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   Chapter 8 THE LANDING

Moonfleet By John Meade Falkner Characters: 22738

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Let my lamp at midnight hour

Be seen in some high lonely tower-Milton

Maskew got ugly looks from the men, and sour words from the wives, as he went up through the village that afternoon, for all knew what he had done, and for many days after the auction he durst not show his face abroad. Yet Damen of Ringstave and some others of the landers' men, who made it their business to keep an eye upon him, said that he had been twice to Weymouth of evenings, and held converse there with Mr. Luckham of the Excise, and with Captain Henning, who commanded the troopers then in quarters on the Nothe. And by degrees it got about, but how I do not know, that he had persuaded the Revenue to strike hard at the smugglers, and that a strong posse was to be held in readiness to take the landers in the act the next time they should try to run a cargo. Why Maskew should so put himself about to help the Revenue I cannot tell, nor did anyone ever certainly find out; but some said 'twas out of sheer wantonness, and a desire to hurt his neighbours; and others, that he saw what an apt place this was for landing cargoes, and wished first to make a brave show of zeal for the Excise, and afterwards to get the whole of the contraband trade into his own hands. However that may be, I think he was certainly in league with the Revenue men, and more than once I saw him on the Manor terrace with a spy glass in his hand, and guessed that he was looking for the lugger in the offing. Now, word was mostly given to the lander, by safe hands, of the night on which a cargo should be run, and then in the morning or afternoon, the lugger would come just near enough the land to be made out with glasses, and afterwards lie off again out of sight till nightfall. The nights chosen for such work were without moon, but as still as might be, so long as there was wind enough to fill the sails; and often the lugger could be made out from the beach, but sometimes 'twas necessary to signal with flares, though they were used as little as might be. Yet after there had been a long spell of rough weather, and a cargo had to be run at all hazards, I have known the boats come in even on the bright moonlight and take their risk, for 'twas said the Excise slept sounder round us than anywhere in all the Channel.

These tales of Maskew's doings failed not to reach Elzevir, and for some days he thought best not to move, though there was a cargo on the other side that wanted landing badly. But one evening when he had won at backgammon, and was in an open mood, he took me into confidence, setting down the dice box on the table, and saying-

'There is word come from the shippers that we must take a cargo, for that they cannot keep the stuff by them longer at St. Malo. Now with this devil at the Manor prowling round, I dare not risk the job on Moonfleet beach, nor yet stow the liquor in the vault; so I have told the Bonaventure to put her nose into this bay tomorrow afternoon that Maskew may see her well, and then to lie out again to sea, as she has done a hundred times before. But instead of waiting in the offing, she will make straight off up Channel to a little strip of shingle underneath Hoar Head.' I nodded to show I knew the place, and he went on-'Men used to choose that spot in good old times to beach a cargo before the passage to the vault was dug; and there is a worked-out quarry they called Pyegrove's Hole, not too far off up the down, and choked with brambles, where we can find shelter for a hundred kegs. So we'll be under Hoar Head at five tomorrow morn with the pack-horses. I wish we could be earlier, for the sun rises thereabout, but the tide will not serve before.'

It was at that moment that I felt a cold touch on my shoulders, as of the fresh air from outside, and thought beside I had a whiff of salt seaweed from the beach. So round I looked to see if door or window stood ajar. The window was tight enough, and shuttered to boot, but the door was not to be seen plainly for a wooden screen, which parted it from the parlour, and was meant to keep off draughts. Yet I could just see a top corner of the door above the screen and thought it was not fast. So up I got to shut it, for the nights were cold; but coming round the corner of the screen found that 'twas closed, and yet I could have sworn I saw the latch fall to its place as I walked towards it. Then I dashed forward, and in a trice had the door open, and was in the street. But the night was moonless and black, and I neither saw nor heard aught stirring, save the gentle sea-wash on Moonfleet beach beyond the salt meadows.

Elzevir looked at me uneasily as I came back.

'What ails thee, boy?' said he.

'I thought I heard someone at the door,' I answered; 'did you not feel a cold wind as if it was open?'

'It is but the night is sharp, the spring sets in very chill; slip the bolt, and sit down again,' and he flung a fresh log on the fire, that sent a cloud of sparks crackling up the chimney and out into the room.

'Elzevir,' I said, 'I think there was one listening at the door, and there may be others in the house, so before we sit again let us take candle and go through the rooms to make sure none are prying on us.'

He laughed and said, ''Twas but the wind that blew the door open,' but that I might do as I pleased. So I lit another candle, and was for starting on my search; but he cried, 'Nay, thou shalt not go alone'; and so we went all round the house together, and found not so much as a mouse stirring.

