By England's Aid
G. A. Henty
Part 2 out of 7
agreed that the simple merchants of the Low Countries were far in
advance of English nobles in the comforts and conveniences of their
dwellings. The walls of the rooms were all heavily panelled; rich
curtains hung before the casements. The furniture was not only richly
carved, but comfortable. Heavy hangings before the doors excluded
draughts, and in the principal apartments Eastern carpets covered the
floors. The meals were served on spotless white linen. Rich plate stood
on the sideboard, and gold and silver vessels of rare carved work from
Italy glittered in the armoires.
Above all, from top to bottom, the house was scrupulously clean. Not a
particle of dust dimmed the brightness of the furniture, and even now,
when the city was threatened with siege, the merchant's wife never
relaxed her vigilance over the doings of her maids, who seemed to the
boys to be perpetually engaged in scrubbing, dusting, and polishing.
"Our mother prides herself on the neatness of her house," Geoffrey
said; "but what would she say, I wonder, were she to see one of these
Dutch households? I fear that the maids would have a hard time of it
afterwards, and our father would be fairly driven out of his library."
"It is all very well to be clean," Lionel said; "but I think they carry
it too far here. Peace and quietness count for something, and it
doesn't seem to me that Dutchmen, fond of it as they say they are, know
even the meaning of the words as far as their homes are concerned. Why,
it always seems to be cleaning day, and they must be afraid of going
into their own houses with their boots on!"
"Yes, I felt quite like a criminal to-day," Geoffrey laughed, "when I
came in muddy up to the waist, after working down there by the sluices.
I believe when the Spaniards open fire these people will be more
distracted by the dust caused by falling tiles and chimneys than by any
danger of their lives."
Great difficulties beset the Duke of Parma at the commencement of the
siege. Sluys was built upon the only piece of solid ground in the
district, and it was surrounded by such a labyrinth of canals, ditches,
and swamps, that it was said that it was almost as difficult to find
Sluys as it was to capture it. Consequently, it was impossible to find
ground solid enough for a camp to be pitched upon, and the first labour
was the erection of wooden huts for the troops upon piles driven into
the ground. These huts were protected from the fire of the defenders by
bags of earth brought in boats from a long distance. The main point
selected for the attack was the western gate; but batteries were also
placed to play upon the castle and the bridge of boats connecting it
with the town.
"There is one advantage in their determining to attack us at the
western extremity of the town," John Menyn, the merchant at whose house
Captain Vere and his party were lodging, remarked when his guest
informed him there was no longer any doubt as to the point at which the
Spaniards intended to attack, "for they will not be able to blow up our
walls with mines in that quarter."
"How is that?" Francis Vere asked.
"If you can spare half an hour of your time I will show you," the
"I can spare it now, Von Menyn," Vere replied; "for the information is
important, whatever it may be."
"I will conduct you there at once. There is no time like the present."
"Shall we follow you, sir?" Geoffrey asked his captain.
"Yes, come along," Vere replied. "The matter is of interest, and for
the life of me I cannot make out what this obstacle can be of which our
They at once set out.
John Menyn led them to a warehouse close to the western wall, and spoke
a few words to its owner, who at once took three lanterns from the wall
and lighted them, handing one to Vere, another to John Menyn, and
taking the other himself; he then unlocked a massive door. A flight of
steps leading apparently to a cellar were visible. He led the way down,
the two men following, and the boys bringing up the rear. The descent
was far deeper than they had expected, and when they reached the bottom
they found themselves in a vast arched cellar filled with barrels. From
this they proceeded into another, and again into a third.
"What are these great magazines?" Francis Vere asked in surprise.
"They are wine-cellars, and there are scores similar to those you see.
Sluys is the centre of the wine trade of Flanders and Holland, and
cellars like these extend right under the wall. All the warehouses
along here have similar cellars. This end of the town was the driest,
and the soil most easily excavated. That is why the magazines for wines
are all clustered here. There is not a foot of ground behind and under
the walls at this end that is not similarly occupied, and if the
Spaniards try to drive mines to blow up the walls, they will simply
break their way into these cellars, where we can meet them and drive
them back again."
"Excellent!" Francis Vere said. "This will relieve us of the work of
countermining, which is always tiresome and dangerous, and would be
specially so here, where we should have to dive under that deep moat
outside your walls. Now we shall only have to keep a few men on watch
in these cellars. They would hear the sound of the Spanish approaching,
and we shall be ready to give them a warm reception by the time they
break in. Are there communications between these cellars?"
"Yes, for the most part," the wine merchant said. "The cellars are not
entirely the property of us dealers in wine. They are constructed by
men who let them, just as they would let houses. A merchant in a small
way would need but one cellar, while some of us occupy twenty or more;
therefore, there are for the most part communications, with doors,
between the various cellars, so that they can be let off in accordance
with the needs of the hirers."
"Well, I am much obliged to you for telling me of this," Captain Vere
said. "Williams and Morgan will be glad enough to hear that there is no
fear of their being blown suddenly into the air while defending the
walls, and they will see the importance of keeping a few trusty men on
watch in the cellars nearest to the Spaniards. I shall report the
matter to them at once. The difficulty," he added smiling, "will be to
keep the men wakeful, for it seems to me that the very air is heavy
with the fumes of wine."
THE SIEGE OF SLUYS.
Until the Spaniards had established their camp, and planted some of
their batteries, there was but little firing. Occasionally the wall-
pieces opened upon parties of officers reconnoitring, and a few shots
were fired from time to time to harass the workmen in the enemy's
batteries; but this was done rather to animate the townsmen, and as a
signal to distant friends that so far matters were going on quietly,
than with any hopes of arresting the progress of the enemy's works.
Many sorties were made by the garrison, and fierce fighting took place,
but only a score or two of men from each company were taken upon these
occasions, and the boys were compelled to remain inactive spectators of
In these sorties the Spanish works were frequently held for a few
minutes, gabions thrown down, and guns overturned, but after doing as
much damage as they could the assailants had to fall back again to the
town, being unable to resist the masses of pikemen brought up against
them. The boldness of these sorties, and the bravery displayed by their
English allies, greatly raised the spirits of the townsfolk, who now
organized themselves into companies, and undertook the work of guarding
the less exposed portion of the wall, thus enabling the garrison to
keep their whole strength at the points attacked.
The townsmen also laboured steadily in adding to the defences; and two
companies of women were formed, under female captains, who took the
names of May in the Heart and Catherine the Rose. These did good
service by building a strong fort at one of the threatened points, and
this work was in their honour christened Fort Venus.
"It is scarcely a compliment to Venus," Geoffrey laughed to his
brother. "These square-shouldered and heavily-built women do not at all
correspond with my idea of the goddess of love."
"They are strong enough for men," Lionel said. "I shouldn't like one of
those big fat arms to come down upon my head. No, they are not pretty;
but they look jolly and good-tempered, and if they were to fight as
hard as they work they ought to do good service."
"There is a good deal of difference between them," Geoffrey said. "Look
at those three dark-haired women with neat trim figures. They do not
look as if they belonged to the same race as the others."
"They are not of the same race, lad," Captain Vere, who was standing
close by, said. "The big heavy women are Flemish, the others come, no
doubt, from the Walloon provinces bordering on France. The Walloons
broke off from the rest of the states and joined the Spanish almost
from the first. They were for the most part Catholics, and had little
in common with the people of the Low Country; but there were, of
course, many Protestants among them, and these were forced to emigrate,
for the Spanish allow no Protestants in the country under their rule.
Alva adopted the short and easy plan of murdering all the Protestants
in the towns he took; but the war is now conducted on rather more
humane principles, and the Protestants have the option given them of
changing their faith or leaving the country.
"In this way, without intending it, the Spaniards have done good
service to Holland, for hundreds of thousands of industrious people
have flocked there for shelter from Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, and other
cities that have fallen into the hands of the Spaniards, thus greatly
raising the population of Holland, and adding to its power of defence.
Besides this, the presence of these exiles, and the knowledge that a
similar fate awaits themselves if they fall again under the yoke of
Spain, nerves the people to resist to the utmost. Had it not been for
the bigotry of the Spanish, and the abominable cruelties practised by
the Inquisition, the States would never have rebelled; and even after
they did so, terms might easily have been made with them had they not
been maddened by the wholesale massacres perpetrated by Alva. There, do
you hear those women speaking? Their language is French rather than
Just as they were speaking a heavy roar of cannon broke out from the
eastern end of the town.
"They have opened fire on the castle!" Vere exclaimed. "Run, lads,
quick! and summon the company to form in the market-place in front of
our house. We are told off to reinforce the garrison of the castle in
case of attack."
The boys hurried away at the top of their speed. They had the list of
all the houses in which the men of the company were quartered; and as
the heavy roar of cannon had brought every one to their doors to hear
what was going on, the company were in a very short time assembled.
Francis Vere placed himself at their head, and marched them through the
long streets of the town and out through the wall on to the bridge of
boats. It was the first time the boys had been under fire; and although
they kept a good countenance, they acknowledged to each other
afterwards that they had felt extremely uncomfortable as they traversed
the bridge with the balls whistling over their heads, and sometimes
striking the water close by and sending a shower of spray over the
[Illustration: THE FOUR PAGES CARRY DOWN THE WOUNDED SOLDIER]
They felt easier when they entered the castle and were protected by its
walls. Upon these the men took their station. Those with guns
discharged their pieces against the Spanish artillerymen, the pikemen
assisted the bombardiers to work the cannon, and the officers went to
and fro encouraging the men. The pages of the company had little to do
beyond from time to time carrying cans of wine and water to the men
engaged. Geoffrey and Lionel, finding that their services were not
required by Captain Vere, mounted on to the wall, and sheltering
themselves as well as they could behind the battlements, looked out at
what was going on.
"It doesn't seem to me," Geoffrey said, "that these walls will long
withstand the balls of the Spanish. The battlements are already knocked
down in several places, and I can hear after each shot strikes the
walls the splashing of the brickwork as it falls into the water. See!
there is Tom Carroll struck down with a ball. It's our duty to carry
They ran along the wall to the fallen soldier. Two other pages came up,
and the four carried him to the top of the steps and then down into the
court-yard, where a Dutch surgeon took charge of him. His shoulder had
been struck by the ball, and the arm hung only by a shred of flesh. The
surgeon shook his head.
"I can do nothing for him," he said. "He cannot live many hours."
Lionel had done his share in carrying the man down, but he now turned
sick and faint.
Geoffrey caught him by the arm. "Steady, old boy," he said; "it is
trying at first, but we shall soon get accustomed to it. Here, take a
draught of wine from this flask."
"I am better now," Lionel said, after taking a draught of wine. "I felt
as if I was going to faint, Geoffrey. I don't know why I should, for I
did not feel frightened when we were on the wall."
