The Copernican Convoy by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

[The story is told by Will Fleming, of the Inner Temple, Barrister-at-law, and sometime Cornet of the 32nd Troop of Horse in the Parliament Army, then (December, 1643) quartered at Farnham, on the Hants border.]


I dare say that, since the world began and men learned to fight, was never an army moderately prosperous and yet fuller of grumblers than was ours during the latter weeks of November and the first fortnight of December, 1643. In part the blame lay upon our general, Sir William Waller, and his fondness for night attacks and beating up of quarters. He rested neither himself nor his men, but spent them without caring, and drove not a few to desert in mere fatigue. This was his way, and it differed from the way of my Lord Essex, who rather spilled his strength by lethargy and grieved over it. ‘Twas notorious these two generals loved not one another: and ’tis not for me, who never served under Essex, to take sides. But I will say this for General Waller–that he spared himself as little as any common soldier; never forgot the face of a good servant; and in general fed his men well and hated arrears of pay like the devil.

Nevertheless, and hate it though he might, our pay was in arrears. Moreover, apart from their fatigue of marching and counter-marching, the bulk of our infantry had been drawn from the London train-bands– the Red Westminster Regiment and the Auxiliaries, Green and Yellow, of London City and the Tower Hamlets; tradesmen, that is to say, who wearied to be home again with their wives and families after six months’ separation, and others (such as the White Regiment of Auxiliaries) freshly drafted, that had scarce got over the remembrance of parting. These regiments, too, comprised many score of apprentices, whom Parliament allowed to count their time of military service as though it had been spent with their masters: and as apprentice and master marched side by side, and it often fell that the youngster won promotion, with leave to order his elder about, you may guess there were heart-burnings. Add to this that it kept these good citizens chafing to note how often (and indeed regularly) advancement passed them over to light on some young gentleman of family or ‘imp,’ as they growled, ‘from the Inns of Court.’

We lay–in horse and foot some five thousand strong–well centred in and about the town and castle of Farnham, with a clear road to London behind us and in front a nearly equal enemy planted across our passage to the West. You may take a map with ruler and pencil and draw a line through from Winchester to Oxford, where the King kept his Court. On the base of it, at Winchester, rested General Hopton’s main force. North and east of it, at Alton, my Lord Crawford stood athwart the road with sufficient cavalry and Colonel Bolle’s regiment of foot; yet farther north, Basing House, with my Lord of Winchester’s garrison, blocked the upper path for us; and yet beyond, Sir Edward Ford’s regiment held the passes of the hills toward Oxford; so that for the while, and in face of us, messengers, troops, even artillery, might pass to and fro without challenge. This line of defence, though it forestalled us on every road, was weak in that it drew out Hopton’s strength and attenuated it at too great distances. This our general perceived, and nursed himself for a sudden blow.

Now I must mention that with the entry of December there fell the beginning of a cruel frost, that lasted six weeks and was enough to make this winter memorable without help of wars or bloodshed. At the first we all hailed it, as hardening the roads, which for a month had been nigh impassable: and either commander took speedy advantage of it–Hopton to make a swift diversion into Sussex and capture Arundel Castle (which was but a by-blow, for in a few weeks he had lost it again), and our own general to post up with his short, quick legs to London, where in two days he had wrung from Essex good reinforcements, with promise of pay for the troops and a consignment of leathern guns–a new invention and extremely portable. By the evening of December 5th he was back among us and despatching us north, south, and east to keep the enemy jumping while our supplies drew in.

It was one of those night skirmishes or surprises that brought me promotion. For on the evening of December 10th our troop, being ordered out to beat up the neighbourhood of Odiham, on the way fell in with a half-squadron of the Lord Crawford’s cuirassiers, and in the loose pistol-firing we took five prisoners and lost our cornet, Master John Ingoldby. The next day we rested; and that morning, as I sat on a rusty harrow by the forge close beside Farnham Church and watched the farrier roughing my horse, our Sergeant-Major Le Gaye, a Walloon, came up to me and desired me to attend on Colonel Stuckey, who presently and with many kind expressions told me that I was chosen to fill the room of the dead cornet.

Now this was flattering: and you may think with what elation of mind I took it, being eager and young (in fact, scarce turned twenty). But almost it jumped beyond my ambitions at the time. I was one of five sergeants of the troop, the unripest among them and already accounted lucky. I knew well that this advancement had passed them and reached me less for my deserving than because our colonel preferred to have his commands carried by men of decent birth. I knew the whole army to be sore already over fifty like promotions, and foresaw grumbling.

‘I bear ye no malice’–this was the way that Roger Inch took it, our senior sergeant. ‘But you’ll allow ’tis disheartening to be set aside for a lawyer-fellow that, a year ago, had never groomed horse-hair but on his own wig.’ And so–but less kindly–the rest of my fellow-sergeants expressed themselves.

None the less they were ready enough, that evening, to join in drinking to my new honours. The place was the Bear Inn, in Farnham; the liquor, warmed ale; and I paid the scot. Towards midnight Sergeant Inch had so far forgot his rancour as to strike up his song of Robin and the Night Owl–‘Robin,’ I should explain, being the Earl of Essex, and the ‘Night Owl’ our own general, so nicknamed for his activities after dark.

