MY FIRST JOURNEY
I was born in the year 1800, in the town of Newnham-on-Severn, in Gloucestershire. I am sure of the year, because my father always told me that I was born at the end of the century, in the year that they began to build the great house. The house has been finished now these many years. The red-brick wall, which shuts its garden from the road (and the Severn), is all covered with valerian and creeping plants. One of my earliest memories is of the masons at work, shaping the two great bows. I remember how my nurse used to stop to watch them, at the corner of the road, on the green strip by the river-bank, where the gipsies camped on the way to Gloucester horse-fair. One of the masons was her sweetheart (Tom Farrell his name was), but he got into bad ways, I remember, and was hanged or transported, though that was years afterwards, when I had left that countryside.
My father and mother died when I was still a boy—my mother on the day of Trafalgar battle, in 1805, my father four years later. It was very sad at home after mother died; my father shut himself up in his study, never seeing anybody. When my father died, my uncle came to Newnham from his home in Devonshire; my old home was sold then, and I was taken away. I remember the day so very clearly. It was one sunny morning in early April. My uncle and I caught the coach at the top of the hill, at the door of the old inn opposite the church. The coachman had a hot drink handed up to him, and the ostlers hitched up the new team. Then the guard (he had a red coat, like a soldier) blew his horn, and the coach started off down the hill, going so very fast that I was afraid, for I had never ridden on a coach before, though I had seen them every day. The last that I saw of Newnham was the great house at the corner. It was finished by that time, of course, and as we drove past I saw the beautiful woman who lived there walking up and down the lawn with her husband, Captain Rylands, a very tall, handsome man, who used to give me apples. I was always afraid to eat the apples, because my nurse said that the Captain had killed a man. That was in the wars in Spain, fighting against the French.
I remember a great deal about my first coach-ride. We slept that night at Bristol in one of the famous coaching inns, where, as a great treat, I had bacon and eggs for supper, instead of bread-and-milk. In the morning, my uncle took me with him to the docks, where he had some business to do. That was the first time I ever really saw big ships, and that was the first time I spoke with the sailors. There was a capstan on one of the wharves, and men were at work, heaving round it, hoisting casks out of a West Indiaman. One of the men said, "Come on, young master; give us a hand on the bar here." So I put my hands on to the bar and pushed my best, walking beside him till my uncle called me away. There were many ships there at the time, all a West Indian convoy, and it was fine to see their great figureheads, and the brass cannon at the ports, and to hear the men singing out aloft as they shifted spars and bent and unbent sails. They were all very lofty ships, built for speed; all were beautifully kept, like men-of-war, and all of them had their house-flags and red ensigns flying, so that in the sun they looked splendid. I shall never forget them.
After that, we went back to the inn, and climbed into another coach, and drove for a long, long time, often very slowly, till we reached a place near Newton Abbot, where there was a kind woman who put me to bed (I was too tired to notice more). Then, the next morning, I remember a strange man who was very cross at breakfast, so that the kind woman cried till my uncle sent me out of the room. It is funny how these things came back to me; it might have been only yesterday.
Late that afternoon we reached the south coast of Devon, so that we had the sea close beside us until the sun set. I heard the sea, as I thought, when we reached my uncle's house, at the end of the twilight; but they told me that it was a trout-stream, brawling over its boulders, and that the sea was a full mile away. My aunt helped to put me to bed, but I was too much excited to sleep well. I lay awake for a long, long time, listening to the noise of the brook, and to the wind among the trees outside, and to the cuckoo clock on the landing calling out the hours and half-hours. When I fell asleep I seemed to hear the sea and the crying out of the sailors. Voices seemed to be talking close beside me in the room; I seemed to hear all sorts of things, strange things, which afterwards really happened. There was a night-light burning on the wash-handstand. Whenever I woke up in the night the light would show me the shadow of the water jug upon the ceiling. It looked like an old, old man, with a humped back, walking the road, bowed over his cudgel.
I am not going to say very much about my life during the next few years. My aunt and uncle had no children of their own, and no great fondness for the children of others. Sometimes I was very lonely there; but after my tenth birthday I was at school most of my time, at Newton Abbot. I used to spend my Easter holidays (never more than a week) with the kind woman who put me to bed that night of my journey. My summer and winter holidays I spent with my uncle and aunt in their little house above the trout-stream.
The trout-stream rose about three miles from my uncle's house, in a boggy wood full of springs. It was a very rapid brook, nowhere more than three or four feet deep, and never more than twenty feet across, even near its mouth. Below my uncle's house it was full of little falls, with great mossy boulders which checked its flow, and pools where the bubbles spun. Further down, its course was gentler, for the last mile to the sea was a flat valley, with combes on each side covered with gorse and bramble. The sea had once come right up that valley to just below my uncle's house; but that was many years before—long before anybody could remember. Just after I went to live there, one of the farmers dug a drain, or "rhine," in the valley, to clear a boggy patch. He dug up the wreck of a large fishing-boat, with her anchor and a few rusty hoops lying beside her under the ooze about a foot below the surface. She must have sailed right up from the sea hundreds of years ago, before the brook's mouth got blocked with shingle (as I suppose it was) during some summer gale when the stream was nearly dry. Often, when I was a boy, I used to imagine the ships coming up from the sea, along that valley, firing their cannon. In the winter, when the snow melted, the valley would be flooded, till it looked just like a sea, and then I would imagine sea-fights there, with pirates in red caps boarding Spanish treasure galleons.
The seacoast is mostly very bold in that part of Devon. Even where there are no cliffs, the land rises steeply from the sea, in grassy hills, with boulders and broken rock, instead of a beach, below them. There are small sandy beaches wherever the brooks run into the sea. Everywhere else the shore is "steep-to"—so much so that in many places it is very difficult to reach the sea. I mention this because, later on, that steep coast gave me some queer adventures.
When I was twelve years old, something very terrible happened, with good results for myself. The woman near Newton Abbot (I have spoken of her several times) was a Mrs Cottier, the wife of a schoolmaster. Her husband used to drink very hard, and in this particular year he was turned out of the school, and lost his living. His wife left him then (or rather he left her; for a long time no one knew what became of him) and came to live with us, bringing with her little Hugh Cottier, her son, a boy of about my own age. After that, life in my uncle's house was a different thing to me. Mrs Cottier was very beautiful and kind; she was like my mother, strangely like, always sweet and gentle, always helpful and wise. I think she was the dearest woman who ever lived. I was always proud when she asked me to do something for her. Once, I remember (in the winter after Mrs Cottier came to us), she drove to Salcombe to do her Christmas shopping. It came on to snow during the afternoon; and at night-time the storm grew worse. We put back supper, expecting her to come in at any minute, but she did not come. The hours went by, and still she did not come, and still the storm worsened. The wind was not very high, but the air was full of a fine, powdery, drifting snow; the night seemed full of snow; snow fell down the chimney and drifted in under the door. My uncle was too lame with sciatica to leave his bed; and my aunt, always a woman of poor spirit, was afraid of the night. At eight o'clock I could stand it no longer, so I said that I would saddle the pony, and ride out along the Salcombe road to find her. Hugh was for going in my place; but Hugh was not so strongly built as I, and I felt that Hugh would faint after an hour in the cold, I put on double clothes, with an oilskin jacket over all, and then lit the lantern, and beat out of the house to the stable. I put one or two extra candles in my pockets, with a flint and steel, and some bread and meat Something prompted me to take a hank of cord, and a heavy old boat-rug; and with all these things upon him old Greylegs, the pony, was heavy-laden.
When we got into the road together, I could not see a yard in front of me. There was nothing but darkness and drifting snow and the gleam of the drifts where the light of the lantern fell. There was no question of losing the road; for the road was a Devon lane, narrow and deep, built by the ancient Britons, so everybody says, to give them protection as they went down to the brooks for water. If it had been an open road, I could never have found my way for fifty yards. I was strongly built for a boy; even at sea I never suffered much from the cold, and this night was not intensely cold—snowy weather seldom is. What made the ride so exhausting was the beating of the snow into my eyes and mouth. It fell upon me in a continual dry feathery pelting, till I was confused and tired out with the effort of trying to see ahead. For a little while, I had the roar of the trout-stream in my ears to comfort me; but when I topped the next combe that died away; and there I was in the night, beating on against the storm, with the strange moaning sound of the wind from Dartmoor, and the snow rustling to keep me company. I was not exactly afraid, for the snow in my face bothered me too much, but often the night would seem full of people—laughing, horrible people—and often I would think that I saw Mrs Cottier lying half-buried in a drift.
