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Chapter VII. 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 there."

"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 luck here."

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 above.

"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 climb up."

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?"

"Well worth it, Lionel. I could only hear a little of what was said, but that was quite enough to show that a plot is on foot to attack and kill the queen the next time she journeys to Windsor. The conspirators are to hide in a wood near Datchet."

"You don't say so, Geoffrey. That is important news indeed. What are we to do next?"

"I have not thought yet," Geoffrey replied. "I should say, though, our best plan would be to make our way back as quickly as we can by Burnham and Maldon round to Hedingham. The earl was going up to London one day this week, we may catch him before he starts; if not, we must, of course, follow him. But at any rate it is best to go home, for they will be in a terrible fright, especially if Joe Chambers or one of the men take the news to Bricklesey of the loss of the Susan, for it would be quickly carried up to Hedingham by John Lirriper or one or other of the boatmen. No day seems to be fixed, and the queen may not be going to Windsor for some little time, so the loss of a day will not make any difference. As we have money in our pockets we can hire horse at Burnham to take us to Maldon, and get others there to carry us home."

An hour's walking took them to the ferry. It was now getting dusk, and they had come to the conclusion as they walked that it would be too late to attempt to get on that night beyond Burnham. The storm was as wild as ever, and although the passage was a narrow one it was as much as the ferryman could do to row the boat across.

"How far is it from here to Burnham?"

"About four miles; but you won't get to Burnham tonight."

"How is that?" Geoffrey asked.

"You may get as far as the ferry, but you won't get taken over. There will be a big sea in the Crouch, for the wind is pretty nigh straight up it; but you will be able to sleep at the inn this side. In the morning, if the wind has gone down, you can cross; if not, you will have to go round by the bridge, nigh ten miles higher up."

This was unpleasant news. Not that it made any difference to them whether they slept on one side of the river or the other, but if the wind was too strong to admit of a passage in the morning, the necessity for making a detour would cost them many hours of valuable time. There was, however, no help for it, and they walked to Criksey Ferry. The little inn was crowded, for the ferry had been stopped all day, and many like themselves had been compelled to stop for a lull in the wind.

Scarcely had they entered when their names were joyously shouted out, "Ah, Masters Vickars, right glad am I to see you. We feared that surf had put an end to you. We asked at the ferry, but the man declared that no strange lads had crossed that day, and we were fearing we should have a sad tale to send to Hedingham by John Lirriper."

"We are truly glad to see you, Joe," Geoffrey said, as they warmly shook Joe Chambers and the two sailors by the hand. "How did you get ashore?"

"On the mainmast, and pretty nigh drowned we were before we got there. I suppose the tide must have taken us a bit further up than it did you. We got here well nigh two hours ago, though we got a good meal and dried our clothes at a farmhouse."

"We got a meal, too, soon after we landed," Geoffrey said; "but we did not dry our clothes till we got to a little village. I did not ask its name. I am awfully sorry, Joe, about the Susan."

"It is a bad job, but it cannot be helped, Master Geoffrey. I owned a third of her, and two traders at Bricklesey own the other shares. Still I have no cause to grumble. I have laid by more than enough in the last four years to buy a share in another boat as good as she was. You see, a trader ain't like a smack. A trader's got only hull and sails, while a smack has got her nets beside, and they cost well nigh as much as the boat. Thankful enough we are that we have all escaped with our lives; and now I find you are safe my mind feels at rest over it."

"Do you think it will be calm enough to cross in the morning, Joe?"

"Like enough," the sailor replied; "a gale like this is like to blow itself out in twenty-four hours. It has been the worst I ever saw. It is not blowing now quite so hard as it did, and by the morning I reckon, though there may be a fresh wind, the gale will be over."

The number of travellers were far too great for the accommodation of the inn; and with the exception of two or three of the first arrivals all slept on some hay in one of the barns.

The next morning, although the wind was still strong, the fury of the gale had abated. The ferryman, however, said the water was so rough he must wait for a time before they crossed. But when Geoffrey offered him a reward to put their party on shore at once, he consented to do so, Joe Chambers and the two sailors assisting with the oars; and as the ferry boat was large and strongly built, they crossed without further inconvenience than the wetting of their jackets.