He laughed the more when we came back to the parlour. ''Tis the cold has chilled thy heart and made thee timid of that skulking rascal of the Manor; fill me a glass of Ararat milk, and one for thyself, and let us to bed.'

I had learned by this not to be afraid of the good liquor, and while we sat sipping it, Elzevir went on-

'There is a fortnight yet to run, and then you and I shall be cut adrift from our moorings. It is a cruel thing to see the doors of this house closed on me, where I and mine have lived a century or more, but I must see it. Yet let us not be too cast down, but try to make something even of this worst of throws.'

I was glad enough to hear him speak in this firmer strain, for I had seen what a sore thought it had been for these days past that he must leave the Why Not?, and how it often made him moody and downcast.

'We will have no more of innkeeping,' he said; 'I have been sick and tired of it this many a day, and care not now to see men abuse good liquor and addle their silly pates to fill my purse. And I have something, boy, put snug away in Dorchester town that will give us bread to eat and beer to drink, even if the throws run still deuce-ace. But we must seek a roof to shelter us when the Why Not? is shut, and 'tis best we leave this Moonfleet of ours for a season, till Maskew finds a rope's end long enough to hang himself withal. So, when our work is done tomorrow night, we will walk out along the cliff to Worth, and take a look at a cottage there that Damen spoke about, with a walled orchard at the back, and fuchsia hedge in front-'tis near the Lobster Inn, and has a fine prospect of the sea; and if we live there, we will leave the vault alone awhile and use this Pyegrove's Hole for storehouse, till the watch is relaxed.'

I did not answer, having my thoughts on other things, and he tossed off his liquor, saying, 'Thou'rt tired; so let's to bed, for we shall get little sleep tomorrow night.'

It was true that I was tired, and yet I could not get to sleep, but tossed and turned in my bed for thinking of many things, and being vexed that we were to leave Moonfleet. Yet mine was a selfish sorrow; for I had little thought for Elzevir and the pain that it must be to him to quit, the Why Not?: nor yet was it the grief of leaving Moonfleet that so troubled me, although that was the only place I ever had known, and seemed to me then-as now-the only spot on earth fit to be lived in; but the real care and canker was that I was going away from Grace Maskew. For since she had left school I had grown fonder of her; and now that it was difficult to see her, I took the more pains to accomplish it, and met her sometimes in Manor Woods, and more than once, when Maskew was away, had walked with her on Weatherbeech Hill. So we bred up a boy-and-girl affection, and must needs pledge ourselves to be true to one another, not knowing what such silly words might mean. And I told Grace all my secrets, not even excepting the doings of the contraband, and the Mohune vault and Blackbeard's locket, for I knew all was as safe with her as with me, and that her father could never rack aught from her. Nay, more, her bedroom was at the top of the gabled wing of the Manor House, and looked right out to sea; and one clear night, when our boat was coming late from fishing, I saw her candle burning there, and next day told her of it. And then she said that she would set a candle to burn before the panes on winter nights, and be a leading light for boats at sea. And so she did, and others beside me saw and used it, calling it 'Maskew's Match', and saying that it was the attorney sitting up all night to pore over ledgers and add up his fortune.

So this night as I lay awake I vexed and vexed myself for thinking of her, and at last resolved to go up next morning to the Manor Woods and lie in wait for Grace, to tell her what was up, and that we were going away to Worth.

Next day, the 16th of April-a day I have had cause to remember all my life-I played truant from Mr. Glennie, and by ten in the forenoon found myself in the woods.

There was a little dimple on the hillside above the house, green with burdocks in summer and filled with dry leaves in winter-just big enough to hold one lying flat, and not so deep but that I could look over the lip of it and see the house without being seen. Thither I went that day, and lay down in the dry leaves to wait and watch for Grace.

The morning was bright enough. The chills of the night before had given way to sunlight that seemed warm as summer, and yet had with it the soft freshness of spring. There was scarce a breath moving in the wood, though I could see the clouds of white dust stalking up the road that climbs Ridge down, and the trees were green with buds, yet without leafage to keep the sunbeams from lighting up the ground below, which glowed with yellow king-cups. So I lay there for a long, long while; and to make time pass quicker, took from my bosom the silver locket, and opening it, read again the parchment, which I had read times out of mind before, and knew indeed by heart.

'The days of our age are threescore years and ten', and the rest.

