Martin Hyde, the Duke's Messenger (24)

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For the last half year, we have been bringing you this novel in serial form, with illustrations, as it originally appeared in the 1909 annual issue of Chatterbox, a very elevating young people's magazine. Enjoy the exciting conclusion.

Martin Hyde, the Duke's Messenger (24)

By John Masefield.

The End

My place was at the end of a line .

Among all the confusion, I learned certainly from some deserters that the Duke was at Bridgewater, waiting till his men had rested, before trying to break through to the north, to his friends in Chester. He had won a bad name for himself among his friends. Nobody praised him. The Taunton people, who had given him such a splendid welcome ten days before, now cursed him for having failed; they knew too well what sort of punishment was sure to fall upon them, directly the fighting came to an end. Somehow all their despairing talk failed to frighten me. I was not scared by all the signs of panic in the streets. I was too young to understand fully; but besides that I was buoyed up by the belief that I had done a fine thing in escaping from prison in order to serve the cause dear to my heart. My heart told me that I was going to a glorious victory in the right cause. I cannot explain it. I felt my father in my heart urging me to go forward. I would not have drawn back for all the King's captains in a company riding out against me together. I felt that these people were behaving absurdly; they should keep a brave patient face against their troubles. Tomorrow or the next day would see us in triumph, beating our enemies back to London, to the usurper's den in Whitehall.

It drew towards sunset before I had found a means to get to Bridgewater. The innkeepers who in times of peace sent daily carriers thither, with whom a man could travel in comfort for a few pence, had now either lost their horses, or feared to risk them. No carriers had gone either to Bridgewater or to Bristol since the Duke marched in on the fourth day of his journey; nor had the carriers come in as usual from those places; the business of the town was at a standstill. I asked at several inns, but that was the account given to me. There was no safety on the roads. The country was overrun by thieves, who stole horses in the name of the Duke or of the King; nothing was safe anywhere. The general hope of the people was for Monmouth to be beaten soon, or to be victorious soon. They had lost quite enough by him; they wanted the rebellion over.

At last, just when I had begun to think the thing hopeless, I found an honest Quaker about to ride to Bridgewater with a basket of Bibles for the Duke's men. He did not ask me what my business at Bridgewater might be; but he knew that no one would want to go there at such a time without good cause. 'Well,' he said, 'if you can ride small, you shall ride behind me, but it will be slow riding, as the horse will be heavily laden.' He was going to start at eight o'clock, so as to travel all night, when the marauders, whether deserters from the Duke or ill-conditioned country people, were always less busy. I had time to get some supper for myself in the tavern-bar before starting. Just as we were about to ride off together, when we were in the saddle, waiting only till some carts rolled past the yard-door, I had a fright, for there, coming into the inn yard, was one of the troopers who had beguiled me from the Duke's army that day at Axminster. I had no doubt that he was going from inn to inn, asking for news of me. We began to move through the yard as he came towards us; the clack of the horse's feet upon the cobbles made him look up; but though he stared at me hard, he did so with an occupied mind; he was in such a brown study (as it is called) that he never recognized me. A minute later, we were riding out of town past the trench-labourers, my heart going pit-a-pat from the excitement of my narrow escape. I dared not ask the Quaker to go fast, lest he should worm my story from me, but for the first three miles I assure you I found it hard not to prod that old nag with my knife to make him quicken his two mile an hour crawl. Often during the first hours of the ride I heard horses coming after us at a gallop. It was all fancy; we were left to our own devices. My pursuers, I found, afterwards, were misled by the lies of the landlord at the inn we had left. We were being searched for in Taunton all that fatal night, by half a dozen of the Carew servants.

Bridgewater had not gone to bed when we got there. The people were out in the streets, talking in frightened clumps, expecting something. After thanking the Quaker for his kindness in giving me a lift I asked at one of these clumps where I could find the Duke. I was feeling so happy at the thought of rejoining my master, after all my adventures, that I think I never felt so happy.

'Where can I find the Duke?' I asked. 'I'm his servant, I must find him.'