"Oh, it has nothing to do with fear; it is just the sight of that poor
fellow's blood. There is nothing to be ashamed of in that. Why, I saw
Will Atkins, who was one of the best fighters and single-stick players
in Hedingham, go off in a dead swoon because a man he was working with
crushed his thumb between two heavy stones. Look, Lionel, what cracks
there are in the wall here. I don't think it will stand long. We had
better run up and tell Captain Vere, for it may come toppling down with
some of the men on it."
Captain Vere on hearing the news ran down and examined the wall.
"Yes," he said, "it is evidently going. A good earthwork is worth a
dozen of these walls. They will soon have the castle about our ears.
However, it is of no great importance to us. I saw you lads just now on
the wall; I did not care about ordering you down at the time; but don't
go up again except to help to carry down the wounded. Make it a rule,
my boys, never to shirk your duty, however great the risk to life may
be; but, on the other hand, never risk your lives unless it is your
duty to do so. What is gallantry in the one case is foolishness in the
other. Although you are but pages, yet it may well be that in such a
siege as this you will have many opportunities of showing that you are
of good English stock; but while I would have you shrink from no danger
when there is a need for you to expose yourselves, I say also that you
should in no way run into danger wantonly."
Several times in the course of the afternoon the boys took their turn
in going up and helping to bring down wounded men. As the time went on
several yawning gaps appeared in the walls. The court-yard was strewn
with fragments of masonry, and the pages were ordered to keep under
shelter of the wall of the castle unless summoned on duty. Indeed, the
court-yard had now become a more dangerous station than the wall
itself; for not only did the cannon-shot fly through the breaches, but
fragments of bricks, mortar, and rubbish flew along with a force that
would have been fatal to anything struck.
Some of the pages were big fellows of seventeen or eighteen years old,
who had been serving for some years under Morgan and Williams, and
would soon be transferred into the ranks.
"I like not this sort of fighting," one of them said. "It is all very
well when it comes to push of pike with the Spaniards, but to remain
here like chickens in a coop while they batter away at us is a game for
which I have no fancy. What say you, Master Vickars?"
"Well, it is my first experience, Somers, and I cannot say that it is
agreeable. I do not know whether I should like hand-to-hand fighting
better; but it seems to me at present that it would be certainly more
agreeable to be doing something than to be sitting here and listening
to the falls of the pieces of masonry and the whistling of the balls. I
don't see that they will be any nearer when they have knocked this
place to pieces. They have no boats, and if they had, the guns on the
city wall would prevent their using them; besides, when the bridge of
boats is removed they could do nothing if they got here."
Towards evening a council was held, all the principal officers being
present, and it was decided to evacuate the castle. It could indeed
have been held for some days longer, but it was plain it would at
length become untenable; the bridge of boats had already been struck in
several places, and some of the barges composing it had sunk level with
the water. Were it destroyed, the garrison of the castle would be
completely cut off, and as no great advantage was to be gained by
holding the position, for it was evident that it was upon the other end
of the town the main attack was to be made, it was decided to evacuate
it under cover of night. As soon as it became dark this decision was
carried into effect, and for hours the troops worked steadily,
transporting the guns, ammunition, and stores of all kinds across from
the castle to the town.
Already communication with their friends outside had almost ceased, for
the first operation of the enemy had been to block the approach to
Sluys from the sea. Boats had been moored head and stern right across
Zwin, and a battery erected upon each shore to protect them; but
Captains Hart and Allen twice swam down to communicate with friendly
vessels below the obstacle, carrying despatches with them from the
governor to the States-General, and from Roger Williams to the English
commanders, urging that no time should be lost in assembling an army to
march to the relief of the town.
Both contained assurances that the garrison would defend the place to
the last extremity, but pointed out that it was only a question of
time, and that the town must fall unless relieved. The Dutch garrison
were 800 strong, and had been joined by as many English. Parma had at
first marched with but 6000 men against the city, but had very speedily
drawn much larger bodies of men towards him, and had, as Roger Williams
states in a letter to the queen sent from Sluys at an early period of
the siege, four regiments of Walloons, four of Germans, one of
Italians, one of Burgundians, fifty-two companies of Spaniards, twenty-
four troops of horse, and forty-eight guns. This would give a total of
at least 17,000 men, and further reinforcements afterwards arrived.
Against so overwhelming a force as this, it could not be hoped that the
garrison, outnumbered by more than ten to one, could long maintain
themselves, and the Duke of Parma looked for an easy conquest of the
place. By both parties the possession of Sluys was regarded as a matter
of importance out of all proportion to the size and population of the
town; for at that time it was known in England that the King of Spain
was preparing a vast fleet for the invasion of Britain, and Sluys was
the nearest point to our shores at which a fleet could gather and the
forces of Parma embark to join those coming direct from, Spain. The
English, therefore, were determined to maintain the place to the last
extremity, and while Parma had considered its capture as an affair of a
few days only, the little garrison were determined that for weeks at
any rate they would be able to prolong the resistance, feeling sure
that before that time could elapse both the States and England, knowing
the importance of the struggle, would send forces to their relief.
The view taken as to the uselessness of defending the castle was fully
justified, as the Spaniards on the following day removed the guns that
they had employed in battering it, to their works facing the western
gate, and fire was opened next morning. Under cover of this the Spanish
engineers pushed their trenches up to the very edge of the moat, in
spite of several desperate sorties by the garrison. The boys had been
forbidden by Captain Vere to take their place with the company on the
"In time," he said, "as our force decreases, we shall want every one
capable of handling arms to man the breaches, but at present we are not
in any extremity; and none save those whom duty compels to be there
must come under the fire of the Spaniards, for to do so would be
risking life without gain."
They had, however, made friends with the wine merchant whose cellars
they had visited, and obtained permission from him to visit the upper
storey of his warehouse whenever they chose. From a window here they
were enabled to watch all that was taking place, for the warehouse was
much higher than the walls. It was not in the direct line of fire of
the Spanish batteries, for these were chiefly concentrated against the
wall a little to their right. After heavy fighting the Spaniards one
night, by means of boats from the Zwin, landed upon the dyke which
divided the moat into two channels, and thus established themselves so
close under the ramparts that the guns could not be brought to bear
upon them. They proceeded to intrench themselves at once upon the dyke.
The governor, Arnold Groenvelt, consulted with the English leaders, and
decided that the enemy must be driven off this dyke immediately, or
that the safety of the city would be gravely imperilled. They therefore
assembled a force of four hundred men, sallied out of the south gate,
where two bastions were erected on the dyke itself, and then advanced
along it to the assault of the Spaniards. The battle was a desperate
one, the English and Dutch were aided by their comrades on the wall,
who shot with guns and arquebuses against the Spaniards, while the
latter were similarly assisted by their friends along the outer edge of
the moat, and received constant reinforcements by boats from their
The odds were too great for the assailants, who were forced at last to
fall back along the dyke to the south gate and to re-enter the town. It
was already five weeks since the English had arrived to take part in
the defence, and the struggle now began upon a great scale--thirty
cannon and eight culverins opening fire upon the walls. The heaviest
fire was on St. James' day, the 25th of July, when 4000 shots were
fired between three in the morning and five in the afternoon. While
this tremendous cannonade was going on, the boys could not but admire
the calmness shown by the population. Many of the shots, flying over
the top of the walls, struck the houses in the city, and the chimneys,
tiles, and masses of masonry fell in the streets. Nevertheless the
people continued their usual avocations. The shops were all open,
though the men employed served their customers with breast and back
pieces buckled on, and their arms close at hand, so that they could run
to the walls at once to take part in their defence did the Spaniards
attempt an assault upon them. The women stood knitting at their doors,
Frau Menyn looked as sharply after her maids as ever, and washing and
scouring went on without interruption.
"I believe that woman will keep those girls at work after the Spaniards
have entered the city, and until they are thundering at the door,"
Lionel said. "Who but a Dutch woman would give a thought to a few
particles of dust on her furniture when an enemy was cannonading the
"I think she acts wisely after all, Lionel. The fact that everything
goes on as usual here and in other houses takes people's thoughts off
the dangers of the position, and prevents anything like panic being
The lads spent the greater part of the day at their look-out, and could
see that the wall against which the Spanish fire was directed was fast
crumbling. Looking down upon it, it seemed deserted of troops, for it
would be needlessly exposing the soldiers to death to place them there
while the cannonade continued; but behind the wall, and in the street
leading to it, companies of English and Dutch soldiers could be seen
seated or lying on the ground.
They were leaning out of the dormer-window in the high roof watching
the Spanish soldiers in the batteries working their guns, when,
happening to look round, they saw a crossbow protruded from a window of
the warehouse to their right, and a moment afterwards the sharp twang
of the bow was heard. There was nothing unusual in this; for although
firearms were now generally in use the long-bow and the cross-bow had
not been entirely abandoned, and there were still archers in the
English army, and many still held that the bow was a far better weapon
than the arquebus, sending its shafts well nigh as far and with a truer
"If that fellow is noticed," Geoffrey said, "we shall have the Spanish
musketeers sending their balls in this direction. The governor has, I
heard Captain Vere say, forbidden shooting from the warehouses, because
he does not wish to attract the Spanish fire against them. Of course
when the wall yields and the breach has to be defended the warehouses
will be held, and as the windows will command the breach they will be
great aids to us then, and it would be a great disadvantage to us if
the Spaniards now were to throw shells and fire-balls into these
houses, and so to destroy them before they make their attack. Nor can
much good be gained, for at this distance a cross-bow would scarce
carry its bolts beyond the moat."
"Most likely the man is using the cross-bow on purpose to avoid
attracting the attention of the Spaniards, Geoffrey. At this distance
they could not see the cross-bow, while a puff of smoke would be sure
to catch their eye."
"There, he has shot again. I did not see the quarrell fall in the moat.
See, one of the Spanish soldiers from that battery is coming forward.
There, he has stooped and picked something up. Hallo! do you see that?
He has just raised his arm; that is a signal, surely."
"It certainly looked like it," Lionel agreed. "It was a sort of half
wave of the hand. That is very strange!"
"Very, Lionel; it looks to me very suspicious. It is quite possible
that a piece of paper may have been tied round the bolt, and that
someone is sending information to the enemy. This ought to be looked
"But what are we to do, Geoffrey? Merely seeing a Spanish soldier wave
his arm is scarcely reason enough for bringing an accusation against
anyone. We are not even sure that he picked up the bolt; and even if he
did, the action might have been a sort of mocking wave of the hand at
the failure of the shooter to send it as far as the battery."
