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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJohn Deane Of Nottingham: Historic Adventures By Land And Sea - Chapter 16. Residence In The Fens Of Lincolnshire
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John Deane Of Nottingham: Historic Adventures By Land And Sea - Chapter 16. Residence In The Fens Of Lincolnshire Post by :Zoderami Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :2321

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John Deane Of Nottingham: Historic Adventures By Land And Sea - Chapter 16. Residence In The Fens Of Lincolnshire

The raw wind from the fens was driving the mist before it, and bending masses of willows, bulrushes, and tall sedges all one way--and that way right against the faces of Deane and his guide, when they commenced their devious course across the marshes, within which Master Pearson's farm was situated. A dead level was before them, broken here and there only by a group of willows, or occasionally a few small trees which had taken root on patches of firmer ground than that with which they were surrounded, otherwise the horizon was as clear as that of the ocean. The whole country had a raw, cold, damp, and agueish look about it. It was any thing but tempting.

"Where is the farm?" asked Jack, as he pulled up for an instant to survey the unpromising country before him.

"Some miles on," answered Burdale. "It's lucky you have a man with you who knows the country, or you would have a bad job to get over it. If you were to ride straight on now, you would be up to your horse's ears in slush, with very little chance of ever getting out again alive. Come, I'll show you the way; follow me. Don't turn either to the right hand or to the left, or you will get into trouble!"

Saying this, Burdale spurred on his somewhat unwilling horse, who seemed to understand the difficulties of the way before him. Here and there, and scattered thickly on every side, were large patches of water, sometimes expanding into the size of lakes, while others were mere pools and puddles. Now a patch of reeds was to be seen. In some places soft velvety grass, growing over, however, the most treacherous spots; now a group of low willows, scarcely six feet high; now a bed of osiers, barely three feet above the surface. There was scarcely a spot which offered any promise of ground sufficiently hard to enable the travellers to move out of the snail's pace at which they had hitherto been obliged to proceed.

"Well, this is about the worst country I ever rode over!" Jack could not help exclaiming.

"Now, don't be grumbling, Mr Deane; if it affords you shelter, you may be grateful for it: and the country's not so bad after all. You should just see the pike which are caught in the rivers! they are larger than any you will see in the Trent, I have a notion. There are sheep too here: larger and bigger animals, though somewhat awkward in their gait, than you will see throughout England; but they yield very lusty wool, let me tell you. And though, perhaps, you don't think much of the willows, of which you have passed a goodly number, they're very useful to the people who live here. There is an old proverb they have got--'A willow will buy a horse before an oak will buy a saddle.'"

Burdale, indeed, seemed to have a good deal of information to give about the fens; and Jack could not help thinking that he must belong to the country, or, at all events, have lived a considerable time in it. Indeed, no one but a person thoroughly acquainted with the nature of the ground could have managed to find his way across it. The water was soon over the horses' fetlocks, and here and there up to their knees. More than once Jack could not help fearing that his guide had made a mistake, and that he was leading him into dangerous country; but he did not wish to show any suspicion of his judgment, and made no remark. Again the horses rose up out of the slough across which they had been wading and enjoyed for a short time some hard ground; but they soon had to leave it, to wade on as before. On every side was heard the loud croaking of frogs; their heads poked up in all the shallower marshes, with the object, it seemed, of observing the travellers, and then their croaking became louder than ever, as if they were amusing themselves by talking about them.

"We call those animals 'Holland-waits,'" observed Burdale. "Their king must look upon himself as fortunate, for he has got a large number of subjects; but they're not so bad as the midges. If you were to cross where we are on a hot day, with the sun broiling down on your head, you would wish you had a thick net over your face, for they do bite mortal hard!"

