Back o' the Moon, and Other Stories/Back o' the Moon/Chapter 16

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

pp. 217–231.

CHAPTER XVI.

COVER.

“Cis,” he said, anxiously, his hand at the screen of heather that closed the mouth of their retreat, “you've got to get over Soyland alone, and unseen. I'm going to show you a crack that will take you nearly to the top. Except at the very top, there are stones enough and heather enough to cover you, but you may have to creep. You'll have to watch both behind and ahead, for you mustn't be seen and you mustn't walk into the arms of a sentry. They're a good quarter of a mile apart—they can't cover a hundred miles of country—you can get through easily. I'm going south a little way: listen where you're to wait for me. You'll cross Soyland, sighting by a large cairn you'll see on Brotherton Head. Under it, among the heather, there's an old square stone shaft and some birches. I'll be there in an hour. I'll take Jimmy with me.—Now repeat that after me.”

He could scarce hear her faint reply, and he shook her gently.

“Come now; I know you can be a brave and clever girl. I'll tell you again....”

She repeated the instructions after him, and then he said, “Quick, a kiss ... now out you go!” He helped her through the opening and saw her immediately and swiftly take the shelter of a large boulder.

“Yes, that's the way,” he said approvingly; “yonder's the foot of the nick. Go quickly up it—take the risk—and then forward. Now....”

He dropped on his knees, marked the position of the bloodhounds across the valley, noted their pace, and was off.

He had packed Jimmy in the breast of his coat and secured him with the strap from which the provisions had been slung. His way lay south, round the precipitous eaves of Soyland towards the falling moorland below. He moistened his finger to the fresh wind, dodged again to a spot whence he could see the bloodhounds, glanced at the rocks above him, and began to move from rock to rock, making all the cover he might. Now and then he murmured to Jimmy, who was restless with the shaking and close confinement. “Be a man, Jimmy,” he kept saying; “across to this big boulder now—now over this heather—we must keep an eye above us, too—good! We'll double here; never do to cross that open space, eh, Jimmy? ...” He made fair progress, and presently gave an “Ah!” of satisfaction. A path of slippery bents ran up from below among the rocks and heather, as a wave washes up a steep beach; unhesitatingly he crouched and crawled towards it.

“Now hold tight for a slide, Jimmy!” he muttered.

He lay flat on his back and started himself down the slippery way. His speed increased, and he clutched at heather roots to check himself, using his heel also as a brake. That was dangerous, for it lifted his whole body. The heather rocked and swept past him in a blur; he plunged dizzily downwards, jolted and breathless; and sixty yards down he clutched desperately at another bush and lifted twice clear over, his body taking a heather bush at each bound. He lay in a deep gutter between two purple clumps, scratched and bruised and panting, his body arched over the child; then he was up again. His first glance was at the rocky eaves; their line was sharp against the sky and unoccupied; and between himself and the men with the hounds he had now set a low roll of moorland.

It was now he who must take a risk—the risk of a sentry appearing suddenly on the eaves. He ran twenty yards ahead, glanced up again at the grey rocks, ran forward again, and continued to run, his head constantly over his shoulder. Jimmy's face puckered, and again Monjoy hushed him.

“Ssh! Jimmy boy; we'll manage yet, you and I; the farther south the less chance they have of rounding us—but not too far, Jimmy, or we shan't catch those damned dogs. What fools they are to keep 'em leashed, Jimmy! They're lazy rascals.... Now just a little farther——

The child became quiet again, and by and by a further fall of the land gave them a moment's breathing-space.

He was now far down in the valley, with nothing but the rolling heather about him. “Do you think this'll do?” he said to the child; and again he moistened his finger to the wind. He drew out a pistol. He found a flat stone, knocked the priming from the pan, and began to work up a little tinder and tow with more powder from his flask. He set the stone down under the heather and drew the trigger over it.

He had to draw thrice before the spark of flint and standard ignited the charge on the stone; then it caught, and he drew the heather close over it. A bright little flame licked and crackled; it spread; and a thin smoke and the pungent smell of burning heather arose. Monjoy tore up a smaller bush and held it for a moment in the blaze.