We broke no regulations by this revelry, being allowed by custom, after a night in saddle, to spend the next as we chose, provided that we kept to quarters. For me, though I had done better in bed, snatching a little sleep, the time was past for seeking it. A picket of ours had been flung out to westward of the town, on the Alton Road, and at twelve o’clock I was due to relieve it. So I pushed the drink around, and felt their grudge against me lessening while Sergeant Inch sang,–

‘Robin’s asleep, for Robin is nice;
Robin has delicate habits;
But “Whoo!” says the gray Night Owl–once, twice,
And three times “Whoo!” for the little shy mice,
The mice and the rats and the rabbits,

At the close of every verse he mimicked an owl’s call to the life– having in his young days been a verderer of the New Forest, on the edge of Bradley Plain; and at the end of his third verse, in the middle of a hoot, was answered by a trumpet not far away upon the road to Alton.

At the sound of it we sprang up, all of us, and two or three ran out into the street: for the beating up of quarters had become a bad habit with the two armies, useless as the most of us thought it. The night outside was freezing villainously: it struck chill into me after the hot room and the ale-drinking. The moon, as I remember, was high, shedding a soft foggy light down the roadway: and there, by the inn doorway, I stood for a minute or two, with my hand on my sword, peering and listening. To right and left, and from behind me, came sounds of men moving in their billets to the alarm and waiting, as I was waiting. But no noise of attack followed the first summons; and by-and-by I drew back as a brisk footfall broke the hush and came hurrying down to the doorway of the Bear, where it halted.

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‘Is that you, Fleming?’ said the voice of old Price, our Welsh quartermaster. ‘Then turn out quick to the West Gate! The enemy has sent in a trumpet in form, and you are to convey him up to the Castle.’

Without delay I fetched my roan mare from the stable, mounted, and rode out beyond the West Gate to a point where the little River Wey runs close alongside the high-road. There I found the trumpet in converse with our picket, and took stock of him by aid of the sergeant’s lantern. He was a blackavised, burly fellow, with heavy side-locks, a pimpled face, and about the nose a touch of blue that, methought, did not come of the frosty air. He sat very high in saddle, upon a large-jointed bay, and wore a stained coat that covered his regimentals and reached almost to his rowels. A dirty red feather wagged over his hat-brim. As I rode up he greeted me with a jovial brotherly curse, and hoped–showing me his letter–that we kept good drink at the Castle. ‘And if so,’ he added, ‘your little William the Conqueror may keep me so long as he has a mind to.’

I told him, as we rode back and into Farnham, that Sir William, as a rule, made quick despatch of business.

‘He made pretty quick despatch of it at Lansdowne,’ said my Cavalier, and started trolling a catch,–

‘Great William the Con,
So fast he did run,
That he left half his name behind him!’

Perceiving him to be an ill-bred fellow, and that to answer his jeering would be time wasted, I turned the talk upon his message.

‘The Lord Crawford sends for an exchange of prisoners?’ I hazarded.

‘The Lord Crawford does not waste a man of my talents in swapping of prisoners,’ was the response. ‘And when Orlando Rich takes the road and risks his health on such a night as this, you may be sure ’tis on business of moment.’

I questioned him no further. We rode through the park (the sentries taking my password), and came to the guardroom of the Castle, where, as we dismounted, the general’s quartermaster lounged out and called for a couple of men to take our horses. Then, learning that my companion brought a message from Lord Crawford, he made no delay but led us straight to the general’s room.

Though the clock in the corner had gone midnight, the general sat in a litter of papers with a lamp at his elbow and his legs stretched out to a bright sea-coal fire. With him was closeted Colonel Pottley, of the London train-bands, and by the look of the papers around them they had been checking the lists (as two days later there was heavy court-martialling among the newly arrived drafts and cashiering of officers that had misbehaved in Middlesex).

‘You come from the Earl of Crawford?’ asked the general, not rising from his chair, but holding out a hand for the letter.

The messenger presented it, with a good soldierly salute; and so stood, pulling at his moustachios and looking fierce. ‘Your name?’

‘Sergeant Orlando Rich, of the Earl’s Loyal Troop.’ The general broke the seal, ran his eye over the paper, and let out a short laugh.

‘His lordship sends me his loving compliment and prays me to spare him a runlet of sack or of malvoisy, for that his own wine is drunk out and the ale at Alton does not agree with his stomach.’

‘Nor with any man’s,’ corroborated Sergeant Rich.

‘He promises to send me a fat ox in exchange, and–‘ the General glanced to the foot of the scrawl, turned the paper over, and found it blank save for the name and direction–‘and that, it seems, is all. No talk of prisoners. . . . Truly an urgent message to send post at midnight!’

‘If you had seen his lordship’s condition–‘ murmured Sergeant Rich.

