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WHAT HAVE WE HERE?
BY JAMES PRIOR.
"Are we on the right road now, William?" said Mistress Ann presently. "Ay, ma'am, 'tis t' reet road." "Did you remember to turn to the right?"
"Ay, I remembered; but whether I did it or no's more nor I can say."
"Then turn at once."
He turned without a word, an ominous docility, which made his mistress anxiously ask him if he were sure he had not turned.
"I'm sure o' noat, ma'am," he said. "Dang me if I dunna belave this danged mist has gotten into my brains."
"Heaven pity us, William, if your brains fail us."
"Yo may say so, ma'am."
But a quarter of an hour's riding seemed to bring them no nearer to Hathersage. All at once they heard the river close by, crossing their road under the horses' feet.
"What's this?" said Mistress Ann. "The Darrent," said William. "If I'd ruled we shouldna a bin here. We shall look well, fecks, if we step into t' river and be drownded in a twirlhole. And a sorry well an' all.”
"Hold your tongue, sirrah. Where are we?"
"Mun I answer or mun I ho'd my tongue? I conna do both."
"Answer at once."
"Mebbe we're on Mytham brig, mebbe we're on Hazleford brig, mebbe we're somewheer else."
"What have we here?" said Roland. For some thing or things seemed to be rising out of the ground or issuing from the mist, and before apprehension had time to take shape or opposition to rank itself, the two men felt them
selves seized by palpable hands belonging to phantom bodies. Cried Mistress Ann in a loud clear voice:
"Who are you? What do you intend?"
Immediately a hand was put over her mouth and she was lifted out of the pillion by a strong pair of arms. Roland having got one leg free for a moment kicked out, not in vain apparently, for there was a vocal response, hearty and guttural, though brief and neither loud nor divisible into words. He was dragged from his seat and pinioned with a practised dexterity. His attempt at remonstrance or reproach was promptly and roughly stopped by the tight bandage of his own neckerchief over his mouth. Drew through his greater weight made a somewhat longer resistance and came with the more force to the ground, where he lay half stunned.
Their captors' purpose seemed to be plunder. Roland felt a rude handling of one and another of his pockets, but before he had lost anything a sound like a peewit's wail came from a distance. Straightway with wonderful strength and quickness Roland and the serving-man were hoisted on to one of the horses and jointly secured there by the reins, which were unbuckled and fastened tightly round both their bodies. Mistress Ann was lifted back into her pillion, and Drew's place before her was taken by one of those silent mysterious shapes. It seemed impossible to resist, dangerous to cry out. William just said, "We should a bin better at Grinleford Brig to my manner o' thinking," and a blow over his mouth that drew blood advised him into silence.
Then they were put into motion, the horses and that accompaniment of flit
ting shapes, over the river and onward, at first quietly and gently, but soon at what seemed a reckless speed under the circumstances, yet without mishap, as though their conductors had cats' eyes for the dark. Sometimes they went through smooth places but more often rough, where the horses' hoofs struck the hard or sank into the soft, but never so far as could be seen did they pass a human habitation. For maybe half an hour they suffered from that enforced locomotion, in which nothing seemed real but the bodily discomfort. Even their terror was a shapeless tongueless brat of the dark. At length they stopped. Roland and Drew were released from their joint bondage and made to dismount, Mistress Ann was lifted down. They all walked a few paces without a word, urged only by push and pull. Then the ground seemed to open to them, a narrow gap through which the men were thrust and drawn, and thence slid, stumbled, plunged down a short rough incline to level standing, losing skin by the way on hands and elbows, knees and shins. Mistress Ann followed them with gentler compulsion.
The darkness into which they had then passed needs some other name, gross, earthy. They breathed the damp air of a dungeon pungently qualified by the smell of peat smoke. They heard the constant dripping of water on every side. The estoppel was taken from the tongues of their kidnappers and there was a sudden babel of strange sounds, which had a wild music of their own but to those unaccustomed ears seemed an uncouth gibberish. A turf which smouldered unseen in the midst was fanned into a glow, fuel was applied, and in a little while flames shot up filling the air with an obscure mixture of smoke and red blaze. Whereby the captives saw to their dismay that they were underground and in the power of a gang of
LIVING AGE. VOL. LVI. 2914
wild "petticoat-men" some dozen in number.
The reputation of these as marauders and murderers had gone before them, and their appearance did not wrong their reputation. Such a union of the savage and squalid those comfortable English folk had never beheld. Barelegged and footed every one, and mostly bare-headed but for a thatch of unkempt hair, they seemed properly to have but two tattered garments apiece, a petticoat reaching to the big-boned knee and a scanty plaid thrown over the shoulders; though some wore the burlesque addition of a furbelowed scarf, an English soldier's red coat, a lady's embroidered smock of fine linen, a dandy's velvet waistcoat or gold-laced hat. But of antiquated arms, claymores or mere basket-hilted swords, round targes, daggers and knives, they seemed to have a very arsenal, though they possessed but one fowling-piece and two or three metal-handled pistols among them. Moreover an unadulterated manhood sat upon every one of them, with a naturalness of movement and attitude, a perfect understanding between themselves and such weapons as they carried, which prevented the total result from being at all ridiculous or wholly disgusting.
