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   Chapter 1 -How the Tidings of the Restoration Came to Rake

A Lad of Grit: A Story of Adventure on Land and Sea in Restoration Times By Percy F. Westerman Characters: 14059

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The sun was slowly sinking behind the tree-clad Hampshire Downs. Already the long shadows of Rake Hill lay athwart the misty coombe, and the glimmer of the innumerable forges in the valley beneath began to hold its own against the rapidly fading daylight. The cold east wind, for it was but the beginning of March, in the year of grace 1660, whistled through the clump of gaunt pine trees that marked the summit of the hill, and, despite the fact that each of us wore a thick doublet, the chilly blast cut us like a knife.

I remember that evening well; its stirring incidents are graven on my memory as if they had happened but yesterday, though nigh on twoscore and ten winters and summers have passed over my head since the eventful year of which I write.

My father and I were returning homewards from the great fair at Petersfield. For an old man, he being well over sixty years of age, my father was the marvel of our village. Tall but sparely built, his frame betokened a strength of body that harmonized with the determination of character that made itself known by the glance of his steel-coloured eyes. Report says that when he came to Rake to settle down, some twelve or thirteen years back--I being but an infant in arms,--he did gain a lasting reputation by outmatching one Caleb James, a notorious bully, at his own game, breaking his pate with his own staff on the roadside hard by Milland Church.

Moreover, as proof of his hardiness, is there not the testimony of the worthy Master Hugh Salesbury, the chirurgeon of Lyss--the same whose son fell in Torrington's action off Beachy Head,--to the effect that though practice was slack around Lyss, yet he perforce would have to give up if none were better patients than honest Owen Wentworth.

Despite the fact that he was on the losing side, my father was not backward in declaring his attachment to His Gracious Majesty King Charles II; and although our neighbours, even the Roundheads, were favourably disposed to him, making allowance for his fiery temper, yet with strangers who passed along the great highway betwixt London Town and Portsmouth, honest Owen's outspoken declarations oft led to wordy strife, and on occasions ended in blows.

In defiance of the Puritan regulations against anything tending towards the lost cause, my father, though ruined by confiscations and sequestration, endeavoured to maintain the appearance of a careless and social demeanour, ever cherishing a hope that each day seemed nearer fulfilment.

He still retained his flowing lovelocks, while the lower part of his weather-worn face was adorned by a greyish beard of Van Dyck cut, which failed to hide a portion of a long, whitish scar that extended from his left eyebrow to his cheek bone--the legacy of a pike-thrust in the sanguinary encounter of Cropredy Bridge. He was dressed in a dark-blue suit, relieved by a deep collar of Mechlin lace, while, on account of the severity of the weather, he was further attired in a long cloak that barely concealed the end of a short hanger--a necessary weapon in these troublous times. I also knew that he carried two long dags, or Scottish pistols, yet of these there was no outward sign.

As we neared the foot of the hill, instead of turning to the right towards our home, my father broke the silence by saying:

"I will call in at the 'Flying Bull'. Possibly the chapman from Godalming is there. If so, I can replenish my stock of gun flints."

As we entered the doorway of the "Flying Bull"--an old hostelry that has sheltered all sorts and conditions of men, from kings and queens even to the arch-traitor Old Noll himself, and the sign of which, painted by a limner who had learned his art in the time of the last crusade, had swung in the breeze for nigh on four hundred years--we were greeted with a chorus of welcome from the score or so of persons assembled in the large stone-flagged common room.

"How goes the price of malt and barley at Petersfield?" questioned one man in a voice that was like to the bellowing of a bull.

"Man," retorted another, "doth thy reasoning not rise above the price of petty huckstering, Obadiah Blow-the-trumpet-in-Zion? Heed him not, good Master Wentworth. Hast news of honest George Monk and his army?"

"None, though rumour hath it that the fleet at Portsmouth hath sided with Monk, and that John Tippets, the mayor, hath called out the train bands and manned the ordnance on the Platform and the Square Tower. Moreover, a trusty messenger hath reached Sir Giles Seaward with orders to raise the countryside and to assemble in Petersfield marketplace to-morrow at noon. God forfend that this land be not again drenched in blood!"

