The smugglers were between two fires.
The midshipman was conscious of a familiar voice crying,—
"No shots, lads. Cutlashes!"
There was a rush; the sound of blows, men swayed and struggled about wildly, and the lad, bound, blindfolded, and helpless, was thrust here and there. Then he received a sharp blow from a cudgel, which sent him staggering forward, and directly after a dull cut from a steel weapon, which, fortunately for him, fell upon and across the rope which bound his arms to his sides. There were oaths, fierce cries, and the struggling grew hotter, till all at once there was a rush, Archy went down like a skittle, men seemed to perform a triumphal war-dance upon his body, and then they passed on with the fight, evidently consisting of a retreat and pursuit, till the sounds nearly died away.
A minute later, as Archy lay there perfectly helpless, the noises increased again. Men were evidently laughing and talking loudly, and the sounds seemed to come round a corner, to become plainer all at once.
"Pity we didn't go on after them? Nonsense, my lad! They know every hole and corner about here, and there's no knowing where they'd have led us," said a familiar voice.
"Well, it is precious dark," said another.
"Too dark to see what we are about. But I take you all to witness, my lads, they 'tacked us first."
"Ay, ay: they began it," came in chorus.
"And if it happens that they are not smugglers, and there's trouble about it, you know what to say."
Archy heard all this, and it seemed to him that the party were about to pass him, when a voice he well knew growled out,—
"Hit me an awful whack with a stick."
"Ay, I got one too, my lad; and I didn't like to use my cutlash."
"Wish we'd took a prisoner, or knocked one or two down. Why, here is one."
There was a buzz of voices, and Archy felt himself hoisted up.
"Can you stand? Not wounded, are you? Who cut him down?"
"Well, I'm 'fraid it was me," said one of the familiar voices. "Why, he is a prisoner ready made."
"What? Here, cut him loose, lads. Hullo, my lad, who are you?"
"Take this off," panted Archy in a stifled voice; and then, as the sack was dragged over his head, he uttered a sigh, and staggered, and would have fallen, had not one of the men caught him.
"Hold up, lad. Not hurt, are you?"
"No," said Archy hoarsely.
"Who are you? What were they going to do with you?"
"Don't you know me, Mr Gurr?"
The rest of his speech, if he said anything, was drowned in a hearty cheer as the men pressed round.
"Well, I am glad!" cried the master. "We've been ashore a dozen times, my lad, and searched everywhere, till the skipper thought you must have run away."
"Run away!" cried Archy huskily. "I've been a prisoner."
"Those were smugglers, then?"
"Yes," cried Archy; "but they shall smart for all this. I know where all their hiding-places are, and we'll hunt them down."
"Hooray!" shouted the men.
"Were you looking for me?"
"Well, not to-night, my lad. Making a bit of a patrol," said Gurr. "The skipper thought that perhaps we might run against something or another, and we have and no mistake. But what's the matter? Not hurt, are you?"
"No, not much. I got a blow on the shoulder, and then some one gave me a chop with a cutlass."
"That was you, Dirty Dick! I did see that," cried one of the men.
"Well, I don't say it warn't me. How was I to know it was a orsifer in the dark, and smothered up like that?"
"Are you wounded, then?" cried the master excitedly.
"No; it felt more like a blow, but people kept trampling on me after I was down."
"That's bad," said Gurr, giving vent to a low whistle. "Here, lads, let's carry him to the boat."
"No, no!" cried the midshipman. "I think I can walk. I could hardly breathe."
"Well, go steady, then. It's on'y 'bout half a mile to the cove. Where did they mean to take you, lad?"
"I don't know. Perhaps on board some ship to get me out of the way;" and he briefly explained his late position, as they walked steadily on, the men listening eagerly the while.
"Then you can take me right to the place, Mr Raystoke?" said Gurr.
"I can point it out from the sea, but it will be all guess-work from the shore."
"Never mind; we'll find it. But you can't think about where they were taking you to-night?"
"I have no idea. Of course they blindfolded me, so that I should not see the way out of the place I left, nor the way into the other."
"Ah, well, come on, and the skipper will talk to you. He has been fine and mad about it, and I 'most think he's turned a bit thinner, eh, Dick?"
"Ay, that he have," said the latter. "Leastwise you might think so."
"One day he's been all in a fret, saying you've run away, and that you'd be dismissed the service, and it was what he quite expected; and then, so as not to put him out, when you agreed with him, he flew out at you, and called you a fool, and said he was sure the smugglers had murdered his officer, or else tumbled him off the cliff."
