Those were anxious days for the adherents of the Stuarts. The late King had perished upon the scaffold, and his family were in exile in foreign lands. The iron rule of Cromwell had England in its grip. But anxious eyes were fixed upon that gallant attempt of the King's son—King Charles II., as the loyalists already called him—to win back for himself the kingdom his father had lost, and overset the military thraldom beneath which the people now groaned.
It was a time of intense suspense and heartbreaking anxiety. It seemed impossible that the young King, crowned in Scotland, and on his way to the south, could overthrow those redoubtable troops commanded by their redoubtable General, the great Oliver Cromwell himself. And yet hope which springs eternal in the human breast filled the hearts of the cavaliers with bright anticipations of coming triumph; anticipations that were changed to dire fears and forebodings when the news of the result of the Battle of Worcester became known.
At Bentley Hall, in Staffordshire, the loyal family of the Lanes were following the fortunes of their Prince with the keenest solicitude; and yet, as family life goes on its way in spite of wars and rumours of wars, so it befell that Jane, the beautiful unwedded daughter of the house, was making preparation for a journey to Abbotsleigh, the home of her married sister, where she had been rather urgently summoned, as Mrs. Norton was ill, and desired much the companionship of her favourite sister.
As Abbotsleigh was in Gloucestershire, and as the journey would involve the passage through the Parliamentary lines and through the disturbed portion of the country, a pass had been obtained for Jane and her party from the Parliamentary General.
Colonel Lane had gone himself to see to this matter, and Jane was awaiting his return in some anxiety. He had not been with the King's forces on the field of Worcester, though he was very loyal in his disposition towards him, and was privately working in the royalists' cause. But it was possible, as his sister knew, that he might be suspected, and have some difficulty in gaining what he was seeking to obtain; and she awaited his return with great impatience and some nervous trepidation.
The sound of horses' feet in the courtyard below brought a flood of colour to her cheek. She ran to a window, and sought to peer out into the autumnal evening's gloom, but though she could see little, she heard the tones of her brother's voice, and at once she rushed to the room of her mother to announce to her the welcome tidings that the traveller had returned.
Soon word reached the ladies upstairs that the Colonel had not come alone. Lord Wilmot had accompanied him, and would remain a few hours, till his horse was rested, and the ladies made preparation for meeting him at supper in an hour's time. Lord Wilmot was only slightly known to them; but they received him courteously, and learned from him a good many details of the disastrous fight at Worcester, and the hopelessness of any farther resistance to the Parliamentary leaders.
"But His Majesty is safe, I trust?" questioned the old lady anxiously. Lord Wilmot made guarded reply:
"His Majesty is with friends, who are forwarding him to the coast where he must take ship for France once more."
"Pray heaven he fall not into the hands of his foes!" cried Mrs. Lane earnestly; and the two men breathed a fervent "Amen."
Jane heard that her pass had been obtained, and that was a relief to her, since she greatly desired to be with her sister. But she observed that her brother and their guest were somewhat absorbed and anxious in manner, and she was not surprised, when they rose from table, that her brother made her a sign that he had somewhat to say to her.
Their father was at this time not very well, and Mrs. Lane excused herself to her guest, saying that she must go to her husband. They did not seek to detain her; but the Colonel beckoned to Jane to follow them into a small parlour, where they would be safe from prying eyes or listening ears; and after he had kicked the logs into a cheery blaze, he suddenly faced round upon her, and said:
"Sister, we are about to trust you with a weighty secret. It concerns the King!"
"The King! Where is he?"
"He has been flying in disguise, this way and that, from the ardent pursuit of the Parliamentary soldiers. He has had many narrow escapes. A worthy miller and his sons have done good service by sheltering him; before that he was at White Ladies. To-night he is at Mosley with our good friend Mr. Whitegrave. To-morrow night he must come to Bentley!"
"To Bentley!—here?" cried Jane, clasping her hands.