Their doings were almost as ferocious as their appearance. In a trice they had thrown themselves upon their two male prisoners and rifled their pockets and pouches. The few shillings and the Sheffield shut-knife found on William's person appeared to give abundant satisfaction, still more the pistols and pouches of powder and shot. Roland's brandy flask was passed from mouth to mouth and eagerly drained, but over his twenty-five guineas they raised a pæan of self-gratulation, an uncouth mixture of the shrill and guttural. As wild were their gestures as their utterances, and one overjoyed cateran leapt so high that his
head struck the roof of the cave; which fetched him to the ground again prematurely but with unimpaired content.
Next some of them turned their attention to Mistress Ann. With barbarous speech but easily understandable signs they demanded her earrings but allowed her to remove them herself. They had the craft to make her produce her purse, unglove her hands and give up her rings, but their greed went no further and they did not themselves touch her with a finger. Others in the meantime had unloosed the thongs which bound Roland and Drew. That done, a dozen hands at once ripped their clothes from them, with such hasty violence that all the booty suffered, and William's shirt and Roland's waistcoat were torn to shreds. The serving-man was stripped to the breeches, which would doubtless have gone too but for the lady's presence. Roland, perhaps out of consideration for his golden spoil, had not lost his shirt, when Mistress Ann, somewhat reassured by her personal exemption, stood forth in his defence.
"Gentlemen!" she cried, "listen to me, gentlemen! I beg some consideration for this young gentleman."
She was thrice happy in her exordium; there was one word in it, and probably but one, which was understood by her audience. Their clamors stilled, they passed it by mouth from one to another, "Shentlemans!" with a sedate and dignified approbation; then showed themselves prepared to listen further.
"I assume, gentlemen, that you are faithful adherents of the cause of our rightful sovereign. So am I; so is this young gentleman, who is even now on the way to join His Royal Highness's army in your country. I claim that as loyal subjects you allow him to proceed thither in peace. In proof that I am not deceiving you-if you could see my heart you would
need no proof-but in proof, see this!"
She took Roland's hat from the cateran who held it but made little or no resistance, produced the white cockade still concealed within, pinned it to the upturned brim and set it on the young man's head. The Highlanders raised a shout, nay, a scream, warlike, piercing, simultaneous, the very archetype of a battle-cry, a surprising volume of sound to come from so few throats. When that ceased there was a call, probably of some unseizable name. Thereupon one of them stepped a little forward, the rest making room for him, a man conspicuously tall and strong, with a sword at his back nearly as long as himself, but neither in that nor otherwise was his equipment distinguishable from the others'. With a dignity which a huge shock head of flaming red hair and what seemed to his hearers a barbaric jargon could not degrade, he answered the lady at considerable length, using much gesticulatory eloquence. After which there was a consultation among the caterans in eager abrupt sentences, half-a-dozen speaking at once, with apparently much difference of opinion. The orator remained talking at the last, and apparently had his own way or part of it. Anyhow Roland's clothes were restored to him, all but a gay neckcloth, which the raggedest tatterdemalion of them all had twisted askew around his own bull's neck and could not be persuaded to give up. Also in the ebullition of their dynastic enthusiasm they forgot to return the gold.
"But what mun I do, ma'am?" said William Drew piteously. "I'm fair ashamed to speak to ye. I'm co'd an' all."
His mistress pleaded for him too, but perhaps with less zeal, certainly with less effect. All she could get him returned was a pair of knitted garters; only the Highlandman who had carried off his decent livery coat tossed him his own discarded plaid, a filthy
sodden collection of rags that but just hung together. William indignantly
"It's alive!" he said. "I wouldna touch it with a twenty-foot pole."
"Take this," said Roland, offering him the late Mr. Alliott's great-coat; "I am warm enough without it."
Indeed their captors had not spared to feed the fire from a heap of peat, heather and green wood in the cave. The dense smoke had no outlet but by the narrow slip of an entrance. It took no effect on the hardened Highlanders but made the English three cough and gasp, now that they were freed from the most pressing of their anxieties. They were forced to retire to the far end of the cave, where they found that they could just breathe. The floor of that part of the cave was covered with a heap of loose stones, which was carelessly strewn with heather probably for the Highlandmen's bedding; and thus it not only raised them above the soft wet ground but provided them with some sort of seat or couch, as they would have it. The width of the cavern, some three paces, was almost taken up by the fire; its dark extremities were perhaps separated from each other by five times as much. The irregularly sloping roof reached some considerable height in the middle, but behind their backs it almost met the floor.
