With the King at Oxford - Alfred J. Church

After Naseby

At the edge of Naseby Field, somewhere, if my memory serves me, near to the north-east corner, there was a small hollow, used in former times for digging of clay or gravel, but then overgrown with trees. It was a steep descent all round, and fenced with a paling, save in one place only, where was—or, I should rather say, had been—a road (for now the bushes almost covered it), by which the carts had been used to go down for loading of the stuff. Thither John Talboys and I carried my father, purposing to find such shelter for him for the night as the place could give, for the air was somewhat cold and nipping, as it is wont to be in these counties of the Midlands up to midsummer—yea, and past it. We had but poor provision, especially for one that was wounded, as we could not but fear, to the death. Yet with our horsemen's cloaks on some dried grass, of which we found abundance, and the saddle from my poor beast Spot for a pillow, we made a passable bed. "'Tis the very lap of luxury," said my dear father, a true soldier in every way, and in none more than in that which St. Paul will have to be a soldier's special virtue, that he can bear hardness. For food we had some eggs hard boiled and the half of a loaf of bread, and some salted pork. These were of jack Talboys' providing. He was an old campaigner, and would as lief forget his provision of food as his musket. For myself, I had had no such fore-thought, and brought nothing to the common stock but the flask of sherry sack, which my good friend Master Webberley, pressed upon me when I bade him farewell. Truly, I blessed him for his forethought, for all that my father could swallow was now and then a morsel of bread sopped in the wine. It was plain to be seen that the hollow was used as a camping place by gipsies and the like, for there was a hearth where a fire had been, with great stones about it. I too would fain have lighted a fire, for the night, as I have said, was chill, and my father, for loss of blood and stiffness of his wounds, lacked warmth, but Talboys would not have it.

"There be worse things than cold," said he; "'tis not the first time that I have passed the night on the field of battle, and I liked it worse than the fighting. There be evil creatures about, I warrant you. The birds that haunt such places are no doves, but kites and carrion crows, and it would be well they should not spy us. They have a keen sight of their own, and a bit of smoke would guide them finely." So we were content to abide as we were.

I purposed to watch that night, and would have sworn that by no chance should sleep overcome me. And yet I slept, and this, if I remember right, before midnight. As long as my father was awake 'twas easy enough to resist, but when he fell into a slumber, which he did, as near as I could guess, about two hours after sunset, I soon began to nod for all my good resolutions and endeavours.

'Twas just growing light the next morning when I was awaked by voices raised in anger hard by me. Lifting myself to my feet, which for stiffness I did with no small difficulty, I saw a stranger whom John Talboys held by the collar of his coat. He was a man of a thick-set frame, somewhat under the common stature, his face burned by the sun to a very dark brown that showed somewhat strangely against his light, yellow hair, and eyes as blue as ever I saw. He had not altogether the aspect of an Englishman, and his speech, too, though ready enough, had a certain accent as of a foreigner. I liked not his look; there was somewhat greedy and cunning, ay, and cruel, too, in his face, so far as one could see it for the thick beard that he wore over his chin and lips, ay, and up to his cheek-bones.

"Nay, my good man," I heard him say to John Talboys, "I meant no harm. I am a poor pedlar, and there is my pack, which I left above, to witness for me. And see, I have not a weapon, so that I could not do any damage if I would."

"'Tis fine talking," said John Talboys, holding his coat firmly the while; "I warrant, an I searched thee, I should find a sharp knife, wherewith thou couldst shift in such warfare as thou wagest as well as with a sword or musket. Thou art a pedlar, forsooth. Doubtless, and hast other trades, too, to eke out thy profits in these hard times. Didst think to find customers in this hollow, that thou camest creeping into it? Is it thus that pedlars sell their goods, by putting their hands in men's pockets? As for thy pack, I doubt not it is there where thou sayest it is, but I reckon that thou thoughtest to carry it away hence not lighter, but heavier: a ring, or a chain, or a kerchief, or a pair of hose, or a doublet, so they were not stained by blood, would have served thy purpose well, and the better that thou payest no price for them, save a thrust with thy knife, if a man be so set against all reason that he will not part with them to an honest trader like thee for nought."

"Nay, my good friend," said the pedlar, and I noticed that his speech was the less English-like the more haste he made to get out his words, "nay, I am a Christian man, I have never harmed wounded men in my life."

