The stroke of one in the morning, sounding after us from Farnham clock through the fine frosted air, overtook us well upon the road. I had made speed, and so had the quartermaster and cellarer. As for Sergeant Orlando Rich, if he had not achieved speed he had at least made haste. Before I started my pack-horses from the guardroom door the cellarer came to me and reported him drunk as a fly; and stepping into the great kitchen for a slice of pasty, to fortify me against the night’s work, I saw my hero laid out and snoring, with his shoulder-blades flat on the paved floor. So I left him to sleep it off.
A fellow of the general’s own guard helped me lead my horses to the door of the Bear, and there I tumbled out my substitute, and six passably good troopers I had chosen to take with me. They were Carey, our youngest sergeant, and as good-natured a fellow as I knew; Randles, who stood well for advancement to the post my own promotion had left vacant; and four other privates—Shackell, Wyld, Masters, and Small Owens (as we called him), a Welshman from the Vale of Cardigan. To prime them for the ride I called up the landlord and dosed them each with a glass of hot Hollands water; and forth we set, in good trim and spirits.
For two miles after passing our picket we ambled along at ease. The moon was low in the south-west, but as yet gave us plenty of light; and the wind—from the quarter directly opposite—though bitter and searching, blew behind our right shoulders and helped us cheerfully along. Our troubles began in a dip of the road on this side of the hamlet of Froyl, where an autumn freshet, flooding the highway, had been caught by the frost and fixed in a rippled floor of ice. We had seen duly to the roughing of our own chargers; and even they were forced at this passage to feel their steps mincingly; but the pack-horses, for whom I had only the quartermaster’s assurance, had been handled (if indeed at all) by the inexpertest of smiths. The poor beasts sprawled and slithered this way and that, and in the end, as if by consent, came to a pitiful halt, their knees shaking under them. So they appeared willing to wait and tremble until morning: but on my order Randles, Owen, and Masters, dismounting, led them and their own horses, foot by foot, on to sure ground.
For a mile beyond, and some way past Froyl, was safe going if we avoided the ruts. But here the moon failed us; and when Carey lit a lantern to help, it showed us that the carriers had no stomach left in them. One, though the froth froze on him, was sweating like a resty colt. The other two, if we slacked hold on their halter-ropes, would lurch together, halt, and slue neck to neck like a couple of timid dowagers hesitating upon a question of delicacy.
It was here that there came into my head the ill-starred thought of leading them off the road and through the fields close alongside of it on our left hand. The road itself I knew pretty well, and that it bore gradually to the left, all the way to Alton. Carey, whom I consulted, agreed that we could find it again at any time we chose. So, and without more ado, we opened the next gate we came to and herded the beasts through.