“Now we begin, Jimmy,” he said. “This is very bad for the birds, and you're not to do it when you get older, remember; but once in a while——

A few yards on he fired another bush. After the weeks of drought a spark sufficed; and he advanced at a quick walk trailing his brand. When it burnt out he took another. Already from the first point of firing, the flames, of an orange scarce visible, were advancing up the hillside before the light breeze. “Variable; but there'll be more wind higher up,” he assured Jimmy; “whew, but it's dry! Too dry; we want some damp to make a smoke—a nice dense smoke to hide us. What, Jim?—There, I think that'll do.”

He flung his brand from him and turned north again and a little west.

Cicely had mounted the rocky cleft in pitiful trepidation. “Brave and clever,” she told herself she must be; she repeated the words over and over, but they did not stop the painful thumping of her heart. This increased as she neared the head of the ravine, and she felt that a crisis of nerves was seizing her. It came, and she sank in a huddle under a rock, stifling hysterical sobs in a fold of her skirt. She could see the open space at the top of the ravine; she dared not approach it. For nearly twenty minutes she lay, her sobs gradually subsiding, but her will gone from her; and then there chanced something that brought her round like vinegar. A stone's-toss away she saw appear the red back of a soldier.

What kind of being her fears had raised for her she did not know; what she saw was a rather undersized man with sloping shoulders and a handkerchief tucked into the back of his neck. He was eating bread and cheese, and walking aimlessly a little way and back again. He half turned his face—a red, foolish, timid face—but it was the bread and cheese that steadied Cicely completely. If there was only an eater of bread and cheese to elude she thought she could do it, and she waited, no longer trembling. Even then she noticed, but was not aware that she noticed, a light odour of burning; and soon she saw the soldier stroll away to the left, or north. He did not reappear; she advanced cautiously and looked round the boulder at the head of the ravine; he was forty yards away, still walking. The bare top before her was no wider than Horwick market-place; she could run it or creep ... she crept, having control of herself again. With a little wary run she was across and crouching behind another rock. A little way before her Soyland seemed to end where the top of a mountain-ash showed over an edge, and on the purple sunlit hill across the next valley she could see the grey cairn against the sky. As she dropped over the rocky verge there came again the smell of burning ling, but again she was hardly aware of it. The wide basin beneath her was a sea of blooming heather, and almost lost in it was the small cluster of birches and the stone shaft where she was to wait for Arthur. She began the most difficult task of all—the descent with her back to the rocky, sentinelled skyline.

Suddenly, as if some obstruction had fallen from her senses, she identified the half-noticed, familiar smell, and in a flash it came to her what Arthur was about. A light vapour crept up the valley below her. A cliff of rock blocked her view to the south; she hastened towards it and looked beyond. As she did so she heard a soft, deep, distant bay.

No flame was visible; a long, low, rolling line of grey smoke hid all beyond it. It was advancing the whole width of Soyland and more, and its under surface seemed to drag in the heather like shreds and wisps of grey wool. Listening, she could hear the subdued low roaring and hissing; and then a wandering breeze made for a moment a breach in the dense grey roll. It showed a glimpse of ragged, orange, murky flame, that was blotted out again; and then, as the smoke took the lower slopes, the sky became veiled, the day began to fall to a filthy brownish twilight, and the sun dipped to a dull and bloody red. From behind her, over Soyland, the roaring sounded more loudly.

Cicely knew enough of burning moorland to be aware that, once you were caught in that smoke, the flame was like to appear suddenly, leaping all about you. Already the pungent smell filled her nostrils and lungs, and all at once, somewhere behind her, a gun was discharged. As if it had been a signal to herself, she sprang forward down the hillside.

