W HEN I was twelve years old, something very terrible happened, with good results for myself. The woman near Newton Abbot (I have spoken of her several times) was a Mrs. Cottier, the wife of a schoolmaster. Her husband used to drink very hard, and in this particular year he was turned out of the school, and lost his living. His wife left him then (or rather he left her; for a long time no one knew what became of him) and came to live with us, bringing with her little Hugh Cottier, her son, a boy of about my own age. After that, life in my uncle's house was a different thing to me. Mrs. Cottier was very beautiful and kind; she was like my mother, strangely like, always sweet and gentle, always helpful and wise. I think she was the dearest woman who ever lived. I was always proud when she asked me to do something for her.
Once, I remember (in the winter after Mrs. Cottier came to us), she drove to Salcombe to do her Christmas shopping. It came on to snow during the afternoon; and at night-time the storm grew worse. We put back supper, expecting her to come in at any minute, but she did not come. The hours went by, and still she did not come, and still the storm worsened. The wind was not very high, but the air was full of a fine, powdery, drifting snow; the night seemed full of snow; snow fell down the chimney and drifted in under the door. My uncle was too lame with sciatica to leave his bed; and my aunt, always a woman of poor spirit, was afraid of the night. At eight o'clock I could stand it no longer, so I said that I would saddle the pony, and ride out along the Salcombe road to find her. Hugh was for going in my place; but Hugh was not so strongly built as I, and I felt that Hugh would faint after an hour in the cold. I put on double clothes, with an oilskin jacket over all, and then lit the lantern, and beat out of the house to the stable. I put one or two extra candles in my pockets, with a flint and steel, and some bread and meat. Something prompted me to take a hank of cord, and a heavy old boat-rug; and with all these things upon him old Greylegs, the pony, was heavy-laden.
When we got into the road together, I could not see a yard in front of me. There was nothing but darkness and drifting snow and the gleam of the drifts where the light of the lantern fell. There was no question of losing the road; for the road was a Devon lane, narrow and deep, built by the ancient Britons, so everybody says, to give them protection as they went down to the brooks for water. If it had been an open road, I could never have found my way for fifty yards. I was strongly built for a boy; even at sea I never suffered much from the cold, and this night was not intensely cold—snowy weather seldom is. What made the ride so exhausting was the beating of the snow into my eyes and mouth. It fell upon me in a continual dry feathery pelting, till I was confused and tired out with the effort of trying to see ahead. For a little while, I had the roar of the trout-stream in my ears to comfort me; but when I topped the next combe that died away; and there I was in the night, beating on against the storm, with the strange moaning sound of the wind from Dartmoor, and the snow rustling to keep me company. I was not exactly afraid, for the snow in my face bothered me too much, but often the night would seem full of people—laughing, horrible people—and often I would think that I saw Mrs. Cottier lying half-buried in a drift.
I rode three miles or more without seeing anybody. Then, just before I reached the moor cross-roads, in a lull when the snow was not so bad, I heard a horse whinny, and old Greylegs baulked. Then I heard voices and a noise as of people riding; and before I could start old Greylegs I saw a party of horsemen crossing my road by the road from the sea to Dartmoor. They were riding at a quick trot, and though there were many horses (some thirty or forty), I could see, even in that light, that most of them were led. There were not more than a dozen men; and only one, of all that dozen, carried a lantern. Something told me that they were out for no good, and the same instinct made me cover my lantern with my coat, so that they passed me without seeing me. At first I thought that they were the fairy troop, and that gave me an awful fear; but a moment later, in the wind, I felt a whiff of tobacco, and of a strong, warm, sweet smell of spirits, and I knew then that they were the night-riders or smugglers. After they had gone, I forced old Greylegs forward, and trotted on, against the snow, for another half-mile, with my heart going thump upon my ribs. I had an awful fear that they would turn, and catch me; and I knew that the night-riders wanted no witnesses of their adventures in the dark.
