Mary Anerley, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXIX

Tactics of Defense

The sea at this time was not pleasant, and nobody looking at it longed to employ upon it any members of a shorter reach than eyes.

It was not rushing upon the land, nor running largely in the offing, nor making white streaks on the shoals; neither in any other places doing things remarkable. No sign whatever of coming storm or gathering fury moved it; only it was sullen, heavy, petulant, and out of sorts. It went about its business in a state of lumps irregular, without long billows or big furrows, as if it took the impulse more of distant waters than of wind; and its color was a dirty green. Ancient fishermen hate this, and ancient mariners do the same; for then the fish lie sulking on their bellies, and then the ship wallows without gift of sail.

“Bear off, Tomkins, and lay by till the ebb. I can only say, dash the whole of it!”

Commander Nettlebones, of the Swordfish, gave this order in disgust at last; for the tide was against her, with a heavy pitch of sea, and the mainsail scarcely drew the sheet. What little wind there was came off the land, and would have been fair if it had been firm; but often it dropped altogether where the cliffs, or the clouds that lay upon them, held it. The cutter had slipped away from Scarborough, as soon as it was dark last night, under orders for Robin Hood’s Bay, where the Albatross and Kestrel were to meet her, bring tidings, and take orders. Partly by coast-riding, and partly by coast signals, it had been arranged that these three revenue cruisers should come together in a lonely place during the haze of November morning, and hold privy council of importance. From Scarborough, with any wind at all, or even with ordinary tide-run, a coal barge might almost make sure of getting to Robin Hood’s Bay in six hours, if the sea was fit to swim in. Yet here was a cutter that valued herself upon her sailing powers already eighteen hours out, and headed back perpetually, like a donkey-plough. Commander Nettlebones could not understand it, and the more impatient he became, the less could he enter into it. The sea was nasty, and the wind uncertain, also the tide against him; but how often had such things combined to hinder, and yet he had made much fairer way! Fore and aft he bestrode the planks, and cast keen eyes at everything, above, around, or underneath, but nothing showed him anything. Nettlebones was a Cornishman, and Cornishmen at that time had a reverent faith in witchcraft. “Robin Lyth has bought the powers, or ancient Carroway has done it,” he said to himself, in stronger language than is now reportable. “Old Carroway is against us, I know, from his confounded jealousy; and this cursed delay will floor all my plans.”

He deserved to have his best plans floored for such vile suspicion of Carroway. Whatever the brave lieutenant did was loyal, faithful, and well above-board. Against the enemy he had his plans, as every great commander must, and he certainly did not desire to have his glory stolen by Nettlebones. But that he would have suffered, with only a grin at the bad luck so habitual; to do any crooked thing against it was not in his nature. The cause of the grief of Commander Nettlebones lay far away from Carroway; and free trade was at the bottom of it.

For now this trim and lively craft was doing herself but scanty credit, either on or off a wind. She was like a poor cat with her tail in a gin, which sadly obstructs her progress; even more was she like to the little horse of wood, which sits on the edge of a table and gallops, with a balance weight limiting his energies. None of the crew could understand it, if they were to be believed; and the more sagacious talked of currents and mysterious “under-tow.” And sure enough it was under-tow, the mystery of which was simple. One of the very best hands on board was a hardy seaman from Flamborough, akin to old Robin Cockscroft, and no stranger to his adopted son. This gallant seaman fully entered into the value of long leverage, and he made fine use of a plug-hole which had come to his knowledge behind his berth. It was just above the water-line, and out of sight from deck, because the hollow of the run was there. And long ere the lights of Scarborough died into the haze of night, as the cutter began to cleave watery way, the sailor passed a stout new rope from a belaying-pin through this hole, and then he betrayed his watch on deck by hauling the end up with a clew, and gently returning it to the deep with a long grappling-iron made fast to it. This had not fluke enough to lay fast hold and bring the vessel up; for in that case it would have been immediately discovered; but it dragged along the bottom like a trawl, and by its weight, and a hitch every now and then in some hole, it hampered quite sufficiently the objectionable voyage. Instead of meeting her consorts in the cloud of early morning, the Swordfish was scarcely abreast of the Southern Cheek by the middle of the afternoon. No wonder if Commander Nettlebones was in a fury long ere that, and fitted neither to give nor take the counsel of calm wisdom; and this condition of his mind, as well as the loss of precious time, should have been taken into more consideration by those who condemned him for the things that followed.

