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From the Paperback edition.
From the time of the King's ascending the cathedral tower, which he had done early in the morning, to observe the disposition of Cromwell's forces, the day had been dull, heavy with autumnal mists, as gloomy as General Leslie's face.
'Look well?' Leslie had said, weeks before, as sour as a lemon. 'Ay, the army may look well, but it won't fight.'
But the King had led the Highlanders out through the Sidbury Gate, with the best of his infantry, and the handful of English Cavaliers who pressed close about his person, and they had fought so well that Cromwell's Ironsides had been flung back at the foot of Red Hill. A charge of massed cavalry then might have won the day, but no cavalry came trotting up to support the infantry. Three thousand Scottish horse, under David Leslie, stayed motionless in the rear, while the foot soldiers, their ammunition expended, fought with halberds and the butt-ends of their muskets until forced to give way before Cromwell's reserves.
In Worcester, the citizens ran for shelter into their shuttered houses, for the battle was closing in on the town. To the south, Fleetwood had forced the passage of the Teme at Powick Bridge; West of the Severn, beyond Pitchcroft meadow, General Dalyell's brigade of Scots, with no heart in them for a losing fight on alien soil, began to lay down their arms; while on the main front the Fort Royal was being attacked. Guns barked and thundered; the atmosphere was acrid with smoke, through which con fused, struggling forms loomed and faded as the ragged battle pressed nearer and nearer to the town.
Across the road before the Sidbury Gate, an ammunition-waggon lay overturned, blocking the entrance to the town. Two of its wheels were cocked up in the air, and the ammunition, spilling over the road, lay in a tangle of horses' guts. A tall horseman, in dulled and dinted half-armour, came riding up out of the murk and the mist, and was forced to a standstill, his horse's hooves slipping and stumbling amid the wreckage. Those by the gate caught the flash of a jewel as he alighted heavily, weighed down by his cumbering armour; and a glimpse of a young, harsh face under the brim of his beaver. Then he was hidden momentarily from their sight as some more horsemen surged up in his wake. Voices, sharpened by a sense of emergency, sounded in a confused hubbub; the tall Cavalier broke through the press, and climbed laboriously over the waggon, into the town.
His gloved hands plucked at the straps of his breastplate. 'Get this gear off me!' he commanded. His voice was husky with fatigue; he cleared his throat; and, as those who had followed him were slow in obeying, repeated more strongly: 'Get it off me, I say! You, Will Armourer! Duke, find me a fresh horse!'
Young Armourer tugged at the straps; his fingers were sticky with sweat, and trembling. 'The day's lost. They're closing in on us,' he muttered. 'Those damned Scots!'
The scarred breastplate was off, and flung down with a hollow ring on to the cobbles. The King stripped off the cuisses that guarded his thighs, and straightened himself with a gasp of relief. 'Not lost! Not lost yet!' he said, but a note of anguish rather than of conviction sounded in his voice. He turned, and seized the bridle of a big grey horse which Marmaduke Darcy had led up, and swung himself into the saddle, and dashed off up the steep street towards the cathedral.
General Leslie's troopers were drawn up in good order, but showed no disposition to take any part in the battle. The King rode up to where David Leslie stood in conference with some of his officers. The group parted to make way for him; he thrust between two officers mounted on fidgety chargers, and addressed himself hotly to Leslie. What he said only the General heard. A rigid look came into Leslie's face; he replied clearly: 'When your Majesty has had my experience of men, you will know when it is useless to expect them to advance.'
'Your experience!' the King said in a choking voice. 'Is this the way you use in Sweden?'
He did not wait to hear the reply, but wheeled about, and, snatching off his plumed hat, rode down the lines of the troopers, allowing them to see his face, and his tossed black lovelocks. 'Gentlemen, one charge for the King!' he shouted. 'Will you let it be said the Scots dared not face Cromwell's men? Which of you will strike a blow for Charles Stewart? You, Ned Fraser! – you, James Douglas!'
Leslie looked after him not unsympathetically, but shrugged as he heard him calling unavailingly on the men by name to follow him.
'Fine generalship!' said a drawling, insolent voice. 'Admire it, Talbot! Our friend deserves our compliments, oddsblood, he does!'
'For God's sake, leave that, Buckingham!' Talbot said. 'The rebels are in the town! General Leslie, on your loyalty, I charge you –'
'The men will not fight!' Leslie interrupted angrily. 'You cannot say I did not tell you how it would be! If you have interest with his Majesty, advise him that retreat is the only course left to us!'
A man with a mass of red hair, and a rough, spluttering speech, exclaimed with a strong Scotch accent: 'Mon, they're in guid order!'
'Ay, my Lord Lauderdale! In good order now!' Leslie retorted. 'Will you teach me my trade? I tell you, my lords, and you too, your grace! that if you try to make them engage in a fight they've no stomach for, there'll be no order left amongst them!'
Buckingham, to whom his speech seemed principally to have been addressed, merely lifted his arched eyebrows in an expression of disdain. The noise of the fighting by the Sidbury Gate was growing every moment more intense. Talbot exclaimed: 'My God, are they in? The King must be got away!'