‘His lordship shall have a full hogshead; but not by you;’ the General shot a shrewd glance at the man and bade me step outside and summon the quartermaster who waited in the corridor. ‘Quartermaster,’ said he, ‘convey this visitor of ours to the kitchens. Give him what meat and wine he demands. Let him depart when he will and carry as much as he will–under his skin. Meantime order out three of the pack-nags, and tell the cellarer to fetch up six firkins of the sack sent down to me last Thursday by Mr Trenchard. Have them slung, a pair to each horse, and well secured– for the roads are slippery. And you, Master Fleming–‘

I saluted; flushing, perhaps, a little with pleasure that he remembered my name.

‘Do you mount guard to-night? Then we must find you a substitute. What say you to convoying this wine, with a trumpet, to my Lord Crawford? You may choose half a dozen of your troop to ride with you. The road to Alton cannot easily be missed; and, if it could– why, these night sallies are the best of training for a young soldier. I doubt, Master Fleming, that since this morning, when I promoted you cornet, you have heard talk that glanced upon your rawness, hey? Well, here is a chance for you to learn. For my part I call no man a finished campaigner until he can smell his way through a strange country in the dark. You fancy the errand? Then go, and prosper: and be sure my Lord Crawford will treat you kindly, when he has once tasted my wine.’


The stroke of one in the morning, sounding after us from Farnham clock through the fine frosted air, overtook us well upon the road. I had made speed, and so had the quartermaster and cellarer. As for Sergeant Orlando Rich, if he had not achieved speed he had at least made haste. Before I started my pack-horses from the guardroom door the cellarer came to me and reported him drunk as a fly; and stepping into the great kitchen for a slice of pasty, to fortify me against the night’s work, I saw my hero laid out and snoring, with his shoulder-blades flat on the paved floor. So I left him to sleep it off.

A fellow of the general’s own guard helped me lead my horses to the door of the Bear, and there I tumbled out my substitute, and six passably good troopers I had chosen to take with me. They were Carey, our youngest sergeant, and as good-natured a fellow as I knew; Randles, who stood well for advancement to the post my own promotion had left vacant; and four other privates–Shackell, Wyld, Masters, and Small Owens (as we called him), a Welshman from the Vale of Cardigan. To prime them for the ride I called up the landlord and dosed them each with a glass of hot Hollands water; and forth we set, in good trim and spirits.

For two miles after passing our picket we ambled along at ease. The moon was low in the south-west, but as yet gave us plenty of light; and the wind–from the quarter directly opposite–though bitter and searching, blew behind our right shoulders and helped us cheerfully along. Our troubles began in a dip of the road on this side of the hamlet of Froyl, where an autumn freshet, flooding the highway, had been caught by the frost and fixed in a rippled floor of ice. We had seen duly to the roughing of our own chargers; and even they were forced at this passage to feel their steps mincingly; but the pack-horses, for whom I had only the quartermaster’s assurance, had been handled (if indeed at all) by the inexpertest of smiths. The poor beasts sprawled and slithered this way and that, and in the end, as if by consent, came to a pitiful halt, their knees shaking under them. So they appeared willing to wait and tremble until morning: but on my order Randles, Owen, and Masters, dismounting, led them and their own horses, foot by foot, on to sure ground.

For a mile beyond, and some way past Froyl, was safe going if we avoided the ruts. But here the moon failed us; and when Carey lit a lantern to help, it showed us that the carriers had no stomach left in them. One, though the froth froze on him, was sweating like a resty colt. The other two, if we slacked hold on their halter-ropes, would lurch together, halt, and slue neck to neck like a couple of timid dowagers hesitating upon a question of delicacy.

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It was here that there came into my head the ill-starred thought of leading them off the road and through the fields close alongside of it on our left hand. The road itself I knew pretty well, and that it bore gradually to the left, all the way to Alton. Carey, whom I consulted, agreed that we could find it again at any time we chose. So, and without more ado, we opened the next gate we came to and herded the beasts through.

The first two fields, being stubble, served us well; and the next, a pasture, was even better. Beyond this we had some trouble to find a gate, but at length Masters hit on one a little way out of our course, and it led to a wide plowland, freshly turned but hard-frozen, in the furrows of which our horses boggled a good deal. We pushed across it, holding our line in a long slant back towards the loom of the tall hedge that (as we agreed) marked the course of the highway. On the far side of the plow this hedge ran down hill towards us and more sharply than I had reckoned: yet before regaining it we had to cross another pasture. I was the surer that this must be the road because of a light that shone straight ahead of us, which I took to be the direction of Holibourne village. I should mention, too, that on our left all the way the ground descended in an easy slope, but the frost had bound the little river running below and held it silent.

Sure enough on the far side of the pasture we came to a gate, and Shackell, who was leading, announced that the high-road lay beyond. But a minute later he called to us that this could not be: it was too narrow, a mere lane in fact; and with that, as we pressed up to the gate, the mischief happened.

The cause of it was a poor starved jackass, that had been sheltering himself under the lee of the hedge, and now, as we all but trampled him, heaved himself out of the shadow with a bray of terror. The sound, bursting upon us at close quarters, was as a stone hurled into a pool. Round went our horses’ rumps, and up went heels and hoofs. I heard Little Owens cry aloud that his nose was broken. ‘Catch hold of the pack-beasts!’ I shouted, as they shied back upon us, and two were caught and held fast–I know not by whom. The third, the resty one, springing backwards past me, almost on his haunches, jerked his halter wide of my clutch, and in a moment was galloping full flight down the slope.

