Thro’ the haze of the night, a bright flash now appearing;
“Oh ho!” cries bold Will, “The Philistines bear down;
“Never mind, my tight lads, never think about sheering;
“One broadside we’ll give, should we swim, boys, or drown.”
Ralph Rashleigh had embraced the opportunity of a somewhat dry day, to walk out as far as the ruins of Netley Abbey, a venerable monastic pile in the New Forest, and spent so long a period in musing over the traces of fallen grandeur which it so abundantly presents, that evening was rapidly closing before he became aware of it. When he intended to retrace his steps to the town, he missed his way and became quite bewildered among the ruins and in the forest. At length, however, having hit upon a well-beaten path which seemed to lead in the wished-for direction, he hastily turned into it, and having proceeded for some distance, at length discovered to his dismay that it only led to the banks of Southampton Water, among an incongruous mass of ruins and rocks, which covered the beach in picturesque but not — by him at least — much admired profusion. It was now quite dark, and our wanderer had the not very pleasing prospect before him of passing the night in a solitary ramble along the winding recesses of this famed harbour, when at a short distance he saw a light, towards which, of course, he quickly bent his steps. He had scarcely set out when he recollected that these ruins were said to be the resort of deer stealers, smugglers and other outlaws, to intrude upon whose privacy might be dangerous. This induced him to proceed more cautiously and to reconnoitre the vicinity carefully. But now the light had disappeared and Ralph was puzzling himself to account for this, when it suddenly became again visible. Once more all was dark and again the deceitful gleam was shown.
“Could it be a will o’ the wisp, or other ignis fatuus?” thought our adventurer, half resolved to abandon the chase, when a voice, apparently near, but below him — as it sounded as if emanating from some man at the bottom of a well — hailed loudly.
“Bob! Bob! Is all right?”
Immediately, to Ralph’s great dismay, the light he had pursued so long in vain was now shown close to him in the hands of a rough-looking sailor, whose truculent features bespoke intimate acquaintance with the display of fire-arms he ostentatiously bore in his belt. Half frightened to death at his very look, Rashleigh suddenly sank down among the long grass and rubbish, scarcely daring to breathe for fear of discovery.
The voice from beneath now asked, “Is Curtis in sight?” as it seemed, while the person to whom it belonged was ascending.
The man with the light replied, gruffly enough, “No, he an’t.”
Soon after, both men appeared, to join each other at a very short distance from Ralph, who lay perdu.
One now remarked that “it was d —— d strange”.
The other, assenting, said “it could not be for fear of the hawks, for they were all off the Wight, on the look-out for Jack Simmons, who had sent a note to an old pal of his at Cowes, purposely that it might fall into the hands of the preventive men, in which he stated that he should try it on that night at Blackgang or the Undercliff. Consequently, the cutter from Southampton, another from Portsmouth, and all the spare officers had been sent over to the island.”
It seemed by their further conversation that all this was known to the smugglers through one of the revenue men in their pay, and that the whole affair had been prearranged, so as to leave the coast clear for their operations at the spot where they then were.
A few minutes more elapsed in silence, when one of the men suddenly exclaimed, “By G——! There she is! Now for the signal!”
A long loud whistle was given, and almost instantly the trampling of many horses, accompanied by the clatter of harness, was heard all round Ralph’s hiding-place. Presently the splash of oars indicated the approach of a boat, and a scene of great bustle ensued. This boat and two others were rapidly unladen, their contents being transferred to the backs of the horses and to two or three light waggons. which had also been brought down to the shore.
Suddenly another whistle was heard at some distance. It was repeated, while just around the spot occupied by our hero many exclamations, such as “Look out for the hawks!” “Blast them, they’re coming!” were spoken in low and hurried voices, warning him that the revenue officers were at hand and coming to attack the smugglers, one of whom seemed to act as leader. and now directed that the loaded waggons and horses should he driven off as quickly as possible, while himself and a few others tried to keep back the officers for a while, until the cargo should be in safety. The horses and waggons accordingly went off at a gallop, the persons who drove them seeming so well acquainted with the route that in spite of the many obstacles and the extreme darkness of the night, they were quickly out of hearing.
