Chapter III: The Lord Chief Justice
It was not until two months later--on the 19th of September, if you must have the actual date--that Peter Blood was brought to trial, upon a charge of high treason. We know that he was not guilty of this; but we need not doubt that he was quite capable of it by the time he was indicted. Those two months of inhuman, unspeakable imprisonment had moved his mind to a cold and deadly hatred of King James and his representatives. It says something for his fortitude that in all the circumstances he should still have had a mind at all. Yet, terrible as was the position of this entirely innocent man, he had cause for thankfulness on two counts. The first of these was that he should have been brought to trial at all; the second, that his trial took place on the date named, and not a day earlier. In the very delay which exacerbated him lay--although he did not realize it--his only chance of avoiding the gallows.
Easily, but for the favour of Fortune, he might have been one of those haled, on the morrow of the battle, more or less haphazard from the overflowing gaol at Bridgewater to be summarily hanged in the market-place by the bloodthirsty Colonel Kirke. There was about the Colonel of the Tangiers Regiment a deadly despatch which might have disposed in like fashion of all those prisoners, numerous as they were, but for the vigorous intervention of Bishop Mews, which put an end to the drumhead courts-martial.
Even so, in that first week after Sedgemoor, Kirke and Feversham contrived between them to put to death over a hundred men after a trial so summary as to be no trial at all. They required human freights for the gibbets with which they were planting the countryside, and they little cared how they procured them or what innocent lives they took. What, after all, was the life of a clod? The executioners were kept busy with rope and chopper and cauldrons of pitch. I spare you the details of that nauseating picture. It is, after all, with the fate of Peter Blood that we are concerned rather than with that of the Monmouth rebels.
He survived to be included in one of those melancholy droves of prisoners who, chained in pairs, were marched from Bridgewater to Taunton. Those who were too sorely wounded to march were conveyed in carts, into which they were brutally crowded, their wounds undressed and festering. Many were fortunate enough to die upon the way. When Blood insisted upon his right to exercise his art so as to relieve some of this suffering, he was accounted importunate and threatened with a flogging. If he had one regret now it was that he had not been out with Monmouth. That, of course, was illogical; but you can hardly expect logic from a man in his position.
His chain companion on that dreadful march was the same Jeremy Pitt who had been the agent of his present misfortunes. The young shipmaster had remained his close companion after their common arrest. Hence, fortuitously, had they been chained together in the crowded prison, where they were almost suffocated by the heat and the stench during those days of July, August, and September.
Scraps of news filtered into the gaol from the outside world. Some may have been deliberately allowed to penetrate. Of these was the tale of Monmouth’s execution. It created profoundest dismay amongst those men who were suffering for the Duke and for the religious cause he had professed to champion. Many refused utterly to believe it. A wild story began to circulate that a man resembling Monmouth had offered himself up in the Duke’s stead, and that Monmouth survived to come again in glory to deliver Zion and make war upon Babylon.
Mr. Blood heard that tale with the same indifference with which he had received the news of Monmouth’s death. But one shameful thing he heard in connection with this which left him not quite so unmoved, and served to nourish the contempt he was forming for King James. His Majesty had consented to see Monmouth. To have done so unless he intended to pardon him was a thing execrable and damnable beyond belief; for the only other object in granting that interview could be the evilly mean satisfaction of spurning the abject penitence of his unfortunate nephew.
Later they heard that Lord Grey, who after the Duke--indeed, perhaps, before him--was the main leader of the rebellion, had purchased his own pardon for forty thousand pounds. Peter Blood found this of a piece with the rest. His contempt for King James blazed out at last.
“Why, here’s a filthy mean creature to sit on a throne. If I had known as much of him before as I know to-day, I don’t doubt I should have given cause to be where I am now.” And then on a sudden thought: “And where will Lord Gildoy be, do you suppose?” he asked.
Young Pitt, whom he addressed, turned towards him a face from which the ruddy tan of the sea had faded almost completely during those months of captivity. His grey eyes were round and questioning. Blood answered him.
“Sure, now, we’ve never seen his lordship since that day at Oglethorpe’s. And where are the other gentry that were taken?--the real leaders of this plaguey rebellion. Grey’s case explains their absence, I think. They are wealthy men that can ransom themselves. Here awaiting the gallows are none but the unfortunates who followed; those who had the honour to lead them go free. It’s a curious and instructive reversal of the usual way of these things. Faith, it’s an uncertain world entirely!”
