Story type: Literature
[August, 1644. The Story is told by Ralph Medhope, Captain of the Twenty-second (or Gray-coat) Troop of Horse in the Parliament Army, then serving in Cornwall.]
We were eight men in the picket. My cornet, Ned Penkevill, rode beside me; our trumpeter, Israel Hutson, a pace or two behind; with five troopers following. I could tell you their names, but there is no need, for I alone of the eight come into the story. The rest rode to their death that night, and met it in the dawn, like men.
We rode northward and inland along the downs high over the left bank of the Fowey River; with good turf and heather underfoot, and with the moon behind our right shoulders. She was the harvest moon, now in her last quarter, and from her altitude I guessed it, by west country time, to be well past four of the morning or within an hour of daybreak. But because she hung bright up here, we pricked forward warily, using every pit and hollow. We had left our breast-pieces, back-pieces, and gorgets behind us, with Penkevill’s standard, for the main troop to carry; and rode in plain gray jerkins–bareheaded too, since on mounting the rise above the valley-fog we had done off our morions (for fear of the moonlight) and hidden them in a furze-brake, where belike next summer the heather-bees found and made hives of them.
Fog, rolling up from the sea–seven or eight miles away–filled all the valley below us: and this fog was the reason of our riding. For the valley formed the neck of a trap in which the King held our general with two thousand five hundred horse, six thousand infantry, and I know not how many guns. His own artillery lined the heights under which we rode–that is, to left or east of the river; he had pushed across a couple of batteries to the opposite hills, and between them easily commanded the valley. It was just the ease of it that made him careless and gave us our chance. He had withdrawn the better part of his horse to the coast, to make a display against our scattered base; and our general, aware of this, was even meditating an assault on the heights when the sudden fog changed his plans and he resolved to march his horse, under cover of it, straight through the trap. The risk, to be sure, was nearly desperate; since, for aught he knew, the King was marching back his troops under the same cover, and to be caught in that narrow valley (which was plashy, moreover, and in places flooded) would mean the total loss of his cavalry. Yet he had spoken cheerfully when I took leave of him and rode off with my seven men–our business being to watch along the enemy’s lines for any movement, to sound a warning if necessary, and, if surprised or caught, so to behave as to lead suspicion away from the movement of the main body.
The enemy kept loose watch up here. We could see his camp-fires dotted on the ridge between us and the dark woods of Boconnock, where the owls hooted; but either we were lucky or his outposts had been carelessly set. Clearly no alarm had reached these encampments. But Heaven knew what might be happening, or preparing to happen, in the valley. There at any moment the report of a single musket might tell us that all was lost.
Penkevill–a good lad–insisted that all was well. Our men had been due to start at two o’clock, and all delay allowed for, by this time they should be past the gut of the valley, where an opposing force would certainly choose to post itself.
My answer to this was that, even allowing it, we must wait for the sound of fighting at Respryn Bridge, farther up the vale, or at one of the two fords a little below it. For there, and there only, could our men cross the river, as they must to hit off any line of escape through Liscard and into Devon. The bridge we knew to be held by a guard, and almost to a certainty the fords, though swollen by recent rains, would be watched also. It was a part of the plan to surprise and force these crossings, and no question but that–unless their guard had been strengthened–they could be forced. But as certainly the guard, however weak, would make at least some show of fight; so certainly, indeed, that the sound of firing here was to announce success and be our signal to rejoin the main body.
Now from this bridge of Respryn a highway climbs from the valley and runs due east across the downs; that is to say, straight athwart the track we were holding; and our orders were on no account to cross this highway, but to halt at some little distance on the near side of it, place ourselves in cover, and so await the signal. For the enemy held it–we could spy a couple of their camp-fires on the rise where it crosses Five Barrow Hill, with a third somewhat nearer, by the cross lanes called Grey Mare–and it would assuredly be patrolled. If in attempting to cross it we fell foul of the patrol, the alarm might draw their troops down towards the bridge; and again, if we crossed it without mishap, we should be no better placed and might easily overshoot our mark, for somewhere alongside this road our general would direct his retreat, over the heather and short turf that stretched for miles ahead and for a mile or more on either hand–fair open country and for cavalry the best in the world.
Accordingly we found cover in a belt of fir-trees overlooking the valley, and for a while possessed our souls in patience. We were early, having come without mishap or challenge, and to expect a like speed of two thousand five hundred men–riding in thick fog through water-meadows, with ditches to be crossed and gates to be found and passed–was in the last degree unreasonable. Nevertheless, dawn could not be far off, and as the minutes dragged by, my spirits sank and my thoughts ran on a score of possible disasters.
