Micah Clarke, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter 23

Of the Snare on the Weston Road

Just after sunrise I was awoke by one of the Mayor’s servants, who brought word that the Honourable Master Wade was awaiting me downstairs. Having dressed and descended, I found him seated by the table in the sitting-room with papers and wafer-box, sealing up the missive which I was to carry. He was a small, worn, grey-faced man, very erect in his bearing and sudden in his speech, with more of the soldier than of the lawyer in his appearance.

‘So,’ said he, pressing his seal above the fastening of the string, ‘I see that your horse is ready for you outside. You had best make your way round by Nether Stowey and the Bristol Channel, for we have heard that the enemy’s horse guard the roads on the far side of Wells. Here is your packet.’

I bowed and placed it in the inside of my tunic.

‘It is a written order as suggested in the council. The Duke’s reply may be written, or it may be by word of mouth. In either case guard it well. This packet contains also a copy of the depositions of the clergyman at The Hague, and of the other witnesses who saw Charles of England marry Lucy Walters, the mother of his Majesty. Your mission is one of such importance that the whole success of our enterprise may turn upon it. See that you serve the paper upon Beaufort in person, and not through any intermediary, or it might not stand in a court of law.’

I promised to do so if possible.

‘I should advise you also,’ he continued, ‘to carry sword and pistol as a protection against the chance dangers of the road, but to discard your head-piece and steel-front as giving you too warlike an aspect for a peaceful messenger.’

‘I had already come to that resolve,’ said I.

‘There is nothing more to be said, Captain,’ said the lawyer, giving me his hand. ‘May all good fortune go with you. Keep a still tongue and a quick ear. Watch keenly how all things go. Mark whose face is gloomy and whose content. The Duke may be at Bristol, but you had best make for his seat at Badminton. Our sign of the day is Tewkesbury.’

Thanking my instructor for his advice I went out and mounted Covenant, who pawed and champed at his bit in his delight at getting started once more. Few of the townsmen were stirring, though here and there a night-bonneted head stared out at me through a casement. I took the precaution of walking the horse very quietly until we were some distance from the house, for I had told Reuben nothing of my intended journey, and I was convinced that if he knew of it neither discipline, nor even his new ties of love, would prevent him from coming with me. Covenant’s iron-shod feet rang sharply, in spite of my care, upon the cobblestones, but looking back I saw that the blinds of my faithful friend’s room were undrawn, and that all seemed quiet in the house. I shook my bridle, therefore, and rode at a brisk trot through the silent streets, which were still strewn with faded flowers and gay with streamers. At the north gate a guard of half a company was stationed, who let me pass upon hearing the word. Once beyond the old walls I found myself out on the country side, with my face to the north and a clear road in front of me.

It was a blithesome morning. The sun was rising over the distant hills, and heaven and earth were ruddy and golden. The trees in the wayside orchards were full of swarms of birds, who chattered and sang until the air was full of their piping. There was lightsomeness and gladness in every breath. The wistful-eyed red Somerset kine stood along by the hedgerows, casting great shadows down the fields and gazing at me as I passed. Farm horses leaned over wooden gates, and snorted a word of greeting to their glossy-coated brother. A great herd of snowy-fleeced sheep streamed towards us over the hillside and frisked and gambolled in the sunshine. All was innocent life, from the lark which sang on high to the little shrew-mouse which ran amongst the ripening corn, or the martin which dashed away at the sound of my approach. All alive and all innocent. What are we to think, my dear children, when we see the beasts of the field full of kindness and virtue and gratitude? Where is this superiority of which we talk?

