The Adventures of Harry Revel
I FALL AMONG SMUGGLERS
I awoke to a most curious sensation. The night was still black and only the ridge of the cliff opposite showed, by the light of the many stars, its dull outline above; yet I felt that the whole beach had suddenly become crowded with people—that they were moving stealthily about me, whispering, picking their way among the loose stones, hunting me and yet hushing their voices as though themselves afraid.
At first, you may be sure—wakened as I was from sleep—I had no doubt but that this unseen band of folk was after me. All that followed my awakening passed so quickly that I cannot separate dreams now from guesses nor apprehensions from realities. I do remember, however, that, whereas the soldiers from whom I had run had been on foot, my first fears were of a pursuit by cavalrymen, and therefore it seems likely that some sound of horses' trampling must have set them in train: but, though I strained my ears, they detected nothing of the sort—only a subdued murmur, as of human voices, down by the water's edge, and now and again the cautious crunch of a footstep upon shingle. Even this I had not heard but for the extreme quiet on the sea under the off-shore wind.
Gradually, by the light of the stars, I separated from the surrounding shadows that of a whole mass of people inert and darkly crowded there: and then—almost as I guessed their business—the cliff above me shot up a flame; and their forms and their dismayed upturned faces stood out distinct in the glare of it.
"Loose the horses and clear!" yelled someone; and another voice deep and wrathful began to curse, but was drowned by a stampede of hoofs upon the shingle. Straight forth from the sea—or so it looked to me—some twenty or thirty naked horses, without rider, bit, or bridle, broke from the crowd and came plunging up the beach at a gallop. They were met by a roar from the cove-head, and with that a line of glittering helmets and cuirasses sprang out of the night and charged past me.
As the yell reached me from the waterside and the men there scattered and ran, I saw the shock of the double charge—the flame overhead lighting up every detail of it. The riderless horses, though they opened and swerved, neither turned tail nor checked their pace, but heading suddenly towards the left wing of the troop went through it as water through a gate, the dragoons either vainly hacking at them with their sabres, or leaning from their saddles and as vainly attempting to grip the brutes. Grip there was none to be had. These were smugglers' horses, clipped to the skin, with houghed manes, and tails and bodies sleek with soft soap. Nor did the dragoons waste more trouble upon them, but charged forward and down upon the crowd at the water's edge.
And as they charged I saw—but could not believe—that on a sudden the crowd had vanished. A moment before they had been jostling, shouting, cursing. They were gone now like ghosts. The light still flared overhead. It showed no boat beyond the cove—only the troopers reaching right across it in an irregular line, as each man had been able to check his horse—the most of them on the verge of the shingle, but many floundering girth-deep, and one or two even swimming. The Riding Officer, who had followed them, was bawling and pointing with his whip towards the cliff—at what I could not tell.
I had no time to wonder: for an unholy din broke out, on the same instant, at the head of the beach. A couple of the smugglers' horses had been hurled over by the dragoons' impact, and lay, hurt beyond recovery, lashing out across the shingle with their heels. A third had gone down under a sabre-cut, but had staggered up and was lobbing after his comrades at a painful canter. They had traversed the heavy shingle, reached the harder stones at the cove's head and were sailing away at stretched gallop when a volley rang out from the shadow of the cliff there, and the scream of more than one mingled with fresh shouting. At that moment, and just before the flame above me sank and died almost as swiftly as it had first shot up, a soldier—not a dragoon, but a man in red coat and white breeches—ran forward and sprang at the girth of the wounded horse, which had stumbled again. He did the wise thing—for a single girth was these horses' only harness: but whether he caught it or not I could not tell. Ten or a dozen soldiers followed, to help him. And, the next instant, total darkness came down on the scene like a shutter.
