« PreviousContinue »
“Oh, that's all right,” the voice said in a whisper. ' Mum, now! It's all right."
It withdrew itself a little from my ear and called, “ Now then, ready with them. When I say three.
I heard groans and curses, and began to shout for help. My voice came back in an echo, despairingly. Suddenly I was dragged backward, and the bandage pulled from my eyes.
“Come along," Rangsley said, leading me gently enough to the road, which was five steps behind. “It's all a joke," he snarled. "A pretty bad one for those catchpolls. Hear 'em groan. The drop's not two feet.”
We made a few paces down the road; the pitiful voices of the runners crying for help came plainly to my ears.
You—they—aren't murdering them?” I asked.
“No, no," he answered. Can't afford to Wish we could; but they'd make it too hot for us.
We began to descend the hill. From the quarry a voice shrieked:
“Help-help-for the love of God I can't ..."
There was a grunt and the sound of a fall; then a precisely similar sequence of sounds.
“That 'll teach 'em,” Rangsley said ferociously. “Come along --they've only rolled down a bank. They weren't over the quarry. It's all right, I swear it is."
And, as a matter of fact, that was the smugglers' ferocious idea of humor. They would hang any undesirable man, like these runners, whom it would make too great a stir to murder outright, over the edge of a low bank, and swear to him that he was clawing the brink of Shakespeare's Cliff or any other hundred-foot drop. The wretched creatures suffered all the tortures of death before they let go, and, as a rule, they never returned to our parts.
\HE spirit of the age has changed; everything has changed so utterly that one can hardly believe in the existence of
one's earlier self. But I can still remember how, at that moment, I made the acquaintance of my heart-a thing that bounded and leapt within my chest, a little sickeningly. The other details I forget.
Jack Rangsley was a tall, big-boned, thin man, with something sinister in the lines of his horseman's cloak, and something reckless in the way he set his spurred heel on the ground. He was the son of an old Marsh squire. Old Rangsley had been head of the last of the Owlers—the aristocracy of export smugglers—and Jack had sunk a little in becoming the head of the Old Bourne Tap importers. But he was hard enough, tyrannical enough, and had nerve enough to keep Free-trading alive in our parts until long after it had become an anachronism. He ended his days on the gallows, of course, but that was long afterwards.
“I'd give a dollar to know what's going on in those runners' heads,” Rangsley said, pointing back with his crop. He laughed gayly. The great white face of the quarry rose up pale in the moonlight; the dusky red fires of the limekilns glowed at the base, sending up a blood-red dust of sullen smoke. “I'll swear they think they've dropped straight into hell.
“You'll have to cut the country, John,” he added suddenly, " they'll have got your name uncommon pat. I did my best for you.” He had had me tied up like that before the runners' eyes in order to take their suspicions off me. He had made a pretense to murder me with the same idea. But he didn't believe they were taken in. “There'll be warrants out before morning, if they aint too shaken. But what were you doing in the business? The two Spaniards were lying in the fern looking on when you come blundering your clumsy nose in. If it hadn't been for Rooksby you might have— Hullo, there!” he broke off.
An answer came from the black shadow of a clump of roadside elms. I made out the forms of three or four horses standing with their heads together.
Come along," Rangsley said; “up with you. We'll talk as we go.”
Someone helped me into a saddle; my legs trembled in the stirrups as if I had ridden a thousand miles on end already. I imagine I must have fallen into a stupor; for I have only a vague impression of somebody's exculpating himself to me. As a matter of fact, Ralph, after having egged me on, in the intention of staying at home, had had qualms of conscience, and had come to the quarry. It was he who had cried the watchword, “Snuff and enough," and who had held the whispered consultation. Carlos and Castro had waited in their hiding-place, having been spectators of the arrival of the runners and of my capture. I gathered this long afterwards. At that moment I was conscious only of the motion of the horse beneath me, of intense weariness, and of the voice of Ralph, who was lamenting his own cowardice.
If it had come at any other time!” he kept on repeating. But now, with Veronica to think of! You take me, Johnny, don't you?"
My companions rode silently. After we had passed the houses of a little village a heavy mist fell upon us, white, damp, and clogging. Ralph reined his horse beside mine.
“ I'm sorry," he began again, “ I'm miserably sorry I got you into this scrape. I swear I wouldn't have had it happen, not for a thousand pounds-not for ten.” “It doesn't matter," I said cheerfully.
