Mary Anerley, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXXIV

The Dovecote

With the tiller in his hand, the brave lieutenant meditated sadly. There was plenty of time for thought before quick action would be needed, although the Dovecote was so near that no boat could come out of it unseen. For the pinnace was fetching a circuit, so as to escape the eyes of any sentinel, if such there should be at the mouth of the cavern, and to come upon the inlet suddenly. And the two other revenue boats were in her wake.

The wind was slowly veering toward the east, as the Grimsby man had predicted, with no sign of any storm as yet, but rather a prospect of winterly weather, and a breeze to bring the woodcocks in. The gentle rise and fall of waves, or rather, perhaps, of the tidal flow, was checkered and veined with a ripple of the slanting breeze, and twinkled in the moonbeams. For the moon was brightly mounting toward her zenith, and casting bastions of rugged cliff in gloomy largeness on the mirror of the sea. Hugging these as closely as their peril would allow, Carroway ordered silence, and with the sense of coming danger thought:

“Probably I shall kill this man. He will scarcely be taken alive, I fear. He is as brave as myself, or braver; and in his place I would never yield. If he were a Frenchman, it would be all right. But I hate to kill a gallant Englishman. And such a pretty girl, and a good girl too, loves him with all her heart, I know. And that good old couple who depend upon him, and who have had such shocking luck themselves! He has been a bitter plague to me, and often I have longed to strike him down. But to-night — I can not tell why it is — I wish there were some way out of it. God knows that I would give up the money, and give up my thief-catching business too, if the honor of the service let me. But duty drives me; do it I must. And after all, what is life to a man who is young, and has no children? Better over, better done with, before the troubles and the disappointment come, the weariness, and the loss of power, and the sense of growing old, and seeing the little ones hungry. Life is such a fleeting vapor — I smell some man sucking peppermint! The smell of it goes on the wind for a mile. Oh! Cadman again, as usual. Peppermint in the Royal Coast–Guard! Away with it, you ancient beldame!”

Muttering something about his bad tooth, the man flung his lozenge away; and his eyes flashed fire in the moonlight, while the rest grinned a low grin at him. And Adam Andrews, sitting next him, saw him lay hands upon his musketoon.

“Are your firelocks all primed, my lads?” the commander asked, quite as if he had seen him, although he had not been noticing; and the foremost to answer “Ay, ay, sir,” was Cadman.

“Then be sure that you fire not, except at my command. We will take them without shedding blood, if it may be. But happen what will, we must have Lyth.”

With these words, Carroway drew his sword, and laid it on the bench beside him; and the rest (who would rather use steel than powder) felt that their hangers were ready. Few of them wished to strike at all; for vexed as they were with the smugglers for having outwitted them so often, as yet there was no bad blood between them, such as must be quenched with death. And some of them had friends, and even relatives, among the large body of free-traders, and counted it too likely that they might be here.

Meanwhile in the cave there was rare work going on, speedily, cleverly, and with a merry noise. There was only one boat, with a crew of six men, besides Robin Lyth the captain; but the six men made noise enough for twelve, and the echoes made it into twice enough for any twenty-four. The crew were trusty, hardy fellows, who liked their joke, and could work with it; and Robin Lyth knew them too well to attempt any high authority of gagging. The main of their cargo was landed and gone inland, as snugly as need be; and having kept beautifully sober over that, they were taking the liberty of beginning to say, or rather sip, the grace of the fine indulgence due to them.

Pleasant times make pleasant scenes, and everything now was fair and large in this happy cave of freedom. Lights of bright resin were burning, with strong flare and fume, upon shelves of rock; dark water softly went lapping round the sides, having dropped all rude habits at the entrance; and a pulse of quiet rise and fall opened, and spread to the discovery of light, tremulous fronds and fans of kelp. The cavern, expanding and mounting from the long narrow gut of its inlet, shone with staves of snowy crag wherever the scour of the tide ran round; bulged and scooped, or peaked and fissured, and sometimes beautifully sculptured by the pliant tools of water. Above the tide-reach darker hues prevailed, and more jagged outline, tufted here and there with yellow, where the lichen freckles spread. And the vault was framed of mountain fabric, massed with ponderous gray slabs.

All below was limpid water, or at any rate not very muddy, but as bright as need be for the time of year, and a sea which is not tropical. No one may hope to see the bottom through ten feet of water on the Yorkshire coast, toward the end of the month of November; but still it tries to look clear upon occasion; and here in the caves it settles down, after even a week free from churning. And perhaps the fog outside had helped it to look clearer inside; for the larger world has a share of the spirit of contrariety intensified in man.

Be that as it may, the water was too clear for any hope of sinking tubs deeper than Preventive eyes could go; and the very honest fellows who were laboring here had not brought any tubs to sink. All such coarse gear was shipped off inland, as they vigorously expressed it; and what they were concerned with now was the cream and the jewel of their enterprise.

The sea reserved exclusive right of way around the rocky sides, without even a niche for human foot, so far as a stranger could perceive. At the furthermost end of the cave, however, the craggy basin had a lip of flinty pebbles and shelly sand. This was no more than a very narrow shelf, just enough for a bather to plunge from; but it ran across the broad end of the cavern, and from its southern corner went a deep dry fissure mounting out of sight into the body of the cliff. And here the smugglers were merrily at work.