"It might be, of course, Lionel. No, we have certainly nothing to go
upon that would justify our making a report on the subject, but quite
enough to induce us to keep a watch on this fellow, whoever he may be.
Let us see, to begin with, if he shoots again."
They waited for an hour, but the head of the cross-bow was not again
thrust out of the window.
"He may have ceased shooting for either of two reasons," Geoffrey said.
"If he is a true man, because he sees that his bolts do not carry far
enough to be of any use. If he is a traitor, because he has gained his
object, and knows that his communication has reached his friends
outside. We will go down now and inquire who is the occupier of the
The merchant himself was not below, for as he did business with other
towns he had had nothing to do since Sluys was cut off from the
surrounded country; but one of his clerks was at work, making out bills
and accounts in his office as if the thunder of the guns outside was
unheard by him. The boys had often spoken to him as they passed in and
"Who occupies the warehouse on the right?" Geoffrey asked him
"William Arnig," he replied. "He is a leading citizen, and one of the
greatest merchants in our trade. His cellars are the most extensive we
have, and he does a great trade in times of peace with Bruges, Ghent,
Antwerp, and other towns."
"I suppose he is a Protestant like most of the towns-people?" Geoffrey
"No, he is a Catholic; but he is not one who pushes his opinions
strongly, and he is well disposed to the cause, and a captain in one of
the city bands. The Catholics and Protestants always dwell quietly
together throughout the Low Countries, and would have no animosities
against each other were it not for the Spaniards. Formerly, at least,
this was the case; but since the persecutions we have Protestant towns
and Catholic towns, the one holding to the States cause, the other
siding with the Spaniards. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, I hadn't heard the name of your next neighbour, and was wondering
who he might be."
The boys had now been nearly two months in Holland, and were beginning
to understand the language, which is not difficult to acquire, and
differed then even less than now from the dialect spoken in the eastern
counties of England, between whom and Holland there had been for many
generations much trade and intimate relations.
"What had we better do next, Geoffrey?" Lionel asked as they left the
"I think that in the first place, Lionel, we will take our post at the
window to-morrow, and keep a close watch all day to see whether this
shooting is repeated. If it is, we had better report the matter to
Captain Vere, and leave him to decide what should be done. I do not see
that we could undertake anything alone, and in any case, you see, it
would be a serious matter to lay an accusation against a prominent
citizen who is actually a captain of one of the bands."
Upon the following day they took their post again at the window, and
after some hours watching saw three bolts fired from the next window.
Watching intently, they saw the two first fall into the moat. They
could not see where the other fell; but as there was no splash in the
water, they concluded that it had fallen beyond it, and in a minute
they saw a soldier again advance from the battery, pick up something at
the edge of the water, raise his arm, and retire. That evening when
Captain Vere returned from the ramparts they informed him of what they
"Doubtless it is an act of treachery," he said, "and this merchant is
communicating with the enemy. At the same time what you have seen,
although convincing evidence to me, is scarce enough for me to denounce
him. Doubtless he does not write these letters until he is ready to
fire them off, and were he arrested in his house or on his way to the
warehouse we might fail to find proofs of his guilt, and naught but
ill-feeling would be caused among his friends. No, whatever we do we
must do cautiously. Have you thought of any plan by which we might
catch him in the act?"
"If two or three men could be introduced into his warehouse, and
concealed in the room from which he fires, they might succeed in
catching him in the act, Captain Vere; but the room may be an empty one
without any place whatever where they could be hidden, and unless they
were actually in the room they would be of little good, for he would
have time, if he heard footsteps, to thrust any letter he may have
written into his mouth, and so destroy it before it could be seized."
"That is so," Captain Vere agreed. "The matter seems a difficult one,
and yet it is of the greatest importance to hinder communications with
the Spaniards. To-night all the soldiers who can be spared, aided by
all the citizens able to use matlock and pick, are to set to work to
begin to raise a half-moon round the windmill behind the point they are
attacking, so as to have a second line to fall back upon when the wall
gives way, which it will do ere long, for it is sorely shaken and
battered. It is most important to keep this from the knowledge of the
Spaniards. Now, lads, you have shown your keenness by taking notice of
what is going on, see if you cannot go further, and hit upon some plan
of catching this traitor at his work. If before night we can think of
no scheme, I must go to the governor and tell him frankly that we have
suspicions of treachery, though we cannot prove them, and ask him, in
order to prevent the possibility of our plans being communicated to the
enemy, to place some troops in all the warehouses along that line, so
that none can shoot therefrom any message to the Spaniards."
Just as Captain Vere finished his supper, the boys came into the room
"We have thought of a plan, sir, that might succeed, although it would
be somewhat difficult. The dormer-window from which these bolts have
been fired lies thirty or forty feet away from that from which we were
looking. The roof is so steep that no one could hold a footing upon it
for a moment, nor could a plank be placed upon which he could walk. The
window is about twelve feet from the top of the roof. We think that one
standing on the ledge of our window might climb on to its top, and once
there swing a rope with a stout grapnel attached to catch on the ridge
of the roof; then two or three men might climb up there and work
themselves along, and then lower themselves down with a rope on to the
top of the next window. They would need to have ropes fastened round
their bodies, for the height is great, and a slip would mean death.
"The one farthest out on the window could lean over when he hears a
noise below him, and when he saw the cross-bow thrust from the window,
could by a sudden blow knock it from the fellow's hand, when it would
slide down the roof and fall into the narrow yard between the warehouse
and the walls. Of course some men would be placed there in readiness to
seize it, and others at the door of the warehouse to arrest the traitor
if he ran down."
"I think the plan is a good one, though somewhat difficult of
execution," Captain Vere said. "But this enterprise on the roof would
be a difficult one and dangerous, since as you say a slip would mean
"Lionel and myself, sir, would undertake that with the aid of two
active men to hold the ropes for us. We have both done plenty of bird-
nesting in the woods of Hedingham, and are not likely to turn giddy."
"I don't think it is necessary for more than one to get down on to that
window," Captain Vere said. "Only one could so place himself as to look
down upon the cross-bow. However, you shall divide the honour of the
enterprise between you. You, as the eldest and strongest, Geoffrey,
shall carry out your plan on the roof, while you, Lionel, shall take
post at the door with four men to arrest the traitor when he leaves. I
will select two strong and active men to accompany you, Geoffrey, and
aid you in your attempt; but mind, before you try to get out of the
window and to climb on to its roof, have a strong rope fastened round
your body and held by the others; then in case of a slip, they can haul
you in again. I will see that the ropes and grapnels are in readiness."
The next morning early Geoffrey proceeded with the two men who had been
selected to accompany him to his usual look-out. Both were active, wiry
men, and entered fully into the spirit of the undertaking when Geoffrey
explained its nature to them. They looked out of the dormer-window at
the sharp roof slanting away in front of them and up to the ridge
"I think, Master Vickars," one of them, Roger Browne by name, said,
"that I had best go up first. I served for some years at sea, and am
used to climbing about in dizzy places. It is no easy matter to get
from this window-sill astride the roof above us, and moreover I am more
like to heave the grapnel so that it will hook firmly on to the ridge
than you are."
"Very well, Roger. I should be willing to try, but doubtless you would
manage it far better than I should. But before you start we will fasten
the other rope round your body, as Captain Vere directed me to do. Then
in case you slip, or anything gives way with your weight, we can check
you before you slide far down below us."
A rope was accordingly tied round the man's body under his arms. Taking
the grapnel, to which the other rope was attached, he got out on to the
sill. It was not an easy task to climb up on to the ridge of the
dormer-window, and it needed all his strength and activity to
accomplish the feat. Once astride of the ridge the rest was easy. At
the first cast he threw the grapnel so that it caught securely on the
top of the roof. After testing it with two or three pulls he clambered
up, leaving the lower end of the rope hanging by the side of the
window. As soon as he had gained this position Geoffrey, who was to
follow him, prepared to start.
According to the instructions Browne had given him he fastened the end
of the rope which was round Browne's body under his own shoulders, then
leaning over and taking a firm hold of the rope to which the grapnel
was attached, he let himself out of the window. Browne hauled from
above at the rope round his body, and he pulled himself with his hands
by that attached to the grapnel, and presently reached the top.
"I am glad you came first, Roger," he said. "I do not think I could
have ever pulled myself up if you had not assisted me."
He unfastened the rope, and the end was thrown down to the window, and
Job Tredgold, the other man, fastened it round him and was hauled up as
Geoffrey had been.
"We will move along now to that stack of chimneys coming through the
roof four feet below the ridge on the town side," Geoffrey said. "We
can stand down there out of sight of the Spaniards. We shall be sure to
attract attention sitting up here, and might have some bullets flying
round our ears, besides which this fellow's friends might suspect our
object and signal to him in some way. It is two hours yet to the time
when we have twice seen him send his bolts across the moat."
This was accordingly done, and for an hour and a half they sat down on
the roof with their feet against the stack of chimneys.
"It is time to be moving now," Geoffrey said at last. "I think the best
way will be for me to get by the side of the dormer-window instead of
above it. It would be very awkward leaning over there, and I should not
have strength to strike a blow; whereas with the rope under my arms and
my foot on the edge of the sill, which projects a few inches beyond the
side of the window, I could stand upright and strike a downright blow
on the cross-bow."
"That would be the best way, I think," Roger Browne agreed; "and I will
come down on to the top of the window and lean over. In the first place
your foot might slip, and as you dangle there by the rope he might cut
it and let you shoot over, or he might lean out and shoot you as you
climb up the roof again; but if I am above with my pistol in readiness
there will be no fear of accidents."
AN HEROIC DEFENCE.
The plan Roger Browne suggested was carried out. Geoffrey was first
lowered to his place by the side of the window, and bracing himself
against its side with a foot on the sill he managed to stand upright,
leaning against the rope that Job Tredgold held from above. Job had
instructions when Geoffrey lifted his arm to ease the rope a few inches
so as to enable the lad to lean forward. After two or three attempts
Geoffrey got the rope to the exact length which would enable him to
look round the corner and to strike a blow with his right hand, in
which he held a stout club. Roger Browne then descended by the aid of
the other rope, and fastening it round his body lay down astride of the
roof of the window with his head and shoulders over the end, and his
pistol held in readiness.
It seemed an age to Geoffrey before he heard the sound of a footstep in
the loft beside him. He grasped his cudgel firmly and leaned slightly
forward. For ten minutes there was quiet within, and Geoffrey guessed
that the traitor was writing the missive he was about to send to the
enemy; then the footstep approached the window, and a moment later a
cross-bow was thrust out. A glance at it sufficed to show that the bolt
was enveloped in a piece of paper wound round it and secured with a
string. Steadying himself as well as he could Geoffrey struck with all
his force down upon the cross-bow. The weapon, loosely held, went
clattering down the tiles. There was an exclamation of surprise and
fury from within the window, and at the same moment Job Tredgold,
seeing that Geoffrey's attempt had been successful, hauled away at the
rope and began to drag him backward up the tiles.
