Chapter 24 | Ben Martlet Is Very Full of Doubts | The Young Castellan

Chapter Twenty Four.

That day matters remained unchanged, save that only about a fourth of the enemy were visible, there being mounted men stationed at intervals upon the higher portions of the country round the castle, where they could command a view of all the approaches; but towards evening these men were relieved, and strong bodies appeared, but not for purposes of attack, merely to draw in and take up stations at closer distances before recommencing what Ben called “padrolling.” Meanwhile, drilling went on busily, and the arrangements were advanced for the proper service of the guns.

A quiet, uninterrupted night succeeded, Roy having arranged with Ben to divide the post-visiting with him and the corporal, who was now looked upon as the third officer in command.

Roy saw but little of Master Pawson that evening. The secretary had been very busy about the place all the day, and, making the excuse of weariness after vainly trying to keep his eyes open, he retired early.

Two more days passed in the same way, valuable days to the garrison, which went on with gun and sword practice from morn till night, and rapidly approached a condition in which they would be able to give a good account of themselves before the enemy.

On the afternoon of the fourth day, it was evident that a change was taking place, for the head of a column of infantry became visible, probably the men for whom the officer in command had been waiting.

Roy hurried to the top of the gate tower with Ben, and the secretary followed, and was the first to point out that behind the regiment of infantry, horses were visible—led horses; and no one was surprised, when the infantry opened out a little, to see that four heavy guns were being laboriously dragged along the rough country lane, a road-way ill fitted to bear the pressure of the wheels with their burden.

“They mean business now,” said Roy, who felt as if something was compressing his heart.

“Oy, sir,” said Ben, coolly; “they’ll knock up an earthwork before morning, and set the guns in a position for battering the gate-way.”

“But you will not surrender, Roy?” said the secretary, excitedly.

“Not I,” said Roy. “I told you so before.”

“Not him, sir,” said old Ben. “Let ’em batter. Them guns won’t be heavy enough to hurt the tower and walls more than to send chips of stone flying.”

“What about the drawbridge, Ben?”

“Oh, they can’t hurt that, sir, because you’ll give orders to lower that down and hoist the portculley.”

“Rather tempting for them to make a rush, Ben.”

“Tchah, sir! We shall be keeping a good watch, and up and down bridge and portcullis would be, long before they could get up to ’em. I s’pose, sir, you’ll make sure that old Jenks doesn’t go across to his gate-house.”

“Of course.”

“And I s’pose, sir, you’ll have the two big guns hoisted up on to the great tower now: we could easily dismount ’em and do that. They’ll be handier up there now, and very awkward for them as works the guns in their earthwork.”

“Yes, I shall order that to be done at once,” said Roy, with a comical look at his Mentor—one which Ben refused to see.

“And then, sir,” he continued, “there’s that there earthwork as’ll stop half the shot they send in through the gate-way, and send a lot of ’em flying right up over the towers.”

“What earthwork?”

“Well, sir, that one as you’re going to start as soon as it’s getting dark. Ground’s pretty soft for working, and we’ve got plenty of timber. I s’pose you’ll reg’larly fill up Jenks’s gate-way, and leave quite a deep ditch behind it on our side.”

“Why not on their side, Ben?” said Roy, sharply.

“Why, of course, sir; I seemed to fancy this side; but t’other’s better, and all the earth we throw out of the ditch goes on the front and top in a slope, eh?”

“Yes, of course; and turns the balls upward.”

“Not many on ’em will go up, sir. Ground’ll be too soft. They’ll just plump in there and stop; and so much the better for Royland Towers.”

As they watched attentively, they found that the horses were halted, and the guns drawn right in front of the castle gate, but at the distance of quite half a mile. There the men seemed to be bivouacking; and the smoke of several fires rose slowly in the air.

No more time was lost: the gunners were summoned, ropes got ready, some heavy beams were hoisted up to the platform of the gate tower, and, under the guidance of Ben and the corporal, a rough kind of crane was fitted up; and after the guns had been dismounted, the carriages were hoisted and placed in position behind the embrasures.

The heavier task was to come; but Ben and the three troopers seemed to master every difficulty, carefully securing the guns with ingenious knots of the ropes; and at last the word was given to hoist.

The hemp stretched and strained, and as the first gun rose a little from the ground, it seemed to Roy as if the strands must give way, and he ordered every one to stand well aside. Ben smiled.

“No fear of that, sir,” he whispered. “Those are the toughest of hemp, those ropes, and as the length gets shorter, the strain grows less. Steady, my lads! a little at a time.”

The hauling went on till the first gun was level with the top of the battlements, when there was a clever bit of management with a big wooden bar or two handled by the troopers on the roof, and the first gun was easily dropped right upon its carriage.

“One,” said Roy, with a sigh of relief, for he was in constant dread of an accident.

“Ay, sir; and it will be two directly; and I wish it was three for the enemy’s sake.”

