Read CHAPTER XVII.  THE GROOM IN GREY of Under the Storm Steadfast Charge, free online book, by Charlotte M. Yonge, on ReadCentral.com.

     “Heroes and kings, in exile forced to roam,
      Leave swelling phrase and seven-leagued words at home.” 
                                                       Scott.

Another summer and winter had gone by and harvest time had come again, when Steadfast with little Ben, now seven years old, for company, took two sacks of corn to be ground at the mill, where the skirmish had been fought in which Emlyn’s father had been killed.

The sacks were laid across a packsaddle on a stout white horse, with which, by diligent saving, Steadfast had contrived to replace Whitefoot, Ben was promised a ride home when the sacks should have been emptied, and trotted along in company with Growler by his brother’s side, talking more in an hour than Stead did in a week, and looking with great interest to be shown the hawthorn bush where Emlyn had been found.  For Stead and Ben were alike in feeling the bright, merry, capricious, laughing, teasing Emlyn the charm and delight of home.  In trouble, or for real aid, they went to Patience, but who was like Emlyn for drollery and diversion?  Who ever made Stead laugh as she could, or who so played with Ben, and never, like Rusha, tried to be maidenly, discreet, nay, dull?

It was very inconvenient that just as they reached the famous thorn bush, the white horse began to demonstrate that his shoe was loose.  They were very near the mill, and after disposing of the sacks, the brothers led the horse on to a forge, about a furlong beyond.  It was not a place of which Stead was fond, as the smith was known to be strong for the Covenant, and he could not help wishing that the shoe had come off nearer to his good friend Smith Blane.

Original-Sin Hopkins, which was the name of the blacksmith, was in great excitement, as he talked of the crowning mercy vouchsafed at Worcester, and how the son of the late man, Charles Stewart, had been utterly defeated, and his people scattered like sheep without a shepherd.  Three or four neighbours were standing about, listening to the tidings he had heard from a messenger on the way to Bristol.  One was leaning on the unglazed window frame, and a couple of old men basking, even in that September day, in the glow of the fire, while a few women and children loitered around, thinking it rather fine to hear Master Original-Sin declaim on the backsliding of the Scots in upholding the son of the oppressor.

The shoeing of Stead Kenton’s horse seemed a trivial matter beneath the attention of such an orator; but he vouchsafed to bid his lad drive in a few nails; and just as the task was commenced, there came to the forge a lady in a camlet riding dress and black silk hood, walking beside a stout horse, which a groom was leading with great care, for it had evidently lost a shoe.  And it had a saddle with a pillion on which they had been riding double, after the usual fashion of travelling for young and healthy gentlewomen in those days of bad roads.

The lady, a quiet, self-possessed person, not in her first youth, came forward, and in the first pause in the blacksmith’s declamation, begged that he would attend to her horse.

He gave a nod as if intending her to wait till Steadfast’s work was done, and went on.  “And has it not been already brought about that the man of blood hath ­”

“So please you,” interrupted the lady, “to shoe my horse at once.  I am on my way to Abbotsleigh, and my cousin, Mr. Norton, knows that my business brooks no delay.”

Mr. Norton, though a Royalist, was still the chief personage in that neighbourhood, and his name produced sufficient effect on Original-Sin to make him come forward, look at the hoof, and select a shoe from those hung on the walls of his forge.  Little Ben looked on, highly delighted to watch the proceedings, and Steadfast, as he waited, glanced towards the servant, a well-made young man, in a trim, sober suit of grey cloth, with a hat a good deal slouched over a dark swarthy face, that struck Stead as having been seen by him before.

After all, the lady’s horse was the first finished.  Hopkins looked at all the other three shoes, tapped them with his hammer, and found them secure, received the money from the lady, but gave very slight salutations as the pair remounted, and rode away.

Then he twisted up his features and observed, “Here is a dispensation!  As I am a living soul, this horse shoe was made at Worcester.  I know the make.  My cousin was apprenticed there.”

