Those who only know the river Taw as he goes sweeping, clear and full, past orchards and farmhouses, by woods and parks, and through long green meadows, after he has left Dartmoor, have little idea of the magnificent scene which rewards the perseverance of anyone who has the curiosity to follow him up to his granite cradle between the two loftiest eminences in the West of England.
On the left, Great Cawsand heaves up, down beyond down, a vast sheet of purple heath and golden whin, while on the right the lofty serrated ridge of Yestor starts boldly up, black against the western sky, throwing a long shadow over the wild waste of barren stone at his feet.
Some Scotchmen, perhaps, may smile at my applying the word “magnificent” to heights of only 2,100 feet. Yet I have been among mountains which double Ben Nevis in height, and, with the exception of the Murray Gates in Australia, and a glen in Madeira, whose name I have forgotten, I have never seen among them the equal of some of the northern passes of Dartmoor for gloomy magnificence. For I consider that scenery depends not so much on height as on abruptness.
It is an evil, depressing place. Far as the eye can reach up the glen and to the right it is one horrid waste of grey granite; here and there a streak of yellow grass or a patch of black bog; not a tree nor a shrub within the sky-line. On a hot summer’s day it is wearisome enough for the lonely angler to listen to the river crawling lazily through the rocks that choke his bed, mingled with the clocking of some water-moved boulder, and the chick-chick of the stonechat, or the scream of the golden plover overhead. But on a wild winter’s evening, when day is fast giving place to night, and the mist shrouds the hill, and the wild wind is rushing hoarse through tor and crag, it becomes awful and terrible in the extreme.
On just such a night as that, at that time when it becomes evident that the little light we have had all day is about to leave us, a lonely watcher was standing by the angry swelling river in the most desolate part of the pass, at a place where a vast confusion of formless rocks crosses the stream, torturing it into a hundred boiling pools and hissing cascades.
He stood on the summit of a cairn close to the river, and every now and then, shading his eyes with his hand, he looked eastward through the driving rain, as though expecting some one who came not. But at length, grown tired of watching, he with an oath descended to a sheltered corner among the boulders, where a smouldering peat-fire was giving out more smoke than heat, and, crouching over it, began to fan the embers with his hat.
He was a somewhat short, though powerful man, in age about forty, very dark in complexion, with black whiskers growing half over his chin. His nose was hooked, his eyes were black and piercing, and his lips thin. His face was battered like an old sailor’s, and every careless, unstudied motion of his body was as wild and reckless as could be. There was something about his TOUTE ENSEMBLE, in short, that would have made an Australian policeman swear to him as a convict without the least hesitation.
There were redeeming points in the man’s face, too. There was plenty of determination, for instance, in that lower jaw, and as he bent now over the fire, and his thoughts wandered away to other times and places, the whole appearance of the man seemed to change and become milder and kindlier; yet when some slight noise makes him lift his head and look round, there is the old expression back again, and he looks as reckless and desperate as ever; what he is is more apparent, and the ghost of what he might have been has not wholly departed.
I can picture to myself that man scowling behind the bayonet line at Maida, or rapidly and coolly serving his gun at Trafalgar, helping to win the dominion of all seas, or taking his trick at the helm through arctic iceblocks with Parry, or toiling on with steadfast Sturt, knee-deep in the sand of the middle desert, patiently yet hopelessly scanning the low quivering line of the north-west horizon.
In fifty situations where energy and courage are required, I can conceive that man a useful citizen. Yet here he is on the lone moor, on the winter’s night, a reckless, cursing, thrice convicted man. His very virtues — his impatient energy and undeniable courage — his greatest stumbling-blocks, leading him into crimes which a lazy man or a coward would have shrunk from. Deserted apparently by God and man, he crouched there over the low fire, among his native rocks, and meditated fresh villanies.
He had been transported at eighteen for something, I know not what, which earned transportation in those days, and since then his naturally violent temper, aggravated instead of being broken by penal discipline, had earned him three fresh convictions in the colony. From the last of these sentences he had escaped, with a cunning and address which had baffled the vigilance of the Sydney police, good as they were, and had arrived home, two years before this time, after twentyone years’ absence, at his native village in the moor.