Ah, but,” Rooksby said, “you'll have to leave the country for a time. Until I can arrange. I will. You can trust me."
Oh, he'll have to leave the country, for sure,” Rangsley said jovially, “if he wants to live it down. There's five-and-forty warrants out against me—but they dursent serve 'em. But he's not me.”
“It's a miserable business," Ralph said. He had an air of the profoundest dejection. In the misty light he looked like a man mortally wounded, riding from a battle-field.
“Let him come with us," the musical voice of Carlos came
through the mist in front of us. “ He shall see the world a little."
“For God's sake hold your tongue!” Ralph answered him. “There s mischief enough. He shall go to France."
Oh, let the young blade rip about the world for a year or two, squire,” Rangsley's voice said from behind us.
In the end Ralph let me go with Carlos—actually across the sea, and to the West Indies. I begged and implored him; it seemed that now there was a chance for me to find my world of romance. And Ralph, who, though one of the most law-respecting of men, was not for the moment one of the most valorous, was wild to wash his hands of the whole business. He did his best for me; he borrowed a goodly number of guineas from Rangsley, who traveled with a bag of them at his saddle-bow, ready to pay his men their seven shillings a head for the run.
Ralph remembered, too-or I remembered for him that he had estates and an agent in Jamaica, and he turned into the big inn at the junction of the London road to write a letter to his agent bidding him house me and employ me as an improver. For fear of compromising him we waited in the shadow of trees a furlong or two down the road. He came at a trot, gave me the letter, drew me aside, and began upbraiding himself again. The others rode onwards.
“Oh, it's all right," I said. “It's fine—it's fine. I'd have given fifty guineas for this chance this morning-and, Ralph, I say, you may tell Veronica why I'm going, but keep a shut mouth to my mother. Let her think I've run away-eh? Don't spoil your chance."
He was in such a state of repentance and futter that he could not let me take a decent farewell. The sound of the others' horses had long died away down the hill when he began to tell me what he ought to have done.
“I knew it at once after I'd let you go. I ought to have kept you out of it. You came near being murdered. And to think of it --you, her brother—to be "
Oh, it's all right," I said gayly, “it's all right. You've to stand by Veronica. I've no one to my back. Good-night, goodby."
I pulled my horse's head round and galloped down the hill. The main body had halted before setting out over the shingle to the shore. Rangsley was waiting to conduct us into the town, where we should find a man to take us three fugitives out to the expected ship. We rode clattering aggressively through the silence of the long, narrow main street. Every now and then Carlos Riego coughed lamentably, but Tomas Castro rode in gloomy silence. There was a light here and there in a window, but not a soul stirring abroad. On the blind of an inn the shadow of a bearded man held the shadow of a rummer to its mouth.
“That 'll be my uncle," Rangsley said. "He'll be the man to do your errand.” He called to one of the men behind. “Here, Joe Pilcher, do you go into the White Hart and drag my Uncle Tom out. Bring un up to me—to the nest.”
Three doors further on we came to a halt, and got down from our horses.
Rangsley knocked on a shutter-panel, two hard knocks with the crop and three with the naked fist. Then a lock clicked, heavy bars rumbled, and a chain rattled. Rangsley pushed me through the doorway. A side door opened, and I saw into a lighted room filled with wreaths of smoke. A paunchy man in a bob wig, with a blue coat and Windsor buttons, holding a churchwarden pipe in his right hand and a pewter quart in his left, came towards us.
“Hullo, captain," he said, "you'll be too late with the lights, won't you?” He had a deprecatory air.
"Your watch is fast, Mr. Mayor,” Rangsley answered surlily; the tide won't serve for half an hour yet.”
"Cht, cht," the other wheezed. No offense. We respect you.
But still, when one has a stake, one likes to know.” “My stake's all I have, and my neck,” Rangsley said impatiently; "what's yours? A matter of fifty pun ten? ... Why don't you make them bring they lanthorns ?"
A couple of dark lanthorns were passed to Rangsley, who halfuncovered one, and lit the way up steep wooden stairs. We climbed up to a tiny cock-loft, of which the side towards the sea was all glazed.
“Now you sit there, on the floor," Rangsley commanded;" can't leave you below; the runners will be coming to the mayor