From the high ground to the north I looked back upon the sleeping town, with the broad edging of tents and waggons, which showed how suddenly its population had outgrown it. The Royal Standard still fluttered from the tower of St. Mary Magdalene, while close by its beautiful brother-turret of St. James bore aloft the blue flag of Monmouth. As I gazed the quick petulant roll of a drum rose up on the still morning air, with the clear ringing call of the bugles summoning the troops from their slumbers. Beyond the town, and on either side of it, stretched a glorious view of the Somersetshire downs, rolling away to the distant sea, with town and hamlet, castle turret and church tower, wooded coombe and stretch of grain-land — as fair a scene as the eye could wish to rest upon. As I wheeled my horse and sped upon my way I felt, my dears, that this was a land worth fighting for, and that a man’s life was a small thing if he could but aid, in however trifling a degree, in working out its freedom and its happiness. At a little village over the hill I fell in with an outpost of horse, the commander of which rode some distance with me, and set me on my road to Nether Stowey. It seemed strange to my Hampshire eyes to note that the earth is all red in these parts — very different to the chalk and gravel of Havant. The cows, too, are mostly red. The cottages are built neither of brick nor of wood, but of some form of plaster, which they call cob, which is strong and smooth so long as no water comes near it. They shelter the walls from the rain, therefore, by great overhanging thatches. There is scarcely a steeple in the whole country-side, which also seems strange to a man from any other part of England. Every church hath a square tower, with pinnacles upon the top, and they are mostly very large, with fine peals of bells.

My course ran along by the foot of the beautiful Quantock Hills, where heavy-wooded coombes are scattered over the broad heathery downs, deep with bracken and whortle-bushes. On either side of the track steep winding glens sloped downwards, lined with yellow gorse, which blazed out from the deep-red soil like a flame from embers. Peat-coloured streams splashed down these valleys and over the road, through which Covenant ploughed fetlock deep, and shied to see the broad-backed trout darting from between his fore feet.

All day I rode through this beautiful country, meeting few folk, for I kept away from the main roads. A few shepherds and farmers, a long-legged clergyman, a packman with his mule, and a horseman with a great bag, whom I took to be a buyer of hair, are all that I can recall. A black jack of ale and the heel of a loaf at a wayside inn were all my refreshments. Near Combwich, Covenant cast a shoe, and two hours were wasted before I found a smithy in the town and had the matter set right. It was not until evening that I at last came out upon the banks of the Bristol Channel, at a place called Shurton Bars, where the muddy Parret makes its way into the sea. At this point the channel is so broad that the Welsh mountains can scarcely be distinguished. The shore is flat and black and oozy, flecked over with white patches of sea-birds, but further to the east there rises a line of hills, very wild and rugged, rising in places into steep precipices. These cliffs run out into the sea, and numerous little harbours and bays are formed in their broken surface, which are dry half the day, but can float a good-sized boat at half-tide. The road wound over these bleak and rocky hills, which are sparsely inhabited by a wild race of fishermen, or shepherds, who came to their cabin doors on hearing the clatter of my horse’s hoofs, and shot some rough West-country jest at me as I passed. As the night drew in the country became bleaker and more deserted. An occasional light twinkling in the distance from some lonely hillside cottage was the only sign of the presence of man. The rough track still skirted the sea, and high as it was, the spray from the breakers drifted across it. The salt prinkled on my lips, and the air was filled with the hoarse roar of the surge and the thin piping of curlews, who flitted past in the darkness like white, shadowy, sad-voiced creatures from some other world. The wind blew in short, quick, angry puffs from the westward, and far out on the black waters a single glimmer of light rising and falling, tossing up, and then sinking out of sight, showed how fierce a sea had risen in the channel.

Riding through the gloaming in this strange wild scenery my mind naturally turned towards the past. I thought of my father and my mother, of the old carpenter and of Solomon Sprent. Then I pondered over Decimus Saxon, his many-faced character having in it so much to be admired and so much to be abhorred. Did I like him or no? It was more than I could say. From him I wandered off to my faithful Reuben, and to his love passage with the pretty Puritan, which in turn brought me to Sir Gervas and the wreck of his fortunes. My mind then wandered to the state of the army and the prospects of the rising, which led me to my present mission with its perils and its difficulties. Having turned over all these things in my mind I began to doze upon my horse’s back, overcome by the fatigue of the journey and the drowsy lullaby of the waves. I had just fallen into a dream in which I saw Reuben Lockarby crowned King of England by Mistress Ruth Timewell, while Decimus Saxon endeavoured to shoot him with a bottle of Daffy’s elixir, when in an instant, without warning, I was dashed violently from my horse, and left lying half-conscious on the stony track.

