Delighted with her watch, Winefred curled herself up behind the mass of rock so as to be sheltered from the cutting east wind, that in comparative comfort she might watch the movement of the hands, hearken to the ticking, open the case and observe the swing of the balance wheel; even try the key timorously whereby the watch was to be wound, and ascertain in which direction to turn it.
The wonder, the pleasure, afforded by this watch surpassed previous experience.
A hand danced the seconds on a subsidiary circle upon the dial. Further exploration revealed an interior where all was dainty mechanism, a diamond on which the pivot worked, a hair-spring of incredible delicacy, and minute wheels of surpassing smallness. The study served to fill the girl’s mind with astonishment.
At the beginning of this century watches were not in such general use as they are now; they were costly, and possessed by the rich alone. The farmer had to content himself with the clock, the labourer with the sun, and at night with the cockcrow.
Winefred was roused from her dream of delight by voices, and peering round the hunch of chalk that sheltered her, perceived the chief officer of the preventive service and one of the gaugers. They were in close conference and did not observe her. Mr. Holwood had disappeared some time ago behind a headland.
‘We shall nab the whole lot,’ said the officer. ‘They may show fight, probably they will, as they are numerous and desperate, because we have hemmed them in so close of late that they have not been able to free their goods. We have watched Lyme so closely that there has been no chance for them to run a cargo there. It all goes into that d——d hole of Beer, which it is next to impossible to keep in your eye day and[62] night. And with its freestone quarries and burrows into every hillside, there is a veritable underground labyrinth, in which could be stowed liquor enough to supply the toping squires and merchants of the west for a dozen years. There is no tracking them there, they are in at one rat-hole and out at another, and verily, the Creator seems to have had smugglers in view when this coast was called up. But we shall draw the net on them this time and bag every Jack with their cargoes. I have sent for the military; there will be too many for us unaided to tackle. They purpose bringing kegs and bales to Heathfield Cross on Thursday night, and wagons will be in waiting to load them for Honiton, Lyme, and Dorchester. They will cross at the creek over against Hawkes-down, slip through Axmouth, then up the hollow way, and so to the Cross. I have made my arrangements to catch them whilst lading the conveyances, and if they smell us and drop their goods and run, the military will close up the roads in rear, and they will have no way of escape save that of plunging over the cliffs and perishing in the waters like the swine in the country of the Gadarenes. They will not do that; better be nailed and made to serve in His Majesty’s navy than break their necks.’
‘High time we should catch them,’ said the man. ‘They have grown saucy.’
‘They have grown desperate,’ retorted the officer. ‘They have been accumulating cargoes, and have been unable to dispose of them. Now they must do it—and so——’ He snapped his hands.
‘It is no fault of ours,’ observed the underling, ‘if they have been able to run in such a lot. It is this coast does it. That of Cornwall is bad, but nothing to this. The chalk and the channel are against us. Smooth seas and fogs and a coast as full of holes as a hedge beside a warren—what can be done?’
‘Well,’ said the officer, ‘keep your counsel now. Do not trust even your own men. Some of them may have been tampered with—stranger things than that have happened.’
‘Well, sir, I suppose they have leaky vessels among them.’
‘To be sure they have. Were it not so, I should not have been forewarned of this.’
‘You can rely on me, sir.’
‘I know I can.’
And the men walked away.
Winefred heard no more, owing to the grinding of the pebbles under their feet, but she had heard sufficient.
It was as she had surmised. She had been employed to convey a message connected with a smuggling enterprise, and the secret had been betrayed by one of the confederates.
She was annoyed at having been involved by Rattenbury in a proceeding with which she had no sympathy; she was troubled at the danger that menaced him and his son Jack, who, she was confident, would not act upon the advice she had tendered. But, further, she saw that if the captain were taken, she and her mother would probably lose the home they had just got into.
Winefred had no decided opinions relative to the morality of smuggling. The atmosphere on that coast was charged with it. Her grandfather had been engaged in the contraband trade all his days, and her mother’s brother had lost his life in an affray with the preventive men. On this account her sympathies were ranged with those who broke the law, and it was manifestly to her interest to exert herself to protect them in the danger that menaced. But she did not relish the trade that was being so largely carried on in the neighbourhood. It was surreptitious, it ranged with housebreaking and arson. And, as her mother held, it brought no luck on those engaged in it. She had been shown a pint mug with which the guineas had been measured out among the sharers in a successful run. They had not troubled to count the gold. Yet not one coin had remained with her grandfather, and he, to whom many of these pints of gold had been allotted, had died penniless. It was not from any deep moral principle that Winefred was opposed to smuggling, but partly because she thought no luck attached to it, and therefore it must be wrong, mainly because it was not an open and daylight profession, and she had a natural aversion from every thing that was not manifest and straightforward.
Winefred did not leave her hiding-place till she could do so unobserved; till one man had ascended the path to the station, and the other had taken the beach way to Lyme Regis.
Then she came from behind the rock.
She resolved not to mount the track that led up the slope, as it passed the cottages of the coastguard, and under the circumstances she deemed it advisable to give them a wide berth.
Her only other way of reaching the captain’s cottage was circuitous. It lay along the beach, and she would have to double Haven Head and ascend the combe by which she and her mother had mounted on that eventful evening when they were first introduced to the reader.
