1635: A Parcel of Rogues – Snippet 23

Chapter 12

“No, totally burnt to the ground,” Towson confirmed. “Not too long ago, by the looks, there’s still a lot of ash and charcoal about the place, but we couldn’t go too close to be sure. Not a lot we could see from the road, but every building in and around the farmhouse is burnt back to a shell. And, just in case we thought this was a coincidence, a couple of smiling lads happened to be around the place for us to ask what had happened as we ambled along, nothing but a couple of idle old soldiers home from the Germanies, off to visit an old friend up the road a ways. Well, they didn’t have a lot to tell us, but they’re not local boys. Irishmen, the pair of them.”

“And since your humble servant here kept his mouth firmly shut,” Welch added, “they had the fool notion of thinking talking in Irish would be private to them. They’re watching the place and decided that their chief ought to know as soon as Mulligan, whoever that was, came round in a short while. So that’s why we’re late, we’d to find another way back since they’d certain sure be waiting for us.”

Darryl could see the pain on Cromwell’s face. He’d only been a tenant on that farm, slowly and carefully working his fortunes back up from what sounded like near-bankruptcy, but it had been his home for more than three years. And whoever was tenant there now might have been able to tell him where his children had ended up. “Did they say aught of the children that once lived there?”

“Nothing,” Welch said. “They had a little to say of the family that was there most recently, though. Two, very little. Run off with their ma and da and two farmhands, they said, when the farm was burnt.”

“Did they say why?” Darryl asked, beginning to feel a cold, hollow feeling he wasn’t sure would be warmed other than by administering some righteous hillbilly justice. He’d been along with the scouting parties that’d gone out right after the Ring of Fire and seen some of the shit guys down-time could and did pull on ordinary folks in their own homes, and the fury’d never really left him. Seems like some of it got out in his voice, since both Cromwell and Hamilton were giving him funny looks.

“Order of the justice of the peace, under commission from the king, they said. Sounds like lies to me, though. Even across the water the justices can’t just have someone’s home burnt, especially if it’s tenanted and not freehold. They’ve punished the landlord as much as anyone.” Welch shrugged. “I think we’d need more than the word of those two ruffians to get to the bottom of it.”

“True enough,” Cromwell said. “I never completed my studies for the bar, but I can tell you that much. Fines and seizures can be compassed by a justice of the peace, but burning a farm and driving the tenant off? I never heard the like before and never thought to.”

Darryl felt a moment of grim humor come over him. “You know, Oliver, with all the grief I gave you over what you would’ve done in Ireland, I never stopped to think about the bit where you rebelled against the king. And if this is the kind of thing you have to put up with from His Royal Assholeness, I can’t say it wasn’t purely the right thing to do.”

“If it was not before, it is now,” Cromwell said, and there didn’t seem to be trace of jest in his words. “It remains that we should find them. Robert and Oliver will have come back from school by now, if they had not already. I cannot recall where I stood with the school in the matter of fees. I can only hope that God’s grace guided them to find the little ones and the friends I have in this county.”

“Robert’s your oldest, yes?” Hamilton said, “Fourteen now?”

“But a month past. He and Oliver were away at school when I was captured, or they might have been shot. Oliver will be thirteen come November. Bridget, Henry and Elizabeth are the little ones. Bridget will be eleven years old soon.”

They’d all heard Cromwell speak of his children, the hope in his voice a thin veneer over a chasm of worry. On the one hand, the Cromwells were a rich and influential family in Huntingdonshire, and there would have been no shortage of relatives to take them in. On the other hand, it would have taken time to get word to any of those relatives, and much could have happened to them in the meantime. And between Cromwell’s children and his relatives there were all the enemies he’d made only a couple of years before in Huntingdon itself, speaking his mind clearly and vociferously against the terms of the town’s charter of 1630.

To Darryl’s amusement, the man had had no idea of the name “Lord of the Fens” and still less of any plan to drain the Fens that he might have helped anyone with. He’d certainly made himself popular among the poor of Huntingdon by what he’d publicly called the mayor of that town over the terms of the new charter, which more-or-less allowed the mayor and aldermen to help themselves to town property intended for poor relief. He’d had to apologise in privy council for his language, but the council itself had sustained his objections to the terms of the new charter and amended it. It probably hadn’t helped that he’d accepted a post as justice of the peace under the new charter to get himself a public platform to say those things. Darryl was, quietly, looking forward to twitting Miz Mailey over that one, to be sure. And learning that Cromwell had deliberately gotten inside City Hall to fight City Hall, and won, took him up a notch or two in Darryl’s estimation. That shit was tactical.

If the absolute worst hadn’t happened, and Cromwell had enough trust in his neighbours that it hadn’t — with plenty of credit given to Divine Providence along the way, of course — the next possibility was that through sheer carelessness they’d fallen on the tender mercies of the poor-law system for the parish of St. Ives. That had the potential for real disaster: a poorhouse orphanage was a chancy proposition at best. Bridget might have been old enough to go out maintained as a needleworker in some gentry home, but little Henry and Elizabeth, who’d be six and five by now, might or might not have survived in an orphanage. Farm children in the here and now, even offspring of a gentleman farmer, had no easy life, but from there into a parish orphanage would be a terrible blow for them.