"Eleanor! Sister! There be days when I know not how to bear it. I feel that I shall do something desperate."
"Nay, hush, Mary! hush! why shouldst thou speak so wildly? We must be patient! Things will not always be so black!"
"Patience, patience! I am sick to death of the word! We have borne with these odious men about the house, till sometimes I feel that I can bear it no longer. And now that our father hath gone, and Robert with him, I feel that the house is scarce a safe place for our mother or ourselves."
"Come, come, Mary, thou dost go something too far!"
"I trow not. Those bloody, hateful men of Kirke's, what do they care how they frighten or annoy those who are forced for a time to shelter them? The maid servants dare never be alone for an instant. They never know but that one of those half-tipsy fellows will not come lurching in upon them. And listen, 'twas only just now that I met one of them, smelling so vilely of beer and spirits that it made me sick to go near him, wandering up the stairs into our part of the house; and when I bid him begone to his own quarters, what thinkest thou the wretch did?"
"He did not hurt thee?" quoth Eleanor, with sudden solicitude.
The eyes of the younger girl flashed fire.
"Had he laid a finger upon me, methinks I would have slain him as he stood!" she cried.
"Oh, hush, Mary! hush! hush!" pleaded Eleanor. "It is not good in these times to speak such rash words."
"A pretty pass things have come to if sisters may not speak freely together in their own home!" flashed out Mary, whose quick temper was easily aroused, and whose pent up indignation of weeks was coming upon her like a flood. "No, the creature did not dare lay hands upon me. I gave him a look—that was enough; but he vowed with many a vile oath that he would kiss me ere he did my bidding. If I had shown one mite of fear, Eleanor, I verily believe that he would have been as good as his word."
The fair Eleanor shivered with a sense of keen disgust. She had not her sister's courage and readiness and masterful looks and ways. Suppose she had met one of these men upon the stairs, and he had spoken thus to her, would she have been able to escape the hated salute? It turned her sick to think of it—albeit in those days kisses were given and received much more commonly than has since become the fashion between men and women, youths and maidens. Mary read her sister's thoughts, and cried out:
"Yes, yes, that is how I feel! Suppose it had been thou! Suppose insult were offered to thee,—or to our mother,—who is there to defend you? Oh, why was I not born a boy that I could set these surly knaves in their place? Robert should not have gone and left us, when our father was called hence too. It is not right or fitting; and with all these fearful things going on around us. It is enough to make one turn against the King, when he makes use of such vile instruments!"
"Oh, hush, Mary! hush! have a care! It is not safe to talk in that reckless fashion. Who knows but that there may be some meddling spy prowling about? And they say men and women are sent to prison and to death for such small offences now."
"Ah, yes, it is the cruelty, the horrid cruelty we see perpetrated on every hand that makes me so desperate. Think of that man Kirke, feasting and laughing on the balcony overlooking the place where his victims were being hanged and dismembered! think of it, Eleanor! and calling for music for them to 'dance to' when their poor bodies twitched and swayed on the gibbets; eating and drinking and making merry when human lives were passing from the world in all that agony and shame!"
"Thou shouldst not listen to such stories, Mary, it does no good; and it does but make life seem unbearable sometimes."
"And then, after Sedgemoor!" cried Mary, without heeding; "I heard another thing of him there. Did they tell it thee too, Eleanor? There was a man about to die—without trial—without condemnation—just strung up as so many were on the trees by the moor's edge, at the bidding of that man of blood! He was one of many; and the bystanders said that he was the fleetest runner of any on the country side, and could run with a galloping horse. Colonel Kirke asked him if that were true; and he said he had done it. Kirke asked if he would like to do it again to save his life; and he caught eagerly at the proffered hope. He ran with the horse, he kept up the whole course, he returned breathless, exhausted, but full of hope of the promise of life, and what does that monster of cruelty and injustice do?—just has him swung up with the rest, ere the poor wretch can find breath to plead for the promised pardon! Oh, it makes my blood boil—it makes my blood boil! I have been loyal to the King's cause all this while; but how can we help loathing and despising a monarch who will use such tools as that?"
"Perhaps he does not know," faltered Eleanor.
"Not know!" echoed Mary, in scorn. "It is because he knows all too well their temper that he sends them here! Hast heard what men are whispering now?—that soon there will be an assize in the west to try all those who have been concerned in this rebellion; and they say that His Majesty will choose for the judge the most cruel, the most notoriously evil, the most passionate and ungoverned of all the judges on the bench, and that his name is Jeffreys. And people say if once he come hither, no man in Taunton, nor in the west country will ever forget his coming. We shall have such a deluge of blood as has never run in England before."
"Oh, Mary, what fearful tales thou dost get hold of!"
