How many stout cells have I occupied in my long life - too many to count. The one in Ely was better than most. The usual thick stone walls and a strong door banded with iron, no windows, but dry, and most unusually clean. It is more typical to find the smeared faeces of former inmates when in a pound.
‘This is entirely your fault.’
I looked over at Sam. They were the first words he had spoken since we had been dumped in the cell. The brawlers who had caused the fight were marched off under guard, making vain protests, whilst I had hurled insults and curses at them. I took some comfort in that, but we were locked up and left alone for rest of the night. Our despatches and papers taken by Young Oliver. My back hurt from the kicking and there had been blood in my piss.
‘They broke my pipe and took my baccy. I cannot even take a smoke.’
‘My apologies, Sam,’ I said.
‘Your fuse has grown too short, Sugar. There was no need for this. We could have spent a night on feather bolsters instead of a bare bench,’ he said. ‘And they broke my pipe.’
I was surprised by that, I had not realised my temper had changed. I have always been prone to the odd tantrum, but consider myself a happy sort in the main. Yet, as I thought on it, I realised Sam was true. The war was making me tetchy and giving me bad dreams. We sat in silence for a time as I contemplated that.
The lock rattled and door creaked open; a couple of men entered, both in uniform coats - one with an officer’s sash.
‘Captain Candy?’ said the officer to Sam. He shook his head.
‘I am Candy.’ I may have to start wearing a beard to look older.
‘You can come with us, if you please, sir.’
I stood up and brushed myself down, nodded to Sam, and followed the officer. Then I stopped.
‘Good, sir, could I beg a clay pipe and some tobacco for my comrade? It would soothe his nervous disposition.’
I thought Sam was going to spring at me from his evil stare. The trooper fumbled around in his coat, pulled out a pipe and tobacco pouch, then handed them to him. He took them gratefully enough but offered me no thanks. In truth, it was a test - and Sam knew it. Had they dismissed my request, or worse, then we would have been in trouble. Their polite demeanour and easy acquiescence reassured us both.
They led me out of the lockup - an old monkish storehouse in the shadow of the cathedral - over lawns busy with men exercising horses and drilling with swords. We crossed a road to a small church, and in the gardens a plainly built house. Two stories high, wood and plaster, stone and tile. This was Cromwell’s home - an old vicarage with a leaky roof. [i]
I was taken through into the kitchen; a neat tiled affair, with a long table, great hearth, and a roaring wood fire. Standing at the table, eating boiled eggs and toast, was the man himself. Young Oliver was with him, being lectured about something or other.
Cromwell’s shirt was open at the collar, no shoes on his feet, at ease in his own home. He turned to face me as the guards led me in. The woodcuts did not do him justice. Lean, and of medium height, mousey hair turning grey. A long face with a ruddy complexion, big bulbous nose, and the most piercing grey-blue eyes.
He stared at me as if weighing my soul; fixing me with a most penetrating glare. It was both frightening and fascinating in equal measures. This man exuded absolute power. Even in a plain kitchen, in his stockings, with egg yolk on his shirt.
‘You are Candy?’ He asked with no polite introductions.
‘My men say you provoked a brawl, caused damage to property, and upset the locals.’
I paused before answering. Depending upon the view of the incident it could be seen either way - that is a lesson in context. Cromwell carried on before I could conjure a suitable response.
‘You said that I could kiss your hairy arse?’
‘Yes, sir, but now I have made your acquaintance, I withdraw the invitation.’
That was glib, and I thought he was going to bawl me out, but he stared at me for just a second and then guffawed.
‘Your uncle tells me you have a roguish wit,’ he said, in his big booming voice. ‘Do you fear God, Captain Candy?’
I damn well fear you, I thought, but gave him my most roguish smile and stayed silent. He carried on.
‘I have already spoken with the innkeeper. I know it was not you who caused this disturbance. The other men will be made examples of in the stocks.’ That was harsh even if they started it. ‘Still, it is not the best introduction, Captain.’
‘I can assure you, Colonel, that neither I nor my comrade intended such an arrival.’
He nodded. ‘Why do you fight, Candy?’
The answer to that was one I knew well enough. ’Twas something we all worried on.
‘I say the King is a tyrant who acts illegally, and makes bloody war on his own people.’ I believed it then and I believe it now. I met three Stuart kings - they were all stubborn shitholes.
He smiled and nodded again at that.
‘At least - God be praised - you know why you fight. Too many have no idea and it makes them weak. The Lord of Israel abhors weakness of spirit, Candy.’
I did not know how to respond to that.
He looked to his son, and then to me, and finally explained his and my uncle’s design. Young Oliver would return with us to Newport Pagnell in a few days, with supplies promised to Uncle Samuel. In the meantime, we were to show them the work of the Scouts. He wanted our opinions, indeed, he ordered us to be honest and forthright in our assessment, both of his son and his men. I thought that would be the end of the interview.
‘They call you The Golden Scout?’
‘Yes, sir,’ I said.
‘They called my grandfather The Golden Knight. He was a vain spendthrift. Are you a vain spendthrift, Captain Candy?’
‘Yes, sir.’ A reputation is akin to a suit of old clothes - comfortably stained.
He guffawed again. I was starting to wonder if Cromwell’s fearsome reputation was perhaps a little exaggerated. He had decided that I was an honest rogue, and I think kept that opinion until the end. He was wrong of course, and I told him often enough, but he would just laugh and pinch my cheeks. He thought pinching cheeks was funny - lunatic. It damn well hurt, I can tell you.
[i] St Mary’s Vicarage - Cromwell’s family home in Ely - still exists, and is much as Blandford describes. It is Grade II listed, and now the award winning Oliver Cromwell House Museum and tourist information centre. The house retains its Seventeenth Century charm, but the addition of Twenty First Century interactive displays, would no doubt have bemused it’s infamous former occupant. There are claims that it is haunted by Oliver’s ghost and even an investigation by Cambridge Paranormal Research Society into the alleged phenomenon. This author can attest to no spooky sightings, but the museum is well worth a visit, and is right next door to the wonderful cathedral.