Chapter XXI. The Path Across the Morass.
 

Mike, when night fell, moved away toward the castle, which lay about a quarter of a mile from the village. Approaching to within fifty yards of the gate, he sat down to watch. About eleven o'clock he heard the creak of the gate, and presently was startled by seeing two horsemen ride past him. "They must have muffled their horses' feet," he said to himself. "They are up to no good. I wish there had only been one of them." Mike slipped off his shoes and started in pursuit, keeping just far enough behind the horsemen to enable him to observe the outline of their figures. For half a mile they proceeded quietly. Then they stopped, dismounted, removed the cloths from their horses' feet, and remounting rode forward at a gallop. Mike's old exercise as a runner now rendered him good service. He could already tell, by the direction which the horsemen were taking, that they were bearing to the east of Edinburgh, but he resolved to follow as far as possible in order to see exactly whither they went. The road, or rather track, lay across a moorland country. The ground was often deep and quaggy, and the horsemen several times checked their speed, and went at a slow walk, one advancing on foot along the track to guide the way. These halts allowed breathing time for Mike, who found it hard work to keep near them when going at full speed. At last, after riding for an hour, the horsemen halted at a solitary house on the moorland, Here several horses, held by troopers, were standing. Mike crept round to the back of the house, and looked in at the window. He saw two English officers sitting by a fire, while a light burned on a table. Mike at once recognized in one of them the dreaded General Cromwell, whom he had seen at Drogheda.

"What a fool I was," he muttered to himself, "to have come without my pistol. I would have shot him as he sits, and so wiped out Drogheda."

At the moment the door opened, and a trooper in Scotch uniform entered. "I have brought this letter," he said, "from Alan Campbell."

The general took the letter and opened it. "Campbell promises," he said to the other officer, "to open fire upon the detachment in the village with the guns of the castle as soon as we attack. One of the men who has brought this will remain here and guide our troops across the morass. He suggests that two hundred foot and as many horse should be here at eight to-morrow evening. All he stipulates for is that Colonel Furness, the Royalist who commands the enemy's detachment, shall be given over to him, he having, it seems, some enmity with Argyll. Furness? ah, that is the officer whom I sent to the Bermudas from Drogheda. We had advices of his having got away and captured a ship with other prisoners on board. A bold fellow, and a good officer, but all the more dangerous. Let Campbell do with him as he likes."

The other officer drew out an inkhorn and wrote, at Cromwell's dictation, his adherence to the terms offered by Alan Campbell. Cromwell signed the paper, and handed it to the messenger. Then the English general and his escort mounted and rode off. Campbell's retainers sat for half an hour drinking together. Then they came to the door. One mounted, and saying to the other, "I would rather have twenty-four hours' sleep such as you have before you, than have to ride back to Kirkglen to-night; the mist is setting in thickly," rode off into the darkness.

Mike kept close to him, until at last the man dismounted to follow the track where the morass was most dangerous. In an instant Mike sprang upon him and buried his dagger in his body. Without a cry the trooper fell. Mike felt in his doublet for Cromwell's letter. Placing this in his breast, he went a few paces from the path where he found that he sunk to his knees, the water being some inches deep over the bog. Then he returned, lifted the body of the trooper, carried it as far into the bog as he dared venture, and then dropped it. He placed his foot on the iron breastpiece, and pressed until the body sank in the soft ooze, and the water completely covered it. Then he went back to the horse, and taking the reins, followed the track until completely clear of the moorland country, where, mounting, he rode back to Kirkglen, and presented himself to Harry. The latter had, hours before, gone to bed, having posted strong guards around the village. He struck a light and listened to Mike's relation of what he had done, and ended by the production of the document with Cromwell's signature.

"Another debt to the Earl of Argyll," Harry said grimly. "However, although this proves the treachery of his kinsman, it does not convict Argyll himself, although the evidence is strong enough to hang any other man. Now, Leslie, what do you advise? Shall we send and seize the man left at the hut?"

"It is a doubtful question," Leslie answered, after a pause. "When Campbell finds that his messenger does not return before morning, he will like enough send others off to learn the reason why. If they find him gone, Campbell may suspect that his plan has failed and may send warning to Cromwell."

