Margery of Lawhibbet by Arthur Quiller-Couch
A Story of 1644
I pray God to deal gently with my sister Margery Lantine; that the blood of her twin-brother Mark, though it cry out, may not prevail against her on the Day of Judgment.
We three were all the children of Ephraim Lantine, a widower, who owned and farmed (as I do to-day) the little estate of Lawhibbet on the right shore of the Fowey River, above the ford which crosses to St. Veep. The whole of our ground slopes towards the river; as also does the neighbour estate of Lantine, sometime in our family's possession, but now and for three generations past yielding us only its name. Three miles below us the river opens into Fowey Harbour, with Fowey town beside it and facing across upon the village of Polruan, and a fort on either shore to guard the entrance. Three miles above us lies Lostwithiel, a neat borough, by the bridge of which the tidal water ceases. But the traffic between these two towns passes behind us and out of sight, by the high-road which after climbing out of Lostwithiel runs along a narrow neck of land dividing our valley from Tywardreath Bay. This ridge comes to its highest and narrowest just over the chimneys of Lawhibbet, and there the old Britons once planted an earthwork overlooking the bay on one hand and the river-passage on the other. Castle Dore is its name; a close of short smooth turf set within two circular ramparts and two fosses choked with brambles. Thither we children climbed, whether to be alone with our games--for I do not suppose my father entered the earthwork twice in a year, and no tillage ever disturbed it, though we possessed a drawerful of coins ploughed up from time to time in the field outside--or to watch the sails in the bay and the pack-horses jingling along the ridge, which contracted until it came abreast of us and at once began to widen towards Fowey and the coast; so that it came natural to feign ourselves robbers sitting there in our fastness and waiting to dash out upon the rich convoys as they passed under our noses.
I talk as if we three had played this game with one mind. But indeed I was six years younger than the others, and barely nine years old when my brother Mark tired of it and left me, who hitherto had been his obedient scout, to play at the game alone. For Margery turned to follow Mark in this as in everything, although with her it had been more earnest play. For him the fun began and ended with the ambush, the supposed raid and its swashing deeds of valour; for her all these were but incident to a scheme, long brooded on, by which we were to amass plunder sufficient to buy back the family estate of Lantine with all the consequence due to an ancient name in which the rest of us forgot to feel any pride. But this was my sister Margery's way; to whom, as honour was her passion, so the very shadows of old repute, dead loyalties, perished greatness, were idols to be worshipped. By a ballad, a story of former daring or devotion, a word even, I have seen her whole frame shaken and her eyes brimmed with bright tears; nay, I have seen tears drop on her clasped hands, in our pew in St. Sampson's Church, with no more cause than old Parson Kendall's stuttering through the prayer for the King's Majesty--and this long before the late trouble had come to distract our country. She walked our fields beside us, but in company with those who walked them no longer; when she looked towards Lantine 'twas with an angry affection. In the household she filled her dead mother's place, and so wisely that we all relied on her without thinking to wonder or admire; yet had we stayed to think, we had confessed to ourselves that the love in which her care for us was comprehended reached above any love we could repay or even understand--that she walked a path apart from us, obedient to a call we could not hear.
In her was born the spirit which sends men to die for a cause; but since God had fashioned her a girl and condemned her to housework, she took (as it were) her own hope in her hands and laid it all upon her twin brother. They should have been one, not twain. He had the frame to do, and for him she nourished the spirit to impel. With her own high thoughts she clothed him her hero, and made him mine also. And Mark took our homage enough, without doubting he deserved it. He was in truth a fine fellow, tall, upright, and handsome, with the delicate Lantine hands and a face in which you saw his father's features refined and freshly coloured to the model of the Lantine portraits which hung in the best sitting-room to remind us of our lost glories. For me, I take after my mother, who was a farmer's daughter of no lineage.
I remember well the Christmas Eve of 1643, when the call came for Mark; a night very clear and crisp, with the stars making a brave show against the broad moon, and a touch of frost against which we wrapped ourselves warmly before the household sallied down to the great Parc an Wollas orchard above the ford, to bless the apple-trees. My father led the way as usual with his fowling-piece under his arm, Mark following with another; after them staggered Lizzie Pascoe, the serving maid, with the great bowl of lamb's wool; Margery followed, I at her side, and the men after us with their wives, each carrying a cake or a roasted apple on a string. We halted as usual by the bent tree in the centre of the orchard, and there, having hung our offerings on the bough, formed a circle, took hands and chanted, while Lizzie splashed cider against the trunk--
"Here's to thee, old apple-tree Whence to bud and whence to blow, And whence to bear us apples enow-- Hats full, packs full, Great bushel sacks full, And every one a pocket full-- With hurrah! and fire off the gun!"
I remember the moment's wait on the flint-lock and the flame and roar of my father's piece, shattering echoes across the dark water and far up the creek where the herons roosted. And out of the echoes a voice answered--a man's voice hailing across the ford.
