In a moment Winefred was surrounded by men. There was something alarming in their appearance, with blackened faces.
One, a tall, vigorous fellow, apparently young, stood forward and questioned her.
‘What! Winefred Marley?’
‘Yes—I want to speak to Captain Rattenbury. Where is he?’
‘He is not here. I am his son.’
‘Jack!—You! Your father has been betrayed. I overheard the officer from Lyme arranging to take you all. He has sent for the soldiers. He knows that you are to meet the carts at Heathfield Cross.’
‘When did you hear this?’
‘To-day—some hours ago—on the beach, below the station. I was behind a rock, and they did not see me.’
‘Why did you not speak of this before?’
‘Your father was not at home, or I would have done so. I waited, expecting every hour to see him come in. Now I have run away whilst mother is asleep.’
‘You are a brave, good girl,’ said the young man. He turned to the men. ‘What is to be done?’ he asked.
‘We must go back,’ said one or two.
‘You must not go back,’ exclaimed Winefred. ‘Indeed you must not; the soldiers are on the road from Musbury.’
‘Then forward.’
‘That will not do. The coastguard in force are watching at Heathfield Cross.’
The men were silent.
After some consideration, in a dead silence, Jack said, ‘There is but one course open. We must creep along the lanes to Hay and Buckland, and stow our goods wherever we can.’
‘Do you think that possible? I suspect that they are drawing in from east and west, and have taken the precaution to stop all the earths to the north.’
Winefred knew by the voice that the man who spoke was David Nutall, to whom she had taken the captain’s letter.
‘I know they will have done that,’ she said. ‘I heard them say as much. They intended drawing a net round you, and leaving you no way of escape save over the cliffs into the sea.’
Again an anxious silence ensued.
Then one asked: ‘Jack! how about the undercliff? Has not your father got runs and rat-holes there that would contain us all?’
‘No,’ answered the young man. ‘He is too wary for that. He knows that the very first place that would be searched would be his cottage.’
‘There is something in that. Then there is no help for it; we must drop our goods—there in yonder plantation I advise—and get away singly as best we may.’
‘We shall be caught and detained till the whole of this bit of country has been put through the sieve, and if they find the tubs—we are done for.’
‘It is a bad job.’
‘I vote we fight rather than lose our goods.’
‘There are too many. We should be overpowered.’
‘I do not relish losing everything without making an effort to break through.’
‘I can tell you what to do,’ said the girl, ‘and also where you may conceal everything.’
‘Where is that?’
‘To-day I saw that the cliff has parted under mother’s cottage. The rock is torn in half, and I climbed the crack from the beach to the top. Where I went up you can go down. The crack is quite new and is narrow. At the end it is choked with earth and stones. If you have ropes you can lower the kegs and then steal away by the coast, and by water to Beer. Then let the soldiers and the rest draw together; they will take neither you nor what you are carrying. They will not know what has become of you. No one knows of this hiding-place but myself—there was none a week ago, only some cracking of the surface that tumbled down our wall.’
The men consulted in an undertone.
‘If the soldiers do come along the roads from all sides they[80] will meet to shake hands, that is all,’ said Winefred. ‘I should laugh to see their faces.’
‘The girl is right,’ said Jack. ‘Winefred, lead the way at once.’
Then again the men formed in line, and she, walking beside the young man, headed the procession.
‘But where is the captain?’ she asked.
‘No occasion to be alarmed about him,’ answered Jack. ‘Trust to his cleverness. They can do nothing with him if he has nothing in his carts. He is going, he will say, to fetch hay from Axmouth which he has contracted to deliver at Lyme.’
Winefred led the way, partly along lanes, partly over hedges, through gates, under the boughs of the young firs. She was fearless now; her only care was not to stumble on any of the preventive men.
She laughed in her heart to think that she who had lectured Jack against smuggling should herself be involved in one of these illegal ventures. But what she was doing was not for the sake of gain, but in discharge of a debt of gratitude.
Jack, however, was ill at ease. He did not relish the business on which he was engaged, and he was drawn into it solely by obligations to his father, who needed his services at the time, which was one of emergency.