“Well, outlandish work goes against one’s stomach,” said one of the bystanders, “but what of that, man?”

“Seest thou not, Jabez Holt?  Is not the young man there one of them who trouble Israel, and the lady is striving for his escape.  Mr. Norton is well known as a malignant at heart, and his man Pope hath been to and fro these last days as though evil were being concerted.  I would that good Master Hatcham were here.”

“Poor lad.  Let him alone.  ’Tis hard he should not get off,” said one of the bystanders.

“I tell thee he is one of the brood of Satan, who have endeavoured to break up the godly peace of the saints, and fill this goodly land with blood and fire.  Is it not said ’Root them out that they be no more a people?’”

“Have after them, then,” said another of the company.  “We want no more wars, to be taking our cows and killing our pigs.  After them, I say!”

“You haven’t got no warrant, ’Riginal,” said a more cautious old man.  “Best be on the safe side.  Go after constable first, and raise the hue-and-cry.  You’ll easy overtake them.  Breakneck Hill be sore for horseflesh.”

“I’d fain see Master Hatcham,” said the smith, scratching his head.

Stead had meantime been listening as he paid his pence.  It flashed over him now where he had beheld those intensely dark eyes, and the very peculiar cut of features, though they had then been much more boyish.  It was when he had seen the Prince of Wales going to the Cathedral on Christmas Day, in the midst of all his plumed generals, with their gay scarfs, and rich lace collars.

He had put little Ben on horseback, and turned away into the long, dirty lane, or rather ditch, that led homeward, before, through his consternation, there dawned on him what to do.  A gap in the hedge lay near, through which he dragged the horse into a pasture field, to the great amazement of Ben, saying “See here, Ben, those folk want to take yonder groom in grey.  We will go and warn them.”

Ben heartily assented.

“I like the groom,” he said.  “He jumped me five times off the horseblock, and he patted Growler and called him a fine fellow, who didn’t deserve his name ­worth his salt he was sure.  We won’t give Growler salt, Stead, but don’t let that ugly preaching man get the good groom!”

Steadfast was by this time on the horse behind his little brother, pressing through the fields, which by ancient custom were all thrown open from harvest time till Christmas; and coming out into the open bit of common that the travellers had to pass before arriving at Breakneck Hill, he was just in time to meet them as they trotted on.  He hardly knew what he said, as he doffed his hat, and exclaimed ­

“Madam, you are pursued.”

“Pursued!” Both at once looked back.

“There’s time,” said Steadfast; “but Smith Hopkins said one of the shoes was Worcester make, and he is gone to fetch the constable and raise the hue-and-cry.”

“And you are a loyal ­I mean an honest lad ­come to warn us,” said the groom.

“Yes, sir.  I think, if you will trust me, they can be put off the track.”

“Trusty!  Your face answers for you.  Eh, fair Mistress Jane?”

“Sir, it must be as you will.”

“This way then, sir,” said Steadfast, who was off his own horse by this time, and leading it into a rough track through a thicket whence some timber had been drawn out in the summer.

“They will see where we turned off,” whispered the lady.

“No, ma’am, not unless you get off the hard ground.  Besides they will go on the way to Breakneck Hill.  Hark!  I hear a hallooing.  Not near ­no ­no fear, madam.”

They were by this time actually hidden from the common by the copsewood, and the distant shouts of the hue-and-cry kept all silent till they were fairly out beyond it, not far from Stead’s own fields.

Happily they had hitherto met no one, but there was danger now of encountering gleaners, and indeed Stead’s white horse could be seen from a distance, and might attract attention to his companions.

“Hallo!” exclaimed the groom, as they halted under shelter of a pollard willow.  “I’ve heard tell that a white horse is the surest mark for a bullet in a battle, and if that be Breakneck Hill, as you call it, your beast may bring the sapient smith down on us.  Had we not best part?”

“Aye,” said Steadfast.  “I was thinking what was best.  Whither were you going?”