Mark took a torch, and, running down to the water's edge, waved it to guide the stranger over. By-and-by we caught sight of him, a tall trooper on horseback with the moonlight and torchlight flaming together on his steel morion and gorget. He picked his way carefully to shore and up the bank and reined up his dripping horse in the midst of us with a laugh.
"Hats full, pockets full, eh? Good-evenin', naybours, and a merry Christmas, and I'm sure I wish you may get it. Which of 'ee may happen to be Master Ephr'm Lantine?"
My father announced himself, and the trooper drew out a parchment and handed it.
"'Tisn' no proper light here," said my father, fumbling with the packet, and not caring to own that he could not read. "Come to the house, honest man, and we'll talk it over; for thou'lt sleep with us, no doubt?"
"Ay, and drink to your apple-trees too," the trooper answered very heartily. So my father led the way and we followed, Margery gripping my hand tight, and the rest talking in loud whispers. They guessed what the man's business was.
An hour later, when the ashen faggot had been lit and the cider-drinking and carolling were fairly started in the kitchen, Margery packed me off to bed; and afterwards came and sat beside me for a while, very silent, listening with me to the voices below.
"Where is Mark?" I asked, for I missed his clear tenor.
"In the parlour. He and father and the soldier are talking there."
"Is Mark going to fight?"
She bent down, slipped an arm round my nee' and caught me to her in a sudden breathless hug.
"But he may be killed," I objected.
"No, no; we must pray against that." She said it confidently, and I knew Margery had a firm belief that what was prayed for fitly must be granted. "I will see to that, morning and evening: we will pray together. But you must pray sometimes between whiles, when I am not by to remind you--many times a day--promise me, Jack."
I promised, and it made me feel better. Margery had a way of managing things, a way which I had learned to trust. We said no more but Good-night: in a little while she left me and I jumped out of bed and punctually started to keep my new promise.
Next morning--Christmas Day--we all attended church together; that is to say, all we of the family, for our guest chose rather to remain in the parlour with the cider-mug. Parson Kendall preached to us at length on Obedience and the authority delegated by God upon kings; and working back to his text, which was I. Samuel, xvii. 42, wound up with some particular commendation of "the young man to-day going forth from amongst us"--which turned all heads towards the Lawhibbet pew and set Mark blushing and me almost as shamefacedly, but Margery, after the first flow of colour, turned towards her brother with bright proud eyes.
That same afternoon between three and four o'clock--so suddenly was all decided--Mark rode away from us on the young sorrel, and the trooper beside him, to join the force Sir Bevill Grenvill was collecting for Sir Ralph Hopton at Liskeard. To his father he said good-bye at the yard-gate, but Margery and I walked beside the horses to the ford and afterwards stood and watched their crossing, waving many times as Mark turned and waved a hand back, and the red sun over behind us blinked on the trooper's cap and shoulder-piece. Just before they disappeared we turned away together--for it is unlucky to watch anyone out of sight--and I saw that Margery was trembling from head to foot.
"But he will come back," said I, to comfort her.
"Yes," she answered, "he will come back." With that she paused, and broke forth, twisting her handkerchief, "Jack, if I were a man--" and so checked herself.
"Why, you think more of the Cause than Mark does, I believe!" I put in.
"Not more than Mark--not more than Mark! Jack, you mustn't say that: you mustn't think it!"
"And a great deal more of our name," I went on sturdily, disregarding her tone, which I considered vehement beyond reason. "'Tis a strange thing to me, Margery, that of us three you should be the one to think everything of the name of Lantine, who are a girl and must take another when you marry."
She halted and turned on me with more anger than I had ever seen on her face. She even stamped her foot. "Never!" she said, and again "Never!"
"Oh, well--" I began; but she had started walking rapidly, and although I caught her up, not another word would she say to me until we reached home.
For a year we saw no more of our brother, and received of him only two letters (for he hated penwork), the both very cheerful. Yet within a month of his going, on a still clear day in January, we listened together to the noise of a pitched battle in which he was fighting, a short six miles from us as the crow flies. I have often admired how men who were happily born too late to witness the troubles of those times will make their own pictures of warfare, as though it changed at once the whole face of the country and tenour of folk's lives; whereas it would be raging two valleys away and men upon their own farms ploughing to the tune of it, with nothing seen by them then or afterwards; or it would leap suddenly across the hills, filling the roads with cursing weary men, and roll by, leaving a sharp track of ruin for the eye to follow and remember it by. So on this afternoon, when Hopton and the Cornish troops were engaging and defeating Ruthen on Braddock Down, Margery and I counted the rattles of musketry borne down to us on the still reaches of the river and, climbing to the earthwork past the field where old Will Retallack stuck to his ploughing with an army of gulls following and wheeling about him as usual, spied the smoke rolling over the edge of Boconnoc woodland to the north-east; but never a soldier we saw that day or for months after.