Of the north-countrymen two or three busied themselves with preparations for a meal, which were simple enough, namely to hang a bloody rough-dressed half-carcase of mutton over the fire by means of a chain and two stakes; the others lay or crouched against the wall on each side of the blaze, apparently indifferent to the hardness or dampness of their restingplaces.
Roland sat with his back to the moist rock, regretting the loss of his pistols and revolving wild boyish
liam was taken up with the difficulty of breathing and the loss of five shillings and a groat, his wrap-rascal and 'the better part of a suit of clothes. His mistress in spite of her apprehensions made some use of her eyes, though they were sorely smoke-galled.
"Did you ever see so wild a scene?" she said to Roland.
"I wish the way out on't was not so high up," said Roland, who was in the middle of an undetailed dream of a dash for liberty.
A scene wild indeed! The bonfire hissed or crackled, more smoke than flame. Weird shapes of men flitted through the reek, hardly more real than their huge fantastic shadows which fled across the dim walls. Others lay about in nature's own attitudes, and the steam from their moist raiment mixed with the general fume. One sat and warmed his hands and gazed into the fire, as though he saw visions in it; three disputed together loud and volubly in their strange tongue with unrestrained gesturing; another was stretched all his length in sleep and snored Gaelic. The cooking flesh sputtered, water ever dripped from the roof, the bonfire crackled or hissed; and the wavering shadows, the flickering flames, the writhing smoke seemed as much alive as those uncertain human forms.
When the mutton was sufficiently done for the cooks' impatient appetites, that is to say, part burnt and part raw, they slashed and hacked it to pieces with their knives. First they offered Mistress Ann a portion, doubtless of the choicest, on the point of a dirk; but besides that the greasy mixture of charred and bleeding was not exactly appetizing, she gave way to a little secret feminine shudder at the near sight of that murderous tool, and could not help wondering to what use it had been put before its conversion to
table cutlery. So she declined, and after much search some broken victuals from Roland's saddle-bag were served up to her, the wing of a goose and a scrap of plum-cake, the rest of it would seem having gone down the cavernous gullets of the marauders. Since there was nothing better for him, Roland was fain to accept a morsel of their least fat and best done without accompaniment of bread, vegetable or salt; but William Drew turned his face to the wall and preferred his hunger to a diet so barbarously carniverous. The Highlanders refused neither blood-red nor cinder-black. The fire had fallen, and was almost hidden under the fresh fuel which had been heaped upon it. Through the dun atmosphere came and went the flicker of a tongue of flame, the glimmer of a man's hand or face, now and again the gleam of steel.
Two of the freebooters having satisfied their appetites went forth, and their places were immediately taken by another two from without, a proof that they did not take their ease so confidently without keeping a good watch. With the help of the newcomers everything was eaten up to the bare bone. Then where they had sat or crouched they lay down and slept.
Of their prisoners William was the first to go off in spite of his complaints of cold and hunger, hardness and wetness. Roland did what he could for Mistress Ann's comfort in choosing the driest and most even place for her couch and spreading it with heather. He and she lay awhile talking in low tones of their position and future. But his replies grew infrequent, incoherent, he got thinking out a plan of escape. Then just when he had proved to himself that it was as practicable as it For a was heroic, he fell asleep. while the fire kept her company, but at length it too slept and she was alone in her wakefulness. Or if she dozed once and again her brief and broken
slumbers were vexed as much with bad dreams as her long periods of watching were with bad realities-with
numbed limbs and icy back, with the pungent smoke, with the loud snoring of the gorged freebooters; with William's complaints which never failed when he woke for a minute to turn over, to remove a sharp stone that pressed into his ribs or to put back a stalk of heather that inconvenienced his eyes and nose; with confused repetitions of to-day and exaggerated fears for the morrow; with surmises, vain, inconsistent, irrational, impossible, in explanation of their present situation.
Yet her wildest surmise hardly strained credulity more than would have done an exact recital of the freebooters' adventures, which never properly set down are now put away past recovery in the lumber-room of forgetfulness. Thus much however dimly appears: On the day after the prince's arrival at Derby a handful of broken caterans, irreclaimable thieves, who had been dissatisfied hitherto with their opportunity for plunder and little expected a check to their victorious rush upon London, stole away down Osmaston road in the dead of night and slipped across the Trent by Swarkestone bridge, before it was occupied by their advanced guard. At daybreak they began to raid the country. The inhabitants of King's Newton and Melbourne fled before them, taking them to be the forerunners of the prince's army. Plundering as they went, they did not halt until they came to Lockington, where they took undisputed possession of the hall. They passed the night here, and without troubling either cook or butler ate and drank at their ease.
In the morning, still confident, they went back in search of their laggard friends and found the bridge held by a party of well-armed Hanoverian volunteers. They skirted the river for sev