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   Chapter 3 -Concerning my Journey to Portsmouth

A Lad of Grit: A Story of Adventure on Land and Sea in Restoration Times By Percy F. Westerman Characters: 29787

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Grief does not for long hold its sway over the buoyant spirit of youth, and, in spite of the heavy blow that I had sustained, my boyish disposition speedily reasserted itself, and I looked forward with undisguised eagerness to my journey to my new home in Portsmouth town.

Already I had heard many wondrous tales of the happenings in that town from the lips of old Master Herbert Collings and of Henry Martin. In my mind I pictured my worthy uncle taking me round the dockyard, showing me this and that vessel, and pointing out this captain who fought against the Dutch, and that master mariner who repulsed the Barbary corsair.

With bright visions of the future I gave little heed to the troubles of the past, and eagerly wished for the end of the nine long days that must pass ere I left the quiet of our little village of Rake for the busy life of a naval town.

A day spent in Midhurst, where I was well fitted out with clothes, helped to make the time pass, and on the evening previous to the eventful day of my departure, I climbed the steep ascent of Rake Hill to bid farewell to some of my friends who dwelt on the by-road towards Lyss.

It was dark ere I set out homewards, and on the summit of the hill I stopped to look across the coombe, where flickered the innumerable wood fires of the iron smelters' forges. It reminded me strangely of that eventful day, but a few weeks past, when I journeyed over the selfsame road with my father, and instinctively I breathed a prayer for vengeance against his foul murderer.

Suddenly the distant thud of horses' hoofs smote upon my ear, and before I reached the foot of the hill, where stands the "Flying Bull", I perceived a cavalcade rapidly approaching.

As I drew to the side of the highway to watch them pass, I could see in the starlight that there was a body of horse, some dozen at least, surrounding a carriage. The horsemen were accoutred in breast- and back-plates and steel helmets, and from their sour visages I knew them to be Roundheads. Inside the carriage a candlelamp burned, throwing a dim light on the occupants; and, brief as was my glimpse, I saw that they were lavishly attired, and wore lovelocks under their plumed beaver hats.

Whether they journeyed as prisoners I could not tell, though from the careless jovial expression of their faces it seemed otherwise; but before I could remark much else the party had galloped past, and were well on their way along this southern highway towards Portsmouth. When I reached my home I at once retired for the night, and was soon dreaming of horsemen and chariots till the rays of the morning sun, thrown athwart my bed, awoke me.

In my eagerness to start I could scarcely be persuaded to eat anything. In vain did Mistress Heatherington coax me--my excitement was too great. At length the two-horsed wain belonging to Farmer Hill drew up outside our house. By this conveyance I was to be taken to Petersfield, there to proceed by a chapman's cart that journeyed thrice weekly betwixt that town and Portsmouth.

My packages and boxes were lifted into the wagon. I climbed up beside the driver, and with many a handwave my old home was left behind me, and a new world lay before me.

I was now fourteen years of age, and for a country-bred lad I flattered myself that I was no fool. Tall for my age, broad-shouldered and supple-limbed, I possessed an unusual amount of strength, and could bear fatigue in a manner that could only be accounted for by the fact that I had led an active outdoor life.

Slowly the wagon ascended the steep incline of Rake Hill. The summit gained, there was time for a parting glance across the coombe ere the four-mile stretch of downhill road commenced. At first I talked excitedly with the driver, a sour-faced, wizened man, whose short jerky answers, spoken in broadest Sussex, did not encourage conversation; so presently I dropped all attempt at talking, and took note of the various places and persons we met on the road.

At Sheet Bridge we were stopped by a toll-gate, the driver exchanging a few angry words with the villainous-looking man who held the gate.

Beyond was a short, steep hill, up which we both walked, the driver having thrown the reins across his horse's back. At the summit was a gallows, from which hung something black. As we drew nearer I could see that the dark object was all that remained of what was once a man. The corpse, daubed with pitch, was encircled with iron hoops like a cage, and as the wind howled over the hilltop the chain that suspended the cage creaked horribly.

The corpse could not have been there for long; it certainly was not there on the occasion of my last journey with my father to Petersfield. I noticed that the little finger of each hand was missing!