The lad saw a man lean out of the window and look up at him, then a
pistol was levelled; but the report came from above the window, and not
from the threatening weapon. A sharp cry of pain was heard, as the
pistol fell from the man's hand and followed the cross-bow down the
roof. A few seconds later Geoffrey was hauled up to the ridge, where he
was at once joined by Roger Browne. Shifting the ropes they moved along
till above the window from which they had issued. Geoffrey was first
lowered down. As soon as he had got in at the window he undid the rope
and Job Tredgold followed him, while Roger Browne slid down by the rope
attached to the grapnel; then they ran downstairs.
As soon as they sallied out below they saw that Lionel and the men with
him had captured a prisoner; and just as they joined the party the
guard came round from the other side of the warehouse, bringing with
them the cross-bow, its bolt, and the pistol. The prisoner, whose
shoulder was broken by Roger Browne's shot, was at once taken to
Captain Vere's quarters. That officer had just arrived from the walls,
knowing the time at which the capture would probably be made.
"So you have succeeded," he said. "Well done, lads; you have earned the
thanks of all. We will take this man at once to the governor, who is at
present at the town-hall."
By the time they issued out quite a crowd had assembled, for the news
that William von Arnig had been brought a prisoner and wounded to
Captain Vere's quarters had spread rapidly. The crowd increased as they
went along, and Captain Vere and his party had difficulty in making
their way to the town-hall, many of the people exclaiming loudly
against this treatment of one of the leading citizens. The governor
was, when they entered, holding council with the English leader, Sir
"Why, what is this, Captain Vere?" he asked in surprise as that
officer, accompanied by the two boys and followed by Roger Browne and
Job Tredgold guarding the prisoner, entered.
"I have to accuse this man of treacherously communicating with the
enemy," Francis Vere said.
"What?" Arnold de Groenvelt exclaimed in surprise. "Why, this is
Mynheer von Arnig, one of our most worshipful citizens! Surely, Captain
Vere, there must be some error here?"
"I will place my evidence before you," Captain Vere said; "and it will
be for you to decide upon it. Master Geoffrey Vickars, please to inform
the governor what you know about this matter."
Geoffrey then stated how he and his brother, being at the upper window
of the warehouse, had on two days in succession seen a cross-bow
discharged from a neighbouring window, and had noticed a Spanish
soldier come out of a battery and pick up something which they believed
to be the bolt, and how he and his brother had reported the
circumstances to Captain Vere. That officer then took up the story, and
stated that seeing the evidence was not conclusive, and it was probable
that if an attempt was made to arrest the person, whomsoever he might
be, who had used the cross-bow, any evidence of treasonable design
might be destroyed before he was seized, he had accepted the offer of
Master Vickars to climb the roof, lower himself to the window from
which the bolt would be shot, and, if possible, strike it from the
man's hands, so that it would fall down the roof to the court-yard
below, where men were placed to seize it.
Geoffrey then related how he, with the two soldiers guarding the
prisoner, had scaled the roof and taken a position by the window; how
he had seen the cross-bow thrust out, and had struck it from the hands
of the man holding it; how the latter had leaned out, and would have
shot him had not Roger Browne from his post above the window shot him
in the shoulder.
"Here are the cross-bow and pistol," Captain Vere said; "and this is
the bolt as it was picked up by my men. You see, sir, there is a paper
fastened round it. I know not its contents, for I judged it best to
leave it as it was found until I placed it in your hands."
The governor cut the string, unrolled the paper and examined it. It
contained a statement as to the state of the wall, with remarks where
it was yielding, and where the enemy had best shoot against it. It said
that the defenders had in the night begun to form a half-moon behind
it, and contained a sketch showing the exact position of the new work.
"Gentlemen, what think you of this?" the governor asked the English
"There can be no doubt that it is a foul act of treachery," Williams
said, "and the traitor merits death."
"We will not decide upon it ourselves," the governor said. "I will
summon six of the leading citizens, who shall sit as a jury with us.
This is a grave matter, and touches the honour of the citizens as well
as the safety of the town."
In a few minutes the six citizens summoned arrived. The evidence was
again given, and then the prisoner was asked what he had to say in his
"It is useless for me to deny it," he replied. "I am caught in the act,
and must suffer for it. I have done my duty to the King of Spain, my
sovereign; and I warn you he will take vengeance for my blood."
"That we must risk," the governor said. "Now, gentlemen, you citizens
of this town now attacked by the Spaniards, and you, sir, who are in
command of the soldiers of the Queen of England, have heard the
evidence and the answer the prisoner has made. What is your opinion
thereon? Do you, Sir Roger Williams, being highest in rank and
authority, first give your opinion."
"I find that he is guilty of an act of gross treason and treachery. For
such there is but one punishment--death." And the six citizens all gave
the same decision.
"You are found guilty of this foul crime," the governor said, "and are
sentenced to death. In half an hour you will be hung in the market-
place, as a punishment to yourself and a warning to other traitors, if
such there be in this town of Sluys. As to you, young sirs, you have
rendered a great service to the town, and have shown a discernment
beyond your years. I thank you in the name of the city and of its
garrison, and also in that of the States, whose servant I am."
A guard of armed citizens were now called in, the prisoner was handed
to them, and orders given to their officer to carry the sentence into
effect. A statement of the crime of the prisoner, with the names of
those who had acted as his judges, and the sentence, was then drawn
out, signed by the governor, and ordered by him to be affixed to the
door of the town-hall. The two lads, finding that they were no longer
required, hastened back to their quarters, having no wish to be present
at the execution of the unhappy wretch whose crime they had been the
means of detecting.
A few days later considerable portions of the battered wall fell, and
shortly afterwards a breach of two hundred and fifty paces long was
effected, and a bridge of large boats constructed by the enemy from the
dyke to the foot of the rampart.
This was not effected without terrible loss. Hundreds of the bravest
Spanish soldiers and sailors were killed, and three officers who
succeeded each other in command of the attack were badly wounded. The
Spanish had laboured under great difficulties owing to the lack of
earth to push their trenches forward to the edge of the moat, arising
from the surrounding country being flooded. They only succeeded at last
by building wooden machines of bullet-proof planks on wheels, behind
each of which four men could work. When all was prepared the Spaniards
advanced to the attack, rushing up the breach with splendid valour,
headed by three of their bravest leaders; but they were met by the
English and Dutch, and again and again hurled back.
Day and night the fighting continued, the Spaniards occasionally
retiring to allow their artillery to open fire again upon the shattered
ruins. But stoutly as the defenders fought, step by step the Spaniards
won their way forward until they had captured the breach and the west
gate adjoining it, there being nothing now beyond the hastily-
constructed inner work between them and the town. The finest regiment
of the whole of the Spanish infantry now advanced to the assault, but
they were met by the defenders--already sadly diminished in numbers,
but firm and undaunted as ever,--and their pikes and their axes well
supplied the place of the fallen walls.
Assault after assault was met and repulsed, Sir Roger Williams, Thomas
Baskerville, and Francis Vere being always in the thick of the fight.
Baskerville was distinguished by the white plumes of his helmet, Vere
by his crimson mantle; and the valour of these leaders attracted the
admiration of the Duke of Parma himself, who watched the fight from the
summit of the tower of the western gate. Francis Vere was twice
wounded, but not disabled. Sir Roger Williams urged him to retire, but
he replied that he would rather be killed ten times in a breach than
once in a house.
Day by day the terrible struggle continued. The Spaniards were able
constantly to bring up fresh troops, but the defenders had no relief.
They were reduced in numbers from 1600 to 700 men, and yet for eighteen
days they maintained the struggle, never once leaving the breach.
The pages brought their food to them, and when the attacks were
fiercest joined in the defence, fighting as boldly and manfully as the
soldiers themselves. Geoffrey and Lionel kept in close attendance upon
Francis Vere, only leaving him to run back to their quarters and bring
up the meals cooked for him and his two officers by Frau Menyn and her
handmaids. Both kept close to him during the fighting. They knew that
they were no match in strength for the Spanish pikemen; but they had
obtained pistols from the armoury, and with these they did good
service, several times freeing him from some of his assailants when he
was sorely pressed. On one occasion when Francis Vere was smitten down
by a blow from an axe, the boys rushed forward and kept back his
assailants until some of the men of the company came to his aid.
"You have done me brave service indeed," Captain Vere said to them when
he recovered; for his helmet had defended him from serious injury,
though the force of the blow had felled him. "It was a happy thought of
mine when I decided to bring you with me. This is not the first time
that you have rendered me good service, and I am sure you will turn out
brave and valiant soldiers of the queen."
When each assault ceased the weary soldiers threw themselves down
behind the earthen embankment, and obtained such sleep as they could
before the Spaniards mustered for fresh attack. When, after eighteen
days' terrible fighting, the Duke of Parma saw that even his best
troops were unable to break through the wall of steel, he desisted from
the assault and began the slower process of mining. The garrison from
their look-out beheld the soldiers crossing the bridge with picks and
shovels, and prepared to meet them in this new style of warfare.
Captain Uvedale was appointed to command the men told off for this
duty, and galleries were run from several of the cellars to meet those
of the enemy.
As every man was employed either on the rampart or in mining, many of
the pages were told off to act as watchers in the cellars, and to
listen for the faint sounds that told of the approach of the enemy's
miners. As the young Vickars were in attendance on the officers, they
were exempted from this work; but they frequently went down into the
cellars, both to watch the process of mining by their own men and to
listen to the faint sounds made by the enemy's workmen. One day they
were sitting on two wine-kegs, watching four soldiers at work at the
end of a short gallery that had been driven towards the Spaniards.
Suddenly there was an explosion, the miners were blown backwards, the
end of the gallery disappeared, and a crowd of Walloon soldiers almost
immediately afterwards rushed in.
The boys sprang to their feet and were about to fly, when an idea
occurred to Geoffrey. He seized a torch, and, standing by the side of a
barrel placed on end by a large tier, shouted in Dutch, "Another step
forward and I fire the magazine!" The men in front paused. Through the
fumes of smoke they saw dimly the pile of barrels and a figure standing
with a lighted torch close to one of them. A panic seized them, and
believing they had made their way into a powder-magazine, and that in
another instant there would be a terrible explosion, they turned with
shouts of "A magazine! a magazine! Fly, or we are all dead men!"
"Run, Lionel, and get help," Geoffrey said, and in two or three minutes
a number of soldiers ran down into the cellar.
The Walloons were not long before they recovered from their panic.
