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

IN WHICH IS RECORDED A VISIT TO AN INFANT-SCHOOL; A WARNING TO A THANKLESS OLD GENTLEMAN; ALSO A STORM, AND A SUDDEN AS WELL AS SURPRISING END OF A MINE, BESIDES DARK DESIGNS

Oliver Trembath’s plan of “asking again” had to be put in practice sooner than had been anticipated, for the back alleys and lanes of Newlyn were a little perplexing to a stranger.

“Let us inquire here,” said Tregarthen, seeing the half-open door of a very small cottage, with part of a woman’s back visible in the interior.

“By all means,” said Oliver, pushing open the door and stooping low as he entered.

The visitors were instantly transfixed by thirty pair of eyes ­all of them bright blue, or bright black ­few of them elevated much more than two feet from the ground, and not one of them dimmed by the smallest approach to a wink.  Nay, on the contrary, they all opened so wide when the strangers entered that it seemed as if either winking or shutting were in future out of the question, and that to sleep with eyes wide open was the sad prospect of the owners thereof in all time coming.

“An infant-school,” murmured Tregarthen.

The very smallest boy in the school ­an infant with legs about five inches long, who sat on a stool not more than three inches high ­ appeared to understand what he said, and to regard it as a personal insult, for he at once began to cry.  A little girl with bright red hair, a lovely complexion, and a body so small as to be scarce worth mentioning, immediately embraced the small boy, whereupon he dried his eyes without delay.

“You have a nice little school here,” said Oliver.

“Iss, sur; we do feel proud of it,” said the good-looking motherly dame in charge, with a little twitch of her shoulders, which revealed the horrible fact that both her arms had been taken off above the elbows, “the child’n are very good, and they do sing bootiful.  Now then, let the gentlemen hear you ­`O that’ll be’ ­come.”

Instantly, and in every possible pitch, the thirty mouths belonging to the thirty pair of eyes opened, and “O that will be joyful,” etcetera, burst forth with thrilling power.  A few leading voices gradually turned the torrent into a united channel, and before the second verse was reached the hymn was tunefully sung, the sweet voice of the little girl with the bright hair being particularly distinguishable, and the shrill pipe of the smallest boy sounding high above the rest as he sang, “O that will be doyful, doyful, doyful, doyful,” with all his might and main.

When this was finished Tregarthen asked the schoolmistress what misfortune had caused the loss of her arms, to which she replied that she had lost them in a coach accident.  As she was beginning to relate the history of this sad affair, Oliver broke in with a question as to where old Mr Hitchin’s house was.  Being directed to it they took leave of the infant-school, and soon found themselves before the door of a small cottage.  They were at once admitted to the presence of the testy old Hitchin, who chanced to be smoking a pipe at the time.  He did not by any means bestow a welcome look on his visitors, but Oliver, nevertheless, advanced and sat down in a chair before him.

“I have called, Mr Hitchin,” he began, “not to trouble you about the matter which displeased you when we conversed together on the beach, but to warn you of a danger which I fear threatens yourself.”

“What danger may that be?” inquired Hitchin, in the tone of a man who held all danger in contempt.

“What it is I cannot tell, but ­”

“Cannot tell!” interrupted the old man; “then what’s the use of troubling me about it?”

“Neither can I tell of what use my troubling you may be,” retorted Oliver with provoking coolness, “but I heard the man speak of you on the beach less than an hour ago, and as you referred to him yourself I thought it right to call ­”

At this point Hitchin again broke in, ­“Heard a man speak of me ­what man?  Really, Mr Trembath, your conduct appears strange to me.  Will you explain yourself?”

“Certainly.  I was going to have added, if your irascible temper would have allowed me, that the notorious smuggler, Jim Cuttance ­”

Oliver stopped, for at the mention of the smuggler’s name the pipe dropped from the old man’s mouth, and his face grew pale.

“Jim Cuttance!” he exclaimed after a moment’s pause; “the villain, the scoundrel ­what of him? what of him?  No good, I warrant.  There is not a rogue unhanged who deserves more richly to swing at the yard-arm than Jim Cuttance.  What said he about me?”