"At any rate," Harry continued, "we need not decide before morning. But at daybreak, Leslie, plant a party of men on the road and stop any horseman riding out. Let the sergeant in charge say only that he has my orders that none are to pass eastward. It would be a natural precaution to take, and when the news comes back to the castle, Campbell will not necessarily know that his scheme has been detected."

The next morning Leslie volunteered to go out with a couple of men and capture the guide, and arraying himself in his clothes, to take his place, and lead the Roundhead troops astray.

"Were the country other than it is," Harry said, "I would accept your offer, my brave Leslie, even though it might entail your death, for it would be difficult for you to slip away. But over such ground there is no need of this. Let the guide lead the Roundhead troops along the path. We will reconnoiter the morass to-day, and when night falls will so post our men as to open a fire on either flank of him as he comes across the track. Not more than four footmen can march abreast, according to what Mike says, and we shall surprise him, instead of he surprising us."

An hour later two horsemen rode out from the castle, but upon reaching the guard Leslie had placed were turned back. They returned to the castle, and a short time afterward a trooper rode down into the village with a note from Alan Campbell, demanding haughtily by what warrant Colonel Furness ventured to interfere with the free passage of his retainers. Harry replied that he had, as a military precaution, stationed guards on the various roads leading toward the enemy's quarter, and that they were ordered to turn back all, whomsoever they might be, who might seek to pass.

Alan Campbell returned a furious answer, that he should sally out with his garrison, and ride where he listed. Harry replied by marching fifty men up to the road leading to the castle, and by sending a message to Alan Campbell that, although he should regret to be obliged to treat him as an enemy, yet that assuredly if he strove by force to break the military rules he had laid down, he should be compelled to fire upon him. Leaving the detachment under charge of Lieutenant Long, and the main body in the village under that of Hugh Grahame, Harry, accompanied by Donald Leslie and Mike, rode off to reconnoiter the morass. They found that it was particularly bad at two points, while between these the ground was firm for a distance of twenty yards on each side of the track. Beyond the swamp was very deep for thirty or forty yards on both sides, and then it was again somewhat firmer.

Harry decided to post twenty-five men behind these quagmires. Their orders would be to remain perfectly quiet until the column, passing the first morass, should have entered the second; then, when Harry, with the main body, opened fire upon them there, they were to commence upon the flanks of the column.

Returning to the camp, Harry sent forty men with shovels, obtained in the village, to dig a trench, twelve feet wide, and as deep as they could get for the water, across the track, at the near side of the morass.

At nightfall, leaving twenty-five men under William Long in front of the castle, with orders to let none issue forth, and to shoot down any who might make the attempt, Harry marched out with the rest of his command. Crossing the ditch which had been dug, he led fifty forward, and posted them, as he had planned with Leslie; with twenty-five, he took up his own station behind the breastwork formed by the earth thrown out from the trench. The remaining fifty he bade advance as far as they safely could into the swamp on either side. Two hours later a dull sound was heard, the occasional clink of arms, and the muffled tread of many feet on the soft ground. The Roundhead infantry, two hundred strong, led the way, followed by their horse, the guide walking with the officer at the head of the column. When it approached within twenty yards of the ditch Harry gave the word, and a flash of fire streamed from the top of the earthwork. At the same moment those on either side opened fire into the flanks of the column, while the fifty men beyond poured their fire into the cavalry in the rear of the column.

For a moment all was confusion. The Roundheads had anticipated no attack, and were taken wholly by surprise. The guide had fallen at the first discharge and all were ignorant of the ground on which they found themselves. They were, however, trained to conflict. Those on the flank of the column endeavored to penetrate the morass, but they immediately sank to the middle, and had much ado to regain the solid track. The head of the column, pouring a volley into their invisible foes, leveled their pikes, and rushed to the assault. A few steps, and they fell into a deep hole, breast high with water, and on whose slippery bottom their feet could scarce find standing. In vain they struggled forward. From front and flank the fire of their enemy smote them. Those who reached the opposite side of the trench were run through with pikes as they strove to climb from it.

For ten minutes the desperate struggle continued, and then, finding the impossibility of storming such a position in the face of foes of whose strength they were ignorant, the Roundhead infantry turned, and in good order marched back, leaving half their number dead behind them. The cavalry in the rear had fared but little better. Finding the ground on either side was firm when the fire opened on their flanks, they faced both ways, and charged. But ere the horses had gone twenty strides they were struggling to their girths in the morass. Their foes kept up a steady fire, at forty yards' distance, into the struggling mass, and before they could extricate themselves and regain the pathway, many leaving their horses behind, a third of their number had fallen. Joined by the beaten infantry, they retired across the track, and made their way back toward their camp.