With a call to the others to stand steady and wait for me, I wheeled my mare about and rode off in chase, to round him up. The almost total darkness made this hunting mighty unpleasant; but I knew that, bating the chance of being flung by a mole-hill, I had my gentleman safe enough. For, to begin with, he must soon find the pace irksome, with two firkin casks jolting against his ribs; and at the foot of the descent the river would surely head him off. To be sure it was frozen hard and he might have crossed it dry-footed, but the alders on the bank frighted him back, and presently I had him penned in an angle between hedge and stream. Here, as I slowed up and advanced to coax him, from out of the darkness behind him there broke suddenly a shouting and pounding of hoofs, and close in front of me (but hidden by the hedge) a troop of horsemen clattered down from the farther slope and up the lane where my comrades were gathered.

If for a moment I doubted what it all might mean, a couple of pistol-shots, followed by a loose volley that mixt itself with oaths and yells, all too quickly put this out of doubt. My men were being charged, without question or challenge, by a troop of the enemy, while separated by a quarter of a mile of darkness and stiff rising ground from me, who alone carried their credentials. Little need to say in what hurry I wheeled my mare about to the slope, struck spur, dragged my trumpet loose on its sling and blew, as best I could, the call that both armies accepted for note of parley. Belike (let me do the villains this credit), with the jolt and heave of the mare’s shoulders knocking the breath out of me, I sounded it ill, or in the noise and scuffle they heard confusedly and missed heeding. The firing continued, at any rate, and before I gained the gate the fight had swept up the lane.

I swung out upon the hard stones and dashed after it. But the enemy, by this, had my fellows on the run, and were driving them at stretch gallop. To worsen my plight, as I pursued I caught sound of hoofs pounding behind and, as it seemed, overtaking me; supposed that a horseman was riding me down; and, reining the mare back fiercely, slued about to meet his onset. It proved to be the poor pack-horse I had left in the valley! He must have galloped like a racer; but now he came to a halt, and thrust his poor bewildered face towards me through the darkness. Commending him to the devil, I wheeled about once more and struck spur; and as I galloped, he galloped anew behind.

This diversion had cost me a good fifty yards. I knew well enough that the lane sooner or later must lead out into the high-road, and made sure that if my fellows gained it first they would head back for Farnham. (What would befall me I left to Providence!) But some two or three of the enemy must have raced ahead and cut off that retreat; for when I came to it the way to the right lay open indeed, but the whole welter was pounding down the road to the left, straight for Alton. Again I followed, and in less than two hundred yards was pressing close upon three or four of the rearmost riders. This seemed to me good opportunity for another call on my trumpet, and I blew, without easing my speed. On the sound of it, one of the dark figures in front swung round in saddle and fired, I saw the flash and the light of it on his gorget and morion: and with that, the bullet glancing against my mare’s shoulder, she swerved wildly, leapt high, and came down with forelegs planted, pitching me neck-and-crop out of saddle upon the frozen road.


Doubtless the fall stunned me; but doubtless also not for more than a few seconds. For I awoke to the drum of distant hoofs, and before it died clean away I had recovered sense enough to take its bearing in the direction of Farnham. Strangely enough, towards Alton all was quiet. Sitting up, with both hands pressing my head, for just a moment I recognised the gallop for my own mare’s. Another beat time with it. I asked myself, why another? She would be heading for home–wounded, perhaps–scared certainly. But why with a companion? . . . Then, suddenly, I remembered the poor pack-beast; and as I remembered him, all my faculties grew clouded.

Or so, at least, I must suppose; for of the sudden silence on the Alton road I thought not at all. What next engaged me was a feeling of surprise that, of my two hands pressed on my temples, the right was cold, but the left, though it met the wind, unaccountably warm– the wrist below it even deliciously, or so it felt until rubbing my palms together I found them sticky, with blood.

The blood, I next discovered, was welling from a cut on my left temple. Putting up my fingers, I felt the fresh flow running over a crust of it frozen on my cheek; and wondered how I might stanch it. I misdoubted my strength to find the lane again and creep down to the river; and the river, moreover, would be frozen. For a certainty I should freeze to death where I lay, and even more surely on the road back to Farnham I must faint and drop and, dropping, be frozen. With that, I remembered the light we had seen shining ahead of us as we crossed the fields; and staggered along in search of it, after first groping for my morion, which had rolled into the hedge some paces away.

For a while, confused in my bearings, I sought on the wrong hand; but by-and-by caught the twinkle of it through a gate to the left, and studied it, leaning my arms on the bar. The house whence it shone could not be any part of Holibourne village, but must stand somewhere on high rising ground across the valley. I might reckon to reach it by turning back and taking the lane in which we had been surprised: but this meant fetching a long circuit. I was weakening with loss of blood, and–it coming into my mind that the river below would be hard–I resolved to steer a straight line and risk obstacles.

