Shadowy Corners

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perilous romance short story-the smugglers-hodgson william hope

“i suppose,” he said, looking down on me from his great height, “you think you’re going to straighten out all the smugglers in this part of the country!”

the sneer was uncomfortably obvious, and i looked him over carefully, sizing up his weight and possible capabilities. i was the new preventative officer, and had only been in the little village of burget, on th south devon coast, for a bare week. yet, already i had heard of this man, who had just stopped me without ceremony to fire this jeer off at me. he was the only son of squire rosset of that neighboRHOOD, and noted as a wrestler, and for his great strength. also, as i knew perfectly well, he was up to his ears, as the saying goes, in the free-trade traffic.

“mr. rosset,” i replied, “i dislike the tone of your question.”

and with that i turned on my heel and left him. behind me, as i went, i heard the man’s great bellow of rude laughter; but i went on my way, and kept my temper in hand. yet, in justice to myself, i must tell you that tehre was honestly no bodily fear at the back of my quietness, for though he was a huge, poerful man, about four or five inches taller than I, and very broad-seeming, i knew that i was probably the stronger man of the two, and possibly quite as heavy; for he lacked both the chest depth that was mine, and the weight of shoulder development.

moreover, if he was famed in those parts as a wrestler, i was by no means without knowledge OF the art; and, in addition, i had what i knew he had not, and that was many hard years of ring-training at my back; for there was no fighting man of my time i had not stood up to privately, and i had yet to be beaten. all this in justifiction, and in no way to be set down to over-conceit. for whilst i would not willingly be drawn into brawling on the question of my duty, i would not have you to think that i was to be intimidated from carrying out my work to the best of mY ability.

i had been sent with extra men to burget to put down the smuggling, which had assumed such prodigious proportions as to have attracted the attention of headquarters; and put down the smuggling i meant to do. indeed, already i had spoilt two night-runnings; and three men of the neighborhood were even then waiting their trial as a result. and by this telling you will the better understand the attitude of the squire’s son.

yet i was sorry for this ill-feeling on his part; for the squire had six daughters, and one of them–miss ruth rosset, as i had already learned she was named–had taken my eye strangely at chruch the previous sunday, so that since then a dozen times i had caught myself thinking upon her.

on this day it seemed that i was to have my full share of the disagreeables; for presently, as i went down THE cliff path, there met me full in the way the squire’s six daughters, to whom i had been, formally presented after the service by parson wenlock. to these i gave salute, and stood off the path for them to pass. but, indeed, they went by me with their skirts withdrawn and their faces forward, as if i had been but a matter of dirt upon the path-side. and i had thought, foolishly enough that miss ruth had looked not unfriendly at me on the past sunday; and now this.

and by such an incident alone you shll see the bitter enmity which i had earned already by the capture of the cargoese and by the arrests. moreover, it may help you to perceive the curious sympathy which held the peoples of the neighborHOOD together, and the inability of any, from the highesT TO tHE LOWEST, to conceive that smuggling was anything but right and desirable. indeed, it was evident to me that the daughters of squire rosset had both knowLEDGE ANDapproval of their brother’s secret trading; and no doubt many a dainty foreign gewgaw came their way through their brother, so that they were more likely to make a personal matter of any attempt to end the free traffic, as you shall think.

apart from this, as i had reason to suspect, smuggling brought a certain ready wealth into the household, which must have been welcome; for though squire rosset was plainly well-to-do, he was reported to keep a very close fist on his moneybags. in the meanwhile, i had many things to take my attention from this unneighborliness of the Rossets (though in this i do not include the Squire, who was always very courteous and friendly); for within the next MONTH, i had made seven big hauls; with the result that the next assizes there were sentenced ten men of burget; and the smugllers of that district were beginning to realize that i mant truly to check the free traffic.

there were, of course, several attempts to put me on one side. twice i was fired at in the dark, and once three men came out of the bushes at me on one of the low cliff-paths. they had heavy sticks, and, i suppose, thought to have done with me in a minute. i broke the jaw of one with my fist, and one of the ohters i pitched bodily over the cliff, where he was found at daylight with both legs broken. the third man ran; but i mant that the smugglers should learn that this sort of thing was not going to be tried without certain pains attaching.and so i chased that man for three miles. when i caught him, i beat him with his own stick until he cried like a child. then i left him to get well and think.

