Read CHAPTER THIRTEEN of Deep Down‚ a Tale of the Cornish Mines , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

TREATS OF SPIRITS AND OF SUNDRY SPIRITED MATTERS AND INCIDENTS

One sunny afternoon Mrs Maggot found herself in the happy position of having so thoroughly completed her round of household work that she felt at leisure to sit down and sew, while little Grace sat beside her, near the open door, rocking the cradle.

Baby, in blissful unconsciousness of its own existence, lay sound asleep with a thumb in its mouth; the resolute sucking of that thumb having been its most recent act of disobedience.

Little Grace was flushed, and rather dishevelled, for it had cost her half an hour’s hard wrestling to get baby placed in recumbent somnolence.  She now sought to soothe her feelings by tickling the chin of the black kitten ­a process to which that active creature submitted with purring satisfaction.

“Faither’s long of coming hum, mother,” said little Grace, looking up.

“Iss,” replied Mrs Maggot.

“D’ee knaw where he is?” inquired Grace.

“No, I doan’t,” replied her mother.

It was evident that Mrs Maggot was not in the humour for conversation, so Grace relapsed into silence, and devoted herself to the kitten.

“Is that faither?” said Grace, after a few minutes, pointing to the figure of a man who was seen coming over the distant moor or waste land which at that period surrounded the town of St. Just, though the greater part of it is now cultivated fields.

“It isn’ like un,” said Mrs Maggot, shading her eyes with her hand; “sure, it do look like a boatsman.”

[The men of the coastguard were called “boatsmen” at that time.]

“Iss, I do see his cutlash,” said little Grace; “and there’s another man comin’ down road to meet un.”

“Haste ’ee, Grace,” cried Mrs Maggot, leaping up and plucking her last-born out of the cradle, “take the cheeld in to Mrs Penrose, an’ bide theer till I send for ’ee ­dost a hear?”

Plucked thus unceremoniously from gentle slumber to be plunged headlong and without preparation into fierce infantine war, was too much for baby Maggot; he uttered one yell of rage and defiance, which was succeeded by a lull ­a sort of pause for the recovery of breath ­so prolonged that the obedient Grace had time to fling down the horror-struck Chet, catch baby in her arms, and bear him into the neighbouring cottage before the next roar came forth.  The youthful Maggot was at once received into the bosom of the Penrose family, and succeeding yells were smothered by eight out of the sixteen Penroses who chanced to be at home at the time.

That Mrs Maggot had a guilty conscience might have been inferred from her future proceedings, which, to one unacquainted with the habits of her husband, would have appeared strange, if not quite unaccountable.  When baby was borne off, as related, she seized a small keg, which stood in a corner near the door and smelt strongly of brandy, and, placing it with great care in the vacant cradle, covered it over with blankets.  She next rolled a pair of stockings into a ball and tied on it a little frilled night-cap, which she disposed on the pillow, with the face pretty well down, and the back of the head pretty well up, and so judiciously and cleverly covered it with bedclothes that even Maggot himself might have failed to miss his son, or to recognise the outlines of a keg.  A bottle half full of brandy, with the cork out, was next placed on the table to account for the odour in the room, and then Mrs Maggot sat down to her sewing, and rocked the cradle gently with her foot, singing a sweet lullaby the while.  Ten minutes later, two stout men of the coastguard, armed with cutlasses and pistols, entered the cottage.  Mrs Maggot observed that they were also armed with a pick and shovel.

“Good-hevenin’, missus; how dost do?” said the man who walked foremost, in a hearty voice.

“Good-hevenin’, Eben Trezise; how are you?” said Mrs Maggot.

“Braave, thank ‘ee,” said Trezise; “we’ve come for a drop o’ brandy, missus, havin’ heard that you’ve got some here, an’ sure us can smell it ­eh?”

“Why, iss, we’ve got wan small drop,” said Mrs Maggot, gently arranging the clothes on the cradle, “that the doctor have order for the cheeld.  You’re welcome to a taste of it, but plaise don’t make so much noise, for the poor cheeld’s slaipin’.”

“He’ll be smothered, I do think, if you don’t turn his head up a bit, missus,” said the man; “hows’ever you’ve no objection to let Jim and me have a look round the place, I dessay?”