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As it turned out, there were none, or none to throw me back. At the stream-side, holding by an elder-bough, I tested the ice with my weight, proved it firm, crossed without so much as cracking it, and breasted a bare grassy slope, too little to be called a down, where a few naked hawthorns chafed and creaked in the wind. Above it was an embankment rounded like a bastion, up the left side of which I crept–or, you might almost say, crawled–and, reaching the top, found myself close under the front of a dwelling-house.

It was coated with whitewash, the glimmer of which showed me the queer shape of the building even in the darkness. It consisted of two stories, both round as pepper-pots. Above the first ran a narrow circular thatch, serving as a mat (so to say) for the second and smaller pepper-pot. I could not discern how this upper story was roofed, but the roof had a hole in it, from which poured a stray ray of light. Light shone too, but through a blind, from a small window close under the eaves. The lower story showed none at all.

I rapped on the door. There came no response, though I waited and listened for a full minute. I rapped again and shouted; and was about to challenge for the third time, when the threshold showed a chink of light. Muffled footsteps came down the passage, and with much creaking the bolts were undrawn.

‘Who knocks?’ demanded a man’s voice, somewhat shrill and querulous. ‘Cannot a poor scholar rest in peace, and at this time o’ night?’

‘In the name of Charity!’ I urged.

He flung the door open and stood with a hand-lamp held high, surveying me: a little old man, thin as a rat, in skullcap, furred gown, and list slippers. The lamp shone down on his silvered hair and on a pair of spectacles he had pushed up to the edge of his cap; and showed me a face mildly meditative from the brow down to the chin, which by contrast was extremely resolute.

‘More soldiers!’ he observed testily. ‘The plague take it that they and the meteors must choose the same night to drop from heaven! How many of you, this time?’

I answered that I was alone, and would have added a word on my plight; but this, beneath the lamp-light, he could not miss perceiving, for my face and the left shoulder of my buff coat were a mask of blood.

‘H’m!’–he cut me short. ‘It may sound to you unfeeling: but if Heaven persists in sending me soldiers I had rather physic than feed them:’ and with that he stood aside as inviting me to enter. Be sure I obeyed him gladly, and, stepping inside, rested my hand for a moment against the jamb of a door that stood open to the right. The ray of his lamp, as he held it near to examine me, gave me a glimpse of the room within–of a table with cloth awry, of overturned flagons lying as they had spilt their wine-stains, of chairs and furniture pushed this way and that.

‘So your predecessors have left me,’ said the old gentleman, catching the direction of my gaze and nodding. ‘Whether or no they have left me enough for the morning’s breakfast is a matter my servant must discover when he comes over from Holibourne at daylight.’

‘They were Malignants, sir, as I guess: the Earl of Crawford’s men.’

‘Devil a groat care I what you call them, or they call themselves! I study the heavens and take no heed of your sublunary divisions. But they have eaten and drunk me out of house and home; at that hour, too, when the most meteors were predicted: and what is worse they invaded my garret in their clumsy jack-boots, and have thrown my Orchestra Coeli out of gear. I was mending it when you knocked. By the way,’ he added more kindly, ‘I can go on mending it while you wash your wound, which will appear less horrid when cleansed of all this blood. I have a fire upstairs, and hot water. Come.’

He closed the outer door and, taking me gently by the elbow, half-supported me up the stairway, which was little better than a ladder, and led direct to the strangest room I have ever set eyes on.

It was circular–in diameter perhaps twelve feet–with a high conical roof. The roof had an inner lining of wood, and through a hole in it–where a panel had been slid back–a large optic-glass, raised on a pivot-stand, thrust its nose out into the night. Close within the door stood an oaken press, and beside it, on a tripod, a brazier filled with charcoal and glowing. A truckle-bed, a chair, and two benches made up the rest of the furniture: and of the benches one was crowded with all manner of tools–files by the score, pliers, small hammers, besides lenses, compasses, rules, and a heap of brass filings; the other, for two-thirds of its length, was a litter of books and papers. But the end nearest to the working-bench had been cleared, and here stood a mighty curious intricate mechanism of wheels and brass wire and little brass balls, with fine brass chains depending through holes in the board. My host flung a tender look at it across his shoulder as he stepped to the press to fetch basin and towel.

‘The oaf has dislocated the pin of the fly-wheel,’ he grunted. ‘Praise Heaven, he never guessed that it worked on a diamond, or slight chance had my poor toy with his loutish fingers stuck in it!’

He filled the basin with water from a copper ewer that rested close to the brazier on a file of folios, and set it to heat. ‘I doubt I must give up the meteors to-night,’ he continued, and went back to his machine, with which, I could see, his fingers were itching to be busy.

I asked, ‘Is that, sir, an invention of yours?’

‘Ay, soldier,’ he answered; ‘mine solely; the child of my brain’s begetting.’ His hands hovered over the delicate points and wires. ‘And to be murdered thus by a great thumb-fingered dragoneer!’ With a lens and a delicate needle, he began to peer and prise in it; and anon, fixing the lens in his eye, reached out for his hand-lamp.