By-and-by the sky began to pale. We heard a small troop of horsemen coming down the road at a walk–a patrol perhaps, or perhaps they were riding down to relieve the guard by the bridge. We listened and made out their number to be twenty or thereabouts. The wind had shifted–another good reason for keeping on our side of the road–and blew from them to us; but our horses were well trained. The troop drew level with our hiding; we could hear the jingling of their bits, and with that came our signal. A couple of pistol shots rang out; they made every man of us start in his saddle, and they were followed by a volley.
In my surprise I had dug spur and pushed out beyond our clump of firs, almost before it struck me that the sound came not from the valley but from ahead of us, across the road and some way up the slope. My first motion had been to charge the troopers in the roadway, to drive them (or at least to check them) from helping at the bridge; and I had done more wisely by holding to it, even upon second thought, for they had wheeled towards the sound and so gave their backs to us. While they stood thus we might have charged through them, and all had been well.
As it was, they offered us this chance for a moment only; and then, striking spur, scrambled up the bank on the far side of the road and headed across the turf at a gallop. We looked, and slowly we understood. For half a mile away, up the rise of the downs, a broad dark shadow was moving; and we had scarcely discerned it before, in the pale of the dawn, small points of light wavered and broke upon morions, gorgets, cuirasses. That moving shadow was our own main body, climbing the hill at a gentle trot.
A few picketers hung on their rear. It was these, of course, that had given the alarm: and by-and-by the trumpets taking it up on Five Barrow Hill, a body of four hundred horse came over the rise at a gallop and bore down obliquely on the mass–very confidently at first: but at closer quarters it lost heart and started off to harass the right flank of the solid mass, that paid it little attention and held on its way without swerving.
Before this we had put our horses in motion, to overtake the patrol (as I will call it) and break through to join our comrades. But here it was that our delay proved fatal. For turning at the sound of our gallop, and belike judging us to be the advance-guard of a second large body of horse, the leader of the patrol wheeled his men about, halted them for a moment, and so charged them straight down upon us. In numbers they were more than two to one, with the advantage of the slope, and albeit we fought fiercely for a minute, they broke us and drove us back headlong on the road. Nor did they stop here, but, having us on the run, headed us right down the road to the bridge.
Here, at the bridge-head, finding it unguarded, I managed to wheel about and beat off a couple of pursuers: and Israel Hutson and one of the troopers joining me, we three blocked the passage and could not be dislodged. For the bridge was extremely narrow; so narrow, indeed, that in either parapet the builders had provided an embrasure here and there, for the foot-traveller to step aside if he should meet a passing wagon.
The cavaliers, confronted by this remnant of us, and still perhaps believing that we counted on support, drew off some thirty yards, and were plainly in two minds whether to attack us again or to drop the business and ride back towards the trumpet-calls now sounding confusedly along the crest of the downs; when, to their and our worse dismay, was heard a pounding of hoofs on the road behind us, and over the bridge at our backs came riding a rabble of mounted men with a woman at their head–a woman dressed all in scarlet with a black flapping hat and a scarlet feather. What manner of woman she was I had no time to guess. But she rode with uplifted arm, grasping a pistol and waving the others forward; and her followers–who in no way resembled soldiers–poured after her, shouting, clearly bent on our destruction.
I had managed to recharge my two pistols; and now, thrusting one into my belt and grasping the other, with my sword dangling handy on a wrist-knot, I dismounted and slipped into the nearest embrasure, there to sell my life as dearly as might be. As I did so I heard, above the pounding of hoofs, five or six shots fired, and saw Hutson fling up his arms in the act of dismounting, fall his length across the roadway, and lie still under the feet of my own terrified horse. The trooper made a plunge forward as if to hurl himself through the patrol; and they, no doubt, disposed of him. I never saw him again.