When he finished this sentence the old man’s composure was somewhat restored.  He took a new pipe from the chimney-piece and began to fill it, while Oliver related all that he knew of the conversation between the two smugglers.

When he had finished Hitchin smoked for some minutes in silence.

“Do you really think,” he said at length, “that the man means to do me bodily harm?”

“I cannot tell,” replied Oliver; “you can form your own judgment of the matter more correctly than I can, but I would advise you to be on your guard.”

“What says your friend?” asked Hitchin, turning towards Tregarthen, of whom, up to that point, he had taken no notice.

Thus appealed to, the youth echoed Oliver’s opinion, and added that the remark of Cuttance about his intention not to do something unknown that night, and Joe Tonkin’s muttered expressions of disbelief and an intention to watch, seemed to him sufficient to warrant unusual caution in the matter of locks, bolts, and bars.

As he spoke there came a blinding flash of lightning, followed by a loud and prolonged peal of thunder.

Oliver sprang up.

“We must bid you good-night,” he said, “for we have to walk to St. Just, and don’t wish to get more of the storm than we can avoid.”

“But you cannot escape it,” said Hitchin.

“Nevertheless we can go as far as possible before it begins, and then take shelter under a bush or hedge, or in a house if we chance to be near one.  I would rather talk in rain any day than drive in a kittereen!”

“Pray be persuaded to stop where you are, gentlemen,” said the old man in a tone of voice that was marvellously altered for the better.  “I can offer you comfortable quarters for the night, and good, though plain fare, with smuggled brandy of the best, and tobacco to match.”

Still Oliver and Tregarthen persisted in their resolution to leave, until Hitchin began to plead in a tone that showed he was anxious to have their presence in the house as protectors.  Then their resolution began to waver, and when the old man hinted that they might thus find time to reconsider the matter of the Wherry Mine, they finally gave in, and made up their minds to stay all night.

According to the opinion of a celebrated poet, the best-laid plans of men as well as mice are apt to miscarry.  That night the elements contrived to throw men’s calculations out of joint, and to render their cupidity, villainy, and wisdom alike ineffectual.

A storm, the fiercest that had visited them for many years, burst that night on the southern shores of England, and strewed her rocks and sands with wrecks and dead bodies.  Nothing new in this, alas! as all know who dwell upon our shores, or who take an interest in, and read the records of, our royal and noble Lifeboat Institution.  But with this great subject we have not to do just now, further than to observe, as we have said before, that in those days there were no lifeboats on the coast.

Under the shelter of an old house on the shore at Penzance were gathered together a huge concourse of townspeople and seafaring men watching the storm.  It was a grand and awful sight ­one fitted to irresistibly solemnise the mind, and incline it, unless the heart be utterly hardened, to think of the great Creator and of the unseen world, which seems at such a season to be brought impressively near.

The night was extremely dark, and the lightning, by contrast, peculiarly vivid.  Each flash appeared to fill the world for a moment with lambent fire, leaving the painful impression on observers of having been struck with total blindness for a few seconds after, and each thunderclap came like the bursting of artillery, with scarcely an interval between the flash and crash, while the wind blew with almost tropical fury.

The terrible turmoil and noise were enhanced tenfold by the raging surf, which flew up over the roadway, and sent the spray high above and beyond the tops of the houses nearest to the shore.

The old house creaked and groaned in the blast as if it would come down, and the men taking shelter there looked out to sea in silence.  The bronzed veterans there knew full well that at that hour many a despairing cry was being uttered, many a hand was stretched wildly, helplessly, and hopelessly from the midst of the boiling surf, and many a soul was passing into eternity.  They would have been ready then, as well as now, to have risked life and limb to save fellow-creatures from the sea, but ordinary boats they knew could not live in such a storm.

Among the watchers there stood Jim Cuttance.  He had been drinking at a public-house in Penzance, and was at the time, to use his own expression, “three sheets in the wind” ­that is, about half-drunk.  What his business was nobody knew, and we shall not inquire, but he was the first to express his belief that the turret and bridge of the Wherry Mine would give way.  As he spoke a vivid flash of lightning revealed the stout timbers of the mine standing bravely in the storm, each beam and chain painted black and sharp against the illumined sky and the foaming sea.

