Chapter VI. A Narrow Escape.
 

During the next few days Harry was kept hard at work delivering the various minute documents which he had brought in the hollow of his stick. Sometimes of an evening he attended his master to the houses where he had taken such messages, and once or twice was called in to be present at discussions, and asked to explain various matters connected with the position of the king. During this time he saw but little of the apprentice Jacob, except at his meals, and as the boy did not touch upon his frequent absence, or make any allusion to political matters, when in their bedroom alone at night, Harry hoped that his suspicions had been allayed.

One morning, however, on waking up, he saw the boy sitting upright in bed, staring fixedly at him.

"What is the matter; Jacob, and what are you doing?"

"I am wondering who and what you are!" the boy said.

"I am Roger, your fellow apprentice," Harry replied, laughing.

"I am not sure that you are Roger; I am not sure that you are an apprentice," the boy said. "But if you were, that would not tell me who you are. If you were merely Roger the apprentice, Dame Alice would not pick out all the tit-bits at dinner, and put them on your plate, while I and Master Hardwood have to put up with any scraps which may come. Nor do I think that, even for the purpose of carrying his cloak, our master would take you with him constantly of an evening. He seems mighty anxious too, for you to learn your way about London. I do not remember that he showed any such care as to my geographical knowledge. But, of course, there is a mystery, and I want to get to the bottom of it, and mean to do so if I can."

"Even supposing that there was a mystery," Harry said, "what good would it do to you to learn it, and what use would you make of your knowledge?"

"I do not know," the boy said carelessly. "But knowledge is power."

"You see," Harry said, "that supposing there were, as you say, a mystery, the secret would not be mine to tell, and even were it so before I told it, I should want to know whether you desired to know it for the sake of aiding your master, if possible, or of doing him an injury.

"I would do him no injury, assuredly," Jacob said. "Master Fleming is as good a master as there is in London. I want to find out, because it is my nature to find out. The mere fact that there is a mystery excites my curiosity, and compels me to do all in my power to get to the bottom of it. Methinks that if you have aught that you do not want known, it would be better to take Jacob Plummer into your confidence. Many a man's head has been lost before now because he did not know whom to trust."

"There is no question of losing heads in the matter," Harry said, smiling.

"Well, you know best," Jacob replied, shrugging his shoulders; "but heads do not seem very firmly on at present."

When he went out with Master Fleming that evening Harry related to him the conversation which he had had with Jacob.

"What think you, Master Furness? Is this malapert boy to be trusted, or not?"

"It were difficult to say, sir," Harry answered. "His suspicions are surely roused, and as it seemed to me that his professions of affection and duty toward yourself were earnest, methinks that you might enlist him in your cause, and would find him serviceable hereafter, did you allow me frankly to speak to him. He has friends among the apprentice boys, and might, should he be mischievously inclined, set one to follow us of a night, and learn whither you go; he might even now do much mischief. I think that it is his nature to love plotting for its own sake. He would rather plot on your side than against it; but if you will not have him, he may go against you."

"I have a good mind to send him home to his friends," the merchant said. "He can know nothing as yet."

"He might denounce me as a Royalist," Harry said; "and you for harboring me. I will sound him again to-night, and see further into his intentions. But methinks it would be best to trust him."

That night the conversation was again renewed.

"You see, Jacob," Harry said, "that it would be a serious matter, supposing what you think to be true, to intrust you with the secret. I know not whether you are disposed toward king or Parliament, and to put the lives of many honorable gentlemen into the hands of one of whose real disposition I know little would be but a fool's trick."

"You speak fairly, Roger," the boy said. "Indeed, What I said to you was true. I trouble my head in no Way as to the politics and squabbles of the present day; but I mean to rise some day, and there is no better way to rise than to be mixed up in a plot. It is true that the rise may be to the gallows; but if one plays for high stakes, one must risk one's purse. I love excitement, and believe that I am no fool. I can at least be true to the side that I engage upon, and of the two, would rather take that of the king than of the Parliament, because it seems to me that there are more fools on his side than on the other, and therefore more chance for a wise head to prosper."