About four miles from home, I came to an open part of the road, where the snow came down in its full fury, there being no hedge to give a little shelter. It was so thick that I could not get Greylegs to go on. He stood stock-still, and cowered, though I beat him with my hank of cord, and kicked his ribs. It was cruel of me; but I thought of Mrs. Cottier, with her beautiful kind face, lying in a drift of snow, and the thought was dreadful to me. I got down from the saddle, and put my lantern on the ground, and tried to drag him forward, but it was useless. He would not have stirred if I had lighted a fire under him. When he had the instinct to stand still, nothing would make him budge a yard. A very fierce gust came upon me then. The snow seemed to whirl upon me from all sides, so that I got giddy and sick. And then, just at the moment, there were horses and voices all about me, coming from Salcombe way. Somebody called out, "Hullo," and somebody called out, "Look out, behind;" and then a lot of horses pulled up suddenly, and some men spoke, and a led horse shied at my lantern. I had no time to think or to run. I felt myself backing into old Greylegs in sheer fright; and then some one thrust a lantern into my face, and asked me who I was. By the light of the lantern I saw that he wore a woman's skirt over his trousers; and his face was covered by one of those great straw bee-skeps, pierced with holes for his eyes and mouth. He was one of the most terrible things I have ever seen.
"Why, it's a boy," said the terrible man. "What are you doing here, boy?"
Another man, who seemed to be a leader, called out from his horse, "Who are you?" but I was too scared to answer; my teeth were rattling in my head.
"It's a trick," said another voice. "We had best go for the moor."
"Shut up," said the leader, sharply. "The boy's scared."
He got down from his horse, and peered at me by the lantern light. He, too, wore a bee-skep; in fact, they all did, for there is no better disguise in the world, while nothing makes a man look more horrible. I was not quite so terrified by this time, because he had spoken kindly.
"Who are you?" he asked. "We shan't eat you. What are you doing here?"
As well as I could I told him. The leader strode off a few paces, and spoke with one or two other men; but I could only catch the words, "Yes; yes, Captain," spoken in a low, quick voice, which seemed somehow familiar. Then he came back to me, and took me by the throat, and swayed me to and fro, very gently, but in a way which made me feel that I was going to be killed.
"Tell me," he said, "I shall know whether you're lying, so tell the truth, now. What have you seen to-night?"
I told him that I had seen a troop of horsemen going through the snow towards the moor.
"That settles it, Captain," said another voice. "You can't trust a young chap like that."
"Shut up," said the man they called Captain; "I'm master, not you."
He strode off again, to speak to another man. I heard some one laugh a little, and then the Captain came back to me. He took me by the throat as before, and again shook me.
He took me by the throat as before, and again shook me.
"You listen to me," he said, grimly.
"If you breathe so much as one word of what you've seen
to-night—well—I shall know. D'ye hear? I shall know.
And when I know—well—your little neck'll go. There's
poetry. That will help you
"When I know,
Your neck'll go
He gave a sharp little twist of his hand upon my Adam's apple.
I was terrified. I don't know what I said; my tongue seemed to wither on its stalk. The Captain walked to his horse, and remounted. "Come along, boys," he said. The line of horses started off again. A hand fell upon my shoulder, and a voice spoke kindly to me. "See here," it said, "you go on another half-mile, you'll find a barn by the side of the road. There's no door on the barn, and you'll see a fire inside. You'll find your lady there. She is safe all right. You keep your tongue shut now."
The speaker climbed into his saddle, and trotted off into the night. "Half a mile. Straight ahead!" he called; then the dull trampling died away, and I was left alone again with Greylegs. Some minutes passed before I could mount; for I was stiff with fright. I was too frightened, after that, to mind the snow; I was almost too frightened to ride. Luckily for me the coming of the night-riders had startled old Greylegs also; he trotted on gallantly, though sometimes he floundered into a drift, and had to be helped out.
Before I came to the barn the snow stopped falling, except for a few aimless flakes, which drifted from all sides in the air. It was very dark still; the sky was like ink; but there was a feel of freshness (I cannot describe it) which told me that the wind had changed. Presently I saw the barn ahead of me, to the right of the road, spreading a red glow of fire across the way. Old Greylegs seemed glad of the sight; he gave a whinny and snorted. As well as he could he broke into a canter, and carried me up to the door in style.