The driver looked at me over his shoulder, as if to note the effect that this horrible sight might have on a youth.

"See you?" he queried, knowing full well that I could not well miss seeing it unless I were blind.

I nodded. "Let yon be a waarning to 'e, young maaster. Do 'e never taake to killin'. 'Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed.'" And with this remarkable discourse he slowly climbed back to his seat on the wagon, I following him.

But I was not satisfied. Those missing fingers puzzled me, and I ventured to ask why the hands had been mutilated. For answer he plunged his hand into one of his many pockets and produced a small object that looked like a leather purse. This he opened and pulled out a human finger, the stump being mounted with silver! For a moment he held it before my eyes; then, as if too precious to be exposed to the light of day, he carefully replaced it in its wrappings.

"Young maaster," he replied, "for certain prevention of agues, fever, smallpox, plague, and all divers illnesses, for certain proof against the evil eye, there is nowt that can compare with the little finger of a murderer."

By this time the square tower of Petersfield Church was in sight, and soon after we drew up in the courtyard of the "Red Lion", where, since it was market day, there were numbers of carts and wagons from the countryside for miles around.

In the midst of the bustle and noise I saw that mingled with the countryfolk were several soldiers, while in a corner of the courtyard was a ponderous coach, which, if I mistook not, was the very one that passed me yesternight at Rake Hill.

It was but ten in the morning, and the two occupants of the coach had not yet appeared. Apparently an accident had befallen the conveyance, for a smith was busily engaged with hammer and cold chisel in repairing one of the wheels.

Notwithstanding their Puritanical garb, most of the troopers had, even at this early hour, partaken of spirituous drinks, and, judging by their gestures and talk, were evidently anticipating the restoration of His Majesty King Charles.

Perceiving a serving maid at one of the windows, one of the soldiers began to make love to her in dumb show, kissing his hand and waving his iron headpiece to the damsel, who seemed nothing loath to accept his advances.

Presently she opened the casement, and, leaning out, threw him a flower. Few women can throw straight, and this one was no exception. Her missile flew far above the man's head, and, running backwards in a vain endeavour to catch it, he fell heavily into a large trough of pigs' mash, where, half-stunned by the force of his fall, he lay wallowing in the sticky mess, till he was helped out by his comrades, to the accompaniment of their jeers and laughter.

Having carried all my belongings into the inn, the old carter bade me farewell; and as the sound of his footsteps was lost in the outside din, I felt as if the last link that bound me to the home of my childhood was severed.

The host of the "Red Lion", an old soldier by appearance, came in and asked me what I lacked. I told him I was waiting for the chapman who travelled between Winton, Petersfield, and Portsmouth, and at the same time ordered a meal, for the morning ride had made me hungry.

The landlord hurried off, for callers were many that morning, and whilst I was waiting I took stock of the room. It was panelled, and had thick oak rafters and low ceiling. Though the weather was warm, a large fire blazed on the hearth, while the wall above the chimney corner was hung with an assortment of old weapons.

There were three other occupants of the room, two of whom sat in the chimney corner, leaning over the fire as if it were a winter's day, while the third was spread out on the settle, gazing stolidly at his companions. They had evidently been engaged in deep conversation, but on my arrival they stopped talking and eyed me with no goodwill.

All three were villainous-looking men, dark-skinned and heavy-browed. One had a livid weal across his cheek, while another was deeply pitted with smallpox. The third had his face nearly concealed in a dark beard that grew so high on his cheek as almost to meet his eyebrows. Their clothes were old and ragged; their belongings were limited to a small bundle that was placed by each man's side. Three large tankards, lying upset on the floor, showed that their refreshment had been copious, while the reek of strong spirits hung around them like an invisible cloud.

They made no secret of the fact that my inquisitive glances were unwelcome, and so much did they scowl that I turned hastily away and looked out of the window, where the brilliant sunshine, beating down on the crowded courtyard, made a pleasing contrast to the dismal trio within.

The arrival of another wayfarer next diverted my thoughts. The newcomer was a burly, good-natured farmer, who, after giving the three men a cheery salutation, which they returned surlily enough, sat down opposite to me.

