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   Chapter 5 THE RESCUE

Moonfleet By John Meade Falkner Characters: 9771

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Shades of the dead, have I not heard your voices

Rise on the night-rolling breath of the gale?-Byron

When I came to myself I was lying, not in the outer blackness of the Mohune vault, not on a floor of sand; but in a bed of sweet clean linen, and in a little whitewashed room, through the window of which the spring sunlight streamed. Oh, the blessed sunshine, and how I praised God for the light! At first I thought I was in my own bed at my aunt's house, and had dreamed of the vault and the smugglers, and that my being prisoned in the darkness was but the horror of a nightmare. I was for getting up, but fell back on my pillow in the effort to rise, with a weakness and sick languor which I had never known before. And as I sunk down, I felt something swing about my neck, and putting up my hand, found 'twas Colonel John Mohune's black locket, and so knew that part at least of this adventure was no dream.

Then the door opened, and to my wandering thought it seemed that I was back again in the vault, for in came Elzevir Block. Then I held up my hands, and cried-

'O Elzevir, save me, save me; I am not come to spy.'

But he, with a kind look on his face, put his hand on my shoulder, and pushed me gently back, saying-

'Lie still, lad, there is none here will hurt thee, and drink this.'

He held out to me a bowl of steaming broth, that filled the room with a savour sweeter, ten thousand times, to me than every rose and lily of the world; yet would not let me drink it at a gulp, but made me sip it with a spoon like any baby. Thus while I drank, he told me where I was, namely, in an attic at the Why Not?, but would not say more then, bidding me get to sleep again, and I should know all afterwards. And so it was ten days or more before youth and health had their way, and I was strong again; and all that time Elzevir Block sat by my bed, and nursed me tenderly as a woman. So piece by piece I learned the story of how they found me.

'Twas Mr. Glennie who first moved to seek me; for when the second day came that I was not at school, he thought that I was ill, and went to my aunt's to ask how I did, as was his wont when any ailed. But Aunt Jane answered him stiffly that she could not say how I did.

'For,' says she, 'he is run off I know not where, but as he makes his bed, must he lie on't; and if he run away for his pleasure, may stay away for mine. I have been pestered with this lot too long, and only bore with him for poor sister Martha's sake; but 'tis after his father that the graceless lad takes, and thus rewards me.'

With that she bangs the door in the parson's face and off he goes to Ratsey, but can learn nothing there, and so concludes that I have run away to sea, and am seeking ship at Poole or Weymouth.

But that same day came Sam Tewkesbury to the Why Not? about nightfall, and begged a glass of rum, being, as he said, 'all of a shake', and telling a tale of how he passed the churchyard wall on his return from work, and in the dusk heard screams and wailing voices, and knew 'twas Blackbeard piping his lost Mohunes to hunt for treasure. So, though he saw nothing, he turned tail and never stopped running till he stood at the inn door. Then, forthwith, Elzevir leaves Sam to drink at the Why Not? alone, and himself sets off running up the street to call for Master Ratsey; and they two make straight across the sea-meadows in the dark.

'For as soon as I heard Tewkesbury tell of screams and wailings in the air, and no one to be seen,' said Elzevir, 'I guessed that some poor soul had got shut in the vault, and was there crying for his life. And to this I was not guided by mother wit, but by a surer and a sadder token. Thou wilt have heard how thirteen years ago a daft body we called Cracky Jones was found one morning in the churchyard dead. He was gone missing for a week before, and twice within that week I had sat through the night upon the hill behind the church, watching to warn the lugger with a flare she could not put in for the surf upon the beach. And on those nights, the air being still though a heavy swell was running, I heard thrice or more a throttled scream come shivering across the meadows from the graveyard. Yet beyond turning my blood cold for a moment, it gave me little trouble, for evil tales have hung about the church; and though I did not set much store by the old yarns of Blackbeard piping up his crew, yet I thought strange things might well go on among the graves at night. And so I never budged, nor stirred hand or foot to save a fellow-creature in his agony.

