CHAPTER II. KIRKE'S DRAGOONS
Oglethorpe's farm stood a mile or so to the south of Bridgewater on theright bank of the river. It was a straggling Tudor building showing greyabove the ivy that clothed its lower parts. Approaching it now, throughthe fragrant orchards amid which it seemed to drowse in Arcadian peacebeside the waters of the Parrett, sparkling in the morning sunlight,Mr. Blood might have had a difficulty in believing it part of a worldtormented by strife and bloodshed.
On the bridge, as they had been riding out of Bridgewater, they had meta vanguard of fugitives from the field of battle, weary, broken men,many of them wounded, all of them terror-stricken, staggering inspeedless haste with the last remnants of their strength into theshelter which it was their vain illusion the town would afford them.Eyes glazed with lassitude and fear looked up piteously out of haggardfaces at Mr. Blood and his companion as they rode forth; hoarse voicescried a warning that merciless pursuit was not far behind. Undeterred,however, young Pitt rode amain along the dusty road by which thesepoor fugitives from that swift rout on Sedgemoor came flocking inever-increasing numbers. Presently he swung aside, and quitting the roadtook to a pathway that crossed the dewy meadowlands. Even here theymet odd groups of these human derelicts, who were scattering in alldirections, looking fearfully behind them as they came through the longgrass, expecting at every moment to see the red coats of the dragoons.
But as Pitt's direction was a southward one, bringing them ever nearerto Feversham's headquarters, they were presently clear of that humanflotsam and jetsam of the battle, and riding through the peacefulorchards heavy with the ripening fruit that was soon to make its annualyield of cider.
At last they alighted on the kidney stones of the courtyard, and Baynes,the master, of the homestead, grave of countenance and flustered ofmanner, gave them welcome.
In the spacious, stone-flagged hall, the doctor found LordGildoy--a very tall and dark young gentleman, prominent of chin andnose--stretched on a cane day-bed under one of the tall mullionedwindows, in the care of Mrs. Baynes and her comely daughter. His cheekswere leaden-hued, his eyes closed, and from his blue lips came with eachlaboured breath a faint, moaning noise.
Mr. Blood stood for a moment silently considering his patient. Hedeplored that a youth with such bright hopes in life as Lord Gildoy'sshould have risked all, perhaps existence itself, to forward theambition of a worthless adventurer. Because he had liked and honouredthis brave lad he paid his case the tribute of a sigh. Then he knelt tohis task, ripped away doublet and underwear to lay bare his lordship'smangled side, and called for water and linen and what else he needed forhis work.
He was still intent upon it a half-hour later when the dragoons invadedthe homestead. The clatter of hooves and hoarse shouts that heraldedtheir approach disturbed him not at all. For one thing, he was noteasily disturbed; for another, his task absorbed him. But his lordship,who had now recovered consciousness, showed considerable alarm, and thebattle-stained Jeremy Pitt sped to cover in a clothes-press. Baynes wasuneasy, and his wife and daughter trembled. Mr. Blood reassured them.
"Why, what's to fear?" he said. "It's a Christian country, this, andChristian men do not make war upon the wounded, nor upon those whoharbour them." He still had, you see, illusions about Christians.He held a glass of cordial, prepared under his directions, to hislordship's lips. "Give your mind peace, my lord. The worst is done."
And then they came rattling and clanking into the stone-flagged hall--around dozen jack-booted, lobster-coated troopers of the TangiersRegiment, led by a sturdy, black-browed fellow with a deal of gold laceabout the breast of his coat.
Baynes stood his ground, his attitude half-defiant, whilst his wifeand daughter shrank away in renewed fear. Mr. Blood, at the head of theday-bed, looked over his shoulder to take stock of the invaders.
The officer barked an order, which brought his men to an attentive halt,then swaggered forward, his gloved hand bearing down the pummel ofhis sword, his spurs jingling musically as he moved. He announced hisauthority to the yeoman.
"I am Captain Hobart, of Colonel Kirke's dragoons. What rebels do youharbour?"
The yeoman took alarm at that ferocious truculence. It expressed itselfin his trembling voice.
"I... I am no harbourer of rebels, sir. This wounded gentleman...."
"I can see for myself." The Captain stamped forward to the day-bed, andscowled down upon the grey-faced sufferer.
"No need to ask how he came in this state and by his wounds. A damnedrebel, and that's enough for me." He flung a command at his dragoons."Out with him, my lads."
Mr. Blood got between the day-bed and the troopers.
"In the name of humanity, sir!" said he, on a note of anger. "This isEngland, not Tangiers. The gentleman is in sore case. He may not bemoved without peril to his life."
Captain Hobart was amused.
"Oh, I am to be tender of the lives of these rebels! Odds blood! Do youthink it's to benefit his health we're taking him? There's gallows beingplanted along the road from Weston to Bridgewater, and he'll servefor one of them as well as another. Colonel Kirke'll learn thesenonconforming oafs something they'll not forget in generations."