The remainder of the smugglers, in obedience to the order of their Chief, had either lain down or sheltered themselves behind masses of rock, when a strong party of the coast-guard appeared advancing round a projecting point, many of them bearing links (or torches) by the light of which the whole bay was partially illuminated, and the lugger might he seen crowding all her canvas to escape. But the officers, being unprovided with boats, and supposing besides that the cargo had been already landed, confined their attempts to the capture of the latter, leaving the lugger to get off unmolested, except by a few useless shots fired at her from the shore, more, it would seem, out of bravado than with any idea of damaging her crew. Soon the foremost of the officers came into contact with the concealed smugglers, and instantly the blaze of twenty muskets streamed amid the gloom.
Two of the officers fell. The remainder hastily retreated, and a consultation having taken place among their leaders, they appeared to resolve upon trying to pass the flank of their opponents, and they therefore turned inland; but very soon after again exposed themselves to a most galling fire from the smugglers, who lay in safety, secured by their position from the shot of the coast-guard party, while the latter, through bearing torches and still endeavouring to advance, suffered considerably.
Another pause ensued, when the leader of the King’s men cheering on his people, they fairly rushed in among the smugglers, who, after discharging their guns at random, leaped up, and endeavoured with the butt ends of their pieces to parry the cutlasses which were aimed at them. All this rime poor Ralph lay in a state of mortal fear, which was not much diminished when the fray became most violent immediately around him, the leader of the smugglers and the commander of the coast-guard having singled out each other, and the bravest of their followers rushing to their assistance. At last fresh and lively cheers from the wood, and loud cries of “Down with the blasted hawks!” indicated that more help had arrived to the party of smugglers, upon which some of the King’s men forcibly carried their officer away from the scene of conflict; when they all retreated in good order along the beach, still keeping their faces to the foe, and occasionally firing at any whom they fancied they could distinguish plainly enough for that purpose.
The smugglers, on their part, did not molest them or attempt any pursuit, but busied themselves in searching for their dead or wounded companions. A number of lanterns now speedily made their appearance, and the bearer of one of them approached Rashleigh, who lay breathless and counterfeiting death as well as he could.
Seeing by his dress that he did not belong to either of the conflicting parties, the man exclaimed, “Why, what have we got here? I zay, jack, here’s a gemman. Let’s zee whether he’s got anything in his pockets!”
Jack, a fierce-looking fellow with enormous whiskers, now came up, and holding his lantern close to Ralph’s face, said, “By the hokey, he an’t dead. He’s only shamming — or else in a swound.”
The voice of their leader was now heard demanding “why they didn’t come on, what they were doing there, and whether they wanted to bring all the sojers in Southampton down upon them.”
To this one of Ralph’s captors replied “that they had found a man who pretended to be dead, and that they thought he must be a spy, from his dress.”
“A spy, hey?” replied the smuggler. “Bring him along. We’ll put him from pretending death any more; he shall swing from the Beaulieu Oak before the night’s an hour older.”
Here Ralph quite lost what scanty remains of self-possession he had left, and begged his captors. in the most moving terms for mercy, but in vain. They hurried him along half running, between them, striking his legs against every projecting root or stone in the way.
At length, after having proceeded two or three miles in this manner, following the sound of their companions’ footsteps, and guided sometimes by a whistle from the front, they reached an open forest glade, in the centre of which was an enormous and aged oak. At the foot of this tree stood three men, among them the leader of the smugglers, whose voice Ralph had so often heard in the roar of that night’s conflict. He now asked the prisoner who he was, to which Rashleigh could only reply, while his teeth chattered with terror, that he was a stranger, who had come on a visit to Southampton and had lost his way near Netley the previous day.
“A d —— d fine tale,” replied the smuggler. “You are a blasted spy, and shall die a dog’s death. Here’s a good strong rope. You, Bill! Count a hundred. And Harry and Jack, be ready when he has done to strap this fine shaver up.”
Poor Ralph now went upon his knees to beg for pity, while he alternately prayed and invoked the most direful imprecations upon his head if he were a spy, or if he had not spoken the truth; to which the only reply vouchsafed was that he might as well spare the little breath he had left, for he would find there was no mistake about them.