"Ay, here to Bentley; and none must know it but you, fair sister, and I; and if you ask wherefore comes he here?—I answer you that it is that he may travel as your groom and servant when you ride forth to Abbotsleigh. To Bristol, by hook or by crook, he must be smuggled; and how to pass him through the Parliamentary lines is, indeed, a hard nut to crack. But see this pass—it makes provision for Mistress Jane Lane, her servants and friends, the latter being named as you see: our cousin Robert Lascelles, and Mr. Petre with his wife. But as for servants, there is no special mention as to them. Sister, you must ride pillion behind your King, and treat him as your servant!"
Jane's colour came and went, as well it might. She lacked not courage nor discretion; yet the magnitude of this great responsibility, so suddenly and strangely thrust upon her, seemed for a moment too great to contemplate.
"Alas, brother!" she cried, "and if by some folly I should betray my King to his foes!"
"Nay, think not of such a thing," said Lord Wilmot, speaking for the first time, "yet think of yourself, fair maiden. Should the thing become known, it may go something hard with you at the hands of the Governor of this unhappy realm."
The colour had come back to Jane's fair face. She looked fearlessly into the eyes of the speaker. "That is nought," she said quietly. "Could any ask a better fate than to lay down life in such a cause? If I may save the King, what matters all the rest?"
"That is the answer I looked to have from Jane," spoke the brother; and so the matter was settled.
It was agreed by all that the secret should be kept from the household. The sick father and old mother should not be burdened with the responsibility of the knowledge. Colonel Lane and Lord Wilmot were to ride to Mosley that same night when the late moon had risen, and upon the following evening they would return to Bentley, bringing in their train the new groom, William Jackson, who would be told off the following day to accompany his sister on her ride to Abbotsleigh.
It may be guessed with what feelings Jane watched for the return of the party upon the next evening, and how keenly she scrutinised the face and figure of the new servant riding behind her brother. He had a swarthy skin and very dark eyes, and a rough head of short hair that gave him something the look of either a Roundhead or a country bumpkin, and in his actions he seemed to be ungainly and loutish. Jane's eyes glistened as she realised that here was a Prince—a King as in her heart she called him—masquerading under the guise of a clown, and her heart beat high as she realised that she was to have the honour of assisting in the next stages of his difficult and perilous escape to the coast.
She had no speech with him that night; she heard her brother hand him over to the head servants with an injunction that he should be well cared for, as he was to ride with Mistress Jane upon the morrow. It was only on that morrow, when she descended to the courtyard dressed for the saddle, that she was brought face to face with her strange attendant. Her colour came and went with excitement as their eyes met, and for one instant she saw an answering gleam in his before they dropped, and he stood in decorous immobility at the horse's head.
It was a strong animal, as was needed to carry double, though Jane's light weight was no great burden. The mother herself descended to see her daughter depart, and to give her many last charges concerning her sick sister.
She gave a glance at the new serving man, in his sober suit of grey, and when Colonel Lane made him a sign to assist his mistress to mount, there was something so odd in his manner, an awkwardness partly assumed, partly the result of the strangeness of the office, that caused the old lady to laugh merrily, and say to her son in no very modulated tones:
"Faith, but my daughter has a goodly horseman to ride before her! Where didst pick up the rogue, my son?"
Jane was covered with confusion at hearing such words spoken; but in the bustle of the departure of the cavalcade, this was not observed, and when they were safely out at the gate, Charles spoke in a low and mirthful tone:
"Be not displeased, fair Mistress; such words as those are sweet to the ears of a fugitive. It is when men bow before me, and seek in secret to kiss my hand, that my heart sinks within me. For, however loyal and true they be, I would sooner they held me for the rogue I personate, than for their hunted King."
The party proceeded gaily on its way for a while. Lord Wilmot rode beside them and in advance, his hawk on his wrist, his dogs by his side, looking like a sportsman enjoying his favourite recreation. Mr. Lascelles generally rode with him, and Mr. Petre and his wife kept close together with their own servants. Jane and the King, being well mounted, sometimes drew ahead, though they were careful not to be far from their party, till at last the horse they were riding began to drag a little. He got behind the rest of the company, and at last seemed inclined to limp.
"Methinks he has lost a shoe," quoth Jane; and Charles, springing to the ground, found that this was indeed the case. By this time the rest of the party was considerably in advance; and Jane lighted off the horse and looked anxiously about her.