apart from thsi little privat adjustment of the matter, i did not press the case officially, though i knew the three men who had attacked me. this attitude on my part earned for me, i think, a certain, respect from my neighbors to salt their general hatred of me. moreover, it went round the district that i had held off the three men alone, and this made me free of such matters for the future.

and now back to my relations with the Rossets, for it will have become plain to you by now that my interests lay much that way. i had several times been invited by the old squire to come up to dinner, but had always pleaded duty; for it was easy to know that his children would scarce welcome me so freely as i might like.

however, one evening, when i was down in the village, the squire stopped his carriage by me and asked whether i was going to plead duty again as an excuse for usnociability. so that before i well knew what i was doing i was beside him driving up to the manor, with no excuse for dress or dirt allowed. and indeed, i must say here that old squire rosset showed always a curious and strong partiality for my company, which was often pleased and surprised me; for he was a man of considerable character, and, as i liked to think, discernment and most certainly not given to over-readiness in the making of friends, as was plain to me.

at dinner the squire’s six daughters were simply brutal, and i was glad the brother was absent. they acted as if i were not at the table, except for a frigid and over-formal attention to my needs. that the squire was vaguely aware of this at first i am in doubt; but i do know that later their manner attracted both his attention, and his wrath.

and here let me say that the squire at no time showed any sympathy with the free-trade which was rampant all about–and even in his own houshold, had he but known. indeed, it is possible that he more than half suspected, and that he was wishful to stand well with the law, in my person, and to make it plain that he was on the side of order, and nowise concerned with unorthodox doings. this at least, has been sometimes my thought.

for a long while, the squire tried to hold off the silence from the table by telling anecdotes of the countryside. finally, as if it had suddenly occurred to him, he said in a jovial way:

“i hear, mr. faucett, that you beat three of our local men the other night, single-handed.”

i laughed.

“they were not a very dangerous lot,” i said.

“if it had been tom, and just alone,” said miss ruth suddenly from down the table, “he’d have probably thrown you over the cliff. you musn’t think all the men in this part are babies.”

“silence, child!” said the squire. he turned to me, as i sat realizing how much talk there must have BEEN already about that bit of trouble.

“you see,” he said, “they’re great partisans for thri own countrymen. and they think there’s no one in the world so fine and strong as my son tom.”

i nodded and turned to the girl.

“Such scoundrels ought to be thankful, miss ruth, for such a champion. they certaiNLY need one.”

i was awre that the old squire looked at me with a sudden quick surprise; but i was still looking at the girl. i had intended to be a littel brutal, for her cold insolence had nagered me, even while her winsomeness drew me strangely. yet she mad no answer to my remark, but looked down at her plate, as if i did not exist. all the other girls kept the same frozen silence, and i saw their father looking at them with a vague half-anger, and make as if to say something; but instead he took a drink of ale, and joined the general queit, so that the whole table was uncomfortably silent.

after dinne we moved into the drawing-room, where miss ruth played the harp and sang several ballads. it was while she ws improvising gently to herself on the harp that her brother tom came quickly into the room. it was evident that he did not know i was present and, before he had been told, he said in a savage voice:

“that d–d spy has murdered another of our men!”

“what!” said miss ruth, very pale in the face; and all the other girls cried out in horror.

“Tom!” called the squire quickly, before he had time unknowingly to fix the insult on me.

tom turned and saw me. he made muttered choking noise in his throat, and in the same moment the squire had hastily introduced us. tom looked at me, and bent his stiff neck to a curt nod, to which i responded with ordinary courtesy; though i had no doubt but that his remark referred to the hanging that day oif one martin lowther, who had shot thames taunton, a man of my patrol, a month previously at a surprise of cargo-running, and had been condemned on my evidence.

regarding this same martin lowther, he was an infernal blackguard; whilst taunton had been a steady, splended fellow, and but newly wed to a pretty girl; so that you must undeRSTAND my heart held little pity, for lowther, who, it seemed, had been always a low, loafing, tippling, tongue-wagging longshoreman, with a dirty and ugly record to his back. yet, as you will perceive, i could only ignore tom rosset’s remark, and pretend, at least whilst under their roof, that i had no understanding of what it was that he had referred to.