Burdale's horse seemed better accustomed to the country than was Jack's. After having gone a considerable distance, he left Jack some way behind. The marks of the horse's feet had immediately been lost, by the spongy ground returning to its former state. Jack, however, thought there could be no difficulty in pushing on directly behind him. He had not, however, gone far before he found that, instead of following Burdale's direction to turn neither to the right nor left, he had by some means got off the track. His horse began to flounder, and the more he floundered the more difficult it was to extricate himself. Deeper and deeper he sank into the mire, till Jack, fearing that he might lose him altogether, shouted out to Burdale. Burdale heard his voice at length, and hurried back to his assistance. Jack had already got off his horse into the mud, hoping in that way to relieve the poor animal, but it did but little good, and he himself was also sticking fast!

"Here, catch hold of the end of this rope!" exclaimed Burdale, as he threw one which was secured to his saddlebow. "I will haul you out; and then, maybe, we will get the horse free. You could not have followed my advice, or this would never have happened."

Happily, Jack soon reached firm ground, and then he and Burdale together managed to get out the unfortunate horse.

"I must not in future let you get a foot behind me, Master Deane," said Burdale. "You see that a man can as easily be lost in this fen-country as he could in a big forest, and now we must make the best of our way onward; the evening is advancing, and the night is growing desperately cold. It will require some good liquor to warm up our veins again."

As soon as they got on dry ground, Burdale, with a whisp of dry hay and grass, wiped down the horse's legs, and made him look in a more respectable condition than the mud of the marsh had left him in. Burdale, standing up in his stirrups, looked round in every direction to ascertain that no one was approaching.

"We're getting near Master Pearson's country," he observed, "and, as there are some sharp eyes on the look-out for him, we must take care not to betray his abode."

Hour after hour passed by, and still they seemed to have made but little progress across this inhospitable-looking country. Now again a few mounds were seen just rising above the ground, which, Burdale told his companion, were the huts of the inhabitants.

"Well, what sort of people can live here?" asked Jack.

"An odd sort, I must own; something between fish and geese. They must be waders, at all events. In some places they have boats in which they can get about: however, every place has its uses, and so has this, you will find out, before you have been here long!"

At length, as the sun was about to sink beneath the long straight line behind their backs, Jack saw before them what looked like a clump or two of trees which stood on a piece of ground a few feet above the dead level which surrounded it. Objects, too, seemed to be moving about it, which he at length discovered to be horses and cattle. A more perfect Rosamond's labyrinth could scarcely have been contrived than that to which the path they now followed led. Before, however, they came in sight of the bower, they heard the lowing of cows and the barking of watch-dogs, and Jack, who by this time was very hungry, even thought that he sniffed a savoury odour of cooking in the damp air, that mightily urged him forward. At length, they saw before them a large rambling cottage, with dairy-buildings adjoining it, standing on a firm piece of pasture-land that formed a green peninsula rising above the black fens they had just been traversing. A row of poplars behind it, and a plantation on either side, shut it in from any one passing at a short distance. There was also a kitchen and flower-garden in front, and considerable care had evidently been taken to keep the ground around clean and fit for walking.

"You go in, and give your letter to Dame Pearson, while I take the horses to the stables," said Burdale. "You will find it all right, for she will know well that no one could find his way here without a trustworthy guide."

Jack had expected to find a somewhat rough, and perhaps ill-favoured, dame the wife of Master Pearson. Greatly surprised was he, therefore, when, on opening the door, he was received by a remarkably attractive, neatly-dressed woman, with a pleasant smile on her countenance, and agreeable manners, superior even to those of many ladies he had met.

"You are welcome here, Mr Deane, as a friend of my husband!" she said. "We live a secluded life, but shall be glad to see you as long as you can remain. And perhaps you will find some amusement in the sports of our fen-country. Ned Burdale will be able to show them to you as well as most people; but we are not likely to be alone, for my husband tells me that several persons are coming here, and I have been making the best preparation in my power to receive them. My little girl Elizabeth and I will soon get supper ready for you, and make you as welcome as we can. After your hard day's ride you will then be glad to go to bed, for it is a trying country to a stranger. We came here most of the way by water, but it was bad enough even then; and I am told that coming across from inland it's still worse."

On entering the sitting-room, Jack found a fair, pretty-looking little girl, of about fourteen or fifteen years of age, busily employed in spinning, so busy indeed that she did not stop even when she rose from her seat to make him a courtesy as he entered.