He laughed, and settled down into that spirit of scorn, wrapped in which he stepped later into the great hall of Taunton Castle to take his trial. With him went Pitt and the yeoman Baynes. The three of them were to be tried together, and their case was to open the proceedings of that ghastly day.
The hall, even to the galleries--thronged with spectators, most of whom were ladies--was hung in scarlet; a pleasant conceit, this, of the Lord Chief Justice’s, who naturally enough preferred the colour that should reflect his own bloody mind.
At the upper end, on a raised dais, sat the Lords Commissioners, the five judges in their scarlet robes and heavy dark periwigs, Baron Jeffreys of Wem enthroned in the middle place.
The prisoners filed in under guard. The crier called for silence under pain of imprisonment, and as the hum of voices gradually became hushed, Mr. Blood considered with interest the twelve good men and true that composed the jury. Neither good nor true did they look. They were scared, uneasy, and hangdog as any set of thieves caught with their hands in the pockets of their neighbours. They were twelve shaken men, each of whom stood between the sword of the Lord Chief Justice’s recent bloodthirsty charge and the wall of his own conscience.
From them Mr. Blood’s calm, deliberate glance passed on to consider the Lords Commissioners, and particularly the presiding Judge, that Lord Jeffreys, whose terrible fame had come ahead of him from Dorchester.
He beheld a tall, slight man on the young side of forty, with an oval face that was delicately beautiful. There were dark stains of suffering or sleeplessness under the low-lidded eyes, heightening their brilliance and their gentle melancholy. The face was very pale, save for the vivid colour of the full lips and the hectic flush on the rather high but inconspicuous cheek-bones. It was something in those lips that marred the perfection of that countenance; a fault, elusive but undeniable, lurked there to belie the fine sensitiveness of those nostrils, the tenderness of those dark, liquid eyes and the noble calm of that pale brow.
The physician in Mr. Blood regarded the man with peculiar interest knowing as he did the agonizing malady from which his lordship suffered, and the amazingly irregular, debauched life that he led in spite of it--perhaps because of it.
“Peter Blood, hold up your hand!”
Abruptly he was recalled to his position by the harsh voice of the clerk of arraigns. His obedience was mechanical, and the clerk droned out the wordy indictment which pronounced Peter Blood a false traitor against the Most Illustrious and Most Excellent Prince, James the Second, by the grace of God, of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland King, his supreme and natural lord. It informed him that, having no fear of God in his heart, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, he had failed in the love and true and due natural obedience towards his said lord the King, and had moved to disturb the peace and tranquillity of the kingdom and to stir up war and rebellion to depose his said lord the King from the title, honour, and the regal name of the imperial crown--and much more of the same kind, at the end of all of which he was invited to say whether he was guilty or not guilty. He answered more than was asked.
“It’s entirely innocent I am.”
A small, sharp-faced man at a table before and to the right of him bounced up. It was Mr. Pollexfen, the Judge-Advocate.
“Are you guilty or not guilty?” snapped this peppery gentleman. “You must take the words.”
“Words, is it?” said Peter Blood. “Oh--not guilty.” And he went on, addressing himself to the bench. “On this same subject of words, may it please your lordships, I am guilty of nothing to justify any of those words I have heard used to describe me, unless it be of a want of patience at having been closely confined for two months and longer in a foetid gaol with great peril to my health and even life.”
Being started, he would have added a deal more; but at this point the Lord Chief Justice interposed in a gentle, rather plaintive voice.
“Look you, sir: because we must observe the common and usual methods of trial, I must interrupt you now. You are no doubt ignorant of the forms of law?”
“Not only ignorant, my lord, but hitherto most happy in that ignorance. I could gladly have forgone this acquaintance with them.”
A pale smile momentarily lightened the wistful countenance.
“I believe you. You shall be fully heard when you come to your defence. But anything you say now is altogether irregular and improper.”
Enheartened by that apparent sympathy and consideration, Mr. Blood answered thereafter, as was required of him, that he would be tried by God and his country. Whereupon, having prayed to God to send him a good deliverance, the clerk called upon Andrew Baynes to hold up his hand and plead.
From Baynes, who pleaded not guilty, the clerk passed on to Pitt, who boldly owned his guilt. The Lord Chief Justice stirred at that.
“Come; that’s better,” quoth he, and his four scarlet brethren nodded. “If all were as obstinate as his two fellow-rebels, there would never be an end.”
After that ominous interpolation, delivered with an inhuman iciness that sent a shiver through the court, Mr. Pollexfen got to his feet. With great prolixity he stated the general case against the three men, and the particular case against Peter Blood, whose indictment was to be taken first.