He clapped spurs to his horse as he spoke, and so did not hear Leslie say: 'Let the King place himself amongst my men. I will engage to carry him safe back to Scotland.'
Talbot, with Lauderdale at his heels, and Armourer, Darcy, and another of the King's Bedchamber stringing out behind him, caught up with the King, and leaned out of the saddle to seize the grey's bridle. 'Sire, you must save yourself!' he said urgently. 'They're breaking in on all sides! There's no more to do here!'
The King tore his bridle free, and the grey reared up, snorting. 'Escape? No! But one charge and we may sweep them out of the town! Gentlemen, gentlemen, I implore you –'
'Sir, Hamilton, Douglas, Forbes are all fallen!' Talbot cried. 'You must save yourself!'
The King turned his distorted face to the ranks of the Scots. 'Will you not strike a blow for me?' he said fiercely. 'I would rather you would shoot me than let me live to see the consequences of this fatal day!'
The pain in his voice made the Lord Talbot grimace. Lauderdale thrust his horse forward, and in his turn grasped the King's bridle. 'Shoot ye?' he said, between pity and roughness. 'No, by God, sir, ye're too precious to this realm! Come awa'!'
A youth on a foaming horse came full-tilt upon them, calling out hoarsely that the Roundheads were in, and the King must fly or be taken. Some of Leslie's officers, who had tried to exhort the sullen troopers to charge, had gathered about him. The newcomer, another of the King's Bedchamber, said in jerks that the English horse had rallied in Friars Street, and were holding the rebels in check to secure the King's retreat. Lauderdale and Talbot almost dragged the King away as the Scottish troopers began to draw off.
The gabled house, which had been the King's lodging for nearly a fortnight, was situated at the end of New Street, and extended to the Corn Market. The street was narrow, a continuation of Friars Street, which led downhill to the Sidbury Gate. Here, as Mr May had described, a band of English horse, rallying round old Lord Cleveland, Colonel Wogan, Majors Carlis, Massey, and others, was making charge after gallant charge. The street was a shambles, the dead and wounded trampled under sliding, plunging hooves, and blood running in the gutters. The little party escorting the King with difficulty made their way to New Street down one of the lanes that thronged with demoralized Royalist troops, and reached at last the big, half-timbered house at the western end. Here, the King, who had not spoken again after his last appeal to Leslie's brigade, dismounted, saying hurriedly: 'I will be with you presently. There is something I must do first.'
Only Talbot caught his words, drowned as they were in the noise of the fighting farther down the street. He shouted: 'Haste, haste, sir, for God's love!'
'Hold my horse!' the King said, pushing the bridle into his hand. 'My papers! I must destroy my papers!'
He vanished into the house. Darcy slid out of the saddle, and ran after him, pursued by Lauderdale's raucous voice bidding him hurry the King.
The uproar in the street seemed to be growing louder, caught and flung back as it was by the two rows of houses; and it soon became apparent to the anxious eyes that watched it that the fight was surging nearer. Reinforcements of Republicans were being poured into the town, and not all the desperate gallantry of the Cavaliers who again and again hurled themselves at the tide of red-coats could avail against the opposing weight of numbers.
Inside the house, the King had reached the room leading out of his bedchamber which served him for closet, and was feverishly searching through the mass of his papers, flinging first one document and then another to Darcy, who crammed them on to the embers of the dying fire. The King was absorbed in his task, but Darcy was sickeningly conscious of the sound of fighting, which soon seemed to be almost under the latticed windows. Once again he begged the King to come away, but Charles paid no heed.
The door leading from the bedchamber on to the landing burst open; a hurried, heavy footstep came across the floor, and in another instant the doorway between the two rooms was blocked by the bulk of Lord Wilmot.
He was out of breath, and dishevelled, his florid, handsome face reddened by exertion; and, without wasting time on ceremony, he grasped the King's arm. 'Leave that, sir! In another minute they will be in! Your servants are holding the door! You must come at once!'
'Yes,' the King said. 'Yes, I'll come. One more, Duke! Blow up the flame!'
The last document flared up the chimney. Darcy scrambled up from his knees, stammering: 'Your gear – your jewels!'
'Oh, Duke!' The King began to laugh.
Wilmot flung open the door, and pushed the King through it. 'The back way! They wait for you there.'
To judge by the confused din coming up the well of the staircase from the ground-floor, the fight was by this time concentrated about the entrance to the house.
'Quick, sir! For God's love, will you be quick?' Wilmot hissed. He thrust the King towards the narrow backstairs, but suddenly pulled him back again. 'No, wait! I'll go first: they may have got round the house by now!'
He pulled his sword out of the scabbard, and went swiftly but cautiously down the twisting stair. The King caught Darcy by the hand, who seemed as though he would remain heroically to guard the rear, and followed him.
