« PreviousContinue »
warrants to-morrow, and he'd not like to have spent the night in your company."
He threw a casement open. The moon was hidden from us by clouds, but, a long way off, over the distant sea, there was an irregular patch of silver light, against which the chimneys of the opposite houses were silhouetted. The church clock began muffledly to chime the quarters behind us; then the hour struck— ten strokes.
Rangsley set one of his lanthorns on the window and twisted the top. He sent beams of yellow light shooting out to seawards. His hands quivered, and he was mumbling to himself under the influence of ungovernable excitement. His stakes were very large, and all depended on the flicker of those lanthorns out towards the men on the luggers that were hidden in the black expanse of the sea. Then he waited, and against the light of the window I could see him mopping his forehead with the sleeve of his coat; my heart began to beat softly and insistently—out of sympathy.
Suddenly, from the deep shadow of the cloud above the sea, a yellow light flashed silently out—very small, very distant, very short-lived. Rangsley heaved a deep sigh and slapped me heavily on the shoulder.
"All serene, my buck," he said; " now let's see after you. I've half an hour. What's the ship?"
I was at a loss, but Carlos said out of the darkness, "The ship the Thames. My friend Senor Ortiz, of the Minories, said you would know."
"Oh, I know, I know," Rangsley said softly; and, indeed, he did know all that was to be known about smuggling out of the southern counties of people who could no longer inhabit them. The trade was a survival of the days of Jacobite plots. "And it's a hanging job, too? But it's no affair of mine." He stopped and reflected for an instant.
I could feel Carlos' eyes upon us, looking out of the thick darkness. A slight rustling came from the corner that hid Castro.
"She passes down channel to-night, then?" Rangsley said. "With this wind you'll want to be well out in the Bay at a quarter after eleven."
An abnormal scuffling, intermingled with snatches of jovial remonstrance, made itself heard from the bottom of the ladder, A voice called up through the hatch, " Here's your uncle, Squahre Jack," and a husky murmur corroborated.
"Be you drunk again, you old sinner? " Rangsley asked. "Listen to me. . . . Here's three men to be set aboard the Thames at a quarter after eleven."
A grunt came in reply.
Rangsley repeated slowly.
The grunt answered again.
"Here's three men to be set aboard the Thames at a quarter after eleven . . ." Rangsley said again.
"Here's . . . a-cop . . . three men to be set aboard Thames at quarter after eleven," a voice hiccoughed back to us.
"Well, see you do it," Rangsley said. "He's as drunk as a king," he commented to us; "but when you've said a thing three times, he remembers—hark to him."
The drunken voice from below kept up a constant babble of, "Three men to be set aboard Thames . . . three men to be set . . ."
"He'll not stop saying that till he has you safe aboard," Ranppley said. He showed a glimmer of light down the ladder—Carlos and Castro descended. I caught sight below me of the silver head and the deep red ears of the drunken uncle of Rangsley. He had been one of the most redoubtable of the family, a man of immense strength and cunning, but a confirmed habit of consuming a pint and a half of gin a night had made him disinclined for the more arduous tasks of the trade. He limited his energies to working the underground passage, to the success of which his fox-like cunning, and intimate knowledge of the passing shipping, were indispensable. I was preparing to follow the others down the ladder when Rangsley touched my arm.
"I don't like your company," he said close behind my ear. "I know who they are. There were bills out for them this morning. I'd blow them, and take the reward, but for you and Squahre Rooksby. They're handy with their knives, too, I fancy. You mind me, and look to yourself with them. There's something unnatural."
His words had a certain effect upon me, and his manner perhaps more. A thing that was " unnatural " to Jack Rangsley—the man of darkness, who lived forever as if in the shadow of the gallows— was a thing to be avoided. He was for me nearly as romantic a figure as Carlos himself, but for his forbidding darkness, and he was a person of immense power. The silent Sittings of lights that I had just seen, the answering signals from the luggers far out to sea, the enforced sleep of the towns and countryside whilst his plans were working out at night, had impressed me with a sense of awe. And his words sank into my spirit, and made me afraid for my future.