So stunned and shaken was I by the sudden fall, that though I had a dim knowledge of shadowy figures bending over me, and of hoarse laughter sounding in my ears, I could not tell for a few minutes where I was nor what had befallen me. When at last I did make an attempt to recover my feet I found that a loop of rope had been slipped round my arms and my legs so as to secure them. With a hard struggle I got one hand free, and dashed it in the face of one of the men who were holding me down; but the whole gang of a dozen or more set upon me at once, and while some thumped and kicked at me, others tied a fresh cord round my elbows, and deftly fastened it in such a way as to pinion me completely. Finding that in my weak and dazed state all efforts were of no avail, I lay sullen and watchful, taking no heed of the random blows which were still showered upon me. So dark was it that I could neither see the faces of my attackers, nor form any guess as to who they might be, or how they had hurled me from my saddle. The champing and stamping of a horse hard by showed me that Covenant was a prisoner as well as his master.

‘Dutch Pete’s got as much as he can carry,’ said a rough, harsh voice. ‘He lies on the track as limp as a conger.’

‘Ah, poor Pete!’ muttered another. ‘He’ll never deal a card or drain a glass of the right Cognac again.’

‘There you lie, mine goot vriend,’ said the injured man, in weak, quavering tones. ‘And I will prove that you lie if you have a flaschen in your pocket.’

‘If Pete were dead and buried,’ the first speaker said, ‘a word about strong waters would bring him to. Give him a sup from your bottle, Dicon.’

There was a great gurgling and sucking in the darkness, followed by a gasp from the drinker. ‘Gott sei gelobt,’ he exclaimed in a stronger voice, ‘I have seen more stars than ever were made. Had my kopf not been well hooped he would have knocked it in like an ill-staved cask. He shlags like the kick of a horse.’

As he spoke the edge of the moon peeped over a cliff and threw a flood of cold clear light upon the scene. Looking up I saw that a strong rope had been tied across the road from one tree trunk to another about eight feet above the ground. This could not be seen by me, even had I been fully awake, in the dusk; but catching me across the breast as Covenant trotted under it, it had swept me off and dashed me with great force to the ground. Either the fall or the blows which I had received had cut me badly, for I could feel the blood trickling in a warm stream past my ear and down my neck. I made no attempt to move, however, but waited in silence to find out who these men were into whose hands I had fallen. My one fear was lest my letters should be taken away from me, and my mission rendered of no avail. That in this, my first trust, I should be disarmed without a blow and lose the papers which had been confided to me, was a chance which made me flush and tingle with shame at the very thought.

The gang who had seized me were rough-bearded fellows in fur caps and fustian jackets, with buff belts round their waists, from which hung short straight whinyards. Their dark sun-dried faces and their great boots marked them as fishermen or seamen, as might be guessed from their rude sailor speech. A pair knelt on either side with their hands upon my arms, a third stood behind with a cocked pistol pointed at my head, while the others, seven or eight in number, were helping to his feet the man whom I had struck, who was bleeding freely from a cut over the eye.

‘Take the horse up to Daddy Mycroft’s,’ said a stout, black-bearded man, who seemed to be their leader. ‘It is no mere dragooner hack,[Note I. Appendix] but a comely, full-blooded brute, which will fetch sixty pieces at the least. Your share of that, Peter, will buy salve and plaster for your cut.’

‘Ha, houndsfoot!’ cried the Dutchman, shaking his fist at me. ‘You would strike Peter, would you? You would draw Peter’s blood, would you? Tausend Teufel, man! if you and I were together upon the hillside we should see vich vas the petter man.’

‘Slack your jaw tackle, Pete,’ growled one of his comrades. ‘This fellow is a limb of Satan for sure, and doth follow a calling that none but a mean, snivelling, baseborn son of a gun would take to. Yet I warrant, from the look of him, that he could truss you like a woodcock if he had his great hands upon you. And you would howl for help as you did last Martinmas, when you did mistake Cooper Dick’s wife for a gauger.’

‘Truss me, would he? Todt und Holle!’ cried the other, whom the blow and the brandy had driven to madness. ‘We shall see. Take that, thou deyvil’s spawn, take that!’ He ran at me, and kicked me as hard as he could with his heavy sea-boots.