I rode three miles or more without seeing anybody. Then, just before I reached the moor cross-roads, in a lull when the snow was not so bad, I heard a horse whinny, and old Greylegs baulked. Then I heard voices and a noise as of people riding; and before I could start old Greylegs I saw a party of horsemen crossing my road by the road from the sea to Dartmoor. They were riding at a quick trot, and though there were many horses (some thirty or forty), I could see, even in that light, that most of them were led. There were not more than a dozen men; and only one of all that dozen carried a lantern. Something told me that they were out for no good, and the same instinct made me cover my lantern with my coat, so that they passed me without seeing me. At first I thought that they were the fairy troop, and that gave me an awful fear; but a moment later, in the wind, I felt a whiff of tobacco, and of a strong, warm, sweet smell of spirits, and I knew then that they were the night-riders or smugglers. After they had gone, I forced old Greylegs forward, and trotted on, against the snow, for another half-mile, with my heart going thump upon my ribs. I had an awful fear that they would turn, and catch me; and I knew that the night-riders wanted no witnesses of their adventures in the dark.
About four miles from home, I came to an open part of the road, where the snow came down in its full fury, there being no hedge to give a little shelter. It was so thick that I could not get Greylegs to go on. He stood stock-still, and cowered, though I beat him with my hank of cord, and kicked his ribs. It was cruel of me; but I thought of Mrs Cottier, with her beautiful kind face, lying in a drift of snow, and the thought was dreadful to me. I got down from the saddle, and put my lantern on the ground, and tried to drag him forward, but it was useless. He would not have stirred if I had lighted a fire under him. When he had the instinct to stand still, nothing would make him budge a yard. A very fierce gust came upon me then. The snow seemed to whirl upon me from all sides, so that I got giddy and sick. And then, just at the moment, there were horses and voices all about me, coming from Salcombe way. Somebody called out, "Hullo," and somebody called out "Look out, behind"; and then a lot of horses pulled up suddenly, and some men spoke, and a led horse shied at my lantern. I had no time to think or to run, I felt myself backing into old Greylegs in sheer fright; and then some one thrust a lantern into my face, and asked me who I was. By the light of the lantern I saw that he wore a woman's skirt over his trousers; and his face was covered by one of those great straw bee-skeps, pierced with holes for his eyes and mouth. He was one of the most terrible things I have ever seen.
"Why, it's a boy," said the terrible man. "What are you doing here, boy?"
Another man, who seemed to be a leader, called out from his horse, "Who are you?" but I was too scared to answer; my teeth were rattling in my head.
"It's a trick," said another voice. "We had best go for the moor."
"Shut up," said the leader, sharply. "The boy's scared."
He got down from his horse, and peered at me by the lantern light. He, too, wore a bee-skep; in fact, they all did, for there is no better disguise in the world, while nothing makes a man look more horrible. I was not quite so terrified by this time, because he had spoken kindly.
"Who are you?" he asked. "We shan't eat you. What are you doing here?"
As well as I could I told him. The leader strode off a few paces, and spoke with one or two other men; but I could only catch the words, "Yes; yes, Captain," spoken in a low, quick voice, which seemed somehow familiar. Then he came back to me, and took me by the throat, and swayed me to and fro, very gently, but in a way which made me feel that I was going to be killed.
"Tell me," he said, "I shall know whether you're lying, so tell the truth, now. What have you seen to-night?"
I told him that I had seen a troop of horsemen going through the snow towards the moor.
"That settles it, Captain," said another voice. "You can't trust a young chap like that."
"Shut up," said the man they called Captain; "I'm master, not you."
He strode off again, to speak to another man. I heard some one laugh a little, and then the Captain came back to me. He took me by the throat as before, and again shook me. "You listen to me," he said, grimly. "If you breathe so much as one word of what you've seen to-night—well—I shall know. D'ye hear? I shall know. And when I know—well—your little neck'll go. There's poetry. That will help you remember—
'When I know, Your neck'll go Like so'"
He gave a sharp little twist of his hand upon my Adam's apple.
I was terrified. I don't know what I said; my tongue seemed to wither on its stalk. The Captain walked to his horse, and remounted. "Come along, boys," he said. The line of horses started off again. A hand fell upon my shoulder, and a voice spoke kindly to me. "See here," it said, "you go on another half-mile, you'll find a barn by the side of the road. There's no door on the barn, and you'll see a fire inside. You'll find your lady there. She is safe all right. You keep your tongue shut now."
The speaker climbed into his saddle, and trotted off into the night. "Half a mile. Straight ahead!" he called; then the dull trampling died away, and I was left alone again with Greylegs. Some minutes passed before I could mount; for I was stiff with fright. I was too frightened after that to mind the snow; I was almost too frightened to ride. Luckily for me the coming of the night-riders had startled old Greylegs also; he trotted on gallantly, though sometimes he floundered into a drift, and had to be helped out.
Before I came to the barn the snow stopped falling, except for a few aimless flakes, which drifted from all sides in the air. It was very dark still; the sky was like ink; but there was a feel of freshness (I cannot describe it) which told me that the wind had changed. Presently I saw the barn ahead of me, to the right of the road, spreading a red glow of fire across the way. Old Greylegs seemed glad of the sight; he gave a whinny and snorted. As well as he could he broke into a canter, and carried me up to the door in style.
"Are you safe, Mrs Cottier?" I called out.
"What! Jim!" she answered. "How good of you to come for me!"
The barn, unlike most barns in that country, was of only one story. It may have been a farmhouse in the long ago, for it had larger windows than most barns. These had been stuffed with sacks and straw, to keep out the weather. The door had been torn from its place by some one in need of firewood; the roof was fairly sound; the floor was of trampled earth. Well away from the doorway, in the centre of the barn, some one had lighted a fire, using (as fuel) one of the faggots stacked against the wall. The smoke had long since blown out of doors. The air in the barn was clear and fresh. The fire had died down to a ruddy heap of embers, which glowed and grew grey again, as the draughts fanned them from the doorway. By the light of the fire I could see Mrs Cottier, sitting on the floor, with her back against the wheel of her trap, which had been dragged inside to be out of the snow. I hitched old Greylegs to one of the iron bolts, which had once held a door-hinge, and ran to her to make sure that she was unhurt.
"How in the world did you get here?" I asked. "Are you sure you're not hurt?"
She laughed a little at this, and I got out my stores, and we made our supper by the fire. "Where's old Nigger?" I asked her; for I was puzzled by seeing no horse.
"Oh, Jim," she said, "I've had such adventures."
When she had eaten a little she told me her story.
"I was coming home from Salcombe," she said, "and I was driving fast, so as to get home before the snow lay deep. Just outside South pool, Nigger cast a shoe, and I was kept waiting at the forge for nearly half an hour. After that, the snow was so bad that I could not get along. It grew dark when I was only a mile or two from the blacksmith's, and I began to fear that I should never get home. However, as I drove through Stokenham, the weather seemed to clear a little, so I hurried Nigger all I could, hoping to get home in the lull. When I got to within a hundred yards from here, in the little hollow, where the stunted ashes are, I found myself among a troop of horsemen, who stopped me, and asked me a lot of questions. They were all disguised, and they had lanterns among them, and I could see that the horses carried tubs; I suppose full of smuggled lace and brandy and tobacco, ready to be carried inland. Jim, dear, I was horribly frightened; for while they were speaking together I thought I heard the voice of—of some one I know—or used to know."
She stopped for a moment overcome, and I knew at once that she was speaking of her husband, the schoolmaster that was. "And then," she continued, "some of them told me to get down out of the trap. And then another of them seized Nigger's head, and walked the trap as far as the barn here. Then they unharnessed Nigger, and led him away, saying they were short of horses, but would send him back in a day or two. They seemed to know all about me, where I lived, and everything. One of them took a faggot from a wall here, and laid the big fire, with straw instead of paper. While he lit it he kept his great bee-skep on his head (they all wore them), but I noticed he had three blue rings tattooed on his left ring-finger. Now, somewhere I have seen a man, quite recently, with rings tattooed like that, only I can't remember where. I wish I could think where. He was very civil and gentle. He saw that the fire burnt up well, and left me all those sticks and logs, as well as the flint and steel, in case it should go out before the snow stopped. Oh, and he took the rugs out of the trap, and laid them on the ground for me to sit on. Before he left, he said, very civilly, "I am sure you don't want to get folks into trouble, madam. Perhaps you won't mention this, in case they ask you." So I said that I didn't want to get people into trouble; but that it was hardly a manly act to leave a woman alone, in an open barn, miles from anywhere, on a night like to-night. He seemed ashamed at this; for he slunk off, saying something about 'only obeying orders,' and 'not having much choice in the matter.' Then they all stood about outside, in the snow, leaving me alone here. They must have stayed outside a couple of hours. About a quarter of an hour before you came I heard some one call out, 'There it is, boys!' and immediately they all trotted off, at a smart pace. They must have seen or heard some signal. Of course, up here on the top of the combe, one could see a long way if the snow lulled for a moment."
