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Moonfleet/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER 11
THE SEA-CAVE

The dull loneness, the black shade,
That these hanging vaults have made:
The strange music of the waves
Beating on these hollow caves—Wither


He set me down in one corner, where was some loose dry silver-sand upon the floor, which others had perhaps used for a resting-place before. 'Thou must lie here for a month or two, lad,' he said; 'tis a mean bed, but I have known many worse, and will get straw tomorrow if I can, to better it.'

I had eaten nothing all day, nor had Elzevir, yet I felt no hunger, only a giddiness and burning thirst like that which came upon me when I was shut in the Mohune vault. So 'twas very music to me to hear a pat and splash of water dropping from the roof into a little pool upon the floor, and Elzevir made a cup out of my hat and gave a full drink of it that was icy-cool and more delicious than any smuggled wine of France.

And after that I knew little that happened for ten days or more, for fever had hold of me, and as I learnt afterwards, I talked wild and could scarce be restrained from jumping up and loosing the bindings that Elzevir had put upon my leg. And all that time he nursed me as tenderly as any mother could her child, and never left the cave except when he was forced to seek food. But after the fever passed it left me very thin, as I could see from hands and arms, and weaker than a baby; and I used to lie the whole day, not thinking much, nor troubling about anything, but eating what was given me and drawing a quiet pleasure from the knowledge that strength was gradually returning. Elzevir had found a battered sea-chest up on Peveril Point, and from the side of it made splints to set my leg—using his own shirt for bandages. The sand-bed too was made more soft and easy with some armfuls of straw, and in one corner of the cave was a little pile of driftwood and an iron cooking-pot. And all these things had Elzevir got by foraging of nights, using great care that none should see him, and taking only what would not be much missed or thought about; but soon he contrived to give Ratsey word of where we were, and after that the sexton fended for us. There were none even of the landers knew what was become of us, save only Ratsey; and he never came down the quarry, but would leave what he brought in one of the ruined cottages a half-mile from the shaft. And all the while there was strict search being made for us, and mounted Excisemen scouring the country; for though at first the Posse took back Maskew's dead body and said we must have fallen over the cliff, for there was nothing to be found of us, yet afterwards a farm-boy brought a tale of how he had come suddenly on men lurking under a wall, and how one had a bloody foot and leg, and how the other sprung upon him and after a fierce struggle wrenched his master's rook-piece from his hands, rifled his pocket of a powder-horn, and made off with them like a hare towards Corfe. And as to Maskew, some of the soldiers said that Elzevir had shot him, and others that he died by misadventure, being killed by a stray bullet of one of his own men on the hill-top; but for all that they put a head-price on Elzevir of 50, and 20 for me, so we had reason to lie close. It must have been Maskew that listened that night at the door when Elzevir told me the hour at which the cargo was to be run; for the Posse had been ordered to be at Hoar Head at four in the morning. So all the gang would have been taken had it not been for the Gulder making earlier, and the soldiers being delayed by tippling at the Lobster.

All this Elzevir learnt from Ratsey and told me to pass the time, though in truth I had as lief not heard it, for 'tis no pleasant thing to see one's head wrote down so low as 20. And what I wanted most to know, namely how Grace fared and how she took the bad news of her father's death, I could not hear, for Elzevir said nothing, and I was shy to ask him.

Now when I came entirely to myself, and was able to take stock of things, I found that the place in which I lay was a cave some eight yards square and three in height, whose straight-cut walls showed that men had once hewed stone therefrom. On one side was that passage through which we had come in, and on the other opened a sort of door which gave on to a stone ledge eight fathoms above high-water mark. For the cave was cut out just inside that iron cliff-face which lies between St. Alban's Head and Swanage. But the cliffs here are different from those on the other side of the Head, being neither so high as Hoar Head nor of chalk, but standing for the most part only an hundred or an hundred and fifty feet above the sea, and showing towards it a stern face of solid rock. But though they rise not so high above the water, they go down a long way below it; so that there is fifty fathom right up to the cliff, and many a good craft out of reckoning in fog, or on a pitch-dark night, has run full against that frowning wall, and perished, ship and crew, without a soul to hear their cries. Yet, though the rock looks hard as adamant, the eternal washing of the wave has worn it out below, and even with the slightest swell there is a dull and distant booming of the surge in those cavernous deeps; and when the wind blows fresh, each roller smites the cliff like a thunder-clap, till even the living rock trembles again.

