Sitting in my chamber in the month of June, in the year 1645—I remember that it was St. Barnabas' Day, and that Master Chalfont, who was Sub-Rector of Lincoln College, had preached that morning at St. Mary's Church—comes a knock at my outer door, which I had shut, fearing hindrances to my study; for in those days there was scarce a place in the whole kingdom less given to study than Oxford. At the first I heeded it not; for what would it have profited, having shut the door, to open it on the first occasion? But when the knocking grew more urgent I called through the door, "Who knocks?" to which came an answer in a voice that I seemed to know, "Open, Master Philip, 'tis an urgent matter." When I heard this "Master Philip," I understood that the voice was of John Talboys, that was a trooper in my father's regiment, and born, too, of a family that had been servants, ay, and friends, to ours for many generations, and was in great trust with him. So I opened the door in no small trepidation; but when I saw the good fellow's face I knew that it was no ill-tidings that he brought. "What news, John, from the army? How fares it with my father?"
"Your father was well when I left him yesterday morning: but take this letter; it will tell you more than any words of mine."
So I took the letter, which was written on a scrap of paper about the bigness of a mulberry leaf, for the convenience of hiding if occasion arose; or, it might be, of swallowing, if the hiding could not be otherwise contrived. It ran thus:
"My dear son Philip,—It irks me much to draw you away yet again from your studies, yet it is, to my mind, a plain necessity so to do. Hear now the cause, which I will put as shortly as it is possible, lest, haply, this writing should fall under less friendly eyes than yours. 'Tis plain to me, from signs that I see, that a great battle will be fought within a few days, by which the King's cause shall be made or marred; and I hold that every man who can strike a blow for his sacred Majesty, and is not kept away by some necessity, should be here to do his duty. Of myself I speak not, save only that I would fain have you with me, Do all your diligence, then, to come. John Talboys, the bearer of this epistle, and not unknown to you, will be your guide. God keep you.
"Your loving Father,|
"Writ at Daintree, in the county of Northampton, the tenth day of June, at four of the clock before noon."
"Well, John," I said, when I had read this letter, "What say you to all this? But stay "—for when I looked at him I saw that he was pale and weary, and, had he been less stalwart and strong, almost like to faint—"speak not till I fetch you somewhat."
With that I ran out of College and fetched in a flagon of ale and a manchet of bread, with some cheese, from the Maidenhead tavern, for the buttery was not yet open, it being not yet noon. It was against law to fetch such things from without, and I was commonly law-abiding, but the need was urgent. Therefore, I hesitated not to transgress, and to hide my transgression also under my academic habiliments, the scholars' gown having full sleeves that are not ill-contrived on occasion to conceal a flagon or the like.
I perceived John's eyes glitter when he saw the meat and drink; and when he had taken a deep draught of the ale, and a few mouthfuls of the bread, he said:
"This is right welcome, Master Philip. I have not had bit nor sup since I left the King's army at Daintree yesterday morning about five of the clock, save only a crust of bread which a good parson gave me at Banbury yesterday evening. The good man had nothing better for himself, for the Parliament men had stripped him bare. I know not when I have tasted better ale than this."
But this was John's fancy, bred, I take it, of his long fasting. It was but poor drink, and nothing to be compared with that of our own buttery.
"And now, sir," he went on, "for business. My good master, the Colonel, wants you to bear him company. He read me the letter after he had written it, so that if there came occasion to destroy the paper I might give its substance by word of mouth. It is not the easiest thing in the world to make our way hence to the King; but I have a good hope that we shall. I know every by-road and hiding-place in the country, and 'tis hard if I contrive not to give the slip to these crop-eared psalm-singing gentry. I must needs give my horse a rest, and you will need some time for your making yourself ready. What say you to ten of the clock this night for our setting out? We shall pass the worst of the country while it is still dark."
"But tell me, John," I said; "is it going well with the King?"
"'Tis not," he answered, "for a common man to speak; but, as you ask, I will say that I like not the aspect of affairs. We have men, though not so many as they; the gentlefolk are mostly with us, but the commonalty are greatly against us. But 'tis counsel that we chiefly lack. The Prince Rupert is in great authority; and as he has lost us already one battle, so, I misdoubt me, he will lose us another. And I hear of one Cromwell, a brewer by trade, they say, that is a mighty dangerous enemy. It was he that turned the battle against the King at Marston Moor, and, if I err not, we shall hear of him again. And now I will get some sleep, if I can, and at ten of the clock to-night, at the North Gate, I shall reckon to see you."