THE MAN ON THE MOUND
It was very awesome sitting there by the firelight in the lonely barn, hearing the strange moan of the snow-wind. When Mrs Cottier finished her story we talked of all sorts of things; I think that we were both a little afraid of being silent in such a place, so, as we ate, we kept talking just as though we were by the fireside at home. I was afraid that perhaps the revenue officers would catch us there and force us to tell all we knew, and I was dreadfully frightened when I remembered the captain in the bee-skep who had shaken my throat and given me such a warning to be silent. When we had finished our supper, I told Mrs Cottier that perhaps we could harness old Greylegs to the trap, but this she thought would never do, as the drifts on the road made it such bad going; at last I persuaded her to mount old Greylegs and to ride astride like a boy, or like so many of the countrywomen in our parts. When she had mounted I took the old pony by the head and led him out, carrying the lantern in my hand.
When we got outside we found, to our great surprise, that the sky had cleared—it was a night of stars now that the wind had changed. By the "blink" of the snow our road was quite plain to us, and the sharp touch of frost in the air (which we felt all the more after our bonfire in the barn) had already made the snow crisp underfoot. It was pleasant to be travelling like that so late at night with Mrs Cottier; I felt like a knight who had just rescued a princess from a dragon; we talked together as we had never talked before. Whenever we climbed a bad combe she dismounted, and we walked together hand in hand like dear friends. Once or twice in the quiet I thought I heard the noise of the excisemen's horses, and then my heart thumped in my throat; then, when I knew myself mistaken, I felt only the delight of being of service to this dear woman who walked by me so merrily.
When we came to the foot of the combe, to the bridge over the trout-stream, she stopped for a moment. "Jim," she said, drawing me to her, "I shall never forget to-night, nor the little friend who rode out to help me; I want you, after this, always to look on me as your mother—I knew your mother a little, years ago. Well, dear, try to think of me as you would of her, and be a brother to my Hugh, Jim: let us all three be one family." She stooped down and kissed my cheek and lips.
"I will, Mrs Cottier," I said; "I'll always be a brother to Hugh." I was too deeply moved to say much more, for I had so long yearned for some woman like my mother to whom I could go for sympathy and to whom I could tell everything without the fear of being snubbed or laughed at. I just said, "Thank you, Mims." I don't know why I called her "Mims" then, but I did, and afterwards I never called her anything else; that was my secret name for her. She kissed me again and stroked my cheek with her hand, and we went on again together up the last steep bit of road to the house. Always, after that, I never thought of Mrs Cottier without feeling her lips upon my cheek and hearing the stamp of old Greylegs as he pawed on the snow, eager for the stable just round the corner.
It was very nice to get round the corner and to see the lights of the house a little way in front of us; in a minute or two we were there. Mrs Cottier had been dragged in to the fire to all sorts of comforting drinks and exclamations, and old Greylegs was snug in his stable having his coat rubbed down before going to sleep under his rug. We were all glad to get to bed that night: Hugh and my aunt were tired with anxiety, and Mrs Cottier and I had had enough adventure to make us very thankful for rest.
Before we parted for the night she drew me to one side and told me that she had not mentioned the night-riders to my uncle and aunt while I was busy in the stable, and that it might be safer if I, too, kept quiet about them. I do not know how she explained the absence of Nigger, but I am sure they were all too thankful to have her safely home again to bother much about the details of her drive.
Hugh and I always slept in soldier's cot-beds in a little room looking out over the lane. During the night we heard voices, and footsteps moving in the lane beneath us, and our dog (always kennelled at the back of the house) barked a good deal. Hugh and I crept from our bed and peered through the window, but it opened the wrong way; we could only look down the lane, whereas the noise seemed to come from just above us, near the stable door; unluckily, the frost had covered the window with ice-flowers, so that we could not see through the glass. We were, however, quite certain that there were people with lights close to our stable door; we thought at first that we had better call Mrs Cottier, and then it flashed through my mind that these were the night-riders, come to return Nigger, so I told Hugh to go back to bed and forget about it. I waited at the window for a few moments, wondering if the men would pass the house; I felt a horrible longing to see those huge and ghastly things in skirts and bee-skeps striding across the snow, going home from their night's prowl like skulking foxes; but whoever they were they took no risks. Some one softly whistled a scrap of a tune ("Tom, Tom, the piper's son") as though he were pleased at having finished a good piece of work, and then I heard footsteps going over the gap in the hedge and the crackling of twigs in the little wood on the other side of the lane. I went back to bed and slept like a top until nearly breakfast time.
I went out to the stable as soon as I was dressed, to find Joe Barnicoat, our man, busy at his morning's work; he had already swept away the snow from the doors of the house and stable, so that I could not see what footmarks had been made there since I went to fetch Greylegs at eight the night before. Joe was in a great state of excitement, for during the night the stable had been broken open. I had left it locked up, as it always was locked, after I had made Greylegs comfortable. When Joe came there at about half-past seven, he had found the broken padlock lying in the snow and the door-staple secured by a wooden peg cut from an ash in the hedge. As I expected, Nigger was in his stall, but the poor horse was dead lame from a cut in the fetlock: Joe said he must have been kicked there. I was surprised to find that the trap also had come home—there it was in its place with the snow still unmelted on its wheels. I helped Joe to dress poor Nigger's leg, saying that it was a pity we had not noticed it before. Joe was grumbling about "some people not having enough sense to know when a horse was lame," so I let him grumble.
When we had dressed the wound, I turned to the trap to lift out Mrs Cottier's parcels, which I carried indoors. Breakfast was ready on the table, and Mrs Cottier and Hugh were toasting some bread at the fire. My aunt was, of course, breakfasting upstairs with my uncle; he was hardly able to stir with sciatica, poor man; he needed somebody to feed him.
"Good morning, Mims dear," I cried. "What do you think? The trap's come back and here are all your parcels." I noticed then (I had not noticed it before) that one of the parcels was very curiously wrapped. It was wrapped in an old sack, probably one of those which filled the windows of the barn, for bits of straw still stuck in the threads.
"Whatever have you got there, Jim?" said Mrs Cottier.
"One of your parcels," I answered; "I've just taken it out of the trap."
"Let me see it," she said. "There must be some mistake. That's not one of mine." She took the parcel from me and turned it over before opening it.
On turning the package over, we saw that some one had twisted a piece of dirty grey paper (evidently wrapping-paper from the grocer's shop) about the rope yarn which kept the roll secure. Mrs Cottier noticed it first. "Oh," she cried, "there's a letter, too. I wonder if it's meant for me?"
We untied the rope yarn and the paper fell upon the table; we opened it out, wondering what message could be written on it. It was a part of a grocer's sugar bag, written upon in the coarse black crayon used by the tallymen on the quays at Kingsbridge. The writing was disguised, so as to give no clue to the writer; the letters were badly-formed printer's capitals; the words were ill-spelled, and the whole had probably been written in a hurry, perhaps by the light of our fire in the barn.
"Hors is laimd," said the curious letter. "Regret inconvenuns axept Respect from obt servt Captin Sharp."
"Very sweet and to the point," said Mrs Cottier. "Is Nigger lame, then?"
"Yes," I answered. "Joe says he has been kicked. You won't be able to drive him for some time."
"Poor old Nigger," said Mrs Cottier, as she unwrapped the parcel. "Now, I wonder what 'Respect' Captain Sharp has sent me?"
She unrolled the sacking, and out fell two of those straw cases which are used to protect wine-bottles. They seemed unusually bulky, so we tore them open. In one of them there was a roll, covered with a bit of tarpaulin. It contained a dozen yards of very beautiful Malines lace. The other case was full of silk neckerchiefs packed very tightly, eleven altogether; most of them of uncoloured silk, but one of green and another of blue—worth a lot of money in those days, and perhaps worth more to-day, now that such fine silk is no longer woven.