Talbot, Lauderdale, Armourer, and Hugh May were all gathered about the back-door, and there was as yet no sign of a Republican soldier to dispute the King's escape. Talbot fetched a great sigh when he saw the tall, graceful form emerge from the house, and pressed forward immediately, leading the grey horse. 'Up, sir! Already we've stayed too long. Leslie will have marched out through the St Martin's Gate. We must follow him hard.'
'O God!' burst from the King. 'Flight! I must rally them. They shall follow me!'
Talbot, who had a bitter disbelief in the rallying power of men who had retreated, leaving their King to the mercy of his enemies, was silent; but Lauderdale said bluffly: 'Ay, we'll rally them, never fear! But ye'll need to catch them first, I'm thinking. On with ye, sir!'
The King set spurs to his horse; the little party closed in about him, and, trotting briskly, made its way along the narrow streets to the St Martin's Gate.
The struggle was now concentrated about Castle Hill, which was still held by Rothes and Sir William Hamilton; and in Friars Street, where the Cavaliers were being driven back with terrible loss towards the Key. As the King's party rode westward, the noise of the fighting became muffled in the distance. No Republican troops appeared to oppose the King's passage; and at six o'clock, in fast-gathering dusk, he galloped out through the St Martin's Gate on to the Wolverhampton Road.
A mile beyond the town, at Barbon's Bridge, Leslie had succeeded in halting his brigade. With this imposing force of horsemen were also a number of English Cavaliers, who, finding the Scots horse retreating, and the King gone, had escaped in some confusion from the town. When the King rode up, a troop was hurriedly forming under Buckingham to break back into the town, and carry the King out of it in the teeth of his enemies. His arrival brought such a sense of relief to his friends that it was greeted with something like a cheer. He paid no more heed to it than to the salutation of Buckingham, who rode up to him at once, a dozen questions on his lips. A hand motioned that beautiful young man out of the way; the King's eyes were fixed on Leslie's face. He said, with the good-humour that never wholly deserted him: 'You have them well together, General! It is not too late. A surprise attack now –'
'I have them together, as your Majesty perceives,' Leslie interrupted. 'But I can keep them together only in retrograde movement. I must earnestly beseech your Majesty to abandon any thought of renewing hostilities.'
'Did you say renewing?' asked Buckingham, honeysweet.
Leslie ignored him, keeping his gaze on the King. 'Believe me, I feel for your Majesty, but I should be failing in my duty to your person were I to counsel anything but retreat.'
Those near the King saw his hand tighten on the bridle. For a moment he did not speak, but after a pause he said in a low voice that was unsteady with some suppressed emotion: 'Do you know – do they know – that there are men back there in Worcester fighting to cover this shameful retreat?'
Leslie gave an infinitesimal shrug. 'The men you speak of are not Scots, sir,' he said dryly. 'These know that, at least.'
'Then you will do nothing?' The King's voice rose slightly. 'You are their General! They know you; they trust you! One word from you – the word you will not give, it seems –'
'I will give no order I cannot compel my men to obey, sir.'
The King uttered an impatient exclamation, and wheeled his horse about. Once more he showed himself to the troopers, calling on them by name, cajoling, almost imploring. It was useless; even this temporary halt was not to their liking; and men were already deserting from the ranks.
'This is not to be borne!' Talbot said under his breath, his heart wrung by the sight of the young King's despair.
His muttered words reached Lord Derby's ears. A flush had mounted to Derby's cheeks; his lofty brow was frowning; his eyes alight with contempt and a sense of outrage. 'It is not to be borne!' he echoed. 'Scottish scum!' He drove his spurs suddenly into his horse's flanks, and leaped forward after the King.
Buckingham would have followed, but found his way blocked by Talbot. 'Let be, my lord!'Talbot said. 'You can do no good there.'
Buckingham checked, but said with a scowl: 'Had I been given the command, these poltroons should have shown a different front!'
'It is useless to hark back to past grievances,' Talbot replied, curbing a little natural exasperation. The volatile Duke, though only twenty-four years old, and quite inexperienced in war, had been sulking for days because the King had refused to give the command of the army to him. He had been brought up with Charles, almost like a brother, and enjoyed, besides the gifts of beauty, grace and wit, a greater share of the King's confidence than Talbot thought he deserved. He often presumed on his position and the King's easy temper, but though he looked sulky now, and for a moment obstinate, he did not push past Talbot, but sat flicking his embroidered gloves against his high boot, and looking angrily in Leslie's direction.
Wilmot, who had ridden after Derby, came back to join the knot of gentlemen gathered round Talbot. Talbot saw the glint of a tear on his cheek, and moved forward to meet him. 'It's a sleeveless errand, Harry: they won't fight, and every moment that we linger here puts him in danger!'
'He's distracted,' Wilmot said. 'I have never known him like this before.'
'Small wonder. This is a crushing defeat. I dare not think on the consequences.'
Wilmot sighed, but said, pursuing his own train of thought: 'To get him out of the country! There will be a price on his head. Oh, my God, what to do, Talbot? What to do to save that unhappy boy?'
Excerpted from Royal Escape by Georgette Heyer Copyright © 1938 by Georgette Heyer. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks Landmark. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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