"You're hanging men without trial? Faith, then, it's mistaken I am.We're in Tangiers, after all, it seems, where your regiment belongs."
The Captain considered him with a kindling eye. He looked him over fromthe soles of his riding-boots to the crown of his periwig. He notedthe spare, active frame, the arrogant poise of the head, the air ofauthority that invested Mr. Blood, and soldier recognized soldier. TheCaptain's eyes narrowed. Recognition went further.
"Who the hell may you be?" he exploded.
"My name is Blood, sir--Peter Blood, at your service."
"Aye--aye! Codso! That's the name. You were in French service once, wereyou not?"
If Mr. Blood was surprised, he did not betray it.
"Then I remember you--five years ago, or more, you were in Tangiers."
"That is so. I knew your colonel."
"Faith, you may be renewing the acquaintance." The Captain laughedunpleasantly. "What brings you here, sir?"
"This wounded gentleman. I was fetched to attend him. I am a medicus."
"A doctor--you?" Scorn of that lie--as he conceived it--rang in theheavy, hectoring voice.
"Medicinae baccalaureus," said Mr. Blood.
"Don't fling your French at me, man," snapped Hobart. "Speak English!"
Mr. Blood's smile annoyed him.
"I am a physician practising my calling in the town of Bridgewater."
The Captain sneered. "Which you reached by way of Lyme Regis in thefollowing of your bastard Duke."
It was Mr. Blood's turn to sneer. "If your wit were as big as yourvoice, my dear, it's the great man you'd be by this."
For a moment the dragoon was speechless. The colour deepened in hisface.
"You may find me great enough to hang you."
"Faith, yes. Ye've the look and the manners of a hangman. But if youpractise your trade on my patient here, you may be putting a rope roundyour own neck. He's not the kind you may string up and no questionsasked. He has the right to trial, and the right to trial by his peers."
"By his peers?"
The Captain was taken aback by these three words, which Mr. Blood hadstressed.
"Sure, now, any but a fool or a savage would have asked his name beforeordering him to the gallows. The gentleman is my Lord Gildoy."
"I make no concealment of my association with the Duke of Monmouth.I'll take the consequences. But, if you please, I'll take them aftertrial--by my peers, as the doctor has said."
The feeble voice ceased, and was followed by a moment's silence. As iscommon in many blustering men, there was a deal of timidity deep downin Hobart. The announcement of his lordship's rank had touched thosedepths. A servile upstart, he stood in awe of titles. And he stood inawe of his col
onel. Percy Kirke was not lenient with blunderers.
By a gesture he checked his men. He must consider. Mr. Blood, observinghis pause, added further matter for his consideration.
"Ye'll be remembering, Captain, that Lord Gildoy will have friends andrelatives on the Tory side, who'll have something to say to ColonelKirke if his lordship should be handled like a common felon. You'll gowarily, Captain, or, as I've said, it's a halter for your neck ye'll beweaving this morning."
Captain Hobart swept the warning aside with a bluster of contempt, buthe acted upon it none the less. "Take up the day-bed," said he, "andconvey him on that to Bridgewater. Lodge him in the gaol until I takeorder about him."
"He may not survive the journey," Blood remonstrated. "He's in no caseto be moved."
"So much the worse for him. My affair is to round up rebels." Heconfirmed his order by a gesture. Two of his men took up the day-bed,and swung to depart with it.
Gildoy made a feeble effort to put forth a hand towards Mr. Blood."Sir," he said, "you leave me in your debt. If I live I shall study howto discharge it."
Mr. Blood bowed for answer; then to the men: "Bear him steadily," hecommanded. "His life depends on it."
As his lordship was carried out, the Captain became brisk. He turnedupon the yeoman.
"What other cursed rebels do you harbour?"
"None other, sir. His lordship...."
"We've dealt with his lordship for the present. We'll deal with you ina moment when we've searched your house. And, by God, if you've lied tome...." He broke off, snarling, to give an order. Four of his dragoonswent out. In a moment they were heard moving noisily in the adjacentroom. Meanwhile, the Captain was questing about the hall, sounding thewainscoting with the butt of a pistol.
Mr. Blood saw no profit to himself in lingering.
"By your leave, it's a very good day I'll be wishing you," said he.
"By my leave, you'll remain awhile," the Captain ordered him.
Mr. Blood shrugged, and sat down. "You're tiresome," he said. "I wonderyour colonel hasn't discovered it yet."
But the Captain did not heed him. He was stooping to pick up a soiledand dusty hat in which there was pinned a little bunch of oak leaves. Ithad been lying near the clothes-press in which the unfortunate Pitt hadtaken refuge. The Captain smiled malevolently. His eyes raked the room,resting first sardonically on the yeoman, then on the two women in thebackground, and finally on Mr. Blood, who sat with one leg thrown overthe other in an attitude of indifference that was far from reflectinghis mind.