"Thou a Christian man!" answered John, with great scorn and contempt; "if thou art not Judas or Barabbas by name, may I never taste spiced ale at Christmas again. I know thy sort, the eagles—God save the mark! I should say rather the carrion crows that are gathered together wheresoever the carrion is. But it was ill-luck of thine that brought thee here to-day."

Therewith John shook him as a terrier dog may shake a rat, but my father, who had been looking very steadfastly at the stranger, signified by his gesture that he should stay his hand. This done, he spake a few words in a tongue which I knew to be German, though I understood it not. The stranger grew pale, so far as his sun-burning would suffer him, and began to answer in the same language, but my father broke in upon him with, "Nay, man, speak English, for I would have no secrets from these." Thereupon the stranger said, "Do not think too ill of me, honoured sir, if I follow for a livelihood such a trade as these bad times have left me. There is but a poor market nowadays for my wares, for the war has devoured all the money in the land; and if I eke out my living by the war, what harm?"

"Nay, friend," said my father, "'tis not that war has come upon thee here, and spoilt thy trade. Thou followest the war, and thy trade is little else than a pretext and cloak for other things. Did I not see thee twenty years ago, and that many hundred miles hence, doing the same things, ay, and with the same excuse upon thy lips, that thou wast a poor trader whom the evil war time had brought to ruin? Dost remember that morning in Bohemia, and the provost-marshal's man standing with his hand on thy collar as John Talboys is standing now, ay, and another thing, that is lacking here, a gallows hard by?"

The stranger joined his hands like one that made supplication, and cast a look behind him as if he expected to see the gallows tree again.

"Nay," said my father, "I cannot harm thee an I would. Thou knowest, I doubt not, that we are three of the party that had the worst of yesterday's fight, and one of them wounded to the death. But thou wast full of promises that day thou wottest of. Hast a mind to redeem them now? "

"What can I do for you, honoured sir?" the man answered, and I, who was looking hard at him, thought that he looked somewhat less of a knave that he did at the first.

"Tell us, then," said my father, "dost thou know of any family of charitable folk where a wounded man may bestow himself for a few days till he die? Thy pedlar's trade takes thee everywhere, and, whatever thy own ways, of which I will not judge, thou canst discern doubtless between the good and the bad."

The man stood musing awhile, then he said to himself:

"Ah! I have it. Master Ellgood is the man, an his house be not too far. This Master Ellgood," he went on, turning to my father, "is a minister that was dispossessed of his place; why I know not, for I do not understand such matters; but all the country side is full of his goodness. He asks no questions of those whom he helps; 'tis enough that they are in need. I know him and his household well, though they be but poor customers to me—a white kerchief now and then, or a bit of grey silk, or some yards of stout sad-coloured stuff, for the young madam's dress—cheap things all of them that do not pay for the carrying. But they that buy much have for the most part little to give; and Master Ellgood's folk, I doubt not, will serve thy turn better than any other in these parts. But 'tis a longish way from here, a matter of a mile and a half or more. The house stands in a wood; it had been the abode of an old curmudgeon that had never a penny to spare for pedlar or poor man; 'twas a good day for the country-side when it came with a fair estate round it to Master Ellgood. None that needed help have ever failed to have it of his hands."

"We will cast ourselves on the good man's charity," said my father. "I see in this matter the guiding of God (for 'tis not, I am assured, mere chance that sent this stranger here to-day), and we cannot do better than follow it. But how shall I make the journey?"

"That," said John Talboys, who never took his eyes from the pedlar, as if he expected him to break out into some villainy, "may easily be done; we will make a litter, and Master Philip and I will carry you."

And this we did, the pedlar, who had cunning fingers of his own, helping. When the litter was finished, the man said, "An it please you I will be your guide, for the way is one that a stranger may readily miss; and I can take my turn of the carrying also. Only let me dispose my pack first in a safe place."

And he ran up out of the hollow more nimbly than I should have thought it possible for one of his years.

When he returned, which was in the space of a quarter of an hour or thereabouts, we went on our way. 'Twas indeed a way from which it would have been easy to go astray, so many turns it had. At last in about an hour's time, for our burden caused us to travel but slowly, we came to the house. It stood by the side of a green lane that ran through a wood, seeming to be but rarely used by horse or man. In front was a garden, passing fair with flowers, pinks and sweet-williams and a host of others; the house itself too was covered to the very eaves of the roof with roses and honeysuckle. And behind, though this I saw not at the time but only came to know afterwards, was the fairest spot that ever I saw. First there was a level space of grass, so smooth and green and well kept that our fairest lawns in Oxford could scarce compare with it. 'Twas bounded on the right hand by a low wall, grown over with ivy, and beyond this wall was a bank sloping down to as clear and fair a brook as ever babbled in man's ear. On the left hand of the green was another wall, some six feet high, with fruit trees of sundry kinds trained upon it. Beyond the green was a kitchen garden, as neatly ordered with all manner of fruits and herbs as can be conceived, and behind this again a wood sloping upwards to a height of three hundred feet and more, with the brook aforesaid leaping down through it and making, as I found afterwards, the fairest pools that can be imagined.