Joe Chambers, who knew the town perfectly, at once took them to a place where they were able to hire a couple of horses, and on these rode to Maldon, some nine miles away. Here they procured other horses, and it was not long after midday when they arrived at Hedingham.

Mrs. Vickars held up her hands in astonishment at their shrunken garments; but her relief from the anxiety she had felt concerning what had befallen them during the gale was so great that she was unable to scold.

"We will tell you all about it, mother, afterwards," Geoffrey said, as he released himself from her embrace. "We have had a great adventure, and the Susan has been wrecked. But this is nor the most important matter. Father, has the earl started yet?"

"He was to have gone this morning, Geoffrey, but the floods are likely to be out, and the roads will be in such a state that I have no doubt he has put off his journey."

"It is important that we should see him at once, father. We have overheard some people plotting against the queen's life, and measures must be taken at once for her safety. We will run up and change our things if you will go with us to see him. If you are there he will see you whatever he is doing, while if we go alone there might be delay."

Without waiting for an answer the boys ran upstairs and quickly returned in fresh clothes. Mr. Vickars was waiting for them with his hat on.

"You are quite sure of what you are saying, Geoffrey?" he observed as they walked towards the castle. "Remember, that if it should turn out an error, you are likely to come to sore disgrace instead of receiving commendation for your interference. Every one has been talking of plots against the queen for some time, and you may well have mistaken the purport of what you have heard."

"There is no mistake, father, it is a real conspiracy, though who are those concerned in it I know not. Lionel and I are nor likely to raise a false alarm about anything, as you will say yourself when you hear the story I have to tell the earl."

They had by this time entered the gates of the castle. "The earl has just finished dinner," one of the attendants replied in answer to the question of Mr. Vickars.

"Will you tell him that I wish to see him on urgent business?"

In two or three minutes the servant returned and asked the clergyman to follow him. The earl received him in his private chamber, for the castle was full with guests.

"Well, dominie, what is it?" he asked. "You want some help, I will be bound, for somebody ill or in distress. I know pretty well by this time the meaning of your urgent business."

"It is nothing of that kind today," the clergyman replied; "it is, in fact, my sons who wish to see your lordship. I do not myself know the full purport of their story, save that it is something which touches the safety of the queen."

The earl's expression at once changed.

"Is that so, young sirs? This is a serious matter, you know; it is a grave thing to bring an accusation against anyone in matters touching the state."

"I am aware that it is, my lord, and assuredly my brother and I would not lightly meddle with such matters; but I think that you will say this is a business that should be attended to. It happened thus, sir." He then briefly told how, that being out in a ketch that traded from Bricklesey, they were caught in the gale; that the vessel was driven on the sands, and they were cast ashore on a mast.

He then related the inhospitable reception they had met with. "It seemed strange to us, sir, and contrary to nature, that anyone should refuse to allow two shipwrecked lads to enter the house for shelter on such a day; and it seemed well nigh impossible that his tale of the place being too full to hold us could be true. However, we started to walk. On our way we met four horsemen going towards the house, closely muffled up in cloaks."

"There was nothing very strange in that," the earl observed, "in such weather as we had yesterday."

"Nothing at all, sir; we should not have given the matter one thought had it not been that the four men were very well mounted, and, apparently, gentlemen; and it was strange that such should have business in an out of the way house in Foulness Island. A little further we met three men on foot. They were also wrapped up in cloaks; but they wore high riding boots, and had probably left their horses on the other side of the ferry so as nor to attract attention. A short time afterwards we met two more horsemen, one of whom asked us if he was going right for the house we had been at. As he was speaking a gust of wind blew off his hat. I fetched it and gave it to him, and as he stooped to put it on I saw that a tonsure was shaven on the top of his head. The matter had already seemed strange to us; but the fact that one of this number of men, all going to a lonely house, was a priest in disguise, seemed so suspicious that my brother and myself determined to try and get to the bottom of it."

Geoffrey then related how they had gone back to the house and effected an entrance into the loft extending over it; how he had through the cracks in the boards seen a party of men gathered in one of the lower rooms, and then repeated word for word the scraps of conversation that he had overheard.