"We are not far from the village of Bromsgrove," she said, "and there is a farrier there who will shoe the nag. But I would one of the servants were here to take him."
"Here is the servant!" answered Charles, smiling, as he laid his hand on the bridle, "if you will show the way, sweet Mistress, we will soon have the horse at the forge door."
"Well, now, I did hear as young Charles Stuart himself was taken," answered the smith.
There was nothing else for it, though Jane shook with apprehension as they entered the village, and their presence before the forge attracted the usual small crowd of idlers.
But if the lady were anxious, Charles seemed sufficiently at his ease, as he held up the horse's foot for the smith to examine.
"What's the news?" asked the King of the man, as the task of shoeing was nearly accomplished.
"Why, I don't know as there has been any since the beating of those rascally Scots at Worcester," answered the other.
"Have they taken any of the English rogues that joined with the Scots?" asked Charles, with his habitual sang froid.
"Well, now, I did hear as young Charles Stuart himself was taken," answered the smith; "anyhow, they're so sharp on the look-out for him, that they're main sure he can never leave the country without falling into their hands."
"If they get that rogue into their hands," quoth Charles, "I reckon they'd best hang him forthwith; for he's been the cause of all the trouble, bringing the Scots into the country to fight, just as things were getting settled and comfortable again."
"Faith, and thou art right; and an honest knave to boot!" said the smith, as he finished his task. And Charles, after paying for the shoe, led the horse to the tree where his mistress stood waiting, smiling in her face as he observed the sudden pallor that had overspread it.
"Oh, my dear lord!" whispered Jane softly, as he swung her more deftly this time to her seat; but Charles only laughed as he mounted in front.
"Nay, Mistress, but if I get not my little jest out of all my troubles, I should belike go mad. Let us laugh and be merry while we may. Who knows what the morrow may bring forth?"
A little farther along the road they found the rest of the party awaiting them in some anxiety. Lord Wilmot had gone on in advance, not being one of those for whom Jane's pass was made out; but the others were waiting for them to come up, and were in much anxiety lest they had been detained by some evil hap.
They had now to ford the River Avon not far from Stratford, and proposed to stop for the night at the house of Mr. Tombs at Longmaston; but as they approached the ford they saw a most unwelcome sight. A troop of Parliamentary horse-soldiers had made a sort of bivouac on the river's bank, and were lying about by the ford, whilst their horses grazed and drank.
"We can never pass them!" cried Mr. Petre in great alarm; and forthwith turned round with his wife and servants, and sought to persuade the others to follow him, and find another route; but Charles whispered a word in Jane's ear, making no effort to follow the faint-hearted Petre; and Mr. Lascelles remained beside them.
"To fly is the greatest folly," spoke the King. "See, the fellows are eyeing us already. Let us wave farewells to our good Petre, as if he were riding a part of the way, and had turned back at the ford. But let us press on. You have your pass, Mistress Jane. If we want the whole troop after us all hue and cry—why then let us follow friend Petre!"
There was sound sense in Charles's words. As soon as the other members of the party showed that they were proceeding on their way, the soldiers ceased their significant handling of the horses' bridles and saddles, and only watched the oncoming riders with ordinary attention. Jane's heart was in her mouth as one of the men, whom she took to be an officer, rode up and examined the pass she held out towards him. But he looked only at her and the paper; he spared no glance for the stolid serving man in front, and the party was permitted to ride on unmolested and unquestioned.
Jane drew a long breath of relief as she dismounted in the courtyard after this first day's ride. There was still another night to be passed before they reached Abbotsleigh; and she did not yet know exactly whether she might have to accompany the party even farther, in her capacity of mistress to the serving man. But at least a halt of a few days was to be made at her sister's house; and she felt as though her responsibilities would then come in part to an end.
Charles seemed in a merry mood when they rode forth upon the morrow. Of course she never saw him when once they had called a halt for the night. He went to the servants' quarters, she to be entertained by the ladies of the house, her friends; and since the fewer who knew the secret the better it would be, she could not breathe a word of the matter lying so heavy on her heart.
But the King beguiled the way by low-toned tales for her amusement, though they seemed rather terrible to her too.
