It is my desire to set out clearly my account of events, and not bother with the sillinesses indulged in by so-called authors trying to earn spurious fame. God forbid that I should ever suffer the shame of publishing a book for money, or of having one of my family so demean themselves. How can one tell who might read it? No worthy book has ever been written for gain, I think; occasionally I am forced to listen to someone reading to while away time in the evening and, on the whole, I find it all quite absurd. All those elaborate conceits and hidden meanings. Say what you mean to say, then be silent, is my motto, and books would be better—and a lot shorter—if more people listened to my advice. There is more wisdom in a decent volume on husbandry or fishing than in the most cunning of these philosophers. If I had my way, I’d mount them all on a horse at dawn, and make them gallop through the countryside for an hour. That might blow some of the nonsense out of their fuddled minds. So I will explain myself simply and directly, and I have no shame in saying that my narrative will reflect my character. I was at Oxford intended for the law; and I was intended for the law because, though the eldest and only son of my family, I was going to have to earn my living, so low had we sunk in misfortune. The Prestcotts were a very old family but had suffered considerably during the wars. My father, Sir James Prestcott, had joined the king when that noble gentleman raised his standard at Nottingham in 1642, and he fought courageously throughout the Civil War. The expense was enormous, as he maintained a whole troop of horse at his own charge, and he was shortly reduced to mortgaging his land to raise money, confident that this was a wise investment for the future. No one, in those early days, seriously considered that the fighting would end in anything other than triumph. But my father, and many others, reckoned without the king’s rigidity and the growing influence of the fanatics in Parliament. The war went on, the country suffered, and my father got poorer.
Disaster occurred when Lincolnshire—where much of the family property was—fell wholly into the hands of the Roundheads; my mother was briefly imprisoned, and much of our revenue confiscated. Even this did not shake my father’s resolution, but when the king was captured in 1647, he realized that the cause was lost and so made such peace as he could with the new rulers of the land. In his opinion Charles I had thrown away his kingdom through his folly and mistakes, and no more could be done. Father was reduced to virtual poverty, but at least retired from the fray rich in honor, content to resume his life.
Until the execution. I was only seven on that terrible winter’s day in 1649, and yet I recall the news of it still. I think every man alive then can remember exactly what they were doing when they heard that the king had been beheaded in front of a cheering mob. There is now nothing which more brings home to me the passage of the years than to meet a grown man who does not recall, as his strongest memory, the horror that the news produced. Never in the history of the universe had such a crime been committed, and I remember vividly how the sky turned dark and the earth rocked as the anger of heaven was loosed on the land. It rained for days afterward, the sky itself weeping for the sinfulness of mankind.
Like everyone else, my father had not believed it would happen. He was wrong. He always had too good an opinion of his fellows—perhaps that was his downfall. Murder, perhaps—such things happen. But a trial? To execute in the name of justice the man who was its very fount? To lead God’s anointed onto a scaffold like a criminal? Such blasphemous, sacrilegious mockery had not been seen since Christ himself suffered on the Cross. England had sunk low—never in their worst nightmares did anyone suspect it could sink so very far down into the sulphur. My father gave his loyalty entire to the young Charles II at that very moment and vowed to dedicate his life to achieving his restoration.
This was shortly before my father’s first exile, and before I was sent away from my family for instruction. I was called formally to his room, and went with some trepidation as I assumed that I must have misbehaved, since he was not a man who gave himself much to his children, being too occupied with more important matters. But he greeted me kindly and even permitted me to sit, then told me of what had happened in the world.
“I will have to leave the country for a while, to mend our fortunes,” he said. “And your mother has decided that you will go to my friend, Sir William Compton, and receive instruction from tutors while she returns to her own people.
“You must remember one thing, Jack. God made this country a monarchy, and if we stray from that, we stray from His will. To serve the king, the new king, is to serve your country and God in equal part. To give your life for that is nothing, to give your fortune less still. But never give your honor, for that is not yours to give. It is like your place in the world, a gift from the Lord which I hold in trust for you, and which you must guard for your children.”
Though I was seven at the time, he had never talked to me with such seriousness before, and I adopted such gravity as a childish face can manage, and swore that he would have cause to be proud of me. I managed not to cry as well, although I remember the effort most strongly. That was strange; I had seen little of him or of my mother in my life, and yet I thought of his imminent departure with great despondency. Three days later, both he and I left our house, never to return as its owners. Perhaps those guardian angels we are told watch over us knew this, and played melancholy music and saddened my listening soul.
For the next eight years, there was little for my father to do. The great cause was lost, and he was in any case too poor to participate. Such was his distress that he was forced to leave the country and seek his living fighting as a soldier, as did so many other Royalist gentlemen. He went first to the Netherlands, then served Venice, fighting on Crete against the Turks in the long, miserable siege of Candia. But when he came back to England in 1657 he immediately became a central member of that group of patriots, later known as the Sealed Knot, which worked incessantly to bring Charles back from exile. He endangered his life, but did so joyfully. They might take his life, he said, but even his worst enemy would acknowledge him to be an upright, honest man.
Alas, my good father was wrong, for he was later accused of the most base treachery, which malevolent lie he never shook off. He never knew who accused him, or even what the charges were, so could not defend himself and refute the allegations. Eventually he left England once more, forced out of his own country by the malicious hiss of the gossip mongers, and died of grief before his name was cleared. I once saw a horse on my estate, a handsome, grand beast, driven to distraction by the incessant viciousness of flies which buzzed all around it. It ran to escape its tormentors, not knowing where they were; when it flicked its tail to drive one off, ten more came to replace it. It ran across an open meadow, fell and broke its leg, and I watched the saddened stablehand dispatch it for its own good. So are the great and noble destroyed by the petty and mean.