The earl had listened with an expression of amused doubt to the early portion of the narrative; but when Geoffrey came to the part where accident had shown to him that one of these men proceeding towards the house was a disguised priest, his face became serious, and he listened with deep attention to the rest of the narrative.

"Faith," he said, "this is a serious matter, and you have done right well in following up your suspicions -- and in risking your lives, for they would assuredly have killed you had they discovered you. Mr. Vickars, your sons must ride with me to London at once. The matter is too grave for a moment's delay. I must lay it before Burleigh at once. A day's delay might be fatal."

He rang a bell standing on the table. As soon as an attendant answered it he said, "Order three horses to be saddled at once; I must ride to London with these young gentlemen without delay. Order Parsons and Nichols to be ready in half an hour to set out with us.

"Have you had food, young sirs? for it seems you came hither directly you arrived." Finding that the boys had eaten nothing since they had left Maldon, he ordered food to be brought them, and begged them eat it while he explained to the countess and the guests that sudden business that could not be delayed called him away to London. Half an hour later he started with the boys, the two servants following behind. Late that evening they arrived in London. It was too late to call on Lord Burleigh that night; but early the next morning the earl took the boys with him to the house of the great statesman. Leaving them in the antechamber he went in to the inner apartment, where the minister was at breakfast. Ten minutes later he came out, and called the boys in.

"The Earl of Oxford has told me your story," Lord Burleigh said. "Tell it me again, and omit nothing; for things that seem small are often of consequence in a matter like this."

Geoffrey again repeated his story, giving full details of all that had taken place from the time of their first reaching the house.

Lord Burleigh then questioned him closely as to whether they had seen any of the faces of the men, and would recognize them again.

"I saw none from my spying place above, my lord," Geoffrey said. "I could see only the tops of their heads, and most of them still kept their hats on; nor did we see them as they passed, with the exception only of the man I supposed to be a priest. His face I saw plainly. It was smooth shaven; his complexion was dark, his eyebrows were thin and straight, his face narrow. I should take him for a foreigner -- either a Spaniard or Italian."

Lord Burleigh made a note of this description.

"Thanks, young sirs," he said. "I shall, of course, take measures to prevent this plot being carried out, and shall inform her majesty how bravely you both risked your lives to discover this conspiracy against her person. The Earl of Oxford informs me that you are pages of his cousin, Captain Francis Vere, a very brave and valiant gentleman; and that you bore your part bravely in the siege of Sluys, but are at present at home to rest after your labours there, and have permission of Captain Vere to take part in any trouble that may arise here owing to the action of the Spaniards. I have now no further occasion for your services, and you can return with the earl to Hedingham, but your attendance in London will be needed when we lay hands upon these conspirators."

The same day they rode back to Hedingham, but ten days later were again summoned to London. The queen had the day before journeyed to Windsor. Half an hour before she arrived at the wood near Datchet a strong party of her guard had suddenly surrounded it, and had found twelve armed men lurking there. These had been arrested and lodged in the Tower. Three of them were foreigners, the rest members of Catholic families known to be favourable to the Spanish cause. Their trial was conducted privately, as it was deemed advisable that as little should be made as possible of this and other similar plots against the queen's life that were discovered about this time.

Geoffrey and Lionel gave their evidence before the council. As the only man they could have identified was not of the party captured, their evidence only went to show the motive of this gathering in the wood near Datchet. The prisoners stoutly maintained that Geoffrey had misunderstood the conversation he had partly overheard, and that their design was simply to make the queen a prisoner and force her to abdicate. Three of the prisoners, who had before been banished from the country and who had secretly returned, were sentenced to death; two of the others to imprisonment for a long term of years, the rest to banishment from England.

After the trial was over Lord Burleigh sent for the boys, and gave them a very gracious message in the queen's name, together with two rings in token of her majesty's gratitude. Highly delighted with these honours they returned to Hedingham, and devoted themselves even more assiduously than before to exercises in arms, in order that they might some day prove themselves valiant soldiers of the queen.

G. A. Henty