He blurted it out, not knowing to whom to address himself, or how to frame his speech.  The lady hesitated, but her companion named Castle Carey.

“Then, please your honour,” said Stead, impartially addressing both, “methinks the best course would be, if this ­”

“Groom William,” suggested that personage.

“Would go down into yonder covert with my little brother here, where my poor place is, and where my sister can show a safe hiding-place, in case Master Hopkins suspects me, and follows; but I scarce think he will.  Then meanwhile, if the lady will trust herself to me ­”

“O! there is no danger for me,” she said.

“Go on, my Somerset Solomon,” said the groom.

“Then would I take the lady on for a short space to a good woman in Elmwood there.  And on the way this horse shall lose his Worcester shoe, and I will get Smith Blane, who is an honest fellow, to put on another; and when the chase is like to be over, I will come back for him and put you on the cross lane for Castle Carey, which don’t join with the road you came by, till just ere you get into the town.”

“There’s wit as well as cheese in Somerset.  What say you, my guardian angel?” said Groom William.

“It sounds well,” she reluctantly answered.  “Does Mr. Norton know you, young man?”

“No, madam,” said Stead, with much stumbling.  “But I have seen him in Bristol.  My Lady Elmwood knew of me, and Sir George Elmwood too, and the Dean could say I was honest.”

“Which the face of you says better than your tongue,” said the groom.  “Have with you then, my bold little elf,” he added, taking the bridle of the horse on which Ben was still seated.  “Or one moment more.  You knew me, my lad ­are there any others like to do so?”

“I had seen you, sir, at Bristol, and that is why I would not have you shew yourself in Elmwood.  But my sister has never seen you, and the only neighbours who ever come in are the woodward and his wife.  He served in my Lord of Essex’s army, but he has never seen you.  Moreover, he was to be at the squire’s to-day helping to stack his corn.  Ben, do you tell Patience that he” ­again taking refuge in a pronoun ­“is a gentleman in danger, and she must see to his safety for an hour or two till I come back for him.”

“A gentleman in danger,” repeated Ben, anxious to learn his lesson.

“He and I will take care of that,” said the grey-coated groom gaily, as he turned the horse’s head, and waved his hat in courtly fashion to the lady so that Steadfast saw that his hair was cropped into black stubble.

“Ah!” said the lady with a sigh, for the loss of a Cavalier’s locks was a dreadful thing.  “You know him then.”

“I have seen him at Bristol,” said Steadfast, with considerably less embarrassment, though still in the clownish way he could not shake off.

“And you know how great is the trust you ­nay, we have undertaken.  But, as he says, he has learnt the true fidelity of a leathern jerkin.”

Then Jane Lane told Steadfast of the King’s flight from Worcester, and adventures at Boscobel with the Penderells, and how she had brought him to Abbotsleigh, in hopes of finding a ship at Bristol, but that failing, it was too perilous for him to remain there, so that she was helping him as far as Castle Carey on his way to Trent.

Before they were clear of the wood, Stead asked her to pause.  He knocked off the tell-tale shoe with the help of a stone, threw it away into the middle of a bramble, and then after a little consultation, she decided on herself encountering the smith, not perhaps having much confidence in the readiness of speech or invention of her companion.

When they arrived at the forge, where good-humoured, brawny Harry Blane was no small contrast to his gaunt compeer Original-Sin Hopkins, she averred that she was travelling from her relations, and having been obliged to send her servant back for a packet that had been forgotten, this good youth, who had come to her help when her horse had cast a shoe, had undertaken to guide her to the smith’s, and to take her again to meet her man, if he did not come for her himself.  Might she be allowed in the meantime to sit with Master Blane’s good housewife?

Master Blane was only too happy, and Mistress Jane Lane was accordingly introduced to the pleasant kitchen, with sanded floor, and big oak table, open hearth, and beaupots in the oriel window where the spinning-wheel stood, and where the neat and hospitable Dame Blane made her kindly welcome.