A little before the end of the day the rebel army broke and began to roll back through Liskeard and towards the passes of the Tamar, and Mark followed with his troops to Saltash, into Devonshire, and as far as Chagford, where he rode by Mr. Sydney Godolphin in the skirmish which gave that valiant young gentleman his mortal wound. Soon after the whole of the King's forces retired upon Tavistock, where a truce was patched up between the opposing factions in the West. But this did not release Mark, who was kept at duty on the border until May--when the strife burst out again--and joined the pursuit after Stratton Heath. Thereafter he fought at Lansdowne, and in the operations against Bristol, and later in the same year, having won a cornetcy in the King's Horse, bore his part in the many brisk expeditions led by Hopton through Dorsetshire and Hampshire into Sussex.
'Twas from Worthing he came back to us a few days before Christmas, and his mission was to beat up recruits for his troop in the season of slackness before the Spring campaign. He had grown almost two inches, his chest was fuller, his voice manly, and his handsome face not spoiled (Margery declared it improved) by a scar across the cheek, won in a raid upon Poole. He had borne himself gallantly, and our prayers had prevailed with God to save him from serious hurt even in the furious charge at Lansdowne, when of two thousand horse no more than six hundred reached the crest of the hill. He greeted us all lovingly and made no disguise of his joy to be at home again, though but on a short furlough.
And yet even on the first happy evening, when we walked up through the dusk together to the old earthwork, and he told us the first chapter of his adventures, I seemed to see, or rather to feel, that our brother was not wholly a better man for his campaigning. To be sure, a soldier must be allowed an oath or two; but Mark slipped out one before his sister which took me like a slap across the cheek. He bit his lip the moment it was out, and talked rapidly and at random for a while, with a dark flush on his face. Margery pretended that she had not heard, and for the rest he told his story with a manly carelessness which became him. Once only, when he described the entry of the troops into Bristol and their behaviour there--while Margery turned her eyes aside for a moment, that were dim for the death of Slanning and Trevanion--he came to a pause with a grin that invited me to be knowing beyond my years. The old Mark would never have looked at me with that meaning.
On the whole he behaved well, and took Margery's adoration with great patience. He had the wit to wish to fall nothing in her eyes. His new and earthlier view of war, as a game with coarse rewards, he confided to me; and this not in words but in a smile now and then and a general air when safe from his sister's eyes, of being passably amused by her high-fangled nonsense. His business of beating up recruits took him away from us for days together; and we missed him on Christmas Eve when we christened the apple-trees as usual. It was I who discovered and kept it from Margery--who supposed him as far away as St. Austell, and tried to find that distance a sufficient excuse--that he had spent the night a bare mile away, hobnobbing with the owner of Lantine, a rich man who had used to look down on our family but thought it worth while to make friends with this promising young soldier.
"And I mean to be equal with him and his likes," said Mark to me afterwards by way of excuse. "A man may rise by soldiering as by any other calling--and quicker too, perhaps, in these days."
The same thought clearly was running in his head a week later, when he took leave of us once more by the ford.
"Come back to us, Mark!" Margery wept this time, with her arms about his neck.
"Ay, sweetheart, and with an estate in my pocket."
"Ah, forget that old folly! Come back with body safe and honour bright, and God may take the rest."
He slapped his pocket with a laugh as he shook up the reins.
Then followed five quiet anxious months. 'Twas not until early in June that, by an express from Ashburton in Devon, we heard that our brother's fortune was still rising, he having succeeded to the command of his company made vacant by the wounding of Captain Sir Harry Welcome. "And this is no mean achievement for a poor yeoman's son," he wrote, "in an army where promotion goes as a rule to them that have estates to pawn. But I hope in these days some few may serve his Majesty and yet prosper, and that my dear Margery may yet have her wish and be mistress in Lantine." Margery read this letter and knit her brow thoughtfully. "It was like Mark to think of writing so," said she; "but I have not thought of Lantine for this many a day."
"And he might have left thinking of it," said I, "until these troubles are over and the King's peace established."
"Tut," she answered smiling, "he does not think of it but only to please me. 'Tis his way to speak what comes to his tongue to give us pleasure."
"For all that, he need not have misjudged us," I grumbled; and then was sorry for the pain with which she looked at me.
"It is you, Jack, who misjudged!" She spoke it sharply. We still prayed together for our brother twice a day; but she knew--and either dared not or cared not to ask why--that since his first home-coming my love had cooled towards him. Very likely she believed me to be jealous.