“Better late than never, as they say,” he cried, when the Kestrel and the Albatross hove in sight. “Tomkins, signal to make sail and close. We seem to be moving more lively at last. I suppose we are out of that infernal under-tow.”

“Well, sir, she seems like herself a little more. She’ve had a witch on board of her, that’s where it is. When I were a younker, just joined his Majesty’s forty-two-gun frigate —”

“Stow that, Tomkins. No time now. I remember all about it, and very good it is. Let us have it all again when this job is done with. Bowler and Donovan will pick holes if they can, after waiting for us half a day. Not a word about our slow sailing, mind; leave that to me. They are framptious enough. Have everything trim, and all hands ready. When they range within hail, sing out for both to come to me.”

It was pretty to see the three cutters meet, all handled as smartly as possible; for the Flamborough man had cast off his clog, and the Swordfish again was as nimble as need be. Lieutenants Bowler and Donovan were soon in the cabin of their senior officer, and durst not question him very strictly as to his breach of rendezvous, for his manner was short and sharp with them.

“There is plenty of time, if we waste it not in talking,” he said, when they had finished comparing notes. “All these reports we are bound to receive and consider; but I believe none of them. The reason why poor Carroway has made nothing but a mess of it is that he will listen to the country people’s tales. They are all bound together, all tarred with one brush — all stuffed with a heap of lies, to send us wrong; and as for the fishing-boats, and what they see, I have been here long enough already to be sure that their fishing is a sham nine times in ten, and their real business is to help those rogues. Our plan is to listen, and pretend to be misled.”

“True for you, captain,” cried the ardent Donovan. “You ‘bout ship as soon as you can see them out of sight.”

“My own opinion is this,” said Bowler, “that we never shall catch any fellow until we have a large sum of money placed at our disposal. The general feeling is in their favor, and against us entirely. Why is it in their favor? Because they are generally supposed to run great risks, and suffer great hardships. And so they do; but not half so much as we do, who keep the sea in all sorts of weather, while they can choose their own. Also because they outrun the law, which nature makes everybody long to do, and admire the lucky ones who can. But most of all because they are free-handed, and we can be only niggards. They rob the king with impunity, because they pay well for doing it; and he pays badly, or not at all, to defend himself from robbery. If we had a thousand pounds apiece, with orders to spend it on public service, take no receipt, and give no account, I am sure that in three months we could stop all contraband work upon this coast.”

“Upon me sowl and so we could; and it’s meself that would go into the trade, so soon as it was stopped with the thousand pounds.”

“We have no time for talking nonsense;” answered Nettlebones, severely, according to the universal law that the man who has wasted the time of others gets into a flurry about his own. “Your suggestion, Bowler, is a very wise one, and as full as possible of common-sense. You also, Donovan, have shown with great sagacity what might come of it thereafter. But unluckily we have to get on as we can, without sixpence to spare for anybody. We know that the fishermen and people on the coast, and especially the womankind, are all to a man — as our good friend here would say — banded in league against us. Nevertheless, this landing shall not be, at least upon our district. What happens north of Teesmouth is none of our business; and we should have the laugh of the old Scotchman there, if they pay him a visit, as I hope they may; for he cuts many jokes at our expense. But, by the Lord Harry, there shall be no run between the Tees and Yare, this side of Christmas. If there is, we may call ourselves three old women. Shake hands, gentlemen, upon that point; and we will have a glass of grog to it.”

This was friendly, and rejoiced them all; for Nettlebones had been stiff at first. Readily enough they took his orders, which seemed to make it impossible almost for anything large to slip between them, except in case of a heavy fog; and in that case they were to land, and post their outlooks near the likely places.

“We have shed no blood yet, and I hope we never shall,” said the senior officer, pleasantly. “The smugglers of this coast are too wise, and I hope too kind-hearted, for that sort of work. They are not like those desperate scoundrels of Sussex. When these men are nabbed, they give up their venture as soon as it goes beyond cudgel-play, and they never lie in wait for a murderous revenge. In the south I have known a very different race, who would jump on an officer till he died, or lash him to death with their long cart-whips; such fellows as broke open Poole Custom-house, and murdered poor Galley and Cator, and the rest, in a manner that makes human blood run cold. It was some time back; but their sons are just as bad. Smuggling turns them all to devils.”

