Read CHAPTER XI. - FLIGHT. of The Adventures of Harry Revel , free online book, by Arthur Quiller-Couch, on ReadCentral.com.

The sails drew as we got the anchor on board; and by the time O.P. and I had done sluicing the hawser clean of the mud it brought up, we were working down the Hamoaze with a light and baffling wind, but carrying a strong tide under us.  Evening fell with a warm yellow haze:  the banks slipping past us grew dim and dimmer:  here and there a light shone among the long-shore houses.  I felt more confident, and no longer concealed myself as we tacked under the sterns of the great ships at anchor or put about when close alongside.

As we cleared Devil’s Point and had our first glimpse of the grey line where night was fast closing down on open sea, I noted a certain relaxation in Mr. Pengelly, as if he too had been feeling the strain.  He began to chat with me.  The wind, he said, was backing and we might look for this spell of weather to break up before long.  Once past the Rame we should be right as ninepence and might run down the coast on a soldier’s wind:  it would stiffen a bit out yonder unless he was mistaken.  He pulled out his pipe and lit it.  Aft loomed the bulk of Mrs. Pengelly at the wheel.  Save for a call now and again to warn us that the helm was down, to put about, she steered in silence.  And she steered admirably.

We had opened the lights of Cawsand and were heading in towards it on the port tack when, as O.P. smoked and chatted and I watched the spark of the Eddystone growing and dying, her voice reached us, low but distinct.

“There’s a boat coming.  Get below, boy!”

Sure enough as I scrambled for the hatchway in a flutter, someone hailed us out of the darkness.

“Ahoy, there!”

“Ahoy!” O.P. called back, after a moment, into the darkness.

“What’s your name?”

“The Glad Tidings, of Looe, and thither bound.  Who be you?”

“Water-guard.  Is that you speaking, Mr. Pengelly?”

“Ay, sure.  Anything the matter?”

“Seen such a thing as the body of a young chimney-sweep on your way down?  Age, ten or thereabouts.  There’s one missing.”

“You don’t say so!  Drowned?”

His wife having put about, Mr. Pengelly obligingly hauled a sheet or two to windward, and brought the Glad Tidings almost to a standstill, allowing the boat to come close alongside.

“Drowned?” he asked again.

“Worse than that,” said the officer’s voice (and it sounded dreadfully close); “there’s been murder committed, and the child was in the house at the time.  The belief is, he’s been made away with.”

“Save us all!  Murder?  Whereto?”

“On the Barbican ­an old Jew there, called Rodriguez.  Who’s that you’ve got at the helm?”

“Missus.”

“Never knew ye was married.”

“Nor did I, till this mornin’.”

“Eh?  Wish ye luck, I’m sure; and you, ma’am, likewise!”

“Thank ye, Mr. Tucker,” answered the lady.  “The same to you and many of ’em ­which by that I don’t mean wives.”

“Good Lord, is that you, Sally?  Well, I’m jiggered!  And I owe you ninepence for that last pair of flatfish you sold me!”

“Tenpence,” said Mrs. Pengelly.  “But I can trust a gentleman.  Where d’ye say this here murder was committed?”

“Barbican.”

“I don’t wonder at anything happening there.  They’re a stinking lot.  Why don’t ye s’arch the shipping there and in Cattewater?”

“We’ve been s’arching all day.  And now the constables are off towards Stoke ­it seems a child answering all particulars was seen in that direction this morning.”

“That don’t look like being made away with.”

“In a case like this,” answered Mr. Tucker sagely, “as often as not there’s wheels within wheels.  Well, I won’t detain ye.  Good-night, friends!”

“Good-night!”

I heard the creak of thole-pins as the rowers gave way, and the wash of oars as the boat shot off into the dark.  Mr. Pengelly sent me a low whistle and I crept forth.

“Hear what they said?” he asked.

“They ­they didn’t give much trouble.”

“Depends what you call trouble.”  He seemed slightly hurt in his feelings, and added, with asperity and obvious truth, “Carry it off how you will, a honeymoon’s a honeymoon, and a man doesn’t expect to be interrupted with questions about a sweep’s apprentice.”

“Stand by!” cautioned the voice aft, low and firm as before.  “By the sound of it they’ve stopped rowing.”

“If they come on us again, we’re done for.  That Tucker’s a fool, but I noticed one or two of the men muttering together.”

“Sounds as if they were putting about.  Can the boy swim?” asked Mrs. Pengelly anxiously.

“I’ll bet he can’t.”

“But I can,” said I.  “If you’ll put the helm down, ma’am, and hold in, I think she’ll almost fetch Penlee Point.  I don’t want to get you into trouble.”

We all listened.  And sure enough the sound of oars was approaching again out of the darkness.

“Mr. Pengelly can lower me overside,” I urged, “as soon as we’re near shore.  It’s safest in every way.”

“So best,” she answered shortly, and again put the Glad Tidings about.  I began to pluck off my clothes.

The boat was evidently watching us:  for, dark as the evening had grown, almost as soon as our helm went down the sound of oars ceased astern ­to begin again a few seconds later, but more gently, as if someone had given the order for silence.  O.P. peered under the slack of the mainsail.

“There she is!” he muttered.  “Tucker will be trying to force her alongside under our lee.”  He picked up and uncoiled a spare rope.  “You’d best take hold o’ this and let me slip ye over the starboard side, forra’d there, as she goes about.  Bain’t afeard, hey?”