"I was bidden last night to wind up the jack," said Charles, with a twinkle in his eye; "and never a notion had I how the thing was done! We princes are taught a vast number of useless accomplishments; but how often have I wished these last weeks that I had been taught to cook viands or mend my clothes! I made such a bungle of it that the virago came at me with a rolling-pin in her hands. Odds fish! but what a rating I got! 'What countryman art thou, stupid-head, that thou canst not wind up a jack?' she cried; and I had to answer: 'I am a poor tenant's son of Colonel Lane of Staffordshire; and we seldom have roast meat; and when we do we don't make use of a jack. We put it in the oven.' Was that well answered, Mistress Jane?"
"Ah, my liege, I cannot bear that you should be thus served and rated! We should all be seeking your comfort on bended knee."
"Well, well, sweet Mistress, the day may come when the King will have his own again; but, meantime, let us enjoy a laugh over the fortunes of fallen royalty. Perhaps it comes not amiss for a prince to learn sometimes that, after all, he is but common clay!"
That night there was no friendly house to shelter Jane and her party, so they put up at the Crown Inn at Cirencester; and as there was always peril in such places of recognition, Charles affected to have an ague upon him, and retired promptly to bed.
Luckily no one in the inn or the town suspected or recognised the person of the King, and the next day's ride was without adventure. Just as it was growing dusk the party rode into the hospitable courtyard at Abbotsleigh, and Jane found herself being helped from her lofty pillion by her kindly host and relative.
"I would ask your good offices, dear sir," she said, "on behalf of this honest fellow, a servant of my brother's, who is suffering somewhat from the ague, that he may be better lodged and served than his comrades. My brother has a great affection for him, and gave him especially to me for this journey. I pray you see that he be well tended."
"It shall be done, fair sister," answered Mr. Norton at once; and summoning Pope, the butler, he put Charles—or William Jackson, as he was called—into his charge, telling him he was one of Colonel Lane's tenants and favourite servants, and must be treated with kindness, as he was suffering from ague.
Jane's time was naturally taken up with interviews with her sister, who had just given birth to a little child, who had not lived above an hour or two, so that the young mother was in sore trouble, and greatly pleased to have her sister's sympathy and companionship. This personal sorrow kept her thoughts busy with her own affairs, and she scarce spoke more than a few words about Jane's journey, whilst the grave face and rather preoccupied manner of her sister seemed explained by other causes.
It was not till the evening of the next day that Jane came upon the King, wandering in the shrubberies of the great garden. There was nobody near, and the place was so secluded that Jane did not hesitate to pause and speak with him. After all, even if anybody did see them, there was nothing very wonderful in her having a few words with one of her own servants.
"I trust, sire, that here, at least, you are subject to no ill words or hardships?"
"Nay, fair Mistress, I am but too well lodged and served. For that honest butler, Pope, who, it seems, was servant once to one of the gentlemen of my household, Jermyn by name, has recognised me, and will not be denied but to kiss my hand in private, and himself to wait upon me in my room. I tell him that a serving man has no need to be served, but he cannot see the sense of that. I truly think he is staunch to the core, else I would be uneasy; for there is a great price upon this head. Yet others have withstood the temptation to betray the secret, and methinks he will too."
"Oh, I would not fear for Pope," answered Jane eagerly, "he is a good and faithful servant. I am sorry—and yet I am glad that he should know; for now you will be served with the best that this house has to offer!"
"But we must have a care," laughed Charles, "there was a fellow sat beside me in the buttery this morning, who was giving such an excellent account of the recent battle that I took him for one of Cromwell's soldiers. But when I asked him he said no, he was in the King's regiment; and I thought at first he spoke of Colonel King, but he meant me all the while! So then I asked him what kind of man the King was? Whereat he replied, with a quick look into my face, that he wasn't anything like me, for all my swarthy skin; that he was half-a-head taller for one thing, and forthwith gave so accurate a description of my dress, and horse, and weapons, that I got frightened at the fellow's keen eyes, and got me away as soon as I could."
It was nervous work hearing tales like this, albeit Charles would laugh and make light of them. Too obvious a disguise would have provoked more suspicion than the one he was adopting, with soldiers and spies everywhere on the look-out for the fugitive Prince, whom so many already declared to be the King, and upon whose head so great a reward was placed.