Now, whenever I handled the locket, my thoughts were turned to Mohune's treasure; and it was natural that it should be so, for the locket reminded me of my first journey to the vault; and I laughed at myself, remembering how simple I had been, and had hoped to find the place littered with diamonds, and to see the gold lying packed in heaps. And thus for the hundredth time I came to rack my brain to know where the diamond could be hid, and thought at last it must be buried in the churchyard, because of the talk of Blackbeard being seen on wild nights digging there for his treasure. But then, I reasoned, that very like it was the

contrabandiers whom men had seen with spades when they were digging out the passage from the tomb to the vault, and set them down for ghosts because they wrought at night. And while I was busy with such thoughts, the door opened in the house below me, and out came Grace with a hood on her head and a basket for wild flowers in her hand.

I watched to see which way she would walk; and as soon as she took the path that leads up Weatherbeech, made off through the dry brushwood to meet her, for we had settled she should never go that road except when Maskew was away. So there we met and spent an hour together on the hill, though I shall not write here what we said, because it was mostly silly stuff. She spoke much of the auction and of Elzevir leaving the Why Not?, and though she never said a word against her father, let me know what pain his doing gave her. But most she grieved that we were leaving Moonfleet, and showed her grief in such pretty ways, as made me almost glad to see her sorry. And from her I learned that Maskew was indeed absent from home, having been called away suddenly last night. The evening was so fine, he said (and this surprised me, remembering how dark and cold it was with us), that he must needs walk round the policies; but about nine o'clock came back and told her he had got a sudden call to business, which would take him to Weymouth then and there. So to saddle, and off he went on his mare, bidding Grace not to look for him for two nights to come.

I know not why it was, but what she said of Maskew made me thoughtful and silent, and she too must be back home lest the old servant that kept house for them should say she had been too long away, and so we parted. Then off I went through the woods and down the village street, but as I passed my old home saw Aunt Jane standing on the doorstep. I bade her 'Good day', and was for running on to the Why Not?, for I was late enough already, but she called me to her, seeming in a milder mood, and said she had something for me in the house. So left me standing while she went off to get it, and back she came and thrust into my hand a little prayer-book, which I had often seen about the parlour in past days, saying, 'Here is a Common Prayer which I had meant to send thee with thy clothes. It was thy poor mother's, and I pray may some day be as precious a balm to thee as it once was to that godly woman.' With that she gave me the 'Good day', and I pocketed the little red leather book, which did indeed afterwards prove precious to me, though not in the way she meant, and ran down street to the Why Not?

* * * * *

That same evening Elzevir and I left the Why Not?, went up through the village, climbed the down, and were at the brow by sunset. We had started earlier than we fixed the night before, because word had come to Elzevir that morning that the tide called Gulder would serve for the beaching of the Bonaventure at three instead of five. 'Tis a strange thing the Gulder, and not even sailors can count closely with it; for on the Dorset coast the tide makes four times a day, twice with the common flow, and twice with the Gulder, and this last being shifty and uncertain as to time, flings out many a sea-reckoning.

It was about seven o'clock when we were at the top of the hill, and there were fifteen good miles to cover to get to Hoar Head. Dusk was upon us before we had walked half an hour; but when the night fell, it was not black as on the last evening, but a deep sort of blue, and the heat of the day did not die with the sun, but left the air still warm and balmy. We trudged on in silence, and were glad enough when we saw by a white stone here and there at the side of the path that we were nearing the cliff; for the Preventive men mark all the footpaths on the cliff with whitewashed stones, so that one can pick up the way without risk on a dark night. A few minutes more, and we reached a broad piece of open sward, which I knew for the top of Hoar Head.

Hoar Head is the highest of that line of cliffs, which stretches twenty miles from Weymouth to St. Alban's Head, and it stands up eighty fathoms or more above the water. The seaward side is a great sheer of chalk, but falls not straight into the sea, for three parts down there is a lower ledge or terrace, called the under-cliff.

'Twas to this ledge that we were bound; and though we were now straight above, I knew we had a mile or more to go before we could get down to it. So on we went again, and found the bridle-path that slopes down through a deep dip in the cliff line; and when we reached this under-ledge, I looked up at the sky, the night being clear, and guessed by the stars that 'twas past midnight. I knew the place from having once been there for blackberries; for the brambles on the under-cliff being sheltered every way but south, and open to the sun, grow the finest in all those parts.

We were not alone, for I could make out a score of men, some standing in groups, some resting on the ground, and the dark shapes of the pack-horses showing larger in the dimness. There were a few words of greeting muttered in deep voices, and then all was still, so that one heard the browsing horses trying to crop something off the turf. It was not the first cargo I had helped to run, and I knew most of the men, but did not speak with them, being tired, and wishing to rest till I was wanted. So cast myself down on the turf, but had not lain there long when I saw someone coming to me through the brambles, and Master Ratsey said, 'Well, Jack, so thou and Elzevir are leaving Moonfleet, and I fain would flit myself, but then who would be left to lead the old folk to their last homes, for dead do not bury their dead in these days.'