It did not last long. The red-coats, it turned out, had brought lanterns, and now, at a shouted order from their commanding officer answering the call of the dragoon officer below, began to light them. They meant, I doubted not, to make a strict search of the cliffs; and, if they did—my cave being but a shallow one—there was no hope for me. But just then a dismounted trooper came running up the beach, his scabbard scraping the shingle as he went by: and his first words explained the mystery of the crowd's disappearance.
"Where's your officer commanding?" he panted. "The devils have got away into the next cove through a kind of hole in the cliff—a kind of archway so far as we make out. They've blocked it with stones and posted three-four men there, threatening sudden death. By their own account they're armed. Major Dilke's holding them to parley, and wants the loan of a lantern while you, sir, march your men round and take the gang in the rear. They reckon they've none but us to deal with."
The infantry officer grunted that he understood, sent the trooper back with a lantern, and quietly formed up and marched off his company. From my hiding-place I caught scraps of the parley at the lower end of the beach—or rather of Major Dilke's share in it; for the smugglers answered him through a tunnel, and I could only hear their voices mumbling in response to the threats which he flung forth on the wide night. He was in no sweet temper, having been cheated of a rich haul: for the flare had, of course, warned away the expected boat, and I supposed that some of the red-coats had been dispatched at once to search the headland for the man who lit it. Revenge was now the Major's game, and, by his tune, he meant to have it.
But while I lay listening, a stone trickled from the cliff overhead and plumped softly upon the seaweed at the mouth of my cave. It was followed by a rush of small gravel (had the Major not, at the moment, been declaiming at his loudest, his men must surely have heard it): and this again by the plumb fall of a heavy body which still lay for a full five seconds after alighting, and then emitted a groan so eloquent that it raised the roots of my hair.
I held my breath. More seconds passed, and the body groaned again, still more dolefully.
We were within three yards of one another; and, friend or foe, if he continued to lie and groan like this for long, flesh and blood could not stand it.
"Are you hurt?" I summoned up voice to ask.
"The devil!" I had feared that he would scream. But he sat up— I saw his shoulders fill the mouth of the cave between me and the starlight. By his attitude he was peering at me through the darkness. "Who are you?"
"If you please, sir, I'm a boy."
"Glad to hear it. I took you at first for one of those cursed soldiers. Hiding, eh?"
"So am I: but this is a mighty poor place for it. They may be here any moment with their lanterns: we had better cut across while everything's dark. Gad!" he said, throwing his head back as if to stare upwards, "I must have dropped twenty feet. Wonder if I've broken anything?" He stood up, and appeared to be feeling his limbs carefully. "Sound as a bell!" he announced. "Come along, youngster: we'll get out of this first and talk afterwards."
He put out a hand, seeking for mine; but, missing it, touched my ribs with his open palm and drew it away sharply.
"Good Lord, the boy's naked!"
"I've been swimming," said I.
"All right. Get out of this first and talk afterwards, that's the order. There's a rug in my tilbury, if we can only reach it. Now then, follow me close—and gently over the shingle!"
Like shadows we stole forth and across the cove. No one spied us, and, thanks perhaps to Major Dilke's sustained oratory, no one heard.
"There's a track hereabouts," my new friend whispered as we gained the farther cliff. "This looks like it—no—yes, here it is! Close after me, sonny, and up we go. Surely, 'tis Robinson Crusoe and man Friday with a touch of something else thrown in—can't think what, for the moment, unless 'tis the scaling of Plataea. Ever read Thucydides?"
"He's a nigger. He floored me at Brasenose: but I bear the old cock no malice. Now you wouldn't think I was a University man, eh?"
"No, sir." I had not the least notion of his meaning.
"I am, though; and, what's more, I'm a Justice of the Peace and Deputy-Lieutenant for the county of Cornwall. Ever heard of Jack Rogers of Brynn?"
Once more I had to answer "No, sir."
"Then, excuse me, but where in thunder do you come from?" He halted and confronted me in the path. This was a facer, for the words "Justice of the Peace" had already set me quaking.