I had little preparation to make. Leave of absence from the Rector I judged it better to take rather than to ask. My good beast Spot was, I knew, at my service when I should need him, for it had been so arranged, and my accoutrements I kept, not in my chamber at College, but at the tavern where Spot was stabled. So, after I had seen that my horse and arms should be ready for me at the time appointed, I had little else to do than make my farewells to my friends. First I went to Master Webberley, who was, as I have said, well affected to the King, and told him my purpose. Of this he greatly approved, and gave me his blessing, and, as a token of his good will, a flask of sherry sack. We agreed that when inquiry of my absence should be made, he should answer that I had been called away by an urgent demand from my father that would not brook delay. It fell out by great good-luck that for the day there was none other Fellow within the College but Master Webberley, the others having gone to see an estate that the College possesses near to this city. Nor did I go back to the College after taking leave of him, fearing lest some one should stay me and ask questions, but passed the remainder of the day with my mother and sister. My dear mother was sorely divided between two desires; for while she would gladly have kept me with her, she did also greatly wish that I should be with my father, believing that we should be safer together. Yet, though she was convinced of this, and, indeed, reckoned the chance higher than it deserved, yet it troubled her much to think that we should both be running into the same danger at the same time. Her poor heart was sadly distracted this way and that. This is the unhappiness of women that they have ever a choice, though, indeed, it is a choice but in name only, between evils of which they cannot say which is the more to be dreaded or the worse to bear. My mother gave me many messages, and would have laden me and my horse beyond all possibility of moving with good things, and I had not refused them. She seemed to think that I had a waggon at the least to follow me, carrying what I might want. I remember her great concern when I told her that I should sleep on the ground in my cloak. She was urgent with me that I should take a mattress with me, and would have given me one off her own bed. I had no small difficulty to persuade her that the thing was impossible. After that I was content to tell her something less than the whole truth about our life in the camp; for she followed me beyond the door, bidding me never to put on clean linen that had not been first aired at the fire.
It favoured us much that the night was dark as could well be at midsummer, with such a roaring of the wind, which was more than commonly stormy for that season of the year, that the noise of our horses' hoofs could scarcely have been heard at twenty yards' distance. We journeyed, too, by green lanes and by-ways, which John Talboys knew marvellously well, rather than by high roads. Nevertheless, we did not draw rein, save for a few minutes' breathing space, till we came to Brackley, which is a small market town in the county of Northampton, lying south by west of Banbury. We halted about half-a-mile short of the town, where was a farmhouse that had been deserted during the present troubles. We bestowed ourselves and our horses in a barn, and laid ourselves down to sleep, Talboys first taking some whiffs of tobacco, a herb in which he professes to find much comfort. "Trouble not yourself, Master Philip," he said, before he slept, "to wake over early; for we must be content to pass the day here, and that without company, if we would not fall into the hands of our enemies." I verily believe that it was noon before I awoke; for I was much wearied by my ride, having been pent up in the city for nearly a twelvemonth, and my legs never once across a horse's back.
I had just roused myself, and was looking about me, half-dazed, as a man will sometimes be with a long slumber, when I heard a whistle, to which straightway John whistles an answer. Thereupon an old man thrusts his head in at the door, and presently follows with his whole body. He was a parson, a man, I should say, of sixty or thereabouts, his hair quite white, his face ruddy, with as merry a look in his eyes as ever man had. He had a priest's cloak on him, which he threw off so soon as he came within the door.
"Now beshrew this cloak," he said, with a laugh; "'tis cumbrous wear for a midsummer day; but 'tis a rare thing if one has ought to hide; better than a college gown; eh, Master Scholar?" Then we saw that he had something in his hand wrapped in a napkin, which, when he had unfolded, we saw a roasted capon.
"Ah!" he said; "if the King had had such politicians about him as I am, he had been better served. Hear now how you have come by your dinner. My good housekeeper, Dorothy Leggats, serves me up this capon, one of a couple that a neighbour brought me yesterday. Now an I had told her that I needed it for you, first there would have been loud complainings, for the good woman believes in her heart that I starve myself; then she would have gone 'clack, clack' over the whole village, for the good woman can no more keep a secret than a sieve can hold water. So, says I, rubbing my hands; 'That is a goodly sight for a hungry man, Dorothy, but I have business on hand, affairs of State, you understand, and I must not be disturbed for three hours at the least. So if anyone come you must say that the parson has shut himself in his chamber, and cannot be spoken with.' So I lock the door on her, and slip out of the window, which, by good fortune, is near the road, and here I am."