For me, I faced upon the new assailants, as the spitting of bullets on the parapet directed me, and found little time to wonder what manner of people these were who so plainly intended to murder me. Some rode on cart-horses; one or two flourished pitchforks; and if ever a man had a sense of taking his leave of life in a nightmare it was I during that next minute. It seemed that a dozen were on me. I cannot remember letting off my second pistol; but for some time, with my back to the angle of the embrasure, I held my own with almost astonishing ease, and might have held it for many minutes–my opponents being more savage than skilful–had not one of them barbarously hurled his pitchfork at me as a man throws a spear. One point of it pierced and stuck in the upper muscles of my left arm; the other pricked pretty sharply upon a rib; and the pain of this double stroke forced me to drop my sword and make a snatch at the accursed missile, to pluck it out. ‘Twas the work of two seconds at most, and then with a jerk upon the wrist-knot I had the sword-hilt again in my grip; but it let three stout ruffians in upon me to finish me. And this they were setting about with a will when, as I beat up a stroke that threatened to cleave my skull, I heard a voice calling on them to hold, and the lady in scarlet forced her horse between us. As the brute’s shoulder pressed me back into the angle of my embrasure she held out her pistol at arm’s length, her finger on the trigger, and pointed it at close quarters full on my face.
‘You are my prisoner.’
I stared up and along the pistol barrel and met her eyes. They looked down on me disdainfully, with no mercy in them, but (it seemed to me) a certain curiosity. A slight frown puckered her brows. She had spoken in a cold, level voice, and if her colour was pale, her manner and bearing showed no trace of agitation.
‘Would seem,’ said I, ‘there is no choice. I submit, madam–to your pleasure, but not to the rabble you lead.’
At this her eyebrows lifted a little. ‘A gentleman?’ I heard her say, but rather to herself than to me.
‘To the extent,’ I answered, ‘of having a distaste for pitchforks.’
She made no reply to this, but turned about on her men who were murmuring and calling to one another to cut my throat. ‘I think you heard me say that this officer is my prisoner. The man who forgets it I will have flogged and afterwards shot. And now stand back, if you please.’
I had made a motion to hand her my sword, but she signed to me to keep it, and rode off towards the patrol, leaving the crowd to stare at me. Being unsure how far her authority prevailed with them, I stuck to my embrasure, and kept an eye lifting for danger, while I wiped, as carelessly as might be, the sweat from my forehead–for the work had been hot while it lasted. I had laid out a couple of these yokels in good earnest, and while their comrades dragged them away, and, propping them against the parapet opposite, called for water to bathe their wounds, I became unpleasantly sensible of my own hurts. The stab in my upper arm, though it bled little, kept burning as though the pitchfork had been dipped in poison; and from the less painful scratch on the ribs I was losing blood; I could feel it welling under my shirt, and running warm down the hollow of my groin. Loss of blood, they say, will often clarify a man’s eyesight and quicken his other faculties; or it may be that, as the morning sun ate up what remained of the fog, all around me–the bridge and the persons upon it, the trees up the valley, the river tumbling between–on a sudden grew distinct to the view. At any rate, in my memory, as out of a blurred print, springs the apparition of my lady as she came riding back from her parley with the patrol, with the sunlight on her flaming feather and habit of red velvet, and her horse’s shadow moving clear-cut along the granite parapet. Nay, it seemed that her voice, too, had a sharper edge as she spoke to me.
‘I have explained to the captain, yonder, that you are my prisoner. Which is your horse?–the dark bay, I think.’ For they had captured mine as well as poor Hutson’s, and a servant held the pair by the bridge-end.
‘It is, madam.’
She motioned to the man to lead him forward. ‘Now mount,’ she said; ‘and follow me, if you please. You may keep your sword.’
Mounting, to a man in my plight, was no such easy matter; but she had walked forward to give some directions about the wounded men, and did not perceive the pain it cost me. Yet (I told myself) she must have seen me take my wound; and her indifference angered me. Having mounted and found my stirrups, I shut my teeth hard.
‘Are you ready?’ she asked, glancing back over her shoulder.
‘At your service, madam.’
Without another word or look she started at a brisk trot, which I forced my horse to copy, though it gave me the most discomfort of any she could have chosen; and at my heels rode three of her servants on great clattering cart-horses. The highway beyond the bridge rose with a gentle slope, much obscured by trees. Between them, a short distance up the hill, I caught sight of a lodge-gate, with a park and a fair avenue beyond it; but of these I had no more than a glimpse, for almost at once my lady led us off to the right and along a rutted cart-track, black with the mould of rotted leaves, that wound up the valley bottom and close alongside of the river. The sun was high enough by this to pierce through the foliage of elms and alders overhanging the stream and dapple the scarlet habit ahead of me with pretty spots and patterns of shadow; but not yet high enough to reach the low-lying summer-leases (as they would be called in my county) by which the river curved. And here were cattle, yet half-awake, heaving themselves out of their lairs to stretch themselves and begin to browse. The war had not touched this part of the valley; and but for a shot or two fired now and again on the distant hidden hills, we might have deemed it a hundred miles removed. Nay, we had ridden scarcely six furlongs before we came to an old man angling. His back was towards us, and he did not turn to spare us so much as a look.