Archy was too weary with excitement to care to talk much, and he tramped on with the men, hardly able to realise the truth of his escape, and half expecting to wake up in the darkness and find it all a dream. But he was reminded that it was no dream, from time to time, by feeling a hand laid deprecatingly upon his bruised arm, and starting round to see in the darkness that it was Dirty Dick, who patted his injury gently, and then uttered a satisfied "Hah!"
"Pleased to see me back," thought the midshipman, "but I wish he wouldn't pat me as if I were a dog."
"Hullo!" exclaimed the master just then, as they came opposite a depression in the cliff which gave them a view out to sea. "What's going on? Forrard, my lads. Smart!"
The pace was increased, for away in the darkness there hung out a bright signal which all knew meant recall, and the midshipman's heart throbbed as he felt that before long he would be in a boat dancing over the waves, and soon after treading the deck of the smart little cutter.
"No," he said to himself, as after a hail a boat came out of the darkness, its keel grating on the pebbly shore, and he uttered a sigh of content on sinking back in the stern-sheets; "it isn't a dream."
CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR.
Archy Raystoke's sense of weariness rapidly passed off, as the oars splashed, and the boat glided softly out of the waters of the cove, between the two huge corners of rock which guarded the entrance, and then began to dance up and down as she reached out into the tideway. After the darkness of the old quarry, with its faint odour of spirits, the night seemed comparatively like noonday, and the pure, brisk air that fanned his cheek delicious. He seemed to drink it in, drawing down great draughts which made his bosom swell, his heart beat, and there were moments when, like a schoolboy upon whom has suddenly come the joys of an unexpected half-holiday, he felt ready to jump up, toss his cap in the air, and shout for joy.
"But it would be undignified in an officer," he felt; and he sat still, feeling the boat live almost in the water as she throbbed from end to end with the powerful strokes, and glide up the waves, hang for a moment, and slide down.
"Tidy swell on, Mr Raystoke," said Gurr.
"Oh, it's glorious!" replied the lad in a low voice.
"Yes. You don't know what it means to have been shut up in a place like a cellar, always black, and longing to see the blue sky and sunshine."
"Well, there aren't none now, my lad."
"No, Gurr, there is no blue sky and sunshine, but—but—this is delightful;" and he said to himself, with his breast swelling, "I feel stupid, and as if I could cry like a child."
They were nearing the cutter fast, her lights growing plainer, and the lad leaned forward with feelings that were almost ecstatic as he tried to scan her lines, and thought of leaping on her deck, and feeling the easy, yielding motion as she rose and fell to her cable where she lay at anchor. He even thought of how glorious it would be for there to come a storm, with the spray beating on his cheeks and then, as he involuntarily raised his hand to his face, a thought occurred to him which made him start.
"Oh!" he mentally ejaculated, as he thought of his long sojourn in the cave, and a feeling of satisfaction came over him that it was dark; "what a horribly dirty wretch I must look!"
A hail came from the cutter at last, and was answered from the boat, Archy's heart beating fast as he dimly saw the figures on board, and thought of the joy of being once more in his own cabin.
"Gurr," he whispered, "don't say a word to Mr Brough; let me tell him I have come on board."
"Right, my lad; but you'll say we found you, and all that. You see, I must make my report."
Just then the oars were thrown up and laid alongside, and, as the lieutenant came to the gangway, Archy sprang on to the cutter so sharply that he came rather roughly in contact with his commanding officer.
"How dare you! Why, you clumsy young—" Before he could say more, the midshipman touched his red cap.
"Come aboard, sir," he said.
"Why? What? Mr Ray—Oh, my dear boy!"
There was not a bit of official dignity in the greeting, for the plump little lieutenant, in his surprise and delight, caught Archy by the arms, then by the shoulders; stared in his face; seized his hands, shook them both, and was about to hug him, but, suddenly recollecting himself, he drew back.
"In with that boat," he cried sharply. Then, giving the orders to slip the cable, and prepare to make sail, he turned to Gurr.
"I'll take your report directly, Mr Gurr," he said. Then, very stiffly, "Take charge of the deck. Mr Raystoke, follow me, sir, to my cabin."
"Going to wig me," said the midshipman, as he followed his officer down into the cabin and shut the door.
"Now, sir," cried the lieutenant, turning upon him sharply, "have the goodness to explain your conduct. Stop—not a word yet. I entrusted you with an important commission. I dealt with you as if you were a man, an officer and a gentleman; and, instead of doing your duty, you went off like a contemptible cabin-boy on a shore-going game, sir— dissipation, sir—behaved like a blackguard till all your money was spent; and then you come sneaking back on board, insult me by blundering up against me, and all you've got to say for yourself is, 'Come aboard, sir.' Now, then, what else have you to say?"