‘To what use have you designed it, sir?’ I asked, after a while spent in watching him.

‘To no use at all, soldier,’ he answered, more tartly. ‘The water is warm, and you can bathe your hurt and afterwards I will plaster it.’ While I laved my temple with the edge of the towel, between the dip of the water I heard his voice in broken sentences: ‘To no use at all. . . . Would a man ask the sun to what use it danced? . . . or the moon and planets? . . .’

I looked up, dabbing my wound gently. His voice had risen and stretched itself on a high, monotonous pitch. He was declaiming verse.

‘Who doth not see the measures of the Moon?
Which thirteen times she dances every year,
And ends her Pavane thirteen times as soon
As doth–

Hey? Do you know the lines, soldier?’ He stepped forward and peered close at my head while I shook it. ‘Tush! a cut, a trifle! Go on bathing. . . . The lines, sir, were writ by Sir John Davies, the first of English poets.’

‘Indeed, sir,’ said I. ‘Now at the Inner Temple, before mixing myself in these troubles, I used to read much poetry and dispute on it with other young men. We had our several laureates; but believe me-and despise if you will–although we had heard tell of Sir John Davies, I doubt if one in six of us had read a line of him.’

‘Ay, indeed,’ he caught me up, ‘I have scarce read a line of any other. Having discovered him I had no need. For allow me to observe–although I know nothing about it–that in poetry the Subject is nine points of excellence; and, Sir John Davies having hit on the most exalted subject tractable by the Muse, it follows that he must be the most exalted poet. Let me tell you–if it will shorten argument–that in general, and in all walks of life, I hate the second-best.’

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‘I have heard, sir,’ said I, ‘that this masterpiece was a poem on Dancing. But you must be thinking of another.’

‘Not at all, young man,’ my host replied, poring anew into his toy. ‘”Orchestra” is the name of it; the subject, Dancing. But what dancing!–the sun, the moon, the stars–Eh? Halleluia, but it goes again!’

Sure enough, bending over the basin, I heard a buzz of wheels, and looked up to see the whole machine springing like a score of whipping-tops gone mad, the brass balls swinging and rotating so fast that the eye lost them in little twinkling circles and ellipses, the wheels whirring and filling the room with their hum.

My astronomer had dived under the bench. I saw for the moment little more than his posterior and the soles of his list slippers.

‘You’ll pardon me,’ I heard him grunt, and the speed of the machinery slackened as he attached a couple of leaden weights to the dependent chains. He backed, crawled out, and stood erect; adjusted his spectacles, and stood beaming upon his invention.

‘But what is the signification, sir?’ I asked, rising from my chair and stepping close.

‘Ah! You improve, soldier. It hath signification, not use: and it signifies the motion of the heavens. See–this larger ball is the sun; and here, on their several rods, the planets–all swinging in their courses. By a pointer on this dial-plate–observe me now–I reduce the space of a day to one, two, three minutes, as I chose, retarding or accelerating, but always in just proportion. ‘Tis set for these December days; you will remark the sun’s ambit–how it lies south of the zenith, and how far short it rises and falls from the equinoctial points. But wait awhile, and in a few minutes–that is to say, days–you shall see him start to widen his circuit. Here now is Saturn, with his rim: and here Venus–mark how delicately she lifts, following the motion of her lord–`

‘Just with the Sun her dainty feet doth move–‘

‘And this is Dancing–Orchestra Coeli–the Dancing of the Firmament.’

‘Wonderful!’ I cried.

‘You shall say so presently! So far you have only seen: now hear!’

He drew out a small brass pin from the foot of the mechanism, and at once it began to hum, on three or four notes such as children make with a comb and a scrap of paper.

The notes lifted and fell, and the little balls–each in his separate circle–wheeled and spun, twinkling in time with them, until my head, too, began to swim.

‘It will run for an hour now,’ my host assured me. ‘Indeed, with one to watch and draw up the weights at due intervals, it will run for ever.’

‘It dizzies me,’ said I.

‘Your head is light, belike, with the loss of blood. Sit you back in the chair, and I will try now what may be done with ointment and plaster.’

He forced me to seat myself and, fetching a small medicine-box from the press, began to operate. His fingers were extraordinarily quick and thin, and so delicate of touch that I felt no pain, or very little: but though I lay with my head far back and saw the machine no longer, it had set my brain spinning, and the pressure of his hands appeared to be urging it round and round, while his voice (for he talked without intermission) mingled and interwove itself with the drone of the music from the table. He was reciting verses; from his favourite poem, no doubt. But though the sound of them ran in my ears like a brook, I can remember one couplet only,–

‘And all in sundry measures do delight,
Yet altogether keep no measure right. . . .’

I dare say that, yielding to the giddiness, I swooned: and yet I can remember no interval. The circles seemed to have hold of me, to be drawing me down, and yet down; until, like a diver half-bursting for breath, I found strength, sprang upwards, and reached the surface with a cry.

The cry rang in my ears yet. But had it come, after all, from my own lips? I gripped the arms of the chair in a kind of terror, and leaned forward, staring at my host, who had fallen back a pace, and stood between me and the lamp.