'Find him?' said one of the talkers. 'He's not here. He's marched out, sir, with all his army, over to Sedgemoor to fight the King's army. It's a night attack, sir.'

I was bitterly disappointed at not having reached my journey's end; but there was a stir in the thought of battle. I asked by which road I could get to the place where the battle would be. The man told me to turn to the right after crossing the river. 'But,' said he, 'you don't want to get mixed up in the fighting, master. There be thousands out there on the moor. A boy would be nowhere among all them.'

'Yes,' said another. 'Better stay here, sir. If the Duke wins he'll be back afore breakfast. If he gets beat, you'd be best out of the way.'

This was sound advice; but I was not in a mood to profit by it. Something told me that the battle was to be a victory for us; so I thanked the men, telling them that I would go out over the moor by the road they had mentioned. As I moved away, they called out to me to mind myself, for the King's dragoons were on the moor, as a sort of screen in front of their camp. By the road they had mentioned I might very well get into the King's camp without seeing anything of my master. One of them added that the battle would begin, or might begin, long before I got there, 'if the mist don't lead en astray, like.'

It took me some few minutes to get out of the gates across the river; for there was a press of people crowded there. It was as dark as a summer night ever is, that is, a sort of twilight, when I passed through, but just at the gates were two great torches stuck into rings in the wall. The wind made their flames waver about uncertainly, so that sometimes you could see particular faces in the crowd, all lit in muddy gold light for an instant, before the wavering made them dark again. Several mounted men were there, trying to pass. Among them, in one sudden glare, I saw Aurelia on her Arab, reined in beside Sir Travers, whose horse was kicking out behind him. I passed them by so close that I touched Aurelia's riding habit as I crept out of the press. They were talking together, just behind me, as I crept from the town over the bridge above which the summer mists clung, almost hiding the stream. Aurelia was saying 'I only hope we may be in time.' 'Yes, poor boy,' said Sir Travers. 'It will be terrible if we are too late.' It gave me a pang to hear them, for I knew that they were talking about me.

I crept into the shelter of the bridge parapet while they rode on past me. The mist hid them from me. The town was dark above the mist like a city in the clouds. The stars were dim now with the coming of day. A sheep-bell on the moor made a noise like a nightbird. A few ponies pastured on the moor trotted away, lightly padding, scared, I suppose, by the two riders. Then, far away, but sounding very near at hand, for sound travels very strangely in mist, so strangely that often a very distant noise will strike loudly, while it is scarcely heard close to, there came a shot. Almost instantly, the air seemed full of the roar of battle. The gun-fire broke out into a long irregular roar, a fury of noise which roused up the city behind me, as though all the citizens were slamming their doors to get away from it. I hurried along the road towards the battle, praying, as I went, that my master might conquer, that the King's troops had been caught asleep, that when I got there, in the glory of dawn, I might find the Duke's army returning thanks in their enemy's camp. I pressed on along the rough moor road until the dawn came over the far horizon, driving the mists away, so that I could see what was doing there.

I saw a great sweep of moorland to my left, with a confused crowd of horsemen scattering away towards a line of low hills some miles beyond. They were riding from the firing, which filled all the nearer part of the moor with smoke, among which I saw moving figures, sudden glimpses of men in rank, sudden men on horseback, struggling with their horses. The noise was worse than I had expected; it came on me with repeated deafening shocks. I could hear cries in the lulls when the firing slackened; then the uproar grew worse again, sounds of desperate thuds, marking cannon shot. I heard balls going over my head with a shrill 'wheep, wheep,' which made me duck. A small iron cannon ball spun into the road like a spinning top, scattering the dust. It wormed slowly past me for a second, then rose up irregularly in a bound, to thud into the ditch, where it lay still. I saw cannon coming up at a gallop, with many horses, on the bare right flank of the battle. Another ball came just over my head, with a scream which made my heart quite sick. I sat down cowering under a ruined thorn-tree by the road, crying like a little child. It must have been a moment after that when I saw a man staggering down the road towards me, holding his side with both hands. He fell into the road, dead, not far from me. Then others came past, some so fearfully hurt that it was a miracle that they should walk. They came past in a long horrible procession, men without weapons, without hands, shot in the head, in the body, lacerated, bleeding, limping, with white drawn faces, tottering to the town which they would never see again. I shut my eyes, crouching well under the tree, while this fight went on. It was nothing but a time of pain, a roaring, booming horror with shrieks in it. I don't know how long it lasted. I only know that the shooting seemed suddenly to pass into a thunder of horse-hoofs as the King's dragoons came past in a charge. Right in front of me they galloped, hacking at the fleers, leaning out from their saddles to cut at them, leaning down to stab them, rising up to reach at those who climbed the banks. Under that tide of cavalry the Duke's army melted. They fought in clumps desperately. They flung away their weapons. They fled. They rushed down desperately to meet death. It was all a medley of broken noises, oaths, stray shots, cries, wounded men whimpering, hurt horses screaming. The horses were the worst part of it. Perhaps you never heard a horse scream.