"Stop. Let me tell you that, knowing as I did what a young scamp you were, I refrained from reporting your conduct at Portsmouth, to get you dismissed His Majesty's service; and knowing, too, that it would break your father's and mother's heart, I did not write and tell them. For I said to myself, 'He'll come back and ask forgiveness to-morrow, and I'll punish him and forgive him,' for I did not want to blast your career. But to-morrow has always been coming, and you haven't come till to-night. And now, what have you to say before—before I treat you— yes, I've a good mind to—like some mutinous scoundrel, and—What's that, sir, what's that? How dare you sit down in my presence, when—"
"I'm so done up, sir, and hungry and faint."
"And serve you right, you insolent young dog. I knew it, and—"
"Oh, I say, Mr Brough, you don't think I could have been such a beast."
"I found out all about the smugglers, but they caught me, and I've been a prisoner ever since. Do give me something to eat and drink, and don't scold me any more, till I've got on my uniform and had a good wash."
"My dear boy! My dear Archy Raystoke!" cried the lieutenant, seizing his hands and pumping them up and down. "Of course I didn't think it! Knew you were too much of a gentleman, but I was stuffed full of thoughts like that, and they would come out. Here," he cried, "drink that, and here's some cake sent from Poole, and—tip it up, and eat away. I am glad to see you again. God bless you, my dear boy! I'm your officer, but you don't know how miserable I've been."
"Yes, I do, sir. I know you always liked me," cried the midshipman, between the mouthfuls he was taking. "But never mind the being prisoner, sir. I know all the scoundrels' secrets now, and you can capture them, and make some good hauls. You must send a strong party ashore as soon as it's day."
Archy answered those buts to such an extent that Gurr's report was needless, and the master was terribly disappointed.
By that time the cutter was slowly gliding away seaward, with every eye on the watch, for, as the lieutenant explained, after telling his recovered officer how he had searched in all directions, he had that night seen lights shown far up on one of the cliffs—lights which might mean a warning to some vessel to keep off, or just as likely might have the other intention, and be an invite to some lugger to land her cargo.
In any case the lieutenant meant to be on the alert, and hence the sailing of the cutter.
The lieutenant had hesitated a little at first after hearing his midshipman's report, but he now decided how to act.
"No," he said; "not to-night, my lad. I'm inclined to think the signal was a warning to keep off. They may hide the cargo they leave ashore, and if we don't capture it, so much the worse, but our work is to crush up the gang more than to capture a few barrels and bales. We'll look out to-night, and, as soon as it is daylight, you shall make sure of the bearings of your prison, then we'll land a strong boat's crew, and go along the top of the cliff to the place, and put an end to that game. You shall make a good meal, and then have a sleep, ready for to-morrow's work. Hah!" cried the little lieutenant; "that ought to mean a good day's business, Mr Raystoke, and promotion to better jobs than this."
"I hope so, sir," said Archy, with his mouth full.
"No use to hope," said the lieutenant dismally. "I'm like poor old Gurr; they don't consider me fit for service in a crack ship; and when I make my report, and send in my despatches, and ask for an appointment, I shall be told I do my work too well on this important service, and that they cannot spare so valuable an officer from the station. Gammon, Mr Raystoke, gammon! It's all because I'm so little and so fat."
Archy was silent, for he knew it was the truth, and that such a quaint little fellow did not somehow quite command the men's respect.
Half an hour after, he was sleeping heavily, with the delightful sensation of being undressed and between blankets, to wake up with a start in the morning, by hearing Ram coming to the trap-door.
No, it was a noise on deck; and he sprang up and rapidly washed and dressed, to hurry up to see what was going on.
CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE.
As the midshipman reached the deck, it was to find that there was a light mist on the water, and that the lieutenant was at the side with Gurr, where they were watching a boat coming in from seaward.
The cutter was back not far from her old moorings, and the great cliffs of the shore were dimly visible.
"Lobster-boat, sir," said Gurr, as Archy came behind them.
"Never mind! I'll overhaul her. I'm going to be suspicious of everything now. Take the boat, and—Ah, to be sure. Mr Raystoke, take the boat, and see what those fellows mean. They're making straight for the ledge, and there is no one to buy lobsters there."
"Ay, ay, sir!"
That familiar sea-going reply seemed to ring out of the lad's throat, and afforded him a pure feeling of delight. No more groping about in the darkness, biting his nails, and feeling heart-sick with despondency, but the full delight of freedom and an active life.
No lad ever sprang to his work with more alacrity, and, as he leaped into the boat, and the men dropped their oars, there was a hearty look of welcome in each smiling face.
"She has just gone into the mist there, Mr Raystoke," said the lieutenant; "but she's making straight for that ledge, and you can't miss her. One moment. If the men seem all right and honest as to what they are going to do, see if you can get any information, but be on your guard, as they'll send you, perhaps, on some fool's errand."
