A March on London by G. A. Henty
Chapter III. Wat Tyler
That evening Mr. Ormskirk continued the subject of his talk of the afternoon.
"You looked surprised, Edgar, when I said that I told Sir Ralph I had made some preparations for defence, and that some of the compounds in my laboratory are as dangerous as the common people regard them, although that danger has naught to do with any magical property. You must know that many substances, while wholly innocent in themselves, are capable of dealing wide destruction when they are mixed together; for example, saltpetre, charcoal, and sulphur, which, as Friar Bacon discovered, make, when mixed together, a powder whose explosive power is well-nigh beyond belief, and which is now coming into use as a destructive agent in war. Many other compounds can be produced of explosive nature, some indeed of such powerful and sudden action that we dare not even make experiments with them.
"Many other strange things have been discovered, some of which may seem useless at present, but may, upon further experiments on their properties, turn out of value to man. Such a substance I discovered two years ago. I was experimenting upon bones, and endeavouring to ascertain whether a powder might not be procured which, when mixed with other substances, would produce unexpected results. After calcining the bones, I treated the white ash with various acids and alkaloids, and with fire and water, returning again and again to the trials when I had time. While conducting these experiments, I found that there was certainly some substance present with whose nature I was altogether unacquainted.
"One evening, going into the laboratory after dark, I observed with astonishment what looked like a lambent flame upon the table. In my alarm I ran forward to put it out, but found that there was no heat in it; lighting my lamp I could no longer see it, but on the table I found a few grains of the stuff I had been experimenting on. Turning out the lamp the light was again visible, and after much thought I concluded that it was similar to the light given by the little creatures called glowworms, and which in its turn somewhat resembles the light that can be seen at times in a pile of decaying fish. I tried many experiments, but as nothing came of them I gave them up, not seeing that any use could come of a fire that gave out no heat. I produced a powder, however, that when rubbed on any substance, became luminous in the dark, presenting an appearance strange and sufficiently alarming to the ignorant.
"Thinking the matter over some time ago, I took a little of this powder from the phial in which I had stored it away, and, moistening it, rubbed it on the wall in the form of circles, triangles, and other signs. I did this just before it became dark. As the moisture dried, these figures gradually assumed a luminous appearance. I saw the use to which this could be put in awing a mob, and, setting to work, made a large supply of this powder."
"How long does it retain its light, father?"
"That is uncertain. For some hours in a darkened room, the light gradually growing fainter, but if a bright day follows, the figures stand out on the following night as brightly as before; while if the day is dull they show up but faintly at night. I see not that any use can come of such a thing, for the light is at all times too faint to be used for reading unless the page is held quite close to it. Come downstairs with me and I will show you the head of one of the old Roman statues that was dug up near Rochester, and which I bought for a few pence last year."
They went down into the laboratory. The light was burning. "There you see, Edgar, I have painted this head with the stuff, and now you can see nothing more unusual than if it had been daubed with whitewash. Now I will extinguish the lamp."
Prepared as he was, Edgar nevertheless stepped back with an exclamation of surprise and almost awe. The head stood out in the darkness with startling distinctness. It had the effect of being bathed in moonlight, although much more brilliant than even the light of the full moon. It seemed to him, indeed, almost as if a faint wavering light played around it, giving the stern face of the old Roman a sardonic and evil expression.
"You can touch it, Edgar, but you will see that there is not the slightest warmth."
"It is wonderful, father."
"Yes, it is a strange thing; but is, so far as I can see, of no use save as a wonder, and it is just one of those wonders that to most people would seem to be magical. I showed it a short time ago to the prior, having explained to him beforehand how I had discovered it. He is above the superstitions of folks in general, and knowing that I could have no motive in deceiving him, was much interested; but he said to me, 'This is one of the things that were best concealed. I can quite understand that there are many things in nature of which we are ignorant. I know that what you say of decayed fish sometimes giving out light like this is perfectly true, and everyone knows that the glowworms, when the weather is damp, light up the banks and fields, although no heat can be felt. Doubtless in your researches on bones you have discovered some substance akin to that which causes the light in those cases, but you would never persuade the vulgar of this.