"They are fearful; but they are true. That is what makes them so terrible," answered Mary. "Oh, how I hate and detest cruelty and lust of blood! Art thou not glad, Eleanor, that even Kirke himself could not cozen or threaten any Taunton man into acting as executioner to those poor wretches taken on the field of Sedgemoor? They had to send to Exeter or elsewhere to get a man to do that bloody work. Fancy cutting the poor wretches down ere they were quite dead, and cutting out their hearts, and flinging them on the fire, whilst the Colonel made merry at his window, and the music drowned the curses of the crowd and the cries of the victims or their friends! Methinks we have gone back to the days of the Druids and their human sacrifices. Oh, how can the King permit it? It is enough to drive the whole nation to hate him!"
"And yet we do not want a usurper to rule over us, even if the lawful King be such an one as His Majesty is now. Thou art not foolish enough to wish that the Duke of Monmouth had been victorious, Mary?"
"N-no, I suppose not! I love not usurpers; and our father hath always averred that it is an open question whether the Duke is the son of the late King Charles. No man seems able to say for certain what is his parentage, albeit he was treated like a son; and there be those who swear that the King did marry his mother in secret, and that he is rightful heir to the crown."
"Mary, Mary, thou dost not believe all those foolish stories that thou hast heard passing about? Men are always ready to believe that which they desire to believe. But the Duke of Monmouth, if the late King's son at all, has no claim upon the crown. Had it been otherwise he would have been acknowledged as heir; for every man likes his son to reign in his place. Our father thinks that the Duke is the son of one of the Sydneys; he says he is so strangely like him; and the King never called him son, though he was so fond of him, except when he presumed too far."
"Oh, I know, I know," answered Mary restlessly, "I have heard it all argued a thousand times over. No, I do not want the Duke of Monmouth or any other pretender; but I long for a King who can show mercy and kindness and generosity; not a man full of the most bitter and vindictive spite, who chooses as his tools and instruments those to whom cruelty is a delight!"
It was no wonder that Mary Bridges' soul was stirred within her at this time. She was the second daughter of Sir Ralph Bridges, of Bishop's Hull, near Taunton, and when she was a young girl of some fourteen summers, the whole district was stirred into violent excitement and violent emotion by the sharp outbreak of rebellion under the Duke of Monmouth.
The unpopularity of James II. was on the increase in those places where the Protestant faith had its strongholds. It was openly asserted that the King was a professed Romanist now, and that, in time, the whole constitution of the country would be undermined by him, and that persecutions of a terrible kind would break out under his rule.
The Duke of Monmouth came as the champion of the Protestant faith; and hundreds who would not, in calmer moments, have admitted his claim, or have thought it right for a moment to support one whose birth was so very doubtful, were carried away by religious enthusiasm, and let themselves be easily persuaded that this young man was the champion of the faith; and that, be he who he might, he was a heaven-sent messenger for the truth.
Far-seeing men, however, and men who knew something of the true character and the past history of the Duke, were not so easily carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment. Even had his claim been sounder, he was not the man to push the enterprise to a successful issue. His first burst of success, which had raised the hopes of his followers, and had occasioned a certain alarm and uneasiness in the minds of his opposers, had quickly been followed by a succession of reverses, and on the field of Sedgemoor the hopes of the Duke and his adherents met with a final overthrow.
Sir Ralph Bridges had been one of those who had watched the course of the rebellion with keen interest, and had thrown his influence upon the side of law and order. He had upheld the lawful King throughout, and had done good service in keeping order in his own immediate neighbourhood. But now that the revolt was at an end, and that the proportions to which it had swelled had not been very great, it seemed to Sir Ralph and to others as though clemency and consideration might be meted out to the victims of the ill-timed movement; and he had been greatly scandalised and shocked by the fury shown by Colonel Kirke and his men—his "Lambs" as they had been named in fierce derision—for the heartless brutality of their conduct.
It was, in fact, this indignation on the part of Sir Ralph which had caused him to leave his home somewhat suddenly, and before the withdrawal of the King's soldiers, billeted upon his house, in order that he might post to town with all possible speed, and join with other influential persons interested in the matter in seeking to win over the King, through his ministers and advisers, to a milder and less vindictive policy in dealing with the many persons now under arrest for having been concerned in the rebellion. He had gone with some reluctance; but it was told him by Kirke himself that the soldiers would very shortly be removed from his house, and he had taken his son with him as a precautionary measure; for he was a hot-headed youth, rather of Mary's disposition, and the father was afraid that the lad would get into trouble if he were not there to look after him; his disgust against the atrocities of "Kirke's Lambs" being almost as great as was Mary's. It was from her brother she had learned most of the more ghastly tales of which her mind was full. Eleanor and her mother shrank from hearing such terrible things; but Mary seemed consumed by that fearful curiosity that longs, and yet hates, to know.