We rested the litter in the wood when first we came in sight of the house, and I went on alone to speak with the minister. 'Twas still early, scarce seven of the clock, if I remember, and the good man was pacing to and fro in the garden before his house, with a book in his hand, from which he read aloud as he walked. I could hear that it was the book of Common Prayer. He was a man of taller stature than the common, but that stooped forward somewhat, and slender as a youth. I judged him then, seeing him for the first time, to have been about sixty-five years of age, but learned afterwards that I had reckoned to him ten years too many. Trouble had made him old before his time, at the least, in look, for in some matters he was, as will be seen, one of them that are ever young. There was such a sweetness in his face as passed all skill of writer's pen or painter's brush to picture; his eyes large and grey; his forehead broad, and wrinkled with many lines; his cheeks somewhat thin and tinged with a faint colour that would not have ill-beseemed a maiden's face; his lips small but full, though not over-full (over-full lips, I have noted, seem to show a passionate temper, and over-thin, a cruel); his hair, white as silver, fell almost to his shoulders. He looked, I do remember to have thought, as might an angel that had grown old. For dress he wore a cassock, tied about his middle with a woollen band of very rusty brown, and grey hose, and shoes with black buckles. On his head was a skull cap of black velvet, no less worn than the cassock.

I waited till he should see me, which, so diligently did he read his book, he did not till he paced up and down some five or six times. But when he had ended his reading of the Psalms for the morning—for it was with them that he was engaged—he looked up, saying aloud at the same time the last words of the seventy-second Psalm, "Thou leddest Thy people like sheep by the hand of Moses and Aaron;" and he added, "O Lord, by whom wilt Thou lead them now? for leading they sorely want ! "Thereupon his eye fell on me, and I must confess that the good man started somewhat at the sight of me. Nor was this to be wondered at, for I had all the stains of battle upon me, even my face being splashed with blood. But this was but for a moment; he said, "Can I serve you, sir?" and when I had taken off my hat, "Nay, be covered." Then I set forth the whole matter to him, telling him of my father's estate, and of myself, and at the last showing him Sir Thomas Fairfax's paper, that he might feel the more secure in giving shelter to one that was not of the winning side. "Nay, my son," said the good man, when I showed him this last, "I need no authority to shelter the sick and wounded. For that the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew is authority sufficient. Yet this paper will be useful for the present distress, and save, may be, some strife and argument."

Then he called aloud, "Cicely!" whereat there came running out of the cottage a maid of some seventeen years. She was of the middle height, or somewhat more, of a fair complexion, somewhat pale, but not with the paleness of one that is troubled with sickness, her eyes of as sweet a blue as I have ever seen in a woman's face, her forehead low and somewhat broad, and her hair, that was most smoothly ordered, without any of the tricks that young maids will sometimes affect, of a singular bright chestnut colour; That I noted all these things at this first seeing of her, I cannot affirm, though I do believe that I did; but of this I am assured, that I deemed her at first sight to be, as indeed she was, of as sweet and virginal an aspect as ever woman had.

"Cicely," said the old man, "get ready the guest chamber, with all speed. 'Tis for a gentleman that has been sore wounded." Then, turning to me, "You had best go at once and bring your father. All things will be ready ere you come again."

So I hastened back to where I had left my father and John Talboys. And we two carried him to the cottage, and bestowed him, the old man and his daughter helping, in the guest room, which was as clean and sweet a chamber as ever I saw, though but humbly furnished. And Master Ellgood—for that was the old man's name—dressed his wound, having, as it appeared, no little knowledge of these matters.

"To find the bullet," he said, "passes my little skill, and yet it should be found. Haply we can get Master Parker from Leicester, that is the most learned surgeon in these parts. Meanwhile we will give your father such ease and comfort as we may."

