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   Chapter 6 MALBROUCK S'EN VA.

The Mayor of Troy By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 23702

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


"There is mischief of some sort brewing," said Mr. Smellie, the Riding Officer.

"You think so?" queried Mr. Pennefather, trimming a quill.

"I'd stake my last shilling on it," said Mr. Smellie, slapping his right boot with his riding-whip. "You, a family man, now-"

"Eleven."

"Quite so. Then you must know how it is with children; when they look at you as though there was no such thing as original sin, it's time to keep your eye lifting. Ten to one they're getting round you with some new devilry. Well, that's the way with your Cornish."

Mr. Smellie came from Glasgow-he and his colleague, Mr. Lomax, the Riding Officer of the Mevagissey district which lay next to ours. The Government, it was understood, had chosen and sent them down to us on the strength of their sense of humour-so different from any to be found in the Duchy.

It certainly was different. To Mr. Smellie, we of Troy had been at first but as children at play by the sea; in earnest over games so infantile as to excite his wondering disdain. He wondered yet; but insensibly-as might happen to a man astray in fairyland-his disdain had taken a tinge of fear. Behind "the children sporting on the shore," his ear had begun to catch the voice of unknown waters rolling. They came, so to speak, along the sands, these children; innocent seeming, hilariously intent on their make-believe; and then, on a sudden, not once but a dozen times, he had found himself tricked, duped, tripped up and cast on his back; to rise unhurt, indeed, but clutching at impalpable air while the empty beach rang with teasing laughter.

It baffled him the more because, of his own sort, he had a strong sense of humour. It was told of Mr. Pennefather, for instance, that during his clerkship at Penzance the Custom House there had been openly defied by John Carter, the famous smuggler of Prussia Cove; that once, when Carter was absent on an expedition, the Excise officers had plucked up heart, ransacked the Cove, carried off a cargo of illicit goods and locked it up in the Custom House; that John Carter on his return, furious at the news of his loss, had marched over to Penzance under cover of darkness, broken in the Custom House and carried off his goods again; and that Mr. Pennefather next morning, examining the rifled stores, had declared the nocturnal visitor to be John Carter beyond a doubt, because Carter was an honest man and wouldn't take anything that didn't belong to him. The Riding Officer thought this a highly amusing story, and would often twit Mr. Pennefather with it. But Mr. Pennefather could never see the joke, and would plead,-

"Well, but he was an honest man, wasn't he?"

"That's the way with you Cornish," repeated Mr. Smellie; "and after a time one learns to feel it in the air, so to speak."

The little Collector looked up from his ledger, pushing his spectacles high on his brow, and glanced vaguely around the office.

"Now, for my part, I detect nothing unusual," said he.

"Furthermore," the Riding Officer went on, still tapping his boot, "I met a suspicious-looking fellow yesterday on the Falmouth Road; a deucedly suspicious-looking fellow; a fellow that answered me with a strong French accent when I spoke to him, as I made it my business to do. He had Guernsey merchant written all over him."

"Tattooed?" asked Mr. Pennefather, without looking up from the ledger in which he had buried himself anew. "I had no idea they went to such lengths… in Guernsey… and fourteen is twenty-seven, and five is thirty-two, and thirty-two is two-and-eight.… I beg your pardon? You identified him, then?"

Mr. Smellie frowned. "I shall send up a private note to the Barracks; and meanwhile, I advise you to keep an eye lifting."

"And ten is three-and-six.… An eye lifting, certainly," assented Mr. Pennefather, without, however, immediately acting on this advice.

"There's that fellow Hymen, now, next door. He's not altogether the ass he looks, or my name's not Smellie."

"But it is, surely?" Mr. Pennefather looked up in innocent surprise. "And you really think it justifies calling in the Dragoons?"

"On the face of it, no; I've no evidence. And yet, I repeat, there's some mischief afoot. This new game of Hymen's, for instance-Before coming down to these parts"-Mr. Smellie threw a fine condescension into this phrase-"I should have thought it impossible that anyone in the shape of a man, let alone of a Major of Artillery, could solemnly propose to test a neighbouring corps by a night attack, and then as solemnly give warning on what night he meant to deliver it."