In the mean time Bill had counted 64 and Ralph offered all he possessed if they would let him go; 65 — 66 — 67 were calmly repeated, but no reply came from the smuggler; 68-69 sounded in his cars, and driven to utter despair, while the leader was preparing a noose on the fatal cord, Ralph shook himself suddenly free from the grip of the two men who held him, and snatching a gun which stood against the tree, dealt such a vigorous blow with the stock of it on the chief’s head that he at once laid him sprawling on the earth and broke his weapon short off by the breech, leaving only the barrel in his hand.
He then sprang off and ran with the speed of a hunted deer, closely followed by one of the smugglers, who seemed to be armed only with a stick. When they had run a considerable distance, Rashleigh, finding his pursuer gained upon him, rapidly dodged short round, hoping to strike him unawares. But his foot slipped, and he fell to the ground. The smuggler seized the gun barrel, and after dealing the prostrate runaway a blow or two, which he intended for his head, but which were saved by his arm, he began dragging the unlucky Ralph back to the tree, in spite of all his struggles or his loud outcries for assistance, which served only to procure him fresh blows. At length another of the men came to the assistance of his fellow, and between them they soon hauled their victim back to the spot they destined to end all his earthly struggles.
The smuggler chief was now seated under the tree, and one of the men was binding up his wounded head, which seemed to have been bleeding profusely. He welcomed the party with a grim laugh, saying, “So ho, my shaver. You thought to have settled me, but long Frank has got a harder head than you reckoned for. Now, my boys, what are you gaping at? Chuck the end of the rope over that bough. And put the noose round that bloody dog’s neck. We’ll give him five minutes’ good choking.”
In an instant the rope was adjusted, and the end having been disposed as directed, three of the smugglers laid hold of the part that hung over the bough to haul the sufferer off the ground.
Already the rope was drawn tight, when a loud voice close at hand roared out, “oh ho, you blasted thieves! We’ve got you at last, have we?” And suiting the action to the word, the three fellows who held the rope were seized by a number of armed men so great that all resistance was out of the question. The smuggler chief and the other man, who till that moment had continued his grasp upon Ralph, had both disappeared. As for Rashleigh, he fell to the ground and was soon surrounded by a number of persons, who from their dress and appearance seemed to be gamekeepers and their assistants.
This proved to be the case. While they had been in search of some deer stealers, they had been attracted to this spot by the outcries of our adventurer, whose life they had thus opportunely saved. They listened to Ralph’s tale with much astonishment and many execrations upon their three prisoners, whom, as the daylight was now at hand, they proposed to escort to Southampton Gaol.
On their way thither, they were met by two decent-looking men who took the head gamekeeper aside. After some conversation, Ralph was called to join them, when he was asked whether he had any objection to forgiving the smugglers if a sum of money were paid to him in atonement for their offence. The gamekeeper, who probably looked upon smuggling as a very venial crime, or at any rate as being of much less enormity than that of deer stealing, raised not the smallest difficulty at letting the prisoners go; while Ralph, who hated all law and detested the idea of appearing before a magistrate, considered besides — since the chief smuggler had escaped, with his principal coadjutor — that neither of the three men who were taken had been active in persecuting him. So our adventurer agreed, if the sum Of £20 were paid to him as a douceur, and the rest of the party satisfied, why, he was content to let the matter drop.
By this time they had reached a small ale-house in the purlieus of the forest, the inmates of which being with some difficulty aroused, the whole party went in at the invitation of the ambassadors; and as some refreshment was much needed by all — but by none more than Rashleigh — a smoking breakfast, though somewhat of the earliest, was welcomed with great satisfaction. After breakfast one of the strangers took our adventurer aside and paid him £10 in part of the sum agreed on, the landlord of the house binding himself to produce the other ten the same evening. Ralph now bade his adieux to the company, who were fast getting all drunk together, left the inn, and returned to Southampton.
His absence had created a great sensation, and innumerable were the questions to which the disordered state of his dress gave rise on his arrival at his relatives’ house. But he parried them all by saying that he had lost his way and torn his clothes in a thicket, mentioning a different part of the forest to that in which he had actually been, so as to evade any apparent knowledge of the past night’s affray. After taking some repose, he went in the evening and received the promised balance of the money agreed to be paid. In a few days thereafter, taking farewell of his friends, he went over to Portsmouth, where he sojourned a week.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00