for a while young rossett remained, and the conversation became general in the room; so that presently i felt that the tension had been eased, and that a more soicable spirit was prevailing. it was because of this feeling that, when tom rossett left the room a little later, i walked over to wehre miss ruth was sittING idly by the window, and asked her whether she wold pleasure me by singing a favorite old love-song.

in a moment i saw that i had made a mistake in supposing that there was either grace or courtesy in the girl; for she said no word, but looked silently up at me with a kind of white scorn. abruptly she got ot he feet and went over to her harp. then, sitting down, she sang the “hanging of the spy,” with such deliberate and deadly insult, considering my request and the circumstances that i quietly took my leave without more ado.

the old squire let me go only with reluctance and in bewilderment. i learnt afterwards that when he found ot just what had happened beneath his very nose, as we say, there was such a storm in the manor as was not forgotten for a long while. and, indeed, though i did not know at the time, this had something TO DO WITH a note of cleverly-worded explanation and apology which was brought next evening to my house by no less a person than tom rosset himself. he to my amazement, made a jovial sort of apology for all, and explained that i must not take them too seriously, but make some allowance for their feelings of partisanship for their own villagers, who had been born and bred on their own land.

all this, as you will UNDERSTAND, QUITE took the wind out of my sails, so that i could not be stiff with the man, but felt that he must be a decent fellow at bottom. and when he doubly urged me that i simply must come up that night to dinner and a comfortaBLE evening, to show that i truly bore no ill-will for what he was pleased to term their “local prickles,” i agreed in the heartiest fashion, feeling truly that i had, perhaps, been a little foolish to take too much notice of the somewhat undisciplined attitude of a set of young people. and so, with a final word that the carriage would be down for me at seven, he went off.

that night i found that young rosset had not exaggerated, for i was welcomed courteously by all the girls, though, as might be expected, with a certain reserve which was developed to actual constraint in the case of miss ruth. however, during dinner, at which the old squire paid me the nicest attention, the girl became more natural, and by the end we had arrived almost at a friendly attitude. yet under her manner there seemed to be always a strange submission, or rather repression, s if she were not being quite truly herself. i know of no other words with which to explain this vague imrpession i had when speaking to her.

when in the drawing-room after dinner miss ruth moved over to her harp, and played the prelude to the very song which i had asked her to sing to me on the preceding evening. then she began to sing the song itself in a low voice, and the room was utterly quiet, save for the quaint melody of the song, and the deep, mellow notes of the harp. and then, as i sat listening with my feelings a little stirred, my gaze fell on the old squire, and i knew suddenly a part of the reason for this friendliness on the part of the rosset family, and the girl’s curious seeming of submission and repression of herself; for the old man, not aware that i saw him, was looking at the girl with a fierce, stern look in his eyes that showed me he must have been mightily angered and wakened to mastry by his family’s disgracing of all laws of ordinary courtesy and hospitality.

indeed, it was obvious to me that he was truly master in his own house when he chose; and in this case he haad chosen, and his family had been forced to obey. and all this i reasoned out, from a quick flash of intuition, as i sat listening to the song. at first, as you may think, i had a feeling that i wished for no such forced welcome as this, but after a little thought i saw that it would be foolishness to act upon this feeling and refrain from ever coming near the manor again; for i knew that i was already more than attraCTED TO miss ruth; and i made up my mind then that i would make them all to realize that iw as worthy of their friendship, and then, perhaps, i might tach the girl to love me.

and indeed, within a week i had reason to feel that i was succeeding, for the friendliness of the family began to have an unstrained note in it, so that i could see that the old squire had relaxed his stern attitude to his family, and felt comfortable able now to leave me in their hands. i was now a regular visitor; and, indeed, a lace was set always for me at dinner, so that i might truly call myself a friend of the family. also, perhaps because the others saw my preferenCE, i noticed that it seemed to be taken for granted that miss ruth and i liked to be together, for often we would find that matters had resolved themselves this way.

and truly she seemed not to dislike my company, though always in a quiet, half-shy, half-reserved way that stirerd me with more than a vague hope that she had begun to care a little for me. sometimes, when the six girls were returning from their daily bathe, i would meet them and walk back to lunch, at such times carrying miss ruth’s towel, which act of service pleased me in that strange but natural WAY which is familiar to most who have fallen in love with a maid, for i knew now that i was very much this way, yet quite unsure of the girl.