Then the Captain stepped to the press, and pulled open one of the wingsof its massive oaken door. He took the huddled inmate by the collar ofhis doublet, and lugged him out into the open.
"And who the devil's this?" quoth he. "Another nobleman?"
Mr. Blood had a vision of those gallows of which Captain Hobart hadspoken, and of this unfortunate young shipmaster going to adorn one ofthem, strung up without trial, in the place of the other victim of whomthe Captain had been cheated. On the spot he invented not only a titlebut a whole family for the young rebel.
Both the Captain and his prisoner gasped. But whereas thereafter youngPitt discreetly held his peace, the Captain rapped out a nasty oath. Heconsidered his prisoner again.
"He's lying, is he not?" he demanded, seizing the lad by the shoulder,and glaring into his face. "He's rallying rue, by God!"
"If ye believe that," said Blood, "hang him, and see what happens toyou."
The dragoon glared at the doctor and then at his prisoner. "Pah!"He thrust the lad into the hands of his men. "Fetch him along toBridgewater. And make fast that fellow also," he pointed to Baynes."We'll show him what it means to harbour and comfort rebels."
There was a moment of confusion. Baynes struggled in the grip of thetroopers, protesting vehemently. The terrified women screamed untilsilenced by a greater terror. The Captain strode across to them. He tookthe girl by the shoulders. She was a pretty, golden-headed creature,with soft blue eyes that looked up entreatingly, piteously into the faceof the dragoon. He leered upon her, his eyes aglow, took her chin in hishand, and set her shuddering by his brutal kiss.
"It's an earnest," he said, smiling grimly. "Let that quiet you, littlerebel, till I've done with these rogues."
And he swung away again, leaving her faint and trembling in the arms ofher anguished mother. His men stood, grinning, awaiting orders, the twoprisoners now fast pinioned.
"Take them away. Let Cornet Drake have charge of them." His smoulderingeye again sought the cowering girl. "I'll stay awhile--to search outthis place. There may be other rebels hidden here." As an afterthought,he added: "And take this fellow with you." He pointed to Mr. Blood."Bestir!"
Mr. Blood started out of his musings. He had been considering that inhis case of instruments there was a lancet with which he might performon Captain Hobart a beneficial operation. Beneficial, that is, tohumanity. In any case, the dragoon was obviously plethoric and wouldbe the better for a blood-letting. The difficulty lay in making theopportunity. He was beginning to wonder if he could lure the Captainaside with some tale of hidden treasure, when this untimely interruptionset a term to that interesting speculation.
He sought to temporize.
"Faith it will suit me very well," said he. "For Bridgewater is mydestination, and but that ye detained me I'd have been on my way thithernow."
"Your destination there will be the gaol."
"Ah, bah! Ye're surely joking!"
"There's a gallows for you if you prefer it. It's merely a question ofnow or later."
Rude hands seized Mr. Blood, and that precious lancet was in the case onthe table out of reach. He twisted out of the grip of the dragoons, forhe was strong and agile, but they closed with him again immediately, andbore him down. Pinning him to the ground, they tied his wrists behindhis back, then roughly pulled him to his feet again.
"Take him away," said Hobart shortly, and turned to issue his orders tothe other waiting troopers. "Go search the house, from attic to cellar;then report to me here."
The soldiers trailed out by the door leading to the interior. Mr. Bloodwas thrust by his guards into the courtyard, where Pitt and Baynesalready waited. From the threshold of the hall, he looked back atCaptain Hobart, and his sapphire eyes were blazing. On his lips trembleda threat of what he would do to Hobart if he should happen to survivethis business. Betimes he remembered that to utter it were probably toextinguish his chance of living to execute it. For to-day the King's menwere masters in the West, and the West was regarded as enemy country, tobe subjected to the worst horror of war by the victorious side. Here acaptain of horse was for the moment lord of life and death.
Under the apple-trees in the orchard Mr. Blood and his companions inmisfortune were made fast each to a trooper's stirrup leather. Then atthe sharp order of the cornet, the little troop started for Bridgewater.As they set out there was the fullest confirmation of Mr. Blood'shideous assumption that to the dragoons this was a conquered enemycountry. There were sounds of rending timbers, of furniture smashed andoverthrown, the shouts and laughter of brutal men, to announce that thishunt for rebels was no more than a pretext for pillage and destruction.Finally above all other sounds came the piercing screams of a woman inacutest agony.
Baynes checked in his stride, and swung round writhing, his face ashen.As a consequence he was jerked from his feet by the rope that attachedhim to the stirrup leather, and he was dragged helplessly a yard or twobefore the trooper reined in, cursing him foully, and striking him withthe flat of his sword.
It came to Mr. Blood, as he trudged forward under the laden apple-treeson that fragrant, delicious July morning, that man--as he had longsuspected--was the vilest work of God, and that only a fool would sethimself up as a healer of a species that was best