Harry laughed.

"You have no small opinion of yourself, Master Jacob."

"No," the boy said; "I always found myself able to hold my own. My father, who is a scrivener, predicted me that I should either come to wealth or be hanged, and I am of the same opinion myself."

After further conversation next day with the merchant, Harry frankly confided to Jacob that evening that he was the bearer of letters from the king. Of their contents he said that he knew nothing; but had reason to believe that another movement was on foot for bringing about the overthrow of the party of Puritans who were in possession of the government of London.

"I deemed that such was your errand," the boy said. "You played your part well; but not well enough. You might have deceived grown-up people; but you would hardly take in a boy of your own age. Now that you have told me frankly, I will, if I can, do anything to aid. I care nothing for the opinions of one side or the other; but as I have to go to the cathedral three times on Sunday, and to sit each time for two hours listening to the harangues of Master Ezekiel Proudfoot, I would gladly join in anything which would be likely to end by silencing that fellow and his gang. It is monstrous that, upon the only day in the week we have to ourselves, we should be compelled to undergo the punishment of listening to these long-winded divines."

When Harry was not engaged in taking notes, backward and forward, between the merchant and those with whom he was negotiating, he was occupied in the shop. There the merchant kept up appearances before the scrivener and any customers who might come in, by instructing him in the mysteries of his trade; by showing him the value of the different velvets and silks; and by teaching him his private marks, by which, in case of the absence of the merchant or his apprentice, he could state the price of any article to a trader who might come in. Harry judged, by the conversations which he had with his host, that the latter was not sanguine as to the success of the negotiations which he was carrying on.

"If," he said, "the king could obtain one single victory, his friends would raise their heads, and would assuredly be supported by the great majority of the population, who wish only for peace; but so long as the armies stood facing each other, and the Puritans are all powerful in the Parliament and Council of the city, men are afraid to be the first to move, not being sure how popular support would be given."

One evening after work was over Harry and Jacob walked together up the Cheap, and took their place among a crowd listening to a preacher at Paul's Cross. He was evidently a popular character, and a large number of grave men, of the straitest Puritan appearance, were gathered round him.

"I wish we could play some trick with these somber-looking knaves," Jacob whispered.

"Yes," Harry said; "I would give much to be able to do so; but at the present moment I scarcely wish to draw attention upon myself."

"Let us get out of this, then," Jacob said, "if there is no fun to be had. I am sick of these long-winded orations."

They turned to go, and as they made their way through the crowd, Harry trod upon the toe of a small man in a high steeple hat and black coat.

"I beg your pardon," Harry said, as there burst from the lips of the little man an exclamation which was somewhat less decorous than would have been expected from a personage so gravely clad. The little man stared Harry in the face, and uttered another exclamation, this time of surprise. Harry, to his dismay, saw that the man with whom he had come in contact was the preacher whom he had left gagged on the guardroom bed at Westminster.

"A traitor! A spy!" shouted the preacher, at the top of his voice, seizing Harry by the doublet. The latter shook himself free just as Jacob, jumping in the air, brought his hand down with all his force on the top of the steeple hat, wedging it over the eyes of the little man. Before any further effort could be made to seize them, the two lads dived through the crowd, and dashed down a lane leading toward the river.

This sudden interruption to the service caused considerable excitement, and the little preacher, on being extricated from his hat, furiously proclaimed that the lad he had seized, dressed as an apprentice, was a malignant, who had bean taken prisoner at Brentford, and who had foully ill-treated him in a cell in the guardroom at Finsbury. Instantly a number of men set off in pursuit.

"What had we best do, Jacob?" Harry said, as he heard the clattering of feet behind them.

"We had best jump into a boat," Jacob said, "and row for it. It is dark now, and we shall soon be out of their sight."

At the bottom of the lane were some stairs, and at these a number of boats. As it was late in the evening, and the night a foul one, the watermen, not anticipating fares, had left, and the boys, leaping into a boat, put out the sculls, and rowed into the stream, just as their pursuers were heard coming down the lane.