"Ay, ay, sir!" cried Archy again, as he took the handle of the tiller. "Now, my lads, give way!"
The mist was patchy, thin here and thick there, but it seemed an easy task to overtake the boat, which had glided into the fog, going slowly, with her little sail set, and with only a man and boy for crew. She was about a mile away from the cutter, and about a quarter of that distance from the land when she passed out of sight, and the possibility of not overtaking her never entered the midshipman's head. All the same, though, he was well enough trained in his duties to make him keep a sharp look-out on either side, as they crept in, to make sure that the boat did not slip away under the cliffs to right or left unseen.
The mist grew more dense as they neared the towering cliffs. Then it seemed to become thinner, and, just as the midshipman was thinking to himself how glorious it would be if the man and boy in the boat should prove to be his old friends Ram and Jemmy Dadd, there came a peculiar squeaking sound from somewhere ahead.
"Lowering sail, sir," said Dirty Dick, who was pulling first oar.
"Then we have not missed them," thought Archy, as the men pulled steadily on, with the rushing, plunging noise of the waves beginning to be heard as they washed the foot of the cliffs. "I'll be bound to say it is Ram and that big scoundrel. Oh, what a chance to get them aboard in irons and under hatches, for them to have a taste of what they gave me!"
It seemed perfectly reasonable that those two should have been off somewhere in a boat, and were now returning. Who more likely to be making for the ledge, which, as far as he could judge, was a point or two off to the right.
All at once, after a few minutes' pulling, the boat glided right out of the bank of mist which hung between them like a soft grey veil, while in front, lit up by the first beams of the morning sun, was the great wall of cliff, the ledge over which the waves washed gently, the green pasture high up, and the ledges dotted with grey and white gulls. The picture was lovely in the extreme, but it wanted two things in Archy's eyes to make it perfect; and those two things were a background formed by the great cliff, down which he had crept, and the feature which would have given it life and interest—to wit, the fishing-boat containing Ram and Jemmy Dadd.
"Hold hard, my lads!" cried the midshipman, and the men ceased rowing, holding their oars balanced, with the diamond-like drops falling sparkling from their blades into the clear sea, while the boat glided slowly on towards the ledge, which was just in front.
"Why, where's the boat?" cried Archy excitedly, as he swept the face of the cliff with his eyes.
"She aren't here, sir," said Dick.
"Well, I can see that, my man. Can she have slipped aside and let us pass?"
"No," said one of the other men. "'Sides, sir, she was just afore us ten minutes ago, and we heard her lowering down her mast and sail."
"Could that have been a gull?"
"What, make a squeal like a wheel in a block? No, sir, not it."
"Then they have run her up on the ledge and dragged her into one of the holes. Give way!"
The men pulled in quickly, and at the end of a few minutes they were as close to the side of the ledge as it was safe to go, for, as the waves ran in, the larger ones leaped right over the broad level space, washing it from end to end. But there was no sign of the boat, and the midshipman hesitated about believing that the man and boy could have taken advantage of a good wave and run her right on.
"It's strange," said Archy aloud, as he sat there thinking that, if he chose his time right, he might make his men pull the boat in upon a wave, let them jump out and drag her up the rocks.
But he shook his head, for he knew that if everything was not done to the moment, the boat would be stove in.
"Hullo! What are you shaking your head about?" he said sharply to Dick.
"Nothing sir, only you said it was strange."
"Well, isn't it strange?"
"Ay, sir; so's the Flying Dutchman!"
"What? Why, you do not think any of that superstitious nonsense about the boat, do you?"
"Well, sir, I dunno. I only says, Where's the boat now? She couldn't have got away."
"No," said another of the men. "She couldn't have landed there."
"Nonsense!" cried Archy angrily. "Absurd! Who ever heard of a phantom lobster-boat?"
Dick shook his head, and then sat playing with the handle of his oar.
"You Dick," cried Archy, "you're a goose! There, it will not be safe to land, my lads. Here, you two jump ashore as we back in. Mind, just as the sea's off the ledge; and run up and have a good look round."
The boat was turned, backed in, and, seizing the right moment, the men jumped on to the rock just as the water was only ankle-deep, had a good search round, and came back, to be picked up again safely, though the boat was within an ace of being capsized.
But they had seen nothing. There was no boat, and they searched along some distance east, turned back to the ledge and went west, still without elucidation of the mystery; then they went as close under the cliffs as they dared go, in the hope of finding some cavern or passage through the rocks that escaped notice from outside.
All in vain, and, obeying the signal now flying on the cutter, the boat was rowed back.
