It’s a beautiful spring day at Tresillian Bridge, midway between Truro and St Austell in breezy Cornwall, and the sky is a clear enamel blue with the rooks flung like rag above the trees on a brisk wind off the sea. Babbitt’s Troop of Horse are making ready to move off. Sir Ralph Hopton signed the surrender of the King’s forces in Cornwall three weeks ago, and Babbitt and his lads have been kicking their heels in and around the locality, scoping out Truro.
I fold my hands and smile nicely at Colonel Holofernes Babbitt. He looks back at me and does not smile, but cocks an eyebrow at me.
The silence lengthens. I wonder if I’m supposed to say something first. I’m not sure what to say, so I content myself with looking at Hollie Babbitt and trying to work out if he’s worth looking at or not. He has particularly fine eyes, as Jane Austen might have it. A sort of light hazel, in the sunlight, golden-green and distinctly not amused. He has an undeniably big nose, he equally undeniably hasn’t shaved for several days, and his long, thick, reddy-brown hair would be lovely if he put a comb through it. “Well, mistress,” he says eventually. (And I relax, because he has a Lancashire accent you could cut with the back side of a knife, and that means he’s nowhere near as tetchy as he’s making out to be, because if he was seriously angry he’d have no accent at all.) “What have you got to say for yourself?”
“I’m trying to write about you – your lot,” I say feebly. “I’m not spying or anything.”
“For which I thank God, for some of the information you send back would beggar belief! Bloody Hapless Russell – raffish. You said. He wasn’t fit to live with for about a month. Wench, there are people in – your place – who think that lad just stands in want of a good woman to see him right. Russell. You know, strange lad, somewhat prone to lifting the elbow and starting fights when crossed, particular about his linen – and there’s lasses in your place who want to take him on? Bloody welcome to him, mistress.” He leans forward and fixes me with a level stare. “I tell you what I will not forgive you for, madam. You introduced Lucey Pettitt’s execrable poetry to the world. It is all your fault. I have a lieutenant who thinks he’ll be God’s gift to the fairer sex in three centuries’ time, and a cornet who is periodically possessed by the muse. Dear God almighty, woman, keep away from Venning, I dread to think what you’d do to him.”
“Me?” He gives me a wry grin and I decide on two things. One, that despite the streak of white hair over his ear, I doubt he’s forty yet. And two, he might want me to think he’s a stern and zealous commander, but Hollie Babbitt is quite enjoying the attention of being the first Parliamentarian hero in popular fiction . “I’m not very interesting at all, lass. Plain boring married man, me. A wife, two daughters and a farm in Essex requiring my attention, which it’s not getting due to the disobliging nature of His Majesty, the slippery bugger. And don’t -” he raises a warning finger at me, “don’t mention the Scots, all right?”
“You were born in 1608,” I say, “February – what day?”
“The hell should I know, lass? There was only me and my mother there, and she didn’t draw breath long enough to tell me.” He leans back in his chair, suddenly stony-faced. “I do not know the day of my birth, mistress. You write the damned books, you tell me.”
I hold my hands up. “Sorry. I just – well, I wanted to know. People might want to know.”
“People can mind their own damned business. February. Het says -” and he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t mean to, but as he says his wife’s name his expression softens, “Het says Candlemas. She gifted me with a birth date. Candlemas was the day I left White Notley to rejoin the Army at Reading. 1643, I mind. Bloody hell, lass, I been married nigh on three years. Where’s the time gone? Three years chasing that untrustworthy little -” he stops himself, “His Majesty, round the country, and he’s still not give up.”
“I think he will,” I said gently, and Hollie raises his eyebrows at me.
“Ah-ah, now, what did we agree? I don’t want to know none of it. None of your witchery, mistress. No foretelling the future. I’ll not know the date of my death – or that of any of my lads,” he says warningly, and I shake my head, because although I know, of course I know, I wouldn’t tell him. I’d like to – I know he worries about Luce the too-young widower, who’s not written a poem in months, or about Russell, fierce and passionate and miserably lonely, arming himself in a cloak of zeal which is no substitute at all for what he wants. I could even tell Hollie that his Het misses him desperately, in Essex – that baby Joyeux has her first teeth, that bright Thomazine is forming her letters even as we speak. Something of that must have shown on my face. “I’d like to,” he says, rather forlornly. “But. It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter. Don’t hold with kings in our house, lass. Put not your trust in princes or any of them buggers.” I think he forgets I’m there, because he looks over my shoulder, out onto the sun-dappled spring river, and closes his eyes, as if he might be thinking, or praying, or possibly both. “Ah, Christ, never mind princes, I’ve not much trust in Sir Thomas Fairfax, lately.”
He puts his hand over the powder-burn in the sleeve of his decent plain grey suit. His rather old-fashioned, neatly-mended suit, that doesn’t quite fit him any more. His broad, flat swordsman’s wrists are meant by nature to be somewhat less bone than they are. I’d always imagined him as slight and across the table he’s not slight at all, he’s just thin. He looks at the burn in his sleeve and then takes his hand away and looks up at me with a challenge in his eyes. “We are neglected, mistress. Expected to live on fresh air, and disciplined when we protest. Unpaid. Ill-provisioned, ill-quartered, ill-kept. I have lost good men in the course of this war, and they talk of treating with His Majesty, of returning him to his place. Uncorrected, of course, because His Majesty does not deal with the likes of we. So my lads gave their lives and their freedoms for nothing. Less than nothing. I’ll not have it, lass. And you can put that in your bloody book. No other bugger will speak for those lads, because they are common men, and not bloody politickers born and bred. I’ve not got a clever tongue, but by God I’ve got a free one. Go on. Set that down.”
I owe him that much. “I will,” I say, and he shrugs.
“Get myself into trouble with my big gob, one of these days. Bloody Russell’s as bad. We’d mar another couple.” He stands up, slings his sword hanger over his shoulder. There is a sudden scent of horse-sweat and black powder and not especially clean male as he brushes past me, and then he turns with a jingle of spurs, sets his hand on my shoulder, gingerly. “Will you – would you tell Het? That I love her?” I look up into his face, backlit by pale spring sun, his russet hair gone to a blood-red halo. He’s blushing. It’s rather sweet.
I take a deep breath. “I will,” I say. “I promise. And the girls.”
And then he’s gone, out into the sun, and I hear him yelling indulgent abuse at Venning and where the hell is Lucey bloody Pettitt, and then I hear Luce apologising, he was just getting his books together, and Venning’s dog is barking and someone’s horse is whinnying and I hear Cullis giving the orders to mount up.
And then there’s a great clattering of hooves on Tresillian Bridge and I stand in the inn door and watch Hollie Babbitt’s brave, ruffianly, steadfast company head further into the West, until they are quite gone from view. And I wish I could do more for them.
And then I pick up my pen. “To my most esteemed friend Mistress Henrietta Babbitt,” I write.