Jim Davis/Chapter VII
THE TWO COASTGUARDS
The next morning, when Hugh and I came to Strete for our lessons, we found a lot of yeomen and preventives drawn up in the village. People were talking outside their houses in little excited groups. Jan Edeclog, the grocer, was at the door of his shop, wiping his hands on his apron. There was a general rustle and stir, something had evidently happened.
"What's all the row about, Mr Edeclog?" I asked.
"Row?" he asked. "Row enough, Master Jim. Two of the coastguards, who were on duty yesterday afternoon, have disappeared. It's thought there's been foul play."
My heart sank into my boots, my head swam, I could hardly stand upright. All my thought was: "They have been killed. And all through my telling Marah. And I'm a murderer."
I don't know how I could have got to the Rectory gate, had not the militia captain come from the tavern at that moment. He mounted his horse, called out a word of command, and the men under him moved off towards Slapton at a quick trot.
"They have gone to beat the Lay banks," said some one, and then some one laughed derisively.
I walked across to the Rectory and flung my satchel of books on to the floor. The Rector's wife came into the hall as we entered. "Why, Jim," she said, "what is the matter? Aren't you well?"
"Not very," I answered.
"My dear," she cried to her husband, "Jim's not well. He looks as though he'd seen a ghost, poor boy."
"Why, Jim," said the Rector, coming out of the sitting-room, "what's the matter with you? Had too much jam for breakfast?"
"No," I said. "But I feel faint. I feel sick. Can I go to sit in the garden for a minute?"
"Yes," he answered. "Certainly. I'll get you a glass of cold water."
I was really too far gone to pay much heed to anything. I think I told them that I should be quite well in a few minutes, if they would leave me there; and I think that Mrs Evans told her husband to come indoors, leaving me to myself. At any rate they went indoors, and then the cool air, blowing on me from the sea, refreshed me, so that I stood up.
I could think of nothing except the words: "I am a murderer." A wild wish came to me to run to the cliffs by Black Pool to see whether the bodies lay on the grass in the place where I had seen them (full of life) only a few hours before. Anything was better than that uncertainty. In one moment a hope would surge up in me that the men would not be dead; but perhaps only gagged and bound: so that I could free them. In the next there would be a feeling of despair, that the men lay there, dead through my fault, killed by Marah's orders, and flung among the gorse for the crows and gulls. I got out of the Rectory garden into the road; and in the road I felt strong enough to run; and then a frenzy took hold of me, so that I ran like one possessed. It is not very far to Black Pool; but I think I ran the whole way. I didn't feel out of breath when I got there, though I had gone at top speed; a spirit had been in me, such as one only feels at rare times. Afterwards, when I saw a sea-fight, I saw that just such a spirit filled the sailors, as they loaded and fired the guns.
I pushed my way along the cliffs through the gorse, till I came to the patch where the coast-guards had lain. The grass was trampled and broken, beaten flat in places as though heavy bodies had fallen on it; there were marks of a struggle all over the patch. Some of the near-by gorse twigs were broken from their stems; some one had dropped a small hank of spun-yarn. They had lain there all that night, for the dew was thick upon them. What puzzled me at first was the fact that there were marks from only two pairs of boots, both of the regulation pattern. The men who struggled with the coastguards must have worn moccasins, or heelless leather slippers, made out of some soft hide.
I felt deeply relieved when I saw no bodies, nor any stain upon the grass. I began to wonder what the night-riders had done with the coastguards; and, as I sat wondering, I heard, really and truly, a noise of the people talking from a little way below me, just beyond the brow of the cliff. That told me at once that there was a cave, even as I had suspected. I craned forward eagerly, as near as I dared creep, to the very rim of the land. I looked down over the edge into the sea, and saw the little blue waves creaming into foam far below me.
I could see nothing but the side of the cliff, with its projecting knobs of rock; no opening of any kind, and yet a voice from just below me (it seemed to come from below a little projecting slab a few feet down): a voice just below me, I say, said, quite clearly, evidently between puffs at a pipe, "I don't know so much about that." Another voice answered; but I could not catch the words. The voice I should have known anywhere; it was Marah's "good-temper voice," as he called it, making a pleasant answer.