The cart-track, though here and there it descended close to the brink and crossed a plashet left by the late floods, held the most of its course partly level, and some twenty feet above the river. So we rode for a mile, and came in sight of a second bridge, newer and more massive than the first, for it carried one of the main highways of the county. Here also at the confluence of two streams the valley widened, and as we emerged on the highway out of the gloom my eyes rested on a broad grassy park sloping up from the bridge, and crowned with terraces and a noble house.
The entrance to this park lay but a gunshot up the road on our left; and, coming to it, my lady drew rein.
‘Your name?’ she asked.
‘It is singular that I should have found a gentleman,’ said she, in a musing, half-doubtful voice, as I leaned from my saddle, stifling the pain, and unhasped the gate for her.
Said I dryly, ‘The Parliament army, madam, includes a few of us. I know not why you should press this point: and ‘faith you took me without waiting for credentials; but if it please you I am even a poor knight of the shire.’
‘My husband is fortunate,’ said she; and put her horse to the trot again.
While yet I pondered what she might mean by this–for she said it without the ghost of a smile–we reached the house and rode into a great empty back-court, where nevertheless was the main entrance–an arched doorway with a broad flight of steps. Here she slipped from her saddle, commanded me to alight, and gave my horse over to our escort, to lead him to stable. Signing to me, she led the way up the steps, and I followed, half-dizzy with loss of blood. The great door stood open. We passed into a cool hall, paved with lozenges of polished granite, white and black; and through this, with a turn to the left, down a long corridor similarly paved and hung with tapestries. To the right of this corridor were many doors, of which she led me past five or six, and then pausing at one for me to overtake her, pushed it open.
The room within was of goodly size, and flooded with the morning sunshine that poured through three long windows. In the midst of it stood a table laid for breakfast, and at the head of the table, backed by a sideboard loaded with cold meats, sat a man plying knife and fork, and with a flagon handy beside him–a heavy, broad-shouldered man, with a copper-red complexion, and black hair that grew extraordinarily low upon his forehead. This and a short, heavy jaw gave him a morose, sullen look. I guessed his age at something near thirty.
The sight of us standing in the doorway appeared to annoy him. He scowled for a moment at my lady, and dropped his eyes, while (as it seemed to me) a rush of angry blood suffused his face and gave it a purplish tint; but anon lifted and fixed them on me with a stare that as plainly as words demanded my business. My lady also turned to me.
‘This,’ she said, ‘is my husband, Sir Luke Glynn.’ She faced about on him. ‘I have brought you here Captain Medhope, an officer of the rebel army, to take what repayment you are ready to give. He is, I may warn you, a good swordsman.’
Whatever she meant by this, she said it coldly, and as coldly kept her eyes on him awaiting his answer. Still avoiding them he continued to stare at me, and presently, pushing aside his tankard, leaned back in his chair with a rough laugh.
‘My good Kate,’ said he brutally, ‘I took you at least for a sportswoman?’ Still leaning back he pointed towards me. ‘Your friend is hurt, wherever you found him. Better ring for Pascoe and put him to bed.’
‘Hurt?’ she echoed, and turned to me, where I stood swaying, with a hand on the table’s edge, and a face (I dare say) as white as the diapered cloth. Her eyes rested on me at first increduously, then with dismay.
‘It is not serious,’ I stammered. ‘If some one will set a chair for me–no, not there–clear of the rug. My boots are full of blood, I think.’
With this I must have fallen in a faint, straight into her arms, and the faint must have lasted a few minutes. For when my senses came back some one had removed my jack-boots and stockings, and a hand had opened my shirt wide at the breast and found the wound. The hand was Lady Glynn’s; and on the other side of me stood her husband with a goblet of wine, some of which he had managed to coax down my throat.
The wine doubtless had revived me, yet not so that I noted all this at once or distinctly. For the while I lay back with closed eyes, and heard–as it were in a dream–my host and hostess talking together.
‘A scratch, as you see,’ said Lady Glynn. ‘There is no need to send for a surgeon–who belike would only take blood from him: and he has lost enough already. A few hours’ rest–if, when I have bathed the wound, you and Pascoe will carry him upstairs–‘
‘You are considerate, truly,’ he answered. ‘No doubt, having hired your bully, you wish to make the best of him. But–I put it to you– in asking me to nurse him you overshoot my Christian virtue.’