Steadfast, marvelling at her facility of speech, and glad the king’s safety did not depend on his uttering such a story, told Blane that he must go after his cattle and should look after the groom on the way.

As he walked through the wood, and drew near the glade, he was dismayed to hear voices, and to see Peter Pierce leaning against the wall of the house, but Rusha came running up to him exclaiming, “Oh!  Stead, here is this good stranger that you met, telling us all about brother Jeph.”

“Yes, my kind host,” said the grey-coated guest, with a slight nasal intonation, rising as Stead came near, “I find that you are the very lad my friend and brother Jephthah Kenton, that singular Christian man, bade me search out.  ‘If you go near Bristol, beloved,’ quoth he,’ search me out my brothers Steadfast and Benoni, and my sisters, Patience and Jerusha, and greet them well from me, and bear witness of me to them.  They dwell, said he, in a lonely hut in the wood side, and with them a fair little maiden, sprung of the evil and idolatrous seed of the malignants, but whom their pious nurture may yet bring to a knowledge of the truth,’ and by that token, I knew that it was the same.”  There was an odd little twinkle towards Emlyn just then.

“And Stead, Jeph is an officer,” said Patience, who was busied in setting before the visitor on a little round table, the best ale, bread, cheese, and butter that her hut afforded, together with an onion, which, he declared, was “what his good grandfather, a valiant man for the godly, had ever loved best.”

“An officer!  Aye is he.  A captain of his Ironside troop, very like to be Colonel ere long.”

Stead was absolutely bewildered, and could not find speech, beyond an awkward “Where?”

“Where was he when I last saw him?  Charging down the main street of Worcester, where the malignants and Charles Stewart made their last stand.  Smiting them hip and thigh with the sword of Gedaliah, nay, my tongue tripped, ’twas Gideon I would say.”

“Aye,” said the woodward, “Squire had the tidings two days back in a news letter.  It was a mighty victory of General Cromwell.”

“In sooth it was,” returned the groom; “and I hear he hath ordered a solemn thanksgiving therefore.”

“But Jephthah,” put in Patience, “you are sure he was not hurt?”

“The hand of Heaven protecteth the godly,” again through his nose spoke the guest.  “He was well when I left him; being sent south by my master to attend my mistress, and so being no more among them that divide the spoil.”

“Where have you served, sir?” demanded the woodward.

“I am last from Scotland,” was the answer.  “A godly land!”

“Ah!  I know nought of Scotland,” said the woodward.  “I was disbanded when my Lord Essex gave up the command, more’s the pity, for he was for doing things soberly and reasonably, and ever in the name of the poor King that is gone!  You look too young to have seen fire at Edgehill or Exeter, sir.”

“Did I not?” said the youth.  “Aye, I was with my father, though only as a boy apart on a hill.”

The reminiscences that were exchanged astonished Steadfast beyond measure, and really made him doubt whether what had previously passed had not been all a dream.  The language was so like Jephthah’s own too, all except that one word “fair” applied to Emlyn; and Patience, Rusha, and the Pierces were entirely without a suspicion, that their guest was other than he seemed.  How much must have been picked out of little Ben, without the child’s knowing it, to make such acting possible?

And how was the woodward, who was so much delighted with the visitor, to be shaken off?  Stead stood silent, puzzled, anxious, and wondering what to do next, a very heavy and awkward host, so that even Patience wondered what made him so shy.

Suddenly, however, a whistle, and the sharp yap of a dog was heard across the stream.  Nanny Pierce exclaimed, “There are those rascal lads after the rabbits again!” and the gamekeeper’s instinct awoke.  Pierce shook hands with his fellow soldier, regretted he could not see more of him, and received his promise that if he came that way again, he would share a pottle of ale at the lodge; and then tramped off after his poachers over the stream.

Groom William then kissed the young women (the usual mode of salutation then), Nanny Pierce and all, thanked Patience, and looked about for the goodly little malignant, as he called Emlyn, but she was nowhere to be seen, and Stead hurried him off through the wood.