Their officers knew that the wine-cellars of the city were in front of
them, and reassured them as to the character of the barrels they had
seen. They were, however, too late, and a furious conflict took place
at the entrance into the cellar, but the enemy, able only to advance
two or three abreast, failed to force their way in.
Captain Uvedale and Francis Vere were soon on the spot, and when at
last the enemy, unable to force an entrance, fell back, the former
said, "This is just as I feared. You see, the Spaniards drove this
gallery, and ceased to work immediately they heard us approaching them.
We had no idea that they were in front of us, and so they only had to
put a barrel of powder there and fire it as soon as there was but a
foot or two of earth between us and them."
"But how was it," Francis Vere asked, "that when they fired it they did
not at once rush forward? They could have captured the whole building
before we knew what had happened."
"That I cannot tell," Captain Uvedale replied. "The four men at work
must have been either killed or knocked senseless. We shall know better
another time, and will have a strong guard in each cellar from which
our mines are being driven."
"If it please you, Captain Uvedale," Lionel said, "it was my brother
Geoffrey who prevented them from advancing; for indeed several of them
had already entered the cellar, and the gallery behind was full of
"But how did he do that?" Captain Uvedale asked in surprise.
Lionel related the ruse by which Geoffrey had created a panic in the
minds of the Spaniards.
"That was well thought of indeed, and promptly carried out!" Captain
Uvedale exclaimed. "Francis, these pages of yours are truly promising
young fellows. They detected that rascally Dutchman who was betraying
us. I noticed them several times in the thick of the fray at the
breach; and now they have saved the city by their quickness and
presence of mind; for had these Spaniards once got possession of this
warehouse they would have speedily broken a way along through the whole
tier, and could then have poured in upon us with all their strength."
"That is so, indeed," Francis Vere agreed. "They have assuredly saved
the town, and there is the greatest credit due to them. I shall be
glad, Uvedale, if you will report the matter to our leader. You are in
command of the mining works, and it will come better from you than from
me who am their captain."
Captain Uvedale made his report, and both Sir Roger Williams and the
governor thanked the boys, and especially Geoffrey, for the great
service they had rendered.
Very shortly the galleries were broken into in several other places,
and the battle became now as fierce and continuous down in the cellars
as it had before been on the breach. By the light of torches, in an
atmosphere heavy with the fumes of gunpowder, surrounded by piled-up
barrels of wine, the defenders and assailants maintained a terrible
conflict, men staggering up exhausted by their exertion and by the
stifling atmosphere while others took their places below, and so, night
and day, the desperate struggle continued.
All these weeks no serious effort had been made for the relief of the
hardly beleaguered town. Captains Hall and Allen had several times swum
down at night through the bridge of boats with letters from the
governor entreating a speedy succour. The States had sent a fleet which
sailed some distance up the Zwin, but returned without making the
slightest effort to break through the bridge of boats. The Earl of
Leicester had advanced with a considerable force from Ostend against
the fortress of Blankenburg, but had retreated hastily as soon as Parma
despatched a portion of his army against him; and so the town was left
to its fate.
The last letter that the governor despatched said that longer
resistance was impossible. The garrison were reduced to a mere remnant,
and these utterly worn out by constant fighting and the want of rest.
He should ask for fair and honourable terms, but if these were refused
the garrison and the whole male inhabitants in the city, putting the
women and children in the centre, would sally out and cut their way
through, or die fighting in the midst of the Spaniards. The swimmer who
took the letter was drowned, but his body was washed ashore and the
letter taken to the Duke of Parma.
Three days afterwards a fresh force of the enemy embarked in forty
large boats, and were about to land on an unprotected wharf by the
river-side when Arnold de Groenvelt hung out the white flag. His powder
was exhausted and his guns disabled, and the garrison so reduced that
the greater portion of the walls were left wholly undefended. The Duke
of Parma, who was full of admiration at the extraordinary gallantry of
the defenders, and was doubtless also influenced by the resolution
expressed in his letter by the governor, granted them most honourable
terms. The garrison were to march out with all their baggage and arms,
with matches lighted and colours displayed. They were to proceed to
Breskans, and there to embark for Flushing. The life and property of
the inhabitants were to be respected, and all who did not choose to
embrace the Catholic faith were to be allowed to leave the town
peaceably, taking with them their belongings, and to go wheresoever
When the gates were opened the garrison sallied out. The Duke of Parma
had an interview with several of the leaders, and expressed his high
admiration of the valour with which they had fought, and said that the
siege of Sluys had cost him more men than he had lost in the four
principal sieges he had undertaken in the Low Country put together. On
the 4th of August the duke entered Sluys in triumph, and at once began
to make preparations to take part in the great invasion of England for
which Spain was preparing.
After their arrival at Flushing Captains Vere, Uvedale, and others, who
had brought their companies from Bergen-op-Zoom to aid in the defence
of Sluys, returned to that town.
The Earl of Leicester shortly afterwards resigned his appointment as
general of the army. He had got on but badly with the States-General,
and there was from the first no cordial cooperation between the two
armies. The force at his disposal was never strong enough to do
anything against the vastly superior armies of the Duke of Parma, who
was one of the most brilliant generals of his age, while he was
hampered and thwarted by the intrigues and duplicity of Elizabeth, who
was constantly engaged in half-hearted negotiations now with France and
now with Spain, and whose capricious temper was continually
overthrowing the best-laid plans of her councillors and paralysing the
actions of her commanders. It was not until she saw her kingdom
threatened by invasion that she placed herself fairly at the head of
the national movement, and inspired her subjects with her energy and
Geoffrey Vickars had been somewhat severely wounded upon the last day
of the struggle in the cellar, a Spanish officer having beaten down his
guard and cleft through his morion. Lionel was unwounded, but the
fatigue and excitement had told upon him greatly, and soon after they
arrived at Bergen Captain Vere advised both of them to return home for
a few months.
"There is nothing likely to be doing here until the spring. Parma has
more serious matter in hand. They talk, you know, of invading England,
and after his experience at Sluys I do not think he will be wasting his
force by knocking their heads against stone walls. I should be glad if
I could return too, but I have my company to look after and must remain
where I am ordered; but as you are but volunteers and giving your
service at your pleasure, and are not regularly upon the list of the
pages of the company, I can undertake to grant you leave, and indeed I
can see that you both greatly need rest. You have begun well and have
both done good service, and have been twice thanked by the governor of
Sluys and Sir Roger Williams.
"You will do yourselves no good by being shut up through the winter in
this dull town, and as there is a vessel lying by the quay which is to
set sail to-morrow, I think you cannot do better than go in her. I will
give you letters to my cousin and your father saying how well you have
borne yourselves, and how mightily Sir Roger Williams was pleased with
you. In the spring you can rejoin, unless indeed the Spaniards should
land in England, which Heaven forfend, in which case you will probably
prefer to ride under my cousin's banner at home."
The boys gladly accepted Francis Vere's proposal. It was but three
months since they had set foot in Holland, but they had gone through a
tremendous experience, and the thought of being shut up for eight or
nine months at Bergen-op-Zoom was by no means a pleasant one. Both felt
worn-out and exhausted, and longed for the fresh keen air of the
eastern coast. Therefore the next morning they embarked on board ship.
Captain Vere presented them each with a handsome brace of pistols in
token of his regard, and Captains Uvedale, Baskerville, and other
officers who were intimate friends of Vere's, and had met them at his
quarters, gave them handsome presents in recognition of the services
they had rendered at Sluys.
The ship was bound for Harwich, which was the nearest English port.
Landing there, they took passage by boat to Manningtree and thence by
horse home, where they astounded their father and mother by their
"And this is what comes of your soldiering," Mrs. Vickars said when the
first greeting was over. "Here is Geoffrey with plasters all over the
side of his head, and you, Lionel, looking as pale and thin as if you
had gone through a long illness. I told your father when we heard of
your going that you ought to be brought back and whipped; but the earl
talked him over into writing to Captain Francis to tell him that he
approved of this mad-brained business, and a nice affair it has turned
"You will not have to complain of our looks, mother, at the end of a
week or two," Geoffrey said. "My wound is healing fast, and Lionel only
needs an extra amount of sleep for a time. You see, for nearly a month
we were never in bed, but just lay down to sleep by the side of Captain
Vere on the top of the ramparts, where we had been fighting all day."
"It was a gallant defence," Mr. Vickars said, "and all England is
talking of it. It was wonderful that 800 English and as many Dutchmen
should hold a weak place for two months against full twelve times their
number of Spaniards, led by the Duke of Parma himself, and there is
great honour for all who took part in the defence. The governor and Sir
Roger Williams especially mentioned Francis Vere as among the bravest
and best of their captains, and although you as pages can have had
nought to do with the fighting, you will have credit as serving under
"I think, father," Geoffrey said, touching the plasters on his head,
"this looks somewhat as if we had had something to do with the
fighting, and here is a letter for you from Captain Vere which will
give you some information about it."
Mr. Vickars adjusted his horn spectacles on his face and opened the
letter. It began:
"My dear Master and Friend,--I have had no means of writing to you
since your letter came to me, having had other matters in hand, and
being cut off from all communication with England. I was glad to find
that you did not take amiss my carrying off of your sons. Indeed that
action has turned out more happily than might have been expected, for I
own that they were but young for such rough service.
"However, they have proved themselves valiant young gentlemen. They
fought stoutly by my side during our long tussle with the Spaniards,
and more than once saved my life by ridding me of foes who would have
taken me at a disadvantage. Once, indeed, when I was down from a blow
on the pate from a Spanish axe, they rushed forward and kept my
assailants at bay until rescue came. They discovered a plot between a
traitor in the town and the Spaniards, and succeeded in defeating his
plans and bringing him to justice.
"They were also the means of preventing the Spaniards from breaking
into the great wine-cellars and capturing the warehouses, and for each
of these services they received the thanks of the Dutch governor and of
Sir Roger Williams, our leader. Thus, you see, although so young they
have distinguished themselves mightily, and should aught befall me,
there are many among my friends who will gladly take them under their
protection and push them forward. I have sent them home for a time to
have quiet and rest, which they need after their exertions, and have
done this the more willingly since there is no chance of fighting for
many months to come. I hope that before the Spaniards again advance
against us I may have them by my side."
"Well, well, this is wonderful," Mrs. Vickars said when her husband had
finished reading the letter. "If they had told me themselves I should
not have believed them, although they have never been given to the sin
of lying; but since it is writ in Master Vere's own hand it cannot be
doubted. And now tell us all about it, boys."
"We will tell you when we have had dinner, mother. This brisk Essex air
has given us both an appetite, and until that is satisfied you must
excuse us telling a long story. Is the earl at the castle, father
because we have two letters to him from Captain Francis--one, I
believe, touching our affairs, and the other on private matters. We
have also letters from him to his mother and his brother John, and
those we had better send off at once by a messenger, as also the
private letters to the earl."