Some of the gang laughed, but the man who had spoken before gave the Dutchman a shove that sent him whirling. ‘None of that,’ he said sternly. ‘We’ll have British fair-play on British soil, and none of your cursed longshore tricks. I won’t stand by and see an Englishman kicked, d’ye see, by a tub-bellied, round-starned, schnapps-swilling, chicken-hearted son of an Amsterdam lust-vrouw. Hang him, if the skipper likes. That’s all above board, but by thunder, if it’s a fight that you will have, touch that man again.’

‘All right, Dicon,’ said their leader soothingly. ‘We all know that Pete’s not a fighting man, but he’s the best cooper on the coast, eh, Pete? There is not his equal at staving, hooping, and bumping. He’ll take a plank of wood and turn it into a keg while another man would be thinking of it.’

‘Oh, you remember that, Captain Murgatroyd,’ said the Dutchman sulkily. ‘But you see me knocked about and shlagged, and bullied, and called names, and what help have I? So help me, when the Maria is in the Texel next, I’ll take to my old trade, I will, and never set foot on her again.’

‘No fear,’ the Captain answered, laughing. ‘While the Maria brings in five thousand good pieces a year, and can show her heels to any cutter on the coast, there is no fear of greedy Pete losing his share of her. Why, man, at this rate you may have a lust-haus of your own in a year or two, with a trimmed lawn, and the trees all clipped like peacocks, and the flowers in pattern, and a canal by the door, and a great bouncing house-wife just like any Burgomeister. There’s many such a fortune been made out of Mechlin and Cognac.’

‘Aye, and there’s many a broken kopf got over Mechlin and Cognac,’ grumbled my enemy. ‘Donner! There are other things beside lust-houses and flower-beds. There are lee-shores and nor’-westers, beaks and preventives.’

‘And there’s where the smart seaman has the pull over the herring buss, or the skulking coaster that works from Christmas to Christmas with all the danger and none of the little pickings. But enough said! Up with the prisoner, and let us get him safely into the bilboes.’

I was raised to my feet and half carried, half dragged along in the midst of the gang. My horse had already been led away in the opposite direction. Our course lay off the road, down a very rocky and rugged ravine which sloped away towards the sea. There seemed to be no trace of a path, and I could only stumble along over rocks and bushes as best I might in my fettered and crippled state. The blood, however, had dried over my wounds, and the cool sea breeze playing upon my forehead refreshed me, and helped me to take a clearer view of my position.

It was plain from their talk that these men were smugglers. As such, they were not likely to have any great love for the Government, or desire to uphold King James in any way. On the contrary, their goodwill would probably be with Monmouth, for had I not seen the day before a whole regiment of foot in his army, raised from among the coaster folk? On the other hand, their greed might be stronger than their loyalty, and might lead them to hand me over to justice in the hope of reward. On the whole it would be best, I thought, to say nothing of my mission, and to keep my papers secret as long as possible.

But I could not but wonder, as I was dragged along, what had led these men to lie in wait for me as they had done. The road along which I had travelled was a lonely one, and yet a fair number of travellers bound from the West through Weston to Bristol must use it. The gang could not lie in perpetual guard over it. Why had they set a trap on this particular night, then? The smugglers were a lawless and desperate body, but they did not, as a rule, descend to foot-paddery or robbery. As long as no one interfered with them they were seldom the first to break the peace. Then, why had they lain in wait for me, who had never injured them? Could it possibly be that I had been betrayed? I was still turning over these questions in my mind when we all came to a halt, and the Captain blew a shrill note on a whistle which hung round his neck.

The place where we found ourselves was the darkest and most rugged spot in the whole wild gorge. On either side great cliffs shot up, which arched over our heads, with a fringe of ferns and bracken on either lip, so that the dark sky and the few twinkling stars were well-nigh hid. Great black rocks loomed vaguely out in the shadowy light, while in front a high tangle of what seemed to be brushwood barred our road. At a second whistle, however, a glint of light was seen through the branches, and the whole mass was swung to one side as though it moved upon a hinge. Beyond it a dark winding passage opened into the side of the hill, down which we went with our backs bowed, for the rock ceiling was of no great height. On every side of us sounded the throbbing of the sea.