The shaft among the birches was clearly visible, but the grey smoke was creeping towards it, and here and there, in advance of the general line, detached puffs smouldered, like sheep-fleece caught in briars. The smoke from these points veered with the variable wind, and a minute's longer delay might cut her off. She took no thought for cover now. A sheep-track threaded the heather, leading far to the north of the cairn; its direction was of less consequence than the chance of being lost in blinding, stifling smoke with flame behind it; and she sped down the sheep-track, away from the fire and across its path. As she did so she muttered, as folk repeat before going to sleep something they desire to wake up with in the morning, “Keep out o' the smoke—keep out o' the smoke——

Very soon the birches became shrouded, then blotted out.

When flame comes along damp heather, the bushes in advance pour out a thick white smoke and then burst into flame of themselves; with dry, the flames run forward yards at a time, with outriders of flying sparks. Both dry and damp were there, for even the long drought had not dried up the hidden rills and heavy marshy patches. Among the grey there rose from these compact white spiral columns that twisted and rolled, terrifying in the enveloping twilight. She could hear the clamour of the birds, and even then there came to her a thankfulness that the nesting was long past, and that all were on the wing. A score of bleating sheep rushed past her; the light penetrating mist began to enwrap her; and she turned to the north again, looking ever for the westernmost point at which the moor burned.

She saw it, or thought she did, when she was half-way across the hollow. Still she kept away from it; and then, for the first time, she glanced behind her. Above her head the sky still showed, its blue only partially embrowned; but the rocky hill she had descended was completely obliterated, and through the dreadful curtain that hid it there glared dull copper-coloured tracts. Swiftly she looked north; scarlet knots and clusters of soldiers had gathered on the heights; she forgot that they stuffed handkerchiefs into their necks and ate bread and cheese; she turned hurriedly southward again. The cairn on the hill crest above the shaft and the birches was now far to her left instead of in front of her; the course that, but for her delay, would have led straight towards it was a mile-long pall of smoke.

Suddenly a panic took her. A high ceaseless crackling now filled the valley, and behind it was an ominous roar. She turned again, almost direct for the cairn; the smoke was now shrouding it. She had seen the redcoats on the heights moving round as if to cut her off, and her one thought was to make for the birches where Arthur would be—they could not be very far away. She fancied that the smoke had changed a little in direction, too, and was falling more behind her. She coughed and choked as she tore forwards towards the point that she had judged to be the limit of the fire.

In a few minutes the smoke had filled her throat and she had fled choking before it. It advanced almost as quickly as she, but she found easier breathing, and by and by came slanting towards it again. Again she retreated, baffled and half-blinded. The heat was all about her, and she tore at the band of her skirt. She pulled the skirt off and wound it about her head. This darkness of her own making seemed all at once to terrify her, and, with muffled shouts of “Arthur! Arthur!” she plunged forward. She fell back again. She advanced again, and again had to fall back.

She now knew not in what direction she was going, save that it was away from the brown, murky night that was engulfing her and towards the remnant of livid day that, through a fold of her wrapping, still showed ahead. Not forty yards from her was a glare as of red copper. It broke into a frightful bright flame, and was smothered again; and its roaring filled her ears. That glimpse of hell appalled her; she gave a shriek and fled from it in a straight line, as the sheep and birds had fled.

Then from behind the dark curtain of smoke there came suddenly a shriller noise and a succession of loud cracks, an indescribable mingling. A bright and lurid light towered high over her, and yellow flame twisted upwards shrieking. Something—she knew not what—so different was happening there that all at once an intelligence broke on her—she was close to the birches, which were ablaze. Arthur would be there—would be there, as he had promised—though her own courage had failed. Arthur would be there waiting ... again she began to utter piercing cries.

Through the tempest of roaring came another short crack, as if of a pistol; smoke and fierce heat suffocated her; and she gave one last lost cry.

An “Ahoy!” answered her. She was seized, by whom she knew not, and the skirt was pressed closer about her head. Somebody hurried her forward, lifting her from time to time completely off her feet; and her head was so completely enwrapped that she did not know that twenty yards away the breathing was easier. She was scarce conscious that her feet were taking steep rising ground; she only knew that the heat was abated. She was borne swiftly forward; presently her head was partly uncovered; but there was no respite from the lifting and climbing.