It was on a ledge of that rock-face that our cave opened, and sometimes on a fine day Elzevir would carry me out thither, so that I might sun myself and see all the moving Channel without myself being seen. For this ledge was carved out something like a balcony, so that when the quarry was in working they could lower the stone by pulleys to boats lying underneath, and perhaps haul up a keg or two by the way of ballast, as might be guessed by the stanchions still rusting in the rock.

Such was this gallery; and as for the inside of the cave, 'twas a great empty room, with a white floor made up of broken stone-dust trodden hard of old till one would say it was plaster; and dry, without those sweaty damps so often seen in such places—save only in one corner a land-spring dropped from the roof trickling down over spiky rock-icicles, and falling into a little hollow in the floor. This basin had been scooped out of set purpose, with a gutter seaward for the overflow, and round it and on the wet patch of the roof above grew a garden of ferns and other clinging plants.

The weeks moved on until we were in the middle of May, when even the nights were no longer cold, as the sun gathered power. And with the warmer days my strength too increased, and though I dared not yet stand, my leg had ceased to pain me, except for some sharp twinges now and then, which Elzevir said were caused by the bone setting. And then he would put a poultice made of grass upon the place, and once walked almost as far as Chaldron to pluck sorrel for a soothing mash.

Now though he had gone out and in so many times in safety, yet I was always ill at ease when he was away, lest he might fall into some ambush and never come back. Nor was it any thought of what would come to me if he were caught that grieved me, but only care for him; for I had come to lean in everything upon this grim and grizzled giant, and love him like a father. So when he was away I took to reading to beguile my thoughts; but found little choice of matter, having only my aunt's red Prayer-book that I thrust into my bosom the afternoon that I left Moonfleet, and Blackbeard's locket. For that locket hung always round my neck; and I often had the parchment out and read it; not that I did not know it now by heart, but because reading it seemed to bring Grace to my thoughts, for the last time I had read it was when I saw her in the Manor woods.

Elzevir and I had often talked over what was to be done when my leg should be sound again, and resolved to take passage to St. Malo in the Bonaventure, and there lie hid till the pursuit against us should have ceased. For though 'twas wartime, French and English were as brothers in the contraband, and the shippers would give us bit and sup, and glad to, as long as we had need of them. But of this I need not say more, because 'twas but a project, which other events came in to overturn.

Yet 'twas this very errand, namely, to fix with the Bonaventure's men the time to take us over to the other side, that Elzevir had gone out, on the day of which I shall now speak. He was to go to Poole, and left our cave in the afternoon, thinking it safe to keep along the cliff-edge even in the daylight, and to strike across country when dusk came on. The wind had blown fresh all the morning from south-west, and after Elzevir had left, strengthened to a gale. My leg was now so strong that I could walk across the cave with the help of a stout blackthorn that Elzevir had cut me: and so I went out that afternoon on to the ledge to watch the growing sea. There I sat down, with my back against a protecting rock, in such a place that I could see up-Channel and yet shelter from the rushing wind. The sky was overcast, and the long wall of rock showed grey with orange-brown patches and a darker line of sea-weed at the base like the under strake of a boat's belly, for the tide was but beginning to make. There was a mist, half-fog, half-spray, scudding before the wind, and through it I could see the white-backed rollers lifting over Peveril Point; while all along the cliff-face the sea-birds thronged the ledges, and sat huddled in snowy lines, knowing the mischief that was brewing in the elements.

It was a melancholy scene, and bred melancholy in my heart; and about sun-down the wind southed a point or two, setting the sea more against the cliff, so that the spray began to fly even over my ledge and drove me back into the cave. The night came on much sooner than usual, and before long I was lying on my straw bed in perfect darkness. The wind had gone still more to south, and was screaming through the opening of the cave; the caverns down below bellowed and rumbled; every now and then a giant roller struck the rock such a blow as made the cave tremble, and then a second later there would fall, splattering on the ledge outside, the heavy spray that had been lifted by the impact.

I have said that I was melancholy; but worse followed, for I grew timid, and fearful of the wild night, and the loneliness, and the darkness. And all sorts of evil tales came to my mind, and I thought much of baleful heathen gods that St. Aldhelm had banished to these underground cellars, and of the Mandrive who leapt on people in the dark and strangled them. And then fancy played another trick on me, and I seemed to see a man lying on the cave-floor with a drawn white face upturned, and a red hole in the forehead; and at last could bear the dark no longer, but got up with my lame leg and groped round till I found a candle, for we had two or three in store. 'Twas only with much ado I got it lit and set up in the corner of the cave, and then I sat down close by trying to screen it with my coat. But do what I would the wind came gusting round the corner, blowing the flame to one side, and making the candle gutter as another candle guttered on that black day at the Why Not? And so thought whisked round till I saw Maskew's face wearing a look of evil triumph, when the pin fell at the auction, and again his face grew deadly pale, and there was the bullet-mark on his brow.