then one day miss ruth, as i met them, remarked that bathing made her tired, and that she thought it might be as well to drop it for a time and go for some good long walks. this emboldened me to offer myself as an escort; and to my great pleasure she was pleased to accept, so that i felt surely she must care, if but a little.

from thence onward through a short, happy month i took miss ruth for a good walk during the time in which her sisters went for their morning bathe; meeting them on the homeward journey, and so with them to the manor, where i had lunch as one of the family. by this time i was thoroughly misirable unless i was with miss ruth; yet i could not bring myself to risk the utter misery of a refusal, so that day after we walked quietly in country lanes, she seemingly shy but content to be with me, and i in a distress of doubt. yet i felt sure that she must know that i loved her, for i showed it in a thousand ways, possibly clumsily and foolishly, though i felt so dumb.

then one day i came upon my tragedy. i met the sisters coming down as usual to their bathe, but miss ruth was not among THEM. they told me that she had stopped at the stile on the corner to rest, and that i should probably find her there; whereat i hurried on. as i drew near the bend of the lane which hid the stile from me i heard suddenly tom rosset’s voice, raised almost to a shout in anger. he was saying something vehemently, and it sounded as if his sister were trying to reply. they evidently did not hear me as i came along on the soft grass bank bordering the lane; and even as i puzzled a moment how to let them know i was near, i heard my name, and knew that tom was accusing his sister biterly of being in love with me.

i paused eagerly listeNING TO her answer, for it was what my heart had been aching yet dreading to hear for all the past weeks. then, like a bitter, unbelievable slap in the face, her laughter came hard and scornful, and i heard her tell her brother that she had done no more than she had agreed to do, which was to hold me from the shore whilst the cargoes were run; that she loved me as little as he did, and that if he did not approve of her methods, he ahd better take me on country walks himself, and so combine courtesy to the enemy–thereby obeying their father–and assitance to the smugglers all at the same time; and she hoped he would have as much or as little entertainMENT out of it as she had gained! and all this with a fresh and bitter accompaniment of scornful laugheter, so that my heart was cold and sick and hard within me.

“if i did,” said tom rosset brutally, “i’d wring his neck for him, and leave him in the wood–the spying, murdering scum that he is!”

i walked round the corner of the lane, and came upon them. the girl cried out something, with a little frightened gasp, and i saw her face whiten.

“so,” is aid, looking at her with grim contempt, “you can stoop to break a man’s heart for such paltry ends!”

she made no attempt to answer, and indeed i waited for none, but came round swiftly on the brother.

“at last mr. rosset,” i said, “you will be able to show off that strength of which you are so proud–you treacherous beast!”

and with that i met his quick rush with a hard body-punch that brought him up gasping. i heard the girl sobbing where, she stood by the hedge near the stile; then the man tried a “hold” on me, which i slipped, and punched him off. a dozen tries he made to grip me, but i hit him cruelly hard, for he was too strong and heavy a man to deal gently with; moreover, i intended to punish, for i was as bitter as gall. and so, in a minute, i had him rocking on his feet, for i had near hit the life out of him. then i went in quickly adn threw him very hard, so that he lay stunned upon the ground. and miss ruth just standing near the stile, as pale as death, and bright-eyed, and shaking with strange, dry sobs.

“oh!” is aid, looking at her, and speaking between my gasps, “he’s a brute, but he’s a man. but what are you?”

then i turned and went down the lane as quickly as i might. as soon s i had steadied sufficiently, and fought down the mad, hopeless pain at my heart enough to think, i hurried down to the station, to find out how it could be possible THAT there had been any running of smuggled goods in broad daylight, as was obviouS must have BEEN done from what i had overheard miss ruth say to her brother. yet no man had the least suspicion that there had bEEN ANY “running” of late, and unless i supposed that there had been a general slackness among my own men, i could not conceive how the thing could have been worked, whether my attention was withdrawn or not.

yet that goods had come into the district i was soon able to prove by the reports of the inland officers; so that for the next month i was continually round the cliffs, visiting my men both day and night to see that the patrols were not shirked. and glad enough i was for the constant work and watching, for a more sickening month of misery i never passed. i had not merely lost the girl i loved, but all the glamour of love and all my ideals; so that all the world seemed hopelessly grey and sordid.

