Scene in a mirror: Chapter 2

Monday 17th July 1643

Jennet heard the clop of hoofs as she emerged from the cow byre. Setting the buckets of milk down carefully she eased the wooden yolk from her shoulders and stood waiting patiently to see what would emerge from the morning mist. She peered across the yard towards the farm house and was surprised to see a figure standing at one of the windows, tucked in under the gables. For a moment she thought that it was Hephzibah and wondered what the servant was doing in her bed chamber, then realised that there was something odd about the figure’s hair and clothes. In fact, from this distance, she was unable to tell if the figure was a boy or a girl.

A shiver ran down Jennet’s spine, “Oo, a goose just walked over my grave,” she muttered. For a moment she wondered if there might be some truth in the old belief that a person born on St. Mark’s Eve could see spirits. An oppressive feeling of gloom had stolen over her yesterday evening, she had slept badly and the feeling was still on her this morning. She shook her head, trying to clear these thoughts from her mind.

With a jingle of harness, a troop of cavalry rounded the end of the cow byre and clattered to a halt in the yard. The horses fidgeted, tossing their heads and snorting, their breath steaming in the cold air. One of them relieved itself – the dung falling with a soft, wet, thump onto the cobbled surface of the yard. Its sharp odour reached Jennet mixed with the smell of leather and the mens’ sweat. One of the troopers shifted uncomfortably in his saddle and muttered something to the officer who nodded after a moment’s thought. The trooper swung himself down from his mount, threw his reins to a companion and walked, stiff legged, around to the back of the byre. Soon there was the sound of splashing and a satisfied grunt.

Jennet eyed the soldiers cautiously – civil war was raging across the country with no definite end in sight, although Lord Hopton’s recent victory at Roundway Down seemed to be swinging things in the King’s favour, at least in the west country. But with both sides dressing in a similar fashion it was often difficult to tell friend from foe. The people of Long Barrow village were conservative to a man, wanting to live their lives with no interference from the outside world. However, if pushed on the point, they tended to support the status quo and therefore the King. At last she spotted what she was looking for – the officer was wearing a tawny orange sash and the troops’ standard carried a religious slogan – her heart sank. A troop of Parliamentary cavalry in the village, just what nobody wanted.

The officer gave Jennet a long, appraising look. His lean face had the haggard look of someone who had stared death in the face once too often. Red rimmed eyes spoke of hard fighting followed by a sleepless night’s ride, but she also noticed that deep within them was the steely glint of a fanatic.

“Captain Malachi Martin at your service young mistress.” His voice was rough, with the thick accent of a countryman – obviously a man who had risen through the ranks, not a born gentleman like the Royalist officer corps. “To whom do I have the honour of addressing and what is name of this place?”

“Jennet Millard … sir,” she tried not to sneer as she said the word. “This is Long Barrow Farm … my father owns it.”

“Where are your parents?”

“My father is in the kitchen, sir.”

“And your mother?”

“Dead sir, the smallpox took her three years ago.”

“My condolences mistress, but why is your father not here to greet us? He is supposed to provide us with stabling, fodder, food and board, for four of my troopers. Is he not expecting us?”

“Not that I know of … sir.”

Captain Martin removed his hat and ran his hand through his long greying hair before turning to his troop. “It would appear, gentlemen, that we have outpaced the commissariat, again!” A chorus of jeering broke out among the men, “Stuck in an ale house somewhere,” came a voice from the back of the troop.

He turned back to Jennet. “Would you fetch your father, please?”

Jennet looked at her milk pails, then gave the cavalry troop a dubious glance.

“I promise you that they will remain untouched until your return, mistress.”

Jennet crossed the yard, conscious of the eyes of the troopers following her as she walked. Reaching the kitchen door she slipped inside, her father was sitting at the table finishing his breakfast. Brushing crumbs of cheese from his bushy black beard he picked up a horn beaker of ale and began to drink.

“Morning father.”

“Morning Jennet. What brings you in looking so flustered?”

“There’s a troop of Parliamentary horse in the yard and their captain wants to speak to you. We’re apparently quartering four of his men.” Her father choked on his ale at this and slammed his beaker down with a sharp ‘crack’. Ale slopped over the sides and puddled on the wooden table top.