Just then the landlord reappeared, and offered excuses for not having a better room at his disposal. "Two officers and a troop of horse," said he, "have stayed here overnight. What their business is I know not. The men are free with everything but their own affairs. Not even spiced ale makes their tongues wag in that direction. Their masters say less. Still, 'tis not my business; they pay well. But even this young gentleman has to stay here for want of better room. Ah, bethink me! Didst pass Carver, the chapman, on your way hither?"

"Are your wits wool-gathering, Master Host?" replied the other. "Seeing that Carver gave notice that on Tuesday he would go direct from Winton, instead of through this town, and that to-day happens to be Tuesday----"

"Of course!" ejaculated the landlord; "I had forgotten."

For a moment I felt staggered, then I asked if there were other means of continuing my way.

"None, young sir; but there is ample accommodation here for man and beast till Thursday, when a wagon from Alton to Portsmouth passes this hostel."

I shook my head. The idea of spending two days and nights in this place was out of the question. "I must go on," I replied, "even if I walk."

"You've pluck!" exclaimed the farmer. "'Tis a good eighteen miles. Were it any day but this I'd take you part of the way."

I thanked him, and asked the landlord to take care of my trunks till the Thursday; and, having finished my repast, I prepared to go.

Having paid my account in gold, and received a quantity of silver change, which the landlord counted slowly into my hand, I bade the kindly farmer good-bye, and set off southward along a dusty, chalky road.

After crossing a small stream, and proceeding over a long causeway, the road began slowly, yet gradually, to rise, evidently making for a gap between two lofty hills. Two miles brought me to the foot of the downs, where all signs of cultivation terminated abruptly, and only a treeless expanse of turf-covered hills met my eye.

It was warm work that last part of the ascent, and on gaining the summit of the road I found that the hillside still towered on both sides, the highway running through a steep chalk cutting.

Out of breath, I sat down on a grassy bank and looked back upon the country I had just left. Miles and miles of well-wooded land lay beneath me, extending far away to the North Downs. I could see the town of Petersfield nestling around the square tower of the old church. I could trace the dusty road along which I had journeyed, save the last half-mile, which was hidden by a chalk cliff that rose some two hundred yards away on the right.

For over a quarter of an hour I sat enjoying this magnificent view, when suddenly round the bend of the road by the base of the cliff appeared three men whom I had no difficulty in recognizing as the ill-favoured visitors at the "Red Lion".

Then like a lightning flash the thought swept across my mind that, having seen the landlord give me a sum of silver, they had followed me to this lonesome spot.

I immediately sprang to my feet, and walked sharply onwards through the cutting. Ever and anon I looked back, and found that they were increasing their pace into almost a trot; so, directly I had put the brow of the hill betwixt them and me, I ran steadily but not too swiftly down the road. Even as I ran I took in my surroundings. In front was the long, white road, still descending till it turned to the left beyond a grassy spur of the hill that hid it from view, though at a considerable distance from it. Here and there were a few stunted bushes, too scanty to afford shelter, while not a habitation nor a human being was to be seen.

Again I looked back. Notwithstanding the climb, the men had gained on me, and were even now running at full speed down the incline--not two hundred yards away. One had out-distanced the others, yet all three were keeping up a rapid pace.

Instinctively I increased my speed to the utmost, and, with my elbows pressed closely against my sides, swung down the road in a vain endeavour to meet a friendly being, or at least to outdistance my pursuers.

Once round that bend, surely there would be a house or some succour; but no, only another stretch of chalky road. Then I thought to leave the road and climb the steep, grassy slope on my left, and before my pursuers had turned the corner I was staggering madly up the bank, where, under the frail shelter of a stunted bush, I lay down and panted like a hunted hare.

In a very short time the first of my pursuers appeared round the bend. It was the one with the scarred face, and, being in addition grimed with sweat and dust, and panting heavily, he presented a truly ferocious aspect.