and yet, so far as the results of my work went, i was failing to stop the smuggling, for the up-country men still reported goods coming in duty-free; but how it was done i could not imagine, and i had almost decided to send for more men, and put out a couple of patrol gigs, when i got a hint that put me on the track. a note was slipped under my door one night, with this single line printed across it:

pride, before fallin’, watch the squire’s leddies bathin’.

it was certainly a curious composition, and was obviously written by some woman of the people who had reasons to hate the miss rossets. to me it meant one thing–the explanation of the mystery. the secluded little cove where the squire’s daughters went for their daily bathe was quite near, comparatively speaking, to my house, so that it had never appeared necessary to have a patrol over a place that was practically always under my own eye; and, of couRSE, during the time of the girls’ bathing, i had been walking with miss ruth. moreover, since i had discovered the heartlessness OF the girl, i had taken very good care to avoid that part of the cliff-path during the hours when the girls would be likely to appear, and so, of course, unconsciously doing the particular thing that they desired.

the morning of the following day i kept watch for the coming of the miss rossets, and as soon as I had seen them go down the cliff-path to their bathing cove i took six of my men and placed them on the upper path, wiht orders not to move unless i whistled twice. then i took the lower path down into the cove, and went quietly. at the bend, from which a view could be had downward, i came upon the girls’ maid, who ran up to me in a great fluster to tell me that the “leddies” were bathing below, and ‘twould not do for me to go down.

this, of course, in the ordinary way would have bEEN sufficient to send back any proper-feeling man; but i had come with a set intention, and i meant to go down into that cove though there had been a thousand ladies there disporting themselves. when the maid saw that i took no heed of her warning she made to run before me to warn her mistresses, but i caught her in a moment and set my hand over her mouth to quieten her. then i went backward up the path with her, and left her in the charge of my coxswain, telling him to plug her mouth if she attempted to shout.

a minute later i was back again at the bend of the lower apth, and looking below me into the cove. down there six maidens wer laughing and splashing about in the shallow water in constumes less complete than had before occurred to me, for it was obvious that they had never so much as imagined that they would be intruded upon. and THERE, AS i looked, the whole mystery of the later smuggling as solved; for the six maidens were gleefull rolling and hauling dozens of exceedingly small casks out of the shallows at the foot of the cliff, an dragging them into the mouth of the cave which was evidently only uncovered at low water.

the whole method was now clear to me. on suitable nights, tom rosset–i presume–and his gang would bring in their stuff quietly and dump it in the water at the foot of the cliff, in the bright of the little cove where his siters came for their bathe. they, on their part, would make a search each day for any contraband that might have been dumped, and, finding it, they would draw it safely into the low-water cave, from which it could be removed at leisure. and this they had done safely in broad daylight; for who would have suspected them of such a thing? moreover, all of my men were on their patrols, or asleep at the station, and they had accounted for me by the heartless method which miss ruth had put into practice.

all the casks, i noticed appeared to be loosely roped together in the way common to this method of hiding “free goods,” but with mroe line than usual between each cask, evidently done purposely to make them easier handling by the girls, who worked with zest at their unlawful task, their laughter rising up to me clear and shrill through the splashing of the water.

and all the while iw as coming down quickly and silently upon them. i reached the narrow strip of beach that bordered one side of the cove wehre the cliff-path ended; then i hailed the girls, sternly bidding them to come shore and submit to the law. on the instant there were loud screams, and immediatly all of the maidens had hidden themselves up to their necks in the water, and were looking at me, some very red in the face, and some so scared that they were red one moment and white the next; but when i looked at miss ruth, she was white and hopeless-seeming, and looked only at the water.

i bid them come ashore and dress, but they would not until i had threatened to whistle for my men to come and carry them from the water, for i meant to give them the taste of their own mercilessness, that they might learn the meaning of mercy, and know that a man’s love is not to be used as merchandise, neither his heart as a toy, for all had been in the plot with miss ruth to use my love to their own miserable ends.

