At noon of an autumnal day more than two centuries ago the English colors were displayed by the standard bearer of the Salem train-band, which had mustered for martial exercise under the orders of John Endicott. It was a period when the religious exiles were accustomed often to buckle on their armor and practise the handling of their weapons of war. Since the first settlement of New England its prospects had never been so dismal. The dissensions between Charles I. and his subjects were then, and for several years afterward, confined to the floor of Parliament. The measures of the king and ministry were rendered more tyrannically violent by an opposition which had not yet acquired sufficient confidence in its own strength to resist royal injustice with the sword. The bigoted and haughty primate Laud, archbishop of Canterbury, controlled the religious affairs of the realm, and was consequently invested with powers which might have wrought the utter ruin of the two Puritan colonies, Plymouth and Massachusetts. There is evidence on record that our forefathers perceived their danger, but were resolved that their infant country should not fall without a struggle, even beneath the giant strength of the king's right arm.
Such was the aspect of the times when the folds of the English banner with the red cross in its field were flung out over a company of Puritans. Their leader, the famous Endicott, was a man of stern and resolute countenance, the effect of which was heightened by a grizzled beard that swept the upper portion of his breastplate. This piece of armor was so highly polished that the whole surrounding scene had its image in the glittering steel. The central object in the mirrored picture was an edifice of humble architecture with neither steeple nor bell to proclaim it--what, nevertheless, it was--the house of prayer. A token of the perils of the wilderness was seen in the grim head of a wolf which had just been slain within the precincts of the town, and, according to the regular mode of claiming the bounty, was nailed on the porch of the meeting-house. The blood was still plashing on the doorstep. There happened to be visible at the same noontide hour so many other characteristics of the times and manners of the Puritans that we must endeavor to represent them in a sketch, though far less vividly than they were reflected in the polished breastplate of John Endicott.
In close vicinity to the sacred edifice appeared that important engine of Puritanic authority the whipping-post, with the soil around it well trodden by the feet of evil-doers who had there been disciplined. At one corner of the meeting-house was the pillory and at the other the stocks, and, by a singular good fortune for our sketch, the head of an Episcopalian and suspected Catholic was grotesquely encased in the former machine, while a fellow-criminal who had boisterously quaffed a health to the king was confined by the legs in the latter. Side by side on the meeting-house steps stood a male and a female figure. The man was a tall, lean, haggard personification of fanaticism, bearing on his breast this label, "A WANTON GOSPELLER," which betokened that he had dared to give interpretations of Holy Writ unsanctioned by the infallible judgment of the civil and religious rulers. His aspect showed no lack of zeal to maintain his heterodoxies even at the stake. The woman wore a cleft stick on her tongue, in appropriate retribution for having wagged that unruly member against the elders of the church, and her countenance and gestures gave much cause to apprehend that the moment the stick should be removed a repetition of the offence would demand new ingenuity in chastising it.
The above-mentioned individuals had been sentenced to undergo their various modes of ignominy for the space of one hour at noonday. But among the crowd were several whose punishment would be lifelong--some whose ears had been cropped like those of puppy-dogs, others whose cheeks had been branded with the initials of their misdemeanors; one with his nostrils slit and seared, and another with a halter about his neck, which he was forbidden ever to take off or to conceal beneath his garments. Methinks he must have been grievously tempted to affix the other end of the rope to some convenient beam or bough. There was likewise a young woman with no mean share of beauty whose doom it was to wear the letter A on the breast of her gown in the eyes of all the world and her own children. And even her own children knew what that initial signified. Sporting with her infamy, the lost and desperate creature had embroidered the fatal token in scarlet cloth with golden thread and the nicest art of needlework; so that the capital A might have been thought to mean "Admirable," or anything rather than "Adulteress."
Let not the reader argue from any of these evidences of iniquity that the times of the Puritans were more vicious than our own, when as we pass along the very street of this sketch we discern no badge of infamy on man or woman. It was the policy of our ancestors to search out even the most secret sins and expose them to shame, without fear or favor, in the broadest light of the noonday sun. Were such the custom now, perchance we might find materials for a no less piquant sketch than the above.