When he saw the open road with no sign of his quarry he stopped, swearing and blaspheming horribly, till his fellow rogues came up. From my hiding place I could distinctly hear and see all, they being but forty yards away, and some fifty feet below me. In spite of my terror I kept them in view, an

d, being weaponless, I looked around for some means of defence. Close to my feet was a large rabbit hole, and knowing from past experience that these animals frequently throw up flints and other stones from their burrows, I plunged my hand into the newly excavated earth, and to my delight found a large jagged flint, and soon after my armoury consisted of five good-sized stones. Then a piece of wood, lying within two yards of the bush, and evidently a part of a hurdle, met my eye. This I seized, but the act led to my undoing, for one of the men, happening to look my way, saw me as I cautiously backed towards my shelter.

A volley of hideous oaths greeted my discovery, and immediately the black-bearded fellow and the man who had proved the fastest of the three began to climb the hill.

I retreated slowly, so as to save my breath. Again the wealed-faced man outdistanced his companion, and soon I could hear his deep panting behind me.

Then suddenly I turned, and, throwing one of the largest stones, hit him fairly in the midriff. With a loud howl he dropped on his knees and pressed his hands to his injured part, his cudgel rolling down the slope till stopped by the other man.

The third rogue, seeing how matters stood, also began to climb the slope. For my part, flushed with my success, I slowly edged away, intending to make a detour, regain the road, and then retrace my steps towards Petersfield; for I knew what sort of road I had already passed, but was in ignorance of the distance to which this wild valley extended.

Still climbing, I reached the sloping ridge round the base of which the road bent. Once again I could follow the highway leading to the chalk cutting, and to my unbounded delight I saw for the third time that ponderous coach with its attendant troopers descending the hill at a sharp pace.

The strong wind that was blowing towards the approaching cavalcade, and the dusty road, both tended to deaden the sound of the horses' hoofs and the dull rumble of the carriage, and as yet the villains were unaware of their danger.

On the summit of the ridge I turned towards them. Instinctively they separated, yet came on apace--the man whom I had hit with the stone limping onward with an effort, the others, each with a knife in his hand, working away on either side with the intention of preventing my escape. As the bearded ruffian came within throwing distance I flung a stone with all my might, and had he not quickly bounded aside, there would have been another point in my favour.

As soon as he gained the top of the ridge, though some feet below me, I made a sudden rush towards him, intending to make a feint and then run towards the troopers. The man stood on his guard, his knife glittering in the sunlight, though evidently astonished at my apparent rashness.

When close upon him I darted to one side and ran quickly down the hill. Suddenly my foot caught in a rabbit hole, and I fell headlong, rolling over and over in my descent.

With a savage curse my assailant rushed towards my prostrate body, and even as he did so he caught sight of the troopers.

His cursing changed into a howl of terror as he vainly tried to check his descent; but ere he could recover himself three of the horsemen had spurred their steeds betwixt him and the rest of the troop. He lay on the ground whining dismally, while the soldiers hastily trussed him up with a length of stout cord.

Meanwhile the coach had stopped, and as I approached, limping from the effects of my fall, its two occupants looked out of the window to enquire the cause of the disturbance.

Hastily I told my story, and hardly had I finished, when the elder of the two officers called to the sergeant: "Quickly, Sedgewyke! Secure those other rascals!"

Half a dozen troopers were quickly out of their saddles, and, leaving their horses in the care of two others, made their way up the slope towards the spot where the remaining rogues were last seen. He of the scarred face was quickly captured, being well-nigh winded with the effects of the stone I had thrown; but the third was a more determined quarry, though, in his stupidity, instead of climbing upwards (being far lighter than the soldiers, encumbered as they were with breast-pieces and riding-boots), he must needs make for the road, where he raced off at breakneck speed.

"A crown for the man who brings him down, dead or alive!" shouted the officer, who looked upon the pursuit with the eagerness of a sportsman.

Already the soldiers had regained their horses, and, leaving four as a guard over the prisoners, dashed in pursuit of the fugitive. Too late the wretch saw his mistake, and again ran from the road towards a steep bank of chalk that towered up for nearly fifty feet above the stretch of level grassland at its base.

Lifting me into the coach, the elder man gave orders to follow the chase, and soon we pulled up close to where the terror-stricken fugitive was making a desperate effort to scale the slippery bank.