then, when the squire’s daughters saw that i meant truly to use the law upon them and to have no pity, some taunted me bitterly from where they hid in the water, and some broke into weeping; but when i looked at miss ruth, she was only white and silent. then she looked up at me and beackoned to the others to be still, and asked me in a low voice to go out of the cove whilst her sisters and she came ashore and dressed, for she would give her workd that they would not try to escape.

but to this i gave only refusal, and told her that i dared not value her word. this set a look of despair into her face, so that i told them of my true intention, which was that they come ashore singly, whilst i would stand behind a rock nearby. when each one was dressed, she was to come to me, and i would signal for the next to come ashore. and with this they had to be content, for i was so stern that they felt in their hearts that i would truly call my men if they did not obey.

presently, as i stood behind the rock, the eldest sister prsented herself to me, fully-dressed and defiant, but obviousLY frightened. i bid her to hold out her hands, which at first she refused to do, until i drew my whistle from my pocket to show that my patience was nearly gone; then she held them out with a kind of fierce scorn and fear, and i immediATELY snapped one of the pairs of handcuffs on her wrists which i had brought for the purpose. at that her face whitened, and suddenly she broke into crying and turned from me.

then i signalled for the next maid to come from the water; and as each one in turn presented herself to me i put the irons on her wrists, and some, would whiten and some would redden, but all came to tears in the end, for suddently the realization was brought home to them that they had truly put themselves withing the power of the law, and hat they had no reason at all to expect mercy from me.

the last one to come from the water was miss ruth, and when presently she came round the rock dressed, and saw how her sisters stood, all ironed, i knew that she gave a little start; then, quietly and without waiting for me to tell her, she held out her hands for the irons, and i snapped them on her little wrists with the strangest feelings stirring at my heart.

afterwards, i gave the order to march, and took them al up out of the cove by a sheep-track, which they were glad enough TO follow, that they might avoid everyone. they went in a sort of quiet dispair, save for odd sobbings, for they knew that if they disobeyedi should simply call my men, and this was of all things the thing they dreaded. i brought them up over the cliff, and so into the country-lands beyond, and thence by secluded paths towards the town, where the assizes were held. for three long miles it ook them in this direction, and then, suddenly, their despair culminated, for they stopped on the path and gathered round miss ruth, and i knew that they were begging her to intercede with me.

i stood a little way off from them, and when, presently, the girl came out from among them and walked quietly over to me, i looked at her sternly but silently whilst she made her request, which was that i would let her and her sisters go free, for they had learned such a lesson as should keep, them law-abiding for all their lives to come; but tht if any must be punished, let her be puniSHED, and she would come obediently with me, if i would but let her sisters go free. and even as i stood there, looking so grim upon her, i could near have wept to hear her plead so prettily, for i loved her yet so great.

for amoment or two i stood as if pondering, then turning to the maidens where they stood in a miserable group, i told them that i hoped they had learned their lesson, and that in the future not only their actions but their influence would be on teh side of law and order. afterwards i took the key of the irons from my pocket and set them free, bidding them to go home. but when i came to unlock miss ruth, who had remained to the last, she refused me quietly, and, turning to ther sisters asked them to go on, as she wished to speak to me.

for a minute or so she stood before me, until her sisters were a good distance off, then, without a word, she slipped the handcuffs from her little hands, for whilst her sisters were big-made women, she was small and dainty. i looked at her with a sudden new feeling thrilling in me, for i knew that she had kept them on only for strange reasons. yet, though i looked always at her, she, on her part, looked only downward, and i saw that her hands were trembling a little.

“miss rosst,” i said abruptly, “you are free to go. but will you tell me why you kept the irons on?”

“because i was your prisoner,” she said in a low voice, and still looking down.

“is that all?”

“yes,” she answered.

“well, you are free now,” i replied.

“no,” she said, in the quietest voice possible, so that i could hardly hear her, and making no attempt to go on from me, “i am still your prisoner.”

i came over to her with three quick steps.

“what do you mean?” i asked almost savagely, “Is this more of your jilt’s play?”

“Oh!” she said, breaking into a sudden sobbing, “I shall never be free again. never, never, never!”

i had her in my arms.

“I loved you without knowing,” she said, perhaps half-an-hour later. “I never meant those things i said to tom, but he made me so angry. oh, but i’ve known ever since!”

and i said nothing; for she was still in my arms.

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