“Pardon me, gentlemen,” he interrupted, “do you speak of John Rushton of Aberleigh?”
“We do. As good a gentleman as lived in Lancashire.”
“That’s true, but where was he when this disaster befell his household?”
“God knows; he had fled from judgment and was outlawed.”
“And the Crown confiscated his estate, you say, and turned his family into the road? What was the indictment—some trumpery subterfuge for treason?”
“Like enough; but the indictment counts for nothing in these days; it’s the verdict that is everything, and that’s settled beforehand.”
“Did you know my neighbor John?”
“I did; we were comrades years ago.”
With these words, Ralph rose from his unfinished breakfast and walked out of the house.
What mischief of the same sort might even now be brewing at Wythburn in his absence? Should he return? That would be useless, and worse than useless. What could he do?
The daring impulse suddenly possessed him to go on to London, secure audience of the King himself, and plead for amnesty. Yes, that was all that remained to him to do, and it should be done. His petition might be spurned; his person might be seized, and he might be handed over to judgment; but what of that? He was certain to be captured sooner or later, and this sorry race for liberty and for life would be over at length.
The same day Ralph Ray, still travelling on foot, had approached the town of Preston. It was Sunday morning, but he perceived that smoke like a black cloud overhung the houses and crept far up the steeples and towers. Presently a tumultuous rabble came howling and hooting out of the town. At the head of them, and apparently pursued by them, was a man half clad, who turned about at every few yards, and, raising his arm, predicted woe and desolation to the people he was leaving. He was a Quaker preacher, and his presence in Preston was the occasion of this disturbance.
“Oh, Preston,” he cried, “as the waters run when the floodgates are up, so doth the visitation of God’s love pass away from thee, oh, Preston!”
“Get along with thee; thou righteous Crister,” said one of the crowd, lifting a stick above his head. “Get along, or ye’ll have Gervas Bennett aback of ye again.”
“I shall never cease to cry aloud against deceit and vanities,” shrieked the preacher above the tumult. “You do profess a Sabbath, and dress yourselves in fine apparel, and your women go with stretched necks.”
“Tush, tush! Beat him, stone him!”
“Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment,” the preacher replied, “and a babbler is no better. The lips of a fool will swallow up himself.”
The church bells were beginning to ring in the town, and the sound came across the fields and was heard even above the mocking laughter of the crowd.