"'Nay, there are even churchmen and prelates who would view it as magic. Therefore, my friend, seeing that, as you say, the powder is not likely to be of any use to man, I should say that it were best that you destroy it, for if whispers of it got abroad you might well be accused of dealing in magic. All knowledge of things beyond them is magic to the ignorant. Roger Bacon was treated as a magician, and I doubt not that this will ever be the case with all those who are more learned than their fellow-men. Therefore my advice to you is, burn the stuff and say naught about it.'
"I did not take his advice, Edgar, for it seemed to me that it might well be used to awe any unruly mob that might come hither at night to attack me. I have made an experiment that, though I believe not in the supernatural, would have frightened me had I seen it without knowing anything of its nature. You know that old skull that was dug up out of the garden last month, I have hung the lower jaw on wires so that it can be moved, and have to-day painted it, and now I will blow out the light again, and then take it from the cupboard."
A moment later the room was in darkness, and then an exclamation of surprise and almost terror rose from Edgar. In front of him there was a gibbering skull, the lower jaw wagging up and down, as if engaging in noiseless laughter, It was much more brilliant than the stone head had been, and a lambent flame played round it.
"What think ye of that, Edgar?"
"It is ghastly, sir, horrible!"
"It is not a pleasant object," his father said, quietly, as he struck the tinder and again lighted the lamp. "I fancy, Edgar, that if a mob of people were to break down the door and find themselves confronted by that object they would fly in terror."
"Assuredly they would, father; they would not stop running this side of Dartford. Even though I expected it, the sight sent a shiver through me, and my teeth well-nigh chattered. But this would only avail in case of a night attack."
"It would avail something even in daylight, Edgar. These downstairs rooms have but little light, and that little I intend to block up by nailing boards inside, and by hanging sacks over them outside. Then if I place the skull in the passage, those who sought me in my laboratory would be brought to a standstill. But there are other means. I have buried jars filled with Friar Bacon's powder round the house, with trains by which they can be fired. At present the common people know little of guns, and methinks that the explosion of two or three of these jars would send them about their business, I have other devices which it is not necessary to enter upon, but which would be effective, therefore you need have little fear that any mob will gain entrance here, and you may be sure that after a repulse they would be very loath to touch the place again."
"Yes, father, but they might bring accusation against you of witchcraft."
"I admit that there is that danger, but the prior here has long taken an interest in my investigations, and can testify for me that these are but scientific products, and have naught to do with magic. Besides, if there is a rising of the common people, the king and nobles will be in no mood to listen to complaints against those who have thwarted the attacks of the rioters."
"No doubt that would be so, father; still, for myself, I would rather charge them, sword in hand, with a band of stout fellows behind me."
"But we have not got the stout fellows, Edgar; and for myself, even if we had them, I would prefer to set these poor knaves running without doing harm to them rather than to slay and maim, for their attack would be made in their ignorance, and in their hatred of those above them. They have been goaded by oppression into taking up arms, and the fault rests upon others rather than upon the poor people."
The next morning, however, Edgar went round to the tenants, of whom there were fifteen. They had heard of the affair at Dartford, which was, of course, in everyone's mouth, and their sympathies were wholly with the rioters.
"I think as you do," Edgar said to one of them. "The exactions of the tax- gatherers are indeed beyond all bearing, and if the people do but rise to demand fair treatment and their just rights as men, I should wish them success; but I fear that evil counsels will carry them far beyond this, and that they may attack the houses and castles of the gentry, although these may be in no way the authors of their troubles. I am sure that my father has oppressed no one."
"That he has not, Master Edgar. He is as good a lord as one could desire. He exacts no dues beyond his rights; and indeed if there be trouble or sickness he presses no one beyond his means. We have not been called upon for service for many years, and if the Dartford men should come hither to attack him they will find that they have to reckon with us."
"That is what I have come for," Edgar said. "Should you hear of any intention to attack the well-to-do, I would have you hold yourselves in readiness to gather at the house, and to aid in its defence. My father has means of his own for discomfiting any that may come against him; but as these may fail, it would be well that there should be a body of men ready to repel an attack."
"You can rely upon us, master, but I say not that you can do so on our men. These are serfs, and their sympathies will be all with the rioters. I do not think they would fight against us, but I fear they would not venture their lives against those of their own class."