"So this is what we get for the loan of Nigger, Jim," said Mrs Cottier. "We ought, by rights, to give these things to the revenue officer."
"Yes," I said, "but if we do that, we shall have to say how they came, and why they came, and then perhaps the exciseman will get a clue, and we shall have brought the night-riders into trouble."
It was cowardly of me to speak like this; but you must remember that I had been in "Captain Sharp's" hands the night before, and I was still terrified by his threat—
"When I know, Your neck'll go Like so."
"Well," said Mrs Cottier, looking at me rather sharply, "we will keep the things, and say nothing about them: but we must find out what duty should be paid on them, and send it to the exciseman at Dartmouth. That will spare our consciences."
After breakfast, Mrs Cottier went to give orders to the servant, while Hugh and I slipped down the lane to see how the snow had drifted in our little orchard by the brook. We had read somewhere that the Red Indians often make themselves snow-houses, or snow-burrows, when the winter is severe. We were anxious to try our hands at making a snow-house. We wanted to know whether a house with snow walls could really be warm, and we pictured to ourselves how strange it would be to be shut in by walls of snow, with only one little hole for air, seeing nothing but the white all round us, having no window to look through. We thought that it would be wonderful to have a snow-house, especially if snow fell after the roof had been covered in, for then no one could know if the dweller were at home. One would lie very still, wrapped up in buffalo robes, while all the time the other Indians would be prowling about in their war-paint, looking for you. Or perhaps the Spaniards would be after you with their bloodhounds, and you would get down under the snow in the forest somewhere, and the snow would fall and fall, covering your tracks, till nothing could be seen but a little tiny hole, melted by your breath, through which you got fresh air. Then you would hear the horses and the armour and the baying of the hounds; but they would never find you, though their horses' hoofs might almost sink through the snow to your body.
We went down to the orchard, Hugh and I, determined to build a snow-house if the drifts were deep enough. We were not going to plunge into a drift, and make a sort of chamber by wrestling our bodies about, as the Indians do. We had planned to dig a square chamber in the biggest drift we could find, and then to roof it over with an old tarpaulin stretched upon sticks. We were going to cover the tarpaulin with snow, in the Indian fashion, and we had planned to make a little narrow passage, like a fox's earth, as the only doorway to the chamber.
It was a bright, frosty morning: the sun shone, the world sparkled, the sky was of a dazzling blue, the snow gleamed everywhere. Hoolie, the dog, was wild with excitement. He ran from drift to drift, snapping up mouthfuls of snow, and burrowing down sideways till he was half buried.
There was a flower garden at one end of the orchard, and in the middle of the garden there was a summer-house. The house was a large, airy single room (overlooking the stream), with a space beneath it, half-cave, half-cellar, open to the light, where Joe Barnicoat kept his gardening tools, with other odds-and-ends, such as bast, peasticks, sieves, shears, and traps for birds and vermin. Hugh and I went directly to this lower chamber to get a shovel for our work.
We stood at the entrance for a moment to watch Hoolie playing in the snow; and as we watched, something caught my eye and made me look up sharply.
Up above us, on the side of the combe beyond the lane, among a waste of gorse, in full view of the house (and of the orchard where we were), there was a mound or barrow, the burial-place of an ancient British king. It was a beautifully-rounded hill, some twenty-five feet high. A year or two before I went there it had been opened by the vicar, who found inside it a narrow stone passage, leading to an inner chamber, walled with unmortared stone. In the central chamber there were broken pots, a few bronze spear-heads, very green and brittle, and a mass of burnt bones. The doctor said that they were the bones of horses. On the top of all this litter, with his head between his knees, there sat a huge skeleton. The vicar said that when alive the man must have been fully six feet six inches tall, and large in proportion, for the bones were thick and heavy. He had evidently been a king: he wore a soft gold circlet round his head, and three golden bangles on his arms. He had been killed in battle. In the side of his skull just above the circle of gold, there was a great wound, with a flint axe-blade firmly wedged in the bone. The vicar had often told me about this skeleton. I remember to this day the shock of horror which came upon me when I heard of this great dead king, sitting in the dark among his broken goods, staring out over the valley. The country people always said that the hill was a fairy hill. They believed that the pixies went to dance there whenever the moon was full. I never saw the pixies myself, but somehow I always felt that the hill was uncanny. I never passed it at night if I could avoid it.
Now, when I looked up, as I stood with Hugh watching the dog, I saw something flash upon the top of the barrow. In that bright sun, with all the snow about, many things were sparkling; but this thing gleamed like lightning, suddenly, and then flashed again. Looking at it sharply, I saw that there was a man upon the barrow top, apparently lying down upon the snow. He had something in his hand turned to the sun, a piece of glass perhaps, or a tin plate, some very bright thing, which flashed. He flashed it three times quickly, then paused, then flashed it again. He seemed to be looking intently across the valley to the top of the combe beyond, to the very place where the road from Salcombe swings round to the dip. Looking in that direction, I saw the figure of a man standing on the top of the wall against a stunted holly-tree at the curve of the road. I had to look intently to see him at all, for he was in dark clothes, which shaded off unnoticed against the leaves of the holly. I saw him jump down now and again, and disappear round the curve of the road as though to look for something. Then he would run back and flash some bright thing once, as though in answer to the man on the barrow. It seemed to me very curious. I nudged Hugh's arm, and slipped into the shelter of the cave. For a few moments we watched the signaller. Then, suddenly, the watcher at the road-bend came running back from his little tour up the road, waving his arms, and flashing his bright plate as he ran. We saw him spring to his old place on the wall, and jump from his perch into the ditch. He had some shelter there, for we could see his head peeping out above the snow like an apple among straw. We were so busy watching the head among the snow that we did not notice the man upon the barrow. Something made us glance towards him, and, to our surprise and terror, we saw him running across the orchard more than half-way towards us. In spite of the snow he ran swiftly. We were frightened, for he was evidently coming towards us. He saw that we saw him, and lifted one arm and swung it downwards violently, as though to bid us lie down.
I glanced at Hugh and he at me, and that was enough. We turned at once, horribly scared, and ran as fast as we could along the narrow garden path, then over the wall, stumbling in our fright, into the wood. We did not know why we ran nor where we were going. We only felt that this strange man was after us, coming in great bounds to catch us. We were too frightened to run well; even had there been no snow upon the ground we could not have run our best. We were like rabbits pursued by a stoat, we seemed to have lost all power in our legs.
We had a good start. Perhaps without that fear upon us we might have reached the house, but as it was we felt as one feels in a nightmare, unable to run though in an agony of terror. Getting over the wall was the worst, for there Hugh stumbled badly, and I had to turn and help him, watching the man bounding ever nearer, signing to us to stay for him. A minute later, as we slipped and stumbled through the scrub of the wood, we heard him close behind us, crying to us in a smothered voice to stop. We ran on, terrified; and then Hugh's foot caught in a briar, so that he fell headlong with a little cry.
I turned at once to help him up, feeling like the doe rabbit, which turns (they say) against a weasel, to defend its young ones. It sounds brave of me, but it was not: I was scared almost out of my wits.
THE HUT IN THE GORSE-BUSHES
The man was on us in three strides, with his hand on our collars, frightening us out of any power to struggle. "You young fools," he said, not unkindly. "Why couldn't you stop when I waved to you?"
We did not answer, nor did he seem to expect us to answer. He just swung us round with our faces from the house, and hurried us, at a smart run, down the road. "Don't you stir a muscle," he added as he ran. "I'm not going to eat you, unless you drive me to it."
At the lower end of the wood, nearly half a mile from our home, the scrub was very thick. It seemed to be a tangle of briars, too thick for hounds—too thick, almost, for rabbits. Hugh and I had never been in that part of the wood before, but our guide evidently knew it well, for he never hesitated. He swung us on, panting as we were, along the clearer parts, till we came to a part where our way seemed stopped by gorse-bushes. They rose up, thick and dark, right in front of us. Our guide stopped and told us to look down. Among the gnarled gorse-stems there seemed to be a passage or "run" made by some beast, fox or badger, going to and from his lair.
"Down you go," said our guide. "There's lots of room when you try. Imagine you're a rabbit."
We saw that it was useless to say No; and, besides, by this time we had lost most of our terror. I dropped on to my knees at once, and began to squirm through the passage. Hugh followed me, and the strange man followed after Hugh. It was not really difficult, except just at the beginning, where the stems were close together. When I had wriggled for a couple of yards, the bushes seemed to open out to either side. It was prickly work, but I am sure that we both felt the romance of it, forgetting our fear before we reached the heart of the clump.
