Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Son Christopher - Part 5

Illustrated by John Everett Millais.

Part 4Part 6



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A few hours did in fact change the aspect of everything, and open every inducement to proceed to Exeter. At sunrise, all was stir in Monmouth’s camp; for the country-folk kept arriving in bands, led by ministers, or sent, strange to say, by the Quakers, from far and near. The Quakers could not fight, nor ask anybody to fight: but yet they largely recruited the invading force. They believed that the second coming of Christ was at hand; and, believing it, they now said so. Not a few held forth in the streets of the towns; many more traversed the country in all directions, calling upon the people to watch and observe the promise that popery and prelacy had reached their last term; and that the signs and tokens had begun which were to introduce the reign of the pure gospel, and of Christ himself.

Many more unaccountable mistakes have been made than that of regarding Monmouth as a divine instrument, or even the prophet of a new period. The religious public of England was at that time vexed almost out of its reason. The pillage, the captivity, the torment of body and mind inflicted by the priests and potentates of the two churches made fanatics of the people, as of course. Being made so suspicious as to see enemies in all strangers, they were made sanguine about relief and reward from any new event or influence. The same devout persons who had imagined William Penn to be a Jesuit, and all Quakers a new popish agency, might easily see in the Duke of Monmouth the herald of the retributive age, when the faithful should be exalted, and Babylon should be destroyed. Thus, after every day of fanatics testifying in the streets, and prophesying in the fields and farmyards, fresh detachments set off to join the redeeming army. It was well understood that not a few of the camp-attendants were Quakers;—the smiths, the saddlers, the spurriers, as well as the provision-dealers. It was remarked that there were two sorts of smiths,—one which would only shoe horses and mend utensils; and another which would also make pikes, and convert scythes into weapons; and the more peaceful sort were whispered to be Quakers.

These Quakers could hardly have objected to share in the encounter with the four thousand soldiers under the royalist commander. It was a moral conflict, with an almost entire absence of physical force. Monmouth had his four cannon posted and loaded in full view of the enemy, and a sufficiency of armed men discernible behind the hedges of the lane by which the royal troops must advance. The Duke of Albemarle saw the effect on his trainbands with wrath and shame: but there was nothing to be done but to withdraw them before they went over, one and all, to King Monmouth. At first they retreated; then they fled; and if Monmouth’s army had been the low mob it was reported in London to be, it might have clothed and armed itself by merely picking up the dress and weapons which strewed the roads all the way to Exeter.

In the diary which Christopher kept, for the eye of one from whom he had no secrets, and whose sympathy was the life of his life, he passed over this so-called battle in the slightest possible way.

“There was no fighting,” he said. “I have still to witness my first battle. But it has satisfied me that, if we were as wise as we are willing, we might finish our work almost without a blow,—in this part of the country, if not throughout the kingdom . . . If there is not enough presence of mind among us to secure the advantage before real fighting is needed, there may be battles in plenty for lawyers like me to witness and help in; and then, seeing how raw these yeomen and peasants and tradesmen are, with all their fine spirit, I feel that the issue may not be so clear,—or at least so speedy. But, if we only follow the leadings offered us in these first days of our rebellion, we may restore the reign of the saints, and escape from purgatory into paradise,—if I may hold such Popish language without sin.”

This was all very well while the royal forces were flying or ratting: but, as the insurgent troops moved on through Somersetshire, they heard some things which made sober men grave. Parliament was on the King’s side, Papist as he was. The noblemen and gentlemen of one county after another sent to London assurances of their loyalty, and offers of service and of money. The Duke was attainted, and a reward of five thousand pounds was set upon his head. The most serious circumstance was, that the Whig gentry, who had been reported as the surest sustainers of the rebellion, failed in the proof, from step to step. If written to, they returned the letter, or kept silence, or replied that the time was not fitting, or declared themselves bound by their oath of allegiance. Monmouth observed to Christopher, as they rode under a park wall near Axminster—

“This is a Whig estate, rely upon it.—How do I know?—By the chained-up gates, and the deserted lodge, and the closed windows of the mansion. When I see a mansion more unkind in its aspect than others, and well chained and barricaded, it always turns out to be one belonging to the order of my particular friends.”

At another time, when Colonel Wade was counselling a stricter guard over the person of the Duke, observing that five thousand pounds was a tempting sum to such men as followed at his heels, Monmouth drily assured him that he had no fear of Dorsetshire tradesmen or Somersetshire peasants. If his head was carried to the King’s feet, it would be by some careful Whig, who could at one stroke repair the family mansion, and keep a good footing at Court, till a new reign should open a new career.