The second gun was hoisted, and mounted rapidly, thanks to the trained skill of the four regular soldiers; while the men from the mill who helped looked on with profound admiration, though they were pretty clever at moving stones.

Discipline was relaxed over this manual labour, with the consequence that Sam Donny’s tongue began to run rather freely, a certain intimacy having existed in the past between Roy and the miller’s man connected with the demand and supply of meal-worms for catching and feeding nightingales, which came about as far west as the castle and no farther.

“Beat us chaps to ’a done that, Master Roy,” he said.

“Captain Roy,” growled Ben.

“Ay. Forgetted,” said the man. “T’other seems so nat’ral. Beat us chaps, Captain Roy. We’m as strong as them, but they’ve got a way a handling they brass guns as seems to come nat’ral to ’em like. But if they’ll come to the mill, we’ll show ’em something along o’ flour-sacks, and the grinding-stones as’ll make ’em stare. Every man to his trade.”

“Well, you’re a soldier now, Sam Donny, and you must learn to handle guns as well as you handle sacks of flour.”

“We will, master—I mean cap’n. I should just like me and my mates to have the letting o’ them guns down again. May we, sir?”

“No. Absurd.”

“But we’d get ’em up again, sir.”

“Wait till the enemy have gone,” said Roy, “and then we’ll see.”

A portion of the afternoon was devoted to taking up the necessary ammunition and re-arranging the top platform they had to prepare for the guns; and just at dusk, after the sentinels had been doubled, a strong party stood in the gate-way, armed with shovel and pick, waiting for the bridge to be lowered. Another party had a number of beams; and, lastly, already drawn up, stood a guard prepared to watch over the safety of the workers, and hand them weapons for their defence, if, perchance, they were seen by the enemy, and an attempt made to rush in.

But no sign was given to warn the parliamentarians, and Roy and the secretary stood on the platform of the great gate-way, watching the enemy, till, in the dim light, a body of men marched to the front, halted a quarter of a mile from the gate; a large square was rapidly marked out with pegs, and then an order seemed to be given, for the party began at once to dig and throw up a breastwork, evidently for the shelter of their guns.

Master Pawson watched everything eagerly, and kept on pointing out what was going on, while Roy leaned upon one of the guns, saying, “I’ve been wondering whether these guns will carry as far as that work they are making—I mean so as to hit hard.”

“They think they will not,” said the secretary, “and have placed their battery just out of reach.”

“How do you know?” said Roy, sharply.

“I—oh, of course, I don’t know,” said Master Pawson; “it is only what I judge from seeing them make their battery there.”

“Oh, I see,” said Roy, quietly. And he thought no more of the remark just then. He waited till the figures of the men digging grew more and more indistinct, and then quite invisible from where they stood; and he was just about to descend, when the sergeant joined them, to say, respectfully—

“We’re all ready, sir, and I’ve got some more poles and planks out of the wood-house.”

“Then we’ll start at once,” said Roy; “but I’ll have these guns manned at once to cover our working-party.”

Ben coughed.

“You don’t think that’s right?” said Roy, quickly.

“Well, sir, I wouldn’t have presumed to interfere with my commanding officer’s orders ’fore any one else. But—”

“Now don’t talk nonsense, Ben,” said Roy, warmly. “There’s no one here but Master Pawson, who is as anxious about preserving the place as we are.”

“Indeed, I am,” said the secretary, earnestly.

“So don’t let’s have any of that silly ceremony. I wish you wouldn’t pretend to believe I was so conceited.”

“I don’t, captain,” said Ben, abruptly; “only want you to see when you’re wrong.”

“Then speak out at once. Now then; you don’t think it worth while to man these guns now?”

“No, sir. If they hear us at work, and attack, we’ve got to retreat over the bridge fast as we can, and get it hoisted. Say you’ve got these guns manned and loaded, a shot or two might check the attacking party; but how in the dark are we to know when it is best to fire? How are we to take aim? And what’s to prevent our hitting friends instead of enemies.”

“Fire high, over their heads.”

“That’s wasting two good charges for the sake of making a noise. I don’t think I’d trouble about them to-night, sir.”

“No; you’re right.—Eh, Master Pawson?” said Roy.

“I don’t much understand these things,” said the secretary; “but it sounds the more sensible idea. You’re not offended by my speaking out?”

No; but I soon shall be if you all treat me as if I thought of nothing but dressing up as a soldier, and wanting to have my own way over matters where I’m wrong. Come along, down.”

Roy led the way down through the corner turret, Master Pawson following and Ben coming last; while, as they wound round the narrow spiral, the secretary turned his head to whisper—

“He’ll make a splendid officer, Martlet.”

The only reply he obtained was a very hog-like grunt; then Ben spoke to himself:

“I wish to goodness you were along o’ the enemy, or anywhere but here; you’re supposed to be a friend, but somehow I can’t never feel as if you are one. My cantank’rousness, I s’pose. Not being a scholard like you, maybe. Anyhow, though, I’m more use just now than you are; not but what that’s easy, for you aren’t none at all.”

