Old Fires and Profitable Ghosts , by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

The Singular Adventure of a small Free-trader

[The events which are to be narrated happened in the spring of 1803, and just before the rupture of the Peace of Amiens between our country and France; but were related to my grandfather in 1841 by one Yann, or Jean, Riel, a Breton “merchant,” alias smuggler — whether or not a descendant of the famous Herve of that name, I do not know. He chanced to fall ill while visiting some friends in the small Cornish fishing-town, of which my grandfather was the only doctor; and this is one of a number of adventures recounted by him during his convalescence. I take it from my grandfather’s MSS., but am not able, at this distance of time, to learn how closely it follows the actual words of the narrator.

Smuggling in 1841 was scotched, but certainly not extinct, and the visit of M. Riel to his old customers was, as likely as not, connected with business. — Q.]

Item, of the Cognac 25 degrees above proof, according to sample in the little green flask, 144 ankers at 4 gallons per anker, at 5s. 6d. per gallon, the said ankers to be ready slung for horse-carriage.”

“Now may the mischief fly away with these English!” cried my father, to whom my mother was reading the letter aloud. “It costs a man a working day, with their gallons and sixpences, to find out of how much they mean to rob him at the end of it.”

Item, 2 ankers of colouring stuff at 4 gallons per anker, price as usual. The place to be as before, under Rope Hauen, east side of Blackhead, unless warned: and a straight run. Come close in, any wind but easterly, and can load up horses alongside. March 24th or 25th will be best, night tides suiting, and no moon. Horses will be there: two fenced lights, pilchard-store and beach, showing S 1/4 E to E S E. Get them in line. Same pay for freighting, and crew 17l. per man, being a straight run,

“And little enough,” was my father’s comment.

Item, 15 little wooden dolls, jointed at the knees and elbows, the same as tante Yvonne used to sell for two sols at Saint Pol de Leon —.”

“‘Fifteen little wooden dolls’! ‘Fifteen little woo —’.” My father dropped into his chair, and sat speechless, opening and shutting his mouth like a fish.

“It is here in black and white,” said my mother. I found the letter, years after, in her kist. It was written, as were all the letters we received from this Cornish venturer, in a woman’s hand, small and delicate, with upstrokes like spider’s thread; written in French, too, quite easy and careless. My mother held it close to the window. “‘Fifteen little wooden dolls,’” she repeated, “‘jointed at the knees and elbows.’”

“Well, I’ve gone to sea with all sorts, from Admiral Brueys upwards; but fifteen little wooden dolls — jointed — at — the — knees!”

“I know the sort,” I put in from the hearth, where my mother had set me to watch the bouillon. “You can get as many as you like in the very next street, and at two sols apiece. I will look to that part of the cargo.”

“You, for example? . . .”

“Yes, I; since you promised to take me on the very next voyage after I was twelve.”

“But that’s impossible. This is a straight run, as they call it, and not a mere matter of sinking the crop.”

“And next time,” I muttered bitterly, “we shall be at war with England again, and then it will be the danger of privateers — always one excuse or another!”

My mother sighed as she looked out of window towards the Isle de Batz. I had been coaxing her half the morning, and she had promised me to say nothing.

Well, the result was that I went. My father’s lugger carried twelve hands — I counted myself, of course; and indeed my father did the same when it came to charging for the crew. Still, twelve was not an out-of-the-way number, since in these chasse-marees one must lower and rehoist the big sails at every fresh tack. As it happened, however, we had a fair wind right across from Roscoff, and made a good landfall of the Dodman at four in the afternoon, just twenty hours after starting. This was a trifle too early for us; so we dowsed sail, to escape notice, and waited for nightfall. As soon as it grew dark, we lowered the two tub-boats we carried — one on davits and the other inboard — and loaded them up and started to pull for shore, leaving two men behind on the lugger. My father steered the first boat, and I the other, keeping close in his wake — and a proud night that was for me! We had three good miles between us and shore; but the boats were mere shells and pulled light even with the tubs in them. So the men took it easy. I reckon that it was well past midnight before we saw the two lights which the letter had promised.

After this everything went easily. The beach at Rope Hauen is steep-to; and with the light breeze there was hardly a ripple on it. On a rising tide we ran the boats in straight upon the shingle; and in less than a minute the kegs were being hove out. By the light of the lantern on the beach I could see the shifting faces of the crowd, and the troop of horses standing behind, quite quiet, shoulder to shoulder, shaved from forelock to tail, all smooth and shining with grease. I had heard of these Cornish horses, and how closely they were clipped; but these beat all I had ever imagined. I could see no hair on them; and I saw them quite close; for in the hurry each horse, as his turn came, was run out alongside the boat; the man who led him standing knee-deep until the kegs were slung across by the single girth. As soon as this was done, a slap on the rump sent the beast shoreward, and the man scrambled out after him. There was scarcely any talk, and no noise except that caused by the wading of men and horses.