The very next day, to the immense relief of Lady Bridges, who, though ever a dignified and self-contained woman, was one of a nervous temperament, the order came from Colonel Kirke that the soldiers were to depart from Bishop's Hull. Great was the satisfaction of the household and its mistress; but equal was the disgust of the men. They had had a fat time of plenty in this house where everything they demanded was accorded by its mistress, who, since the departure of her lord, had found it easier to give than withhold, although Mary's heart often burned with anger at hearing the insolent demands of the brutal fellows, who seemed to her to drink and carouse from morning till night. They had been away during the time of the battle; but they were soon back again, more swaggering, more insolent, more insupportable than ever; and, in the absence of Sir Ralph, there seemed no end to their exactions.
The order which came was that they were to depart upon the morrow; and it was fervently hoped that they would take themselves off at break of day; but this was an idea which never seemed to enter their heads. They called for more wine and beer than ever; sat drinking and dicing in the buttery hall, as though that was their only occupation in life; and when asked when they were going to take themselves off, replied only with curses and foul abuse.
So insolent and intolerable did they become at last, that even Lady Bridges' wrath was stirred within her. She and her daughters and household had been dining as usual in the upper hall; and when the noise from below at last became overpowering, she bid her house-steward go and send the men away, saying that they should have nothing more from her larder or brew-house, that their Colonel had recalled them, and they had no longer any right to be there.
Mary clasped her hands together in delight at hearing this message. The tables in the hall were now cleared. The servants had dispersed save a few who were setting the place in order, Lady Bridges and her daughters were standing upon the daïs where was the upper table, when suddenly several drunken soldiers came lurching towards them in a state of such anger and intoxication as made them fearful and repulsive objects.
They were swearing and cursing after the foul fashion of the day; and though sober enough to see the ladies and make straight towards them, they were not sober enough to choose their words, and continued to pour out vile and insulting threats and abuse.
Lady Bridges, trembling in every limb, sank down in her chair, giving hasty and terrified glances round her to see if help were near, and yet mortally afraid of doing anything that could be construed by spiteful misrepresentation into a charge of treason. The King's soldiers were the King's servants. And who knew what power they might not have?
Eleanor cowered behind her mother as the soldiers lurched up the hall, making gross demands of their hostess, and speaking in violent and insulting language to all three ladies. The frightened servants crowded together in the background waited for their lady's orders ere interfering; and she, fearing to speak the word, only sat there rigid and trembling, whilst ever nearer and nearer came the threatening soldiers with their evil faces and foul words.
Mary's eyes were blazing. Her whole frame was shaken with a passion of fury. If they dared to come up the steps and lay hands upon her mother,—dared to touch one of them,—she drew in her breath, she clenched her hands till the nails dug into the palms. Her eyes were upon the foremost man. They had begun to sparkle strangely. Just as he staggered up the first step she darted forward, stooped quickly, and drew from its sheath the shining sword he carried. Then, backing a few steps in front of her mother and sister, she cried in a voice shaken with passion:
"Dare to come one step nearer, dare to lay hands upon any of us, and thou shalt see what a maid of Taunton will do!"
What happened in those next few seconds it were hard to say. The girl stood rigidly before her mother and sister with the keen blade in her slim hands, pointing it immovable at the drunken soldier still advancing in menacing fashion. He did not believe in the girl's threat, or in the strength of those little white hands. He laughed to see her pointing the sword at him, and words even grosser than anything that had passed before were hurled at her as he came on with drunken violence and brutality. Was it the impetus of that lurch forward, or did Mary herself lunge her weapon at him? Those who looked on could never rightly determine. Mary herself never could answer the question. But the sword pointed straight at the man's heart was so firmly held by those girlish hands, that, as he precipitated himself upon her to break down her guard, the shining blade ran clean through his body, and he fell pierced to the heart, a dead corpse at Mary's feet.
Eleanor shrieked, and covered her face with her hands. Lady Bridges fell back white, and gasping:
"Mary! Mary! What hast thou done? Unhappy child! God be merciful to thee and to us!"
Mary stood very straight and upright. There was no colour in her face; yet there was no faltering in her eyes. Soldiers and servants alike stood still and motionless, too much startled and awed by what had occurred to move or speak; all eyes being fixed upon the motionless figure of Mary.
"Take that thing away!" she said at last, pointing with a fierce repulsion to the dead soldier at her feet. "Take him and begone every one of you! Is it for girls to teach you the lesson how to be men and not brutes?"
In absolute silence, and with something like fear in their faces, the other soldiers, thoroughly sobered, came and carried off the corpse of their companion, and withdrew from the house. Only one significant word was spoken by the chief of the band ere he finally withdrew.