"That is more than could be expected; but if you yourselves come, it will, I think, be sufficient. I have no fear that these men will in the first place interfere with the gentry. Their first impulse will be to obtain redress for their wrongs; but they have bad advisers, and many will join them for the sake of plunder. When this once begins others will take part with them in the matter, and there is no saying what may come of it."
"Well, you can depend upon us, at any rate, master. You will have but to ring the bell and all within hearing will run, arms in hand, to defend the house, and we shall, I hope, have time enough to gather there before the mob arrives."
"I doubt not that you will. I shall engage a trusty man to go down to the town and watch what is going on, and we are sure to have notice of any such movement. But as I have said, I think not that there is any chance of their beginning in such a way; it will be only after they have encountered the troops, and blood has been shed."
Having gone the round of the tenants, Edgar rode down to Dartford. On the way he passed many men going in the same direction. Almost all of them were armed with staves, pikes, axes, or bows, and he saw that the country people had only been waiting for some act that would serve as a signal for revolt, in order to gather as their fellows in Essex had already begun to do. He found the streets of the town crowded with people; some were excited and noisy, but the mass had a serious and determined air that showed they were resolved upon going through with the work that had been begun. In many places groups of men were assembled in open spaces, listening to the talk of others standing on tables or barrels that had been brought for the purpose.
Their speeches were all to the same point, and Edgar saw that they were the result of a previous agreement.
"Men of Kent!" one exclaimed, "the day has come when you have to prove that you are men, and not mere beasts of burden, to be trodden under foot. You all know how we are oppressed, how illegal exactions are demanded of us, and how, as soon as one is paid, some fresh tax is heaped on us. What are we? Men without a voice, men whom the government regard as merely beings from whom money is to be wrung. Nor is this all. 'Tis not enough that we must starve in order that our oppressors may roll in wealth, may scatter it lavishly as they choose, and indulge in every luxury and in every pleasure. No. The hounds sent among us to wring the last penny from us now take to insulting our wives and daughters, and at last our patience is at an end.
"We have news this morning from all the country round that the people are with us, and before long tens of thousands of the men of Kent will be in arms. Our course is resolved upon. We and the men of Essex will march on London, and woe be to those who try to bar our way. All shall be done orderly and with discretion. We war only against the government, and to obtain our rights. Already our demands have been drawn up, and unless these are granted we will not be content. These are what we ask: first, the total abolition of slavery for ourselves and our children for ever; second, the reduction of the rent of good land to 4d. the acre; third, the full liberty of buying and selling like other men in fairs and markets; fourth, a general pardon for all past offences."
The recital of these demands was received with a shout of approval.
"This and nothing less will we be content with," he went on. "There are some of the king's advisers who had best not fall into our hands, for if they do their lives will pay the penalty for their evil deeds. But upon one thing we are determined: there shall be no plundering. Our cause is a just one, and for that we are ready to fight. But should any join us with the intention of turning this movement to their private advantage, and of plunder and robbery, we warn them that such will not be permitted, and any man caught plundering will at once be hung. They may call us rioters; they may try and persuade the king that we are disloyal subjects, though this is not the case. One thing they shall not say of us, that we are a band of robbers and thieves. By to-night we shall be joined by all true men of the neighbourhood, and will then march to Gravesend, where our fellows have already risen and are in arms; thence we go to Rochester and deliver those of our brethren who have been thrown into prison because they could not pay the unjust taxes. That done, we will go straight to London and demand from the king himself a charter granting the four points we demand. Wat the Tyler has been chosen our leader. He has struck the first blow, and as a man of courage and energy there is no fear of his betraying us, seeing that he has already put his head into a noose. Now shout for the charter, for the king, and for the commons of England."
Such was the tenor of all the speeches, and they were everywhere received with loud cheers. As Edgar rode down the main street on his way home he heard shouting, and a brawny, powerful man came along, surrounded by a mob of cheering men. He looked at Edgar steadily, and stepped in front of his horse.
"You are the son of the man at St. Alwyth," he said. "I have seen you in the streets before. What think you of what we are doing? I have heard of you attending meetings there."