Passing through the entrance, which must have been dug with great labour through the solid rock, we came out into a lofty and roomy cave, lit up by a fire at one end, and by several torches. By their smoky yellow glare I could see that the roof was, at least, fifty feet above us, and was hung by long lime-crystals, which sparkled and gleamed with great brightness. The floor of the cave was formed of fine sand, as soft and velvety as a Wilton carpet, sloping down in a way which showed that the cave must at its mouth open upon the sea, which was confirmed by the booming and splashing of the waves, and by the fresh salt air which filled the whole cavern. No water could be seen, however, as a sharp turn cut off our view of the outlet.

In this rock-girt space, which may have been sixty paces long and thirty across, there were gathered great piles of casks, kegs and cases; muskets, cutlasses, staves, cudgels, and straw were littered about upon the floor. At one end a high wood fire blazed merrily, casting strange shadows along the walls, and sparkling like a thousand diamonds among the crystals on the roof. The smoke was carried away through a great cleft in the rocks. Seated on boxes, or stretched on the sand round the fire, there were seven or eight more of the band, who sprang to their feet and ran eagerly towards us as we entered.

Have ye got him?’ they cried. ‘Did he indeed come? Had he attendants?’

‘He is here, and he is alone,’ the Captain answered. ‘Our hawser fetched him off his horse as neatly as ever a gull was netted by a cragsman. What have ye done in our absence, Silas!’

‘We have the packs ready for carriage,’ said the man addressed, a sturdy, weather-beaten seaman of middle age. ‘The silk and lace are done in these squares covered over with sacking. The one I have marked “yarn” and the other “jute”— a thousand of Mechlin to a hundred of the shiny. They will sling over a mule’s back. Brandy, schnapps, Schiedam, and Hamburg Goldwasser are all set out in due order. The ‘baccy is in the flat cases over by the Black Drop there. A plaguey job we had carrying it all out, but here it is ship-shape at last, and the lugger floats like a skimming dish, with scarce ballast enough to stand up to a five-knot breeze.’

‘Any signs of the Fairy Queen?’ asked the smuggler.

‘None. Long John is down at the water’s edge looking out for her flash-light. This wind should bring her up if she has rounded Combe-Martin Point. There was a sail about ten miles to the east-nor’-east at sundown. She might have been a Bristol schooner, or she might have been a King’s fly-boat.’

‘A King’s crawl-boat,’ said Captain Murgatroyd, with a sneer. ‘We cannot hang the gauger until Venables brings up the Fairy Queen, for after all it was one of his hands that was snackled. Let him do his own dirty work.’

‘Tausend Blitzen!’ cried the ruffian Dutchman, ‘would it not be a kindly grass to Captain Venables to chuck the gauger down the Black Drop ere he come? He may have such another job to do for us some day.’

‘Zounds, man, are you in command or am I?’ said the leader angrily. ‘Bring the prisoner forward to the fire! Now, hark ye, dog of a land-shark; you are as surely a dead man as though you were laid out with the tapers burning. See here’— he lifted a torch, and showed by its red light a great crack in the floor across the far end of the cave —‘you can judge of the Black Drop’s depth!’ he said, raising an empty keg and tossing it over into the yawning gulf. For ten seconds we stood silent before a dull distant clatter told that it had at last reached the bottom.

‘It will carry him half-way to hell before the breath leaves him,’ said one.

‘It’s an easier death than the Devizes gallows!’ cried a second.

‘Nay, he shall have the gallows first!’ a third shouted. ‘It is but his burial that we are arranging.’

‘He hath not opened his mouth since we took him,’ said the man who was called Dicon. ‘Is he a mute, then? Find your tongue, my fine fellow, and let us hear what your name is. It would have been well for you if you had been born dumb, so that you could not have sworn our comrade’s life away.’

‘I have been waiting for a civil question after all this brawling and brabbling,’ said I. ‘My name is Micah Clarke. Now, pray inform me who ye may be, and by what warrant ye stop peaceful travellers upon the public highway?’

‘This is our warrant,’ Murgatroyd answered, touching the hilt of his cutlass. ‘As to who we are, ye know that well enough. Your name is not Clarke, but Westhouse, or Waterhouse, and you are the same cursed exciseman who snackled our poor comrade, Cooper Dick, and swore away his life at Ilchester.’

‘I swear that you are mistaken,’ I replied. ‘I have never in my life been in these parts before.’

