It was my devil's own temper that brought me to grief, my temper and a skill with weapons born of my father's teaching.
Yet without that skill I might have emptied my life's blood up the cobblestones of Stamford , emptied my body of blood . . . and for what?
Until that moment in Stamford it would have been said that no steadier lad lived in all the fen-lands than Barnabas Sackett, nor one who brought better from his fields than I, or did better at the eeling in the fens that were my home.
Then a wayward glance from a lass, a moment of red, bursting fury from a stranger, a blow given and a blow returned, and all that might have been my life vanished like a fog upon the fens beneath a summer sun.
In that year of 1599 a man of my station did not strike a man of noble birth and expect to live--or if he lived, to keep the hand that struck the blow.
Trouble came quickly upon me, suddenly, and without warning.
It began that day near Reach when I slipped and fell upon the Devil's Dyke.
The Dyke is a great rampart of earth some six miles long and built in the long ago by a people who might have been my ancestors. These were the Iceni, I have been told, who lived in my country long before the Romans came to Britain.
When I slipped I caught myself upon my outstretched palms to keep the mud from my clothing, and I found myself staring at the muddy edge of what appeared to be a gold coin.
Now coins of any kind were uncommon amongst us, for we did much in the way of barter and exchange. Merchants saw coins, but not many came our way. Yet here it was a gold coin.
Shifting my position a bit I closed my fingers over first one coin and, then, yet another.
I stood up slowly, and making as if to brush the mud from my hands, I knocked and wiped the mud form the coins. In a pool of muddy water at my feet, I washed them clean.
They were old . . . very, very old.
No English coins these, nor was the wording English, nor the faces of the men upon them. The first coin was heavy, of quite some value judging by the weight. The second was smaller, thinner, and of a different kind.
Slipping them casually into my pocket, I stood there looking about.
The hour was before dawn of what bid to be a gray day. Clouds were thick above, and during the night there had been heavy rain. It was a lonely place, where I stood, a place half the distance from Reach to Wood Ditton. We had worked in the quarries at Reach, some of us, and slept the night on a tavern floor to be near the fire.
Long before day I awakened, lying there thinking of the distance I had yet to go, with the work now ended. So, quietly I had risen, put my cloak about my shoulders, and took my way to the Dyke, the easiest route in any weather.
It was a time when few men got more than a mile or two from their door, unless following the sea or the fishing, but I was a restless one, moving about and working whenever an extra hand might be needed, for it was in my mind to save money, buy a bit more land and so better my position.
Now I had come upon gold, more than I was likely to earn with my hands in a year, although it was little enough I knew of gold. Had my father stood by me he could have told me what each coin was worth.
I made a thing of brushing my knees, which gave me time to look more carefully about.
I was alone. There were willows yonder, farther away oaks and a hedge, but nowhere in the vague light of beginning day did I see movement or sign of men. Carefully I studied the ground where I had fallen. For where there had been two coins there might be three . . . or four.
Something had scarred the slope here, and rain had found it, as rain will, gouging a small ditch to escape over the Dyke's edge. Where the trickle of water was, I could see what appeared to be the rotting edge of a leather purse, or sack. A bit of a search with my fingers in the mud and I held three more pieces of gold, and a moment later another.
That was the lot. I kicked mud over the spot , turned about a couple of times, then walked slowly on, plodding as if tired, stopping a time or two to look about.
At a pool of rain water I paused to wash the mud from my hands. Six gold coins! It was a fortune.
Two of the coins were Roman. Likely enough some brawny legionnaire had come this way from the fighting, and when about to be overtaken had buried them. It was likely he must have been killed then, for he had never recovered his coins.
Such a strong leather purse, if well buried, would need years to rot away, and it might have been some later traveler. Whoever it was, his ancient loss was my present gain.
Yet if I appeared with six gold coins, what would happen?
By some manner of means they would certainly be taken from me. A poor man, even a yeoman such as I, had small chance of maintaining his rights. There were many tricky laws, and the rascals would surely find one that would deprive me of my findings.