4There was no way up the cliffs between these points; they rise as a white precipitous wall three hundred feet. But she knew the strand—every reef, indentation, every buttress of chalk, and every cave. She had paced it a hundred times pebble-hunting.
On this occasion she did not look further for stones; she had cares that weighed on her mind and occupied her thoughts.
So she tramped along till she reached a doubly familiar spot. Immediately aloft stood the cottage she had occupied from infancy. A hedge had skirted the edge of the crags as a protection, and she had been prohibited from going beyond that hedge, even from climbing it.
Now, on looking up, she was startled to observe a displacement of the rock and a dislocation in the hedge. The cliff had parted from the down and taken as it were a step seaward, and was slightly lurching. The hedge was discontinuous, and she could see that a rift had formed that shore deep into where their garden had been.
Winefred was so surprised at what she saw that, regardless of risk, she resolved to examine the phenomenon closely.
Instead of treading at the very margin of the retreating tide, where the larger shingle ceased and gravel began, she advanced to the foot of the rocks, and now saw that the cleft descended from the summit to the very base. An entire shoulder or mass had separated from the main body, and was parted from it by a chasm clean cut as by a knife. Not only so, but the portion that had detached itself had sunk. Winefred was surprised at what she saw, and being of an inquisitive disposition, and regardless of danger, she ventured close to the mouth of the chasm. It was torn through the chalky superincumbent beds and through the subjacent standstone, and a portion of turfy down had moved seaward, but had done so without any violent oscillation, for it had not been so shaken as to break into fragments and strew the shore with dislodged masses. On the contrary, it had parted from the mainland with a minimum of violence, and it was in sinking that it had detached itself.
Winefred first peered into the rift, then cautiously entered it, and looked up at the white walls barred with strata of flints, some of which were snapped across by the disruption.
No stones were falling. No further movement was perceptible. With beating heart the girl not only entered the chasm but pursued her course up it.
The sky above showed as a white silk ribbon. Abundance[65] of light flowed in from the mouth and from above, but the air was chill and the smell damp and earthy.
The bottom was encumbered with fallen blocks of chalk, white as lumps of sugar, and over these Winefred scrambled fearlessly. A belt of what is locally termed ‘fox-earth’ showed above the floor, and from it distilled water in tears.
She could distinguish a cavern—one of those subterraneous reservoirs which in the calcareous beds had received and held the water that percolated down through the pervious rock till it had itself been drained by the water filtering to a still lower level.
Winefred climbed with hands and feet over a mound of refuse, then down the side, and found that the rift still penetrated farther and lost itself in darkness. It was obvious that the cleavage had been incomplete, the block that had parted from the down had not completely effected its insulation, or there would assuredly have been a streak of light at the farther end.
Winefred was familiar with cliffs, clefts, and caves; they presented to her no terrors, were invested with no mystery; but she was scarcely aware of the actual risk she underwent. Such phenomena may be safely investigated after they have definitely settled themselves, but hardly whilst in process of formation. Nevertheless she advanced, and now she saw that the chasm had a limit, and that this limit was composed of a slide of rock and flint and earth from above forming a sharp incline, up which it would be feasible to scramble and possibly by this means to attain to the surface of the down. This would save Winefred a long circuit; moreover, the adventure offered the zest of novelty, and she was hungry.
Before proceeding, however, she peeped into the cavern. It was apparently extensive, penetrating some way, but dwindling in size as it receded. The floor was level and dry. Then Winefred began to mount the rubble shoot. The fallen chalk and earth had to a large extent dropped powdery, so that her feet sank, but here and there she came on cores of hard stone and then on beds of flint caked together. She passed a discoloured vein cut in section, where water charged with iron had run and had stained the rock.
As she continued toilfully to work her way upwards she observed how complete the dislocation of the beds had been. The stratification of flints was not continuous on both walls. The bed of silicious nodules on one side was repeated on the other at a depth of ten to fifteen feet, showing that the cleavage had been brought about by sinkage.
The silence in the cleft was absolute save for an occasional downpatter of dry earth or pebbles, but there was no considerable fall whilst Winefred was there.
The ascent was laborious, nevertheless the girl prosecuted her attempt with resolution, and was finally successful in attaining the turf, but in a condition so soiled that she knew she would be scolded by her mother.
When Winefred was at the surface she saw that for some distance beyond where she had come out, the turf was torn, as cloth might be ripped by a sharp tug.
The chasm was in process of extension, and eventually would stretch across the entire headland and detach it altogether.
Now she saw why her mother’s cottage had given way. It had been planted on that portion of the crag which had subsided. But the subsidence had been uneven, one-sided, so that what remained of the house was on an incline, and a lateral crack from the main rift had reached and thrown down one of the walls.
In places the turf looked like a pane of glass that had been struck by a cricket ball. It was starred with radiating fractures.
The girl leaned over and looked down the gulf out of which she had emerged. It seemed of prodigious depth and utterly dark.
The lips were not above fifteen feet apart at top, the wall on the land side descended perpendicularly, whereas that on the farther side was slightly inclined.
Only at the extreme end of the chasm where she had mounted was it possible to climb to the top, and it was obvious that the rent was gradually but surely prolonging itself.