"We thank you much, sir;" I said, "but where shall you get your own dinner?"
"Nay," answered the good man, "let me care for that. 'Tis little that I can do for his Majesty, and I should be a bad subject if I should think of myself when there are two stout soldiers in need, that can strike a blow for him, which my cloth forbids me to do. I shall make my Friday fast to-day, and give myself indulgence for flesh and fowl, if such fall in my way, when Friday itself shall come."
Ah! Master Parson," said John, "I reckon that you fast on other days than Friday. But come, take a morsel with us; for there is more an enough for us two."
We had some trouble to persuade him; but the last he consented to share with us; and right jovial meal we had, though we had nothing stronger to drink than a pitcher of water that John had drawn from the well in the farmyard the night before. The good parson stayed talking with us till, as he said, his time was out. He had been at Oxford, at St. John's College, about forty years before, when the Archbishop of Canterbury whom the Parliament so barbarously put to death, was his tutor. Of him he had many things to say, of which I will here set down one. "They did him an ill turn that brought him to Court, and put him in the way of preferment and of office in the State. It had been well for him as for the realm also if he had had no higher place than to be president of his college. Learning never had a more duteous son nor the King a worse counsellor."
When it was time for the good man to go he was much concerned to part from us. "Were I ten years younger," said he, "I would ride with you, cloth or no cloth. There are days when it may be said, 'Let him that hath no sword sell his cloak and buy one,' though, to speak the truth, I could not buy much with this of mine, so threadbare is it and ragged. But an old man like me is best at home; I can pray for his Majesty in the church so long as they suffer me to keep it, and when they turn me out, if they extinguish my voice, still my thoughts will be free. And now, my sons, take my blessing."
So he blessed us and went his way. We two lay hiding till it grew dark, and then setting out arrived without misadventure at Burrough Hill, where the King lay. We saw the light of Sir Thomas Fairfax's camp at Kislingbury on our right hand, and once were constrained to hide ourselves in a thicket, so near came some of the enemy's horsemen. But scarce had we come to his Majesty's camp ('twas about four of the clock in the morning) when there comes an order that the army should march, the King proposing to go towards Newark, where he had a strong garrison, with whom, as with other forces which he expected, he could strengthen himself. It had been well had he done so! So accordingly we set fire to the huts and departed, making a short stage to Market Harborough, where we rested that night, that is to say the van of the army, for the rear was at Naseby, his Majesty himself sleeping at Lubbenham, which lies between the two. I had gone to bed betimes, being not a little wearied with my journey, having ridden two nights. (It is commonly thought among soldiers that journeying will weary a man by night more than by day, for all that he may so shun the heat, it being against nature to wake at such hours.) I had scarce slept an hour (to me it seemed but five minutes, so weary was I with sleep) when there comes an alarm, the rear coming in with no small confusion from Naseby, where the Parliament men had suddenly fallen upon them, and, taking some prisoners, had driven the rest northward. I perceived that there was small hope of sleep that night, and so rose and made ready for what might happen. I was quartered with my father (whom his Majesty would always have near him) in a house in the village, and coming out into the street, saw the King set out for Harborough, where the Prince Rupert lay, my father riding with him in the carriage. This was about an hour before midnight. In the space of three hours or thereabouts my father comes back. There was a cloud upon his face, I could see that he was ill-pleased. "We resolved to fight," says he, "and 'twill be a marvel if we are not well beaten. I was at the Council by his Majesty's favour, and heard the debate, though it did not become one of my station to thrust in my voice. The greater part were urgent for battle, the Prince being especially vehement. Reason for fighting heard I none from him or from any other; but his Highness's pride was affronted because the Parliament men had fallen upon the King's army. They must teach the Roundheads, forsooth, to bear themselves more modestly, as if that was good reason for putting the whole future of the realm upon the cast of a die. For 'tis nothing less than that, son Philip. If we be beaten to-day, and I fear much that we shall, there is an end to the King's cause. The King was for delay and gathering his forces together, but was overborne, and gave way, as indeed it is too much his failing to do, to these hot-blooded youngsters, who think that war is but a matter of hard blows. But come, we must be moving; the army is to be drawn together about a mile south from Harborough."