‘Fine words! Fine words!’ cried another smuggler. ‘Gauger or no, you must jump for it, since you know the secret of our cave.’

‘Your secret is safe with me,’ I answered. ‘But if ye wish to murder me, I shall meet my fate as a soldier should. I should have chosen to die on the field of battle, rather than to lie at the mercy of such a pack of water-rats in their burrow.’

‘My faith!’ said Murgatroyd. ‘This is too tall talk for a gauger. He bears himself like a soldier, too. It is possible that in snaring the owl we have caught the falcon. Yet we had certain token that he would come this way, and on such another horse.’

‘Call up Long John,’ suggested the Dutchman. ‘I vould not give a plug of Trinidado for the Schelm’s word. Long John was with Cooper Dick when he was taken.’

‘Aye,’ growled the mate Silas. ‘He got a wipe over the arm from the gauger’s whinyard. He’ll know his face, if any will.’

‘Call him, then,’ said Murgatroyd, and presently a long, loose-limbed seaman came up from the mouth of the cave, where he had been on watch. He wore a red kerchief round his forehead, and a blue jerkin, the sleeve of which he slowly rolled up as he came nigh.

‘Where is Gauger Westhouse?’ he cried; ‘he has left his mark on my arm. Rat me, if the scar is healed yet. The sun is on our side of the wall now, gauger. But hullo, mates! Who be this that ye have clapped into irons? This is not our man!’

‘Not our man!’ they cried, with a volley of curses.

‘Why, this fellow would make two of the gauger, and leave enough over to fashion a magistrate’s clerk. Ye may hang him to make sure, but still he’s not the man.’

‘Yes, hang him!’ said Dutch Pete. ‘Sapperment! is our cave to be the talk of all the country? Vere is the pretty Maria to go then, vid her silks and her satins, her kegs and her cases’? Are we to risk our cave for the sake of this fellow? Besides, has he not schlagged my kopf — schlagged your cooper’s kopf — as if he had hit me mit mine own mallet? Is that not vorth a hemp cravat?’

‘Worth a jorum of rumbo,’ cried Dicon. ‘By your leave, Captain, I would say that we are not a gang of padders and michers, but a crew of honest seamen, who harm none but those who harm us. Exciseman Westhouse hath slain Cooper Dick, and it is just that he should die for it; but as to taking this young soldier’s life, I’d as soon think of scuttling the saucy Maria, or of mounting the Jolly Roger at her peak.’

What answer would have been given to this speech I cannot tell, for at that moment a shrill whistle resounded outside the cave, and two smugglers appeared bearing between them the body of a man. It hung so limp that I thought at first that he might be dead, but when they threw him on the sand he moved, and at last sat up like one who is but half awoken from a swoon. He was a square dogged-faced fellow, with a long white scar down his cheek, and a close-fitting blue coat with brass buttons.

‘It’s Gauger Westhouse!’ cried a chorus of voices. ‘Yes, it is Gauger Westhouse,’ said the man calmly, giving his neck a wriggle as though he were in pain. ‘I represent the King’s law, and in its name I arrest ye all, and declare all the contraband goods which I see around me to be confiscate and forfeited, according to the second section of the first clause of the statute upon illegal dealing. If there are any honest men in this company, they will assist me in the execution of my duty.’ He staggered to his feet as he spoke, but his spirit was greater than his strength, and he sank back upon the sand amid a roar of laughter from the rough seamen.

‘We found him lying on the road when we came from Daddy Mycroft’s,’ said one of the new-comers, who were the same men who had led away my horse. ‘He must have passed just after you left, and the rope caught him under the chin and threw him a dozen paces. We saw the revenue button on his coat, so we brought him down. Body o’ me, but he kicked and plunged for all that he was three-quarters stunned.’

‘Have ye slacked the hawser?’ the Captain asked.

‘We cast one end loose and let it hang.’

‘’Tis well. We must keep him for Captain Venables. But now, as to our other prisoner: we must overhaul him and examine his papers, for so many craft are sailing under false colours that we must needs be careful. Hark ye, Mister Soldier! What brings you to these parts, and what king do you serve? for I hear there’s a mutiny broke out, and two skippers claim equal rating in the old British ship.’