"I think that you have been cruelly wronged," Edgar answered, quietly, "and that the four points that you demand are just and right. I wish you good fortune in obtaining them, and I trust that it will be done peacefully and without opposition."
"Whether peacefully or not, we are determined that they shall be obtained. If it be needful, we will burn down London and kill every man of rank who falls into our hands, and force our way into the king's presence. We will have justice!"
"If you do so you will be wrong," Edgar said, calmly; "and moreover, instead of benefiting your cause you will damage it. Your demands are just, and it will be to the interest of no man to gainsay them. Even the nobles must see that the land will gain strength were all men free and ready to bear arms in its defence; and save for the article about the price of land, as to which I am in no way a judge, I see not that any man will be a penny the poorer; but if, on the other hand, such deeds as those you speak of were committed, you would set the nobles throughout the land against you, you would defeat your own good objects, and would in the end bring destruction upon yourselves; so that instead of bettering your position you would be worse than before."
"And do you doubt," the man exclaimed, with a scowling brow, "that the commons of England could, if they wished, sweep away these accursed nobles and their followers?"
"Were the commons of England united, well armed, and disciplined, they could doubtless do so," Edgar replied, quietly. "I know not whether you are united, but certainly you are neither armed nor disciplined. We saw how little an undisciplined mass, even if well armed, can do against trained troops, when a few thousands of English soldiers defeated nigh twenty times their number at Poictiers. And I say that against a force of steel-clad knights and men-at-arms any number of men, however brave, if armed as these are, could make no stand. It would not be a battle--it would be a slaughter; therefore, while wishing you well, and admitting the full justice of your demands, I would say that it were best for your own sakes, and for the sakes of those who love you, that you should conduct yourselves peaceably, so as to show all men that no harm can arise from granting you the charter you ask for, and in giving you all the rights and privileges of free men."
There was a murmur of approval from many of those standing round. The Tyler, who had made a step forward, looked back angrily and would have spoken, but the man next to him whispered something in his ear. Without saying more he walked on, while Edgar touched his horse with his heel and proceeded on his way.
Although his father no doubt heard him ride up to the house, he did not ascend from his laboratory until his usual time, for although, since the prior had called his attention to his son's condition, he had, when not at work, done all in his power to make the boy happy, and had even given up two hours every evening to him, at all other times he was absorbed in his work to the exclusion of aught else.
"You have been down into the town?" he asked Edgar, as they seated themselves at the table.
"Yes, father; and whatever may happen afterwards, there is no fear of any trouble at present. The speeches of almost all the men were quiet and reasonable. They urged that serfdom should be abolished, free right of markets given, the price of good land to be not over four pennies an acre, that all past offences should be pardoned; beyond this they did not go. Indeed, they declared that everything must be done peacefully and in order, and that any man caught plundering should be hung forthwith. By the applause that followed, these are evidently the sentiments of the great mass of the peasants, but I fear there are some of them--Wat the Tyler at their head--who will go much farther. At present, however, they will disguise their real sentiments, but it seems to me the march on London that they threaten will be far from peaceable. In the first place, they are going to Gravesend, and, joining those gathered there, will then march to Rochester, free all those who have been thrown in prison for non- payment of the tax, and then march on London."
"It must end in disaster, Edgar; for if they obtain what they desire from the king--which they may do, seeing that his uncles are all away, and it will be difficult to raise any force of a sudden that would suffice to defeat them--what will they gain by it? Doubtless, as soon as Gloucester and Lancaster arrive in London, the charter will be annulled, and possibly the leaders of the malcontents punished for their share in the matter. Still, I say not that even so, the movement will not have done good. The nobles have enough on their hands with their own quarrels and jealousies, and seeing that the continuance of serfdom is likely to give rise to troubles that may be more serious than this hasty and ill-considered movement, they may be content to grant whatever is asked, in order to make an end to troubles of this kind. The English are not like the peasants of other countries--so far, at least, as I have seen them. The feeling of independence is very strong among them, and there is none of the obsequious deference that the serfs in Italy and France pay to their masters."
The next morning Albert De Courcy rode into St. Alwyth.
"Why, Albert," Edgar said, as he went out to the door, on seeing him approach, "have you got a holiday to-day?"