In the heart of the clump the gorse-bushes had been cut away, and piled up in a sort of wall about a small central square some five or six yards across. In the middle of the square some one had dug a shallow hollow, filling rather more than half of the open space. The hollow was about eighteen inches deep, and roughly paved with shingle from the beach, well stamped down into the clay. It had then been neatly wattled over into a sort of trim hut, like the huts the salmon-fishers used to build near Kings-bridge. The wattling was made fairly waterproof by masses of gorse and bracken driven in among the boughs. It was one of the most perfect hiding-places you could imagine. It could not be seen from any point, save from high up in one of the trees surrounding the thicket. A regiment might have beaten the wood pretty thoroughly, and yet have failed to find it. The gorse was so thick in all the outer part of the clump that dogs would leave its depths un-searched. Yet, lying there in the shelter one could hear the splashing babble of the brook only fifty yards away, and the singing of a girl at the mill a little further up the stream.
The man told us to get inside the shelter, which we did. Inside it was rather dark, but the man lit a lantern which hung from the roof, and kindled a fire in a little fireplace. This fireplace was covered with turf, so that the smoke should not rise up in a column. We saw that the floor of the hut was heaped with bracken, and there were tarpaulin boat-rugs piled in one corner, as though for bedding.
The man picked up a couple of rugs and told us to wrap ourselves in them. "You'll be cold if you don't wrap up," he said.
As he tucked the rugs about us I noticed that the ring-finger of his left hand was tattooed with three blue rings. I remembered what Mrs Cottier had said about the man who had lighted her fire in the barn, so I stared at him hard, trying to fix his features on my memory. He was a well-made, active-looking man, with great arms and shoulders. He was evidently a sailor: one could tell that by the way of his walk, by the way in which his arms swung, by the way in which his head was set upon his body. What made him remarkable was the peculiar dancing brightness of his eyes; they gave his face, at odd moments, the look of a fiend; then that look would go, and he would look like a mischievous, merry boy; but more generally he would look fierce and resolute. Then his straight mouth would set, his eyes puckered in as though he were looking out to windward, the scar upon his cheek twitched and turned red, and he looked most wrathful and terrible.
"Well, mister," the man said to me, "would you know me again, in case you saw me?"
"Yes," I said, "I should know you anywhere."
"Would you," he said, grinning. "Well, I was always the beauty of the bunch." He bit off a piece of plug tobacco and began to chew it. By-and-by he turned to Hugh to ask if he chewed tobacco. Hugh answered "No," laughing.
"Ah," said the man, "don't you learn. That's my advice. It's not easy to stop, once you begin."
He lay back in his corner, and seemed to pass into a sort of day-dream. Presently he looked up at us again, and asked us if we knew why we were there. We said that we did not.
"Well," he said, "it's like this. Last night you" (here he gave me a nudge with his foot) "you young gentleman that looks so smart, you went for a ride late at night, in the snow and all. See what came of it. There was Others out for a ride last night, quite a lot of 'em. Others that the law would be glad to know of, with men so scarce for the King's navy. Well, to-day the beaks are out trying to find them other ones. There's a power of redcoats come here, besides the preventives, and there they go, clackity clank, all swords and horses, asking at every house."
"What do they ask," said Hugh.
"They ask a lot of things," said the man. "'Where was you last night?' That's one question. 'What time did you come in last night?' That's another. 'Let's have a look at your horse; he looks as though he'd bin out in the snow last night.' Lots of things they ask, and if they got a hold of you, young master, why, you might have noticed things last night, and perhaps they might pump what you noticed out of you. So some one thinks you had best be out of the road when they come."
"Who is some one?" I asked.
"Just some one," he answered. "Some one who gets more money than I get." His mouth drew into a hard and cruel line; he lapsed into his day-dream, still chewing his plug of tobacco. "Some one," he added, "who don't like questions, and don't like to be talked about too much."
He was silent for a minute or two, while Hugh and I looked at each other.
"Oh, I'm not going to keep you long," said the man. "Them redcoats'll have done asking questions about here before your dinner time. Then they'll ride on, and a good riddance. Your lady will know how to answer them all right. But till they're gone, why, here you'll stay. So let's be comp'ny. What's your name, young master?" He gave Hugh a dig in the ribs with his boot.
"Hugh," he answered.
"Hugh," said the man: "Hugh! You won't never come to much, you won't. What's your name?" He nudged me in the same way.
"Jim," I said.
"Ah! Jim, Jim," he repeated. "I've known a many Jims. Some were good in their way, too." He seemed to shrink into himself suddenly—I can't explain it—but he seemed to shrink, like a cat crouched to spring, and his eyes burned and danced; they seemed to look right into me, horribly gleaming, till the whole man became, as it were, just two bright spots of eyes—one saw nothing else.
"Ah," he said, after a long, cruel glare at me, "this is the first time Jim and I ever met. The first time. We shall be great friends, we shall. We shall be better acquainted, you and I. I wouldn't wonder if I didn't make a man of you, one time or another. Give me your hand, Jim."
I gave him my hand; he looked at it under the lantern; he traced one or two of the lines with his blackened finger-nails, muttering some words in a strange language, which somehow made my flesh creep. He repeated the words: "Orel. Orel. Adartha Cay." Then he glanced at the other hand, still muttering, and made a sort of mark with his fingers on my forehead. Hugh told me afterwards that he seemed to trace a kind of zigzag on my left temple. All the time he was muttering he seemed to be half-conscious, almost in a trance, or as if he were mad: he frightened us dreadfully. After he had made the mark upon my brow he came to himself again.
"They will see it," he muttered. "It'll be bright enough. The mark. It'll shine. They'll know when they see it. It is very good. A very good sign: it burns in the dark. They'll know it over there in the night." Then he went on mumbling to himself, but so brokenly that we could catch only a few words here and there—"black and red, knowledge and beauty; red and black, pleasure and strength. What do the cards say?"
He opened his thick sea-coat, and took out a little packet of cards from an oilskin case. He dealt them out, first of all, in a circle containing two smaller circles; then in a curious sort of five-pointed star; lastly, in a square with a circle cutting off the corners. "Queer, queer," he said, grinning, as he swept the cards up and returned them to his pocket. "You and I will know a power of queer times together, Jim."
He brightened up after that, as though something had pleased him very much. He looked very nice when he looked pleased, in spite of his eyes and in spite of the gipsy darkness of his skin. "Here," he said, "let's be company. D'ye know any knots, you two?"
No; neither of us knew any knots except the ordinary overhand and granny knots.
"Well, I'll show you," he said. "It'll come in useful some day. Always learn what you can, that's what I say, because it'll come in useful. That's what the Irishman said. Always learn what you can. You never know; that's the beauty of it."
He searched in his pockets till he found a small hank of spun-yarn, from which he cut a piece about a yard long. "See here," he said. "Now, I'll teach you. It's quite easy, if you only pay attention. Now, how would you tie a knot if you was doing up a parcel?"
We both tried, and both made granny knots, with the ends sticking out at right angles to the rest of the yarn.
"Wrong," he said. "Those are grannies. They would jam so that you'd never untie 'em, besides being ugly. There's wrong ways even in doing up a string. See here." He rapidly twisted the ends together into a reef-knot. "There's strength and beauty together," he said. "Look how neat it is, the ends tidy along the standing part, all so neat as pie. Besides, it'd never jam. Watch how I do it, and then try it for yourself."
Very soon we had both mastered the reef-knot, and had tried our hand at others—the bowline, the figure of eight, the Carrick-bend, and the old swab-hitch. He was very patient with us. He told us exactly how each knot would be used at sea, and when, and why, and what the officers would say, and how things would look on deck while they were in the doing. The time passed pleasantly and quickly; we felt like jolly robbers in a cave. It was like being the hero of a story-book to sit there with that rough man waiting till the troops had gone. It was not very cold with the fire and the boat-rugs. We were heartily sorry when the man rose to his feet, with the remark that he must see if the coast were clear. Before he left the hut he glared down at us. "Look here," he said, "don't you try to go till I give the word. But there, we're friends; no need to speak rough to friends. I'll be back in a minute."
The strange man passed out of the hut and along the rabbit-run to the edge of the gorse. We heard his feet crunch upon the snow beyond, rustling the leaves underneath it; and then it was very, very quiet again, though once, in the stillness, we heard a cock pheasant calling. Another pheasant answered him from somewhere above at the upper part of the wood, and it occurred to both of us that the pheasants were the night-riders, making their private signals.
