Chapter VIII. The Defense of an Outpost.
 

The effect of the fresh air and of cordials poured down their throats soon restored the vigor to Prince Rupert and Harry Furness. They were still weak, for the great effort which nature had made to resist the force of the heat during those long hours had taxed their constitutions to the utmost.

Lady Sidmouth was rejoiced indeed to find them alive, for she had made sure that they were lost. It was not until she had been placed in a room strongly barred, and under a guard at Storton, that she perceived the light arising from her residence, and guessed that the men of the Commons, unable to find the hiding-place of Prince Rupert, had set it on fire. Then she had knocked loudly at the door; but the sentry had given no answer either to that or to her entreaties for a hearing. She soon, indeed, desisted from her efforts, for the fire which blazed up speedily convinced her that all hope was gone. When Jacob and the Royalists arrived, driving out the small remnant of the Roundheads who remained in the village, he had found Lady Sidmouth and her daughter bathed in tears, under the belief that their guests had perished in the old house that they loved so well. It was with no hope that they had mounted on the instant, and ridden at full gallop to the castle, and it was not until they saw that that wall was still standing that even the slightest hope entered their minds. Even then it appeared incredible that any one could be alive, and the shout from the loophole had surprised almost as much as it had delighted them.

In the course of three or four hours, refreshed and strengthened by a hearty breakfast and draughts of burgundy, the prince and Harry mounted their horses. Lady Sidmouth determined to remain for a few days at one of her tenant's houses, and then to go quietly on to Oxford--for by this time the main army of Essex was rapidly moving east, and the country would soon be secure for her passage. The prince and Harry rode at full speed to rejoin the army. That night, by riding late, they reached it. They found that Essex had, in his retreat, surprised Cirencester and had passed Farringdon.

The prince, with five thousand horse, started, and marching with great rapidity, got between Reading and the enemy, and, near Newbury, fell upon the Parliament horse. For several hours sharp skirmishing went on, and Essex was forced to halt his army at Hungerford. This gave time for the king, who was marching at the head of his infantry, to come up. The royal army occupied Newbury, and by the position they had taken up, were now between the Roundheads and London.

On the morning of the 20th of September the outpost of each force became engaged, and the battle soon raged along the whole line. It was to some extent a repetition of the battle of Edgehill. Prince Rupert, with his Cavaliers, swept away the horse of the enemy; but the pikemen of London, who now first were tried in combat, forced back the infantry of the king. Prince Rupert, returning from the pursuit, charged them with all his cavalry; but so sharply did they shoot, and so steadily did the line of pikes hold together, that the horse could make no impression upon them.

The night fell upon an undecided battle, and the next morning the Roundheads, as at Edgehill, drew off from the field, leaving to the Royalists the honor of a nominal success, a success, however, which was in both cases tantamount to a repulse.

Three leading men upon the king's side fell--Lords Falkland, Carnarvon, and Sunderland. The former, one of the finest characters of the times, may be said to have thrown away his life. He was utterly weary of the terrible dissensions and war in which England was plunged. He saw the bitterness increasing on both sides daily--the hopes of peace growing less and less; and as he had left the Parliamentary party, because he saw that their ambition was boundless, and that they purposed to set up a despotic tyranny, so he must have bitterly grieved at seeing upon the side of the king a duplicity beyond all bounds, and want of faith which seemed to forbid all hope of a satisfactory issue. Thus, then, when the day of Newbury came, Falkland, whose duties in nowise led him into the fight, charged recklessly and found the death which there can be little doubt he sought.

Although the Cavaliers claimed Newbury as a great victory, instead of advancing upon London they fell back as usual to Oxford.

During the skirmishes Harry had an opportunity of doing a service to an old friend. The Parliament horse, although valiant and better trained than that of the Royalists, were yet unable to withstand the impetuosity with which the latter always attacked, the men seeming, indeed, to be seized with a veritable panic at the sight of the gay plumes of Rupert's gentlemen. In a fierce skirmish between Harry's troop and a party of Parliament horse of about equal strength, the latter were defeated, and Harry, returning with the main body, found a Puritan officer dismounted, with his back against a tree, defending himself from the attacks of three of his men. Harry rode hastily up and demanded his surrender. The officer looked up, and to his surprise Harry saw his friend Herbert.

"I am your prisoner, Harry," Herbert said, as he lowered the point of his sword.

"Not at all!" Harry exclaimed. "It would indeed be a strange thing, Herbert, were I to make you a prisoner. I thought you settled at Abingdon?"

Ordering one of his troopers to catch a riderless horse which was galloping near, he spoke for a moment or two with his friend, and then, as the horse was brought up, he told him to mount and ride.

"But you may get into trouble for releasing me," Herbert said.