As he walked along he considered the magnitude of the risks he ran, imprisonment and its consequences, the closing against him of every honourable profession.
Should he escape, then he was firmly resolved never again to engage in such a transaction,—not, however, because of its danger, but because it was repugnant to his tastes rather than not consonant with his principles.
The old man had been associated with the trade all his days, took a pride in it, he could not leave the groove, did not desire to do so, looked on his profession as manly and honourable. He had no wish, no thought, but that Jack should continue in it, but carry it on upon a grander scale, and it was with this in view that he was furnishing him with a fast-sailing cutter. But Jack felt a repugnance against deliberately, at the outset, entering on a career that placed him in antagonism with the laws of his country. Of moral scruple he had not an atom, nor did any moral objection enter into the composition of Winefred’s dislike to the trade. His objection was founded on inexpediency; hers on the business being one of ‘hole and corner,’ as she termed it.
‘No,’ said Jack, half to himself, ‘never again.’
‘What—never again?’ asked Winefred in a whisper.
He did not answer. He was not responsible to her for his thoughts.
‘Jack,’ said she in a low tone, ‘why did you come out to-night?’
‘Why,’ he answered, ‘for one reason, because you told me not to do so. A man hates to be ordered about by a woman.’
‘Even when her advice is good.’
‘Yes. Because she orders one way, there is something in him that forces him to go contrary.’
‘I always thought that men were fools,’ said Winefred. ‘Now you tell me they are so, and I believe you with all my heart. Women are men’s good angels.’
‘That you are to-night, Winney.’
He looked at her trudging by his side in the uncertain light, and he thought how much he owed to her. It was she, and she alone, who was leading him out of the toils.
But for her intervention, in another half-hour he would have been in the hands of the officers of the Crown.
The men did not speak, and Winefred comprehended that it was not for her to break the silence.
The train had crossed the brook, and was now mounting the hillside that led to the downs which overhung the sea. The growl of the waves became more audible.
Presently they were on the common, crossing it as a black worm, aiming at one point towards which Winefred led confidently.
‘We shall need a light,’ she whispered.
‘Not on the cliff. We should attract attention.’
‘No, in the chasm. I am not a fool; why should you consider me one?’
‘When we reach the place——.’
‘We are almost there now. Walk cautiously. If one were to fall over it would be worse than falling into the hands of the guard. Bid them halt.’
Jack elevated both his arms, and the convoy stood still.
With precaution, observing every yard of ground in front of her, Winefred advanced.
All at once she stopped dead, looked back and said—’Hist! Here is the crack. Do not come to the edge lest it break away.’
Jack Rattenbury stepped up to her, and she showed him the mouth of the rent. He could see a black irregular stain; in the[82] feeble light it did not show as a gulf. It might have been ink run over the turf—but ink in floods. How deep it was he could not conjecture, for it showed no depth, only level blackness.
‘How far down?’ he asked.
‘To the very level of the beach,’ she answered, ‘except at the end where the tear begins, and there it is choked with earth and stone that has crumbled and tumbled in. You will not be able to carry the kegs down; the slope is steep as a spire, and is broken in places by bits of rock, and in others soft as dough. You must lower the tubs.’
‘Rope!’ ordered Jack, turning to the man nearest. Then, ‘Some one will have to descend.’
‘That will I,’ said the girl, ‘but I must have a light.’
‘It is surely unsafe for you to attempt it.’
‘Not at all. I have climbed it. I know what it is like. I have led you so far. I will go through with my enterprise. Let me have a lantern.’
One was passed to young Rattenbury.
Winefred stepped along the fringe of the rent till she reached its extreme limit.
‘I can descend here in safety,’ she said, ‘but it is not easy work, and a heavy man might sink in the rubbish; see, I am over the edge already. When I am lower down I will light the lantern. It is a little difficult at first to descend, but it becomes easier farther down. Do not fear for me. I learned how to do it to-day—I mean yesterday: it is past midnight now. You shall follow me after you have lowered the casks.’