"We've had a famous adventure to tell Mother," said Hugh.
"Yes," I said; "but we had better be careful not to tell anybody else. I wonder what they do here in this hut; I suppose they hide their things here till it's safe to take them away."
"Where do they take them?" asked Hugh.
"Away into Dartmoor," I said. "And there there are wonderful places, so old Evans the postboy told me."
"What sort of places?" asked Hugh.
"Oh, caves covered over with gorse and fern, and old copper and tin mines, which were worked by the ancient Britons. They go under the ground for miles, so old Evans told me, with passages, and steps up and down, and great big rooms cut in the rock. And then there are bogs where you can sink things till it's quite safe to take them up. The bog-water keeps them quite sound; it doesn't rot them like ordinary water. Sometimes men fall into the bogs, and the marsh-mud closes over them. That's the sort of place Dartmoor is."
Hugh was very much interested in all this, but he was a quiet boy, not fond of talking. "Yes," he said; "but where do the things go afterwards—who takes them?"
"Nobody knows, so old Evans said," I answered; "but they go, they get taken. People come at night and carry them to the towns, little by little, and from the market towns, they get to the cities, no one knows how. I dare say this hut has been full of things—valuable lace and silk, and all sorts of wines and spirits—waiting for some one to carry them into the moor."
"Hush!" said Hugh; "there's some one calling—it's Mother."
Outside the gorse-clump, at some little distance from us, we heard Mrs Cottier and my aunt calling "Hugh!" and "Jim!" repeatedly. We lay very still wondering what they would think, and hoping that they would make no search for us. They could have tracked us in the snow quite easily, but we knew very well they would never think of it, for they were both shortsighted and ignorant of what the Red Indians do when they go tracking. To our surprise their voices came nearer and nearer, till they were at the edge of the clump, but on the side opposite to that in which the rabbit-run opened. I whispered to Hugh to be quiet as they stopped to call us. They lingered for several minutes, calling every now and then, and talking to each other in between whiles. We could hear every word of their conversation.
"It's very curious," said my aunt. "Where-ever can they have got to? How provoking boys are!"
"It doesn't really matter," said Mims; "the officer has gone, and the boy would only have been scared by all his questions. He might ha^e frightened the boy out of his wits. I wonder where the young monkeys have got to. They were going to build snow-huts, like the Indians. Perhaps they're hiding in one now."
We were, had she only known it; Hugh and I grinned at each other. Suddenly my aunt spoke again with a curious inflection in her voice.
"How funny," she exclaimed.
"What is it?" asked Mrs Cottier.
"I'm almost sure I smell something burning," said my aunt "I'm sure I do. Don't you?"
There was a pause of a few seconds while the two ladies sniffed the air.
"Yes," said Mrs Cottier, "there is something burning. It seems to come from that gorse there."
"Funny," said my aunt. "I suppose some one has lighted a fire up in the wood and the smoke is blowing down on us. Well, we'll go in to dinner; it's no good staying here catching our death looking for two mad things. I suppose you didn't hear how Mrs Burns is, yesterday?"
The two ladies passed away from the clump towards the orchard, talking of the affairs of the neighbourhood. A few minutes after they had gone, a cock pheasant called softly a few yards from us, then the gorse-stems shook, and our friend appeared at the hut door,
"They're gone, all right," he said; "swords, and redcoats and pipe-clay—they're gone. And a good riddance too! I should have been back before, only your ladies were talking, looking for you, so I had to wait till they were gone. I expect you'll want your dinner, sitting here so long? Well, cut and get it."
He slung the boat-rugs into a corner, blew out the lantern, and dropped a handful of snow on to the fire. "Cut," he continued. "You can go. Get out of this. Run and get your dinners." We went with him out of the hut into the square. "See here," he continued, "don't you go coming here. You don't know of this place—see? Don't you show your little tracks in this part of the wood; this is a private house, this is—trespassers will be prosecuted. Now run along and thank 'ee for your company."
As Hugh began to squirm along the passage, I turned and shook hands with the man. I thought it would be the polite thing to do to say good-bye properly. "Will you tell me your name?" I asked.
"Haven't got a name," he answered gruffly. "None of your business if I had." He saw that I was hurt by his rudeness, for his face changed: "I'll tell you," he added quickly; "but don't you say it about here. Gorsuch is my name—Marah Gorsuch."
"Marah," I said. "What a funny name!"
"Is it?" he said grimly: "It means bitter—bitter water, and I'm bitter on the tongue, as you may find. Now cut."
"One thing more, Mr Gorsuch," I said, "be careful of your fires. They can smell them outside when the wind blows down from the wood."
"Fires!" he exclaimed; "I don't light fires here except I've little bleating schoolboys to tea. Cut and get your porridge. Here," he called, as I went down on my hands and knees, "here's a keepsake for you."
He tossed me a little ornament of twisted silver wire woven into the form of a double diamond knot, probably by the man himself.
"Thank you, Mr Gorsuch," I said.
"Oh, don't thank me," he answered rudely: "I'm tired of being thanked. Now cut."
I wriggled through the clump after Hugh, then we ran home together through the wood, just as the dinner-bell was ringing for the second time.
Mrs Cottier asked us if we had not heard her calling.
"Yes, Mims," I said, "we did hear; but we were hidden in a secret house; we wondered if you would find us—we were close to you some of the time."
My aunt said Something about "giving a lot of trouble" and "being very thoughtless for others"; but we had heard similar lectures many times before and did not mind them much. After dinner I took Mims aside and told her everything; she laughed a little, though I could see that she was uneasy about Hugh.
"I wouldn't mention it to any one," she said. "It would be safer not. But, oh, Jim, here we are, all three of us, in league with the lawbreakers. The soldiers were here this morning asking all sorts of questions, and they'd two men prisoners with them, taken at Tor Cross on suspicion; they're to be sent to Exeter till the Assizes. I'm afraid it will go hard with them; I dare say they'll be sent abroad, poor fellows. Every house is being searched for last night's work: it seems they surprised the coastguards at the Cross and tied them up in their barracks, before they landed their goods, and now the whole country is being searched by troops. And here are we three innocents," she went on, smiling, drawing us both to her, "all conspiring against the King's peace—I expect we shall all be transported. Well, I shall be transported, but you'd have to serve in the Navy. So now we won't talk about it any more; I've had enough smuggling for one day. Let's go out and build a real snow-house, and then Jim will be a Red Indian and we will have a fight with bows and arrows."
THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE "SNAIL"
It was during the wintry days that Mrs Cottier decided to remove us from the school at Newton Abbot. She had arranged with the Rector at Strete for us to have lessons at the Rectory every morning with young Ned Evans, the Rector's son; so when the winter holidays ended we were spared the long, cold drive and that awful "going back" to the school we hated so.
Winter drew to an end and the snow melted. March came in like a lion, bringing so much rain that the brook was flooded. We saw no more of the night-riders after that day in the snow, but we noticed little things now and then among the country people which made us sure that they were not far off. Once, when we were driving home in the evening after a day at Dartmouth, owls called along the road from just behind the hedge, whenever the road curved. Hugh and I remembered the pheasants that day in the wood, and we nudged each other in the darkness, wondering whether Mr Gorsuch was one of the owls. After that night we used to practise the call of the owls and the pheasants, but we were only clever at the owl's cry: the pheasant's call really needs a man's voice, it is too deep a note for any boy to imitate well; but we could cry like the owls after some little practice, and we were very vain when we made an owl in the wood reply to us. Once, at the end of February, we gave the owl's cry outside the "Adventure Inn," where the road dips from Strete to the sands, and a man ran out to the door and looked up and down, and whistled a strange little tune, or scrap of a tune, evidently expecting an answer; but that frightened us; we made him no answer, and presently he went in muttering. He was puzzled, no doubt, for he came out again a minute later and again whistled his tune, though very quietly. We learned the scrap of tune and practised it together whenever we were sure that no one was near us.
As for the two men taken by the troops, they were let off. The innkeeper at South Poole swore that both men had been in his inn all the night of the storm playing the "ring-quoits" game with the other guests and as his oath was supported by half-a-dozen witnesses, the case for the King fell through; the night-riders never scrupled to commit perjury. Later on I learned a good deal about how the night-riders managed things.