"Well, Mr Raystoke, where's the boat?"
"Don't know, sir. We never got sight of her."
"Then you must have been asleep," cried the lieutenant angrily. "There, breakfast, my lads, and be smart."
After the meal, Gurr was left in the charge of the cutter, while the lieutenant accompanied Archy to search for the high cliff which contained the old quarry, and they rowed east for a couple of miles in vain. But, after pulling back to the starting-point, and making for the other direction, they had not gone four hundred yards under the cliff before the midshipman exclaimed excitedly,—
"There; that's the place: there!"
"Then why didn't you say so when we were on deck? You could have seen it there."
"I could not tell without seeing it close in, sir; and besides it looks so different from right out yonder."
"But are you sure this is right?"
"Oh yes, sir. Look, that's the place—where there is that narrow rift, and if you look high up there is a hole. There, I can see it plainly."
"Humph! Can you? Well, I cannot!"
"But you can see that broad ledge, sir, about two hundred feet up. That's where I climbed down to, and we had the struggle—that boy and I."
"No, I can't see any ledges, Mr Raystoke. There may be one there, but if you had not been upon it, I don't believe you would know that there was one."
Archy looked up at the towering pile of rock, and was obliged to own that he was right. He shivered slightly as he swept the face of the cliff for the various points that had helped him in his descent, and, as he gazed out there in cold blood, it seemed to have been an extremely mad idea to have attempted the descent.
"Well, it is impossible to land here," continued the lieutenant. "You are certain that this is the place?"
"Good. Then we'll go back to the cutter, and this evening a strong party shall land. I'll lead them myself, and we'll try and surprise them. It's quite likely that the signals I saw last night may mean business for to-night. If so, we shall be on the spot."
"Won't you go at once?" Archy ventured to observe.
"No, certainly not; what would be the good? We would be watched, of course, and the scoundrels would signal from hill to hill, and our every step would be known. This evening, my lad, at dusk. Now, my lads, give way."
The boat was rowed rapidly from under the shadow of the mighty cliff, and the midshipman could not repress a shudder as he noticed how swiftly the current ran right out to sea, and fully realised what would have been the consequences to any one who had tried to swim along the coast if he had managed to descend in safety to the cliff foot.
Back on board the cutter there was a fair amount of bustle and excitement among the men, for, after months of unfruitful hanging about the coast, chasing luggers which proved to be empty, following false leads to get them off the scent or out of the way when contraband goods were to be landed, here was genuine information at last, the smugglers having, after such long immunity, placed themselves in the hands of the King's men.
Consequently cutlasses were being filed up, pistols carefully examined as to their flints and nicked off to see that they threw a good shower of sparks into the pans, and the men sat and talked together as eagerly as if they were about proceeding upon a pleasant jaunt, instead of upon a risky expedition which might result in death to several, and certainly would in serious injury.
"Yes," the lieutenant said, "rats will run away as long as they can, but when driven to the end of their holes they will fight."
"But will they dare, do you think, sir?" said Archy.
"Dare! Yes, my lad. You had a bit of a taste of it the other night when they were surprised in the lane. They will be more savage in their holes, and therefore, as you are so young, I should like you to go with the men, show them the way, and then leave them to do the work."
Archy stared at him.
"Yes: I mean it. Of course as an officer you cannot shrink from your duty, but, as you are a mere boy, it is not your duty to go and fight against strong men who are sure to get the better of you."
"But they are not all men there, sir," said the midshipman, with a look of disappointment getting heavier in his face. "There's a boy there— that young rascal who came after the cow. I owe him such a thrashing that I must have a turn at him."
"Ah, that's different," said the lieutenant; "and it will keep up appearances. But take care to confine yourself to fighting with him. And—er—I would not use my pistol, Raystoke."
"Not shoot, sir?"
"Well—no. I want to destroy this wasps' nest, but in as merciful a way as possible. I have given orders to the men, and I wish you to mind too—I don't want to kill the wasps, but to make them prisoners."
"Yes, sir, I see."
"They are not French wasps, or Dutch wasps, but English. You understand?"
"That's right. Another hour and you may be off. You think you can find the place?"
"I do not feel a doubt about it, sir."
"Well, it's going to be a dark night, and you and Mr Gurr will have to be careful over your men. You had better keep as close to the cliff as you can, for, of course, the entrance must be somewhere near. I have given Mr Gurr full instructions. You are to search and find the place, and if found hold it, but if you do not find it you will be back on board by daybreak, and another expedition must be made by day. If we can surprise them by night, when they think all is safe, it may save bloodshed. If we are obliged to go by day, they will have good warning, and be prepared to receive us, though they may be now. I wish I was going with you, but that cannot be."