‘I think not,’ she corrected him in a cool, level voice. ‘That is, if you will consider him for what he is, the messenger of your honour. For the rest, he happens to be no bully but a gentleman– though I confess,’ she added, ‘this comes to you by purest luck: I had no time to pick or choose. Lastly, I have not hired him; but–‘
‘But what?’ he asked, as she came to a deliberate pause.
‘But, if you force me to it, I may try.’
What she meant by this, I, lying between them with closed eyes, could not guess: but I suppose that, meeting her look, he understood.
‘You?’ he said at length, hoarsely. ‘You?’ he repeated, and broke out with a furious oath. ‘No, by–, Kate, you can’t mean it! You can’t–it’s not like you . . . there, take your hand from him, or I’ll slit his throat, there, as he lies!’
But her hand, though it trembled, rested still on my breast, above the wound. ‘If you lay hand on him, I go straight to the King; and if you hurt me, I have provided that a letter reaches the King. You are trapped every way, husband; and–and let us have no violence, please, for here comes Pascoe at last with the hot water.’
It had cost me some self-command to keep my eyes closed during this talk. I opened them as a gray-headed servant came bustling in with a steaming pan. For just a second they encountered Lady Glynn’s. Perhaps some irregular pulse of the heart–she had not withdrawn her hand–or some catch in my breathing warned her in the act of turning. She gazed down on me as if to ask how much I had heard: but almost on the instant motioned to the old man to come close.
‘Have you a sponge?’ she asked.
‘It is in the pan, my lady.’
She took it, rinsed it twice or thrice to make sure the water was not too hot, and fell to bathing my wound. Her hand was exquisitely light; the sense of the warm water delicious; and again I closed my eyes. But in this exchange of glances my previous image of her had somehow faded or been transformed, and with a suddenness that to this day I cannot account for. To be sure I had formed it in haste and amid the distractions of a pretty sharp combat. On the way to the house she had kept well ahead–and drawn rein but to converse with me for less than half a minute. Only once–as she came riding back across the bridge from her parley with the patrol–had I taken stock (as you might say) of her looks; and, even so, my eyes had been occupied with her scarlet habit and feather, her bearing, her seat in the saddle, and the tone in which she spoke her commands, rather than with her actual features. That these were handsome I had certainly noted: but that I had noted them more particularly at the time I only discovered now, and by contrast.
Here, too, I should say that my age was forty-five and a trifle over; and that all my life I have been (as my comrades have often assured me) strangely insensible to the charms of women and indifferent to their good looks; and I tell this not because I am proud of it–for Heaven knows I am not–but that the reader may put no misconstruction, even a passing one, upon the rest of my story. I never for a moment stood in danger of loving Lady Glynn, as she never for a moment stood in danger of liking me. But I pitied her; and by virtue of this pity I was able to do for an hour or two what I had never done before and have never since tried or wished or cared to do again–to see clearly into a woman’s mind.
But this came later. For the present, lying there while she sponged my wound, I saw only that she was a great deal younger than I had deemed; and not only young but in distress; and not only distressed but in some sort helpless. In short, here was a woman so unlike the termagant who had charged across the bridge that I could hardly reconcile the two or believe them to be one.
The sponging over, the old man Pascoe handed her a bandage and, at a sign from her, lifted my shoulders a little while she passed it under my back. To do this her two arms must needs go around my body under the shirt: and I fancy that the sight drove her husband wellnigh past control: for he growled like a dog and I heard a splash of wine fall on the floor from the goblet he was still holding.
He obeyed, however, and gave me his arm–albeit sulkily–when commanded to help me upstairs: and although ’twas done on an impulse and with no thought of mischief, I did not improve his temper by pausing in the doorway and casting a look back at his lady. She was kneeling by the pan, rinsing out the sponge; and with her back towards us. She did not turn, and so my look went unrewarded; yet– though this must have been merest fancy–her attitude strengthened my certainty that she was in distress and in need of help.
In the great tapestried bedroom to which the two men conveyed me Sir Luke’s demeanour changed, and in a fashion at first puzzling. Having laid me on the bed and taken my assurance that I rested easily, he sent Pascoe off for a cup of wine and a manchet of bread, and, while these were being fetched, hung aimlessly about the room, now walking to and fro with his hands in his pockets, and anon halting to stare out of window. By-and-by Pascoe brought the tray, set it on a small table beside the bed, and retired. Sir Luke made as if to follow him, but paused at the door, shut it, and, coming back, stood gloomily frowning at me across the bed’s foot.
‘Where did my wife pick you up?’ he asked.
