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The Quest of the 'Golden Hope': A Seventeenth Century Story of Adventure By Percy F. Westerman Characters: 9946

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The Two Dragoons on the Brockenhurst Road

"Leave me and shape your own course, Master Hammond!" exclaimed the Captain composedly, for he had regained both his breath and his wits. "You can do no more, and I'll warrant I can shift for myself."

So saying, he wriggled along the ground over the bank that screened us from the soldiers, and lay hidden in the bracken on the same side of the highway as the troopers.

Meanwhile, filled with anxiety on the behalf of Jeremy Miles--for he was always a general favourite amongst the youths in and around Lymington--Constance and I resumed our way, endeavouring to appear as unconcerned as possible.

Less than a minute must have passed since we saw Captain Miles's great frame disappear beneath the bracken, when we heard the clatter of the troopers' horses as their hoofs struck the road. Knowing that it would ill play our part to refrain from curiosity, we stopped and looked back at the pursuing soldiers.

They were of the same troop that we had seen in Lyndhurst a short half-hour ago. Great, swarthy men they were, hardened to cruelty by reason of their service at Tangiers, and, though I knew it not at the time, ready to practise the barbarities acquired from the Moors upon their own countrymen, as many a poor peasant of the marshes of Somerset had learned to his cost.

"Curse him!" exclaimed one, with an oath. "Where hath he gone? Are we to let a guinea slip through our fingers after all our trouble?"

"He's not far away," replied his comrade, pointing with an exclamation of triumph to the partially concealed tracks on the road. "See, he hath had a fall. Methinks we have him by the heels."

"'Tis like looking for a sprat in the ocean," returned the first trooper, gazing across the wilderness of gorse. "So long as he stuck to his mount we could have tracked him. 'Tis what I feared: he hath made off afoot."

"Here, sirrah," he shouted to me, urging his horse down the road to where we were, "hast seen aught of a horseman riding like Beelzebub?"

"Nay," I replied truthfully enough; "no horseman has passed this way."

"You young prevaricator!" he exclaimed, tapping his pistols significantly. "You do but dissemble. You know whither that man went."

I kept silence.

Suddenly the other trooper, who had forced his horse through the gorse by the side of the road, shouted, "Here's a find, David. The rogue hath lost his horse."

"Then you saw him fall," continued the dragoon who had overtaken us. "Back you come with me, you young rebel!"

"I am no rebel," I replied, as stoutly as I could force myself to speak.

"Back, I say!" he repeated, ignoring my protest, and producing a pistol from his holster. There was no help for it. I had to go with him. "Run off home, Constance," I said in a low voice; "I shall be all right."

"No, you don't, you little wench!" exclaimed the villain. "You'll come in useful to make this young rebel open his mouth. Come on, both of you, I say!"

I looked at Constance. She was deathly white, yet she spoke not a word, although by the expression of her eyes she said, as plainly as if she had spoken, "Do not tell where he is."

"Mum's the word, eh?" was the greeting of the second trooper, as we were told to stand still near the scene of our meeting with the fugitive, Captain Miles. "Shall I tell 'em about that stubborn young rebel at Dulverton--it was Dulverton, wasn't it, David?--who thought to deceive one of Cornbury's Dragoons? A little tow tied to his thumbs did the trick, and I'll swear he's nursing his burns now. There's no tow to be had hereabouts, but I'll warrant a little dry heather will suffice. Now, sirrah, which way did the rebel go?"

"What! you won't answer?" he continued, as he dismounted from his horse, his comrade following his example. Whipping out his broadsword, he struck me a heavy blow on the ankle with the flat of the weapon. The pain was intense, yet, though an involuntary cry escaped me, I kept my lips tightly closed.

I gave a hasty look right and left along the straight white road. Not a creature was in sight. Even if there had been, 'twas difficult to imagine that a solitary wayfarer would dare to interfere with two armed and powerful ruffians.

"Pluck me a wisp of dry grass," said my tormentor.

"Nay, Jim," replied the other, "we've no time to waste in that fashion. If the rebel is making off afoot, every moment is precious. I know of a way." And, thrusting his huge fingers through my sister's golden locks, he shouted, "Now, sirrah, answer, or I'll pull out a handful of hair, to remember this pleasant meeting."

Constance cried with pain as the villain slowly tightened his grip. Knowing he was quite capable of carrying out his threat, I was torn with conflicting thoughts, till my brave sister exclaimed, "Not a word, Clifford!"