CHAPTER THIRTY SIX.
Everything was arranged on board, so that no watcher armed with a glass who scanned the ship should suspect that an expedition was on hand; but as soon as it was dark the men were ordered into two boats, one commanded by Gurr, with whom was Archy, the other by the boatswain, only leaving a very small crew on board with the lieutenant. Then they pushed off, rowing with muffled oars, and keeping right away from the cliffs, so that any watcher there should have no indication of their passing.
The quiet little cove was still a couple of miles away, when Archy suddenly touched the master's arm as he sat there holding his cutlass.
"Yes; what is it?"
For answer the midshipman leaned forward, and pointed to where, far back and apparently opposite to the cutter, a couple of faint lights could be seen high up and away from the cliff.
"Humph! Lights," said Gurr; "but they may be up at some cottage. What do you think?"
"I thought they might be signals."
"Well, my lad, if they be, it's to bring the smugglers ashore, where we may have the luck to be in waiting for 'em. But before that the skipper may have seen them, and, though he's short-handed, they could manage to shake out a sail or two, and manage a gun."
"You would not put back, then, after seeing these lights?"
"Not likely, with the orders we've got, sir," said the master; and the men rowed on, and in due time reached the cove, where all was perfectly quiet, the tide falling, and as they landed quite a noisy tramp had to be made over the fine pebbles, in which the men's feet sank.
A couple of men were left in charge of the boats, the others were formed up, and, after passing the cottages of the few fishermen of the place, the party struck off for the top of the cliffs, to follow the rugged, faint track which was more often lost, and the arduous tramp was continued hour after hour, till, partly from the schooner's lights, partly from his idea of the run of the coast, the late prisoner began to calculate that they must be approaching the land side of the large cliff.
It had been a terrible walk in the darkness, for the cliff tops were as if a gigantic storm had taken place when that part of the coast was formed, and a series of mountainous—really mountainous—waves had run along and became suddenly congealed, leaving sharp-crested hill and deeply grooved valley, which had to be climbed and descended in turn, till the men vowed that the distance was double what it would have been by road, and they certainly were not exaggerating much.
It was only here and there that the party had been able to follow the edge of the cliff. For the most part prudence forced them to keep well in, but at times they had some arduous climbs, and walked along the sides of slopes of thin short grass, covered with tiny snails, whose shells crushed beneath their feet with a peculiar crisp sound; and had it been daylight, the probabilities were that they would have given these risky spots a wider berth.
"Call a halt, Gurr," whispered Archy at last; and it was done. Then, giving the master his ideas, the men were allowed a few minutes' breathing space before being formed in a line, with a space of a few yards between the men, one end of the line being close to the edge of the cliff, the other some distance inland.
In this way the men were instructed to walk slowly on, scanning every depression and clump of bared stone carefully, and at a word uttered by the man who felt that he had found any place likely to prove to be an entrance to a cave or quarry, all were to halt, the word was to be passed along, and the officers were to examine the place before the line went on again.
The plan was good, and the long line swept slowly along, the halt being called soon after they had started, but the stoppage was in vain, the midshipman and Gurr finding before them only a rough piled-up collection of stones from which the earth had in the course of ages crumbled or been washed away.
On again in the darkness, the officers pacing along portions of the line to urge on the men to be careful, and warning those near the cliff edge.
The advice was needed, for all at once, just as Archy was leaving the edge, there was a faint cry; the halt was called, and the young officer, closely followed by Dick, went quickly to the spot from whence the cry had come.
"It's Bob Harris, sir," said the last man they reached. "I see him a moment ago, and heard him cry out, and then he was gone."
With his blood seeming to chill, Archy crept in the darkness close to the cliff edge, to find that it sloped down where he stood.
"Give me your hand, Dick," he whispered.
"Lie down, my lad, and I'll go down too," said the sailor in a husky voice, which told of the horror he felt.
It was good advice, and the midshipman was putting it in force just as Gurr came tearing up.
"What is it?" he panted.
"Bob Harris gone over, sir," whispered Dick.
"And no rope with us!" exclaimed the master. "See anything, my lad?"
"Yes; he is just below here on a ledge. Hi! Are you hurt?"
"No, sir," came up faintly; "but I durstn't move, or I should go over."
"Lie still, then, till we pull you up. Mr Gurr, I can almost touch him. I could, if some one lowered me a little more."
"No, no, my lad, no, no!" whispered the master. "Here, Dick, and you," he said in short, quick, decisive tones, as he lay down and looked over. "Now, then, four more men here. Now, who'll volunteer to lean over and get a good grip of him, while we hold by your legs?"
"I will," said Dick.
"'Spose I'm as strong as any on 'em. But who's going to hold my legs?"