The hay-harvest found and passed us in peace, and the wheat was near ripe, when, towards the close of July, rumours came to us of an army marching towards Cornwall under command of the Earl of Essex; by persuasion (it was said) of the Lord Robarts, whose seat of Lanhydrock lies on our bank of the river about three miles above Lostwithiel, facing the Lord Mohun's house of Boconnoc across the valley. My Lord Mohun, after some wavering at first, had cast in his fortune with the King's party, to which belonged well nigh all the gentry of our neighbourhood; and had done so in good time for his reputation. But the Lord Robarts was an obstinate clever man who chose the other side and stuck to it in despite of first misfortunes. We guessed therefore that if the Parliamentarians came by his invitation they would not neglect a district on which he staked so much for mastery; and sure enough, about July 25th, we heard that Essex had reached Bodmin with the mass of his forces, Sir Richard Grenvill having retired before him and moved hastily with the Queen's troop to Truro. After this, Margery and I used to climb every morning to the earthwork and spy all the country round for signs of the hated troopers. Yet day passed after day with nought to be seen, and little to be heard but further rumours, of which the most constant said that the King himself was following Essex with an army, and had already seized and crossed the passes of the Tamar.
'Twas on the 2nd of August that the bolt fell; when after mounting the slope at daybreak with nothing to warn us, we stepped through the dykes into the old camp. A heavy dew hung in beads on the brambles, and at the second dyke I had turned and was holding aside a brier to let Margery pass, when a short cry from her fetched me right-about and staring into the face of a tall soldier grinning at us over the bank. In the enclosure behind him (as we saw through a gap) were a number of men in mud-coloured jerkins, quietly mounting a couple of cannon.
"Good morning!" said the soldier amiably, with an up-country twang in his voice, "Good-morning, my pretty dears! And if you come from the farm below, what may be the name of it?"
"Lawhibbet," I answered, seeing that Margery closed her lips tight.
"Ay, Lawhibbet; that's the name I was told." He nodded in the friendliest manner.
"Are you the rebels?" I blurted out, while Margery gripped my arm; but this boldness only fetched a laugh from the big man.
"Some of 'em," said he; "though you'll have to unlearn that name, my young whipstercock, seein' we're here to stay for a while. The Earl marched down into Fowey last night while you were asleep, and is down there now making it right and tight. Do you ever play at blind-man's buff in these parts?"
Three or four soldiers had gathered behind him by this, and were staring down on us. One of them blew a clumsy kiss to Margery.
"Do you mean the child's game?" I asked, wondering whatever he could be driving at.
"I do; but perhaps, sir, you are too old to remember it." He winked at the men and they guffawed. "It begins, 'How many horses has your father got?' 'Six,' says you; 'black, red, and grey'--or that's the number according to our instructions. 'Very good then,' says we; 'turn round three times and catch which you may.' And the moral is, don't be surprised if you find the stable empty when you get home. There's a detachment gone to attend to it after seizing the ford below; hungry men, all of them. No doubt they'll be visiting the bacon-rack after the stable, and if missy knows where to pick up the new-laid eggs she might put a score aside for us poor artillerymen."
We turned from them and hurried down the slope. "Rebels!" said Margery once, under her breath; but the blow had stunned us and we could not talk. In the stable yard we found, as the artillerymen had promised, a company of soldiers leading out the horses, and my father watching them with that patient look which never deserted him. He turned to Margery--
"Go into the kitchen, my dear. They will want food next, and we have to do what we can. They have been civil, and promise to pay for all they take. I do not think they will show any roughness."
Margery obeyed with a set face. For the next hour she and Lizzie were busy in the kitchen, frying ham and eggs, boiling great pans of milk, cutting up all the bread of the last baking, and heating the oven for a fresh batch. The men, I am bound to say, took their food civilly, that morning and afterwards; and for a fortnight at least they paid reasonably for all they took. For several days I hung closer about the ingle than ever I had done in my life; not that a boy of fourteen could be any protection to the women-folk, but to be ready at least to give an alarm should insult be offered. But we had to do with decent men, who showed themselves friendly not only in the house but in their camp down by the ford, whither, after the first morning, Lizzie and I trudged it twice a day with baskets of provisions. Lizzie indeed talked freely with them, but I held my tongue and glowered (I dare say) in my foolish hate. Margery kept to the house.
'Twas, I think, on August 15th that the first hope of release came to us, by the King's troops seizing the ford-head across the river; and this happened as suddenly as our first surprise. Lizzie and I were carrying down our baskets at four o'clock that day, when we heard a sound of musketry on the St. Veep shore and on top of it a bugle twice blown. Running to the top of a knoll from which the river spread in view, I saw some rebels of our detachment splashing out from shore in a hurry. The leaders reached mid-stream or thereabouts, and paused. Doubtless they could see better than I what was happening; for after they had stood there a couple of minutes, holding their fire--the musketry on the St. Veep bank continuing all the while--some twenty men came running out of the woods there and fled across towards us, many bullets splashing into the water behind them. They reached their comrades in the river-bed, and the whole body stood irresolute, facing the shore where nothing showed but a glint of steel here and there between the trees. Thus for ten further minutes, perhaps, they hesitated; then turned and came sullenly back across the rising water. In this manner the royal troops won the ford-head, and kept it; for although the two cannon opened fire that evening from the earthwork above us, and dropped many balls among the trees, they did not dislodge the regiment (Colonel Lloyd's) which lay there and held one of the few passes by which the rebels could break away.