‘I am serving under King Monmouth,’ I answered, seeing that the proposed search must end in the finding of my papers.

‘Under King Monmouth!’ cried the smuggler. ‘Nay, friend, that rings somewhat false. The good King hath, I hear, too much need of his friends in the south to let an able soldier go wandering along the sea coast like a Cornish wrecker in a sou’-wester.’

‘I bear despatches,’ said I, ‘from the King’s own hand to Henry Duke of Beaufort, at his castle at Badminton. Ye can find them in my inner pocket, but I pray ye not to break the seal, lest it bring discredit upon my mission.’

‘Sir,’ cried the gauger, raising himself upon his elbow, ‘I do hereby arrest you on the charge of being a traitor, a promoter of treason, a vagrant, and a masterless man within the meaning of the fourth statute of the Act. As an officer of the law I call upon you to submit to my warrant.’

‘Brace up his jaw with your scarf, Jim,’ said Murgatroyd. ‘When Venables comes he will soon find a way to check his gab. Yes,’ he continued, looking at the back of my papers, ‘it is marked, as you say, “From James the Second of England, known lately as the Duke of Monmouth, to Henry Duke of Beaufort, President of Wales, by the hand of Captain Micah Clarke, of Saxon’s regiment of Wiltshire foot.” Cast off the lashings, Dicon. So, Captain, you are a free man once more, and I grieve that we should have unwittingly harmed you. We are good Lutherans to a man, and would rather speed you than hinder you on this mission.’

‘Could we not indeed help him on his way!’ said the mate Silas. ‘For myself, I don’t fear a wet jacket or a tarry hand for the cause, and I doubt not ye are all of my way of thinking. Now with this breeze we could run up to Bristol and drop the Captain by morning, which would save him from being snapped up by any land-sharks on the road.’

‘Aye, aye,’ cried Long John. ‘The King’s horse are out beyond Weston, but he could give them the slip if he had the Maria under him.’

‘Well,’ said Murgatroyd, ‘we could get back by three long tacks. Venables will need a day or so to get his goods ashore. If we are to sail back in company we shall have time on our hands. How would the plan suit you, Captain?’

‘My horse!’ I objected.

‘It need not stop us. I can rig up a handy horse-stall with my spare spars and the grating. The wind has died down. The lugger could be brought to Dead Man’s Edge, and the horse led down to it. Run up to Daddy’s, Jim; and you, Silas, see to the boat. Here is some cold junk and biscuit — seaman’s fare, Captain — and a glass o’ the real Jamaica to wash it down an’ thy stomach be not too dainty for rough living.’

I seated myself on a barrel by the fire, and stretched my limbs, which were cramped and stiffened by their confinement, while one of the seamen bathed the cut on my head with a wet kerchief, and another laid out some food on a case in front of me. The rest of the gang had trooped away to the mouth of the cave to prepare the lugger, save only two or three who stood on guard round the ill-fated gauger. He lay with his back resting against the wall of the cave, and his arms crossed over his breast, glancing round from time to time at the smugglers with menacing eyes, as a staunch old hound might gaze at a pack of wolves who had overmatched him. I was turning it over in my own mind whether aught could be done to help him, when Murgatroyd came over, and dipping a tin pannikin into the open rum tub, drained it to the success of my mission.

‘I shall send Silas Bolitho with you,’ said he, ‘while I bide here to meet Venables, who commands my consort. If there is aught that I can do to repay you for your ill usage —’

‘There is but one thing, Captain,’ I broke in eagerly. ‘It is as much, or more, for your own sake than mine that I ask it. Do not allow this unhappy man to be murdered.’

Murgatroyd’s face flushed with anger. ‘You are a plain speaker, Captain Clarke,’ said he. ‘This is no murder. It is justice. What harm do we here? There is not an old housewife over the whole countryside who does not bless us. Where is she to buy her souchong, or her strong waters, except from us! We charge little, and force our goods on no one. We are peaceful traders. Yet this man and his fellows are ever yelping at our heels, like so many dogfish on a cod bank. We have been harried, and chivied, and shot at until we are driven into such dens as this. A month ago, four of our men were bearing a keg up the hillside to Farmer Black, who hath dealt with us these five years back. Of a sudden, down came half a score of horse, led by this gauger, hacked and slashed with their broad-swords, cut Long John’s arm open, and took Cooper Dick prisoner. Dick was haled to Ilchester Gaol, and hung up after the assizes like a stoat on a gamekeeper’s door. This night we had news that this very gauger was coming this way, little knowing that we should be on the look-out for him. Is it a wonder that we should lay a trap for him, and that, having caught him, we should give him the same justice as he gave our comrades?’