“She have stud out many a gale,” observed a weather-beaten old seaman; “p’raps she won’t go down yet.”

“I do hope she won’t,” observed another.

“She haven’t got a chance,” said Cuttance.

Just then another flash came, and there arose a sharp cry of alarm from the crowd, for a ship was seen driving before the gale close in upon the land, so close that she seemed to have risen there by magic, and appeared to tower almost over the heads of the people.  The moments of darkness that succeeded were spent in breathless, intense anxiety.  The flashes, which had been fast enough before, seemed to have ceased altogether now; but again the lightning gleamed ­bright as full moonlight, and again the ship was seen, nearer than before ­close on the bridge of the mine.

“’Tis the Yankee ship broken from her anchors in Gwavus Lake,” exclaimed a voice.

The thunder-peal that followed was succeeded by a crash of rending timber and flying bolts that almost emulated the thunder.  Certainly it told with greater power on the nerves of those who heard it.

Once again the lightning flashed, and for a moment the American vessel was seen driving away before the wind, but no vestige of Wherry Mine remained.  The bridge and all connected with it had been completely carried away, and its shattered remnants were engulfed in the foaming sea.

It deserved a better fate; but its course was run, and its hour had come.  It passed away that stormy night, and now nothing remains but a few indications of its shaft-mouth, visible at low water, to tell of one of the boldest and most singular of mining enterprises ever undertaken and carried out by man.

There was one spectator of this imposing scene who was not very deeply impressed by it.  Jim Cuttance cared not a straw for storms or wrecks, so long as he himself was safe from their influence.  Besides, he had other work in hand that night, so he left the watchers on the beach soon after the destruction of the bridge.  Buttoning his coat up to the neck, and pulling his sou’-wester tight over his brows, he walked smartly along the road to Newlyn, while many of the fishermen ran down to the beach to render help to the vessel.

Between the town of Penzance and the village of Newlyn several old boats lay on the grass above high-water mark.  Here the smuggler stopped and gave a loud whistle.  He listened a moment and than repeated it still louder.  He was answered by a similar signal, and four men in sailor’s garb, issuing from behind one of the boats, advanced to meet him.

“All right, Bill?” inquired Cuttance.

“All right, sur,” was the reply.

“Didn’t I tell ’ee to leave them things behind?” said Cuttance sternly, as he pointed to the butt of a pistol which protruded from the breast-pocket of one of the men; “sure we don’t require powder and lead to overcome an old man!”

“No more do we need a party o’ five to do it,” replied the man doggedly.

To this Cuttance vouchsafed no reply, but, plucking the weapon from the man, he tossed it far into the sea, and, without further remark, walked towards the fishing village, followed by his men.

By this time the thunder and rain had abated considerably, but the gale blew with increased violence, and, as there were neither moon nor stars, the darkness was so intense that men less acquainted with the locality would have been obliged to proceed with caution.  But the smugglers knew every foot of the ground between the Lizard and the Land’s End, and they advanced with rapid strides until they reached the low wall that encompassed, but could not be said to guard, old Mr Hitchin’s garden-plot.

The hour was suited for deeds of darkness, being a little after midnight, and the noise of the gale favoured the burglars, who leaped the wall with ease and approached the back of the cottage.

In ordinary circumstances Hitchin would have been in bed, and Cuttance knew his habits sufficiently to be aware of this; his surprise, therefore, was great when he found lights burning, and greater still when, peeping through a chink of the window-shutter, he observed two stout fellows seated at the old man’s table.  Charles Tregarthen he had never seen before, and, as Oliver Trembath sat with his back to the window, he could not recognise him.

“There’s company wi’ the owld man,” said Cuttance, returning to his comrades; “two men, young and stout, but we do knaw how to manage they!”

This was said by way of an appeal, and was received with a grin by the others, and a brief recommendation to go to work without delay.

For a few minutes they whispered together as to the plan of attack, and then, having agreed on that point, they separated.  Cuttance and the man whom he had called Bill, went to the window of the room in which Hitchin and his guests were seated, and stationed themselves on either side of it.  The sill was not more than breast high.  The other three men quickly returned, bearing a heavy boat’s-mast, which they meant to use as a battering-ram.  It had been arranged that Cuttance should throw up the window, and, at the same moment, his comrades should rush at the shutter with the mast.  The leader could not see their faces, but there was light sufficient to enable him to distinguish their dark forms standing in the attitude of readiness.  He therefore stepped forward and made a powerful effort to force up the window, but it resisted him, although it shook violently.