None there knew him, or even guessed who he was. His brother, a small farmer, who would have taken him to his heart had he recognised him, always regarded him as a suspicious stranger; and what cut him deeper still, his mother, his old, half-blind, palsied mother, whose memory he had in some sort cherished through the horrors of the hulk, the convict-ship, the chaingang, and the bush, knew him not. Only once, when he was speaking in her presence, she said abruptly —
“The voice of him is like the voice of my boy that was took away. But he was smooth-faced, like a girl, and ye’re a dark, wrinkled man. ‘Sides, he died years agone, over the water.”
But the old lady grew thoughtful and silent from that day, and three weeks after she was carried up to her grave —
“By the little grey church on the windy hill.”
At the funeral, William Lee, the man whom I have been describing, pushed quietly through the little crowd, and as they threw the first earth on the coffin, stood looking over the shoulder of his brother, who was unconscious of his existence.
Like many men who have been much in great solitudes, and have gone days and weeks sometimes without meeting a fellow-creature, he had acquired the habit of thinking aloud, and if anyone had been listening they would have heard much such a soliloquy as the following, expletives omitted, or rather softened:—
“A brutal cold country this, for a man to camp out in. Never a buck-log to his fire, no, nor a stick thicker than your finger for seven mile round; and if there was, you’d get a month for cutting it. If the young’un milks free this time, I’ll be off to the bay again, I know. But will he? By George, he shall though. The young snob, I know he daren’t but come, and yet it’s my belief he’s late just to keep me soaking out in the rain. Whew! it’s cold enough to freeze the tail of a tin possum; and this infernal rubbish won’t burn, at least not to warm a man. If it wasn’t for the whisky I should be dead. There’s a rush of wind; I am glad for one thing there is no dead timber overhead. He’ll be drinking at all the places coming along to get his courage up to bounce me, but there ain’t a public-house on the road six miles from this, so the drink will have pretty much died out of him by the time he gets to me, and if I can get him to sit in this rain, and smoke ‘backer for five minutes, he won’t be particular owdacious. I’ll hide the grog, too, between the stones. He’ll be asking for a drink the minute he comes. I hope Dick is ready; he is pretty sure to be. He’s a good little chap, that Dick; he has stuck to me well these five years. I wouldn’t like to trust him with another man’s horse, though. But this other one is no good; he’s got all the inclination to go the whole hog, and none of the pluck necessary. If he ever is lagged, he will be a worse one than ever I was, or Dick either. There he is, for a hundred pounds.”
A faint “halloo!” sounded above the war of the weather; and Lee, putting his hand to his mouth, replied with that strange cry, so well known to all Australians —“Coee.”
A man was now heard approaching through the darkness, now splashing deep into some treacherous moss hole with a loud curse, now blundering among loose-lying blocks of stone. Lee waited till he was quite close, and then seizing a bunch of gorse lighted it at his fire and held it aloft; the bright blaze fell full upon the face and features of George Hawker.
“A cursed place and a cursed time,” he began, “for an appointment. If you had wanted to murder me, I could have understood it. But I am pretty safe, I think; your interests don’t lie that way.”
“Well, well, you see,” returned Lee, “I don’t want any meetings on the cross up at my place in the village. The whole house ain’t mine, and we don’t know who may be listening. I am suspected enough already, and it wouldn’t look well for you to be seen at my place. Folks would have begun axing what for.”
“Don’t see it,” said George. “Besides, if you did not want to see me at home, why the devil do you bring me out here in the middle of the moor? We might have met on the hill underneath the village, and when we had done business gone up to the publichouse. D——d if I understand it.”
He acquiesced sulkily to the arrangement, however, because he saw it was no use talking about it, but he was far from comfortable. He would have been still less so had he known that Lee’s shout had brought up a confederate, who was now peering over the rocks, almost touching his shoulder.
“Well,” said Lee, “here we are, so we had better be as comfortable as we can this devil’s night.”