"Are you safe, Mrs. Cottier?" I called out.
"What! Jim!" she answered. "How good of you to come for me!"
The barn, unlike most barns in that country, was of only one storey. It may have been a farmhouse in the long ago, for it had larger windows than most barns. These had been stuffed with sacks and straw, to keep out the weather. The door had been torn from its place by some one in need of firewood; the roof was fairly sound; the floor was of trampled earth. Well away from the doorway, in the centre of the barn, some one had lighted a fire, using (as fuel) one of the faggots stacked against the wall. The smoke had long since blown out of doors. The air in the barn was clear and fresh. The fire had died down to a ruddy heap of embers, which glowed and grew grey again, as the draughts fanned them from the doorway. By the light of the fire I could see Mrs. Cottier, sitting on the floor, with her back against the wheel of her trap, which had been dragged inside to be out of the snow. I hitched old Greylegs to one of the iron bolts, which had once held a door-hinge, and ran to her to make sure that she was unhurt.
"How in the world did you get here?" I asked. "Are you sure you're not hurt?"
She laughed a little at this, and I got out my stores, and we made our supper by the fire. "Where's old Nigger?" I asked her; for I was puzzled by seeing no horse.
"Oh, Jim," she said, "I've had such adventures."
When she had eaten a little she told me her story.
"I was coming home from Salcombe," she said, "and I was driving fast, so as to get home before the snow lay deep. Just outside Southpool, Nigger cast a shoe, and I was kept waiting at the forge for nearly half an hour. After that, the snow was so bad that I could not get along. It grew dark when I was only a mile or two from the blacksmith's, and I began to fear that I should never get home. However, as I drove through Stokenham, the weather seemed to clear a little, so I hurried Nigger all I could, hoping to get home in the lull. When I got to within a hundred yards from here, in the little hollow, where the stunted ashes are, I found myself among a troop of horsemen, who stopped me, and asked me a lot of questions. They were all disguised, and they had lanterns among them, and I could see that the horses carried tubs; I suppose full of smuggled lace and brandy and tobacco, ready to be carried inland. Jim, dear, I was horribly frightened; for while they were speaking together I thought I heard the voice of—of some one I know—or used to know."
She stopped for a moment overcome, and I knew at once that she was speaking of her husband, the schoolmaster that was. "And then," she continued, "some of them told me to get down out of the trap. And then another of them seized Nigger's head, and walked the trap as far as the barn here. Then they unharnessed Nigger, and led him away, saying they were short of horses, but would send him back in a day or two. They seemed to know all about me, where I lived, and everything. One of them took a faggot from a wall here, and laid the big fire, with straw instead of paper. While he lit it he kept his great bee-skep on his head (they all wore them), but I noticed he had three blue rings tattooed on his left ring-finger. Now, somewhere I have seen a man, quite recently, with rings tattooed like that, only I can't remember where. I wish I could think where. He was very civil and gentle. He saw that the fire burnt up well, and left me all those sticks and logs, as well as the flint and steel, in case it should go out before the snow stopped. Oh, and he took the rugs out of the trap, and laid them on the ground for me to sit on. Before he left, he said, very civilly, "I am sure you don't want to get folks into trouble, madam. Perhaps you won't mention this, in case they ask you." So I said that I didn't want to get people into trouble; but that it was hardly a manly act to leave a woman alone, in an open barn, miles from anywhere, on a night like to-night. He seemed ashamed at this; for he slunk off, saying something about "only obeying orders," and "not having much choice in the matter." Then they all stood about outside, in the snow, leaving me alone here. They must have stayed outside a couple of hours. About a quarter of an hour before you came I heard some one call out, "There it is, boys!" and immediately they all trotted off, at a smart pace. They must have seen or heard some signal. Of course, up here on the top of the combe, one could see a long way if the snow lulled for a moment."