The Duke’s staff whispered among themselves that his Majesty was growing cross. This would never do; for his gay good-humour was the charm by which he drew the people to him, and kept them at his side. It was only for a passing moment, however, that the Pretender scowled or dropped bitter words. For the most part he seemed to carry the summer sunshine with him: and never had he been more radiant than when he rode into Taunton,—the shrine of the worship of King Monmouth. No Popish saint was more idolised in any dark old corner of the most Popish county in England than he was in sunny Taunton in that bright June of 1685.

While the Duke and his staff were looking through their prospect-glass, from a distance, at the church tower of St. Mary Magdalen, the summit of which was crowded with, citizens on the look-out, the blue flag was run up, and the group on the tower could be seen frantically waving their hats. Then the bells rang out merrily, as a signal, no doubt, to the townsmen that the Duke’s army was in sight; for such throngs poured out upon the roads that the wonder was whether anybody was left within to give a welcome in the streets. In the orchards along the road, the trees were loaded with spectators, careless of the blossom and fruit, in comparison with getting a sight of King Monmouth. Every field, garden, and housetop was crowded; and everybody wore something blue. The old method of receiving a great man, by opening the gates to him, was impracticable; for the late King’s party had obtained leave and licence to destroy the gates of Taunton, and to fill up the ditch; but, on this first call on the inhabitants to declare their true mind, they did it by an emphatic welcome to the Protestant candidate for the throne. The magistrates and corporation awaited the Duke amidst the charred ruins which showed where the gates had been; and a series of processions met him, did him homage, and turned, in order to precede him to the market-place. There he was shown to a raised seat,—a good imitation of a throne,—opposite to which a pulpit was erected; and in the pulpit was the most esteemed Presbyterian minister of the place, ready to inform his Grace of the history of Taunton since the Reformation, and to affect his Grace’s feelings with a description of the sufferings the inhabitants had undergone for the Parliament forty years ago, and for true religion ever since.

Monmouth listened with real attention; for his reception here showed him the importance of understanding the people, in order to profit to the utmost by their good-will. His staff imitated his air of interest; and the troops, drawn up round the market-place, while the inhabitants were crowded within, did their best to think the ceremony very fine, while hoping, doubtless, that the sermon would not be very long, detaining them from the meat and good ale they needed after their morning’s march.

Christopher was at the head of his mounted troop, on one side of the Duke’s seat, endeavouring to hear the discourse, which was of real interest to him, but distracted in part by the necessity of keeping his horse in order in so crowded an area, when a hand was laid on the animal’s neck.

It was Reuben,—smiling as usual, and looking respectfully delighted to meet his master again. His religious tastes, too, were evidently unchanged.

“Ah! Master Christopher,” he said; “this is all very well,” pointing over his shoulder towards the pulpit. “The town has put its best preacher foremost; but he won’t do for us who have sat under John Hickes.”

He met with no responsive smile, but found himself under stringent orders at once.

“Do not stir from where you are till I call you. If you leave me again, I will have you brought back at my pleasure, and not your own.”

“Well, to be sure!” the man exclaimed, as if amazed. “I should have come back that night to say where I was going, and for your sake, only I was sent off in such a hurry. Ask Mr. Dare, sir, and he will tell you so.”

Christopher looked him full in the face, but could see no trace in his countenance of any knowledge of Dare’s death.

“Mr. Dare sent me here, sir, to bring up a company of recruits to meet the Duke at Axminster, and he undertook to satisfy you, sir, and give you another groom till I should meet you. I hope he did so, Mr. Christopher.”

“Hold your tongue now; I will hear you afterwards,” said his master.

Reuben nodded assent, crossed his arms as he stood by his master’s stirrup, and seemed lost in attention to the discourse. The horse might have have been so too, by his quietness. It was perhaps the presence of his accustomed groom which kept him tranquil; but he disturbed his rider no more till he started, as other horses did, at a pistol-shot, close at hand.

The Duke rose to his feet, and took off and examined his hat. The preacher leaned half over the desk, while he shouted to the people near the throne to seize him—seize him—the God-abandoned wretch who would have slain the Prince that should redeem Israel.

There was much tumult and consternation, and crying out to seize the assassin, and not to let him go; but nobody had the chance. Nobody about the spot would admit having seen him; but the preacher and one other witness declared their belief that it was the same man who had just before been standing among the cavalry, and appearing to be in conversation with one of the officers. Reuben had indeed vanished again.