Those inside sprang up at the sound, and the smugglers sank down, as if by mutual consent, among the bushes which grew thickly near the window.

“I told you it was only the wind,” said Oliver Trembath, who had opened the shutter and gazed through the window for some time into the darkness, where, of course, he saw nothing.

Well was it for him that Cuttance refused to follow Bill’s advice, which was to charge him through the window with the mast.  The former knew that, with the window fastened, it would be impossible to force an entrance in the face of such a youth as Tregarthen, even although they succeeded in rendering the other hors de combat, so he restrained Bill, and awaited his opportunity.

Oliver’s remark appeared to be corroborated by a gust of wind which came while he was speaking, and shook the window-frame violently.

“There it is again,” he said, turning to his host with a smile.  “Depend upon it, they won’t trouble you on such a night as this.”

He closed and refastened the shutter as he spoke, and they all returned to their places at the table.

Unfortunately Oliver had not thought of examining the fastening of the window itself.  Had he done so, he would have seen that it was almost wrenched away.  Cuttance saw this, however, and resolved to make sure work of it next time.

When the men with the battering-ram were again in position, he and Bill applied their united strength to the window, and it instantly flew up to the top.  At same moment, bolts and bars gave way, and the shutter went in with a crash.  Making use of the mast as a rest, Cuttance sprang on the window-sill and leaped into the room.

The whole thing was done with such speed, and, if we may so express it, with such simultaneity of action, that the bold smuggler stood before the astonished inmates almost as soon as they could leap from their chairs.  Cuttance ducked to evade a terrific blow which Oliver aimed at him with his fist, and in another instant grappled with him.  Tregarthen rushed to the window in time to meet Bill, on whose forehead he planted a blow so effectual that that worthy fell back into the arms of his friends, who considerately let him drop to the ground, and made a united assault on Charlie.

Had Oliver Trembath possessed his wonted vigour, he would speedily have overcome his adversary despite his great strength, but his recent illness had weakened him a little, so that the two were pretty equally matched.  The consequence was that, neither daring to loosen his hold in order to strike an effective blow, each had to devote all his energies to throw the other, in which effort they wrenched, thrust, and swung each other so violently round the room that chairs and tables were overturned and smashed, and poor old Hitchin had enough to do to avoid being floored in the melee, and to preserve from destruction the candle which lighted the scene of the combat.

At first Oliver had tried to free his right hand in order to strike, but, finding this impossible, he attempted to throw the smuggler, and, with this end in view, lifted him bodily in the air and dashed him down, but Cuttance managed to throw out a leg and meet the ground with his foot, which saved him.  He was a noted wrestler.  He could give the famous Cornish hug with the fervour of a black bear, and knew all the mysteries of the science.  Often had he displayed his great muscular power and skill in the ring, where “wrestlers” were wont to engage in those combats of which the poet writes: ­

  “They rush, impetuous, with a shock
  Their arms implicit, rigid, lock;
  They twist; they trip; their limbs are mixed;
  As one they move, as one stand fixed. 
  Now plant their feet in wider space,
  And stand like statues on their base.”

But never before had Jim Cuttance had to deal with such a man as Oliver Trembath, who swung him about among the chairs, and crashed him through the tables, until, seizing a sudden opportunity, he succeeded in flinging him flat on the floor, where he held him down, and planted his knee on his chest with such force that he nearly squeezed all the breath out of him.

No word did Jim Cuttance utter, for he was incapable of speech, but the colour of his face and his protruding tongue induced Oliver to remove his knee.

Meanwhile Charlie Tregarthen had enough to do at the window.  After he had tumbled Bill out, as we have described, two of the other men sprang at him, and, seizing him by the collar of his coat, attempted to drag him out.  One of these he succeeded in overthrowing by a kick on the chest, but his place was instantly taken by the third of the bearers of the battering-ram, and for a few minutes the struggle was fierce but undecided.  Suddenly there arose a great shout, and all three tumbled head over heels into the shrubbery.