"Which way shall we go?" Harry said.

"We had better shoot the bridge," Jacob replied. "Canst row well?"

"Yes," Harry said; "I have practiced at Abingdon with an oar."

"Then take the sculls," Jacob said, "and I will steer. It is a risky matter going through the bridge, I tell you, at half tide. Sit steady, whatever you do. Here they come in pursuit, Roger. Bend to the sculls," and in a couple of minutes they reached the bridge.

"Steady, steady," shouted Jacob, as the boat shot a fall, some eight feet in depth, with the rapidity of an arrow. For a moment it was tossed and whirled about in the seething waves below, and then, thanks to Jacob's presence of mind and Harry's obedience to his orders, it emerged safely into the smooth water below the bridge. Harry now gave up one of the sculls to Jacob, and the two boys rowed hard down the stream.

"Will they follow, think you?" Harry said.

"I don't think," Jacob laughed, "that any of those black-coated gentry will care for shooting the bridge. They will run down below, and take boat there; and as there are sure to be hands waiting to carry fares out to the ships in the pool, they will gain fast upon us when ones they are under way."

The wind was blowing briskly with them, and the tide running strong, and at a great pace they passed the ships lying at anchor.

"There is the Tower," Jacob said; "with whose inside we may chance to make acquaintance, if we are caught, Look," he said, "there is a boat behind us, rowed by four oars! I fear that it is our pursuers."

"Had we not better land, and take our chance?" Harry said.

"We might have done so at first," Jacob said; "it is too late now. We must row for it. Look," he continued, "there is a bark coming along after the boat. She has got her sails up already, and the wind is bringing her along grandly. She sails faster than they row, and if she comes up to us before they overtake us, it may be that the captain will take us in tow. These sea-dogs are always kindly."

The boat that the boys had seized was, fortunately, a very light and fast one, while that in pursuit was large and heavy, and the four watermen had to carry six sitters. Consequently, they gained but very slowly upon the fugitives. Presently a shot from a pistol whizzed over the boys' heads.

"I did not bargain for this, friend Roger," Jacob said. "My head is made rather for plots and conspiracies than for withstanding the contact of lead."

"Row away!" Harry said. "Here is the ship just alongside now."

As the vessel, which was a coaster, came along, the crew looked over the side, their attention, being called by the sound of the pistol and the shouts of those in chase.

"Throw us a rope, sir," Jacob shouted. "We are not malefactors, but have been up to a boyish freak, and shall be heavily punished if we are caught."

Again the pistol rang out behind, and one of the Sailors threw a rope to the boys. It was caught, and in a minute the boat was gliding rapidly along in the wake of the ship. She was then pulled up alongside, the boys clambered on board, and the boat was sent adrift, The pursuers continued the chase for a few minutes longer, but seeing the ship gradually drawing away from them, they desisted, and turned in toward shore.

"And who are you?" the captain of the brig said.

"We are apprentices, as you see," Jacob said. "We were listening to some preaching at Paul's Cross. In trying to get out from the throng--being at length weary of the long-winded talk of the preacher--we trod upon the feet of a worthy divine. He, refusing to receive our apologies, took the matter roughly, and seeing that the crowd of Puritans around were going to treat us as malignant roisterers, we took the liberty of driving the hat of our assailant over his eyes, and bolting. Assuredly, had we been caught, we should have been put in the stocks and whipped, even if worse pains and penalties had not befallen us, for ill-treatment of one of those who are now the masters of London."

"It was a foolish freak," the captain said, "and in these days such freaks are treated as crimes. It is well that I came along. What do you purpose to do now?"

"We would fain be put ashore, sir, somewhere in Kent, so that we may make our way back again. Our figures could not have been observed beyond that we were apprentices, and we can enter the city quietly, without fear of detection."

The wind dropped in the evening, and, the tide turning, the captain brought to anchor. In the morning he sailed forward again. When he neared Gravesend he saw a vessel lying in the stream.