Possibly the rogue answering to the name of Jim realized my desperate intention, for at the risk of my life I was on the point of da

shing my clenched fist in the face of Constance's assailant. With his right hand the dragoon gripped me by the nape of the neck, so that in his powerful grasp I was as helpless as a kitten; while with his left he caught and slowly twisted my wrist.

Suddenly a huge, dark form sprang from the concealing heather, and like an arrow from a bow Jeremy Miles flung himself upon the dragoon whose fingers were still grasping Constance's tresses.

I saw it all as clearly as if 'twere the work of minutes rather than of one instant. A swinging blow of the Captain's ponderous fist, and the ruffian's arm fell nerveless to his side; and a second blow stretched him lifeless on the ground. The other dragoon, with a furious oath, flung me headlong. As I fell I heard the crashing explosion of his pistol.

Slowly I raised myself on my arm, and watched the struggle betwixt our preserver and his antagonist. Powerful though the trooper was, the Captain, thanks to his strenuous life afloat, was his master. For a while they swayed to and fro in a desperate struggle, Jeremy's arms clasping the soldier like bands of steel, till the villain's resistance grew weaker and weaker.

Then, with a superhuman effort, Captain Miles wrenched his bulky foe clean off the ground, and hurled him, like a sack of flour, over his shoulder.

"Bear a hand with your sister, lad," he then exclaimed, in a matter-of-fact tone, although he was breathing heavily. "She has swooned."

This was a work of some difficulty, for water was not at hand, but at length Constance opened her eyes. Poor girl! Although not much hurt, for the rogue had not had time to carry out his threat to the fullest extent, she was terribly frightened, and the sight of the two dragoons lying motionless on the road did not help matters.

"Take her down the road a little way, and make her sit down," said Captain Jeremy kindly. "Then hasten back, for I'll warrant we've a fine job to make all shipshape and Bristol fashion."

"Have you seen any more of these lubbers?" he asked, after I had returned from carrying out his instructions.

"There was a troop of them in Lyndhurst this morning. They went Southampton-wards."

"I'll pray that they'll not return in a hurry," he exclaimed. "We've enough to do to cover up our tracks."

"Are they dead?" I asked shudderingly.

"As a marline-spike," he replied. "For the time we are safe; they were the only ones that battened themselves to me. The Duke is taken. I saw him seized by some of Portman's Militia near Ringwood but yesterday. Faith! I was disappointed in King Monmouth, for he fled from the field long before his men began to give way."

"And how did you escape?"

"'Twas touch and go. Monmouth, in a peasant's dress, lay hidden in some ferns, I but ten yards away. Little did I think 'twas the Duke till I heard Portman say as 'twas. I suppose that find satisfied them, for they searched no more. Farmer Shearing of Ringwood lent me his mare, and I rode off early this morning, intending to shape a course for Pitt's Deep, for 'twould have been madness to return to Lymington. Master Hammond, I was a fool even to set out for the West. What I've seen in forty years afloat is naught to what I've seen these last few days. But let's to work!"

We thereupon dragged the bodies of the troopers into the bracken, and carefully obliterated all signs of the struggle. The troopers' horses were contentedly nibbling the coarse grass by the roadside, our pony Trotter having followed Constance.

They were fine animals, these dragoons' mounts, and I wondered what would become of them. The same question evidently troubled Captain Miles, for if they came within hearing of a trumpet call they would most likely trot off to rejoin their fellows. Yet, as there were no troopers within several miles of us, the horses might be taken by some of the peasants who lived on the outskirts of the heath, especially if we removed the saddlery.

"Nay, 'tis too much of a risk," muttered Jeremy to himself, though I heard the words; and, lifting the fore-foot of one of the animals, he examined its hoof. There, in a manner that could not be effaced, were the royal monogram and regimental number; while a further search revealed the government mark branded on the creature's flank.

"Those marks are their death warrant," he exclaimed.

"How so?"

"No man cares for a dumb animal more than I do," he replied. "Yet, when human life and liberty are at stake, it behoves us to take stern measures. Now, I pray you, take your sister home, and return speedily with a pair of serviceable spades."

So saying, he led the two animals aside into the gorse, while I hastened to rejoin Constance. We had barely gone a hundred paces when a pistol shot rang out, quickly followed by another.

"What sound is that?" asked my sister.

"'Tis but naught," I replied, not daring to tell her the plain truth. "Captain Miles has unloaded the troopers' pistols."

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