Now all this time I carried my parcel of little dolls in a satchel slung at my shoulder, and was wondering to whom I ought to deliver it. I knew a word or two of English, picked up from the smugglers that used to be common as skate at Roscoff in those days; so I made shift to ask one of the men alongside where the freighter might be. As well as I could make out, he said that the freighter was not on the beach; but he pointed to a tall man standing beside the lantern and gave me to understand that this was the “deputy.” So I slipped over the gunwale and waded ashore towards him.

As I came near, the man moved out of the light, and strolled away into the darkness to the left, I don’t know upon what errand. I ran after him, as I thought, but missed him. I stood still to listen. This side of the track was quite deserted, but the noise of the runners behind me, though not loud, was enough to confuse the sound of his footsteps. After a moment, though, I heard a slight scraping of shingle, and ran forward again — plump against the warm body of some living thing.

It was a black mare, standing here close under the cliff, with the kegs ready strapped upon her. I saw the dark forms of other horses behind, and while I patted the mare’s shoulder, and she turned her head to sniff and nuzzle me, another horse came up laden from the water and joined the troop behind, no man leading or following. The queer thing about my mare, though, was that her coat had no grease on it like the others, but was close and smooth as satin, and her mane as long as a colt’s. She seemed so friendly that I, who had never sat astride a horse in my life, took a sudden desire to try what it felt like. So I walked round, and finding a low rock on the other side, I mounted it and laid my hands on her mane.

On this she backed a foot or two and seemed uneasy, then turned her muzzle and sniffed at my leg. “I suppose,” thought I, “a Cornish horse won’t understand my language.” But I whispered to her to be quiet, and quiet she was at once. I found that the tubs, being slung high, made quite a little cradle between them. “Just a moment,” I told myself, “and then I’ll slip off and run back to the boat”; and twining the fingers of my left hand in her mane, I took a spring and landed my small person prone between the two kegs, with no more damage than a barked shin-bone.

And at that very instant I heard a shrill whistle and many sudden cries of alarm; and a noise of shouting and galloping across the beach; and was raising my head to look when the mare rose too, upon her hind legs, and with the fling of her neck caught me a blow on the nose that made me see stars. And then long jets of fire seemed to mingle with the stars, and I heard the pop-pop of pistol-shots and more shouting.

But before this we were off and away — I still flat on the mare’s back, with a hand in her mane and my knees wedged against the tubs; away and galloping for the head of the beach, with the whole troop of laden horses pounding at our heels. I could see nothing but the loom of the cliff ahead and the white shingle underfoot; and I thought of nothing but to hold on — and well it was that I did, for else the horses behind had certainly trampled me flat in the darkness. But all the while I heard shouting, louder and louder, and now came more pounding of hoofs alongside, or a little ahead, and a tall man on horseback sprang out of the night, and, cannoning against the mare’s shoulder, reached out a hand to catch her by rein, mane, or bridle. I should say that we raced in this way, side by side, for ten seconds or so. I could see the gilt buttons twinkling on his sleeve as he reached past my nose, and finding neither bit nor rein, laid his hand at length right on top of mine. I believe that, till then, the riding-officer — it was he, for the next time I saw a riding-officer I recognised the buttons — had no guess of anyone’s being on the mare’s back. But instead of the oath that I expected, he gave a shrill scream, and his arm dropped, for the mare had turned and caught it in her teeth, just above the elbow. The next moment she picked up her stride again, and forged past him. As he dropped back, a bullet or two sang over us, and one went ping! into the right-hand keg. But I had no time to be afraid, for the mare’s neck rose again and caught me another sad knock on the nose as she heaved herself up the cliff-track, and now I had work to grip the edge of the keg, and twine my left hand tighter in her mane to prevent myself slipping back over her tail, and on to those deadly hoofs. Up we went, the loose stones flying behind us into the bushes right and left. Farther behind I heard the scrambling of many hoofs, but whether of the tub-carriers or the troopers’ horses it was not for me to guess. The mare knew, however, for as the slope grew easier, she whinnied and slackened her pace to give them time to come up. This also gave me a chance to shift my seat a bit, for the edges of the kegs were nipping my calves cruelly. The beach below us was like the wicked place in a priest’s sermon — black as pitch and full of cursing — and by this time all alive with lanterns; but they showed us nothing. There was no more firing, though, and I saw no lights out at sea, so I hoped my father had managed to push off and make for the lugger.