‘On the bridge,’ I answered, ‘where a mob–as I take it, of your retainers–were having at me with pitchforks as a prelude to cutting my throat.’
‘Was this your first meeting?’
I opened my eyes upon him, with a lift of the brows. ‘Yes,’ said I quietly, as though marvelling why he asked it. I think he had the grace to feel abashed. At any rate he lowered his eyes; nor though he lifted them presently did he seem able to fix them upon mine.
‘You were some sort of rearguard, I suppose? They tell me the main body of your horse rode clean through and escaped. Do you happen to know what became of Chester?’
‘Chester?’ I echoed.
‘He commanded our post at the bridge, as I understand. . . . When I say “ours” ’tis from habit merely. In the early part of the campaign I led a troop, but withdrew from His Majesty’s service more than a month ago, not being able to stomach Dick Grenville. You know Dick Grenville?’
‘But not Chester? . . . Chester was at one time his led-captain: but they have quarrelled since, and it looks as if–‘
He did not finish the sentence, but left me to guess what remained.
‘You mean,’ said I, ‘it looks as if Chester sold the pass? Well, if he did, I know nothing about it, or about him. This is the first I have heard of him. But speaking at a venture, I should say that either his neck’s in a halter or he has changed sides and is riding off with our troops.’
Sir Luke nodded, but said nothing; and after a while strode to the window. When he spoke again it was with his back turned to me.
‘I wonder,’ he said, ‘my fellows didn’t kill you out of hand.’
‘They were making a plaguy near bid for it,’ I answered; ‘but Lady Glynn interposed.’
‘And that’s the strange part of the business. All rebels, as a rule, are poison to her. . . . As for me, you understand, a man on campaign picks up a sort of feeling for the enemy. He gets to see that all the right’s not on one side, nor all the wrong on t’other. I dare say, now, that your experience is much the same?’ I did not answer this and after a pause he went on, still staring out of window, ‘I believed in the Lord’s Anointed, for my part: but allowing, for argument’s sake, the right’s on that side, there’s enough villainy and self-seeking mixed up with it to poison an honest man. . . . I shouldn’t wonder now that there’s something to be said even for Chester.’
‘That hardly seems possible,’ said I, wondering what his drift might be.
‘I don’t know. Wait till you’ve heard his side of the case. . . . But to go back to our subject–you see I don’t bear you any malice: I am out of this quarrel, and–saving my lady’s obstinacy–I don’t see–I really don’t see why I should billet myself with His Majesty’s prisoners. What’s more, I have an estate in the east of the county, a little this side of Plymouth. They quartered a troop of your fellows upon it last year, and the place, I hear, is a wilderness. . . . If I could get to it, or to Plymouth–well, one good turn deserves another, eh?–that is, if you’re fit to travel?’
I think that at this point he faced around and eyed me for the first time. But I made show that I had dropped asleep. I heard him swear under his breath, and half a minute later he left the room.
He had been offering me escape. But why? I turned his words over, and the more I turned them the less I liked them. He had given me a suspicious number of openings to prove that the right lay with my party. It seemed to me that, on half a hint, this man meant to desert. Yes, and his wife–I recalled her words–held him in some trap. And yet, recalling her face, I could not shake off the fancy that she, rather than he, stood in need of help.
Pondering all this, still with my eyes closed, I dropped asleep in good earnest.
I awoke from a sleep of many hours, to see old Pascoe standing at the bed’s foot. No doubt his entrance had disturbed me.
He carried my boots in one hand, a can of hot water in the other, my stockings and a clean shirt across his arm; and he announced that the hour was four o’clock, and at half-past four Sir Luke and his lady would be dining. If I felt myself sufficiently recovered, they desired the pleasure of my company.
I sat upright on the bed. My head yet swam, but sleep had refreshed me, and a pull at the wine–which had stood all this while untasted– set me on pretty good terms with myself. I bade the old man carry my compliments to his lady and tell her that I will thankfully do her pleasure. ‘But first,’ said I, ‘you must stand by and see me into a clean shirt.’
He did more. The stab in my upper arm had bled a little, and the shirt-sleeve could not be pulled from it without pain. He drew a pair of scissors from his side-pocket and cut the linen away from around the wound: and then, having noted my weakness, helped me to wash and dress, drew on stockings and boots for me, nor left me until he had buckled on my sword-belt, and then only with an excuse that he must change his coat before waiting at table. Sir Luke and Lady Glynn (he assured me) would be by this time awaiting me in the dining-room.