“Ho! ho! sly rascal,” said Charles, as they turned away.  “You’re jealous!  You would keep the game to yourself.”

Stead had no answer to make to this banter, the very notion of Emlyn as aught but the orphan in his charge was new to him.

They were not yet beyond the gulley when from between the hazel stems, out sprang Emlyn, and kneeling on the ground caught the King’s hand and kissed it.

“Fairy-haunted wood!” cried Charles, and indeed it was done with great natural grace, and the little figure with the glowing cheeks, her hood flying back so as to shew her brilliant eyes sparkling with delight and enthusiasm, was a truly charming vision.  “It is like one of the masques of the merry days of old.”  And as he retained her hand and returned the salute on her lips, “Queen Mab herself, for who else saw through thy poor brother sovereign’s mean disguise?”

“I had seen your Majesty with the army,” replied Emlyn, modestly blushing a good deal.

“Ah!  The Fates have provided me with a countenance the very worst for straits like mine.  But that matters the less since it is only my worthy subjects who see through the grey coat.  I would lay my crown, if I had it, to one of those crispy ringlets of yours, that Queen Mab was the poacher who drew off the crop-eared keeper.”

“’Tis Robin Goodfellow, please your Majesty, who leads clowns astray,” said Emlyn in the same tone.

“Sometimes a horse I’ll be, sometimes a hound,” quoted the King.

Stead could only listen in amazement without a word to say for himself.  Near the confines of the wood, he had to leave Emlyn to guide the King over a field-path while he fetched Mrs. Jane Lane and the horse to meet them beyond, as it was wiser for the King not to shew himself in the village.  Again Charles jested on his supposed jealousy of leaving the fair Queen Mab alone in such company, and on his blunt answer, “I only feared the saucy child might be troublesome, sir.”

At which the King laughed the more, and even Emlyn smiled a little.

All was safely accomplished, and when Steadfast had brought Mrs. Lane to the deep lane, they found the King and Emlyn standing by the stile, and could hear the laughter of both as they approached.

“He can always thus while away his cares,” said Jane Lane in quite a motherly tone.  “And well it is that he is of so joyous a nature.”

Perhaps it was said as a kind of excuse for the levity of one in so much danger chattering to the little woodland maid so mirthfully, and like one on an equality.  When they appeared, Charles bestowed a kiss on Emlyn’s lips, and shook hands cordially with Steadfast, lamenting that he had no reward, nor even a token to leave with them.

Stead made his rustic bow, pinched his hat, and muttered, “It is enough to ­”

“Enough reward to have served your Majesty,” said Emlyn, “he would say.”

“Yea, and it is your business to find words for him, pretty one,” said the King.  “A wholesome partnership ­eh?  He finds worth, and you find wit!  And so we leave the fairy buried in the woodland.”

And on the wanderers rode, while Steadfast and Emlyn turned back over the path through the fields; and she eagerly told that the King had slept at Blythedale on his way to Worcester, and that though Sir Harry was dead, his son was living in Holland.  “And if the King gets there safely, he will tell Master George, and if my uncle is with him, no doubt he will send for me, or mayhap, come and fetch me.”

There was a shock of pain in Steadfast’s heart.

“You would be glad?”

“Poor old Stead.  I would scarce be glad to quit you.  I doubt me if the Hague, as they call it, would show me any one I should care for as much as for your round shoulders, you good old lubber!  But you should come too, and the King would give you high preferment, when he comes to his own again, and then we won’t be buried alive in this Hermit’s Gulley.”

She danced about in exultation, hardly knowing what wild nonsense she talked, and Stead was obliged to check her sharply in an attempt to sing

     “The king shall enjoy his own again.”

“But Stead,” asked Ben, after long reflection, “how could Groom William know all about brother Jeph?”

A question Stead would not hear, not wishing to destroy confidence in His Majesty’s veracity.