“My belief is,” said Bowler, who had a gift of looking at things from an outer point of view, “that these fellows never propose to themselves to transgress the law, but to carry it out according to their own interpretation. One of them reasoned with me some time ago, and he talked so well about the Constitution that I was at a loss to answer him.”

“Me jewel, forbear,” shouted Donovan; “a clout on the head is the only answer for them Constitutionals. Niver will it go out of my mind about the time I was last in Cark; shure, thin, and it was holiday-time; and me sister’s wife’s cousin, young Tim O’Brady — Tim says to me, ‘Now, Corkoran, me lad —’”

“Donovan,” Nettlebones suddenly broke in, “we will have that story, which I can see by the cut of your jib is too good to be hurried, when first we come together after business done. The sun will be down in less than half an hour, and by that time we all must be well under way. We are watched from the land, as I need not tell you, and we must not let them spy for nothing. They shall see us all stand out to sea to catch them in the open, as I said in the town-hall of Scarborough yesterday, on purpose. Everybody laughed; but I stuck to it, knowing how far the tale would go. They take it for a crotchet of mine, and will expect it, especially after they have seen us standing out; and their plans will be laid accordingly.”

“The head-piece ye have is beyont me inthirely. And if ye stand out, how will ye lay close inshore?”

“By returning, my good friend, before the morning breaks; each man to his station, lying as close as can be by day, with proper outlooks hidden at the points, but standing along the coast every night, and communicating with sentries. Have nothing to say to any fishing-boats — they are nearly all spies — and that puzzles them. This Robin Hood’s Bay is our centre for the present, unless there comes change of weather. Donovan’s beat is from Whitby to Teesmouth, mine from Whitby to Scarborough, and Bowler’s thence to Flamborough. Carroway goes where he likes, of course, as the manner of the man is. He is a little in the doldrums now, and likely enough to come meddling. From Flamborough to Hornsea is left to him, and quite as much as he can manage. Further south there is no fear; our Yarmouth men will see to that. Now I think that you quite understand. Good-by; we shall nab some of them to a certainty this time; they are trying it on too large a scale.”

“If they runs any goods through me, then just ye may reckon the legs of me four times over.”

“And if they slip in past me,” said Bowler, “without a thick fog, or a storm that drives me off, I will believe more than all the wonders told of Robin Lyth.”

“Oh! concerning that fellow, by-the-bye,” Commander Nettlebones stopped his brother officers as they were making off; “you know what a point poor Carroway has made, even before I was sent down here, of catching the celebrated Robin for himself. He has even let his fellows fire at him once or twice when he was quietly departing, although we are not allowed to shoot except upon strenuous resistance. Cannon we may fire, but no muskets, according to wise ordinance. Luckily, he has not hit him yet; and, upon the whole, we should be glad of it, for the young fellow is a prime sailor, as you know, and would make fine stuff for Nelson. Therefore we must do one thing of two — let Carroway catch him, and get the money to pay for all the breeches and the petticoats we saw; or if we catch him ourselves, say nothing, but draft him right off to the Harpy. You understand me. It is below us to get blood-money upon the man. We are gentlemen, not thief-catchers.”

The Irishman agreed to this at once, but Bowler was not well pleased with it. “Our duty is to give him up,” he said.

“Your duty is to take my orders,” answered Nettlebones, severely. “If there is a fuss about it, lay the blame on me. I know what I am about in what I say. Gentlemen, good-by, and good luck to you.”

After long shivers in teeth of the wind and pendulous labor of rolling, the three cutters joyfully took the word to go. With a creak, and a cant, and a swish of canvas, upon their light heels they flew round, and trembled with the eagerness of leaping on their way. The taper boom dipped toward the running hills of sea, and the jib-foreleech drew a white arc against the darkness of the sky to the bowsprit’s plunge. Then, as each keen cut-water clove with the pressure of the wind upon the beam, and the glistening bends lay over, green hurry of surges streaked with gray began the quick dance along them. Away they went merrily, scattering the brine, and leaving broad tracks upon the closing sea.

Away also went, at a rapid scamper, three men who had watched them from the breast-work of the cliffs — one went northward, another to the south, and the third rode a pony up an inland lane. Swiftly as the cutters flew over the sea, the tidings of their flight took wing ashore, and before the night swallowed up their distant sails, everybody on the land whom it concerned to know, knew as well as their steersmen what course they had laid.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31