Sure enough I found them there, my lady standing by the midmost window and gazing down upon the park, Sir Luke by the fireplace with an arm resting on the high mantel-ledge and one muddied boot jabbing at the logs of a new-made fire till the flame roared up the chimney. I wondered what madness could command so huge a blaze in the month of August (albeit ’twas the last of the month), until he turned and I saw that he had been drinking heavily.
It seemed that Lady Glynn had not heard me enter, for as I paused, a little within the doorway, she leaned forward without turning and pushed open a lattice of the window. I supposed that she did this to abate the heat of the fire in the room. But no; she was leaning and listening to the sound of guns far in the west. The sound–I had heard it in my sleep and again at intervals while dressing–broke heavily on the mist that damped the panes and drifted through the opening with a breeze that set the curls waving about her neck and puffed out the silken shawl she had drawn around her naked shoulders.
Sir Luke looked up, and was the first to catch sight of me.
‘Hear the guns?’ he said. ‘Your foot hasn’t the luck of your horse. The King caught ’em, drove ’em back over Lestithiel Bridge, and has been keeping ’em on the run all day, pressing ’em t’wards the coast.’
‘Is that the report?’ I asked.
‘That’s my report,’ he answered; ‘and’–thrusting forward one bemired boot–‘you may count on it. I’ve been following and watching the fun.’
By this time Lady Glynn had turned and came past her husband to greet me, without throwing him a look.
‘You are the better for your rest?’ she asked. ‘At least I see that, though wounded, you have contrived to pay me the compliment of wearing fresh linen and a clean pair of boots.’
This was awkward, and–what was worse–she said it awkwardly, with a sprightliness, gracious yet affected, that did not become her at all. She meant, of course, to annoy her husband, and his face showed that she had succeeded. He turned away to the fire with a sulky frown, while she stood smiling, holding out a hand to me.
I touched it respectfully, and let it drop. ‘The credit,’ said I, ‘belongs all to your servant Pascoe.’
‘And here he is,’ she took me up gaily, as Pascoe appeared in the doorway. ‘Is dinner ready?’
‘To be served at once, my lady.’
‘Then will you lead me to my seat, Captain Medhope? Yours is beside me, on the right; yes, close there. My husband, at his end, can enjoy the fire.’
We took our seats. I was hungry, and the dinner good. I ate of everything, but can only recall an excellent grill of salmon and a roast haunch of venison: the reason being that Lady Glynn kept me in continued talk. Poor lady!–I had almost said, poor child!–for her desperate artlessness became the more apparent to me the more she persisted. Even I, who, as the reader has been told, have the smallest skill in the ways of women, could see that here was one, of high breeding but untutored, playing at a game at once above and beneath her; almost as far above her achieving as it lay beneath her true contempt. She knew that women can inveigle men; but in the practice of it I am very sure that her dairymaid could have given her lessons.
But what am I saying? Her poor coquetries did not deceive me, but she never meant them to deceive me. They accomplished, after all, just that for which she intended them. They deceived and maddened her half-drunken lout of a husband. Her dress, too, was something shameless. She wore above her scarlet skirt (which I verily believe was the same she had ridden in) a bodice of the same bright colour, low as a maid-of-honour’s, that displayed her young neck and bust. About her neck she had fastened a string of garnets. She had loaded her fingers with old-fashioned rings, of which the very dullness made me wince to see them employed in this sorry service. And I guessed that before my entrance this unusual finery had provoked her husband to fury.
A length of table lay between us and him. He sat silent, regarding us under lowered brows, eating little, draining glass after glass. Angry though he was, her voice seemed to lay a spell on him. She talked of a thousand things, but especially of the Parliament campaign, plying me with question after question–of our numbers, our discipline, our hardships during the past three weeks, of our general’s plan of escape, and, in particular, of the part I had borne in it. And when I answered she listened with smiles, as though King and Parliament lay balanced in her affections. And this was the termagant that a few hours ago had ridden us down and trampled across poor Hutson’s body!
All this I took at its true value, answering her with steady politeness, telling myself that as her purpose was to goad her husband, so no word of mine should give him an excuse for an outbreak. It takes two to make a quarrel, they say. But when three are mixed up in it (and one a woman), the third cannot always count on remaining passive.
I had managed to tide over the meal with fair success. We had reached the dessert, and Pascoe (whose presence may have laid some restraint upon his master) had withdrawn. A dish of pears lay before Lady Glynn, and she asked me to peel one for her. I know not if this simple request laid the last straw on Sir Luke’s endurance, but he filled his glass again and said with brutal insolence,–
‘You are fortunate, Captain Medhope, in exciting my wife’s interest. I assure you that until your gallantry bewitched her, she had been used to speak of all rebels as cowards in grain.’
