1635: A Parcel of Rogues – Snippet 27

Robert did that right well, too, stepping up and explaining about the dock-workers in the Hanseatic yards at King’s Lynn, the main seaport for the east of England which was about fifty miles down the Great Ouse from Huntingdon. They’d got the word about the Committees via sailors from Hamburg, and organised. There were the beginnings of a union movement among the dockers there, seeking better pay and conditions. While they’d yet to call a strike of any kind, they’d made a little progress in one way or another, mostly by furnishing the port’s bosses with excuses for being behind with their Ship Money payments to the king. Of course, that wasn’t the limit of their activism, and the fact that the Great Ouse was navigable as far as St. Neots, a good fifteen miles upstream from where they were now in St. Ives, meant they had plenty of reach.

Robert had connections with King’s Lynn through school; one of his friends was from there and had been full of news of the new politics during term-time. They had even formed a “Young Committee” before the schoolmasters had shut it down with beatings all round, at which time they went underground.

When the king’s tyranny had come to Robert’s own home — his exact words, and Darryl fought hard to keep his face straight, because for this little kid it was serious, damn it — he’d prevailed on the friend, who he was careful not to name, for an introduction. He and Robert had made sure their younger brother and sisters were safe with relatives and then gone downriver. On the way, they’d made more Committee connections, this time among the bargees and breedlings, who liked the Committee for the work they were doing organising against the undertakers who were messing with the downstream navigation of the Ouse for profit.

In the end, Robert had ended up getting more help from the bargees and wherrymen that navigated the Great Ouse. They had more reason to know the name of Cromwell than the dockers of King’s Lynn to start with, and a few requests sent back via the North Sea trade to Hamburg had brought histories that mentioned the Lord of the Fens. They had relatives among the breedlings of the fens, and there were plenty of places for a family to hide among them when the king’s men came looking. Which, two weeks ago, they had done.

“It’s so good you’ve come back, Father,” Robert said, when he felt he’d given all the information he could, “because I don’t know what to do next. Everyone has helped so much, but if this scoundrel Finnegan begins to burn more houses, we shall have to give ourselves up or bring more destruction on one and all.”

“That is how he means you to feel,” Cromwell said, the growl in his voice growing deeper and fierier.

“Seems to me there ought to be a reckoning with this Finnegan,” Darryl said. “I don’t think much of a man that’ll take orders from the likes of King Charles anyway, but chasing after kids to get a man to turn himself in? I ain’t having that, not on my watch.”

“We are, then, of one mind,” Lawrence put in. “His commission as a justice is valid on the face of it, but with him thwarted, he’ll get no help from the real justices of this parish, or any other surrounding.”

“It might be that Leebrick and his fellows would do to distract him?” Cromwell suggested. They’d all talked it over the night before, and the three mercenaries had said they’d be happy to oblige Finnegan with a first-class wild-goose chase, if there was a ship waiting somewhere to take them off at the last minute. It was on the list to raise in the next radio window.

“Father, if I might counsel my elders, it seems to me that the end we must seek is getting Bridget, Richard and Libby away to safety.” Robert Cromwell sounded a lot older than his years, now, decades older than the boy who’d been delighted to see his father only minutes before. “It seems to me that keeping them safe puts good friends at hazard, and the work of it is work that does not serve to bring down the king.”

“Does it come to that?” Steward said, sharply. “His tyranny falls lightly on most, even among the godly. Is there not still sanctuary in Holland for such as we?”

“All of us?” Cromwell asked. “You might flee, with your wealth, Sir Henry. Once I might have, but all my goods and money are gone from me. Even now I might, with help from the United States.”

“Pretty sure you’d get asylum,” Gayle put in, “and the fact you’d be coming in with me would seal the deal.”

“True enough,” Darryl said, “and even if it weren’t official-like, things are still pretty wild and woolly even in Magdeburg. Long as you didn’t make trouble or look like you were a spy or anything, folk would leave you alone. Lots of work to be had for a guy that wants to live quiet-like.” It would solve Darryl’s problem entirely, of course, if this Oliver Cromwell was simply, say a USE Army officer. He was supposed to be pretty useful in command of cavalry, and what harm could he do then?

Cromwell held up a hand. “Aye, well enough for me and Sir Henry here. But what of the Sewsters, their home and all their goods burnt for taking over the farm after I was gone and giving employ to my sons? What of them? And lower than them, without the ranks of the gentry? Sir Henry, you know I speak my mind on behalf of the poor. Spoke it, indeed, before the privy council. I might have spake uncouthly, and said my sorries for the words of passion, but I took back not a word of the substance.”

Sir Henry sighed. “There’s that much, Oliver, I’ll give you. And, yes, as gentry we have in charge the common weal of the poor folk of our parishes, as best we may. But such a step –?”

The man’s face was pleading, but resigned. He’d surely be horrified if anyone were to quote scripture about letting cups pass from him, shocked that his own agonising be compared even jokingly to that of Jesus, but there was the same sense about the man that, if he must, he’d drain it to the bitter dregs. And Darryl knew there was really not a lot that smart guys like that wouldn’t stop at, if you convinced them to fight.

“Such a step, Sir Henry. We must take it. God’s providence has placed it before us, will we or no. You think that man would stop at foisting a false justice on just one parish?” Cromwell spat the words false justice with a venom. You could say this for the man, Darryl thought, once he had hold of what was right and wrong, he didn’t hold anything back. Even, as he’d taken to, referring to King Charles only as that man didn’t carry the same glow of scorn.

“Well, let us take it, then. Will we raise rebellion here, or take time to prepare?”

“If the thing’s to be done, Sir Henry, let it be done properly. You’re the man of letters here, I pray you will write many letters. Let the whole country know what is being done in the king’s name. Aye, and not by evil counsellors, by the king. We’ll not give him even that figleaf to hide his shame.”

“And when he orders the justices of the peace to put me in the stocks for seditious libel?”

“May God grant that by then others are repeating your words. And if there is an ounce of persuasion in me, there’ll be stout lads around you in the stocks to ensure your stay in them is comfortable.”

“Hang on,” Gayle said, “if they’re going to prosecute you for libel doesn’t it have to be false?”

“Not in matters of sedition, Mistress Mason,” Sir Henry said. “Sedition’s a criminal libel, and for that, the greater the truth, the greater the libel.”

“That’s nuts!” Darryl blurted out.

“If you mean madness of the rankest sort, I heartily agree, Mister McCarthy. I can only hope there are enough holy fools in England to raise a more wholesome lunacy against it.” Sir Henry smiled as he said it, plainly pleased with the turn of phrase.

At that moment, the sound of gunfire rattled the leaded windows.

“What the hell?” Darryl snarled, grabbing Vicky and roughly shoving her down out of sight. He leaned against the jamb, keeping as much cover as he could while rummaging down the back of his jacket for the pistol he kept in its belt holster back there. “Sounded like muskets,” he said.

“Muskets, aye,” Cromwell said, taking the other side of the window with his own revolver already out. He’d had a small amount of practise with the thing, but was far more likely to do any mayhem that happened with the heavy straight sword, of a kind he called a back-sword, that he’d bought just before they left Diss.

Whoever had fired first, the answering shots were sharp and rapid. Two harsh, flat, quick cracks, like the whip of a goddess of pain. Whoever it was, Julie Mackay was firing back.