Except the malefactors whom we have described and the diseased or infirm persons, the whole male population of the town, between sixteen years and sixty were seen in the ranks of the train-band. A few stately savages in all the pomp and dignity of the primeval Indian stood gazing at the spectacle. Their flint-headed arrows were but childish weapons, compared with the matchlocks of the Puritans, and would have rattled harmlessly against the steel caps and hammered iron breastplates which enclosed each soldier in an individual fortress. The valiant John Endicott glanced with an eye of pride at his sturdy followers, and prepared to renew the martial toils of the day.
"Come, my stout hearts!" quoth he, drawing his sword. "Let us show these poor heathen that we can handle our weapons like men of might. Well for them if they put us not to prove it in earnest!"
The iron-breasted company straightened their line, and each man drew the heavy butt of his matchlock close to his left foot, thus awaiting the orders of the captain. But as Endicott glanced right and left along the front he discovered a personage at some little distance with whom it behoved him to hold a parley. It was an elderly gentleman wearing a black cloak and band and a high-crowned hat beneath which was a velvet skull-cap, the whole being the garb of a Puritan minister. This reverend person bore a staff which seemed to have been recently cut in the forest, and his shoes were bemired, as if he had been travelling on foot through the swamps of the wilderness. His aspect was perfectly that of a pilgrim, heightened also by an apostolic dignity. Just as Endicott perceived him he laid aside his staff and stooped to drink at a bubbling fountain which gushed into the sunshine about a score of yards from the corner of the meeting-house. But ere the good man drank he turned his face heavenward in thankfulness, and then, holding back his gray beard with one hand, he scooped up his simple draught in the hollow of the other.
"What ho, good Mr. Williams!" shouted Endicott. "You are welcome back again to our town of peace. How does our worthy Governor Winthrop? And what news from Boston?"
"The governor hath his health, worshipful sir," answered Roger Williams, now resuming his staff and drawing near. "And, for the news, here is a letter which, knowing I was to travel hitherward to-day, His Excellency committed to my charge. Belike it contains tidings of much import, for a ship arrived yesterday from England."
Mr. Williams, the minister of Salem, and of course known to all the spectators, had now reached the spot where Endicott was standing under the banner of his company, and put the governor's epistle into his hand. The broad seal was impressed with Winthrop's coat-of-arms. Endicott hastily unclosed the letter and began to read, while, as his eye passed down the page, a wrathful change came over his manly countenance. The blood glowed through it till it seemed to be kindling with an internal heat, nor was it unnatural to suppose that his breastplate would likewise become red hot with the angry fire of the bosom which it covered. Arriving at the conclusion, he shook the letter fiercely in his hand, so that it rustled as loud as the flag above his head.
"Black tidings these, Mr. Williams," said he; "blacker never came to New England. Doubtless you know their purport?"
"Yea, truly," replied Roger Williams, "for the governor consulted respecting this matter with my brethren in the ministry at Boston, and my opinion was likewise asked. And His Excellency entreats you by me that the news be not suddenly noised abroad, lest the people be stirred up unto some outbreak, and thereby give the king and the archbishop a handle against us."
"The governor is a wise man--a wise man, and a meek and moderate," said Endicott, setting his teeth grimly. "Nevertheless, I must do according to my own best judgment. There is neither man, woman nor child in New England but has a concern as dear as life in these tidings; and if John Endicott's voice be loud enough, man, woman and child shall hear them.--Soldiers, wheel into a hollow square.--Ho, good people! Here are news for one and all of you."
The soldiers closed in around their captain, and he and Roger Williams stood together under the banner of the red cross, while the women and the aged men pressed forward and the mothers held up their children to look Endicott in the face. A few taps of the drum gave signal for silence and attention.