“Oh we are, are we?” he growled. Wiping the ale from his chin he stormed out into the yard and stood with his feet planted firmly apart, his arms crossed. Captain Martin addressed him before he could speak.

“Master Millard, pardon our intrusion but I need the use of your stables and home for some of my troop. Others will be placed in the other farms around the village – I shall be staying up at the Hall. Some time, later today … probably, the commissariat will arrive and give you a certificate which will guarantee you payment to cover my mens’ food lodging and fodder”

“And when might that be?” asked Jennet’s father brusquely.

“When we have defeated the king and returned this country to a godly and righteous path,” snapped the captain. Jennet saw her father stiffen at this, ‘Oh God no,’ she thought, ‘he’s going to get belligerent.’

“And just what makes you think I can give free quarter to four men and horses? Times are hard, there’s a war on – in case you haven’t noticed, and the weather has been so cold and wet we’ll have another poor harvest. I cannot afford it!” He turned and picked up a pitchfork that was propped up against the wall of the house and pointed it at the captain. “What gives you the right to come here and take what you want?”

“My commission from Parliament and my men,” replied the captain in a tone that would accept no argument.

Jennet looked at the troop noticing, for the first time, their patched and darned uniforms, their hard faces eager to see how this stand off would end. She realised that these were men who had been fighting for over a year and believed wholeheartedly in the cause that they fought for. The mist was beginning to clear and the early morning light gleamed fitfully on their helmets and breastplates. The captain’s stained leather buff coat creaked as he leaned forward and slid a pistol from his saddle holster, pulling back the lock he aimed it straight at her father’s face. Jennet held her breath and prayed, feverishly, that neither man would do something stupid.

“Any more argument, master Millard, and your charming daughter will find herself an orphan looking for protection in this big bad world – which I would be more than happy to provide.” Jennet shuddered. “Yours will be an unfortunate death that no one will worry about.”

The tension in the yard was palpable and Jennet realised that she was holding her breath. After a long moment, her father replaced the pitchfork. “Be my guest,” he said gruffly turning away. Jennet felt the tension drain away, she let out her breath and started to relax.

“A sensible decision Master Millard. Troopers Young, Harris, Poorgrass … and Millard fall out. Welcome to your new home.”

Jennet started when she heard the last man, then broke into a broad smile when she realised that her cousin Ned was walking towards her.

***

Later that morning Jennet, her father and Ned were talking in the yard.

“Are you sure you’re happy sleeping in the barn?” asked Jennet.

“Ay cousin, ‘tis better than sleeping under a hedge – which I’ve done on many an occasion. A good honest barn is better than a palace.”

“I take it that my feckless brother is now a Parliament man,” cut in Jennet’s father.

“Nay uncle, he’s still stubbornly supporting the king.”

“Then why are you here with these men?” asked Jennet. Ned took a clay pipe from his hat band and began to fill it from a pouch that hung from his belt as he gathered his thoughts.

“They came to our village when the war started and used father’s forge to re-shoe their horses. While my father worked, I listened to them preach and talk and while I listened I started to think. Why should we bow and scrape and do the bidding of our, so called, betters?”

Jennet laughed, “Because it is the natural order of things, of course.”

“But is it?” queried Ned, jabbing the air with his pipe stem for emphasis. “In the garden of Eden, when Adam tended his crops and livestock and Eve span flax and wool for cloth, which one of them was the gentleman?”

Jennet’s father looked uncomfortable. “But there is a natural order,” he said, “headed by God and the king.”

This time it was Ned who laughed, a low throaty chuckle. “And why is the king the king?”

“Because his father was the king.”

“An easy answer, uncle, and one unworthy of you. If you were to go back and back far enough there was a time when there were no kings, so, I ask again, where did they come from?” Receiving no reply he continued. “The first kings were the biggest bullies who were happy to oppress their fellow men to gain power and so it has gone on ever since!” Jennet’s father spat with contempt.

“Enough! For the sake of my brother, you are welcome in my house, Ned Millard, as long as you do not discuss these things in front of me or my family again.”