For--albeit I knew nothing of this at the time--by withdrawing his headquarters to Lostwithiel and holding our narrow ridge with Fowey at the end of it seaward, the Earl had led his army into a trap, and one which his Majesty was now fast closing. Already he had drawn his troops across the river-meadows above Lostwithiel; and, whatever help the Earl might have hoped to fetch from the sea at his base, he was there prevented by the quickness of Sir Jacob Astley in seizing a fort on the other side of the harbour's mouth as well as a battery commanding the town from that shore, and in flinging a hundred men into each, who easily beat off all ships from entering. From this comfortable sea-entrance then Essex perforce turned for his stores to Twyardreath Bay on the western side of the ridge, where he landed a couple of cargoes at the mouth of the little river Par; but on the 25th the Prince Maurice sent down 2,000 horse and 1,000 foot, and after sharp skirmishing blocked this inlet also. So now we had the whole rebel army cooped around us and along the two sides of the ridge, trampling our harvest and eating our larders bare, with no prospect but a surrender; which yet the Earl refused, although his Majesty thrice offered to treat with him.
This (I say) was the position, though we at Lawhibbet knew not how desperate 'twas for the rebels our guests; only that our food was pinched to short rations of bread and that payment had ceased, though the sergeants still gave vouchers duly for the little we could supply. The battery above us kept silence day after day, save twice when the Royalists made a brief show of forcing the pass; but at intervals each day we would hear a brisk play of artillery a little higher up the stream, where they had planted a fort on the high ground by St. Nectan's Chapel, to pound at Lostwithiel in the valley. For my part I could have pitied the rebels, so worn they were with weeks of hunger and watching, to which the weather added another misery, turning at the close of the month to steady rain with heavy fogs covering land and sea, and no wind to disperse them. Margery had no pity; but I believed would have starved cheerfully--if that could have helped--to see these poor sodden wretches in worse plight.
I think 'twas on the morning of the 28th that the Royalists across the ford showed a flag of truce; which having been answered, a small party of horse came riding over, the leader with a letter for the Earl of Essex which he was suffered to carry to Fowey, riding thither in the midst of an escort of six and leaving his own men behind on the near side of the ford.
While they waited by their horses I drew near to one of them and asked him if he knew aught of my brother, Captain Mark Lantine. He answered, after eyeing me sharply, that he knew my brother well--a very gallant officer, now serving with the Earl of Cleveland's brigade.
"That will be on the slope beneath Boconnoc," said I.
"How know you that?" he asked briskly, and I was telling him that the dispositions of the Royal troops were no secret to the rebels (warning of all fresh movements being brought daily to the ford from Lostwithiel), when a sergeant interrupted and, forbidding any further converse, packed me off homeward, yet not unkindly.
For what came of this talk Margery--to whom I reported it that same evening--must bear the credit. For two days she brooded over it, keeping silence even beyond her wont, and then on the night of the 30th, at nine o'clock, when I was scarce abed, she tapped at my door and bade me arise and dress myself. She had an expedition to propose, no less than that we should cross the river and pay Mark a visit in his quarters.
Her boldness took away my breath: yet as she whispered her plan it did not seem impossible or, bating the chance of being shot by a stray outpost, so very dangerous. A heavy fog lay over the hills, as it had lain for nights. The tide was flowing. My father's boat had been dragged ashore and lay bottom upwards under a cliff about three hundred yards above the ford. If we could reach and right it without being discovered, either one of us was clever enough, with an oar over the stern, to scull noiselessly across to the entrance of a creek where the current would take us up towards Boconnoc between banks held on either side by Royalists; to whom, if they surprised us, we could tell our business.
The plan (I say) was a promising one. It miscarried only after we had righted the boat and were dragging it across the strip of shingle between the meadow bank and the water's edge. A quick-eared sentry caught the sound and challenged at two gunshots' distance. I had the boat's nose afloat as I heard his feet stumbling over the uneven foreshore: but the paddles and even the bottom-boards were lying on the beach behind us. There was no help for it. Margery stepped on board swiftly and silently, and I pushed well out into the stream, following until the water rose to my middle and so standing while the fellow challenged again. For a minute we kept mute as mice. The footsteps hesitated and came to a halt by the water's edge a full twenty yards below, and I guessed that the fog had blurred for him the distance as well as the direction of the sound. Very quietly I heaved myself over the stern and into the boat, which swung broadside to the current and so was borne up and beyond danger from him. But the mischief was, we were drifting up the main channel which ended in the Lostwithiel marshes and must pretty certainly lead us into the enemy's hands, unless before striking the moors below the town we could by some means push across to the farther bank. We leaned over, dipped our arms in the water, and with the least possible noise began to paddle. Even in the darkness the tall banks were familiar, and between skill and good fortune we came to shore on the left bank below a coppice and just within sight of the town lights. Between us and them lay a broad marsh-land through which the river wound, and along the edge of which, under the trees skirting this shore, we started at a timorous run, pulling up now and again to listen.