The only witness called for the King was Captain Hobart. He testified briskly to the manner in which he had found and taken the three prisoners, together with Lord Gildoy. Upon the orders of his colonel he would have hanged Pitt out of hand, but was restrained by the lies of the prisoner Blood, who led him to believe that Pitt was a peer of the realm and a person of consideration.
As the Captain’s evidence concluded, Lord Jeffreys looked across at Peter Blood.
“Will the prisoner Blood ask the witness any questions?”
“None, my lord. He has correctly related what occurred.”
“I am glad to have your admission of that without any of the prevarications that are usual in your kind. And I will say this, that here prevarication would avail you little. For we always have the truth in the end. Be sure of that.”
Baynes and Pitt similarly admitted the accuracy of the Captain’s evidence, whereupon the scarlet figure of the Lord Chief Justice heaved a sigh of relief.
“This being so, let us get on, in God’s name; for we have much to do.” There was now no trace of gentleness in his voice. It was brisk and rasping, and the lips through which it passed were curved in scorn. “I take it, Mr. Pollexfen, that the wicked treason of these three rogues being established--indeed, admitted by them--there is no more to be said.”
Peter Blood’s voice rang out crisply, on a note that almost seemed to contain laughter.
“May it please your lordship, but there’s a deal more to be said.”
His lordship looked at him, first in blank amazement at his audacity, then gradually with an expression of dull anger. The scarlet lips fell into unpleasant, cruel lines that transfigured the whole countenance.
“How now, rogue? Would you waste our time with idle subterfuge?”
“I would have your lordship and the gentlemen of the jury hear me on my defence, as your lordship promised that I should be heard.”
“Why, so you shall, villain; so you shall.” His lordship’s voice was harsh as a file. He writhed as he spoke, and for an instant his features were distorted. A delicate dead-white hand, on which the veins showed blue, brought forth a handkerchief with which he dabbed his lips and then his brow. Observing him with his physician’s eye, Peter Blood judged him a prey to the pain of the disease that was destroying him. “So you shall. But after the admission made, what defence remains?”
“You shall judge, my lord.”
“That is the purpose for which I sit here.”
“And so shall you, gentlemen.” Blood looked from judge to jury. The latter shifted uncomfortably under the confident flash of his blue eyes. Lord Jeffreys’s bullying charge had whipped the spirit out of them. Had they, themselves, been prisoners accused of treason, he could not have arraigned them more ferociously.
Peter Blood stood boldly forward, erect, self-possessed, and saturnine. He was freshly shaven, and his periwig, if out of curl, was at least carefully combed and dressed.
“Captain Hobart has testified to what he knows--that he found me at Oglethorpe’s Farm on the Monday morning after the battle at Weston. But he has not told you what I did there.”
Again the Judge broke in. “Why, what should you have been doing there in the company of rebels, two of whom--Lord Gildoy and your fellow there--have already admitted their guilt?”
“That is what I beg leave to tell your lordship.”
“I pray you do, and in God’s name be brief, man. For if I am to be troubled with the say of all you traitor dogs, I may sit here until the Spring Assizes.”
“I was there, my lord, in my quality as a physician, to dress Lord Gildoy’s wounds.”
“What’s this? Do you tell us that you are a physician?”
“A graduate of Trinity College, Dublin.”
“Good God!” cried Lord Jeffreys, his voice suddenly swelling, his eyes upon the jury. “What an impudent rogue is this! You heard the witness say that he had known him in Tangiers some years ago, and that he was then an officer in the French service. You heard the prisoner admit that the witness had spoken the truth?”
“Why, so he had. Yet what I am telling you is also true, so it is. For some years I was a soldier; but before that I was a physician, and I have been one again since January last, established in Bridgewater, as I can bring a hundred witnesses to prove.”
“There’s not the need to waste our time with that. I will convict you out of your own rascally mouth. I will ask you only this: How came you, who represent yourself as a physician peacefully following your calling in the town of Bridgewater, to be with the army of the Duke of Monmouth?”
“I was never with that army. No witness has sworn to that, and I dare swear that no witness will. I never was attracted to the late rebellion. I regarded the adventure as a wicked madness. I take leave to ask your lordship” (his brogue became more marked than ever) “what should I, who was born and bred a papist, be doing in the army of the Protestant Champion?”
“A papist thou?” The judge gloomed on him a moment. “Art more like a snivelling, canting Jack Presbyter. I tell you, man, I can smell a Presbyterian forty miles.”