Leaving a strong guard at the morass to resist further attempts, Harry returned with his force to the village having inflicted a loss of a hundred and fifty upon enemy, while he himself had lost but eight men. He intrenched the position strongly, and remained there unmolested, until a week later he received orders to march back to Edinburgh. The following day he was summoned before King Charles. He found there General Leslie, the Earl of Argyll, Alan Campbell, and several of the leaders of the Covenant.

"What is this I hear of you, Colonel Furness?" the king said. "General Leslie has reported to me that you have inflicted a very heavy defeat upon a rebel force which marched to surprise you. This is good service, and for it I render you my hearty thanks. But, sir, the Earl of Argyll complains to me that you have beleaguered his kinsman, Alan Campbell, in his hold at Kirkglen, and treated him as a prisoner, suffering none to go out or in during your stay there."

"This, sire, is the warranty for my conduct," Harry said, producing the document signed by Cromwell. "This was taken by one of my men from a trooper who had borne a dispatch from Alan Campbell to the enemy. My man watched the interview between him and Cromwell himself, heard the terms of the dispatch, and saw Cromwell write and give this letter to the trooper, whom he afterward slew, and brought me the letter. The other trooper, who acted as guide to the enemy, fell in the attack."

The king took the letter and read it. "My lord," he said, "this is a matter which gravely touches your honor. This is a letter of General Cromwell's in answer to a traitorous communication of your kinsman here. He has offered to betray Colonel Furness and the troops under him to Cromwell, and has sent a guide for the English troops. He stipulates only that Colonel Furness shall be handed over to him to do as he likes with. As it was manifest to me here some time since that you and Colonel Furness are not friends, this touches you nearly."

"I know nothing of it," the earl said. "My kinsman will tell you."

"I do not need his assurances," King Charles said coldly. "He, at least, is proved to be a traitor, and methinks, my lord earl, that the preachers who are so fond of holding forth to me upon the wickedness of my ways might with advantage bestow some of their spare time in conversing with you upon the beauty and godliness of straightforwardness. General Leslie, you will arrest at once, on his leaving our presence, Colonel Alan Campbell, and will cause a court of inquiry to sift this matter to the bottom. And hark you, my lord of Argyll, see you that no more of your kinsmen practice upon the life of my faithful Colonel Furness. This is the third time that he has been in jeopardy at your hands. I am easy, my lord earl, too easy, mayhap, but let no man presume too far upon it. My power is but limited here, but remember the old saying, 'Wise men do not pull the tails of lions' whelps.' The day may come when Charles II. will be a king in power as well as in name. Beware that you presume not too far upon his endurance now." So saying, the king turned from Argyll, and bidding Harry follow him, and tell him the story of the defeat of the English troops, left the earl standing alone, the picture of rage and mortification.

"You had best beware, Master Furness," the king said. "He needs a long spoon they say, who sups with the deil. The Earl of Argyll is the real king of Scotland at present, and it is ill quarreling with him. You have got the best of it in the first three rubbers, but be sure that Argyll will play on till the cards favor him. And if you are once in his power, I would not give a baubee for your life. The proud earl treats me as a master would teach a froward pupil, but I tell you, Master Furness, and I know you are discreet and can be trusted, that as surely as the earl brought Montrose to the block, so surely shall Argyll's head roll on the scaffold, if Charles II. is ever King of England. But I fear for you, Master Furness. I can help you here not at all, and the lecture which, on your behalf, I administered to the earl--and in faith I wonder now at my own courage--will not increase his love for you. You will never be safe as long as you remain in Scotland. What do you say? Will you south and join one or other of the Royalist bodies who are in arms there?"

"Not so, your majesty. With your permission, I will play the game out to the end, although I know that my adversary holds the strongest cards. But even did I wish to leave, it would be as hazardous to do so as to stay here. So long as I am with my regiment I am in safety. I could not gain England by sea, for the Parliament ships bar the way, and did I leave my regiment and go south with only a small party, my chance of crossing the border alive would be but small. No, your majesty, I have the honor to command a king's regiment, and whether against Cromwell in the field, or against Argyll's plots and daggers, I shall do my duty to the end."