“Got anything to drink?”
“Deuce a swipe of grog have I. But I have got some real Barret’s twist, that never paid duty as I know’d on, so just smoke a pipe before we begin talking, and show you aint vexed.”
“I’d sooner have had a drop of grog, such a night as this.”
“We must do as the Spaniards do, when they can’t get anything,” said Lee; “go without.”
They both lit their pipes, and smoked in silence for a few minutes, till Lee resumed:—
“If the witches weren’t all dead, there would be some of them abroad to-night; hear that?”
“Only a whimbrel, isn’t it?” said George.
“That’s something worse than a whimbrel, I’m thinking,” said the other. “There’s some folks don’t believe in witches and the like,” he continued; “but a man that’s seen a naked old hag of a gin ride away on a myall-bough, knows better.”
“Lord!” said George. “I shouldn’t have thought you’d have believed in the like of that — but I do — that old devil’s dam, dame Parker, that lives alone up in Hatherleigh Wood, got gibbering some infernal nonsense at me the other day, for shooting her black cat. I made the cross in the road though, so I suppose it won’t come to anything.”
“Perhaps not,” said Lee; “but I’d sooner kill a man than a black cat.”
Another pause. The tobacco, so much stronger than any George had been accustomed to, combined with the cold, made him feel nervous and miserable.
“When I was a boy,” resumed Lee, “there were two young brothers made it up to rob the ‘squire’s house, down at Gidleigh. They separated in the garden after they cracked the crib, agreeing to meet here in this very place, and share the swag, for they had got nigh seventy pound. They met and quarrelled over the sharing up; and the elder one drew out a pistol, and shot the younger dead. The poor boy was sitting much where you are sitting now, and that long tuft of grass grew up from his blood.”
“I believe that’s all a lie,” said George; “you want to drive me into the horrors with your humbugging tales.”
Lee, seeing that he had gone far enough, if not too far, proposed, somewhat sulkily, that they should begin to talk about what brought them there, and not sit crouching in the wet all night.
“Well,” said George, “it’s you to begin. What made you send for me to this infernal place?”
“I want money,” said Lee.
“Then you’d better axe about and get some,” said George; “you’ll get none from me. I am surprised that a man with your knowledge of the world should have sent me such a letter as you did yesterday, I am indeed — What the devil’s that?”
He started on his feet. A blaze of sudden light filled the nook where they were sitting, and made it as bright as day, and a voice shouted out,
“Ha, ha, ha! my secret coves, what’s going on here? something quiet and sly, eh? something worth a fifty-pound note, eh? Don’t you want an arbitrator, eh? Here’s one, ready made.”
“You’re playing a dangerous game, my flash man, whoever you are,” said Lee, rising savagely. “I’ve shot a man down for less than that. So you’ve been stagging this gentleman and me, and listening, have you? For just half a halfpenny,” he added, striding towards him, and drawing out a pistol, “you shouldn’t go home this night.”
“Don’t you be a fool, Bill Lee;” said the new comer. “I saw the light and made towards it, and as I come up I heard some mention made of money Now then, if my company is disagreeable, why I’ll go, and no harm done.”
“What! it’s you, is it?” said Lee; “well, now you’ve come, you may stop and hear what it’s all about. I don’t care, you are not very squeamish, or at least, usedn’t to be.”
George saw that the arrival of this man was preconcerted, and cursed Lee bitterly in his heart, but he sat still, and thought how he could out-manoeuvre them.