Mrs Maggot said they were welcome to do as they pleased, if they would only do it quietly for the sake of the “cheeld;” so without more ado they commenced a thorough investigation of the premises, outside and in.  Then they went to the smithy, where Mrs Maggot knew her husband had concealed two large kegs of smuggled liquor on the hearth under a heap of ashes and iron debris, but these had been so cleverly, yet carelessly, hidden that the men sat down on the heap under which they lay, to rest and wipe their heated brows after their fruitless search.

“Hast ’ee found the brandy?” inquired Mrs Maggot, with a look of innocence, when the two men returned.

“Not yet,” replied Eben Trezise; “but we’ve not done.  There’s a certain shaft near by that has got a bad name for drinkin’, missus; p’raps you may have heard on it?  Its breath do smell dreadful bad sometimes.”

Both men laughed at this, and winked to each other, while Mrs Maggot smiled, and, with a look of surprise, vowed that she had not heard of the disreputable shaft referred to.

Despite her unconcerned look, however, Mrs Maggot felt anxious, for she was aware that her husband had recently obtained an unusually large quantity of French brandy and tobacco from the Scilly Islands, between which and the coasts of Cornwall smuggling was carried on in a most daring and extensive manner at the time of our story, and she knew that the whole of the smuggled goods lay concealed in one of those numerous disused shafts of old mines which lie scattered thickly over that part of the country.  Maggot’s absence rendered her position still more perplexing, but she was a woman of ready wit and self-reliance, and she comforted herself with the knowledge that the brandy lay buried far down in the shaft, and that it would take the boatsmen some time to dig to it ­that possibly they might give up in despair before reaching it.

While the men went off to search for the shaft, and while Mrs Maggot was calmly nursing her spirited little baby, Maggot himself, in company with his bosom friend John Cock, was sauntering slowly homeward along the cliffs near Kenidjack Castle, the ruins of which occupy a bold promontory a little to the north of Cape Cornwall.  They had just come in sight of the tin-mine and works which cover Nancharrow valley from the shore to a considerable distance inland, where stand the tall chimneys and engine-houses, the whims and varied machinery of the extensive and prolific old tin-mine named Wheal Owles.

The cliffs on which the two men stood are very precipitous and rugged ­ rising in some places to a height of about 300 feet above the rocks where the waters of the Atlantic roll dark and deep, fringing the coast with a milky foam that is carried away by the tide in long streaks, to be defiled by the red waters which flow from Nancharrow valley into Porth Ledden Cove.

This cove is a small one, with a narrow strip of sand on its shore.  At its northern extremity is a deep narrow gorge, into which the waves rush, even in calm weather, with a peculiar sound.  In reference to this it is said that the waves “buzz-and-go-in,” hence the place has been named Zawn Buzzangein.  The sides of the Zawn are about sixty feet high, and quite precipitous.  In one part, especially, they overhang their base.  It was here that Maggot and his friend stopped on their way home, and turned to look out upon the sea.

“No sign o’ pilchers yet,” observed Maggot, referring to the immense shoals of pilchards which visit the Cornish coasts in the autumn of each year, and form a large portion of the wealth of the county.

“Too soon,” replied John Cock.

“By the way, Jack,” said Maggot, “wasn’t it hereabouts that the schooner went ashore last winter?”

“Iss, ’twor down theer, close by Pullandeese,” replied the other, pointing to a deep pool in the rocks round which the swell of the Atlantic broke in white foam.  “I was theere myself.  I had come down ‘bout daylight ­before others were stirring, an’ sure ’nuff there she lay, on the rocks, bottom up, an’ all the crew lost.  We seed wan o’ them knackin’ on the rocks to the north, so we got ropes an’ let a man down to fetch un up, but of coorse it was gone dead.”

“That minds me, Jack,” said Maggot, “that I seed a daw’s nest here the last time I come along, so lev us go an’ stroob that daw’s nest.”

“Thee cusn’t do it,” said John Cock.

Maggot laughed, and said he not only could but would, so he ran down to the neighbouring works and returned with a stout rope, which he fixed firmly to a rock at the edge of the overhanging cliff.