‘I hope, Sir Luke,’ said I, ‘you, with experience of us, have tried to teach her better.’
‘In faith, no,’ he replied yet more brutally, backing his sneer with a laugh. ‘I saw no reason for that.’
‘And yet,’ said I deliberately, peeling my pear, ‘you told me to-day that something might be said even for such a man as your friend Chester.’
He jumped up with an oath. Yet I believe he might even now have restrained himself had not his wife–and with a face as pale as a ghost’s–laid a hand on my arm.
‘I had forgotten your wound,’ she said, ignoring her husband. ‘You handle the knife awkwardly. Let me cut the fruit and we will share.’
With a turn of the hand Sir Luke hurled back his chair, and it fell with a crash.
‘By God, Kate! if you have hired this man, he shall murder first and do his love-making afterwards. Nay, but I’ll stop that, too. Look first to yourself, madame!’
He had whipped out his sword and was actually running upon her before I could get mine clear. But I was in time to beat down his point and then–for he was slow-witted and three-parts drunk–with a trick of wrist that luckily required little strength, I disarmed him. His sword struck the farther edge of the table, smashed a decanter of wine and dropped to the floor.
We were standing now, all three; Lady Glynn a little behind my elbow.
‘Are you going to kill him?’ she asked, and he heard.
For a moment he stared at her stupidly, then at the stream of wine running across the table, then back at her–and, so staring, flung up both hands and plunged forward. His brow, as he fell like an ox, thudded against the chair from which, a moment since, she had arisen.
I caught up a candle. But she was before me and had dropped on her knees beside him. In his fall he had rolled over on his side, and for a moment I supposed her to be busy loosening his collar. But no–as I held the candle close she was feeling in his pockets, and in the light of it she held up a bunch of keys.
‘I am glad you did not kill him,’ she said simply, rising from her knees. ‘There was no need.’
‘No need?’ I repeated stupidly, swaying with weakness.
‘You shall see.’
She slipped by me and from the room. I bent and loosened Sir Luke’s collar, and essayed to lift him, but had to relinquish the effort and drop into a chair, where I sat staring at the fallen wreck. While I stared, still dizzy, I heard the voice of old Pascoe behind me.
‘We can manage it, sir–I think–between us.’ He stepped past me, and together we lifted his master and staggered with him to a couch, where he lay, breathing hard.
Pascoe motioned me back to my chair, where I sat and panted.
While I sat, she came back. I did not hear her approach, but only her voice whispering to me to come: and I followed her forth from the room and out into the corridor, and along the corridor to the porch as a man walking in his sleep.
There was a lantern by the porch, and in the light of it my horse stood, saddled and ready.
‘You will take the road up the valley,’ she said, ‘and cross by the second bridge. The road beyond that bears due east and is unguarded.’
‘But what is this?’ I asked, as I put a hand to the pommel of the saddle and felt something hard and heavy slung there beside it.
‘It is the price of the pass, or half of it. There is another bag on the off side, and between them they hold, I believe, six hundred pounds.’
‘That was his price?’
‘That was the price. And now go: take it back to your general.’
‘You must help me to mount,’ said I.
She helped me to mount.
‘The second bridge, you will remember,’ said she, as I found my stirrups.
‘I will remember. Is that all?’
‘That is all: though, if you wish it, I will thank you and say that you have behaved well.’
‘I did not wish it,’ said I, ‘though now you have said it, I am glad. You hate me, I understand.’
‘And I thank you for understanding. Yes, you have behaved well.’
‘Good-night, then, and God bless you!’
I shook rein and jogged out of the courtyard into the mirk and mist. I never saw her again.
Not till years later did I learn that she, too, had left her husband’s roof that night and after (it cannot be doubted) many adventures of which no history has reached me, joined the Court in its exile at the Hague; where, as I am told, she died.
Her husband recovered and lived to accomplish his end by drink. There were whispers against him, but no certain proof that he had ever acted as intermediary in selling the pass. His defenders could always urge his notorious poverty. Before his death he had parted with more than two-thirds of his estate. There was no child to inherit the remainder.
To the end he asserted that his wife had run from him unfaithfully, and was pitied for it. So I hear, at least, and do not care; as I am sure she would not have cared. She had saved his honour, with my poor help, and having saved it, was quit of us both.
I pray the foreign earth may rest lightly on her.