We were now on a grassy down at the head of the cliff, and my mare, after starting again at a canter which rattled me abominably, passed into an easy gallop. I declare that except for my fears — and now, as the chill of the wind bit me, I began to be horribly afraid — it was like swinging in a hammock to the pitch of a weatherly ship. I was not in dread of falling, either; for her heels fell so lightly on the turf that they persuaded all fear of broken bones out of the thought of falling; but I was in desperate dread of those thundering tub-carriers just behind, who seemed to come down like a black racing wave right on top of us, and to miss us again and again by a foot or less. The weight of them on this wide, empty down — that was the nightmare we seemed to be running from.

We passed through an open gate, then another; then out upon hard road for half-a-mile or so (but I can tell you nothing of the actual distance or the pace), and then through a third gate. All the gates stood open; had been left so on purpose, of course; and the grey granite side-posts were my only mile-stones throughout the journey. Every mortal thing was strange as mortal thing could be. Here I was, in a foreign land I had never seen in my life, and could not see now; on horseback for the first time in my life; and going the dickens knew whither, at the dickens knew what pace; in much certain and more possible danger; alone, and without speech to explain myself when — as I supposed must happen sooner or later — my runaway fate should shoot me among human folk. And overhead — this seemed the oddest thing of all — shone the very same stars that were used to look in at my bedroom window over Roscoff quay. My mother had told me once that these were millions of miles away, and that people lived in them; and it came into my head as a monstrous queer thing that these people should be keeping me in view, and my own folk so far away and lost to me.

But the stars, too, began to grow faint; and little by little the fields and country took shape around us — plough, and grass, and plough again; then hard road, and a steep dip into a valley where branches met over the lane and scratched the back of my head as I ducked it; then a moorland rising straight in front, and rounded hills with the daylight on them. And as I saw this, we were dashing over a granite bridge and through a whitewashed street, our hoofs drumming the villagers up from their beds. Faces looked out of windows and were gone, like scraps of a dream. But just beyond the village we passed an old labourer trudging to his work, and he jumped into the hedge and grinned as we went by.

We were climbing the moor now, at a lopping gallop that set the packet of dolls bob-bobbing on my back to a sort of tune. The horses behind were nearly spent, and the sweat had worked their soaped hides into a complete lather. But the mare generalled them all the while; and striking on a cart-track beyond the second rise of the moor, slowed down to a walk, wheeled round and scanned the troop. As they struggled up she whinnied loudly. A whistle answered her far down the lane, and at the sound of it she was off again like a bird.

The track led down into a hollow, some acres broad, like a saucer scooped between two slopes of the moor; and in the middle of it — just low enough to be hidden from the valley beneath — stood a whitewashed farmhouse, with a courtlege in front and green-painted gate; and by this gate three persons watched us as we came — a man and two women.

The man by his dress was plainly a farmer; and catching sight of me, he called out something I could not understand, and turned towards the woman beside him, whom I took to be his wife. But the other woman, who stood some paces away, was a very different person — tall and slight, like a lady; grey-haired, and yet not seeming old; with long white hands and tiny high-heeled shoes, and dressed in black silk, with a lace shawl crossed over her shoulders, and a silver whistle hanging from her neck. She came forward, holding out a handful of sugar, and spoke to the mare, if you’ll believe me, in my very own Breton.

“Good Lilith!” said she. “Ah, what a mess for me to groom! See what a coat! Good Lilith!” Then, as Lilith munched the sugar —“Who are you, little boy? I never saw you before. Explain yourself, kindly, little boy.”

“My name is Yann,” said I; “Yann Riel. I am from Roscoff, and — O how tired, madame!”

“He is Breton! He speaks the Breton!” She clapped her hands, drew me down from my seat, and kissed me on both cheeks.

“Yann, you shall sleep now — this instant. Tell me only how you came — a word or two — that I may repeat to the farmer.”

So I did my best, and told her about the run, and the dragoons on the beach, and how I came on Lilith’s back.

“Wonderful, wonderful! But how came she to allow you?”

“That I know not, madame. But when I spoke to her she was quiet at once.”

“In the Breton — you spoke in the Breton? Yes, yes, that explains —I taught her. Dear Lilith!” She patted the mare’s neck, and broke off to clap her hands again and interpret the tale to the farmer and his wife; and the farmer growled a bit, and then they all began to laugh.

“He says you are a ‘rumgo,’ and you had better be put to bed. But the packet on your back — your night-shirt, I suppose? You have managed it all so complete, Yann!” And she laughed merrily.

“It holds fifteen little wooden dolls,” said I, “jointed at the knees and elbows; and they cost two sols apiece.”

“My little dolls — you clever boy! O you clever little boy!” She kissed me twice again. “Come, and you shall sleep, and then, when you wake, you shall see.”

She took me by the hand and hurried me into the house, and upstairs to a great bedroom with a large oaken four-post bed in it, and a narrow wooden bed beside, and a fire lit, and an arm-chair by the hearth. The four-post bed had curtains of green damask, all closely pinned around it, and a green valance. But she went to the little bed, which was hung with pink dimity, and pulled the white sheets out of it and replaced them with others from a great wardrobe sunk in the wall. And while I sat in the chair by the fire, munching a crust of bread and feeling half inclined to cry and more than half inclined to sleep, she left me, and returned with a can of hot water and a vast night-shirt of the farmer’s, and bade me good-night.