Mr. Pennefather took off his spectacles and polished them with his silk handkerchief. "But without that precaution he would find nobody to attack."

"I tell you, it's absurd! And yet," the Riding Officer went on irritably, "if one could count on its being absurd, I wouldn't mind. But there's just a chance that, with all this foolery, Hymen and Pond are covering up a little game. Why have they chosen Talland Cove, now?"

"I suppose because, for a night attack on Looe, there's no better spot."

"Nor for running a cargo. I tell you, I shall keep the Dragoons on the alert."

"You don't suggest that you suspect-"

"Suspect? I suspect everybody. It's the rule of the service; and by following it I've reached the position I hold to-day."

"True." The Collector readjusted his spectacles and returned to his figures. There may have been just a hint of condolence in his accent, for the Riding Officer looked up sharply.

"If you lived in the north, Pennefather, do you know what we should say about you? We should say that you were no very gleg in the uptake."

"I once," answered the Collector, gently, without lifting his head from the ledger, "began to read Burns, but had to give him up on account of the dialect."

Meanwhile, all unaware of these dark suspicions, the Major and his Gallants were perfecting their preparations for the great surprise.

And what preparations! In the heat of them we had almost forgotten the Millennium itself!

For weeks the band had been practising a selection of tunes appropriate (1) to invasions in general and (2) to this particular invasion. There was "Britons, Strike Home!" for instance, and "The Padstow Hobby-horse," and "The Rout it is out for the Blues," slightly amended for the occasion:

"As I was a-walking on Downderry sands,

Some dainty fine sport for to view,

The maidens were wailing and wringing their hands-

Oh, the Rout it is out for the Looes,

For the Looes,

Oh, the Rout it is out for the Looes."

The very urchins whistled and sang it about the streets. On the other hand, the Major's chivalrous proposal to hymn The George of Looe came to nothing, since Captain Pond could supply him with neither the words nor the air.

"Notwithstanding all my researches," he wrote, "the utmost I can discover is the following stanza which Gunner Israel Spettigew- vulgarly termed Uncle Issy-one of my halest veterans, remembers to have heard sung in his youth:

"'Oh, the George of Looe sank Number One;

She then sank Number Two;

She finished up with Number Three:

And hooray for the George of Looe'!"

"Dammy!" said the Major, "and I dare say that passes for invention over at Looe."

We in Troy were no paupers of invention, at any rate. Take, for example, the Major's plan of campaign. First of all you must figure to yourself a terrain shaped like a triangle-almost an equilateral triangle-with its base resting on the sea. At the western extremity of this base stands Troy; at the eastern, Looe, with Talland Cove a little to this side of it. For western side of the triangle we have the Troy River; and for apex the peaceful village of Lerryn, set in apple-orchards, where the tidal waters end by a narrow bridge. For the eastern side we take, not the Looe River (which doesn't count), but an ancient earthwork, known as the Devil's Hedge, which stretches across country from Looe up to Lerryn. Who built this earthwork, or when he did it, or for what purpose, no one can tell; but the Looe folk will quote you the following distich,-

"One day the Devil, having nothing to do,

Built a great hedge from Lerryn to Looe."

(Invention again!)

Of these things, then (as Herodotus puts it), let so much be said. But thus we get our triangle: the sea coast (base), the Troy River and the Devil's Hedge (sides), meeting at the village of Lerryn (apex) among the orchards.

Now these orchards, you must know, on May mornings when the tide served, were the favourite rendezvous for the lads and maidens of Troy, and even for the middle-aged and married; who would company thither by water, to wash their faces in the dew, and eat cream, and see the sun rise, and afterwards return chorussing, their boats draped with green boughs.

This year the tide, indeed, served for Lerryn: but this year the maidens of Troy, if they would fare thither to pay their vows, must fare alone. Their swains would be bent upon a sterner errand.

So their Commander by secret orders had dictated, and all the town knew of it; also that the landing was to be effected in Talland Cove, and that, if success waited on their arms, supper would be provided at the Sloop Inn, Looe. One hundred and fifty fighting men would go to the assault, in fourteen row-boats, with muffled oars. This number included the band. The residue of thirty men, making up the full strength of the corps, had disappeared from Troy some ten days before, on an errand which will appear hereafter.