"If you please, sir, I'd rather not tell."
"No, I dare say not," he replied magisterially. "It's my fate to get into these false positions. Now there was Josh Truscott of Blowinghouse—Justice of the Peace and owned two thousand acres—what you might call a neat little property. He never allowed it to interfere, and yet somehow he carried it off. Do I make myself plain?"
"Not very, sir."
"Well, for instance, one day he was expecting company. There was a fountain in the middle of the lawn at Blowinghouse, and a statue of Hercules that his old father had brought home from Italy and planted in the middle of it. Josh couldn't bear that statue—said the muscles were all wrong. So, if you please, he takes it down, dresses himself in nothing at all—same as you might be, bare as my palm—and a Justice of the Peace, mind you—and stands himself in the middle of the fountain, with all the guests arriving. Not an easy thing to pass off, and it caused a scandal: but folks didn't seem to mind. 'It was Truscott's way,' they said: 'after all, he comes of a clever family, and we hope his son will be better.' A man wants character to carry off a thing like that."
I agreed that character must have been Mr. Truscott's secret.
"Now I couldn't do that for the life of me," Mr. Rogers sighed, and chuckled over another reminiscence. "Josh had a shindy once with a groom. The fellow asked for a rise in wages. 'You couldn't have said anything more hurtful to my feelings,' Josh told him, and knocked him down. There was a hole in one of his orchards where they'd been rooting up an old apple-tree. He put the fellow in that, tilled him up to his neck in earth, and kept him there till he apologised. Not at all an easy thing for a Justice of the Peace to pass off: but, bless you, folks said that he came of a clever county family, and hoped his son would be better. The fellow didn't even bring an action." Mr. Rogers broke off suddenly, and seemed to meditate a new train of thought. "Hang it!" he exclaimed. "I believe 'tis a hundred pounds. I must look it up when I get back."
"What is a hundred pounds, sir?" I asked.
"Penalty for showing a coast-light without authority. Lydia laid me ten pounds I hadn't the pluck, though; and that'll bring it down to ninety at the worst. She'd a small fortune in this trip, too, which she stood to lose: but, as it turns out, I've saved that for her. Oh, she's a treasure!"
"Did you light the flare?" I began to see that I had fallen in with an original, and that he might be humoured.
"Eh?—to be sure I did! 'Slocked away the man in charge by mimicking Pascoe's voice—he's the freighter, and talks like a man with no roof to his mouth. I'm a pretty good mimic, though I say it. Nothing easier, after that. You see, Lydia had laid me ten pounds that as a Justice of the Peace I hadn't wit nor pluck to spoil her next run; honestly, that is. She knows I wouldn't blow on her for worlds. Oh, we understand one another! Now you and I'll go off and call on her, and hear what she says about it. For in a way I've won, and in a way I've not. I stopped the run, but also I've saved the cargo for her: for the devil a notion had I that the soldiers had wind of it; and, but for the flare, the boats would have run in and lost every tub. Here we are, my lad!"
We had climbed the cliff and were crossing a field of stubble grass, very painful to my feet. I saw the shadow of a low hedge in front, but these words of Mr. Rogers conveyed nothing to me. "Soh, soh, my girl!" he called softly, advancing towards the shadow: and at first I supposed him to be addressing the mysterious Lydia. But following I saw him smoothing the neck of a small mare tethered beside the hedge, and the next moment had almost blundered against a light two-wheeled carriage resting on its shafts a few yards away.
Mr. Rogers whispered to me to lift the shafts. "And be quiet about it: there's a road t'other side of the hedge. Soh, my girl—sweetly, sweetly!" He backed the mare between the shafts, harnessed her, and led her along to a gate opening on the road.
"Jump up, my lad," he commanded, as he steered the tilbury through; and up I jumped. "There's a rug somewhere by your feet, and Lydia'll do the rest for you. Cl'k, my darling!"
Away we bowled.