I was half-asleep, and took little heed of what he said, putting him off with, 'That need not keep you, Master; they will find others to fill your place.' Yet he would not let me be, but went on talking for the pleasure of hearing his own voice.

'Nay, child, you know not what you say. They may find men to dig a grave, and perhaps to fill it, but who shall toss the mould when Parson Glennie gives the "earth to earth"; it takes a mort of knowledge to make it rattle kindly on the coffin-lid.'

I felt sleep heavy on my eyelids, and was for begging him to let me rest, when there came a whistle from below, and in a moment all were on their feet. The drivers went to the packhorses' heads, and so we walked down to the strand, a silent moving group of men and horses mixed; and before we came to the bottom, heard the first boat's nose grind on the beach, and the feet of the seamen crunching in the pebbles. Then all fell to the business of landing, and a strange enough scene it was, what with the medley of men, the lanthorns swinging, and a frothy Upper from the sea running up till sometimes it was over our boots; and all the time there was a patter of French and Dutch, for most of the Bonaventure's men were foreigners. But I shall not speak more of this; for, after all, one landing is very like another, and kegs come ashore in much the same way, whether they are to pay excise or not.

It must have been three o'clock before the lugger's boats were off again to sea, and by that time the horses were well laden, and most of the men had a keg or two to carry beside. Then Elzevir, who was in command, gave the word, and we began to file away from the beach up to the under-cliff. Now, what with the cargo being heavy, we were longer than usual in getting away; and though there was no sign of sunrise, yet the night was greyer, and not so blue as it had been.

We reached the under-cliff, and were moving across it to address ourselves to the bridle-path, and so wind sideways up the steep, when I saw something moving behind one of the plumbs of brambles with which the place is beset. It was only a glimpse of motion that I had perceived, and could not say whether 'twas man or animal, or even frightened bird behind the bushes. But others had seen it as well; there was some shouting, half a dozen flung down their kegs and started in pursuit.

All eyes were turned to the bridle-path, and in a twinkling hunters and hunted were in view. The greyhounds were Damen and Garrett, with some others, and the hare was an older man, who leapt and bounded forward, faster than I should have thought any but a youth could run; but then he knew what men were after him, and that 'twas a race for life. For though it was but a moment before all were lost in the night, yet this was long enough to show me that the man was none other than Maskew, and I knew that his life was not worth ten minutes' purchase.

Now I hated this man, and had myself suffered something at his hand, besides seeing him put much grievous suffering on others; but I wished then with all my heart he might escape, and had a horrible dread of what was to come. Yet I knew all the time escape was impossible; for though Maskew ran desperately, the way was steep and stony, and he had behind him some of the fleetest feet along that coast. We had all stopped with one accord, as not wishing to move a step forward till we had seen the issue of the chase; and I was near enough to look into Elzevir's face, but saw there neither passion nor bloodthirstiness, but only a calm resolve, as if he had to deal with something well expected.

We had not long to wait, for very soon we heard a rolling of stones and trampling of feet coming down the path, and from the darkness issued a group of men, having Maskew in the middle of them. They were hustling him along fast, two having hold of him by the arms, and a third by the neck of his shirt behind. The sight gave me a sick qualm, like an overdose of tobacco, for it was the first time I had ever seen a man man-handled, and a fellow-creature abused. His cap was lost, and his thin hair tangled over his forehead, his coat was torn off, so that he stood in his waistcoat alone; he was pale, and gasped terribly, whether from the sharp run, or from violence, or fear, or all combined.

There was a babel of voices when they came up of desperate men who had a bitterest enemy in their clutch; and some shouted, 'Club him', 'Shoot him', 'Hang him', while others were for throwing him over the cliff. Then someone saw under the flap of his waistcoat that same silver-hafted pistol that lay so lately next the lease of the Why Not? and snatching it from him, flung it on the grass at Block's feet.

But Elzevir's deep voice mastered their contentions-

'Lads, ye remember how I said when this man's reckoning day should come 'twas I would reckon with him, and had your promise to it. Nor is it right that any should lay hand on him but I, for is he not sealed to me with my son's blood? So touch him not, but bind him hand and foot, and leave him here with me and go your ways; there is no time to lose, for the light grows apace.'

There was a little muttered murmuring, but Elzevir's will overbore them here as it had done in the vault; and they yielded the more easily, because every man knew in his heart that he would never see Maskew again alive. So within ten minutes all were winding up the bridle-path, horses and men, all except three; for there were left upon the brambly greensward of the under-cliff Maskew and Elzevir and I, and the pistol lay at Elzevir's feet.

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