So we had come abreast of the town without challenge, when the sky almost on a sudden grew lighter, and we saw the church spire glimmering and the weather-cock above it, and knew that the moon had risen over the woodland in the shadow of which we crouched. And with that Margery glanced back and plucked at my arm.
The moor we had skirted was full of horsemen, drawn up in rank and motionless. They loomed through the river fog like giants--rank behind rank, each man stiff and upright and silent in his saddle--as it were a vale full of mounted ghosts awaiting the dreadful trumpet, and in my terror I forgot to tremble at the nearness of our escape (for we had all but blundered into them). But while I stared, and the wreaths of fog hid and again disclosed them, I heard Margery's whisper--
"They are escaping to-night. It can only be by the bridge and across Boconnoc downs. If we can win to Mark and warn him!"
She drew me off into the wood at a sharp angle, and we began to climb beneath the branches. They dripped on us, soaking us to the skin; but this we scarcely felt. We knew that we must be moving along the narrow interval between the two lines of outposts. Beneath us, in the centre of a basin of fog, a cluster of lights marked Lostwithiel: above, the moon and the glow of Royalist camp-fires threw up the outline of the ridge. Alongside of this we kept, and a little below it, crossing the high-road which leads east from Lostwithiel bridge, and, beyond that, advancing more boldly under the lee of a hedge beside a by-road which curves towards the brow of Boconnoc downs. I began to find it strange that, for all our secrecy, no one challenged us here. At a bend of the lane, we came in view of a solitary cottage with one window lit and blurring its light on the mist. We crept close, still on the far side of the hedge, and, parting the bushes, peered at it.
It must be here or hereabouts (by all information) that the Earl of Cleveland kept his quarters. The light shone into our eyes through a drawn blind which told nothing; and Margery was dragging me forward to knock at the door when it opened and two men stepped quickly across the threshold and passed down the lane. They crossed the bar of light swiftly and were gone into the dark; and they trod softly--so softly that we listened in vain for their footfalls.
Then, almost before I knew it, Margery had dragged me across a gap in the hedge and was rapping at the cottage door. No one answered. She lifted the latch and entered, I at her heels. The kitchen--an ordinary cottage kitchen--was empty A guttered candle stood on the table to the right, and beside it lay a feathered cap. Margery stepped toward this and had scarce time to touch the brim of it before a voice hailed us in the doorway behind my shoulder.
It was our brother Mark.
"Well, of all--" he began, and came to a stop; his face white as a sheet, as well it might be.
Margery rounded upon him. She must have been surprised, but she began without explanation running to him and kissing him swiftly--
"Mark--dear Mark, we have news for thee, instant news! Sure, Heaven directed us to-night that you should be the first to hear it. Mark, we passed the rebel cavalry in the valley, and for certain they will attempt to break through to-night."
"Yes, yes," said he peevishly, pulling at an end of his long love-locks, "we have had that scare often enough, these last few nights."
"But we passed them close--saw them plainly in rank below Lostwithiel bridge, and every man in saddle. Even now they will be moving--"
Mark swung about and passed out at the open door. He had not returned Margery's kiss. "I must be off, then, to visit my videttes," said he quickly, and then paused as if considering. "For you, the cottage here will not be safe: it stands close beside the line of march and I must get down a company of musketeers. You had best follow me--" he took a step and paused again: "No, there will not be time."
"Tell us in what direction to go and we will fend for ourselves and leave you free."
"Through the garden, then, at the back and into the woods--the fence has a gap and from it a path leads up to a quarry among the trees; you cannot miss. The quarry is full of brambles--good hiding, in case we have trouble. No cavalryman will win so far, you may be sure."
Margery gathered her skirts about her, and we stole out into the darkness. At the door she turned up her face to Mark. "Kiss me, my brother." He kissed her, and breaking away (as I thought) with a low groan, strode from us up the lane.
"Now why should he go up the lane?" mused Margery: and I too wondered. For the first alarm must needs come from the lower end towards which he had been walking with his other visitor, when we first spied on the cottage through the bushes.
But 'twas not for us to guess how the troops were disposed or where the outposts lay. We made our escape through the little garden, and, blundering along the woodland path behind it, came at length to a thicket of brambles over which hung the scarp of the quarry with a fringe of trees above it pitch-black against the foggy moonlight. Here on the soaked ground I found a clear space and a tumbled stone or two, on which we crouched together, sleepless and intently listening.
For an hour we heard no sound. Then the valley towards Lostwithiel shook with a dull explosion, which puzzled us a great deal. (But the meaning, I have since learnt was this:--Two prisoners in the church there had contrived to climb up into the steeple and, pulling the ladder after them, jeered down upon the rebels' Provost Marshal, who was now preparing for a night retreat of the Infantry upon Fowey and in a hurry to be gone. "I'll fetch you down," said he, and with a barrel of powder blew most of the slates off the roof but without harming the defiant pair who were found still perched on the steeple next morning.)