"I marvel that each one who knows the secret doth not betray it, and make himself rich for life," quoth the young man many times, as he recounted his hairbreadth escapes. "What have we done that person after person, man and woman and gentle maiden"—and he bent his head before Jane with courtly grace—"should risk so much and lose so much in our poor service?"
"You are our King, sire," answered Jane simply; and that seemed to be answer enough.
Two days later Lord Wilmot came to her and asked speech. He had been hovering about them all the while, and lurking in the neighbourhood of Abbotsleigh watching and planning. Now he came to Jane, and spoke freely.
"Mistress," he said, "we still want your help for two more stages of the journey. Your pass will take us safely as far as Trent House in Gloucestershire, where dwells Colonel Wyndham, whom I have seen; and who will not only adventure life and estate in the King's service, but will gladly lose them both to save him from peril. Once at his house, where there are some excellent hiding-places, we shall be near enough the coast to make, I trust, some speedy arrangement for the transit abroad. But there are soldiers quartered in these parts, and we shall want your aid for the next stages. Will you give it to us, and be ready to start upon the morrow early?"
"Willingly, most willingly," answered Jane; "but bethink you, my lord, what can I say to the people here? My sister is very ill. She was taken last night with a fever, and now lies in a sorrowful state, and constantly desires my presence. There are her husband and several relatives to think of. What will they say if I incontinently depart? Will not such conduct excite the very suspicion we most desire to avoid?"
Lord Wilmot at once recognised the difficulty of her position, but his quick wit suggested the remedy.
"Mistress Jane," he said, "supposing that at supper-time a note should be brought to you purporting to come from your mother, saying that your father is taken worse, and that she earnestly desires your return, would that enable you to leave this house upon the morrow without comment?"
Jane nodded her head. It was a time when men were put to all sorts of strange expedients and stratagems. She had grown up in the thick of them; and knew how gladly all her family would join in the plot that had the King's welfare for its aim and object, though it was thought best to keep the matter as far as possible secret.
Her sister was not in peril of her life, and had other relatives with her. A summons from the aged father would weigh above all else; and when the soft-footed Pope brought her the letter as she sat at supper, and she read its contents half aloud, her flitting colour and fluttering breath seemed to bespeak just that amount of natural emotion a daughter was likely to feel.
"Bid William Jackson be ready to attend me on the morrow at daybreak," she said to Pope; and no one sought to stay or hinder.
So the brave young girl rode forth again with Charles in front as her servant. With calm courage she passed her little party through the lines of the Parliamentary soldiers whenever it was necessary; with ready and dexterous wit, she answered all questions put to her; and on the evening of the second day from leaving Abbotsleigh, she had the joy of seeing Charles taken into the house of Colonel Wyndham, where it was thought he would lie safely hid till a vessel could be chartered to take him over to France.
"Sweet Mistress, how can I thank you for this good service?" asked Charles, as she saw him on the following morning for a few brief moments, ere she started forth for home once more—her task so bravely accomplished.
"My reward is with me now, knowing your Majesty in present safety," she answered; "the rest I shall receive when I hear of your safe arrival in France."
"Nevertheless, sweet Mistress Jane," he said, speaking very earnestly, "if the happy day should come when I return as King to this realm, where I have so many brave and loyal friends, I will not forget those who have aided me in this time of storm and stress and threatened peril! Farewell; but something tells me that we shall meet again."
They did meet again. For the following year Jane was taken by her brother to Paris, and quite unexpectedly encountered Charles in some public place. He saw her instantly, and advancing, hat in hand, towards her, exclaimed:
"Welcome, my life!"
And since Charles II. has often been charged with ingratitude towards his friends, let it be said of him here that he showed a different spirit towards the Lanes upon his restoration to power. He settled upon Jane one thousand pounds for life, and half that amount upon her brother the Colonel; also to the girl he gave a beautiful gold watch, and a portrait of himself set round with pearls, which for generations (until, in fact, they were mysteriously stolen and never heard of again) were handed down as a precious family heirloom.