When, upon his return to the camp, Harry told his friends the purport of the interview between himself and Argyll, of Alan Campbell being put under arrest and the earl openly reproved by the king, Donald Leslie raised his hands in despair.

"If you get through this, Furness," he said, "I shall for the rest of my life be convinced that you have a charmed existence, and that your good genius is more powerful than the evil one of Argyll. The gossips say that he is in alliance with the evil one himself, and I can well believe them. But I beg you, in all seriousness, to confine yourself to the camp. So long as you are here you are safe. But once beyond its limits your life will not be worth a straw."

Jacob added his entreaties to those of Leslie, and Harry promised that until the decisive battle was over he would keep among his men, unless compelled by duty to appear at court.

Four days afterward a soldier entered Harry's tent, and handed him a missive. It was as follows: "Upon receipt of this, Colonel Furness will proceed to Leith and will board the vessel, the Royalist, which has just arrived from Holland. There he will inspect the newly arrived recruits, who will be attached to his regiment. He will examine the store of arms brought by her, and will report on their state and condition.--David Leslie, commanding his majesty's armies."

The duty was one of mere routine. Harry showed the note to Jacob, and said, "You may as well come with Hie, Jacob. Your drilling is over for the day, and you can aid me looking through the stores. Mike," he said, "we shall be back to supper. We are only going down to the port." The two officers buckled on their swords, and at once started on foot for the port, which was but half a mile distant. Mike looked anxiously after his master. Since the day when danger had first threatened him he had scarce let him out of his sight, following close to his heels like a faithful dog. His present business seemed assuredly to forbode no danger. Nevertheless, the lad felt restless and anxious when he saw his master depart. A few minutes later he went to William Long's tent. "Master Long," he said, "will you see that my master's servant gets supper in readiness at the usual hour. He has gone down to the port to inspect some recruits just arrived from Holland, by order of General Leslie, and said he would return by supper. I know that it is foolish, but since the affair with Alan Campbell I am never easy when he is not near. In this case, I do not see that there can possibly be any lurking danger. Argyll could not know of his proceeding to the port, nor would he venture to attack him there where the streets swarm with our soldiers. Nevertheless, I would fain go down and assure myself that all is well."

William Long at once promised to look after the supper, and Mike hurried away after Harry and his companion. These had, however, too far a start to be overtaken, and when he reached the wharf he saw a boat rowed by two men, and having two sitters in the stern. It was already some distance from shore, and appeared to be proceeding toward a vessel which lay at anchor several hundred yards further out from the shore than the others.

"Can you tell me," he asked a sailor, "whether that ship lying there is the Royalist?"

"That is the name she goes by to-day," the sailor said, "for as I rowed past her this morning on my way from fishing, I saw the name newly painted on her stern. They have put it on her boat too, which you now see lowing toward her, and which has been lying by the pier all day, in readiness to take out any one who might wish to go off to her."

"But have they changed her name, then?" Mike asked. "What have they been doing that for?"

"She has been called the Covenant for the last two years," the sailor said. "But I suppose Johnny Campbell, her master, thought the other more suited to the times."

The name of the captain at once aroused Mike's uneasiness to the fullest.

"Tell me," he said, "good fellow, did that ship arrive this morning from Holland?"

"From Holland!" repeated the sailor. "No. She came down the coast from the north three days ago, with beasts for the army."

Mike stood for a moment thunderstruck. Then, without a word to the sailor, he turned and ran back at full speed through the town up to the camp. At a headlong pace he made his way through the camp until he stopped at the tent of General Leslie. He was about to rush in without ceremony when the sentinel stopped his way.

"Please let me pass," he panted. "I would see the general on a matter of the utmost importance."

The sentries laughed.

"You don't suppose," one of them said, "that the general is to be disturbed by every barefooted boy who wants to speak to him. If you have aught to say, you must speak first to the lieutenant of the guard."

"Every moment is of importance," Mike urged. "It is a matter of life and death. I tell you I must see the general." Then at the top of his voice he began to shout, "Sir David Leslie! Sir David Leslie!"

"Silence there, young varmint, or I will wring thy neck for thee!" exclaimed the soldier, greatly scandalized, seizing Mike and shaking him violently. But the boy continued to shout out at the top of his voice, "Sir David Leslie! Sir David Leslie!"