“I’m not afraid of anything but being caught, sir.”

“Sarah will take her in close:  there’s plenty water.”

“O.P.,” said the voice aft.

“My angel.”

“Tell ‘en he’s a good boy, and I wouldn’ mind having one like him.”

“You’re a good boy,” said O.P., and covered the remainder of the message with a discreet cough.  “Seems to me Tucker’s holdin’ off a bit,” he added, peering again under the sail.  “Wonder what his game is?”

But I was already stripped, and already the high land loomed over us.  Down went the helm again, and “Now’s your time,” muttered O.P. as we scrambled forward to cast off sheets.  Amid the flapping of her head sails as she hung for a moment or two in stays, I slipped overside and took the water easily while the black mass of her stern swung slowly round and covered me from view of the boat.  Then, as the tall side began to gather way and slip by me, I cast a glance towards land and dived.

I came to the surface warily and trod water whilst I spied for the boat, which ­as I reckoned ­must be more than a gunshot distant.  The sound of oars guided me, and I dived again in a terror.  For she had not turned about to follow the ketch, but was heading almost directly towards me, as if to cut me off from the shore.

My small body was almost bursting when I rose for air and another look.  The boat had not altered her course, and I gasped with a new hope.  What if, after all, she were not pursuing me?  I let my legs sink and trod water.  No:  I had not been spied.  She was pointing straight for the shore.  But what should take a long-boat, manned (as I made out) by a dark crowd of rowers and passengers, at this hour to this deserted spot?  Why was she not putting-in for Cawsand, around the point?  And did she carry the water-guard?  Was this Tucker’s boat after all, or another?

Still treading water, I heard her nose take the ground, and presently the feet of men shuffling, as they disembarked, over loose stones:  then a low curse following on a slip and a splash.  “Who’s that talking?” a voice inquired, quick and angry.  “Sergeant!  Take that man’s name.”  But apparently the sergeant could not discover him.  The footfalls grew more regular and seemed to be mounting the cliff, along the base of which, perhaps a hundred yards from shore, the tide was now sweeping me.  I gave myself to it and noiselessly, little by little working towards land, was borne out of hearing.

Another ten minutes and my feet touched bottom.  I pulled myself out upon a weed-covered rock, and along it to a slate-strewn foreshore overhung by a low cliff of shale, grey and glimmering in the darkness.  But even in the darkness a ridge of harder rock showed me a likely way.  I remembered that the cliff hereabouts was of no great height and scalable in a score of places.  Very cautiously, and sometimes sitting and straddling the ridge while my fingers sought a new grip, I mounted to the edge of a heathery down; and there, after pricking myself sorely among the furze-bushes that guarded it, found a passage through and cast myself at full length on the short turf.

For a while I lay and panted, flat on my back, staring up at the stars:  for the wind had chopped about and was now drawing gently off shore, clearing the sky.  But, though gentle, it had an edge of chill which by and by brought me to my feet again.  Far out on the dark waters of the Sound glimmered the starboard light of the Glad Tidings, and it seemed to me that she was heading in for shore.  Had the Pengellys too discovered that the boat was not the water-guard’s?  And was O.P. working the ketch back to give me a chance of rejoining her?  Else why was she not slackening sheets and running?  Vain hope!  I suppose that the new slant of wind took some time in reaching her; for, just as I was preparing to creep back between the furze-whins and scramble down to the foreshore again, the green light was quenched.  She had altered her helm and was clearing the Sound.

I dared not hail her.  Indeed, had I risked it, the odds were against my voice carrying so far, to be recognised.  And while I stood and searched the darkness into which she had disappeared, my ear caught again the muffled tramp of the soldiers, this time advancing towards me.  I waited no longer, but started running for dear life up the shoulder of the down.

The swim and the chill breeze had numbed my legs and arms.  After a few hundred yards, however, I felt life coming back to them, and I ran like a hare.  I was stark naked, and here and there my feet struck a heather root pushed above the turf, or wounded themselves on low-lying sprouts of furze; but as my eyes grew used to the dark sward I learned to avoid these.  So close the night hung around me that even on the sky-line I had no fear of being spied.  I crossed the ridge and tore down the farther slope; stumbled through a muddy brook and mounted another hillside.  My heart was drumming now, but terror held me to it ­over this second ridge and downhill again.

I supposed myself but half-way down this slope, or only a little more, when in springing aside to avoid a low bush I missed footing altogether; went hurling down into night, dropped plumb upon another furze-bush ­a withered one ­and heard and felt it snap under me; struck the cliff-side, bruising my hip, and slid down on loose stones for another few yards.  As I checked myself, sprawling, and came to a standstill, some of these stones rolled on and splashed into water far below.

For a minute or so, at full length on this treacherous bed, I could pluck up no heart to move.  Then, inch by inch at first, I drew myself up to the broken bush and found beside it a flat ledge, smooth and grassy, which led inland and downwards.  I think it must have been a sheep-track.  I kept to it on hands and knees, and it brought me down to the head of a small cove where a faint line of briming showed the sea’s edge rippling on a beach of flat grey stones.

My hip was hurting me, and I could run no farther.  I groped along the base of the eastern cliff and crawled into a shallow cave close by a pile of seaweed which showed the high mark of the tide now receding.  With daylight I might discover a better hiding-place.  Meanwhile I snuggled down and drew a coverlet of seaweed over me for warmth.