‘He is but a servant, I argued. ‘He hath not made the law. It is his duty to enforce it. It is with the law itself that your quarrel is.’

‘You are right,’ said the smuggler gloomily. ‘It is with Judge Moorcroft that we have our chief account to square. He may pass this road upon his circuit. Heaven send he does! But we shall hang the gauger too. He knows our cave now, and it would be madness to let him go.’

I saw that it was useless to argue longer, so I contented myself with dropping my pocket-knife on the sand within reach of the prisoner, in the hope that it might prove to be of some service to him. His guards were laughing and joking together, and giving little heed to their charge, but the gauger was keen enough, for I saw his hand close over it.

I had walked and smoked for an hour or more, when Silas the mate appeared, and said that the lugger was ready and the horse aboard. Bidding Murgatroyd farewell, I ventured a few more words in favour of the gauger, which were received with a frown and an angry shake of the head. A boat was drawn up on the sand, inside the cave, at the water’s edge. Into this I stepped, as directed, with my sword and pistols, which had been given back to me, while the crew pushed her off and sprang in as she glided into deep water.

I could see by the dim light of the single torch which Murgatroyd held upon the margin, that the roof of the cave sloped sheer down upon us as we sculled slowly out towards the entrance. So low did it come at last that there was only a space of a few feet between it and the water, and we had to bend our heads to avoid the rocks above us. The boatmen gave two strong strokes, and we shot out from under the overhanging ledge, and found ourselves in the open with the stars shining murkily above us, and the moon showing herself dimly and cloudily through a gathering haze. Right in front of us was a dark blur, which, as we pulled towards it, took the outline of a large lugger rising and falling with the pulse of the sea. Her tall thin spars and delicate network of cordage towered above us as we glided under the counter, while the creaking of blocks and rattle of ropes showed that she was all ready to glide off upon her journey. Lightly and daintily she rode upon the waters, like some giant seafowl, spreading one white pinion after another in preparation for her flight. The boatmen ran us alongside and steadied the dinghy while I climbed over the bulwarks on to the deck.

She was a roomy vessel, very broad in the beam, with a graceful curve in her bows, and masts which were taller than any that I had seen on such a boat on the Solent. She was decked over in front, but very deep in the after part, with ropes fixed all round the sides to secure kegs when the hold should be full. In the midst of this after-deck the mariners had built a strong stall, in which my good steed was standing, with a bucket full of oats in front of him. My old friend .shoved his nose against my face as I came aboard, and neighed his pleasure at finding his master once more. We were still exchanging caresses when the grizzled head of Silas Bolitho the mate popped out of the cabin hatchway.

‘We are fairly on our way now, Captain Clarke,’ said he. ‘The breeze has fallen away to nothing, as you can see, and we may be some time in running down to our port. Are you not aweary?’

‘I am a little tired,’ I confessed. ‘My head is throbbing from the crack I got when that hawser of yours dashed me from my saddle.’

‘An hour or two of sleep will make you as fresh as a Mother Carey’s chicken,’ said the smuggler. ‘Your horse is well cared for, and you can leave him without fear. I will set a man to tend him, though, truth to say, the rogues know more about studding-sails and halliards than they do of steeds and their requirements. Yet no harm can come to him, so you had best come down and turn in.’

I descended the steep stairs which led down into the low-roofed cabin of the lugger. On either side a recess in the wall had been fitted up as a couch.

‘This is your bed,’ said he, pointing to one of them. ‘We shall call you if there be aught to report.’ I needed no second invitation, but flinging myself down without undressing, I sank in a few minutes into a dreamless sleep, which neither the gentle motion of the boat nor the clank of feet above my head could break off.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/doyle/arthur_conan/micah/chapter23.html

Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:33