Actually, it was not more than five minutes before they were well up the hillside, with the conflagration sweeping away from them below. She heard a gasping voice: “Not yet—more into the wind!” and she was helped forward until a freshening breeze fanned her face. She was placed on a bed of heather; she remembered afterwards that either she saw Jimmy or dreamed she did; but Arthur was far up the hillside, firing the heather again.

She lay for a quarter of an hour before he returned; then he flung himself beside her and broke suddenly into sobs that shook his frame.

“Oh, my darling!” he cried heart-brokenly; “where had you been?”

She murmured something, her own eyes closing; and then he seized her as if even yet some horror strove to part them.

“Oh, I waited—waited—all Soyland blazed—and the wind turned and still you didn't come; but I knew you were clever and brave, though I couldn't see you.... Ah! This won't do.”

He stood up and began to walk about. Presently he was calmer, and sat down again.

“That's better,” he said. He took her in his arms and looked down at her grimed and swollen eyes. “Yes, I knew you were clever and brave; and you must be clever and brave again in a few minutes, dear. The next few hours are our opportunity.... What do you say?”

Gathered against his bosom, she had murmured something.

“Yes, yes; you can have five minutes; you shall have that if I have to fire all the ling in Lancashire. Yes, we're better now.... See, Jimmy's putting out his arms to you, Cis——

Softly he gave her the child.

Below them, the spectacle was one of infernal magnificence. They were now in the rear of the flames that ran devouringly forward, rank on rank, with a red courier springing up wherever a spark alighted. On the level ground the flame had spread swiftly; it now reached the foot of Brotherton Head. It took the whole of the slope above it in one terrific red lick. With a short dull roar, as if of an explosion, the hill sprang into a sheet of flame. All smoke was lost in an upward spouting of fire. At three or four points of the hill, taller spouts—gorse, likely—screamed upward and passed; and then came short bents, and for a moment smoke could be seen far away, rolling over the whole of Back o' th' Mooin. To the south, for a mile and more, all was a desert of ash, white and black and grey, with patches still smouldering; and a dancing mesh of sparks and short flames and glowing embers formed the rear-guard of the advance.

“Put your skirt on and come now,” said Monjoy, bending over his wife and taking her blackened hands.

In a few minutes she was ready to set forth. He took Jimmy again, and, still a little tremulous, he talked to the child as he supported Cicely up the hill.

“Forward now, Jimmy; we've a day's start of those men with the pretty red coats. Forward to the Edge now, you and I and Cicely, and then down into Ratchet, Jimmy. This is our good-bye to Back o' th' Mooin. When you're older I'll tell you a tale about Back o' th' Mooin; come, take a look at it now—you may chance to remember.... Look, Cis, how it's raging over yonder! That's—yes—that's at the furnaces—my furnaces—and that white steaming's Brotherton Bog. Whew!... This is a most sinful thing, Jimmy; the poor birds are homeless now, as we are; but our home's near Cicely, wherever she is, eh? (He is like his mother, Cis!)—Come, dear; you shall rest again at the top....”

It was between afternoon and evening when, far to the south, they reached the Edge. They could not yet see the great western plain, but the land fell away steadily, and soon there was nothing but the immediate foreground and the far distance. The sun sank as they rested and walked again, and the heather and the sheep were dyed and flooded with gold. The light grew richer and quieter and more serene; vapours turned the sun to crimson; and suddenly, appearing beyond a last gradual rise, the breadth of Lancashire lay spread out below them.

Three miles away, among broken hills, lay Ratchet, one or two of its roof-windows still shining brightly. Far beyond it lay a russet patch of smoke—the chimneys of a great town. Violet vapours crept over all the plain. They could not see the sea in the gathering twilight. The rim of the sun dipped into a bank of cloud; it lost its light and grew rusty and died.

Faintly from Ratchet came the ringing of a bell, and Monjoy's eyes turned from the quiet vale to his wife.

“Tell me, dear—when you have kissed me—do you dread to leave and to begin with me again in a new land?”

“No, no; let's go quickly,” she replied.

“Forward, Jimmy,” Monjoy said; and they dropped down the winding path to Ratchet.