'But when the surf fell enough for the boats to get ashore, and Greening held a lantern for me to jump down into the passage, after we had got the side out of the tomb, the first thing the light fell on at the bottom was a white face turned skyward. I have not forgot that, lad, for 'twas Cracky Jones

lay there, with his face thin and shrunk, yet all the doited look gone out of it. We tried to force some brandy in his mouth, but he was stark and dead; with knees drawn up towards his head, so stiff we had to lift him doubled as he was, and lay him by the churchyard wall for some of us to find next day. We never knew how he got there, but guessed that he had hung about the landers some night when they ran a cargo, and slipped in when the watchman's back was turned. Thus when Sam Tewkesbury spoke of screams and wailings, and no one to be seen, I knew what 'twas, but never guessed who might be shut in there, not knowing thou wert gone amissing. So ran to Ratsey to get his help to slip the side stone off, for by myself I cannot stir it now, though once I did when I was younger; and from him learned that thou wert lost, and knew whom we should find before we got there.'

I shuddered while Elzevir talked, for I thought how Cracky Jones had perhaps hidden behind the self-same coffin that sheltered me, and how narrowly I had escaped his fate. And that old story came back into my mind, how, years ago, there once arose so terrible a cry from the vault at service-time, that parson and people fled from the church; and I doubted not now that some other poor soul had got shut in that awful place, and was then calling for help to those whose fears would not let them listen.

'There we found thee,' Elzevir went on, 'stretched out on the sand, senseless and far gone; and there was something in thy face that made me think of David when he lay stretched out in his last sleep. And so I put thee on my shoulder and bare thee back, and here thou art in David's room, and shalt find board and bed with me as long as thou hast mind to.' We spoke much together during the days when I was getting stronger, and I grew to like Elzevir well, finding his grimness was but on the outside, and that never was a kinder man. Indeed, I think that my being with him did him good; for he felt that there was once more someone to love him, and his heart went out to me as to his son David. Never once did he ask me to keep my counsel as to the vault and what I had seen there, knowing, perhaps, he had no need, for I would have died rather than tell the secret to any. Only, one day Master Ratsey, who often came to see me, said-

'John, there is only Elzevir and I who know that you have seen the inside of our bond-cellar; and 'tis well, for if some of the landers guessed, they might have ugly ways to stop all chance of prating. So keep our secret tight, and we'll keep yours, for "he that refraineth his lips is wise".'

I wondered how Master Ratsey could quote Scripture so pat, and yet cheat the revenue; though, in truth, 'twas thought little sin at Moonfleet to run a cargo; and, perhaps, he guessed what I was thinking, for he added-

'Not that a Christian man has aught to be ashamed of in landing a cask of good liquor, for we read that when Israel came out of Egypt, the chosen people were bid trick their oppressors out of jewels of silver and jewels of gold; and among those cruel taskmasters, Some of the worst must certainly have been the tax-gatherers.'

* * * * *

The first walk I took when I grew stronger and was able to get about was up to Aunt Jane's, notwithstanding she had never so much as been to ask after me all these days. She knew, indeed, where I was, for Ratsey had told her I lay at the Why Not?, explaining that Elzevir had found me one night on the ground famished and half-dead, yet not saying where. But my aunt greeted me with hard words, which I need not repeat here; for, perhaps, she meant them not unkindly, but only to bring me back again to the right way. She did not let me cross the threshold, holding the door ajar in her hand, and saying she would have no tavern-loungers in her house, but that if I liked the Why Not? so well, I could go back there again for her. I had been for begging her pardon for playing truant; but when I heard such scurvy words, felt the devil rise in my heart, and only laughed, though bitter tears were in my eyes. So I turned my back upon the only home that I had ever known, and sauntered off down the village, feeling very lone, and am not sure I was not crying before I came again to the Why Not?

Then Elzevir saw that my face was downcast, and asked what ailed me, and so I told him how my aunt had turned me away, and that I had no home to go to. But he seemed pleased rather than sorry, and said that I must come now and live with him, for he had plenty for both; and that since chance had led him to save my life, I should be to him a son in David's place. So I went to keep house with him at the Why Not? and my aunt sent down my bag of clothes, and would have made over to Elzevir the pittance that my father left for my keep, but he said it was not needful, and he would have none of it.

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