I was for going without delay to Leicester, but Master Ellgood would not suffer it. "I know so much," said he, "of surgery, that I am assured that in your father's present state no man, be he the skilfullest surgeon alive, could search for and take out the bullet. Besides this, you had best not venture yourself at this present time at Leicester. I hear that the King's army took it with circumstances of no small barbarity, and I doubt whether even the Lord General's safe-conduct will avail you."

With this I was constrained to be content; but six days after Master Ellgood judged it well that the surgeon should be sent for, if perchance he might be able to come, of which, indeed, there was great doubt. Therefore, having borrowed a horse from one of the neighbours, and, indeed, it was no small favour in those days to lend a horse, and taking with me also a letter from Master Ellgood, I rode to Leicester. John Talboys had been earnest to go in my place. "Nay," said our host, "you are a soldier, and can no more hide your soldiership than you can make yourself invisible. And 'tis likely that there are some in Leicester who know your face, and haply the weight of your arm, whereas Master Philip here has been diligent at his books for many months past, and has the air of a scholar."

On the twenty-first day of June, therefore, being just one fortnight after the battle, I went to Leicester. The town was in a terrible confusion, having suffered two captures in the course of fourteen days. Many of the townsmen had fled; indeed, few were left save of the poorer sort, so that there was scarce a shop open in the place. Some were shut up, but some were still as they had been left by the soldiers that plundered them (for the town had been most cruelly sacked by the King's men), and there was scarce a window in the town that was not broken.

By great good fortune I found Master Parker, newly returned to his house, and about to sit down to his dinner. When I told him my errand, he cried out upon me: "What! ride a matter of twenty miles to see one wounded man? 'Tis manifestly impossible. Why, boy, there are two hundred wounded men within a call of this room, and some of them as curious cases as anyone could ask to see. I could fill my day three times over, and not stir a hundred yards hence."

Hearing him speak thus, I bethought me of Master Ellgood's letter, and showed it to him.

"Nay," said he, "why did you not bring this out before? There is no man whom I honour more than Thomas Ellgood, and I would ride a hundred miles to serve him. He has a pretty knowledge of physic and surgery, too, for a lay person, and perceives, too, which is a rare thing in such a case, where his knowledge ends. And now let us think how this business may be best managed. I must even make two days out of one, if the one be not long enough. We will set out about ten of the clock to-night, and so I shall be here for my day's work to-morrow. And now, sir, you must dine with me."

This I did gladly enough. Dinner ended, said Master Parker: "Divert yourself with these books. Here is Galen, and Pliny the elder, an industrious gatherer of facts, but over-credulous. Or, if you like something lighter, here are some poems by Mr. John Milton, a great friend, they tell me, of the Lord General, and here are the plays of William Shakespeare, if the saints permit me to make mention of things so profane. I would counsel you not to stir abroad, for if anyone should chance to remember you there might be some trouble."

Nevertheless I ventured forth, being as is the wont of young men, wise in my own conceit, and save that some boys cried after me, my hair being somewhat longer than is the fashion among the puritanical folk, suffered no harm. Nay, I had some pleasant talk with an honest soldier that I met upon the wall. He seemed by his accent, which was such as they use in the eastern parts of England, to be but of lowly birth; but yet his talk was full of wit and fine fancy. No gentleman, were he the finest scholar in Oxford, could have spoken better. I repent me that I did not ask his name.

At ten of the clock that night we set forth, and came to Master Ellgood's house without any misadventure. Hearing that my father was awake, and, indeed, he rarely slept but an hour or so at one time, Master Parker would see him at once. He examined the shoulder and arm with great carefulness; and when he had made an end, my father said, "And now, sir, tell me how it is with me."

"It might have been worse," said he.

"Ay," answered my father, "if the bullet had entered some six inches more to the right it had made a shorter work with me. But whether that had been worse, who can say? save, perhaps, that a man may well have some days wherein to prepare himself. But speak out, sir; I have not faced Death so many times in the field that I should fear him in the chamber."

"'Tis not," said the surgeon, "in human skill to make a cure in this case."

"So be it," answered my father, "if such is the will of God. But tell me, sir, how long I have to live."

"Some five days I should say," the surgeon made answer.

"God reward you, sir," said my father, "for your trouble; and now, my good friends, and you, son Philip, leave me alone. When a man hears such tidings as this, though, indeed, they be nothing more than I looked for, he would fain think over them in solitude."

So we left him. About two hours after dawn the good surgeon set forth on his way back to Leicester. Looking in at my father about the same time, I saw that he was sleeping peacefully; and, indeed, he did not awake till seven of the clock, which had not happened before since his coming to the house.