"Two men, my lad, and there'll be others to hold them."
"Right," said Dick shortly; and the men lay down, forming themselves into a human chain, the end of which Dick was lowered slowly down the slope and over the edge.
"Look here, my man," said Archy, as he lay with his head and chest over the edge of the awful precipice, listening to the faint beat of the waves, and involuntarily thinking of his adventure with Ram, "as soon as Dick grips you, get tight hold of him too."
"Ay," came up in a hoarse whisper. "Please be quick. I feel as if I was going."
"Now," said the master, "ready, lads? Steady! You, Dick, give the word yourself to lower away."
"Ay, ay, sir; lower away." Then again, "Lower away! Lower away!"
The suspense in the darkness seemed strained to breaking point, and Archy lay with his heart beating painfully, watching till it seemed as if the case was hopeless, and that if Dick, now nearly off the cliff, could grip hold of the fallen man, they would never be able to get him and his burden back.
"'Nother inch," came up out of the void. "Touched him. 'Nother inch!"
At each order, given in a hoarse, smothered way, the men shuffled themselves forward a little, and lowered Dick down.
"Just a shade more, my lads," came up.
"Can't!" said one of the men who held one of Dick's legs.
"Right. Got him," came up, as a thrill of horror ran along the chain at that word can't. "Haul away!"
How that hauling up was managed the midshipman hardly knew, but he had some consciousness of having joined in the efforts made, by seizing one man of the human chain, and dimly seeing Gurr and two other men of the group now gathered about them lend their aid. Then there was a scuffling and dragging, a loud panting, and, with a few adjurations to "hold on," and "haul," and "keep tight," Dick and the man he had been lowered down to save were dragged into safety.
"Phew!" panted Dick. "Look here, Bob Harris—never no more, my lad, never no more!"
"Bravely done, Dick," whispered Gurr.
"Thank ye, sir. But, never no more. I want to be a good mate to everybody, but this here's a shade too much."
"And I'd take it kindly, Master Raystoke, sir," said the man the midshipman had gripped, "if nex' time, sir, you wouldn't mind grappling my clothes only. You're tidy strong now, and I can't 'answer for my flesh', if you take hold like that."
"Hush! No talking," said the master. "Dick, take the outside now, and be careful. Form your line again. Bob Harris, take the far left."
"Well, Master Raystoke, sir," grumbled Dick, "I call that giving a fellow a prize. Saves that chap, and here am I."
"Post of honour, Dick. Go slowly, and not too near."
"Not too nigh it is, sir," said Dick, with a sigh; and a minute later the word was given, and they went on once more.
One hundred, two hundred, three hundred yards, but no sign.
Then a discovery was made, and by the midshipman.
They had come to the descent on the far side of the vast hill by whose top they had been searching. There was a stiff slope beyond, and another mass of cliff loomed up, rising dimly against the sky, in a way that made Archy feel certain that, though so far their search had been in vain, they had now before them the huge cliff which held the smugglers' store.
The midshipman felt so assured of this, that he whispered his belief freely to Gurr, as he encountered him from time to time perambulating the line of men, but the old master received the communication rather surlily.
"All guess-work, my lad," he said. "We're working wrong way on. These great places would puzzle a monkey, and we shan't find the hole unless we come by daylight, and leave a boat off-shore to signal to us till we get over the spot."
"What's that?" cried Archy excitedly, as one of the men on his left uttered a sharp, "Look out!"
"Sheep, I think, sir."
"No, it was a dog," said another.
"Hi! Stop him!" cried a third. "Boy!"
There was a rush here and there in the darkness, the line being completely broken, and the men who composed it caught sight from time to time of a shadowy figure to which they gave chase as it dodged in and out of the bushes, doubling round masses of weather-worn stone, plunging into hollows, being lost in one place and found in another, but always proving too active for its pursuers, who stumbled about among the rough ground and dangerous slopes. Here for a moment it was lost in a damp hollow full of a high growth of mares-tail (equisetum), that curious whorled relic of ancient days; driven from that by a regular course of beating the ground, it led its pursuers upward among rough tumbled stones where the brambles tripped them, and here they lost it for a time. But, growing hotter in the chase, and delighted with the sport, which came like a relief from their monotonous toil, the Jacks put their quarry up again, to get a dim view of it, and follow it in full cry, like a pack of hounds, over the rounded top of the hill, down the other side into a damp hollow full of tall reeds, through which the men had to beat again, panting and regaining their breath, but too excited by the chase to notice the direction in which they had gone, and beyond hearing of the recall shouted by their officers.