She disappeared into the black chasm. It made the heart of the young man stand still for a moment. He expected to hear a heavy fall. Then a white hand was extended out of it, and he let her take the lantern.
‘Is there room for me also?’ he asked.
‘No; it is steep and narrow. Give me flint and steel.’
In another moment he saw a splutter of sparks, then a glow that brightened as the girl breathed on the ignited tinder. Finally came a burst of yellow flame. She had kindled the candle, and this she at once placed in the lantern.
Now only could he see the wall of the chasm, and the flint-stones glistening in it like eyes. Below all was impenetrable darkness.
‘Have no fear,’ said Winefred cheerfully, and began the descent.
Jack watched the light as it danced down. It was seen here,[83] then there, as she circumvented some fallen block that had lodged and wedged itself in the chasm. Then boldly she mounted another, and leaped down from it. Next moment she was struggling through soft chalk like a snowdrift. Then a shoot of stones was sent bounding down the incline, dislodged by her feet. Jack dared not lean over lest he should occasion some of the friable chalk of the edge to give way and fall upon her.
The star diminished in size. Now it was invisible, then only discernible by the faint glow it cast on the walls. Anon it flashed forth once more. It seemed to Jack as though an hour had passed before the light became stationary, and a voice, confused by the echo of the sides, came up to him, ‘I am at the bottom,—lower the kegs.’
‘Stand back,’ shouted Jack in reply, ‘lest the falling stones crush you!’
‘I will go to the mouth,’ answered Winefred. ‘But I leave the light where it is. Lower at once.’
‘No,’ called Jack; ‘not so, lest the light be extinguished. Put the light on one side out of risk.’
Winefred guessed rather than heard what he said, and she placed the lantern in the cave she had observed on her ascent. By this means it was sheltered from stones that might be dislodged and fall. But where it was, it cast a halo upon the white wall opposite.
As soon as Jack conceived that Winefred was beyond reach, he bade the men pass a rope through the loops attached to the kegs, one after the other, and let them down into the abyss. When the slackening of the cord assured him that a cask was lodged, then he cast down one end and drew the rope up to lower another in a similar manner. He would not venture to do this with more than one man at a time to stand on the edge and let down the butts. The operation was consequently somewhat slow, nevertheless it was in time brought to a conclusion, and then he told the men that they must descend at the extremity of the rift, reach the shore, and make the best of their way home. By means of the ferryboat all could cross. On the morrow, at about the same hour, they would return and move the goods and dispose of them as seemed most advisable, after he had consulted with his father.
The men could descend only singly, lest one following another should send down stones on him who preceded him.
Then Jack leaped into the chasm and vanished.
The men looked at each other.
Said one to his mate, ‘I think I shall slip over the downs.’
‘Ay,’ said a second. ‘I had rather risk the chance of running into the mouths of the sharks than go down yonder.’
‘And I,’ said a third, ‘shall turn into the straw in Bindon barn, and lie there till daylight. I am not disposed to go underground without the assistance of the undertaker.’
‘We have our orders,’ said one of the young Nutalls.
‘That’s right, my boy,’ spoke old David. ‘Follow me,’ and he went over the side.
Jack Rattenbury descended step by step in the darkness. It was a difficult and dangerous downward climb, to be executed only with extreme caution, but he achieved it.
He had, not, however, reached the bottom before he was greeted by Winefred, who had taken the lantern and held it so as to assist him.
‘Look,’ she said. ‘Here at the side is a little cavern. I have already rolled in two of the kegs. When the men are down we will stow the lot in there.’
Slowly, and in single file, the men arrived, with a few exceptions.
‘Make haste and get away,’ said Winefred. ‘This has been a longer business than I thought. Leave me the light and I will dowse it at the least alarm. I can get the kegs in, and no one can see them when there.’
‘You are a brave girl,’ said Jack. ‘I thank you, and you shall be well rewarded.’
‘I want no reward,’ she answered, ‘except this, that you say “I won’t” if this sort of thing is proposed again.’
‘Well—I won’t. I swear it. This is the last time.’