"I care not if I do," Harry replied. "But you need not be uneasy about me, for Prince Rupert will stand my friend, and hold me clear of any complaint that may be made. I will ride forward with you a little, till you can join your friends."

As Harry rode on by the side of Herbert a Royalist officer, one Sir Ralph Willoughby, dashed up.

"What means this?" he exclaimed. "Do I see an officer of his majesty riding with one of the Roundheads? This is treason and treachery!"

"I will answer to the king, if need be," Harry said, "for my conduct. I am not under your orders, Sir Ralph, and shall use my discretion in this matter. This gentleman is as a brother to me."

"And I would cut down my brother," Sir Ralph said furiously, "if I found him in the ranks of the enemy!"

"Then, sir, we differ," Harry replied, "for that would not I. There are your friends," he said to Herbert, pointing to a body of Roundheads at a short distance, "Give me your word, however, that you will not draw sword again to-day."

Herbert readily gave the required promise, and riding off, was soon with his friends. Sir Ralph and Harry came to high words after he had left; and the matter might then and there have been decided by the sword, had not a party of Roundheads, seeing two cavalry officers so near to them, charged down, and compelled them to ride for their lives.

The following day Sir Ralph reported the circumstance to the general, and he to Prince Rupert. The prince laughed at the charge.

"Harry Furness," he said, "is as loyal a gentleman as draws sword in our ranks, and as he and I have been well-nigh roasted together, it were vain indeed that any complaint were made to me touching his honor. I will speak to him, however, and doubt not that his explanation will be satisfactory."

The prince accordingly spoke to Harry, who explained the circumstances of his relations with the young Roundhead.

"Had he been a great captain, sir," Harry said, "I might have deemed it my duty to hold him in durance, however near his relationship to myself. But as a few weeks since he was but a schoolboy, methought that the addition of his sword to the Roundhead cause would make no great difference in our chances of victory that afternoon. Moreover, I had received his pledge that he would not draw sword again in the battle."

As even yet, although the bitterness was quickly increasing, it was far from having reached that point which it subsequently attained, and prisoners on both sides were treated with respect, no more was said regarding Harry's conduct in allowing his friend to escape. But from that moment, between himself and Sir Ralph Willoughby there grew up a strong feeling of animosity, which only needed some fitting pretext to break out.

It was, indeed, an unfortunate point in the royal cause, that there was very far from being unity among those who fought side by side. There were intrigues and jealousies. There were the king's men, who would have supported his majesty in all lengths to which he might have gone, and who were ever advising him to resist all attempts at pacification, and to be content with nothing less than a complete defeat of his enemies. Upon the other hand, there were the grave, serious men, who had drawn the sword with intense reluctance, and who desired nothing so much as peace--a peace which would secure alike the rights of the crown and the rights of the people.

They were shocked, too, by the riotous and profligate ways of some of the wilder spirits, and deemed that their cause was sullied by the reckless conduct and wild ways of many of their party. Sir Henry Furness belonged to this section of the king's adherents, and Harry, who had naturally imbibed his father's opinions, held himself a good deal aloof from the wild young spirits of the king's party.

Skirmishes took place daily between the cavalry outposts of the two armies. Sir Henry was asked by the prince to send some of his troops across the river to watch the enemy, and he chose that commanded by Harry, rather for the sake of getting the lad away from the temptations and dissipation of Oxford than to give him an opportunity of distinguishing himself. The troop commanded by Sir Ralph Willoughby was also on outpost duty, and lay at no great distance from the village in which Harry quartered his men after crossing the river. The Roundhead cavalry were known to be but three or four miles away, and the utmost vigilance was necessary.

Harry gave orders that the troops should be distributed through the village--five men to a house. Straw was to be brought in at night, and laid on the floor of the kitchens, and the men were there to sleep, with their arms by their sides, ready for instant service. One of each party was to stand sentry over the five horses which were to be picketed to the palings in front of the house. At the first alarm he was at once to awake his comrades, who were to mount instantly, and form in column in the street. Two pickets were placed three hundred yards from the village, and two others a quarter of a mile further in advance. Harry and Jacob took up their residence in the village inn, and arranged alternately to visit the pickets and sentries every two hours.

"They shall not catch us napping, Jacob. This is my first command on detached duty. You and I have often remarked upon the reckless ways of our leaders. We have an opportunity now of carrying our own ideas into effect."

At three o'clock Jacob visited the outposts. All was still, and nothing had occurred to give rise to any suspicion of the vicinity of an enemy. Half an hour later one of the advanced pickets galloped in. They heard, he said, a noise as of a large body of horse, away to the right, and it seemed as if it was proceeding toward Chalcombe, the village where Sir Ralph Willoughby's troop was quartered. Two minutes later, thanks to Harry's arrangements, the troop were mounted and in readiness for action.