During that rainy March, while the brook was in flood all over the valley, Hugh and I had a splendid time sailing toy boats, made out of boxes and pieces of plank. We had one big ship made out of a long wooden box which had once held flowers along a window-sill. We had painted ports upon her sides, and we had rigged her with a single square sail. With a strong southwesterly wind blowing up the valley, she would sail for nearly a mile whenever the floods were out, and though she often ran aground, we could always get her off, as the water was so shallow.
Now, one day (I suppose it was about the middle of the month) we went to sail this ship (we used to call her the Snail) from our side of the flood, right across the river-course, to the old slate quarry on the opposite side. The distance was, perhaps, three hundred yards. We chose this site because in this place there was a sort of ridge causeway leading to a bridge, so that we could follow our ship across the flood without getting our feet wet. In the old days the quarry carts had crossed the brook by this cause-way, but the quarry was long worked out, and the road and bridge were now in a bad state, but still good enough for us, and well above water.
We launched the Snail from a green, shelving bank, and shoved her off with the long sticks we carried. The wind caught her sail and drove her forward in fine style; she made a great ripple as she went. Once she caught in a drowned bush; but the current swung her clear, and she cut across the course of the brook like a Falmouth Packet. Hugh and I ran along the causeway, and over the bridge, to catch her on the other side. We had our eyes on her as we ran, for we feared that she might catch, or capsize; and we were so intent upon our ship that we noticed nothing else. Now when we came to the end of the causeway, and turned to the right, along the shale and rubble tipped there from the quarry, we saw a man coming down the slope to the water, evidently bent on catching the Snail when she arrived. We could not see his face very clearly, for he wore a grey slouch-hat, and the brambles were so high just there that sometimes they hid him from us. He seemed, somehow, a familiar figure; and the thought flashed through me that it might be Mr Gorsuch.
"Come on, Hugh," I cried, "or she'll capsize on the shale. The water's very shallow, so close up to this side."
We began to run as well as we could, over the broken stones.
"It's no good," said Hugh. "She'll be there before we are."
We broke through a brake of brambles to a green space sloping to the flood. There was the Snail, drawn up, high and dry, on to the grass, and there was the man, sitting by her on a stone, solemnly cutting up enough tobacco for a pipe.
"Good morning, Mr Gorsuch," I said.
"Why, it's young sweethearter," he answered. "Why haven't you got your nurses with you?" He filled his pipe and lighted it, watching us with a sort of quizzical interest, but making no attempt to shake hands. He made me feel that he was glad to see us; but that nothing would make him show it. "What d'ye call this thing?" he asked, pointing with his toe to the Snail.
"That's our ship," said Hugh.
"Is it?" he asked contemptuously. "I thought it was your mother's pudding-box, with some of baby's bedclothes on it. That's what I thought it was."
He seemed to take a pleasure in seeing Hugh's face fall. Hugh always took a rough word to heart, and he could never bear to hear his mother mentioned by a stranger.
"It's a good enough ship for us," he answered hotly.
"How d'ye know it is?" said the man. "You know nothing at all about it. What do you know of ships, or what's good for you? Hey? You don't know nothing of the kind."
This rather silenced Hugh; we were both a little abashed, and so we stood sheepishly for a moment looking on the ground.
At last I took Hugh by the arm. "Let's take her somewhere else," I said softly. I bent down and picked up the ship and turned to go.
The man watched us with a sort of amused contempt. "Where are you going now?" he asked.
"Down the stream," I called back.
"Drop it," he said. "Come back here."
I called softly to Hugh to run. "Shan't!" I cried as we started off together, at our best speed.
"Won't you?" he called. "Then I'll make you." He was after us in a brace of shakes, and had us both by the collar in less than a dozen yards. "What little tempers we have got," he said grinning. "Regular little spitfires, both of you. Now back you come till we have had a talk."
I noticed then that he was much better dressed than formerly. His clothes were of the very finest sea-cloth, and well cut. The buttons on his scarlet waistcoat were new George guineas; and the buttons on his coat were of silver, very beautifully chased. His shoes had big silver buckles on them, and there was a silver buckle to the flap of his grey slouch hat. The tattoo marks on his left hand were covered over by broad silver rings, of the sort the Spanish onion-boys used to sell in Dartmouth, after the end of the war. He looked extremely handsome in his fine clothes. I wondered how I could ever have been afraid of him.
"Yes," he said with a grin, when he saw me eyeing him, "my ship came home all right. I was able to refit for a full due. So now we'll see what gifts the Queen sent."
We wondered what he meant by this sentence; but we were not kept long in doubt. He led us through the briars to the ruins of the shed where the quarry overseer had formerly had his office.
"Come in here," he said, shoving us in front of him, "and see what the Queen'll give you. Shut your eyes. That's the style. Now open."
When we opened our eyes we could hardly keep from shouting with pleasure. There, on the ground, kept upright by a couple of bricks was a three-foot model of a revenue cutter, under all her sail except the big square foresail, which was neatly folded upon her yard. She was perfect aloft, even to her pennant; and on deck she was perfect too, with beautiful little model guns, all brass, on their carriages, pointing through the port-holes.
"Oh!" we exclaimed. "Oh! Is she really for us, for our very own?"
"Why, yes," he said. "At least she's for you, Mr What's-your-name. Jim, I think you call yourself. Yes, Jim. Well, she's for you, Jim. I got something else the Queen sent for Mr Preacher-feller." He bent in one corner of the ruin, and pulled out what seemed to be a stout but broken box. "This is for you, Mr Preacher-feller," he said to Hugh.
We saw that it was a model of a port of a ship's deck and side. The side was cut for a gun-port, which opened and shut by means of laniards; and, pointing through the opened port was a model brass nine-pounder on its carriage, with all its roping correctly rigged, and its sponges and rammers hooked up above it ready for use. It was a beautiful piece of work (indeed, both models were), for the gun was quite eighteen inches long. "There you are," said Marah Gorsuch. "That lot's for you, Mr Preacher-feller. Them things is what the Queen sent."
We were so much delighted by these beautiful presents that it was some minutes before we could find words with which to thank him. We could not believe that such things were really for us. He was much pleased to find that his gifts gave so much pleasure; he kept up a continual grin while we examined the toys inch by inch.
"Like 'em, hey?" he said.
"Yes; I should just think we do," we answered. We shook him by the hand, almost unable to speak from pleasure.
"And now let's come down and sail her," I said.
"Hold on there," said Marah Gorsuch. "Don't be too quick. You ain't going to sail that cutter till you know how. You've got a lot to learn first, so that must wait. It's to be Master Preacher-feller's turn this morning. Yours'll come by-and-by. What you got to do, first go off, is to sink that old hulk you were playing with. We'll sink her at anchor with Preacher-feller's cannon."
He told Hugh to pick up his toy, and to come along down to the water's edge. When he came near to the water, Marah took the old Snail and tied a piece of string to her bows by way of a cable. Then he thrust her well out into the flood, tied a piece of shale (as an anchor) to the other end of the string, and flung it out ahead of her, so that she rode at anchor trimly a few yards from the bank. "Now," he said, "we'll exercise great guns. Here (he produced a powder-horn) is the magazine; here (he produced a bag of bullets) is the shot-locker. Here's a bag of wads. Now, my sons, down to business. Cast loose your housings, take out tompions. Now bear a hand, my lads; we'll give your old galleon a broadside."
We watched him as he prepared the gun for firing, eagerly lending a hand whenever we saw what he wanted. "First of all," he said, "you must sponge your gun. There's the sponge. Shove it down the muzzle and give it a screw round. There! Now tap your sponge against the muzzle to knock the dust off. There! Now the powder." He took his powder-horn and filled a little funnel (like the funnels once used by chemists for filling bottles of cough-mixture) with the powder. This he poured down the muzzle of the gun. "Now a wad," he said, taking up a screw of twisted paper. "Ram it home on to the powder with the rammer. That's the way. Now for the shot. We'll put in a dozen bullets, and then top with a couple more wads. There! Now she's loaded. Those bullets will go for fifty yards with that much powder ahind 'em. Now, all we have to do is to prime her." He filled the touch-hole with powder, and poured a few grains along the base or breech of the gun. "There!" he said. "Only one thing more. That is aim. Here, Mr Preacher-feller, Hugh, whatever your name is. You're captain of the gun; you must aim her. Take a squint along the gun till you get the notch on the muzzle against the target; then raise your gun's breech till the notch is a little below your target. Those wooden quoins under the gun will keep it raised if you pull them out a little."
Hugh lay down flat on the grass and moved the gun carefully till he was sure the aim was correct. "Let's have a match," he said, "to see which is the best shot."