But the fair were inconsolable. Almost, for some forty-eight hours- that is to say, after the news leaked out-our Major was the most unpopular man in Troy with them who had ever been his warmest supporters. War was war, no doubt; and women must mourn at home while men imbrued themselves in the gallant strife. But May-day, too, was May-day; and the tides served; and, further, there was this talk about a Millennium, and whatever the Millennium might be (and nobody but the Mayor and the Vicar, unless it were Dr. Hansombody, seemed to know), it was certainly not an occasion on which women ought to be left without their natural protectors. Even the Ambulance Corps was bound for Looe, in eight additional boats. There would be scarce a row-boat left in the harbour, or the ladies might have pulled up to Lerryn on their own account.

The Major suspected these murmurings, yet he kept an unruffled brow: yes, even though harassed with vexations which these ladies could not guess-the possible defection of Hansombody, for instance.

It was not Hansombody's fault: but Sir Felix Felix-Williams, who owned the estate as well as the village of Lerryn, had reason to expect an addition to his family. Dr. Hansombody could not guarantee that he might not be summoned to Pentethy, Sir Felix's mansion, at any moment.

Now, for excellent reasons-which, again, will appear-the Major could not afford to make Sir Felix an enemy at this moment. Besides, these domestic events were the little apothecary's bread and butter.

On the other hand, the absence of a professional man must seriously discredit the role assigned to the Ambulance Corps in any engagement, however bloodless.

"You might," the Major suggested, "nominate half a dozen as deputy or assistant surgeons. You could easily pick out those who have shown most intelligence at your lectures."

"True," agreed the Doctor; "but as yet we have not, in my lectures, advanced so far as flesh-wounds. They would know what to do, I hope, if confronted with frost-bite, snake-bite, sunstroke or incipient croup-from all of which our little expedition will be (under Providence) immune, and I have as yet confined myself to directing them, in all cases which apparently differ from these, to run to the nearest medi

cal man."

"Well, well!" sighed the Major. "Then, if the worst come to the worst and you cannot accompany us, we must rely on the good offices of the enemy. They have no qualified surgeon, I believe: but the second lieutenant, young Couch of Polperro, is almost out of his articles and ready to proceed to Guy's. A clever fellow, too, they tell me."

"You understand that if I fail you, it will be through no want of zeal?"

"My friend"-the Major turned on him with a smile at once magnanimous and tender-"I believe you ask nothing better than to accompany me."

"To the death!" said the Doctor, in a low voice and fervently. Then, after a pause full of emotion, "Your dispositions are all taken?"

"All, I believe. Chinn has drawn up a new will for me, which I have signed, and it lies at this moment in my deed-box. I took the liberty to appoint you an executor."

"You would not ask me to survive you!" (O Friendship! O exemplars of a sterner age! O Rome! O Cato!) "Not to mention," went on the Doctor, "that I must be by five or six years your senior, and in the ordinary course of events-"

Major Hymen dismissed the ordinary course of events with a wave of the hand.

"I ask it as a personal favour."

"It is an honour then, and I accede."

"For the rest, I am keeping that fellow Smellie on the qui vive. For three days past he has been promenading the cliffs with his spy-glass. I would not lightly depreciate any man, but Smellie has one serious fault-he is ambitious."

"Such men are to be found in every walk of life."

"I fear so. Ambition is like to be Smellie's bane. He is jealous of sharing any credit with the Preventive crews, and is keeping them without information. On the other hand he delights in ordering about a military force; which, in a civilian, is preposterous."

"Quite preposterous."

"The Dragoons, of course, hate working under his orders: but I shall be surprised if he resist the temptation to call them in and dress himself in a little brief authority. Further, I have word from Polperro that he is getting together a company of the Sea Fencibles. In short, he is playing into our hands."

"But the boats?"

"They are here."

"Here?" The Doctor's eyes grew round with wonder.

The Major swept a hand towards the horizon.

"For two days we have been enjoying a steady southerly breeze. They are yonder, you may be sure-the three of them: and that is where Smellie makes a mistake in not employing the cutter."