The first faint dawn of day had begun. Suddenly the stillness was broken by the sound of pistol shots and shouts from the direction of Chalcombe, which lay a mile away.

"It is likely," Harry said, "that Sir Ralph has been caught napping. He is brave, but he is reckless, and the discipline of his troop is of the slackest. Let us ride to his rescue."

The troop filed out from the village, and turned down the side road leading to Chalcombe. Harry set spurs to his horse and led the column at a gallop. The sound of shots continued without intermission, and presently a bright light shot up.

"Methinks," Harry said to Jacob, "the Roundheads have caught our men asleep, and it is an attack upon the houses rather than a cavalry fight."

It was scarcely five minutes from the time they started when they approached the village. By the light of a house which had been set on fire, Harry saw that his conjecture was well founded. The Roundheads were dismounted, and were attacking the houses.

Halting just outside the village, Harry formed his men with a front across the whole road, and directed the lines to advance, twenty yards apart. Then, placing himself at their head, he gave the word, and charged down the street upon the Roundheads. The latter, occupied by their attack upon the houses, were unconscious of the presence of their foe until he was close upon them, and were taken utterly by surprise. The force of the charge was irresistible, and the Roundheads, dispersed and on foot, were cut down in all directions. Groups of twos and threes stood together and attempted resistance, but the main body thought only of regaining their horses. In three minutes after the Royalists entered the village the surviving Roundheads were in full flight, hotly pursued by the victorious Cavaliers. These, being for the most part better mounted, overtook and slew many of the Roundheads, and not more than half the force which had set out returned to their quarters at Didcot. The pursuit continued to within half a mile of that place, and then Harry, knowing that there was a force of Roundhead infantry there, drew off from the pursuit, and returned to Chalcombe. He found that more than half of Sir Ralph Willoughy's men had been killed, many having been cut down before they could betake themselves to their arms, those quartered in the inn, and at two or three of the larger houses, having alone maintained a successful resistance until the arrival of succor.

Sir Ralph Willoughby was furious. The disaster was due to his own carelessness in having contented himself with placing two pickets in advance of the village, and permitting the whole remainder of his force to retire to bed. Consequently the picket, on riding in upon the approach of the enemy, were unable to awake and call them to arms before the Roundheads were upon them. In his anger he turned upon Harry, and fiercely demanded why he had not sent him news of the approach of the enemy.

"You must have known it," he said. "Your men were all mounted and in readiness, or they could not have arrived here so soon. You must have been close at hand, and only holding off in order that you might boast of having come to my relief."

Harry, indignant at these words, turned on heel without deigning to give an answer to the angry man, and at once rode back to his own quarters. Two hours later Prince Rupert rode up. The firing had been reported, and Prince Rupert had ridden with a body of horse to Chalcombe. Here he had heard Sir Ralph Willoughby's version of the story, and had requested that officer to ride with him to Harry's quarters. The prince, with several of his principal officers, alighted at the inn, outside which Harry received him. Prince Rupert led the way into the house.

"Master Furness," he said, "Sir Ralph Willoughby accuses you of having played him false, and left his party to be destroyed on account of the quarrel existing between you, touching that affair at Newbury. What have you to say to this? He alleges that you must have been close at hand, and moved not a finger to save him until half his troop was destroyed."

"It is wholly false, sir," Harry said. "Seeing that the enemy were so close, I had placed my pickets well in advance, and ordered my men to lie down in their clothes, with their arms beside them, on straw in the kitchens, ready to mount at a moment's warning. I quartered five in each house, having their horses fastened in front, and one of each party stationed at the door, where he could observe the horses and wake the men on the instant. Thus, when my pickets came in with the news that troops were heard moving toward Chalcombe, my troop was in less than two minutes in the saddle. As we rode out of the village we heard the first shot, and five minutes later charged the Roundheads in the streets of the village. Had we not hastened, methinks that neither Sir Ralph Willoughby nor any of his troops would have been alive now to tell the tale. You can question, sir, my lieutenant, or any of my troopers, and you will hear that matters went precisely as I have told you."

"You have done well indeed, Master Furness," Prince Rupert said warmly, "and I would that many of my other officers showed the same circumspection and care as you have done. Now, Sir Ralph, let me hear what arrangements you made against surprise."

"I set pickets in front of the village," Sir Ralph said sulkily.

"And what besides?" the prince asked. "Having done that, did you and your officers and men go quietly to sleep, as if the enemy were a hundred miles away?"

Sir Ralph was silent.