"I have a holiday for some time, Edgar. I have received a message from my father saying that he deems it well that I should at once escort my mother and Aline to London, for he has heard of this trouble at Dartford, and as the king has asked him to remain at Court at present, he would fain have mother, Aline, and me with him. Old Hubert is to take command of the castle, and to bid the tenantry be ready to come in for its defence should trouble threaten. But this is not all; he has spoken to the king of you, praising both your swordsmanship and the benefit that I have derived from your teaching, and Richard desired him to send for you and to present you to him."
"It is kind indeed of Sir Ralph," Edgar exclaimed, warmly, "and I will assuredly take advantage of his goodness, although undeserved. This is indeed a splendid opportunity for me. When do you start?"
"We shall leave at ten. I heard as I came along that the peasants marched at daybreak this morning to Gravesend, therefore there is no fear of our crossing their path."
"I must run down and speak to my father. It is no small thing that he will allow to disturb him at his work, but methinks that he will not mind upon such an occasion."
In five minutes Mr. Ormskirk came up into the hall with Edgar.
"My son has told me, Master De Courcy, of the great kindness that your father has done to him. I would, indeed, say no word to hinder his going with you. 'Tis an opportunity the like of which may never occur to him again. It is only on account of the troubles with the peasants that he dislikes to go away at this moment, but I deem not that any trouble will come of it here; and I can myself, as he knows, cope with them should they attempt aught against this house, therefore I bade him not to let that matter enter his mind, but to prepare himself at once to ride with you up to town, so that you can rely upon his being at the castle at the hour appointed."
"Then, with your permission, I will ride off at once, Mr. Ormskirk, for I also have preparations to make, having started at once on the arrival of my father's messenger."
As soon as he had gone, Mr. Ormskirk went up to his chamber and returned in a minute or two. "Here, Edgar, is a purse with money for your needs. The first thing you must do when you reach London is to procure suitable garments for your presentation to the king. Your clothes are well enough for a country gentleman, but are in no way fit for Court. I need not say to you, do not choose over-gay colours, for I know that your tastes do not lie in that direction. I don't wish you to become a courtier, Edgar; for, though it is an excellent thing to be introduced at Court and to be known to high personages there, that is an altogether different thing from being a hanger-on of the Court. Those who do naught but bask in a king's favour are seldom men of real merit. They have to play their part and curry favour. They are looked down upon by the really great; while, should they attain a marked place in the king's favour they are regarded with jealousy and enmity, and sooner or later are sure to fall.
"You cannot but remember the fate that befell the queen's favourites when Edward threw off his tutelage and took the reins of power into his own hands. Such is ever the fate of favourites; neither nobles nor the commonalty love upstarts, and more than one will, I foresee, erelong draw upon themselves the enmity of the king's uncles and other nobles for the influence they have gained over the mind of the young king. I should wish you, then, to make as many acquaintances as you can, for none can say who may be of use to you at one time or another; but keep yourself aloof from all close intimacies. It may be that, in after years, you may find it well-nigh impossible to keep aloof from all parties in the state, but do so as long as you are able, until you can discern clearly who are true patriots and who are actuated only by their own selfish ambition, bearing in mind always that you are a simple gentleman, desirous when an English army enters the field against a foreign foe, to play your part manfully and with honour, and to gain your reputation as a soldier and not as a frequenter of Courts."
"I will bear your instructions in mind, father, and indeed they accord with what you before said to me, and which I determined to make a guide to my conduct."
"Now you had better see to the packing of your valise. It will not be necessary for you to take many things, as you can equip yourself in London."
An hour later, Edgar, after bidding farewell to his father, mounted his horse. "I shall look to see you back again in two or three weeks at the longest," Mr. Ormskirk said; "it is better to come home, even if you go again shortly, though it may be that you will have no occasion for another visit to town for some time to come. If Sir Ralph would keep you longer it were best to make some excuse to return. I know that there are many at Court but little older than yourself, for the king, being as yet scarcely fifteen, naturally likes to surround himself with those who are not greatly older, and who have the same love for pleasure and gaiety, but such associates will do you no good, though I say not that a little of it might not be of advantage, seeing that you are somewhat more grave than is natural at your age, owing to the life that you have led here with me. Young De Courcy--although I have greatly encouraged your companionship with him, for he is a very pleasant and agreeable young gentleman--is too gentle, and lacking in high spirits, which has increased, rather than diminished, your tendency to silence, and a little companionship with more ardour would not be amiss. You must remember that a cheerful spirit that enables a man to support hardship and fatigue lightly, and to animate his soldiers by his example, is one of the most important characteristics of a leader of men."