Surely there were evil spirits in this place to lead my thoughts so much astray, and then there came to my mind that locket on my neck, which men had once hung round Blackbeard's to scare evil spirits from his tomb. If it could frighten them from him, might it not rout them now, and make them fly from me? And with that thought I took the parchment out, and opening it before the flickering light, although I knew all, word for word, conned it over again, and read it out aloud. It was a relief to hear a human voice, even though 'twas nothing but my own, and I took to shouting the words, having much ado even so to make them heard for the raging of the storm:

'The days of our age are threescore years and ten; and though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years: yet is their strength then but labour and sorrow; so soon passeth it away, and we are gone.

'And as for me, my feet were almost ...'

At the 'almost' I stopped, being brought up suddenly with a fierce beat of blood through my veins, and a jump fit to burst them, for I had heard a scuffling noise in the passage that led to the cave, as if someone had stumbled against a loose stone in the dark. I did not know then, but have learnt since, that where there is a loud noise, such as the roaring of a cascade, the churning of a mill, or, as here, the rage and bluster of a storm—if there arise some different sound, even though it be as slight as the whistle of a bird, 'twill strike the ear clear above the general din. And so it was this night, for I caught that stumbling tread even when the gale blew loudest, and sat motionless and breathless, in my eagerness of listening, and then the gale lulled an instant, and I heard the slow beat of footsteps as of one groping his way down the passage in the dark. I knew it was not Elzevir, for first he could not be back from Poole for many hours yet, and second, he always whistled in a certain way to show 'twas he coming and gave besides a pass-word; yet, if not Elzevir, who could it be? I blew out the light, for I did not want to guide the aim of some unknown marksman shooting at me from the dark; and then I thought of that gaunt strangler that sprang on marbleworkers in the gloom; yet it could not be the Mandrive, for surely he would know his own passages better than to stumble in them in the dark. It was more likely to be one of the hue and cry who had smelt us out, and hoped perhaps to be able to reconnoitre without being perceived on so awful a night. Whenever Elzevir went out foraging, he carried with him that silver-butted pistol which had once been Maskew's, but left behind the old rook-piece. We had plenty of powder and slugs now, having obtained a store of both from Ratsey, and Elzevir had bid me keep the matchlock charged, and use it or not after my own judgement, if any came to the cave; but gave as his counsel that it was better to die fighting than to swing at Dorchester, for that we should most certainly do if taken. We had agreed, moreover, on a pass-word, which was Prosper the Bonaventure, so that I might challenge betimes any that I heard coming, and if they gave not back this countersign might know it was not Elzevir.

So now I reached out for the piece, which lay beside me on the floor, and scrambled to my feet; lifting the deckle in the darkness, and feeling with my fingers in the pan to see 'twas full of powder.

The lull in the storm still lasted, and I heard the footsteps advancing, though with uncertain slowness, and once after a heavy stumble I thought I caught a muttereth oath, as if someone had struck his foot against a stone.

Then I shouted out clear in the darkness a 'Who goes there?' that rang again through the stone roofs. The footsteps stopped, but there was no answer. 'Who goes there?' I repeated. 'Answer, or I fire.'

'Prosper the Bonaventure,' came back out of the darkness, and I knew that I was safe. 'The devil take thee for a hot-blooded young bantam to shoot thy best friend with powder and ball, that he was fool enough to give thee'; and by this time I had guessed 'twas Master Ratsey, and recognized his voice. 'I would have let thee hear soon enough that 'twas I, if I had known I was so near thy lair; but 'tis more than a man's life is worth to creep down moleholes in the dark, and on a night like this. And why I could not get out the gibberish about the Bonaventure sooner, was because I matched my shin to break a stone, and lost the wager and my breath together. And when my wind returned 'tis very like that I was trapped into an oath, which is sad enough for me, who am sexton, and so to say in small orders of the Church of England as by law established.'

By the time I had put down the gun and coaxed the candle again to light, Ratsey stepped into the cave. He wore a sou'wester, and was dripping with wet, but seemed glad to see me and shook me by the hand. He was welcome enough to me also, for he banished the dreadful loneliness, and his coming was a bit out of my old pleasant life that lay so far away, and seemed to bring me once more within reach of some that were dearest.