I was a freeman living on a small freeholding at the edge of the fens, a bit of land given my father for his deeds in battle. Actually, a great piece of the fens was mine, but it was of small use except for the eeling and occasional mowing.
There was a small piece of land adjoining mine, of good rich drained land that I coveted. Now I could have it for mine, and more, too, if it were up for the selling.
But if I came forward with gold it would set to wagging half the tongues in the shire, so I had best be thinking of a better way.
It was then I remembered the man from Stamford. An oldish man, and bookish. His name had been mentioned to me in the streets of Chatteris. A curious man, he would go miles to look upon some old wall or a ruined monastery.
His name was Hasling, and sometimes he had bought some ancient thing found by a workman or farmer. It was said he wrote papers about such things and talked of them with men from Cambridge.
He had the look of a kindly man with nothing of a sharper about him, and I'd been told he paid a guinea for a bronze axe dug up in a field. So it was that I went to Stamford.
It was no great house I came to but a fine, comfortable cottage, early in the day. A cottage with fine old trees about and a deal of lawn behind. There were flowers planted and birds who made themselves at home.
When I put knuckles to the door a woman in a white cap opened it, a pleasant-faced woman with a look of the Irish about her, but no friendly smile for me, in my rough dress.
When I spoke of business with Coveney Hasling she looked doubtful, but when I said it was an old thing I had to speak of, the door was wide at once, and the next thing I knew I was seated with a cup of tea in my hand, although I'd have preferred it to be ale.
The room had papers and books all about, a skull with a cleft in it giving me the round eye from the black and empty sockets. Close by a bronze axe . . . the very one.
It was in my mind to question whether the cleft skull and the bronze axe had ever met before when he came in, bowing a short bow and peering at me with tilted head. "Yes, yes, lad, you wished to speak to me?"
"Aye. I have heard you spoken of as one with an interest in old things."
"You have found something!" He was excited as a child. "What is it? Let me see!"
"I'd have to ask your silence. I'd not be losing the profit of it."
"Profit? Profit, do you say? It is history you must think of, lad, history!"
"History you may think of, who live in a fine house. Profit is my concern, who does not."
"You are a freeman?"
"With a small holding."
"I see. Come, come! Sit you down! You get about some, I take it. Do you know the Roman roads?"
"I do, and the dykes and walls as well. Some earthworks, too, and I might even know a floor of Roman tile."
"Lad, lad! You could be of service to me and your country as well! These things you speak of . . . they must not be lost or destroyed. They are a part of our heritage!"
"No doubt, but it is my own heritage I be thinking of now. I have your silence then?"
From my pocket I took the first coin, and he took it reverently to hand, going off to the window for light. He exclaimed with pleasure, "You would sell this?"
"Is there more? Or is this all?"
When I hesitated, his eyes twinkled. "You asked for silence I have given my word."
"There are six coins in all, but they are not alike."
"I should be surprised if they were. Roman soldiers were from many lands, and they marched and fought in many more. They gambled with each other with coins of many kinds."
"I brought only one other coin."
He took the second, examined it at the window light, then returned to the table.
"What of the other coins?"
"Let us speak first of these."
Hasling chuckled. "Lad, I like you. You have told no one of these coins?"
"It is better so. Gold is not that common amongst us, even with the treasure from the Spanish ships that Master Drake has been bringing us. I could afford to buy no more than one of these coins, although I have a friend, also an antiquarian, who collects coins."
He looked at me from under heavy brows. "Would you have some more tea, lad?"
When I nodded he called for the woman, and she came bearing the pot. It was a guilty feeling I had, drinking tea like it was water. For what a pound of tea cost a man might rent five acres for a year, and the bit of land I had from my father, the land outside the fens, was scarcely five acres with a cottage and a stable.
Of course, there were some hidden acres in the fen, but of them I told nobody, and few indeed knew of them. The fen was a vast marsh land, heavily saturated with water. Here and there were outcroppings of limestone, and also some islands used by smugglers occasionally, and known only to we of the fens.