Christopher still half hoped that Reuben would join him when the confusion subsided; but not the less did he give out a personal description of the man to everybody, offering a large reward for the arrest of his groom before sunset. Everybody was sure that the arrest would be easily managed, the place was so thoroughly loyal; but there was in truth little hope of it. If there was one traitor, there must be more aiding and abetting. If Reuben did not appear of his own accord, he would be seen no more,—unless indeed he should have the audacity to make another venture for the five thousand pounds offered to the slayer of the Duke of Monmouth.

John Hickes had been awaiting his turn to hold forth to the grandest congregation he had ever seen assembled; but the popular mind—to say nothing of Monmouth’s own—was too much disturbed for further quietness. After a few words of consultation with Lord Grey, Christopher committed the charge of his troop to him, and took his place by Monmouth’s side, resolved to stand between Reuben and his victim, if Reuben was indeed the assassin.

For a time the Duke was moody; thinking some thoughts which few of his friends could divine; thinking how it would be with Henrietta if it should be told to her that her Monmouth had been shot down in the street by some wretch who wanted money. But on the first hint from a fellow-adventurer about any appearance of his spirits being dashed, and on perceiving Christopher’s concern, he roused himself to his accustomed graciousness and cheerfulness, and mounted his horse with a jest.

His progress through the narrow streets was slow, for gifts or addresses were presented at every few yards. The Mayor begged permission to act the part of horse-leader, in order to inform him after each halt what was to come next. Thus, there was time afforded to be grave or gay, in accordance with propriety. Thus, a troop of clergy, in skull-caps and bands, recalled to his Grace’s recollection that Joseph Alleine, the martyr of the Restoration, was a Taunton man, and a patriotic citizen of their town; and they presented a copy of the good man’s work—“An Alarm to the Unconverted”—bound in black velvet, with prayers that it might be blessed to his soul; and next to these came the representatives of the trades of Taunton—the weaver being busy in his loom at: fabricating a Monmouth banner, and the metal-workers in making a crown for King Monmouth, and the bellows-makers in constructing bellows powerful to blow the Popish king and all his priests from London to Rome. Here it was necessary to laugh. Smiles and bows were dispensed on all hands as flowers fell from the housetops, and garlands swung in the wind, and leafy crowns were aimed at the bare head of the candidate king. One greeting was certainly very touching and very welcome to his feelings. A lady, well-mannered and well-dressed, stepped from a courtyard, followed by a long train of young girls, all in white with blue favours—not fewer than seventeen of them carrying banners of blue, embroidered with devices. The lady’s gift was a small Bible, of great antiquity. Monmouth would not receive this by proxy, but stooped from his saddle to take it, kissing the lady’s hand as he did so, and declaring aloud, as he placed the volume in his bosom, that he had come to defend the truths contained in that book, and, if needful, to shed his blood for them.

As the lady drew aside, with brimming eyes, to make way for the young girls, and while she was explaining that they were of high and noble Nonconformist names, and confided to her for education, a sort of scream of delight was heard from the midst of them, and one—the youngest and smallest of them all—sprang to Christopher’s side, and used his oustretched arm to reach his neck, to which she clung, though a loud laugh rang from one side of the street to the other. Christopher laughed too; and neither he nor his little sister—for it was Joanna—was ashamed. He lifted her gently down, however, and told her she must go now; he would try to see her again, but could not promise. Monmouth, however, promised everything she could wish. He told her he was jealous; for he was afraid she cared to see her brother more than him; to which she answered, “Yes,” so simply as to excite another laugh. After this, as she looked as if she had something more to say, the Duke bent down to her again; and she explained that by-and-by, when she had talked a great deal with Christopher, she should be more glad to have seen King Monmouth than anybody else in the world. And here, at a sign from her brother, she stopped, blushing deeply.

The Duke actually remembered the child again. In the evening he sent a coach for her. She was in bed; but no difficulty was made about dressing and despatching her, duly attended, to the mansion occupied by the Duke and his staff.

“Did I say wrong to King Monmouth?” was her first question when she and her brother were by themselves. They sat in a deep window of the reception-room; but Monmouth with his own hand drew the curtains so that they were as completely alone as if they had had the room to themselves.

“No, Joanna; it was not that you said anything wrong; only that his Grace had not time to listen to little girls.”

“But he asked me!”

“True. Be easy, child; there is no harm done.”

It was the rule of the house among the Battiscombes, not to be demonstrative to the young children; but, if the eldest of the family dutifully restrained his speech, his tone and manner were perhaps all the more tender. Joanna remembered every look and tone and word of this short conversation to the last day of her life.