"Ah, yes, Elizabeth is always at work," said Dame Pearson; "it is one of the secrets of her happiness, never to be idle from morning till night. To be sure we have plenty to do, and not many people to do it out in this place, and so a good deal falls to our lot--but come, Elizabeth, we will go and prepare the supper for Mr Deane and Ned Burdale, who has come with him; and, perhaps before it is ready, others may make their appearance."

Saying this, she, followed by the little girl, glided from the room, leaving Jack to his own reflections. He had not been left alone long before a knock was heard at the door, and Dame Pearson hurried through the room to open it. As she did so, a tall dark man, in a rough riding-suit, with pistols in his belt and a sword by his side, entered the house with the air of a person accustomed to consider himself at home wherever he might be. After exchanging a few words with the dame, while she returned to the kitchen he entered the room, and, seating himself in a large arm-chair, stretched out his legs, without taking any notice of Jack, who sat before him, while he commenced tapping his boot with the end of his sword, as if lost in thought. At length he condescended to take a glance at his companion.

"Not long arrived in this part of the world, lad, I suppose?" he said, in a tone which showed he was very indifferent as to what answer he might receive. "It is possible that you may pass your time pleasantly enough here, if you are not troubled with the ague, and are fond of the music of frogs and wild-ducks. From what part of the world do you come, I ask?"

"I last came from the borders of Scotland; a pretty long ride too!"

"Ah!" exclaimed the stranger; "what matter brought you south?"

"My own good pleasure," answered Jack, not liking the tone of voice of the speaker. "You will excuse me if I do not explain the reason for my movements until we are further acquainted."

"Spoken like a sensible youth!" remarked the stranger. "I will ask no further questions then, though I suspect you have no cause to be ashamed of whatever you are about."

The conversation, if so it could be called, was cut short by the entrance of Dame Pearson and her young attendant, bearing the dishes for supper, which they placed on a table on which the cloth had already been spread. The tall stranger took his seat at it with the same self-confident air with which he had entered the room. At that moment Ned Burdale came in, and was about to take his seat at the board, when, seeing the stranger, he stopped short.

"I beg your pardon, sir! I did not know--"

"Never mind!" said the stranger; "sit down, Ned; say not a word about it, man!" and he gave him at the same time a significant glance.

Burdale obeyed; but he evidently stood greatly in awe of the person who had spoken to him. Very little conversation took place during the meal; and Jack had time to examine the countenance of the young girl who had assisted Dame Pearson in preparing the supper, and who now took her seat by her side at the head of the table. There was a bright, intelligent look about her, and a refinement of expression which Jack scarcely expected to find in a dwelling so remote from the civilised world. Her education also had evidently not been neglected, for she had apparently read a good deal, and her mind was well stored with information on various subjects. Jack did not find all this out at first; but he very soon began to suspect it. He discovered also that she had derived a good deal of her information from the dame herself, who, though apparently a mere farmer's wife, was evidently a person of superior education, equalled, indeed, by very few ladies in Nottingham or elsewhere at that period. The stranger also treated her with considerable respect; and though he spoke in a rough way to Jack and Burdale, whenever he deigned to address them, his manner was greatly softened as he turned to the dame or the young girl. She was acquainted with most of Jack's favourite authors; could recite many of the ballads about Robin Hood; and she was also especially well versed in Foxe's "Book of Martyrs," a copy of which she exhibited with no little satisfaction to him. He observed, when she brought it out, that the tall stranger looked at it askance.

"Ah," she observed, "what fearful accounts Master Foxe gives us of the persecutions which Protestants have suffered in all lands since the Reformation which Luther was the means of bringing about! In Germany, in Italy, in Spain, and France, and, oh, I tremble with horror when I read of the sufferings of the poor Protestants in the Netherlands, under that cruel Alva! In France also, how barbarously have the Reformed been treated! I have reason to know something about it; and I'll tell you some day, Mr Deane."

This was said after supper, as Jack was seated at a little distance from the rest of the party, while the fair Elizabeth was nimbly plying her distaff.