"Middleton, we have some sport! I'll wager my largest snuffbox against thine that the rogue will outwit your eleven men."

"Taken," replied the other. "Now, men," he shouted, "remember, a crown, dead or alive!"

The troopers were drawn up in an irregular line along the edge of the road, and had drawn their pistols from their holsters.

Bang! A man on the extreme left had fired. The ball struck the cliff just above the fugitive's head, bringing down a small avalanche of chalk and dust. Digging his hands into the yielding soil, the wretched man raised himself another two feet. Being but thirty yards from us, his desperate efforts were plainly visible.

Bang! Bang! Two reports in quick succession echoed down the valley. This time, whether hit or not, the man slid some six feet downwards, till his foot caught in a projection and stopped his descent.

"Not so fast there," grumbled the sergeant. "If you fire like that, who can claim the reward? Now, then, Wagstaff!"

Calmly, as if at the butts, the row of men began to fire in turn. At the sixth shot the miserable villain made a feeble attempt to regain his former position, but ere he had ascended another two feet a shot struck him in the back of the head, and he tumbled to the bottom of the bank a hideously disfigured corpse.

Striding over to the body the sergeant turned it over on its back, made sure that life was extinct, then returned to the door of the coach, and, saluting, said: "Trooper Jenkins's shot, sir, brought the rogue down."

The elder man gave the sergeant the promised reward, then, turning to his companion, with a low bow, presented him with the snuffbox.

With this ceremonious display the tragedy was brought to a close, and the two officers, learning that I was on my way to Portsmouth, consented to let me ride with them.

The troopers formed up again, the prisoners firmly bound to two of their number, and the cavalcade passed onwards, leaving by the roadside a motionless object that had once been a man.

As we journeyed along, the officers plied me with questions, taking a great interest in my account of my meeting with the three footpads. The older of the two officers was about forty years of age, bronzed with the sun and wrinkled with exposure to the weather. His blue eyes twinkled in a kindly manner, while his lips, partly concealed by his closely trimmed moustache and beard, denoted both firmness and discretion.

His companion, apparently ten years younger, also wore a beard of Van Dyck cut. His appearance, however, denoted a man who was given to perform actions on the spur of the moment rather than to be ruled by deliberate counsel. He was addressed as Middleton by his companion, but I could not then gather what was the name of the elder man. Both men wore flowing lovelocks, and affected the rich apparel of the Cavaliers, which contrasted vividly with the sombre garb of their escort.

When I mentioned that I was on my way to my uncle, Master Anderson, the younger of the twain gave his companion a wink that did not escape me, and remarked: "Then, Master Aubrey, we'll see more of thee anon, if I mistake not."

The coach now descended a long declivity, at the bottom of which lay a straggling village, which, I was told, boasted of the name of Horndean. Here we rested the horses, my two benefactors going into the inn, from which presently a man came out bringing me a cup of milk and a plate of coarse brown bread and rich yellow cheese.

In half an hour the journey was resumed, the road leading up a short, steep incline and then plunging into a dense wood, which once formed a royal hunting-ground--the Forest of Bere.

At length we entered a deep, dark hollow, where the shade made a blinding contrast to the glare of the sun.

Suddenly there was a shrill whistle, followed by a sound of scuffling, a score of round oaths, and the sharp report of firearms.

The coach came to a sudden standstill, throwing me from my seat, while the others jumped out, unsheathing their swords as they did so.

I too made for the door, and could see the troopers preparing to fire into a thicket on the left-hand side of the road, while one of their number lay on the ground, his head bleeding from a severe wound.

After the next volley some of the men plunged into the underwood, encouraged by the voice of the sergeant shouting: "After him, men, at all costs; he cannot be far off."

A moment later there was a sound of harsh voices, the noise of stones striking against steel, more pistol-shots, and then quietness, broken at length by the return of the troopers bearing between them a man who moaned and cursed lustily as he was carried by none too tender hands.

"How now, Sedgewyke!" thundered his officer. "Who is this? 'Tis not the man we lost. Where is he?"