We have already said that Maggot was a noted madcap, who stuck at nothing, and appeared to derive positive pleasure from the mere act of putting his life in danger.  No human foot could, by climbing, have reached the spot where the nest of the daw, or Cornish chough, was fixed ­for the precipice, besides being perpendicular and nearly flat, projected a little near the top, where the nest lay in a crevice overhanging the surf that boiled and raged in Zawn Buzzangein.  Indeed, the nest was not visible from the spot where the two men stood, and it could only be seen by going round to the cliffs on the opposite side of the gorge.

Without a moment’s hesitation Maggot swung himself over the edge of the precipice, merely cautioning his comrade, as he did so, to hold on to the rope and prevent it from slipping.

He slid down about two yards, and then found that the rock overhung so much that he was at least six feet off from the crevice in which the young daws nestled comfortably together, and no stretch that he could make with his legs, long though they were, was sufficient to enable him to get on the narrow ledge just below the nest.  Several times he tried to gain a footing, and at each effort the juvenile daws ­as yet ignorant of the desperate nature of man ­opened their little eyes to the utmost in undisguised amazement.  For full five minutes Maggot wriggled and the daws gazed, and the anxious comrade above watched the vibrations and jerks of the part of the rope that was visible to him while he listened intently.  The bubbles on Zawn Buzzangein, like millions of watery eyes, danced and twinkled sixty feet below, as if in wonder at the object which swung wildly to and fro in mid-air.

At last Maggot managed to touch the rock with the extreme point of his toe.  A slight push gave him swing sufficient to enable him to give one or two vigorous shoves, by which means he swung close to the side of the cliff.  Watching his opportunity, he planted both feet on the narrow ledge before referred to, stretched out his hands, pressed himself flat against the rock, let go the rope, and remained fast, like a fly sticking to a wall.

This state of comparative safety he announced to his anxious friend above by exclaiming, ­“All right, John ­I’ve got the daws.”

This statement was, however, not literally true, for it cost him several minutes of slow and careful struggling to enable him so to fix his person as to admit of his hands being used for “stroobing” purposes.  At length he gained the object of his ambition, and transferred the horrified daws from their native home to his own warm but unnatural bosom, in which he buttoned them up tight.  A qualm now shot through Maggot’s heart, for he discovered that in his anxiety to secure the daws he had let go the rope, which hung at a distance of full six feet from him, and, of course, far beyond his reach.

“Hullo!  John,” he cried.

“Hullo!” shouted John in reply.

“I’ve got the daws,” said Maggot, “but I’ve lost the rope!”

“Aw! my dear,” gasped John; “have ‘ee lost th’ rope?”

It need scarcely be said that poor John Cock was dreadfully alarmed at this, and that he eagerly tendered much useless advice ­stretching his neck the while as far as was safe over the cliff.

“I say, John,” shouted Maggot again.

“Hullo!” answered John.

“I tell ‘ee what:  I’m goin’ to jump for th’ rope.  If I do miss th’ rope, run thee round to Porth Ledden Cove, an’ tak’ my shoes weth ’ee; I’ll be theere before ’ee.”

Having made this somewhat bold prediction, Maggot collected all his energies, and sprang from his narrow perch into the air, with arms and hands wildly extended.  His effort was well and bravely made, but his position had been too constrained, and his foothold too insecure, to admit of a good jump.  He missed the rope, and, with a loud cry, shot like an arrow into the boiling flood below.

John Cock heard the cry and the plunge, and stood for nearly a minute gazing in horror into Zawn Buzzangein.  Presently he drew a deep sigh of relief, for Maggot made his appearance, manfully buffeting the waves.  John watched him with anxiety while he swam out towards the sea, escaped the perpendicular sides of the Zawn, towards which the breakers more than once swept him, doubled the point, and turned in towards the cove.  The opposite cliffs of the gorge now shut the swimmer out from John’s view, so he drew another deep sigh, and picking up his comrade’s shoes, ran round with all his might to Porth Ledden Cove, where, true to his word, having been helped both by wind and tide, Maggot had arrived before him.

“Are ’ee safe, my dear man?” was John’s first question.

“Iss,” replied Maggot, shaking himself, “safe enough, an’ the daws too, but semmen to me they’ve gone dead.”

This was too true.  The poor birds had perished in their captor’s bosom.