After this the hours passed without sound. It seemed incredible, this silence in the ring of wakeful outposts. Margery shivered now and again, and I knew that her eyes were open, though she said nothing. For me, towards morning, I dropped into a doze, and woke to the tightening of her hand upon my arm.
I listened with her. The sky had grown grey about us, and up through the dripping trees came a soft and regular footfall, as of a body of horse moving past. "It will be Mark's troop," I whispered, and listened again. It seemed to me that the noise moved away to our right instead of towards Lostwithiel. A quick suspicion took me then: I scaled the right-hand side of the quarry at a run, burst through the fringe of pines, and came out suddenly upon a knoll in full view of the down. The first gleam of sunshine was breaking over this slope, and towards it at an easy trot rode the whole body of rebel cavalry, in number above a thousand.
While I stood and stared, Margery caught up with me. We looked into each other's face. Then without a word she went from me. I lingered there for perhaps ten minutes; for now, from behind the trees above, a squadron of Royalist horse charged across the slope at a gallop. They were less than four hundred, however, and as the rebel rearguard turned to face them, drew rein and exchanged but a few harmless shots. I watched the host as it wound slowly over the crest with its pursuers hanging sullenly at heel: then I turned and descended in search of Margery. As I reached the gap in the hedge, Mark entered the garden by the little gate opposite. He came hastily, but halted as if shot, with his hand on the gatepost to steady him--yet not at sight of me. I looked across the gap into the garden between us. Beside a heap of freshly turned mould, with her back to the currant-bush, stood Margery, her hands stained with soil; and on the ground before her lay a small chest with its lid open.
I lifted my eyes from the glinting coins and sought Mark's gaze: but it was fastened on Margery, who walked slowly forward and straight up to him. Though he shrank, he could not retreat. She went to him, I following a pace behind. She put out a hand and touched the pistol in his sling.
"Redeem." The voice was Margery's and yet not hers. "Redeem," she repeated--"not Lantine."
With a groan he ran round the gable of the cottage. A moment later we heard the gallop of his horse down the lane.
At seven o'clock that morning the King's forlorn hope of foot, in number about 1,000, entered Lostwithiel after a smart skirmish with the rebel rearguard at the bridge; and not long after, the rebel reserve of foot, perceiving their comrades giving ground and being themselves galled by two or three pieces of cannon which began to play upon them from the captured leaguer, moved away from the hill they had been holding: so that now we had the whole force falling back towards Fowey along the ridge, with our forlorn hope following in chase from field to field.
Before eight the King himself with two troops of horse (one of them my brother's) passed over a ford a little to the south of the town, with intent to catch this movement in flank: and there, by the ford's edge, I believe, took a cartload of muskets with five abandoned pieces, two of them very long guns. The river being too deep, with a rising tide, for Margery to wade, we made our crossing by the bridge, where the fighting had been, but where there was now no soldiery, only a many dead bodies, some huddled into the coigns of the parapet, more laid out upon a patch of turf at the bridge end, the mud caked on their faces. It made me shiver to see: but my sister went by with scarce a glance and, once past the river, caught my hand and set off running after the troops.
The beginning of the retreat had been brisk enough--so brisk that it outpaced his Majesty's movement in flank: who, breasting the hill with his cavalry (after some minutes lost at the ford in collecting the cannon and muskets which might well have been gleaned later) found himself, if anything, in the rear of his victorious footmen. But after two miles, coming to that part of the ridge where it narrows above Lawhibbet, and in view of our old earthwork which was yet pretty strongly held by their artillery, the enemy made a more forcible resistance, fighting the several hedges and, even when dislodged, holding them with a hot skirmishing fire while the main body found the next cover. By these checks we two, who had lost ground at the start, now regained it fast; and by and by (towards ten o'clock as I guess) were forced to pick our way under shelter of the hedges, to avoid the enemy's bullets and espial by any of the King's men, who would doubtless have cursed and driven us back out of the way of danger.
It was Margery who bethought her here of a sunken cart-road descending along the right of the ridge and crossed on its way by another which would lead us to the summit again and within two gunshots of the great earthwork. By following these two roads we might outflank the soldiery while keeping the crown of the ridge between us; for the fighting still followed along the left-hand slope, above the river.
This way, to be sure, was reasonably safe for a while; but must lead us out, if we persisted, into close danger--perhaps into the very interval between the fighting lines, and if at the rebels' rear, then certainly between them and their artillery on the earthwork. As we ran I tried to prove this to Margery. She would not listen: indeed I doubt that she heard me. "He must," "he must," she kept saying: and I thought sure she had taken leave of her wits.