“Be quick and undress, little one.” She turned at the door. “The tubs are all in hiding by this time. Good-night, Yann.”

I believe I slept as soon as my head touched the sweet-smelling pillow; and I must have slept the round of the clock before I opened my eyes, for the room was now bright with candles, and in the arm-chair by the fire sat the Breton lady sewing as if for dear life.

But the wonder of her was that she now wore a short plain dress such as girls wear in the convent schools in Brittany, and her grey hair was tied just like a girl’s. One little foot rested on the brass fender, and the firelight played on its silver shoe-buckle.

I coughed, to let her know that I was awake, and she looked across and nodded.

“Almost ten o’clock, Yann, and time for you to rise and have supper. And after supper — are you sorry? — another journey for you. At midnight you start in the gig with Farmer Ellory, who will drive you to the coast, to a town called Fowey, where some friends of his ‘in the trade’ are starting for Roscoff. In six hours you will be aboard ship again; and in another twenty, perhaps, you will see your mother — and your father too, if he escaped clear away. In little more than a day you will be back in Brittany. But first you must lie quite still, and I will show you something.”

“To be sure I will, madame.”

“You must not call me that. I am the Demoiselle Heloise Keranguin. You know St. Pol de Leon, Yann?”

“Almost as well as my own town, mademoiselle.”

“And the Convent of the Grey Nuns, on the road to Morlaix, a little beyond the town?”

It was on my tongue to tell her that fire and soldiery had wiped it even with the ground, during the “Terror.” But she interrupted me. Setting down her work-basket, which was heaped high with reels and parti-coloured rags of silk, she pushed a small table over to the big bed and loaded it with candlesticks. There were three candles already alight in the room, but she lit others and set them in line — brass candlesticks, plated candlesticks, candlesticks of chinaware — fourteen candlesticks in all, and fresh candles in each. Laying a finger on her lip, she stepped to the big bed and unfastened the corking-pins which held the green curtains together. As she pushed the curtains back I lifted myself on an elbow.

It was into a real theatre that I looked. She had transformed the whole level of the bed into a miniature stage, with buildings of cardboard, cleverly painted, and gardens cut out of silk and velvet and laid down, and rose-trees gummed on little sticks, and a fish-pond and brook of looking-glass, with embroidered flowers stuck along their edges, and along the paths (of real sand) a score of little dolls walking, all dressed in the uniform of the Grey Nuns. I declare it was so real, you could almost hear the fountain playing, with its jet d’eau of transparent beads strung on an invisible wire.

“But how pretty, mademoiselle!” I cried.

She clasped her hands nervously. “But is it like, Yann? It is so long ago that I may have forgotten. Tell me if it is like; or if there is anything wrong. I promise not to be offended.”

“It is exactly like, mademoiselle.”

“See, here is the Mother Superior; and this is Soeur Gabrielle. I have to make the dresses full and stiff, or they wouldn’t stand up. And that, with the blue eyes, is Soeur Hyacinthe. She walks with me — this is I— as she always did. And what do you think? With the fifteen dolls that you have brought I am going to have a real Pardon, and townspeople and fisher people to stand and worship at the altar of the Virgin, there in the corner. I made it of wax, and stamped the face with a seal that Charles gave me. He was to have been my husband when I left the school.”

“Indeed, mademoiselle?”

“Yes, but the soldiers burnt his house. It was but a week after I left the school, and the Chateau Sant–Ervoan lay but a mile from my mother’s house. He fled to us, wounded; and we carried him to the coast — there was a price on his head, and we, too, had to flee — and escaped over to England. He died on this bed, Yann. Look —”

She lifted a candle, and there on the bed’s ledge I read, in gilt lettering, some words I have never forgotten, though it was not until years after that I got a priest to explain them to me. They were “C. DE. R. COMES ET ECSUL. MDCCXCIII.”

While I stared, she set the candle down again and gently drew the curtains round the bed.

“Rise now and dress, dear child, or your supper will be cold and the farmer impatient. You have done me good. Although I have written the farmer’s letters for him, it never seemed to me that I wrote to living people: for all I used to know in Brittany, ten years ago, are dead. For the future I shall write to you.”

She turned at the door as she said this, and that was the last I ever saw of her. For when I passed out of the room, dressed and ready for my journey, it was quite dark on the landing, where she met and kissed me. Then she slipped a little packet into my hand.

“For the dolls,” she said.

In the kitchen I slipped it out of my pocket and examined it under the table’s edge. It was a little silver crucifix, and I have kept it to this day.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:15