"That is a Parliament ship," he said.

At that moment another vessel of about the same size as that in which they were was passing her. She fired a gun, and the ship at once dropped her sails and brought up.

"What can she be doing now, arresting the passage of ships on their way down? If your crime had been a serious one, I should have thought that a message must have been brought down in the night for her to search vessels coming down stream for the persons of fugitives. What say you, lads? Have you told me the truth?"

"We have told you the truth, sir," Harry said; "but not the whole truth. The circumstances are exactly as my friend related them. But he omitted to say that the preacher recognized in me one of a Cavalier family, and that they may suspect that I was in London on business of the king's."

"Is that so?" the captain said. "In that case, your position is a perilous one. It is clear that they do not know the name of the ship in which you are embarked, or they would not have stopped the one which we see far ahead. If they search the ship, they are sure to find you."

"Can you swim, Jacob?" Harry asked the other.

He nodded.

"There is a point," Harry said, "between this and the vessel of war, and if you sail close to that you will for a minute or two be hidden from the view of those on her deck. If you will take your ship close to that corner we will jump overboard and swim on shore. If then your vessel is stopped you can well say that you have no fugitives on board, and let them search."

The captain thought the plan a good one, and at once the vessel's head was steered over toward the side to which Harry had pointed. As they neared the corner they for a minute lost sight of the hull of the man-of-war, and the boys, with a word of thanks and farewell to the captain, plunged over and swam to the bank, which was but some thirty yards away. Climbing it, they lay down among the grass, and watched the progress of the vessel. She, like the one before, was brought up by a gun from the man-of-war, and a boat from the latter put out and remained by her side for half an hour. Then they saw the boat return, the vessel hoist her sails again, and go on her way.

"This is a nice position into which you have brought me, Master Roger," Jacob said. "My first step in taking part in plots and conspiracies does not appear to me to lead to the end which I looked for. However, I am sick of the shop, and shall be glad of a turn of freedom. How let us make our way across the marshes to the high land. It is but twenty miles to walk to London, if that be really your intent."

"I shall not return to London myself," Harry said; "but shall make my way back to Oxford. It would be dangerous now for me to appear, and I doubt not that a sharp hue and cry will be kept up. In your case it is different, for as you have been long an apprentice, and as your face will be entirely unknown to any of them, there will be little chance of your being detected."

"I would much rather go with you to Oxford," the lad said. "I am weary of velvets and silks, and though I do not know that wars and battles will be more to my taste, I would fain try them also. You are a gentleman, and high in the trust of the king and those around him. If you will take me with you as your servant I will be a faithful knave to you, and doubt not that as you profit by your advantages, some of the good will fall to my share also."

"In faith," Harry said, "I should hardly like you to be my servant, Jacob, although I have no other office to bestow at present. But if you come with me you shall be rather in the light of a major-domo, though I have no establishment of which you can be the head. In these days, however, the distinctions of master and servant are less broad than before, and in the field we shall be companions rather than master and follower. So, if you like to cast in your fortunes with mine, here is my hand on it. You have already proved your friendship to me as well as your quickness and courage, and believe me, you will not find me or my father ungrateful. But for you, I should now be in the cells, and your old master in no slight danger of finding himself in prison, to say nothing of the upset of the negotiations for which I came to London. Therefore, you have deserved well, not only of me, but of the king, and the adventure may not turn out so badly as it has begun. We had best strike south, and go round by Tunbridge, and thence keeping west, into Berkshire, and so to Oxford. In this way we shall miss the Parliament men lying round London, and those facing the Royalists between Reading and Oxford."

This order was carried out. The lads met with but few questioners, and replying always that they were London apprentices upon their way home to visit their friends for a short time, passed unsuspected. At first the want of funds had troubled them, for Harry had forgotten the money sewn up in his shoe. But presently, remembering this, and taking two gold pieces out of their hiding-place, they went merrily along the road and in five days from starting arrived at Oxford.