“Now,” said Lee, “I ain’t altogether sorry that you have come, for I want to tell you a bit of a yarn, and ask your advice about my behaviour. This is about the state of the case. A young gentleman, a great friend of mine, was not very many years ago, pretty much given up to fast living, cock-fighting, horse-racing, and many other little matters which all young fellows worth anything are pretty sure to indulge in, and which are very agreeable for the time, but which cost money, and are apt to bring a man into low society. When I tell you that he and I first met in Exeter, as principals in crossing a fight, you may be sure that these pursuits HAD brought the young gentleman into VERY low company indeed. In fact, he was over head and ears in debt, raising money in every way he could, hook or crook, square or cross, to satisfy certain creditors, who were becoming nasty impatient and vexatious. I thought something might be made of this young gentleman, so finding there was no pride about him, I cultivated his acquaintance, examined his affairs, and put him up to the neatest little fakement in the world, just showed him how to raise two hundred pounds, and clear himself with everybody, just by signing his father’s name, thereby saving the old gent the trouble of writing it (he is very infirm, is dad), and anticipating by a few years what must be his own at last. Not to mention paying off a lot of poor publicans and horse-dealers, who could not afford to wait for their money. Blowed if I don’t think it the most honest action he ever did in his life. Well, he committed the — wrote the name I mean — and stood two ten-pound notes for the information, quite handsome. But now this same young gent is going to marry a young lady with five thousand pounds in her own right, and she nearly of age. Her father, I understand, is worth another five thousand, and very old; so that what he’ll get ultimately if he marries into that family, counting his own expectations, won’t be much less I should say than twenty thousand pounds. Now I mean to say, under these circumstances, I should be neglecting my own interests most culpably, if I didn’t demand from him the trifling sum of three hundred pounds for holding my tongue.”
“Why, curse you,” broke in Hawker, “you said two hundred yesterday.”
“Exactly so,” said Lee, “but that WAS yesterday. To-morrow, if the job ain’t settled, it’ll be four, and the day after five. It’s no use, George Hawker,” he continued; “you are treed, and you can’t help yourself. If I give information you swing, and you know it; but I’d rather have the money than see the man hanged. But mind,” said he, with a snarl, “if I catch you playing false, by the Lord, I’ll hang you for love.”
For an instant the wretched George cast a hurried glance around, as if considering what wild chance there was of mastering his two enemies, but that glance showed him that it was hopeless, for they both stood close together, each holding in his hand a cocked pistol, so in despair he dropped his eyes on the fire once more, while Lee chuckled inwardly at his wise foresight in bringing an accomplice.
“By Jove,” he said to himself, “it’s lucky Dick’s here. If I had been alone, he’d have been at me then like a tiger. It would have been only man to man, but he would have been as good as me; he’d have fought like a rat in a corner.”
George sat looking into the embers for a full half minute, while the others waited for his answer, determined that he should speak first. At length he raised his head, and said hoarsely, looking at neither of them —
“And where am I to get three hundred pounds?”
“A simple question very easily answered,” said Lee. “Do what you did before, with half the difficulty. You manage nearly everything now your father is getting blind, so you need hardly take the trouble of altering the figures in the banker’s book, and some slight hint about taking a new farm would naturally account for the old man’s drawing out four or five hundred. The thing’s easier than ever.”
“Take my advice, young man,” said Dick, “and take the shortest cut out of the wood. You see my friend here, William, has got tired of these parts, as being, you see, hardly free and easy enough for him, and he wants to get back to a part of the world he was rather anxious to leave a few years ago. If he likes to take me back with him, why he can. I rather fancy the notion myself. Give him the money, and in three months we’ll both be fourteen thousand odd miles off. Meanwhile, you marry the young lady, and die in your bed, an honest gentleman, at eighty-four, instead of being walked out some cold morning to a gallows at twenty-two.”
“Needs must where the devil drives,” replied George. “You shall have the money this day week. And now let me go, for I am nearly froze dead.”
“That’s the talk,” said Lee; “I knew you would be reasonable. If it hadn’t been for my necessities, I am sure I never would have bothered you. Well, good night.”
George rose and departed eastward, towards the rising moon, while Lee and his companion struck due west across the moor. The rain had ceased, and the sky was clear, so that there was not much difficulty in picking their way through the stones and moss-hags. Suddenly Lee stopped, and said to his comrade, with an oath —
“Dick, my boy, I didn’t half like the way that dog left us.”
“Nor I either,” replied the other. “He has got some new move in his head, you may depend on it. He’ll give you the slip if he can.”
“Let him try it,” said Lee; “oh, only just let him try it.”
And then the pair of worthies walked home.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10