"Fie, for shame, sir!" the prince said sternly. "Your own carelessness has brought disaster upon you, and instead of frankly owning your fault, and thanking Master Furness for having redeemed your error, saved the remnant of your troop, and defeated the Roundheads heavily, your jealousy and envy of the lad have wrought you to bring false accusations against him. Enough, sir," he said peremptorily, seeing the glance of hatred which Sir Ralph cast toward Harry. "Sufficient harm has been done already by your carelessness--see that no more arises from your bad temper. I forbid this quarrel to go further; until the king's enemies are wholly defeated there must be no quarrels between his friends. And should I hear of any further dispute on your part with Master Furness, I shall bring it before the king, and obtain his warrant for your dismissal from this army."

The following day Harry and his troop moved further down the river, the enemy having fallen back from Didcot. He was placed at a village where there was a ford across the river. The post was of importance, as its position prevented the enemy from making raids into the country, where stores of provisions and cattle had been collected for the use of the army at Oxford. Harry's force was a small one for the defense of such a post; but there appeared little danger of an attack, as Prince Rupert, with a large force of cavalry, lay but a mile or two distant. A few days after their arrival, however, Prince Rupert started with his horse to drive back a party of the enemy whom he heard were lying some miles north of Reading.

"Prince Rupert never seems to have room for two ideas in his head at the same time," Jacob said. "The moment he hears of an enemy off he rides at full gallop, forgetting that he has left us alone here. It is well if the Roundheads at Reading do not sally out and attack us, seeing how useful this ford would be to them."

"I agree with you, Jacob, and we will forthwith set to work to render the place as defensible as we may."

"We had best defend the other side of the ford, if they advance," Jacob said. "We could make a far better stand there."

"That is true, Jacob; but though we could there bar them from entering our country, they, if they obtained the village, would shut the door to our entering theirs. No, it is clear that it our duty to defend the village as long as we can, if we should be attacked."

Harry now set his men to work to make loopholes in the cottages and inclosure walls, and to connect the latter by banks of earth, having thorn branches set on the top. Just at the ford itself stood a large water-mill, worked by a stream which here ran into the river. Harry placed sacks before all the windows, leaving only loopholes through which to fire. Some of the troop carried pistols only; others had carbines; and some, short, wide-mouthed guns, which carried large charges of buckshot. Pickets were sent forward a mile toward Reading.

Early in the afternoon these galloped in with the news that a heavy column of infantry and cavalry, with two pieces of artillery, were approaching along the road. Harry at once dispatched a messenger, with orders to ride until he found Prince Rupert, to tell him of the state he was in, and ask him to hurry to his assistance, giving assurance that he would hold the village as long as possible. All now labored vigorously at the works of defense. Half an hour after the alarm had been given the enemy were seen approaching.

"There must be over five hundred men, horse and foot," Jacob said, as from the upper story of the mill he watched with Harry the approach of the enemy. "With fifty men we shall never be able to defend the circuit of the village."

"Not if they attack all round at once," Harry agreed. "But probably they will fall upon us in column, and behind stone walls we can do much. We must keep them out as long as we can; then fall back here, and surround ourselves with a ring of fire."

As soon as it was known that the enemy were approaching Harry had given orders that all the inhabitants should evacuate their houses and cross the river, taking with them such valuables as they could carry. There were several horses and carts in the village, and these were at once put in requisition, and the people crossing and recrossing the river rapidly carried most of their linen and other valuables over in safety, the men continuing to labor for the preservation of their goods, even after the fight commenced.

The Roundheads halted about four hundred yards from the village. Just as they did so there was a trampling of horses, and Sir Ralph Willoughby, with his troop, now reduced to thirty strong, rode into the village. He drew up his horse before Harry.

"Master Furness," he said, "Prince Rupert has forbidden me to test your courage in the way gentlemen usually do so. But there is now a means open. Let us see which will ride furthest--you or I--into the ranks of yonder horsemen."

Harry hesitated a moment; then he said gravely:

"My life is not my own to throw away, Sir Ralph. My orders are to hold this place. That I can best do on foot, for even if our troops united were to rout the enemy's cavalry, their footmen would still remain, and would carry the village. No, sir, my duty is to fight here."

"I always thought you a coward!" Sir Ralph exclaimed; "now I know it," and, with a taunting laugh, he ordered his men to follow him, issued from the village, and prepared, with his little band, to charge the Roundhead horse, about a hundred and fifty strong.

Just as they formed line, however, the enemy's' guns opened, and a shot struck Sir Ralph full in the chest, hurling him, a shattered corpse, to the ground.

His men, dismayed at the fall of their leader, drew rein.

"Fall back, men," Harry shouted from behind, "fall back, and make a stand here. You must be cut to pieces if you advance."

The troop, who had no other officer with them, at once obeyed Harry's orders. They had heard the conversation between him and their leader, and although prepared to follow Sir Ralph, who was the landlord of most of them, they saw that Harry was right, and that to attack so numerous a body of horse and foot was but to invite destruction.