The nose of their boat was run high upon the shingle; two men on board of her were passing out the bales, while the other four received them, and staggered with them up the cranny. Captain Lyth himself was in the stern-sheets, sitting calmly, but ordering everything, and jotting down the numbers. Now and then the gentle wash was lifting the brown timbers, and swelling with a sleepy gush of hushing murmurs out of sight. And now and then the heavy vault was echoing with some sailor’s song.

There was only one more bale to land, and that the most precious of the whole, being all pure lace most closely packed in a water-proof inclosure. Robin Lyth himself was ready to indulge in a careless song. For this, as he had promised Mary, was to be his last illegal act. Henceforth, instead of defrauding the revenue, he would most loyally cheat the public, as every reputable tradesman must. How could any man serve his time more notably, toward shop-keeping, and pave fairer way into the corporation of a grandly corrupt old English town, than by long graduation of free trade? And Robin was yet too young and careless to know that he could not endure dull work. “How pleasant, how comfortable, how secure,” he was saying to himself, “it will be! I shall hardly be able to believe that I ever lived in hardship.”

But the great laws of human nature were not to be balked so. Robin Lyth, the prince of smugglers, and the type of hardihood, was never to wear a grocer’s apron, was never to be “licensed to sell tea, coffee, tobacco, pepper, and snuff.” For while he indulged in this vain dream, and was lifting his last most precious bale, a surge of neither wind nor tide, but of hostile invasion, washed the rocks, and broke beneath his feet.

In a moment all his wits returned, all his plenitude of resource, and unequalled vigor and coolness. With his left hand — for he was as ambidexter as a brave writer of this age requires — he caught up a handspike, and hurled it so truly along the line of torches that only two were left to blink; with his right he flung the last bale upon the shelf; then leaped out after it, and hurried it away. Then he sprang into the boat again, and held an oar in either hand.

“In the name of the king, surrender,” shouted Carroway, standing, tall and grim, in the bow of the pinnace, which he had skillfully driven through the entrance, leaving the other boats outside. “We are three to one, we have muskets, and a cannon. In the name of the king, surrender.”

“In the name of the devil, splash!” cried Robin, suiting the action to the word, striking the water with both broad blades, while his men snatched oars and did the same. A whirl of flashing water filled the cave, as if with a tempest, soaked poor Carroway, and drenched his sword, and deluged the priming of the hostile guns. All was uproar, turmoil, and confusion thrice confounded; no man could tell where he was, and the grappling boats reeled to and fro.

“Club your muskets, and at ’em!” cried the lieutenant, mad with rage, as the gunwale of his boat swung over. “Their blood be upon their own heads; draw your hangers, and at ’em!”

He never spoke another word, but furiously leaping at the smuggler chief, fell back into his own boat, and died, without a syllable, without a groan. The roar of a gun and the smoke of powder mingled with the watery hubbub, and hushed in a moment all the oaths of conflict.

The revenue men drew back and sheathed their cutlasses, and laid down their guns; some looked with terror at one another, and some at their dead commander. His body lay across the heel of the mast, which had been unstepped at his order; and a heavy drip of blood was weltering into a ring upon the floor.

For several moments no one spoke, nor moved, nor listened carefully; but the fall of the poor lieutenant’s death-drops, like the ticking of a clock, went on. Until an old tar, who had seen a sight of battles, crooked his legs across a thwart, and propped up the limp head upon his doubled knee.

“Dead as a door-nail,” he muttered, after laying his ear to the lips, and one hand on the too impetuous heart, “Who takes command? This is a hanging job, I’m thinking.”

There was nobody to take command, not even a petty officer. The command fell to the readiest mind, as it must in such catastrophes. “Jem, you do it,” whispered two or three; and being so elected, he was clear.

“Lay her broadside on to the mouth of the cave. Not a man stirs out without killing me,” old Jem shouted; and to hear a plain voice was sudden relief to most of them. In the wavering dimness they laid the pinnace across the narrow entrance, while the smugglers huddled all together in their boat. “Burn two blue-lights,” cried old Jem; and it was done.

“I’m not going to speechify to any cursed murderers,” the old sailor said, with a sense of authority which made him use mild language; “but take heed of one thing, I’ll blow you all to pieces with this here four-pounder, without you strikes peremptory.”

The brilliance of the blue-lights filled the cavern, throwing out everybody’s attitude and features, especially those of the dead lieutenant. “A fine job you have made of it this time!” said Jem.

They were beaten, they surrendered, they could scarcely even speak to assert their own innocence of such a wicked job. They submitted to be bound, and cast down into their boat, imploring only that it might be there — that they might not be taken to the other boat and laid near the corpse of Carroway.

“Let the white-livered cowards have their way,” the old sailor said, contemptuously. “Put their captain on the top of them. Now which is Robin Lyth?”

The lights were burned out, and the cave was dark again, except when a slant of moonlight came through a fissure upon the southern side. The smugglers muttered something, but they were not heeded.

“Never mind, make her fast, fetch her out, you lubbers. We shall see him well enough when we get outside.”

But in spite of all their certainty, they failed of this. They had only six prisoners, and not one of them was Lyth.

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