"And the long-boats?"

"The long-boats are lying, as they have lain for three weeks past, in Runnells' yard, awaiting repairs. Runnells is a dilatory fellow and has gone no farther than to fill them with water up to the thwarts, to test their stanchness." Here the Major allowed himself to smile. "But Runnells, though dilatory, will launch them after dusk, while the tide suits."

"The tide makes until five o'clock."

"Until five-twenty, to be correct. Before seven o'clock they will be launched."

"You play a bold game, dear friend. Suppose, now, that Smellie had kept the cutter cruising off the coast?"

The Major smiled again, this time with finesse. "The man is ambitious, I tell you. By employing the cutter he might indeed have intercepted the cargo. But he flies at higher game." Here the Major lightly tapped his chest to indicate the quarry. "In generalship, my dear doctor, to achieve anything like the highest success, you must fight with two heads-your own and your adversary's. By putting myself in Smellie's place; by descending (if I may so say) into the depths of his animal intelligence, by interpreting his hopes, his ambitions… well, in short, I believe we have weathered the risk. The Mevagissey fleet puts out to the grounds to-night, to anchor and drop nets as usual. With them our friends from Guernsey-shall we say?-will mingle as soon as night is fallen, hang out their riding-lights, lower their nets, and generally behave in a fashion indistinguishable from that of other harvesters of the sea, until the hour when, with lightened hulls and, I trust, in full regimentals (for they carry their uniforms on board) they join us for the Grand Assault."

"But-excuse me-how much does the town know of this programme?"

The Major shrugged his shoulders. "As little as I could manage. I have incurred some brief unpopularity, no doubt, among the fairer portion of our community, who deem that I am denying them their annual May-day jaunt. But never fear. I will explain all to-night, before embarkation."

"They may murmur," answered Dr. Hansombody, "but in their hearts they trust you."

The Major's eyes filled with tears.

"The path of duty is strewn with more than roses at times. I thank you for that assurance, my friend."

They grasped hands in silence.

Troy remembered later-it had reason to remember-through what halcyon weather April passed, that year, into May. For three days a gentle breeze had blown from the south; for three more days it continued, dying down at nightfall and waking again at dawn. Stolen days they seemed: cloudless, gradual, golden; a theft of Spring from Harvest-tide. Unnatural weather, many called it: for the air held the warmth of full summer before the first swallow appeared, and while as yet the cuckoo, across the harbour, had been heard by few.

The after-glow of sunset had lingered, but had faded at length, taking the new moon with it, leaving a night so pale, so clear, so visibly domed overhead, that almost the eye might trace its curve and assign to each separate star its degree of magnitude. Beyond the harbour's mouth the riding-lights of the Mevagissey fishing fleet ran like a carcanet of faint jewels, marking the unseen horizon of the Channel. The full spring tide, soundless or scarcely lapping along shore, fell back on its ebb, not rapidly as yet, but imperceptibly gathering speed. Below the Town Quay in the dark shadow lay the boats-themselves a shadowy crowd, ghostly, with a glimmer of white paint here and there on gunwales, thwarts, stern-sheets. Their thole-pins had been wrapped with oakum and their crews sat whispering, ready, with muffled oars. On the Quay, lantern in hand, the Major moved up and down between his silent ranks, watched by a shadowy crowd.

In that crowd, as I am credibly informed, were gathered-but none could distinguish them-gentle and simple, maiden ladies with their servants or housekeepers, side by side with longshoremen, hovellers, giglet maids, and urchins; all alike magnetised and drawn thither by the Man and the Hour. But the Major recognised none of them. His dispositions had been made and perfected a full week before; how thoroughly they had been perfected might be read in the mute alacrity with which man after man, squad after squad, without spoken command yet in unbroken order, dissolved out of the ranks and passed down to the boats. You could not see that Gunner Tippet, being an asthmatical man, wore a comforter and a respirating shield; nor that Sergeant Sullivan, as notoriously susceptible to the night air, carried a case-bottle and a small basket of boiled sausages. Yet these and a hundred other separate and characteristic necessities had been foreseen and provided for.