"Fictions or gross exaggerations!" muttered the stranger, who overheard some of the remarks uttered by the little damsel.

At length the dame, who had observed the rising anger of her guest, came over to Elizabeth, and whispered a few words in her ear; after which she did not again allude to the subject of which she had been speaking.

"When do you expect your good man?" asked the tall stranger. "I fancied that I should have met him here to-day."

"He has sent me word that he will be with us in two or three days, sir," answered the dame. "He has been longer absent than usual; but he has been busy buying cattle to send over to our farm; and we expect to have a considerable increase this year."

"Ah, yes! they thrive well on the rich grasses about here," observed the stranger. "Well, I must wait his arrival; though how to pass away the time till he comes I scarcely know."

"We can give you some sporting, sir," said Burdale. "We lack not a variety--as wild-duck shooting, and fishing; and we have a new decoy establishment not far off. You may be interested in seeing that work, for we sometimes catch a great number of wild-fowl in it."

Jack was not sorry to hear arrangements made for the sport next day, hoping that he might be allowed to join in it, though he thought to himself he would rather have gone in the company of any body else than in that of the tall stranger. That he was a person of some consequence he felt sure, from the way in which he was treated; and when the family prepared to retire to rest, he observed that the dame herself showed him up-stairs to what was called the best guest-chamber in the house. A shake-down was prepared for Jack in a corner of the hall; and Burdale made off to a room in one of the out-houses.

"We treat you now as we shall have to do while you stay here," said the dame, apologising for the homely entertainment she had given Jack. "Before long we are expecting several guests, who come here to transact business with my good man, either to buy cattle or horses, or about certain affairs abroad. He was a seaman in his younger days, and visited many strange countries, and even now is often hankering after the ocean. However, I hope he will settle down quietly soon, for I think he must be weary of riding about the country in the way he does; but he's a good, kind husband to me, and I have reason to be grateful. He saved my life in the time of the Civil War, and protected me from fearful dangers when all my family were killed, and I was left penniless; so I have reason, you see, to be grateful to him and love him. I should be glad if we could move back to the part of the country we came from, for this fen-district is trying to the health, though Elizabeth and I keep ours indeed wonderfully, considering the fogs which so often hang about us. But the inhabitants of Holland retain their health often to a green old age, and the country is very similar to this, only there drains have been cut in all directions, and it is only of late years that attempts have been made to drain our Lincolnshire fens. It would seem impossible to carry the water off from around us, and yet, looking to what has been done in Holland, perhaps too some day we shall see corn-fields and orchards where now we have only marshes and ponds."

Jack, taking courage from the disposition to talk the good dame exhibited, asked her the name of the tall stranger who had just arrived.

"That is more than I can tell you, young sir," she answered. "He calls himself Long Sam, or Sam Smart, and desires to be addressed by that name alone; but whether that is his real name or not, I leave you to judge. He is evidently a man who has seen the world, and courtly society too, though he can be rough enough when he pleases, as you will find if you offend him, and let me advise you not to do so on any account."

Jack, much interested with the information he had received, at length put his head upon his straw-stuffed pillow. As he lay there he heard heavy footsteps pacing up and down the room overhead, which he concluded to be the one occupied by the gentleman who chose to call himself Long Sam.

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The following morning, with Burdale as a guide, Long Sam and Jack set off to visit the decoy which had been spoken of, mounted on rough-looking fen horses, with broad feet which enabled them to get over the soft ground at a considerable rate, while, they kept the legs of their riders out of the water. The horses were left at a hut at a little distance from the decoy, under charge of one of the persons employed in attending it. It was situated in the midst of somewhat higher and firmer ground than any they had before passed

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The next morning when the old couple and Burdale made their appearance, they did not in any way allude to what had taken place during the night, as if they had been totally ignorant of it. Breakfast was got ready by the aged dame; and afterwards Jack stole about the building, and found his way without difficulty into the vault below. Not a trace of any of the occupants of the previous evening was to be seen, but how they had gone he could not discover. Certainly they had not come up by the steps by which he