"Fellow-soldiers, fellow-exiles," began Endicott, speaking under strong excitement, yet powerfully restraining it, "wherefore did ye leave your native country? Wherefore, I say, have we left the green and fertile fields, the cottages, or, perchance, the old gray halls, where we were born and bred, the churchyards where our forefathers lie buried? Wherefore have we come hither to set up our own tombstones in a wilderness? A howling wilderness it is. The wolf and the bear meet us within halloo of our dwellings. The savage lieth in wait for us in the dismal shadow of the woods. The stubborn roots of the trees break our ploughshares when we would till the earth. Our children cry for bread, and we must dig in the sands of the seashore to satisfy them. Wherefore, I say again, have we sought this country of a rugged soil and wintry sky? Was it not for the enjoyment of our civil rights? Was it not for liberty to worship God according to our conscience?"
"Call you this liberty of conscience?" interrupted a voice on the steps of the meeting-house.
It was the wanton gospeller. A sad and quiet smile flitted across the mild visage of Roger Williams, but Endicott, in the excitement of the moment, shook his sword wrathfully at the culprit--an ominous gesture from a man like him.
"What hast thou to do with conscience, thou knave?" cried he. "I said liberty to worship God, not license to profane and ridicule him. Break not in upon my speech, or I will lay thee neck and heels till this time to-morrow.--Hearken to me, friends, nor heed that accursed rhapsodist. As I was saying, we have sacrificed all things, and have come to a land whereof the Old World hath scarcely heard, that we might make a new world unto ourselves and painfully seek a path from hence to heaven. But what think ye now? This son of a Scotch tyrant--this grandson of a papistical and adulterous Scotch woman whose death proved that a golden crown doth not always save an anointed head from the block--"
"Nay, brother, nay," interposed Mr. Williams; "thy words are not meet for a secret chamber, far less for a public street."
"Hold thy peace, Roger Williams!" answered Endicott, imperiously. "My spirit is wiser than thine for the business now in hand.--I tell ye, fellow-exiles, that Charles of England and Laud, our bitterest persecutor, arch-priest of Canterbury, are resolute to pursue us even hither. They are taking counsel, saith this letter, to send over a governor-general in whose breast shall be deposited all the law and equity of the land. They are minded, also, to establish the idolatrous forms of English episcopacy; so that when Laud shall kiss the pope's toe as cardinal of Rome he may deliver New England, bound hand and foot, into the power of his master."
A deep groan from the auditors--a sound of wrath as well as fear and sorrow--responded to this intelligence.
"Look ye to it, brethren," resumed Endicott, with increasing energy. "If this king and this arch-prelate have their will, we shall briefly behold a cross on the spire of this tabernacle which we have builded, and a high altar within its walls, with wax tapers burning round it at noon-day. We shall hear the sacring-bell and the voices of the Romish priests saying the mass. But think ye, Christian men, that these abominations may be suffered without a sword drawn, without a shot fired, without blood spilt--yea, on the very stairs of the pulpit? No! Be ye strong of hand and stout of heart. Here we stand on our own soil, which we have bought with our goods, which we have won with our swords, which we have cleared with our axes, which we have tilled with the sweat of our brows, which we have sanctified with our prayers to the God that brought us hither! Who shall enslave us here? What have we to do with this mitred prelate--with this crowned king? What have we to do with England?"
Endicott gazed round at the excited countenances of the people, now full of his own spirit, and then turned suddenly to the standard-bearer, who stood close behind him.
"Officer, lower your banner," said he.
The officer obeyed, and, brandishing his sword, Endicott thrust it through the cloth and with his left hand rent the red cross completely out of the banner. He then waved the tattered ensign above his head.
"Sacrilegious wretch!" cried the high-churchman in the pillory, unable longer to restrain himself; "thou hast rejected the symbol of our holy religion."
"Treason! treason!" roared the royalist in the stocks. "He hath defaced the king's banner!"
"Before God and man I will avouch the deed," answered Endicott.--"Beat a flourish, drummer--shout, soldiers and people--in honor of the ensign of New England. Neither pope nor tyrant hath part in it now."
With a cry of triumph the people gave their sanction to one of the boldest exploits which our history records. And for ever honored be the name of Endicott! We look back through the mist of ages, and recognize in the rending of the red cross from New England's banner the first omen of that deliverance which our fathers consummated after the bones of the stern Puritan had lain more than a century in the dust.