Van, mainguard, rearguard, band, ambulance, forlorn hope, all were embarked at length. Lieutenant Chinn saluted, reported the entire flotilla ready, saluted again, and descended the steps with the Doctor (Sir Felix had sent no word, after all). Only the Major remained on the Quay's edge. Overhead rode the stars; around him in the penumbra of the lantern's rays the crowd pressed forward timidly. He turned.

"Fellow-citizens," he said, and his voice trembled on the words, but in an instant was steady again, "you surmise, no doubt, the purpose of this expedition. An invader menaces these shores, the defence of which has been committed to us. Of the ultimate invincibility of that defence I have no doubt whatever; nevertheless, it may expose here and there a vulnerable point. It is to test the alertness of our neighbours of Looe that we abstract ourselves for a few hours from the comforts of home, the society of the fair, in some instances the embraces of our loved ones, and embark upon an element which, to-night propitious, might in other moods have engulfed, if it did not actually force us to postpone, our temerity-" (Here a voice said, "Well done, Major; give 'em Troy!")

"Methinks," continued the Major, elevating his lantern and turning to that part of the crowd whence the interruption had proceeded, "methinks I hear some fair one sigh, 'But why to-night? Why on the eve of May-day, when we are wont to seek one or other of those rural spots, vales, hamlets, remote among our river's lovelier reaches, where annually the tides have mirrored at sunrise our gala companies and the green woods responded to our innocent mirth? Why on this consecrated eve distract our hitherto faithful swains and lead their steps divergent at an angle of something like thirty degrees?' I have reason to believe that some such tender complaints have made themselves audible, and it is painful to me to suffer the imputation of lack of feeling, even from an Aeolian harp. Yet I have suffered it, awaiting the moment to reassure you.

"Yes, ladies, be reassured! We depart indeed for Looe; but we hope, ere dawn, to meet you at Lerryn and be rewarded with your approving smiles. At nine-thirty precisely the three long-boats, Naiad, Nautilus, and Corona, which have lain for some weeks under repair in Mr. Runnells' yard, will pass this Quay and proceed seaward, each manned by an able, if veteran, crew. After a brief trip outside the harbour-to test their stanchness-they will return to the Quay to embark passengers, and start at 2 a.m. on the excursion up the river to our rendezvous at Lerryn. Nay!" the Major turned at the head of the steps and lifted a hand-"I will accept of you no thanks but this, that during the few arduous hours ahead of us we carry your wishes, ladies, as a prosperous breeze behind our banners!"

"Now isn't he a perfect duck?" demanded Miss Sally Tregentil, turning in the darkness and addressing Miss Pescod, whose strongly marked and aquiline features she had recognised in the last far-flung ray of the Major's lantern.

"My good Sarah! You here?" answered Miss Pescod, divided between surprise, disapproval and embarrassment.

"At such a period-a crisis, one might almost say-when the fate of Europe… and after all, if it comes to that, so are you."

"For my part-" began Miss Pescod, and ended with a sigh.

"For my part," declared Miss Sally, hardily, "I shall go to Lerryn."

"Sally!"

"It used to be great fun. In later years mamma disapproved, but there is (may I confess it?) this to be said for war, that beneath its awful frown-under cover of what I may venture to call the shaking of its gory locks-you can do a heap of things you wouldn't dream of under ordinary circumstances. Life, though more precarious, becomes distinctly less artificial. Two years ago, for instance, lulled in a false security by the so-called Peace of Amiens, I should as soon have thought of flying through the air."

"Has it occurred to you," Miss Pescod suggested, "what might happen if the Corsican, taking advantage to-night of our dear Major's temporary absence-"

"Don't!" Miss Sally interrupted with a shiver. "Oh, decidedly I shall go to Lerryn to-night! On second thoughts it would be only proper."

On the dark waters below them, beyond the Quay, a hoarse military voice gave the command to "Give way!" One by one on the fast-dropping tide the boats, keeping good order, headed for the harbour's mouth. The Major led. O navis, referent…

Think, I pray you, of Wolfe dropping down the dark St. Lawrence; of Wolfe and, ahead of him, the Heights of Abraham!

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