"Do you know aught of the Romans?" he asked me.
"Aye. My father was a soldier and he gathered tales of the Romans, how they marched and built their camps and drank vinegar when athirst."
"They conquered the world." Hasling said.
"Only a piece of it," I objected, remembering what my father had taught me. "They knew of Cathay, but never marched against it."
Hasling chuckled, obviously pleased. "You are right, lad, and not many know of that, even at Cambridge. You are a uncommon fen-man."
"There are uncommon men everywhere, so many that the common man has become uncommon."
He glanced at me, then turned back to the coins. "Your father was a soldier? And your name is . . . ?"
"Barnabas Sackett. There is another family of the name in Ely, but we are not related. My father was Ivo Sackett.
"Ivo Sackett! Of course! Your father made a name for himself. He is remembered."
"I know he went to the wars."
"Aye, and how he went to them! He was a rare man, your father." He glanced at me again. "The other coins? You can bring them to me?"
"I can. When I have the silver for these."
He left the room and returning, paid me a goodly sum. "Take this," he said, "and rest assured I am your friend. Bring me the other coins and I will have a purchaser for them. Antiquities may have only a small market in England, lad, but there's a few of us fancy the old things."
He held up the coins. "These are a part of our history in the world, and from such as these we can piece together a forgotten story. Men have lived and died in England these thousands of years and each of them may have left something more than his dust. Fitted together, these things may compose forgotten chapters of our history."
With the money I now had, I could purchase from William those adjoining acres, and hold enough land to live as a yeoman should. Yet even as I thought of this, another thought forced itself into my head, bringing discontent: Was this all? Was there no more for me?
My father had been a soldier, wandering wide upon the world; yet what had he said to me? "Own a few acres, lad, and keep it unencumbered and you'll not want for some'at to eat. You can always grow a few cabbages."
Aye, if cabbages would suffice. To hold the acres, yes, but to move out from them . . . that was what I felt I must do.
William was a steady man, and if I chose to go wide upon the world for a small bit he would work my acres and hold them for me and perhaps a sum as well.
These were my thoughts as I said good-bye to the Haslings.
Scarcely had I left the Hasling cottage when trouble fell upon me. Walking across the town toward the highroad, and passing by the tavern, I looked up and into the eyes of a girl.
She sat in a carriage before the tavern and when I looked, she seemed to smile.
Now there was an exuberance upon me. Gaiety and good will were in my blood. My pockets jingled with more coin than I'd had in many a year past, and more to come.
She was no child, this one. A girl, but a woman also, and of rare beauty. So when she smiled, I smiled in return, and doffed my hat as bravely as though it were plumed.
She was of the gentry, it went without saying. A carriage was a rare thing, and few possessed them or had the use of one. She was gentry, and the less one noticed or was noticed by them the better. I was passing when her low voice said, "I am thirsty."
What was I to do? The well was there, its water cold and fresh. Filling a brimming dipper, I took it to her.
I was holding the dipper out to her when it was struck from my hand, a vicious, stinging blow.
Turning sharply, I faced a young noble wearing a plumed hat such as I did not have, his face flushed with anger.
"Carrion! Why, you vulgar . . . !" He struck at my face with a gloved hand, but instinctively, knowing something of fisticuffs, I dodged. Missing the blow he fell into the mud.
I laughed . . . and she laughed as well.
For an instant he glared at me from the mud, and then with a burst of fury he came off the ground. In the next instant he had drawn his sword.
She screamed. "Rupert! No!" And he lunged at me.
That he was beyond reason was obvious. Also that he intended to kill me.
It was my father's training that saved me. Although I wore no sword I carried a blackthorn stick, and automatically I parried and thrust, the end of my stick taking him fairly in the wind.
He staggered and went down.
A rough hand grasped my arm. "You daft fool! That's Rupert Genester, nephew to the Earl!"