I was just eighteen when my father died in his lonely exile and it marked me for life. The day I received the letter that told me he had been buried in a pauper’s grave, I broke down in sorrow before a violent anger gripped my soul. A pauper’s grave! Dear Heaven, even now the very words make a coldness seep through my body. That this courageous soldier, this best of Englishmen, should end in such a way, shunned by his friends, abandoned by a family which would not even pay for his funeral, treated with contempt by those for whom he had sacrificed everything, was more than I could bear. I did what I could eventually—I never found where he had been buried, and could do nothing for his body, but I built him the finest memorial in the whole county in my church, and I take everyone who comes to see it and meditate on his fate.
It cost me a considerable fortune, but I do not begrudge one penny of the expense.
While I knew my family had been greatly reduced, I was not yet aware of how much we had suffered, for I understood that, on my twenty-first birthday, I would obtain full title to the estates which had been supposedly protected from the government by an assortment of legal devices. I knew of course that these lands would come burdened with so much debt that it would take me years to reestablish myself as a person of moment in the county, but this was a task I relished. I was even prepared to endure several years at the bar, if necessary, to accumulate those riches which lawyers find so easy to come by. At least my father’s name would be perpetuated. The ending of a man’s life is but death, and that comes to us all in the fullness of time, and we know we have the blessing that our name and honor continue. But the demise of an estate is true extinction, for a family without land is nothing.
Youth is simple, and assumes that all will be well; part of the estate of manhood consists in learning that God’s Providence is not so easily understood. The consequences of my father’s fall did not appear to me until I left the seclusion of a home where, although I was not happy, I was at least protected from the buffeting of the outside world. Then I was sent to Trinity College, Oxford, for, although my father had been a man of Cambridge, my uncle (who had charge of me when I left Sir William’s house) decided I would not be welcome there. The decision spared me no grief, as I was as rejected and despised for my parentage in the one university as I would have been in the other. I had no friends as none could resist cruelty, and I could not tolerate insult. Nor was I able to mix with my own, for although enrolled as a gentleman-commoner, my sniveling, mean uncle allowed me scarce enough money to live as a servitor. Moreover, he allowed me no freedom; alone of my rank, my small money was given over entire to my tutor and I had to beg even for that; I was subjected to the discipline of a commoner and could not leave town without permission; I was even forced to attend lessons, although gentlemen are exempt from instruction.
I believe that many men see my manner now and consider me a rustic, yet I am far from such; those years taught me to hide my desires and my hatreds. I learned swiftly that I would have to endure several years of humiliation and solitude, and that there was little 1 could do to alter that. It is not my way to rage uselessly against a situation I cannot change. But I noted those who were heartless, and promised myself that, in due course, they would regret their coarseness. Many of them have done so.
I do not even know that I greatly missed the temptations of society, in any case. My attentions have always been focused on my own people, and my childhood prepared me little for more promiscuous intercourse. Such reputation as I had was of a surly, ill-tempered fellow, and the more this grew, the more I was left in a solitude which was broken only by my forays among the townsfolk. I became an adept at disguise, leaving my gown behind me and walking the streets like a citizen with such confidence that I was never once challenged by the proctors for improper dress.
But even these excursions were limited, for once I shrugged off my gown, I also shrugged off my credit and had to pay ready money for my pleasures. Fortunately, the urge for diversion came on me only infrequently. For the most part, I engaged my mind with my studies and consoled myself by conducting such investigations as I could into greater matters. I was gravely disappointed in my expectation that I would soon learn enough to proceed with the getting of money, however, for in all the time I was at the university 1 learned nothing of the law whatsoever, and was somewhat derided by my fellows for having any such expectation. Jurisprudence there was aplenty; I was swamped in canon law and the principles of Aquinas and Aristotle; 1 came to have a nodding acquaintance with the Justinianic code, and acquired something of the art of disputation. But 1 looked in vain for instruction on how to launch a suit in Chancery, to contest a will or query the provisions of an executor.
And while my legal education proceeded, I also decided that I would take the more direct revenge that my father had not been able to exact, for not only did his soul demand it, I considered it by far the quickest way of solving my family’s material problems—once persuaded of the innocence of the father, I was certain His Majesty would recompense the son. Initially, I thought the task would be easy—before he fled, my father’s judgment was that Cromwell’s Secretary of State, John Thurloe, had seeded the calumnies against him to spread dissent in the royalist ranks, and I never doubted that he was correct. It had all the hallmarks of that dark and sinister man, who ever preferred a knife in the back to an upright, honorable combat. But I was too young to do much and, besides, I assumed that sooner or later Thurloe would be tried, and the truth known. Again, youth is na"ive, and faith is blind.
For Thurloe was not brought to trial, did not have to flee the country, had not one penny of his ill-gotten gains taken from him. The comparison between the fruits of treachery and the reward for loyalty was stark indeed. On the day near the end of 1662 that I heard it confirmed there would be no trial, I realized that any revenge would have to come from my own hands. Cromwell’s evil genius might escape the law, I thought, but he would not escape justice. I would show all the world that some people, in this debased and corrupted country, still knew the meaning of honor. With the purity of youth it is possible to think in such noble and simple terms. It is a clarity that experience strips from us, and we are all poorer for the loss.