‘Pardon me, sir,’ I found voice to say after a pause ‘I must have fallen into a doze, I think. My head–‘ I put a hand up to it and discovered that it was bandaged. He did not answer me, but appeared to be listening. ‘My head–‘ I repeated, and again stopped short– this time at sound of a cry.

It came from the night without: and at once I knew it to be a repetition of the sound that had aroused me. Nor was it, in fact, a cry, though it rose like a cry against the wind: rather, a confused uproar of voices, continuous, drawing nearer and nearer.

Then, as I stared at my host and he at me, the noise became articulate as drunken singing–‘Tow, row, row! Tow, row, row! . . . Crop-headed Puritans, tow, row, row. . . . Boot and saddle, and tow, row, row!–and, nearing so, broke into chorus,–

‘Waller and Hazelrigg, Stapleton, Scroop–
Way! Make way for His Majesty’s troop!
Crop-headed Puritans durstn’t deny
His Majesty’s gentlemen riding by,
With boot and saddle and tow-row-row!’

‘Good Lord!’ muttered my host, casting out his two hands in despair. ‘More soldiers!’

But by this time I had my hand on the door. ‘Guide me down the stairs,’ I commanded; ‘down to the door! And, before you open it, quench the light!’

By the time we reached the door the voices were close at hand, coming down the lane: and by each note of them I grew more clearly convinced. ‘Sir,’ I asked in a whisper, ‘does this lane lead off from the road on the near side of Alton?

For a moment it seemed that he did not hear me. ‘Pray Heaven I dowsed the light in time!’ he chattered. ‘Three visits in one night is more than my sins deserve. . . . Yes; the lane enters a half-mile this side of Alton, and returns back–‘

‘Well enough I know where it returns back’ said I. ‘Man, did you bewitch them?–as, a while ago, you bewitched me?’


I felt that he was peering at me in the dark.

Something has bewitched them,’ I persisted. ‘Either the wine or that devil’s toy of yours has hold of them; or the both, belike. These are the same men, and have travelled full circle, listen to them!–’tis the music of the spheres, sir.’

‘I believe you are right,’ said my host, with a chuckle. ‘O, Copernicus!’

I drew the door open gently and looked aloft. The night, before so starry, was now clouded over. The troopers–I could hear their horses’ hoofs above the whoops and yells of their chorusing–were winding downhill by a sunken way within ten yards of me. A gravel path lay between me and the hedge overlooking it. This I saw by the faint upcast rays of the lanterns they had lit for guidance. I tip-toed across to the hedge, and, peering over, was relieved of my last doubt: for at the tail of the procession and under charge of one drunken trooper for whipper-in, rode all my poor comrades with arms triced behind them and ankles lamentably looped under their horses’ bellies.

Even as they passed a thought came into my head: and the face of the whipper-in–seen dimly in the shadow of a lantern he joggled at his saddle-bow–decided me. I slipped off my sash, looped it loosely in my hand, and so, without waiting to say farewell to my host, slid down the bank into the lane.

Though I shot over the frozen bank a deal faster than ever I intended and dropped on the roadway with a thud, the trooper, bawling his chorus, did not turn in his saddle. I tip-toed after him, between a walk and a run, and still he did not turn. Not till I was level with his stirrup did he guess that I was on him; and even so he could scarcely roar out a curse before I had my sash flung over him and with a jerk fetched him clean out of his saddle. As he pitched sideways, the lantern fell with a clatter and rolled into the hedge.

‘What the devil’s up with you, back there!’ At the noise, I heard two or three of the midmost troopers rein up.

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‘Right! All right!’ I called forward to them, catching the horse’s bridle and at the same time stooping over the poor fool–to gag him, if need were. He lay as he had fallen. I hope I have not his death to my account, and for certain no corpse lay in the road when I passed along it a few hours later.

‘Right!’ I called sturdily, deepening my voice to imitate that of my victim as nearly as I could match it–

‘Crop-headed Puritans, tow-row-row!’

Still shouting the chorus, I mastered the reluctant horse, swung myself into saddle, and edged up towards my comrades.

‘Carey! Shackell!’ I called softly, overtaking them.

At the sound of my voice, they came near to letting out a cry that had spoilt all. Masters, indeed, started a yell: but Small Owens (whose bands I had fortunately cut the first) reached out a hand and clapped it over his mouth.

‘How many be they?’ I asked as we rode.

‘Twenty-two,’ answered Randles, chafing his wrists, ‘and all drunk as lords.’

‘If we had arms,’ said Carey, ‘we might drive the whole lot.’

‘But since you have not,’ said I, ‘we must pitch our attempt lower. In three minutes we shall reach the high-road; and then strike spurs all to the right for Farnham!’

But our luck proved better than we hoped. For as we drew near the exit of the lane, I heard a voice challenge. The chorus, which had lasted us all the way, ceased on a sudden, and was taken up by a pistol-shot. At once I guessed that here must be help, and, feeling for my trumpet, found it and blew the call. Naked of weapons as my comrades were, we charged down on the rear, broke it, and flung it upon the darkness, where by this time we could hear the voice of Wilkins, our sergeant-major, bellowing above the tumult.