It happened as I warned her. The second cart-track, mounting from the valley bottom, led us up to the high road on the ridge; and there, peering out cautiously, I spied the backs of a rebel company posted across it, a bare two hundred yards away towards Lostwithiel. Their ranks parted and I had time enough, and no more, to push Margery into the ditch and fling myself beside her among the brambles before a team of horses swept by at a gallop, with a cannon bumping on its carriage behind them and dragging a long cloud of dust.
"Quick!" called Margery as it passed: sprang to her feet and across the road in the noise and smother. Choking with dust and anger I followed, almost on all-fours.
"But what folly is this?" I demanded, overtaking her by the opposite hedge.
"I know what I am doing," she said. "They did not see---the dust hid us. Now quick again, and help me up to this hazel-bush."
I swung her up, and myself after her. The bush was one which I myself had polled two years before; an old stump set thickly about with young shoots, in the cover of which we huddled, staring down the slope of our own great grass-field (the largest on Lawhibbet farm) now filled with rebels withdrawing in good order upon the earthwork on Castle Dore. This earthwork stood in the very next field on our right, behind what had used to be a hedge but where was now a gap some twenty yards wide (levelled a few days before by Essex's cannoniers), and through this gap, towards which the regiments were streaming, drifted the smoke of the guns as they flung their round shot high over our heads, and over the hedge on our left which hid from us all of the royal troops save now and then the flash of a steel cap behind the top-growth of hazel ash and bramble.
The line of this hedge, on the near side to us, was yet held by musketeers who had spread themselves along it very closely and seemed to be using every bush. Indeed I wondered how they were to be forced from such cover, when a party of them by the gate suddenly gave back and began running, and through the gateway a small troop of horse came pouring at their heels. And albeit these cavaliers must have suffered desperately in so charging up to a covered foe (and many riderless chargers came galloping with them), yet the remnant held such good order that in pouring through they seemed to divide by agreement, a part wheeling to right and a part to left to drive the skirmishers, while the main troop held on across the field nor drew rein until they had chased the rebel rearguard to the gap. But as the gap cleared ahead and showed the earthwork and the muzzles of the guns now lowered right in their path, their leader checked his horse, wheeled about in as pretty a curve as you would wish to see, and his troop following cantered back towards the gate.
It was gallantly done and clearly won high approval from a horseman who at the moment came at a trot through the gate, with a second troop behind him, and was saluted by the returning squadron with, one flash of sword-blades, all together, hilt brought to chin and every blade pointing straight in air--a flourish almost as pretty as the feat it concluded. He too held his sword before him with point upright, but awkwardly; and though he sat his saddle well, his bearing had more of civil authority than of soldierlike precision. I was wondering, indeed, what his business might be on this field of arms--for his men hung back somewhat, as escorting rather than charging at his lead, when Margery plucked at my elbow.
I stared at her stupidly. And reading awe in her wide eyes, I had almost turned to follow their gaze when my own fell on a rider who had detached himself from the escort and was coming towards us along the hedge row, whipping it idly with the flat of his sword, and now and again thrusting at it with the point, as if beating for hidden skirmishers. It was our brother Mark, and he frowned as he rode.
I held my breath as he drew near. Margery's eyes were on the King; but she must needs recognise her brother when he came abreast of us.
And so it was. She gave him an idle glance, and with that she let out a short choking cry, and leapt down from the hedge right in his path, dragging me after her by the sleeve.
"Mark!" she cried.
He swerved his horse round with a curse. But she caught at the bridle and pointed towards the gap through which, though hidden from us by the angle, pointed the muzzles of the rebel artillery. "You must! Oh, if you fear, I will run with you and die with you--I your sister! There is no other way. You must, Mark!"
He pushed past her sullenly, moving towards the group where the King stood.
"Mark, if you do not, the King shall know! Redeem, brother; or I swear--and when did I break word?--here and now the King shall know who lost him the rebel horse."
She spoke it fast and low, with a dead-white face. We were close now to the royal group; close enough to hear the King's words.
"I must needs," he was saying, "envy her Majesty, Captain Brett. Under your leading her troop has done that which my own can only envy."
He turned at what seemed at first a murmur among his own men, and no doubt was framing a compliment from them too. But their murmur grew to a growl of mere astonishment as a thud of hoofs drew all eyes after my brother riding at full gallop for the gap.
"But what is the madman after?" began the King, and broke off with a sharp exclamation as his eyes fell on Margery, who had picked up her skirts and was running after Mark. She was perhaps a hundred yards behind him when the cannon roared and, almost in the entrance of the gap, he flung up both arms, and horse and rider rolled over together. A moment later she too staggered and fell sideways--stunned by the wind of a round-shot.
The firing ceased as suddenly as it began. I heard a voice saying as if it continued a discussion--"And Lantine of all men! I'd have picked him for the levellest-headed man in the troop. By the way, he comes from these parts, I've heard say."
And with that I ran to my sister's side.
Two days later by the earthwork where we had played as children his Majesty received the surrender of the rebel foot; while, on the slope below, the house which should have been Mark's heritage blazed merrily, fired by the last shot of the campaign.