By this time they were down in the gate-way once more, where the portcullis was raised as silently as possible in the darkness, the bridge lowered, and the heavily laden working-party, followed by their guard marched slowly and silently out; a second strong guard was posted at the far end of the bridge to cover the retreat if one should have to be made—these last being under the command of the corporal; and Master Pawson volunteered in a whisper to stay with the men. Roy acquiesced, feeling rather glad to be without his company.

Next a halt was called, and all listened as they gazed out in the darkness in the direction of the enemy. Then feeling how commanding a position the latter had in the possession of their horsemen to act as scouts, and who might approach very near unseen, and discover the plans of the night, Roy gave orders for the guard at the end of the bridge to advance two men, to station them as sentries at equal distances, to keep in touch with the working-party.

“Fiddler’s right,” growled Ben, to himself. “He will make a splendid officer one of these days.”

The next minute the work was silently begun, the guard being thrown out in a half-moon formation in front of the outer gate-way which covered the bridge.

Ben’s plans were very simple. He had the heaviest beams they had brought stretched across the gate-way, as high as they could reach overhead, and propped against the masonry on either side with shorter beams; then poles, planks, and fagots were stretched in a slope from the ground to the crossing timbers, so as to make a scarp; and, as soon as this was done, shovel and pick were set to work to dig a deep wide ditch, the earth from which was thrown up over the wood; while men on either side filled baskets and carried their loads to pile upon the slope as well.

It was roughly done work, but every shovelful added to the strength of the bank, which rapidly grew in thickness as the hours glided on, the workers being relieved from time to time to do duty as guards, while the guard took their turn at shovelling and filling.

There was no halting, the men having refreshments served out to them by Roy’s forethought as they were relieved; and so the work went on till towards dawn, when a couple of men were strengthening the bank from behind with short pieces of wood wedged up against the crossbeams, as the weight of the earth began to make them bend.

“You’ll have to set a party to work by daylight, filling up on this side, Master Roy,” said Ben, quietly. “If we heap up earth and turf here, it will be the best support, and a regular trap for all their balls.”

“I begin to fear that as soon as they begin to fire they will batter it all to pieces, Ben.”

“Dessay they’ll damage it a bit, sir; but if they do, we must mend it; and every night we work, we can get it stronger and more earthy. Nothing like soil to swallow balls. Of course it’s no use as a defence, because the enemy could come round either end; but it’ll do what’s wanted, sir—stop the shot from hitting the bridge-chains and smashing through the grating. Hello! what’s that?”

That was a challenge, followed by a shot, and the rush of feet as the sentries thrown out ran back. This was followed by the trampling of hoofs, and the shouting of orders, as a small body of horse made a dash at the working-party, sweeping by the gate, but only to be received by a scattered volley as they were dimly seen riding out of the black darkness and disappearing again. But not without coming to the closest of close quarters, for there was the clashing noise of swords striking against steel, and, in the brief time occupied by their passing, blows were returned amidst angry shouting, and several dull thuds told that the blows had taken effect on horse or man.

It was merely the work of moments, the charge having been delivered from the left by a party of mounted men who had evidently been reconnoitring along by the edge of the moat, and came up at a slow walk unheard by the sentries on the walls. Then, finding the working-party before them, they had charged and galloped clear.

Roy fully expected another attack, for which he was now well prepared, the workers having seized their weapons; but all was still, and he was arguing with himself as to whether it would not be as well to work on till daybreak, when a voice from out of the darkness said, faintly—

“Will some ’un come and lend me a hand?”

“Sam Donny!” cried Roy, and, in company with Ben, he ran forward for quite forty yards before they came upon the man lying prone upon the earth.

“Why, Sam!” cried Roy; “are you hurt?”

“Well, it’s only a scratch, sir; but it do hurt, and it’s a-bleeding like hooroar. One on ’em chopped at me with his sword. I’d only got a pick, you see; but I hit at him with that, and somehow it got stuck, and I was dragged ever so far before I had to let go. He’s got the pick in his big saddle, I think. But I’ll pay for it, sir, or get you a new one.”

“Never mind the pick, Sam. Where are you hurt?”

“Oh, down here, on my right leg, sir. He made a big cut at me; but I’ll know my gen’leman again. I’ll have a sword next time and pay him back; and so I tell him.” Ben was down upon his knees, busy with a scarf, binding the wound firmly, a faint suggestion of the coming day making his task easier; and, summoning help, a rough litter was formed of a plank, and the wounded man rapidly carried in over the bridge.

That brought the defensive operations to an end, for Roy withdrew his men into the castle, and the daylight showed their rough work, which pretty well secured the gate-way; but it also displayed the work of the enemy, who had constructed a well-shaped earthwork, out of whose embrasures peered a couple of big guns.

The rapidly increasing light, too, showed something more, for about a couple of hundred yards from the outworks, a horse, saddled and bridled, lay upon its side, quite dead; for the terrible stroke the miller’s man had delivered with his pickaxe had struck into the horse’s spine.