes and gazing down the tree-sprinkled valley which rose slowly in green uplands to the grassy Blackdown hills.

'Those on the housetops are waving and pointing,' said Reuben. 'Methinks I can myself see the flash of steel among yonder woods.'

'There it is,' cried Saxon, extending his gauntleted hand, 'on the western bank of the Tone, hard by the wooden bridge. Follow my finger, Clarke, and see if you cannot distinguish it.'

'Yes, truly,' I exclaimed, 'I see a bright shimmer coming and going. And there to the left, where the road curves over the hill, mark you that dense mass of men! Ha! the head of the column begins to emerge from the trees.'

There was not a cloud in the sky, but the great heat had caused a haze to overlie the valley, gathering thickly along the winding course of the river, and hanging in little sprays and feathers over the woodlands which clothe its banks. Through this filmy vapour there broke from time to time fierce sparkles of brilliant light as the sun's rays fell upon breastplate or headpiece. Now and again the gentle summer breeze wafted up sudden pulses of martial music to our ears, with the blare of trumpets and the long deep snarl of the drums. As we gazed, the van of the army began to roll out from the cover of the trees and to darken the white dusty roads. The long line slowly extended itself, writhing out of the forest land like a dark snake with sparkling scales, until the whole rebel army--horse, foot, and ordnance--were visible beneath us. The gleam of the weapons, the waving of numerous banners, the plumes of the leaders, and the deep columns of marching men, made up a picture which stirred the very hearts of the citizens, who, from the housetops and from the ruinous summit of the dismantled walls, were enabled to gaze down upon the champions of their faith. If the mere sight of a passing regiment will cause a thrill in your bosoms, you can fancy how it is when the soldiers upon whom you look are in actual arms for your own dearest and most cherished interests, and have just come out victorious from a bloody struggle. If every other man's hand was against us, these at least were on our side, and our hearts went out to them as to friends and brothers. Of all the ties that unite men in this world, that of a common danger is the strongest.

It all appeared to be most warlike and most imposing to my inexperienced eyes, and I thought as I looked at the long array that our cause was as good as won. To my surprise, however, Saxon pished and pshawed under his breath, until at last, unable to contain his impatience, he broke out in hot discontent.

'Do but look at that vanguard as they breast the slope,' he cried. 'Where is the advance party, or Vorreiter, as the Germans call them? Where, too, is the space which should be left between the fore-guard and the main battle? By the sword of Scanderbeg, they remind me more of a drove of pilgrims, as I have seen them approaching the shrine of St. Sebaldus of Nurnberg with their banners and streamers. There in the centre, amid that cavalcade of cavaliers, rides our new monarch doubtless. Pity he hath not a man by him who can put this swarm of peasants into something like campaign order. Now do but look at those four pieces of ordnance trailing along like lame sheep behind the flock. Caracco, I would that I were a young King's officer with a troop of light horse on the ridge yonder! My faith, how I should sweep down yon cross road like a kestrel on a brood of young plover! Then heh for cut and thrust, down with the skulking cannoniers, a carbine fire to cover us, round with the horses, and away go the rebel guns in a cloud of dust! How's that, Sir Gervas?'

'Good sport, Colonel,' said the baronet, with a touch of colour in his white cheeks. 'I warrant that you did keep your Pandours on the trot.'

'Aye, the rogues had to work or hang--one or t'other. But methinks our friends here are scarce as numerous as reported. I reckon them to be a thousand horse, and mayhap five thousand two hundred foot. I have been thought a good tally-man on such occasions. With fifteen hundred in the town that would bring us to close on eight thousand men, which is no great force to invade a kingdom and dispute a crown.'

'If the West can give eight thousand, how many can all the counties of England afford?' I asked. 'Is not that the fairer way to look at it?'

'Monmouth's popularity lies mostly in the West,' Saxon answered. 'It was the memory of that which prompted him to raise his standard in these counties.'

'His standards, rather,' quoth Reuben. 'Why, it looks as though they had hung their linen up to dry all down the line.'

'True! They have more ensigns than ever I saw with so small a force,' Saxon answered, rising in his stirrups. 'One or two are blue, and the rest, as far as I can see for the sun shining upon them, are white, with some motto or device.'

Whilst we had been conversing, the body of horse which formed the vanguard of the Protestant army had approached within a quarter of a mile or less of the town, when a loud, clear bugle-call brought them to a halt. In each successive regiment or squadron the signal was repeated, so that the sound passed swiftly down the long array until it died away in the distance. As the coil of men formed up upon the white road, with just a tremulous shifting motion along the curved and undulating line, its likeness to a giant serpent occurred again to my mind.

'I could fancy it a great boa,' I remarked, 'which was drawing its coils round the town.'

'A rattlesnake, rather,' said Reuben, pointing to the guns in the rear. 'It keeps all its noise in its tail.'

'Here comes its head, if I mistake not,' quoth Saxon. 'It were best perhaps that we stand at the side of the gate.'

As he spoke a group of gaily dressed cavaliers broke away from the main body and rode straight for the town. Their leader was a tall, slim, elegant young man, who sat his horse with the grace of a skilled rider, and who was remarkable amongst those around him for the gallantry of his bearing and the richness of his trappings. As he galloped towards the gate a roar of welcome burst from the assembled multitude, which was taken up and prolonged by the crowds behind, who, though unable to see what was going forward, gathered from the shouting that the King was approaching.