"Ay," rejoined another, "but, as man to man, Master Wentworth, what think ye? How blows the wind in London?" he added darkly.

"My friend, mark ye well, the wind blows straight from the Low Country."

"No," thundered a voice from a seat in the chimney corner; "the blast of the Lord, that destroyed Sennacherib and his host, will utterly consume the malignants, including Charles Stuart, the son of the enemy of the people of England!" My father sprang to his feet, white with fury. All eyes were centred on the speaker. He was a short, thick-set man of about forty years of age, with a bull-neck, huge ears, small ferrety eyes, close-cropped hair, and a clean-shaven face deeply pitted with smallpox. He wore a buff-coloured jerkin, opened at the neck for comfort's sake, and frayed and soiled from the wearing of armour, his breast- and back-plates of dull steel having been removed. These, together with a steel helmet with metal guards, and a heavy broadsword, lay on the settle within arm's length, while a petronel and a well-weighted bandolier hung across the back of a chair on which the man's feet, encased in long Spanish boots, rested.

On my father striding across the room, the stranger leisurely rose from his seat and extended his hand in an attitude of contemptuous reproof.

"Tut, man, 'tis time thy grey hairs taught thee wisdom! Wouldst threaten me, Increase Joyce, trooper of Parliamentary Horse?"

"Draw, knave, draw!" shouted my father, whipping out his hanger. "Either unsay those words or else swallow them!"

Instantly all was confusion. Some of the more timid made towards the door, tables were overturned, tankards clattered on the floor, excited men shouted in unintelligible voices. For my own part, I remained by my father's side, unable to take my eyes off his antagonist, and, at the same time, knowing that my father in his choler would brook no interference from me.

"I fight not with old men," retorted Joyce. "But this I know: 'The axe is laid unto the root of the trees', an' if that arch-profligate, Charles Stuart, were to set foot in England----"

He was interrupted by a violent knocking at the door, which, being thrown wide open, showed a man fully armed and holding the reins of a steaming and apparently exhausted horse.

"Host!" he shouted. "Where or which is the h

ost?"

Old Giles Perrin, the innkeeper, came forward and awaited his commands.

"Now, sirrah, on thy life, hasten! Provender for my beast; a cup of spiced ale for myself. With all dispatch, man, for I am on the service of the State!"

The stranger strode into the room, stooped and replaced one of the overturned stools, seated himself thereon, and, removing a cloth that encircled his neck, wiped his heated brow vigorously. Then he stared haughtily around at the assembled company, seized the cup that old Giles brought, and drained it at one gulp.

I remarked that he spoke with an accent totally different from the Southern dialect of our part of Hampshire and Sussex, but my doubts were soon set at rest.

"How far down yon road is't to Petersfield? And is one like to meet aught of footpads, drawlatches, or vagrants of that condition?"

It was my father who answered him, yet barely had he opened his mouth when the stranger clapped him on the shoulder:

"By all the powers of darkness! You, S----"

"Hold, man!" replied my father in a tone that implied no denial. Then, in an undertone, I heard him say: "I am now but Owen Wentworth, gentleman yeoman, at your service."

"I am still Ralph Slingsby, though, thanks to my General Monk, cornet of horse no longer, but captain in his favourite regiment. Let me think. 'Tis but thrice that I have seen thee since we parted at Holwick, you to join the king at Nottingham, I to enrol under my Lord Essex. First, at Edgehill, when I, a mere stripling, lay under the hoofs of Rupert's horse. Secondly, at Cropredy Bridge, when I did turn aside the pike that would have let your soul out of the keeping of your body. Lastly, when at the trial of----"

"Ssh! I would have you remember that the rising generation hath long ears."

My father spoke truly, for though the stranger had uttered his lengthy speech but in an undertone, yet I, with the curiosity of youth, did not fail to hear, much to my mystification. Knowing also that the remark about "the rising generation" was applied to me, I must needs raise my hands to my ears to feel if they were long, much to Ralph Slingsby's amusement.

"So this is your son, Master Wentworth? A fitting chip of the old block! What wouldst thou be, lad; a fighting man, like thy sire?"

"Ay," I replied. "But I would love to go to sea, and become famous like Admiral Blake, e'en though he were a Roundhead!"