It was at this moment that Oliver rose from his prostrate foe.  He at once sprang to the rescue; leaped out of the window, and was in the act of launching a blow at the head of the first man he encountered, when a voice shouted, ­“Hold on, sur.”

It is certain that Oliver would have declined to hold on, had not the voice sounded familiar.  He held his hand, and next moment Charlie appeared in the light of the window dragging a struggling man after him by the nape of the neck.  At the same time Joe Tonkin came forward trailing another man by the hair of the head.

“Has Cuttance got off?” inquired Tonkin.

“No,” replied Oliver, leaping back into the room, just in time to prevent Jim, who had recovered, from making his escape.

“Now, my man, keep quiet,” said Oliver, thrusting him down into a chair.  “You and I have met before, and you know that it is useless to attempt resistance.”

Cuttance vouchsafed no reply, but sat still with a dogged expression on his weather-beaten visage.

Hitchin, whose nerves were much shaken by the scene of which he had been a trembling spectator, soon produced ropes, with which the prisoners were bound, and then they were conducted to a place of safe keeping ­ each of the victors leading the man he had secured, and old Hitchin going before ­an excited advance-guard.  The two men whom Tregarthen knocked down had recovered, and made their escape just before the fight closed.

Oliver Trembath walked first in the procession, leading Jim Cuttance.

“I gave you credit for a more manly spirit than this,” said Oliver, as he walked along.  “How could you make so cowardly an attack on an old man?”

Cuttance made no reply, and Oliver felt sorry that he had spoken, for the remembrance of the incident at the Land’s End was strong upon him, and he would have given all he possessed to have had no hand in delivering the smuggler up to justice.  At the same time he felt that the attempt of Cuttance was a dastardly one, and that duty required him to act as he did.

It seemed to Oliver as if Joe Tonkin had divined his thoughts, for at that moment he pushed close to him and whispered in his ear, “Jim Cuttance didn’t mean to rob th’ owld man, sur.  He only wanted to give he a fright, an’ make un pay what he did owe un.”

This was a new light on the subject to Oliver, who at once formed his resolution and acted on it.

“Cuttance,” he said, “it is not unlikely that, if brought to justice, you will swing for this night’s adventure.”

He paused and glanced at the face of his prisoner, who still maintained rigid silence.

“Well,” continued our hero, “I believe that your intentions against Mr Hitchin were not so bad as they would appear to be ­”

“Who told ’ee that?” asked the smuggler sternly.

“No matter,” replied Oliver, drawing a knife from his pocket, with which he deliberately cut the cords that bound his prisoner.  “There ­you are free.  I hope that you will make better use of your freedom in time to come than you have in time past, although I doubt it much; but remember that I have repaid the debt I owe you.”

“Nay,” replied Cuttance, still continuing to walk close to his companion’s side.  “I did give you life.  You have but given me liberty.”

“I’d advise you to take advantage of that liberty without delay,” said Oliver, somewhat nettled by the man’s remark, as well as by his cool composure, “else your liberty may be again taken from you, in which case I would not give much for your life.”

“If you do not assist, there is no one here who can take me now,” replied Cuttance, with a smile.  “However, I’m not ungrateful ­ good-night.”

As he said this, the smuggler turned sharp to the right into one of the numerous narrow passages which divide the dwellings of Newlyn, and disappeared.

Charles Tregarthen, who was as sharp as a needle, observed this, and, leaving his man in charge of Tonkin, darted after the fugitive.  He soon returned, however, wiping the perspiration from his brow, and declaring that he had well-nigh lost himself in his vain endeavours to find the smuggler.

“How in all the world did you manage to let him go?” he demanded somewhat sharply of Oliver.

“Why, Charlie,” replied his friend, with a laugh, “you know I have not been trained to the duties of a policeman, and it has always been said that Jim Cuttance was a slippery eel.  However, he’s gone now, so we had better have the others placed in safe custody as soon as possible.”

Saying this he passed his arm through that of old Mr Hitchin, and soon after the smugglers were duly incarcerated in the lock-up of Penzance.