It did not matter her getting up from her bed to come; for she could not have slept for thinking of the glories of the day. She evidently understood that there was an element of danger in the triumph; and even in this child Christopher found a sympathy which did him good. She thought it would be a finer sight to see King Monmouth actually crowned king, with the whole nation, instead of only the Taunton people, to rejoice at it; but she did not think even that so fine AS seeing saints carried to heaven in a chariot of fire, with angels to guard them, as Enoch and Elijah were, and Faithful and Hopeful, after they were burnt alive. Might some people really be killed,—really be burnt alive for being glad to see King Monmouth? Was it likely that anybody would be?

“I think it is very likely,” Christopher answered.

“Who? You, yourself, Christopher? Not King Monmouth!”

“His Grace is in the most danger of anybody. But we are all in danger,—I, and you, and everybody.—‘Father and mother?’—Yes, everybody, of all opinions. If, like our father and mother, they pause to think and consider, the victorious party will suspect them; and it is always easy to punish us Puritans, whether we declare for one king or another. But you will understand these things better when you are older. Now—”

“O! I understand,” she replied quickly. “Our governess tells us of the children of God who have gone through the fire to Him; and of the followers of Christ who have borne the cross for his sake; and she says that we are living in the glorious time which must settle whether the true religion or that wicked Popery, or prelacy, which is almost as bad, is to conquer.”

“That is quite true, I believe, Joanna.”

“And,” she went on, “that it all depends on whether King Monmouth prevails.”

Christopher did not undertake to say that he believed this was quite true; so he said,—

“Then you would not be very miserable if it all ended in terrible affliction?—Suppose the enemies of religion were to kill you for saying such things as you have just been saying?”

“O, I wish they would! But perhaps it is being too proud to say that.”

“I think it is. No,—I do not say it because of the pride, but because I do not feel it. I had rather that we succeeded, and lived to help to restore the Church; but it does not follow that I am afraid. All that we have to do with it, child, is to remember that our days may be pleasant or very painful, and to be ready and willing to take what God sends. If I should be killed—”

“Why, then, you will get over Jordan as well as anybody, I dare say; and when we come, it will be so pleasant that you will be there, waiting for us!”

“Mind you remember that!” said Christopher, drawing her to him tenderly. “Never forget that we agreed about this, on this day, and in this place! And if I should be killed, in battle or afterwards, you must be sure and tell father and mother and sisters that you and I agreed not to be afraid of dying, in any way whatever, for this cause.”

“I will remember,” Joanna promised.

“Now we must not stay much longer,” Christopher said; “but I want to know about Madam Lisle.”

“And I want to know,” observed Joanna, “about Mistress Elizabeth Bankshope.”

“What about that lady?”

“Whether she has staid at our house all this time; and when she will be my sister; and ever so many things.”

Joanna got answers, such as they were: but it was not quite certain that no sound could be heard beyond the curtain; so the words were carefully guarded; and those most to the point were whispered. This started a new question.

“You are not ashamed to talk with me, because I am your little sister,—are you? I knew you would laugh at such a thought; and I told them so; but some of the girls said that grown gentlemen always are ashamed of being confidential with their sisters,—especially if they are small, like me.”

“That is sometimes true, but not always,” Christopher explained. “But you have not told me about Madam Lisle. Do you know where she is?”

“I should think she is at home. She rested here for a night last week; and she said she was going home because people should be at their own posts, and ready for anything that may happen in such times; and that they should not put their friends into danger. The Bishop would have had her stay at Wells; but she thought the widow of a chief Commonwealth man was not a fit guest for a bishop at this time.”

“Did she say anything about the rising?” asked Christopher, in his lowest voice. “Anything about those of us who are engaged in it?”

“Only that she did not know what to think. She meant to go home and pray for the right and the truth; and a person so old might, she hoped, take a little time to watch and learn, and be satisfied about who should be the real true Protestant king.”

“Our father is not nearly so old as she,” observed Christopher; “and that is what he thinks it right to do.”

“But you, Kit? King Monmouth is your king?”

“O yes; he is my king.”

“Ah! to be sure! He is everybody’s king. Madam Lisle could not doubt if she was with us here to-night,—could she?” As her brother did not answer, Joanna went on: “Nobody can doubt,—you cannot doubt,—can you?”

“Not for a moment as to what I ought to do; and that is all that matters. But, child, you must go now.”

“I will,” said the obedient little sister. All she wanted further was to know when she should see Kit again,—how long he would stay in Taunton,—when he would go home,—and whether he would carry a message to Mistress Elizabeth. She learned now that, when a gentleman became a soldier, he put his goings and comings into other people’s hands. On the whole, Christopher thought he should hardly talk with any of his sisters again till the Duke of Monmonth should be really king.

“Nor with Mistress Elizabeth?”

“Nor with Mistress Elizabeth,” he answered, cheerfully.