"What knowest thou of Blake?"

"Henry Martin hath told me tales of his gallant deeds, and besides, he hath shown me his medal of bronze, inscribed: 'For eminent service in saving ye Triumph, fired in fight with ye Dutch'. That was the sea fight in which Martin lost his leg."

"Ah, Master Wentworth, that's the spirit I like! The time hath come when Englishmen cease from flying at each other's throats. Host, my score!"

Then, shaking my father by the hand, and patting me kindly on the head, he strode towards the door; then, turning, he addressed the company:

"Gentlemen, I beg you take heed that yesternight a messenger was sent to Holland to invite His Majesty King Charles II to return to his throne. I bear orders to the fleet at Portsmouth that they all, with the exception of the Naseby, the name of which giveth offence to His Majesty, proceed to the Downs, there to welcome our sovereign lord. God save the King!"

While the silence that prevailed in the room, following on this startling announcement, still remained, I could hear the thud of horse's hoofs as Ralph Slingsby resumed his momentous journey towards Petersfield.

When, a quarter of an hour or so later, we left the "Flying Bull", the moon had risen, throwing the long shadows of the dark pines athwart the road. Our humble abode lay about a mile on the by-road from Rake to Midhurst, and homewards we stepped, our thick-soled shoes ringing on the frosty road. When but half the distance was covered, I heard the sound of the crackling of the dry brushwood in a coppice on our left, followed by the cry of a bird and the fluttering of its wings as it flew over our heads.

Instinctively I edged closer to my father and grasped his left hand.

"Lad, art afraid of a fox running through the covert?" he exclaimed. "And wouldst be a sailor, too!"

In spite of my boast in the well-lit room of the "Flying Bull", my heart throbbed painfully, and my reply seemed like to stick in my throat. We continued in silence, and presently came to a spot where a large reed-fringed lake lay on the right-hand side of the road, while on the other a dense clump of gaunt firs threw a dismal gloom over our path.

As we neared the clump a voice, authoritative, harsh, and yet familiar, shouted:

"Stand!"

And into the moonlight stepped a short, thick-set man, whom I recognized as the soldier who caused the turmoil at the inn, Increase Joyce.

For the second time that night my father unsheathed his hanger, and, pushing me behind him, advanced towards the man.

"Stand!" he repeated. "See here; a word in thine ear, Master Wentworth. Less than an hour agone I said: 'I fight not with old men'. I recall those words. With me it is a case of doing in Rome as do the Romans. The Commonwealth is at an end, therefore I am a Parliamentarian no longer. Instead, I journey to the Rhine to join the German freebooters, or else to the Spanish Main to throw in my lot with the buccaneers of the Indies--it matters not which; but ere I go I have an account to settle with the Lord of Holwick. Little did I think to find him hiding in an obscure Sussex village. Dost remember twenty years aback--the trysting place under the Holmwood Oak?--Ah! ... Nay! Stand, at thy peril!"

But my father, white with passion, still advanced, the moonbeams dancing on his glittering blade. Joyce unslung his petronel, and covered his antagonist when within fifteen or twenty paces.

"Murderer!" shouted my father.

"As you will; I take no risks with steel," and immediately the report of the weapon burst upon my ears like a clap of thunder, while the trees were illuminated by the flash of the discharge. I shut my eyes and screamed in terror, and on opening them I saw--oh, merciful Heaven!--a convulsive form lying in the road, while the Roundhead stood watching me intently, the smoke from his petronel hanging round like a pall, and slowly ascending in the chill night air.

In an instant my terror left me and I became a demon. Grasping my oak cudgel in my hand, I ran at my father's murderer and rained blow after blow upon his head and body. It was but a forlorn attempt. His headpiece and armour received the blows as lightly as if they were from a straw, and with an oath he smote me heavily on the chest with the butt of his pistol, so that I reeled, fell backward across the body of my murdered sire, and struck my head on the frosty road. Multitudes of lights flashed before my eyes, followed by a red glare, and I lost all consciousness.

"I RAN AT MY FATHER'S MURDERER AND RAINED BLOW AFTER BLOW UPON HIS HEAD AND BODY"

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