"Colonel Kirke will have to hear of this, mistress," he said, addressing Mary with more of respect in his glance than there had ever been before. She was standing in precisely the same spot and in the same attitude, and she merely bent her head very slightly as she heard the words.
"Tell him everything!" she exclaimed suddenly, as the man turned to go. "Do you think I am afraid?"
He gave her a look of admiration, bowed, and retired. It was then and only then that her mother and sister broke into lamentation and tears; and Lady Bridges, holding her to her breast, sobbed in the bitterness of a mother's anguish.
"Oh, Mary! Mary! What hast thou done? And what can they do to thee? Oh, that man of iron! that cruel, cruel Kirke! And is it before him thou must go?"
Mary kissed her mother, and freed herself gently from her embrace; her nerves were still strung tensely up. She felt no qualm of fear.
"Mother," she said, "there was no one else to defend you and Eleanor. None else would have dared to lift a hand against a soldier of the King's. Was I to stand by and see and hear such things? God in heaven alone knows whether it was my act or his that did him to death. But even if I did strike him to the heart, is not he a man of blood? And is it not written that they who take the sword shall perish by the sword?"
"Oh, my child, my child," wept the mother, "God in His mercy grant that such a fate be not thine own!"
It was two days later when Mary Bridges stood pale and dauntless before that terrible soldier, Colonel Kirke. Her offence was judged to be a military one, and she was arraigned before him by court-martial. Lady Bridges, her self-command and dignity recovered, stood close beside her daughter; and behind them clustered a number of servants, all ready to swear upon their Bible oath that Mistress Mary had never lunged at the soldier by so much as a hair's breadth, but that the man had run upon the weapon with which she was defending her mother and sister.
But their testimony was not destined to be asked or given. Colonel Kirke was a man of few words, and of rapid decision. It was seldom that any case coming before him was granted any space for discussion and hair-splitting.
His own soldiers told the tale fairly enough, admitting the insult, the drunken violence of their dead comrade, and the fact that they had no real right to be in Lady Bridges' house or presence at all. They described the death in detail; and Mary stood silent listening to all that passed; but speaking never a word, nor giving one sign of wavering or of fear.
The Colonel's sombre glance rested again and again upon her face; and, when the accusation was brought to an end, he asked her to state her defence.
"I did it," she answered, speaking fearlessly, "I am going to tell you what your 'Lambs' are like, and you can kill me afterwards in any way you choose. I am not afraid. Your men are cowards and drunkards. I grant they can fight; but they are cowards in their cups. They insult women and girls; they make themselves feared and hated and detested wherever they go. Men speak of them with execration, and they will go down to posterity hated and loathed. Mother, don't try and stop me! I will speak now that I have the chance. Colonel Kirke, have you a mother? Were you ever asked to stand by and hear her grossly threatened and insulted? If you had been there, what would you have done? I am not a man, I am only a weak girl, but I was not going to endure that. I would have killed every man who had sought to attack her. Whether I killed him by an open pass at him, or whether he ran upon his own sword, I do not know—I do not care. I stood there to save my mother and my sister from outrage. You can condemn me to death for it, if you will. I am not afraid!"
There was deathly silence in the hall for a few seconds after those words were spoken. Then Colonel Kirke's voice rang out firm and clear:
"Bring me the sword with which this deed was done!"
The sword was brought. The Colonel took it in his hands and looked upon it. There was the stain of blood upon the shining blade.
Lady Bridges gasped when she saw him turn towards Mary. Was he about to slay her child before her very eyes?
Straight and tall towered the terrible Colonel before Mary; he then did a very strange thing—a thing so strange that those who witnessed it drew their breath in silent amaze. He slightly bent the knee, and placed the naked sword very gently in Mary's hands.
"Mistress Mary Bridges," he said, in that voice which had caused so many to tremble, and which had of late given so many fearful orders of merciless savagery, "this sword is yours. Take it; and take with it the full acquittal of this court. The act that you have performed is no crime; it is an honour to the strong young hands that performed it, and the noble young heart that nerved those hands to the deed. Take this sword, and keep it; let it be in your family a treasured heirloom. Let it be handed down to other Mary Bridges yet to come, and with it the tale of how, in the past, a girl, a daughter, a tender maiden, was found strong enough to rally to the defence of her mother, whilst craven hirelings shrank and feared, and coward soldiers looked on and raised no hand to check the violence of a comrade!"
His fierce eyes swept round the hall, and many shrank before the glance; then it softened once more, and he looked straight at Lady Bridges.
"Madam, I bid you farewell. Take home your daughter, and be proud of her. Guard her well; and when the time does come, find her a mate worthy of herself. Mistress Mary Bridges, I kiss your hand. Fare you well, and may you be known to posterity when this tale is told, as 'Mary Bridges of the Sword.'"