Edgar arrived at the castle of the De Courcys a few minutes before ten. Some horses were already standing at the door. He did not go in, deeming that he might be in the way, but sent in word to Lady De Courcy that he was there and at her service. In a few minutes she came out, accompanied by her son and Aline.
"I am glad to have so good an escort, Master Ormskirk," she said, smiling; "for after what Sir Ralph told me I feel that I can safely entrust myself to your care."
"I will assuredly do my best, lady," he said, "but I trust that there will be no occasion to draw a sword. I deem that most of those who make the roads unsafe will have gone off to join the Tyler and his band, thinking that opportunities for plunder are sure to present themselves; but, at any rate, as you take, I see, two men-at-arms with you, it is unlikely that anyone will venture to molest us."
He assisted Lady De Courcy and her daughter to their saddles, and the party soon rode off, followed by the two men-at-arms.
"Do you purpose to make the journey in a single day?" Edgar asked.
"Assuredly. Aline and I are both accustomed to ride on horseback, and the journey is not too far to be done before the evening falls, especially as it will be for one day's journey only; the roads are good, the day fine, and there will be no occasion to ride at speed. Why, it is but some seventeen or eighteen miles, and you must think but poorly of our horsemanship if you think we cannot traverse such a distance."
So they travelled on, the horses sometimes going at an amble, sometimes dropping into a walk. As they proceeded they met several little parties of men hurrying along, armed with pikes, clubs, or farming implements. These passed without speaking, and seemed to be much more fearful that they might be interfered with than desirous of interfering with others.
"They are miserable-looking varlets," Dame De Courcy said, disdainfully. "Our two men-at-arms would be a match for a score of them."
"I doubt not that they would," Albert agreed, "though methinks that a blow with one of those flails would make a head ring even under a steel casque."
"I doubt whether they would think of anything but running away, Albert," Edgar said. "I am sorry for the poor fellows; they have great grievances, but I fear they are not setting about the righting of them the best way. I hope that no great ill may befall them."
"But surely these people have not your sympathy, Master Ormskirk?" Lady De Courcy said, in some surprise.
"I have seen enough of them to be sorry for them," Edgar said. "Their life is of the hardest. They live mostly on black bread, and are thankful enough when they can get enough of it. To heavily tax men such as these is to drive them to despair, and that without producing the gain expected, for it is in most cases simply impossible for them to pay the taxes demanded. It seems to me that a poll-tax is, of all others, the worst, since it takes into no account the differences of station and wealth--to the rich the impost is trifling, to the poor it is crushing. It seems to me too that it is not only wrong, but stupid, to maintain serfdom. The men and their families must be fed, and a small money payment would not add greatly to the cost of their services, and indeed would be gained in the additional value of their labour.
"When men are kept as serfs, they work as serfs--I mean to say they work unwillingly and slowly, while, had they the sense of being free, and of having the same rights as others, they would labour more cheerfully. Moreover, it would double the strength of the force that the king and his nobles could place in the field. I am not speaking upon my own judgment, but from what I have learned from my father."
They had no sudden attack to fear from lurking foes, for an act of Edward the First was still in force, by which every highway leading from one market-town to another was always to be kept clear, for two hundred feet on each side, of every ditch, tree, or bush in which a man might lurk to do harm; while, as any ill that happened to travellers was made payable by the township in which it occurred, there was a strong personal interest on the part of the inhabitants to suppress plundering bands in their neighbourhood. Both Edgar and Albert rode in partial armour, with steel caps and breast-pieces, it being an ordinance that all of gentle blood when travelling should do so, and they carried swords by their sides, and light axes at their saddle-bows.
It was but a little past three o'clock when they crossed London Bridge and then made for the Tower, near which Sir Ralph was lodged.