"That I will take myself," Mr. Vickars said. "I was just going up to
him to speak about my parish affairs when you arrived."
"You had better have your dinner first," Mrs. Vickars said decidedly.
"When you once get with the earl and begin talking you lose all account
of the time, and only last week kept dinner waiting for two hours. It
is half-past eleven now, and I will hurry it on so that it will be
ready a few minutes before noon."
"Very well, my dear; but I will go out into the village at once and
find a messenger to despatch to Cropping Hall with the letters to Dame
Elizabeth and John Vere."
The boys' story was not told until after supper, for as soon as dinner
was over Mr. Vickars went up to the castle with the letters for the
earl. The latter, after reading them, told him that his cousin spoke
most highly of his two sons, and said they had been of great service,
even as far as the saving of his life. The earl told Mr. Vickars to
bring the boys up next day to see him in order that he might learn a
full account of the fighting at Sluys, and that he hoped they would
very often come in, and would, while they were at home, practise daily
with his master of arms at the castle. "I know, Mr. Vickars, that you
had hoped that one of them would enter the church; but you see that
their tastes lie not in that direction, and it is evident that, as in
the case of my cousin Francis, they are cut out for soldiers."
"I am afraid so," Mr. Vickars said; "and I must let them have their own
way, for I hold that none should be forced to follow the ministry save
those whose natural bent lies that way."
"I don't think they have chosen badly," the earl said. "My cousin
Francis bids fair to make a great soldier, and as they start in life as
his pages they will have every chance of getting on, and I warrant me
that Francis will push their fortunes. Perhaps I may be able to aid
them somewhat myself. If aught comes of this vapouring of the
Spaniards, before the boys return to Holland, they shall ride with me.
I am already arming all the tenantry and having them practised in
warlike exercises, and in the spring I shall fit out two ships at
Harwich to join the fleet that will put to sea should the Spaniards
carry out their threats of invading us."
THE LOSS OF THE "SUSAN."
There were few people in Hedingham more pleased to see the two lads on
their return than John Lirriper, to whom they paid a visit on the first
day they went out.
"I am glad to see you back, young masters; though, to say the truth,
you are not looking nigh so strong and well as you did when I last
parted from you."
"We shall soon be all right again, John. We have had rather a rough
time of it over there in Sluys."
"Ah, so I have heard tell, Master Geoffrey. Your father read out from
the pulpit a letter the earl had received from Captain Francis telling
about the fighting, and it mentioned that you were both alive and well
and had done good service; but it was only a short letter sent off in
haste the day after he and the others had got out of the town. I was
right glad when I heard it, I can tell you, for there had been nought
talked of here but the siege; and though your lady mother has not said
much to me, I always held myself ready to slip round the corner or into
a house when I saw her come down the street, for I knew well enough
what was in her mind. She was just saying to herself, 'John Lirriper,
if it hadn't been for you my two boys would not be in peril now. If
aught comes to them, it will be your doing.' And though it was not my
fault, as far as I could see, for Captain Francis took you off my
hands, as it were, and I had no more to say in the matter than a child,
still, there it was, and right glad was I when I heard that the siege
was over and you were both alive.
"I had a bad time of it, I can tell you, when I first got back, young
sirs, for your mother rated me finely; and though your father said it
was not my fault in any way, she would not listen to him, but said she
had given you into my charge, and that I had no right to hand you over
to any others save with your father's permission--not if it were to the
earl himself,--and for a long time after she would make as if she
didn't see me if she met me in the street. When my wife was ill about
that time she sent down broths and simples to her, but she sent them by
one of the maids, and never came herself save when she knew I was away
in my boat.
"However, the day after the reading of that letter she came in and said
she was sorry she had treated me hardly, and that she had known at
heart all along that it was not altogether my fault, and asked my
pardon as nice as if I had been the earl. Of course I said there was
nothing to ask pardon for, and indeed that I thought it was only
natural she should have blamed me, for that I had often blamed myself,
though not seeing how I could have done otherwise. However, I was right
glad when the matter was made up, for it is not pleasant for a man when
the parson's wife sets herself against him."
"It was certainly hard upon you, John," Geoffrey said; "but I am sure
our mother does not in any way blame you now. You see, we brought home
letters from Captain Vere, or rather Sir Francis, for he has been
knighted now, and he was good enough to speak very kindly of what we
were able to do in the siege. Mother did not say much, but I am sure
that at heart she is very grateful, for the earl himself came down to
the Rectory and spoke warmly about us, and said that he should always
be our fast friend, because we had given his cousin some help when he
was roughly pressed by the Spaniards. I hope we shall have another sail
with you in a short time, for we are not going back to the Netherlands
at present, as things are likely to be quiet there now. Although he did
not say so, I think Sir Francis thought that we were over-young for
such rough work, and would be more useful in a year's time; for, you
see, in these sieges even pages have to take their share in the
fighting, and when it comes to push of pike with the Spaniards more
strength and vigour are needed than we possess at present. So we are to
continue our practice at arms at the castle, and to take part in the
drilling of the companies the earl is raising in case the Spaniards
carry out their threat of invading England."
Mrs. Vickars offered no objection whatever the first time Geoffrey
asked permission to go down to Bricklesey with John Lirriper.
"I have no objection, Geoffrey; and, indeed, now that you have chosen
your own lives and are pages to Sir Francis Vere, it seems to me that
in matters of this kind you can judge for yourself. Now that you have
taken to soldiering and have borne your part in a great siege, and have
even yourselves fought with the Spaniards, I deem it that you have got
beyond my wing, and must now act in all small matters as it pleases
you; and that since you have already run great danger of your lives,
and may do so again ere long, it would be folly of me to try to keep
you at my apron-strings and to treat you as if you were still
So the two lads often accompanied John Lirriper to Bricklesey, and
twice sailed up the river to London and back in Joe Chambers' smack,
these jaunts furnishing a pleasant change to their work of practising
with pike and sword with the men-at-arms at the castle, or learning the
words of command and the work of officers in drilling the newly-raised
corps. One day John Lirriper told them that his nephew was this time
going to sail up the Medway to Rochester, and would be glad to take
them with him if they liked it; for they were by this time prime
favourites with the master of the _Susan_. Although their mother
had told them that they were at liberty to go as they pleased, they
nevertheless always made a point of asking permission before they went
"If the wind is fair we shall not be long away on this trip, mother.
Two days will take us up to Rochester; we shall be a day loading there,
and shall therefore be back on Saturday if the wind serves, and may
even be sooner if the weather is fine and we sail with the night tides,
as likely enough we shall, for the moon is nearly full, and there will
be plenty of light to keep our course free of the sands."
The permission was readily given. Mrs. Vickars had come to see that it
was useless to worry over small matters, and therefore nodded
cheerfully, and said she would give orders at once for a couple of
chickens to be killed and other provision prepared for their voyage.
"I doubt you are going to have a rougher voyage than usual this time,
young masters," John Lirriper said when the boat was approaching
Bricklesey, "The sky looks wild, and I think there is going to be a
break in the weather. However, the _Susan_ is a stout boat, and my
nephew a careful navigator."
"I should like a rough voyage for a change, John," Geoffrey said. "We
have always had still water and light winds on our trips, and I should
like a good blow."
"Well, I think you will have one; though may be it will only come on
thick and wet. Still I think there is wind in those clouds, and that if
it does come it will be from the south-east, in which case you will
have a sharp buffeting. But you will make good passage enough down to
the Nore once you are fairly round the Whittaker."
"Glad to see you, young masters," Joe Chambers said as the boat came
alongside his craft. "You often grumbled at the light winds, but unless
I am mistaken we shall be carrying double reefs this journey. What do
you think, Uncle John?"
"I have been saying the same, lad; still there is no saying. You will
know more about it in a few hours' time."
It was evening when the boys went on board the _Susan_, and as
soon as supper was over they lay down, as she was to start at daybreak
the next morning. As soon as they were roused by the creaking of the
blocks and the sound of trampling of feet overhead they went up on
deck. Day had just broken; the sky was overspread by dark clouds.
"There is not much wind after all," Geoffrey said as he looked round.
"No, it has fallen light during the last two hours," the skipper
replied, "but I expect we shall have plenty before long. However, we
could do with a little more now."
Tide was half out when they started. Joe Chambers had said the night
before that he intended to drop down to the edge of the sands and there
anchor, and to make across them past the Whittaker Beacon into the
channel as soon as there was sufficient water to enable him to do so.
The wind was light, sometimes scarcely sufficient to belly out the
sails and give the boat steerage way, at others coming in short puffs
which heeled her over and made her spring forward merrily.
Before long the wind fell lighter and lighter, and at last Joe Chambers
ordered the oars to be got out.
"We must get down to the edge of the Buxey," he said, "before the tide
turns, or we shall have it against us, and with this wind we should
never be able to stem it, but should be swept up the Crouch. At present
it is helping us, and with a couple of hours' rowing we may save it to
The boys helped at the sweeps, and for two hours the creaking of the
oars and the dull flapping of the sail alone broke the silence of the
calm; and the lads were by no means sorry when the skipper gave the
order for the anchor to be dropped.
"I should like to have got about half a mile further," he said; "but I
can see by the landmarks that we are making no way now. The tide is
beginning to suck in."
"How long will it be before we have water enough to cross the Spit?"
Lionel asked as they laid in the oars.
"Well nigh four hours, Master Lionel. Then, even if it keeps a stark
calm like this, we shall be able to get across the sands and a mile or
two up the channel before we meet the tide. There we must anchor again
till the first strength is past, and then if the wind springs up we can
work along at the edge of the sands against it. There is no tide close
in to the sands after the first two hours. But I still think this is
going to turn into wind presently; and if it does it will be sharp and
heavy, I warrant. It's either that or rain."
The sky grew darker and darker until the water looked almost black
under a leaden canopy.
"I wish we were back into Bricklesey," Joe Chambers said. "I have been
well-nigh fifteen years going backwards and forwards here, and I do not
know that ever I saw an awkwarder look about the sky. It reminds me of
what I have heard men who have sailed to the Indies say they have seen
there before a hurricane breaks. If it was not that we saw the clouds
flying fast overhead when we started, I should have said it was a thick
sea fog that had rolled in upon us. Ah, there is the first drop. I
don't care how hard it comes down so that there is not wind at the tail
of it. A squall of wind before rain is soon over; but when it follows
rain you will soon have your sails close-reefed. You had best go below
or you will be wet through in a minute."