"All right," said Marah. "We will. You have first shot. Are you ready? All ready? Very well then. Here's the linstock that you're to fire with." He took up a long stick which had a slow match twisted round it. He lit the slow match by a pocket flint and steel after moving his powder away from him. "Now then," he cried, "are you ready? Stand clear of the breech. Starboard battery. Fire!"
Hugh dropped the lighted match on to the priming. The gun banged loudly, leaped back and up, and fell over on one side in spite of its roping as the smoke spurted. At the same instant there was a lashing noise, like rain, upon the water as the bullets skimmed along upon the surface. One white splinter flew from the Snail's stern where a single bullet struck; the rest flew wide astern of her.
"Let your piece cool a moment," said Marah, "then we will sponge and load again, and then Jim'll try. You were too much to the right, Mr Hugh. Your shots fell astern."
After a minute or two we cleaned the gun thoroughly and reloaded.
"Now," said Marah, "remember one thing. If you was in a ship, fighting that other ship, you wouldn't want just to blaze away at her broadside. No. You'd want to hit her so as your shot would rake all along her decks from the bow aft, or from the stern forrard. You wait a second, Master Jim, till the wind gives her bows a skew towards you, or till her stern swings round more. There she goes. Are you ready? Now, as she comes round; allow for it. Fire!"
Very hurriedly I made my aim, and still more hurriedly did I give fire. Again came the bang and flash; again the gun clattered over; but, to my joy, a smacking crack showed that the shot went home. The shock made the old Snail roll. A piece of her bow was knocked off. Two or three bullets ripped through her sail. One bored a groove along her, and the rest went over her.
"Good," said. Marah. "A few more like that and she's all our own. Now it's my shot. I'll try to knock her rudder away. Wait till she swings. There she comes! There she comes! Over a little. Up a little. Now. Fire." He darted his linstock down upon the priming. The gun roared and upset; the bullets banged out the Snail's stern, and she filled slowly, and sank to the level of the water, her mast standing erect out of the flood, and her whole fabric swaying a little as the water moved her up and down.
After that we fired at the mast till we had knocked it away, and then we placed our toys in the sheltered fireplace of the ruin and came away, happy to the bone, talking nineteen to the dozen.
THE OWL'S CRY
For the next month we passed all our afternoons with Marah. In the mornings the Rector gave us our lessons at Strete; then we walked home to dinner; then we played with our gun and cutter, or at the sailing of our home-made boats, till about six, when we went home for tea. After tea we prepared our lessons for the next day and went upstairs to bed, where we talked of smugglers and pirates till we fell asleep. Marah soon taught us how to sail the cutter; and, what was more, he taught us how to rig her. For an hour of each fine afternoon he would give us a lesson in the quarry office, showing us how to rig model boats, which we made out of old boxes and packing-cases. In the sunny evenings of April we used to sail our fleets, ship against ship, upon the great freshwater lake into which the trout-brook passes on its way to the sea. Sometimes we would have a fleet of ships of the line anchored close to the shore, and then we would fire at them with the gun and with one of Marah's pistols till we had shattered them to bits and sunk them. Sometimes Marah would tell us tales of the smugglers and pirates of long ago, especially about a pirate named Van Horn, who was burned in his ship off Mugeres Island, near Campeachy, more than a hundred years back.
"His ship was full of gold and silver," said Marah. "You can see her at a very low tide even now. I've seen her myself. She is all burnt to a black coal, a great Spanish galleon, with all her guns in her. I was out fishing in the boat, and a mate said, 'Look there. There she is!' and I saw her as plain as plain among all the weeds in the sea. The water's very clear there, and there she was, with the fishes dubbing their noses on her. And she's as full of gold as the Bank of England. The seas'll have washed Van Horn's bones white, and the bones of his crew too; eaten white by the fish and washed white, lying there in all that gold under the sea, with the weeds growing over them. It gives you a turn to think of it, don't it?"
"Why don't they send down divers to get the gold?" asked Hugh.
"Why!" said Marah. "There's many has tried after all that gold. But some the shacks took and some the Spaniards took, and then there was storms and fighting. None ever got a doubloon from her. But somebody'll have a go for it again. I tried once, long ago. That was an unlucky try, though. Many poor men died along of that one. They died on the decks," he added. "It was like old Van Horn cursing us. They died in my arms, some of 'em. Seven and twenty seamen, and one of them was my mate, Charlie!"
I have wandered away from my story, I'm afraid, remembering these scraps of the past; but it all comes back to me now, so clearly that it seems to be happening again. There are Marah and Hugh, with the sun going down behind the gorse-bank, across the Lea; and there are the broken ships floating slowly past, with the perch rising at them; and there is myself, a very young cub, ignorant of what was about to come upon me. Perhaps, had I known what was to happen before the leaves of that spring had fallen, I should have played less light-heartedly, and given more heed to Mr Evans, the Rector.
Now, on one day in each week, generally on Thursdays, we had rather longer school hours than on the other days. On these days of extra work Hugh and I had dinner at the Rectory with Ned Evans, our schoolmate. After dinner we three boys would wander off together, generally down to Black Pool, where old Spanish coins (from some forgotten wreck) were sometimes found in the sand after heavy weather had altered the lie of the beach. We never found any Spanish coins, but we always enjoyed our afternoons there. The brook which runs into the sea there was very good for trout, in the way that Marah showed us; but we never caught any, for all our pains. In the summer we meant to bathe from the sands, and all through that beautiful spring we talked of the dives we would take from the spring-board running out into the sea. Then we would have great games of ducks and drakes, with flat pebbles; or games of pebble-dropping, in which our aim was to drop a stone so that it should make no splash as it entered the water. But the best game of all was our game of cliff-exploring among the cliffs on each side of the bay, and this same game gave me the adventure of my life.
One lovely afternoon towards the end of the May of that year, when we were grubbing among the cliff-gorse as usual, wondering how we could get down the cliffs to rob the sea-birds' nests, we came to a bare patch among the furze; and there lay a couple of coastguards, looking intently at something a little further down the slope, and out of sight, beyond the brow of the cliff. They had ropes with them, and a few iron spikes, and one of them had his telescope on the grass beside him. They looked up at us angrily when we broke through the thicket upon them, and one of them hissed at us through his teeth: "Get out, you boys. Quick. Cut!" and waved to us to get away, which we did, a good deal puzzled and perhaps a little startled. We talked about it on our way home. Ned Evans said that the men were setting rabbit snares, and that he had seen the wires. Hugh thought that they might be after sea-birds' eggs during their hours off duty. Both excuses seemed plausible, but for my own part I thought something very different. The men, I felt, were out on some special service, and on the brink of some discovery. It seemed to me that when we broke in upon them they were craning forward to the brow of the cliff, intently listening. I even thought that from below the brow of the cliff, only a few feet away, there had come a noise of people talking. I did not mention my suspicions to Hugh and Ned, because I was not sure, and they both seemed so sure; but all the way home I kept thinking that I was right. It flashed on me that perhaps the night-riders had a cave below the cliff-brow, and that the coast-guards had discovered the secret. It was very wrong of me, but my only thought was: "Oh, will they catch Marah? Will poor Marah be sent to prison?" and the fear that our friend would be dragged off to gaol kept me silent as We walked.
When we came to the gate which takes you by a short cut to the valley and the shale quarry, I said that I would go home that way, while the others went by the road, and that we would race each other, walking, to see who got home first. They agreed to this, and set off together at a great rate; but as soon as they were out of sight behind the hedge I buckled my satchel to my shoulders and started running to warn Marah. It was all downhill to the brook, and I knew that I should find Marah there,—for he had said that he was coming earlier than usual that afternoon to finish off a model boat which we were to sail after tea. I ran as I had never run before—I thought my heart would thump itself to pieces; but at last I got to the valley and saw Marah crossing the brook by the causeway. I shouted to him then and he heard me. I had not breath to call again, so I waved to him to come and then collapsed, panting, for I had run a good mile across country. He walked towards me slowly, almost carelessly; but I saw that he was puzzled by my distress, and wondered what the matter was.
"What is it?" he asked. "What's the rally for?"
"Oh," I cried, "the coastguards—over at Black Pool."
"Yes," he said carelessly, "what about them?"
"They've discovered it," I cried. "The cave under the cliff-top. They've discovered it."
His face did not change; he looked at me rather hard; and then asked me, quite carelessly, what I had seen.
"Two coastguards," I answered. "Two coastguards. In the furze. They were listening to people somewhere below them."