"That settles it," I said to myself. "There's a cave, and the coastguards are there, I'll be bound, as prisoners. Now I have to find them and set them free."
Very cautiously I peered over the cliff-face, examining every knob and ledge which might conceal (or lead to) an opening in the rock. No. I could see nothing; the cliff seemed to me to be almost sheer; and though it was low tide, the rocks at the base of the cliffs seemed to conceal no opening. I crept cautiously along the cliff-top, as near to the edge as I dared, till I was some twenty feet from the spot where I had heard the voice. Then I looked down again carefully, searching every handbreadth for a firm foothold or path down the rocks, with an opening at the end, through which a big man could squeeze his body. No. There was nothing. No living human being could get down that cliff-face without a rope from up above; and even If he managed to get down, there seemed to be nothing but the sea for him at the end of his journey. Again I looked carefully right to the foot of the crag. No. There was absolutely nothing; I was off the track somehow.
Now, just at this point the cliff fell Inland for a few paces, forming a tiny bay about six yards across. To get along the cliff towards Strete I had to turn inland for a few steps, then turn again towards the sea, in order to reach the cliff. I skirted the little bay in this manner, and dropped one or two stones into it from where I stood. As I craned over the edge, watching them fall into the sea, I caught sight of something far below me, in the water.
I caught my breath and looked again, but the thing, whatever it was, had disappeared from sight. It was something red, which had gleamed for a moment from behind a rock at the base of the cliff. I watched eagerly for a moment or two, hearing the sucking of the sea along the stones, and the cry of the seagulls' young in their nests on the ledges. Then, very slowly, as the slack water urged it, I saw the red stem-piece of a rather large boat nosing slowly forward apparently from the cliff-face towards the great rock immediately in front of it. The secret was plain in a moment. Here was a cave with a sea-entrance, and a cave big enough to hide a large, seagoing fisher's boat; a cave, too, so perfectly hidden that it could not possibly be seen from any point except right at the mouth. A coastguard's boat could row within three yards of the entrance and never once suspect its being there, unless, at a very low tide, the sea clucked strangely from somewhere within. Any men entering the little bay in a boat would see only the big rock hiding the face of the cliff. No one would suspect that behind the rock lay a big cave accessible from the sea, at low tide in fair weather. Even in foul weather, good boatmen (and all the night-riders were wonderful fellows in a boat) could have made that cave in safety, for at the mouth of the little bay there was a great rock, which shut it in on the southwest side, so that in our bad southwesterly gales the bay or cove would have been sheltered, though full of the foam spattered from the sheltering crag.
I had found the cave, but my next task was to find an entrance, and that seemed to be no easy matter. I searched every inch of the cliff-face for a foothold, but there was nothing there big enough for anything bigger than a sea-lark. I could never have clambered down the cliff, even had I the necessary nerve, which I certainly had not. The only way down was to shut my eyes and walk over the cliff-edge, and trust to luck at the bottom, and "that was one beyond me"—only Marah Gorsuch would have tried that way. No; there was no way down the cliff-side, that was certain.
Now, somebody—I think it was old Alec Jewler, the ostler at the Tor Cross posting-house—had told me that here and there along the coast, but most of all in Cornwall, near Falmouth, there had once been arsenic mines, now long since worked out. Their shafts, he said, could be followed here and there for some little distance, and every now and again they would broaden out into chambers, in which people sometimes live, even now. It occurred to me that there might be some such shaft-opening among the gorse quite close to me; so I crept away from the cliff-brink, and began to search among the furze, till my skin was full of prickles. Though I searched diligently for an hour or two, I could find no hole big enough to be the mouth of a shaft. I knew that a shaft of the kind might open a hundred yards from where I was searching, and I was therefore well prepared to spend some time in my hunt. And at last, when I was almost tired of looking, I came across a fox or badger earth, not very recent, which seemed, though I could not be certain, to broaden out inside. I lay down and thrust my head down the hole, and that confirmed me. From up the hole there came the reek of strong ship's tobacco. I had stumbled upon one of the cave's air-holes.