The great drops were pattering down on the deck and causing splashes as
of ink on the surface of the oily-looking water. Another half minute it
was pouring with such a mighty roar on the deck that the boys below
needed to shout to make each other heard. It lasted but five minutes,
and then stopped as suddenly as it began. The lads at once returned to
"So it is all over, Master Chambers."
"Well the first part is over, but that is only a sort of a beginning.
Look at that light under the clouds away to the south of east. That is
where it is coming from, unless I am mistaken. Turn to and get the
mainsail down, lads," for although after dropping anchor the head sails
had been lowered, the main and mizzen were still on her.
The men set to work, and the boys helped to stow the sail and fasten it
with the tiers. Suddenly there was a sharp puff of wind. It lasted a
few seconds only, then Joe Chambers pointed towards the spot whence a
hazy light seemed to come.
"Here it comes," he said. "Do you see that line of white water. That is
a squall and no mistake. I am glad we are not under sail."
There was a sharp, hissing sound as the line of white water approached
them, and then the squall struck them with such force and fury that the
lads instinctively grasped at the shrouds. The mizzen had brought the
craft in a moment head-to-wind, and Joe Chambers and the two sailors at
once lowered it and stowed it away.
"Only put a couple of tiers on," the skipper shouted. "We may have to
upsail again if this goes on."
The sea got up with great rapidity, and a few minutes after the squall
had struck them the _Susan_ was beginning to pitch heavily. The
wind increased in force, and seemed to scream rather than whistle in
"The sea is getting up fast!" Geoffrey shouted in the skipper's ear as
he took his place close to him.
"It won't be very heavy yet," Joe Chambers replied; "the sands break
its force. But the tide has turned now, and as it makes over the sand
there will be a tremendous sea here in no time; that is if this wind
holds, and it seems to me that it is going to be an unusual gale
"How long will it be before we can cross the Spit?"
"We are not going to cross to-day, that's certain," the skipper said.
"There will be a sea over those sands that would knock the life out of
the strongest craft that ever floated. No, I shall wait here for
another hour or two if I can, and then slip my cable and run for the
Crouch. It is a narrow channel, and I never care about going into it
after dark until there is water enough for a craft of our draught over
the sands. It ain't night now, but it is well nigh as dark. There is no
making out the bearings of the land, and we have got to trust to the
perches the fishermen put up at the bends of the channel. However, we
have got to try it. Our anchors would never hold here when the sea gets
over the sands, and if they did they would pull her head under water."
In half an hour a sea had got up that seemed to the boys tremendous.
Dark as it was they could see in various directions tracts of white
water where the waves broke wildly over the sands. The second anchor
had been let go some time before. The two cables were as taut as iron
bars, and the boat was pulling her bows under every sea. Joe Chambers
dropped a lead-line overboard and watched it closely.
"We are dragging our anchors," he said. "There is nothing for it but to
He went to the bow, fastened two logs of wood by long lines to the
cables outside the bow, so that he could find and recover the anchors
on his return, then a very small jib was hoisted, and as it filled two
blows with an axe severed the cables inboard. The logs attached to them
were thrown over, and the skipper ran aft and put up the helm as the
boat's head payed off before the wind. As she did so a wave struck her
and threw tons of water on board, filling her deck nearly up to the
rails. It was well Joe had shouted to the boys to hold on, for had they
not done so they would have been swept overboard.
Another wave struck them before they were fairly round, smashing in the
bulwark and sweeping everything before it, and the boys both thought
that the _Susan_ was sinking under their feet. However she
recovered herself. The water poured out through the broken bulwark, and
the boat rose again on the waves as they swept one after another down
upon her stern. The channel was well marked now, for the sands on
either side were covered with breaking water. Joe Chambers shouted to
the sailors to close-reef the mizzen and hoist it, so that he might
have the boat better under control. The wind was not directly astern
but somewhat on the quarter; and small as was the amount of sail shown,
the boat lay over till her lee-rail was at times under water; the
following waves yawing her about so much that it needed the most
careful steering to prevent her from broaching to.
"It seems to me as the wind is northering!" one of the men shouted.
The skipper nodded and slackened out the sheet a bit as the wind came
more astern. He kept his eyes fixed ahead of him, and the men kept
gazing through the gloom.
"There is the perch," one of them shouted presently, "just on her
The skipper nodded and held on the same course until abreast of the
perch, which was only a forked stick. The men came aft and hauled in
the mizzen sheet. Chambers put up the helm. The mizzen came across with
a jerk, and the sheet was again allowed to run out. The jib came over
with a report like the shot of a cannon, and at the same moment split
"Hoist the foresail!" the skipper shouted, and the men sprang forward
and seized the halliards; but at this moment the wind seemed to blow
with a double fury, and the moment the sail was set it too split into
"Get up another jib!" Joe Chambers shouted, and one of the men sprang
below. In half a minute he reappeared with another sail.
"Up with it quick, Bill. We are drifting bodily down on the sand."
Bill hurried forward. The other hand had hauled in the traveller, to
which the bolt-rope of the jib was still attached, and hauling on this
had got the block down and in readiness for fastening on the new jib.
The sheets were hooked on, and then while one hand ran the sail out
with the out-haul to the bowsprit end, the other hoisted with the
halliards. By this time the boat was close to the broken water. As the
sail filled her head payed off towards it. The wind lay her right over,
and before she could gather way there was a tremendous crash. The
_Susan_ had struck on the sands. The next wave lifted her, but as
it passed on she came down with a crash that seemed to shake her in
pieces. Joe Chambers relaxed his grasp of the now useless tiller.
"It is all over," he said to the boys. "Nothing can save her now. If
she had been her own length farther off the sands she would have
gathered way in time. As it is another ten minutes and she will be in
She was now lying over until her masthead was but a few feet above
water. The seas were striking her with tremendous force, pouring a
deluge of water over her.
"There is but one chance for you," he went on. "The wind is dead on the
shore, and Foulness lies scarce three miles to leeward."
[Illustration: "THE NEXT FEW MINUTES IT WAS A WILD STRUGGLE FOR LIFE"]
He went into the cabin and fetched out a small axe fastened in the
companion where it was within reach of the helmsman. Two blows cut the
shrouds of the mizzen, a few vigorous strokes were given to the foot of
the mast, and, as the boat lifted and crashed down again on the sand,
it broke off a few inches above the deck.
"Now, lads, I will lash you loosely to this. You can both swim, and
with what aid it will give you may well reach the shore. There are
scarce three feet of water here, and except where one or two deeps pass
across it there is no more anywhere between this and the land. It will
not be rough very far. Now, be off at once; the boat will go to pieces
before many minutes. I and the two men will take to the mainmast, but I
want to see you off first."
Without hesitation the boys pushed off with the mast. As they did so a
cataract of water poured over the smack upon them, knocking them for a
moment under the surface with its force.
For the next few minutes it was a wild struggle for life. They found at
once that they were powerless to swim in the broken water, which, as it
rushed across the sand, impelled alike by the rising tide behind it and
the force of the wind, hurried them along at a rapid pace, breaking in
short steep waves. They could only cling to the mast and snatch a
breath of air from time to time as it rolled over and over. Had they
not been able to swim they would very speedily have been drowned; but,
accustomed as they were to diving, they kept their presence of mind,
holding their breath when under water and breathing whenever they were
above it with their faces to the land. It was only so that they could
breathe, for the air was thick with spray, which was swept along with
such force by the wind that it would have drowned the best swimmer who
tried to face it as speedily as if he had been under water.
After what seemed to them an age the waves became somewhat less
violent, though still breaking in a mass of foam. Geoffrey loosed his
hold of the spar and tried to get to his feet. He was knocked down
several times before he succeeded, but when he did so found that the
water was little more than two feet deep, although the waves rose to
his shoulders. The soft mud under his feet rendered it extremely
difficult to stand, and the rope which attached him to the spar, which
was driving before him, added to the difficulty. He could not overtake
the mast, and threw himself down again and swam to it.
"Get up, Lionel!" he shouted; "we can stand here." But Lionel was too
exhausted to be capable of making the effort. With the greatest
difficulty Geoffrey raised him to his feet and supported him with his
back to the wind.
"Get your breath again!" he shouted. "We are over the worse now and
shall soon be in calmer water. Get your feet well out in front of you,
if you can, and dig your heels into the mud, then you will act as a
buttress to me and help me to keep my feet."
It was two or three minutes before Lionel was able to speak. Even
during this short time they had been carried some distance forward, for
the ground on which they stood seemed to be moving, and the force of
the waves carried them constantly forward.
"Feel better, old fellow?" Geoffrey asked, as he felt Lionel making an
effort to resist the pressure of the water.
"Yes, I am better now," Lionel said.
"Well, we will go on as we are as long as we can; let us just try to
keep our feet and give way to the sea as it takes us along. The quicker
we go the sooner we shall be in shallower water; but the tide is rising
fast, and unless we go on it will speedily be as bad here as it was
where we started."
As soon as Lionel had sufficiently recovered they again took to the
spar; but now, instead of clasping it with their arms and legs, they
lay with their chest upon it, and used their efforts only to keep it
going before the wind and tide. Once they came to a point where the
sand was but a few inches under water. Here they stood up for some
minutes, and then again proceeded on foot until the water deepened to
Their progress was now much more easy, for the high bank had broken the
run of the surf. The water beyond it was much smoother, and they were
able to swim, pushing the spar before them.
"We are in deep water," Geoffrey said presently, dropping his feet. "It
is out of my depth. Chambers said there was a deep channel across the
sands not far from the island; so in that case the shore cannot be far
In another quarter of an hour the water was again waist-deep. Geoffrey
"I think I see a dark line ahead, Lionel; we shall soon be there."
Another ten minutes and the water was not above their knees. They could
see the low shore now at a distance of but a few hundred yards ahead,
and untying the ropes under their arms they let the spar drift on, and
waded forward until they reached the land. There was a long mud bank
yet to cross, and exhausted as they were it took them a long time to do
this; but at last they came to a sandy bank rising sharply some ten
feet above the flat. They threw themselves down on this and lay for
half an hour without a word being spoken.
"Now, Lionel," Geoffrey said at last, raising himself to a sitting
position, "we must make an effort to get on and find a shelter. There
are people living in the island. I have heard that they are a wild set,
making their living by the wrecks on these sands and by smuggling goods
without paying dues to the queen. Still, they will not refuse us
shelter and food, and assuredly there is nothing on us to tempt them to
He rose to his feet and helped Lionel up. Once on the top of the bank a
level country stretched before them. The wind aided their footsteps,
sweeping along with such tremendous force that at times they had
difficulty in keeping their feet. As they went on they came upon
patches of cultivated land, with hedgerows and deep ditches. Half a
mile further they perceived a house. On approaching it they saw that it
was a low structure of some size with several out-buildings. They made
their way to it and knocked at the door. They knocked twice before it
was opened, then some bolts were withdrawn. The door was opened a few
inches. A man looked out, and seeing two lads opened it widely.