Within five minutes this double charge settled all. The pack-horses were ours again, with twenty-one inebriate prisoners. My mare, galloping home with the third pack-horse at her heels, had alarmed the picket, and Wilkins, with twenty men, had turned out to scour the Alton road.

So, while we secured our drunkards to the last man, I had leisure to bless my fortune.


By this time dawn had begun to grow in the sky behind us. I handed over the prisoners to Wilkins and Carey, and gave Wyld and Masters leave to return with them to Farnham: ‘for,’ said I, ‘they seem the weariest, and Shackell and Small Owens will serve well enough for escort by daylight.’

Wilkins stared. ‘You are not telling me,’ said he, that you intend going forward with that silly wine, and you in such plight!’

‘There’s my orders, to begin with,’ said I; ‘and–bless the man!–you don’t suppose, after this night’s work, I mean to miss the fun of it, now that the luck is turned and is running. As for the wine, Lord Crawford will get but three firkins for his hogshead; but if his rascals choose to play highwaymen upon a peaceful convoy, that is his look-out. And as for my plight, I shall present myself with these bandages and ask him what manner of troops he commands, that do violence upon a trumpet honourably sent to him and on his own petition.’

And this (to shorten my tale) I did. With Shackell and Small Owens I herded my two pack-horses along the road to Alton, and arrived at the earl’s outposts without mishap and within half an hour past daybreak. There I sounded my trumpet, and was led without ado to his lordship’s headquarters.

I found him seated with his secretary and with a grave, handsome man, Colonel John Bolle, that commanded his regiment of infantry, and was killed next day defending Alton Church (I have heard), in the very pulpit. This Colonel Bolle bowed to me very courteously, but the earl (as one could tell at first sight) was sulky: belike by deprivation of his favourite drink. Or perhaps the ale he took in lieu of it–he had a tankard at his elbow–had soured on his stomach.

‘Hey?’ he began, frowning, as he broke the seal of my letter. ‘Are all General Waller’s troopers in this condition? Or does he think it manners to send me a trumpeter in such trim?’

‘My lord,’ said I, ‘your wine and my poor self have come by a roundabout road, and on the way have been tapped of a trifle.’

‘By whom, sir?’

‘By certain of your men, my lord.’

‘I’ll hang ’em for it, then.’

‘I thank you, my lord; but for that you must treat with General Waller.’ And I told him the tale, or so much of it as I thought was good for him.

At the close he eyed me awhile angrily, with his brows drawn down.

‘You are an impudent knave, sir, to stand and tell me this to my face. Look ye here, Bolle’–he swung round upon the colonel, who had put forth a hand as though to arrest this unseemly abuse. ‘How do I know that this dog has not tampered with the wine? By God!’ he broke out as a servant entered with a stoup of it, ‘I’ll not drink it–I’ll not drink a drop of it–until this fellow has first tasted it, here, in our presence.’

I believe that I went white: but ’twas with rage. ‘Give me a glass of it,’ I answered; and, as the servant filled and handed to me, ‘The wine, my lord, came on your own petition and at your own risk, as I must remind you. Nevertheless, I will drink–to your long life, and better manners.’ I drank, set down the glass, and asked, after a pause, ‘May I go, my lord?’

‘You may go to the devil!’

I hesitated. ‘There was, as I remember, some little mention of an ox–‘

‘You may tell your master to come and fetch it,’ he growled.

Well, my master did fetch it, and with speed. That same night he assembled five thousand men without beat of drum in the park at Farnham, and at seven o’clock we marched off towards Basing. On the way to Crondall, we of the horse halted for an hour to let the foot regiments catch up with us, and all together headed down upon Alton. In this way, at nine in the morning, we came down upon the west of the town, while the earl kept watch on the roads to the eastwards; and charged at once.

I say that the earl kept watch; but in truth he had put this duty upon his captains, while he still fuddled himself with our general’s sack. He and his horse never gave fight, but galloped before us on the road to Winchester; along which, after close on an hour’s chase, our trumpets recalled us as our infantry forced the doors of Alton Church, and cut up Colonel Bolle’s regiment that still resisted there. The Earl of Crawford left a good half of his wine behind, and two days later our general, who had sent for me, showed me this letter–

‘To Sir W. Waller.

‘Sir,–I hope your gaining of Alton cost you dear. It
was your lot to drink of your own sack, which I never
intended to have left for you. I pray you favour me
so much as to send me your own chirurgeon, and upon my
honour I will send you a person suitable to his exchange.
–Sir, your servant,


From this happy success it was my fortune, that same afternoon, to lead our troop back to Farnham. Coming on the way to the entrance of a lane on our right, I avoided the high-road for the by-path. It twisted downhill to the river, crossed it, and by-and-by in a dip of the farther slope, brought me in sight of a round cottage of two stories. No smoke arose from it, though the twilight was drawing in upon a frost that searched our bones as we rode. No inhabitant showed a face. But I waved a hand in passing, and I am mistaken if a hand did not respond from the upper story–by drawing a shutter close.

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