The sergeant saluted, and told his story: The troop was riding in a straggling manner, one of the men, who had a prisoner bound behind him (he with the scarred face), being in the rear. Without warning a stout rope that had been stretched between two trees on opposite sides of the road was dropped, and, catching the unfortunate soldier under the chin, hurled him and his prisoner to the ground. In a moment a party of men had run from the cover of the brushwood, freed the captive, and, after hamstringing the trooper's horse, had made their escape to the depths of the forest before the rest of the escort could realize what had occurred.

Pursued by the soldiers, they let fly a shower of stones, and in the confusion that followed had made good their retreat, with one exception-- a man who had received a ball in the right ankle.

Though chagrined by the loss of their prisoner, the capture of one of his rescuers was a redeeming feature of the fray, and the latest captive was brought before the officers for the purpose of being interrogated.

He was a young man, scarce more than twenty years of age, with a heavy poll of red hair. His sinewy arms were tattooed with various devices, while on his chest, exposed during the scuffle, a death's-head and cross-bones were crudely drawn. When questioned he maintained a surly silence, only asking for water in a dialect that, country-bred though I am, I could not readily understand.

"Methinks I have met others of this kind before," remarked the elder officer. "A Dorset man, I'll wager, and, that being so, he's either smuggler or pirate. Whether he be of Poole or Weymouth 'tis all the same. Far rather would I meet Dutchman or Frenchman in fair fight than be cast ashore on the devil-haunted coast of Purbeck. Now, Sedgewyke, I pray you dispatch that horse and let us hasten on, unless we wish to be benighted on the highway."

The sergeant saluted again and retired, while Middleton and his friend returned to the carriage. A shot announced that the maimed animal's sufferings were ended, and the troopers, with their two prisoners now safely in the centre, broke into a trot, the coach swaying to and fro as it rumbled over the rough road.

The sun was sinking low when we reached the summit of Portsdown, a long stretch of chalky down, whence I saw Portsmouth for the first time.

To one living in the hilliest and most picturesque part of Hampshire and Sussex this first glimpse came as a disappointment. I saw below me an island so flat as to make it appear difficult to tell where the land ended and where the water began. Save for a few trees and some scattered houses there was little to break the dreariness of it, while, the tide being out (as I afterwards learnt), long expanses of mud on either side increased this aspect of monotonous desolation. At the far end of the island I could distinguish the cluster of houses that formed the town. At the near end was a narrow creek, which we must needs cross to gain our destination, while away on the right was a square tower, which, they told me, was the castle of Portchester.

This was my first view of Portsmouth, and also of the sea, and I must confess I felt heartily disappointed with both.

We soon descended the hill, passed through the little hamlet of Cosham, and crossed the creek by a narrow bridge. A short three miles now separated us from the town, and on approaching it I saw a large mound of earth, called the Town Mount, crowned by fortifications and fronted by a line of bastions and earthworks, which in turn were encircled with a moat that communicated with the mill dam on the right.

Beyond rose the red-tiled roofs of the houses, the whole being dominated by the massive square tower of St. Thomas's Church.

At the Landport Gate we were received by a guard of soldiers, and as we entered the town my first impressions were removed by the sight of so much life and bustle.

Inside the line of fortification the guard had turned out for the purpose of doing honour to my travelling companions. The sight of the rows of pikemen with their eighteen-feet weapons riveted my attention till I was recalled to my senses by being dismissed by my benefactors, who gave me in charge of a sour-visaged soldier, with instructions to take me to the house of Master Anderson in St. Thomas's Street.

Soon I found myself at the door of a tall, gabled house, where, without waiting, my guide left me.

With a feeling of timidity I knocked, and the door was opened. I saw before me a rotund little man with a puffy face that a well-trimmed beard partially concealed. His face was pitted with smallpox, but his eyes, though swollen with the result of high living, twinkled in a kindly manner, yet showed promise of quickly firing up in anger.

I was unable to utter a word, and stood still, feeling considerably uneasy under his enquiring gaze. Neither did he speak; so, driven to desperation, I at length gathered up courage and stammered: "Sir, I am your nephew, Aubrey Wentworth."

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