"Well, who are you, and what do you want?" he asked roughly.
"We have been wrecked in a storm on the sands. We were sailing from
Bricklesey for Sheerness when the storm caught us."
The man looked at them closely. Their pale faces and evidently
exhausted condition vouched for the truth of their story.
"The house is full," he said gruffly, "and I cannot take in strangers.
You will find some dry hay in that out-house, and I will bring you some
food there. When you have eaten and drunk you had best journey on."
So saying he shut the door in their faces.
"This is strange treatment," Geoffrey said. "I should not have thought
a man would have refused shelter to a dog such a day as this. What do
you say, Lionel, shall we go on?"
"I don't think I can go any further until I have rested, Geoffrey,"
Lionel replied faintly. "Let us lie down in shelter if it is only for
half an hour. After that, if the man brings us some food as he says, we
can go on again."
They went into the shed the man had pointed out. It was half full of
"Let us take our things off and wring them, Lionel, and give ourselves
a roll in the hay to dry ourselves. We shall soon get warm after that."
They stripped, wrung the water from their clothes, rolled themselves in
the hay until they felt a glow of returning warmth, and then put on
their clothes again. Scarcely had they done so when the man came in
with a large tankard and two hunks of bread.
"Here," he said, "drink this and then be off. We want no strangers
hanging round here."
At any other time the boys would have refused hospitality so
cheerlessly offered, but they were too weak to resist the temptation.
The tankard contained hot-spiced ale, and a sensation of warmth and
comfort stole over them as soon as they had drunk its contents and
eaten a few mouthfuls of bread. The man stood by them while they ate.
"Are you the only ones saved from the wreck?" he asked.
"I trust that we are not," Geoffrey replied. "The master of the boat
tied us to a mast as soon as she struck, and he and the two men with
him were going to try to get to shore in the same way."
As soon as they had finished they stood up and handed the tankard to
"I am sorry I must turn you out," he said, as if somewhat ashamed of
his want of courtesy. "Any other day it would be different, but to-day
I cannot take anyone in."
"I thank you for what you have given us," Geoffrey said. "Can you tell
us which is the way to the ferry?"
"Follow the road and it will take you there. About a couple of miles.
You cannot mistake the way."
Feeling greatly strengthened and refreshed the lads again started.
"This is a curious affair," Geoffrey said, "and I cannot make out why
they should not let us in. However, it does not matter much. I feel
warm all over now, in spite of my wet clothes."
"So do I," Lionel agreed. "Perhaps there were smugglers inside, or some
fugitives from justice hiding there. Anyhow, I am thankful for that
warm ale; it seems to have given me new life altogether."
They had walked a quarter of a mile, when they saw four horsemen coming
on the road. They were closely wrapped up in cloaks, and as they
passed, with their heads bent down to meet the force of the gale and
their broad-brimmed hats pulled low down over their eyes, the boys did
not get even a glimpse of their features.
"I wonder who they can be," Geoffrey said, looking after them. "They
are very well mounted, and look like persons of some degree. What on
earth can they be doing in such a wretched place as this? They must be
going to that house we left, for I noticed the road stopped there."
"It is curious, Geoffrey, but it is no business of ours."
"I don't know that, Lionel. You know there are all sorts of rumours
about of Papist plots, and conspirators could hardly choose a more out-
of-the way spot than this to hold their meetings. I should not be at
all surprised if there is some mischief on foot."
Half a mile further three men on foot met them, and these, like the
others, were closely wrapped up to the eyes.
"They have ridden here," Geoffrey said after they had passed. "They
have all high riding-boots on; they must have left their horses on the
other side of the ferry. See, there is a village a short distance
ahead. We will go in there and dry our clothes, and have a substantial
meal if we can get it. Then we will talk this business over."
The village consisted of a dozen houses only, but among them was a
small public-house. Several men were sitting by the fire with pots of
ale before them.
"We have been wrecked on the coast, landlord, and have barely escaped
with our lives. We want to dry our clothes and to have what food you
can give us."
"I have plenty of eggs," the landlord said, "and my wife will fry them
for you; but we have no meat in the house. Fish and eggs are the chief
food here. You are lucky in getting ashore, for it is a terrible gale.
It is years since we have had one like it. As to drying your clothes,
that can be managed easy enough. You can go up into my room and take
them off, and I will lend you a couple of blankets to wrap yourselves
in, and you can sit by the fire here until your things are dry."
A hearty meal of fried eggs and another drink of hot ale completed the
restoration of the boys. Their clothes were speedily dried, for the
landlady had just finished baking her week's batch of bread, and half
an hour in the oven completely dried the clothes. They were ready
almost as soon as the meal was finished. Many questions were asked them
as to the wreck, and the point at which they had been cast ashore.
"It was but a short distance from a house at the end of this road,"
Geoffrey said. "We went there for shelter, but they would not take us
in, though they gave us some bread and hot ale."
Exclamations of indignation were heard among the men sitting round.
"Ralph Hawker has the name of being a surly man," one said, "but I
should not have thought that he would have turned a shipwrecked man
from his door on such a day as this. They say he is a Papist, though
whether he be or not I cannot say; but he has strange ways, and there
is many a stranger passes the ferry and asks for his house. However,
that is no affair of mine, though I hold there is no good in secret
"That is so," another said; "but it goes beyond all reason for a man to
refuse shelter to those the sea has cast ashore such a day as this."
As soon as they had finished their meal and again dressed themselves,
the lads paid their reckoning and went out. Scarcely had they done so
when two horsemen rode up, and, drawing rein, inquired if they were
going right for the house of one Ralph Hawker.
"It lies about a mile on," Geoffrey said. "You cannot miss the way; the
road ends there."
As he spoke a gust of wind of extra fury blew off one of the riders'
hats. It was stopped by the wall of a house a few yards away. Geoffrey
caught it and handed it to the horseman. With a word of thanks he
pressed it firmly on his head, and the two men rode on.
"Did you notice that?" Geoffrey asked his brother. "He has a shaven
spot on the top of his head. The man is a Papist priest in disguise.
There is something afoot, Lionel. I vote that we try and get to the
bottom of it."
"I am ready if you think so, Geoffrey. But it is a hazardous business,
you know; for we are unarmed, and there are, we know, seven or eight of
them at any rate."
"We must risk that," Geoffrey said; "besides, we can run if we cannot
fight. Let us have a try whatever comes of it."
A Popish Plot
There was no one about, for the wind was blowing with such fury that
few cared to venture out of doors, and the boys therefore started back
along the road by which they had come, without being observed.
"We had better strike off from the road," Geoffrey said, "for some more
of these men may be coming along. Like enough someone will be on the
watch at the house, so we had best make a long detour, and when we get
near it come down on it from the other side. You know we saw no windows
"That is all well enough," Lionel agreed; "but the question is, how are
we to hear what they are saying inside? We are obliged to shout to
catch each others' words now, and there is not the least chance of our
hearing anything through the closed shutters."
"We must wait till we get there, and then see what is to be done,
Lionel. We managed to detect a plot at Sluys, and we may have the same
After half an hour's brisk walking they again approached the house from
the side at which they had before come upon it, and where, as Geoffrey
observed, there were no windows; they made their way cautiously up to
it, and then moved quietly round to the side. Here there were two
windows on the ground floor. The shutters were closed, for glass was
unknown except in the houses of the comparatively wealthy. Its place
was taken by oiled paper, and this in bad weather was protected by
outer shutters. Geoffrey stole out a few paces to look at the window
"It is evidently a loft," he said as he rejoined Lionel. "You can see
by the roof that the rooms they live in are entirely upon the ground
floor. If we can get in there we might possibly hear what is going on
below. The rooms are not likely to be ceiled, and there are sure to be
cracks between the planks through which we can see what is going on
below. The noise of the wind is so great there is little chance of
their hearing us. Now, let us look about for something to help us to
Lying by an out-house close by they found a rough ladder, composed of a
single pole with bits of wood nailed on to it a foot apart. This they
placed up against the door of the loft. They could see that this was
fastened only by a hasp, with a piece of wood put through the staple.
It had been arranged that Geoffrey only should go up, Lionel removing
the pole when he entered, and keeping watch behind the out-house lest
anyone should come round the house. Both had cut heavy sticks as they
came along to give them some means of defence. Lionel stood at the
pole, while Geoffrey climbed up, removed the piece of wood from the
staple, and then holding the hasp to prevent the wind blowing in the
door with a crash, entered the loft. A glance showed him that it
extended over the whole of the house, and that it was entirely empty.
He closed the door behind him, and jammed it with a couple of wedges of
wood he had cut before mounting; then he lay down on the rough planks
and began to crawl along. He saw a gleam of light at the further end,
and felt sure that it proceeded from the room in which the party were
assembled. Although he had little fear of being heard owing to the din
kept up by the wind, he moved along with extreme care until he reached
the spot whence the light proceeded. As he had anticipated, it was
caused by lights in a room below streaming through the cracks between
the rough planking.
Rising on to his knees he looked round, and then crawled to a crack
that appeared much wider than the rest, the boards being more than half
an inch apart. Lying down over it, he was able to obtain a view of a
portion of the room below. He could see a part of a long table, and
looked down upon the heads of five men sitting on one side of it. He
now applied his ear to the crevice. A man was speaking, and in the
intervals between the gusts of wind which shook the house to its
foundation, he could hear what was said.
"It is no use hesitating any longer, the time for action has arrived--
Jezebel must be removed--interests of our holy religion--little danger
in carrying out the plan that has been proposed. Next time--Windsor--
road passes through wood near Datchet--a weak guard overpowered--two
told off to execute--free England from tyranny--glory and honour
throughout Catholic world. England disorganized and without a head
could offer no resistance--as soon as day fixed--meet at Staines at
house of--final details and share each man is to--done, scatter through
country, readiness for rising--Philip of Spain--"
This was the last sentence Geoffrey caught, for when the speaker ceased
a confused and general talk took place, and he could only catch a word
here and there without meaning or connection. He therefore drew quietly
back to the door of the loft and opened it. He thought first of jumping
straight down, but in that case he could not have fastened the door
behind him. He therefore made a sign to Lionel, who was anxiously
peering round the corner of the out-house. The pole was placed into
position, and pulling the door after him and refastening the latch he
made his way down to the ground, replaced the pole at the place from
which they had taken it, and then retired in the direction from which
they had come.
"Well, what have you heard, Geoffrey?" Lionel asked. "Was it worth the
risk you have run?"
Back to Full Books