That morning's work is all very confused to me. I remember seeing men cut down as they ran. I remember a fine horse coming past me lurching, clattering his stirrups, before leaping into the river. I remember the stink of powder over all the field; the strange look on the faces of the dead; the body of a trumpeter, kneeling against a gorse-bush, shot through the heart, with his trumpet raised to his lips, the litter everywhere, burnt cartridges, clothes, belts, shot, all the waste of war. They are in my mind, those memories, like scattered pictures. The next clear memory in my mind, is of a company of cavalry in red coats, under a fierce, white-faced man, bringing in a string of prisoners to the King's camp. A couple of troopers jumped down to examine me. One had the face of a savage; the other was half drunk. 'You're one of them,' they said. 'Bring him on.' They twisted string about my thumbs. I was their prisoner. They dragged me into the King's camp, where the white-faced man sat down at a table to judge us.

I will not talk of that butchery. The white-faced man has been judged now, in his turn; I will say no more of him. When it came to my turn, he would hear no words from me; I was a rebel, fit for nothing but death. 'Pistol him' was all the sentence passed on me. The soldiers laid hands on me to drag me away, to add my little corpse to the heap outside. One of the officers spoke up for me. 'He's only a boy,' he said. 'Go easy with the boy. Don't have the poor child killed.' It was kindly spoken; but quite carelessly. The man would have pleaded for a cat with just as much passion. It was useless, anyway, for the colonel merely repeated 'Pistol him,' just as one would have ordered a wine at dinner. 'Burgundy.' 'No, the Burgundy here is all so expensive.' 'Never mind, Burgundy.' So I was led away to stand with the next batch of prisoners lined against a wall to be shot. My place was at the end of a line, next to a young sullen-looking man black with powder. I did not feel frightened, only hopeless, quite hopeless, a sort of dead feeling. I remember looking at the soldiers getting ready to shoot us. I wondered which would shoot me. They seemed so slow about it. There was some hitch, I think, in filling up the line; a man had proved his innocence or something.

Then, the next instant, there was Aurelia dragging the white-faced man from his table. I dimly remember him ordering me to be released, while Sir Travers Carew gave me brandy. I remember the young sullen-looking man's face; for he looked at me, a look of dull wonder, with a sort of hopeless envy in it, which has wrung my heart daily, ever since. 'Mount,' said Aurelia. 'Mount, Martin. For God's sake, Uncle Travers, let us get out of this.' They were on both sides of me each giving me an arm in the saddle, as we rode out of that field of death through Zoyland village towards the old Abbey near Chard.

I shall say little more, except that I never saw my master again. When they led him to the scaffold on Tower Hill I was outward bound to the West Indies, as private secretary to Sir Travers, newly appointed Governor of St. Eulalie. We had many of Monmouth's men in St. Eulalie after the Bloody Assizes; but their tale is too horrible to tell here. You will want to know whether I ever saw Aurelia again. Not for some years, not very often for nine years; but since then our lives have been so mingled that when we die it will be hard to say which soul is which, so much our spirits are each other's. So now, I have written a long story. May we all tell our tales to the end before the pen is taken from us.

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