We followed the others downwards into a ground-floor room that was fitted up as a barber's shop. A rushlight was burning on a table. Rangsley took hold of a piece of wainscoting, part of the frame of a panel; he pulled it towards him, and, at the same moment, a glazed show-case full of razors and brushes swung noiselessly forward with an effect of the supernatural. A small opening, just big enough to take a man's body, revealed itself. We passed through it and up a sort of tunnel. The door at the other end, which was formed of panels, had a manger and straw crib attached to it on the outside, and let us into a horse's stall. We found ourselves in the stable of the inn.
"We don't use this passage for ourselves," Rangsley said. "Only the most looked up to need to—the justices and such like. But gallus birds like you and your company, it's best for us not to be seen in company with. Follow my uncle now. Goodnight."
We went into the yard, under the pillars of the town hall, across the silent street, through a narrow passage, and down to the sea. Old Rangsley reeled ahead of us swiftly, muttering, "Three men to be set aboard of the Thames . . . quarter past eleven. Three men to be set aboard . . ." and in a few minutes we stood upon the shingle beside the idle sea, that was nearly at the full.
IT was, I suppose, what I demanded of Fate—to be gently wafted into the position of a hero of romance, without rough hands at my throat. It is what we all ask, I suppose; and we get it sometimes in ten-minute snatches. I didn't know where I was going. It was enough for me to sail in and out of the patches of shadow that fell from the moon right above our heads. We embarked, and, as we drew further out, the land turned to a shadow, spotted here and there with little lights. Behind us a cock crowed. The shingle crashed at intervals beneath the feet of a large body of men. I remembered the smugglers; but it was as if I had remembered them only to forget them forever. Old Rangsley, who steered with the sheet in his hand, kept up an unintelligible babble. Carlos and Castro talked under their breaths. Along the gunwale there was a constant ripple and gurgle. Suddenly old Rangsley began to sing; his voice was hoarse and drunken.
"When Harol' war inva—a—ded,
The water murmured without a pause, as if it had a million tiny facts to communicate in very little time. And then old Rangsley hove to, to wait for the ship, and sat half asleep, lurching over the tiller. He was a very unreliable scoundrel. The boat leaked like a sieve. The wind freshened, and we three began to ask ourselves how it was going to end. There were no lights upon the sea.
At last, well out, a blue gleam caught our eyes; but by this time old Rangsley was helpless, and it fell to me to manage the boat. Carlos was of no use—he knew it, and, without saying a word, busied himself in bailing the water out. But Castro, I was surprised to notice, knew more than I did about a boat, and, maimed as he was, made himself useful
"To me it looks as if we should drown," Carlos said at one point, very quietly. "I am sorry for you, Juan."
"And for yourself, too," I answered, feeling very hopeless, and with a dogged grimness.
"Just now, my young cousin, I feel as if I should not mind dying under the water," he remarked with a sigh, but without ceasing to bail for a moment.
"Ah, you are sorry to be leaving home, and your friends, and Spain, and your fine adventures," I answered.
The blue flare showed a very little nearer. There was nothing to be done but talk and wait.
"No; England," he answered in a tone full of meaning—' "things in England—people there. One person at least."
To me his words and his smile seemed to imply a bitter irony; but they were said very earnestly.
Castro had hauled the helpless form of old Rangsley forward. I caught him muttering savagely: "I could kill that old man!"
He did not want to be drowned; neither assuredly did I. But it was not fear so much as a feeling of dreariness and disappointment that had come over me, the sudden feeling that I was going not to adventure, but to death; that here was not romance, but an end—a disenchanted surprise that it should so soon be all over.
We kept a grim silence. Further out in the bay, we were caught in a heavy squall. Sitting by the tiller, I got as much out of her as I knew how. We would go as far as we could before the run was over. Carlos bailed unceasingly, and without a word of complaint, sticking to his self-appointed task as if in very truth he were careless of life. A feeling came over me that this, indeed, was the elevated and the romantic. Perhaps he was tired of his life; perhaps he really regretted what he left behind him in England, or somewhere else—some association, some woman. But he, at least, if we went down together, would go gallantly, and without complaint, at the end of a life with associations, movements, having lived and regretted. I should disappear ingloriously on the very threshold.
Castro, standing up unsteadily, growled, "We may do it yet! See, senor.'"