The midshipman joined as eagerly in the chase as any of the men, forgetting at the moment all about discipline, formation, and matters of that kind, for in one glimpse which he had of the figure, he made certain that it was Ram, whom they had surprised just leaving the entrance to the cave; and it was not until he had been joined in the hunt for about a quarter of an hour, that he felt that the men ought instantly to have been stopped, and the place around thoroughly searched.
"How vexatious!" he cried to himself, as he panted on alone, always in dread of coming suddenly upon the edge of the cliff, and trembling lest in their excitement the men might go over.
All regrets were vain now, and he kept on following the cries he heard, first in one direction and then in another, till at last, after a weary struggle through a great patch of brambles and stones, he found himself quite alone and left behind.
But his vanity would not accept this last.
"I've quite out-run them," he said, half aloud, as he peered round through the gloom, listening intently the while, but not a sound could be heard, and in his angry impatience he stamped his foot upon the short dry grass.
"What an idiot I am for an officer!" he cried. "Leading men and letting them bolt off in all directions like this. Suppose the smugglers should turn upon us now!"
"They would not have any one to turn upon," he added, after a pause.
"Well, it's all over with anything like a surprise," he continued, after a time, "and we must get back to the place where we started from, if we can find it."
"I'll swear that was Ram," he said, as he trudged on up a steep hillside; "and if they have caught him, we'll make him show us the way. Stubborn brute! He was too much for me in the quarry, but out here with the men about, I'll make him sing a different tune."
"Where can they be?" he cried, after wandering about for quite half an hour. "Why! Ah!" he ejaculated. "I can see it all now. It was Ram, and he was playing peewit. The cunning rascal! Oh, if I only get hold of him!
"Yes; there's no doubt about it, and he has been too clever for us. He was watching by the entrance, and just as the men got up, and would have found it, he jumped up and dodged about, letting the men nearly catch him, and then running away and leading them farther and farther on."
"Never mind. I'll get the men together, and we'll go back to the place and soon find it. Oh, how vexatious! Which way does the sea lie?"
There was not a star to be seen, and the night was darker than ever.
He listened, but the night was too calm for the waves to be heard at the foot of the cliffs, and, gaze which way he would, there was nothing but dimly seen rugged ground with occasional slopes of smooth, short grass.
"Ahoy!" he cried at last, and "Ahoy!" came back faintly.
"Hurrah!" he said, after answering again, and walking in the direction from which the cry came, downward in one of the combe-like hollows of the district. "No one need be lost for long, if he has a voice. Don't hear any of the others though."
He shouted again and again, getting answers, and gradually diminishing the distance, till he saw dimly the figure of a stoutly built man, and the next minute he was saluted with,—
"Oh, it's you, is it, Mr Raystoke? Pretty run you've led me. Pray what sort of a game do you call this?"
"Game, sir!" said Archy ruefully; "it's horribly hard work!"
"Hard work! To you, sir—a mere boy! Then what do you suppose it is to me? I have hardly a breath left in me."
"But where are the men Mr Gurr?"
"The men, Mr Raystoke, sir? That's what I was going to ask you. Now just have the goodness to tell me what you mean by forgetting all the discipline you have been taught, and leading these poor chaps off on such a wild-goose chase."
"I, Mr Gurr?" said Archy in astonishment.
"Yes, sir, you, sir. What am I to say to Mr Brough when we get back? I am in command of this expedition, and you lead the men away like a pack of mad March hares, and now I find you here without them. Where are they?"
"I don't know, sir."
"You don't know!"
"I thought they were with you."
"And you took them away and left them?"
"I didn't take them away!" cried the midshipman angrily.
"Then where are they, sir?"
"I don't know. You were close by me when they rushed off after that boy."
"No, no, Mr Gurr; boy—Ram."
"Well, I said sheep, Mr Raystoke."
"No, no, boy; that's his name—Ram."
"Nonsense, sir; it was a sheep, and if it was not, it was a dog."
"I tell you, sir, it was the smuggler's boy, Ram,—the one who came aboard after the cow."
"Hang the cow, sir! I want my men. Do you think I can go back on board without them. Why, it's high treason for a naval officer to let one man slip away, and here you have let two boats' crews go. I say once more, how am I to face Mr Brough?"
"I don't know, Mr Gurr," said Archy, who was growing vexed now at the blame being thrown on his shoulders. "You were in command of the expedition, and the bosun was in charge of the second boat's crew. I don't see how I am to blame."
"But you led the men away, sir."
"Not I, Mr Gurr. I joined in the chase, and I tried to get the boys together, but they scattered everywhere."
"But it really is awkward, Mr Raystoke, isn't it?"
"Horribly, sir. Got anything to eat?"
"To eat? No, my lad. But—tut—tut—tut! I can't hear them anywhere."
"Nor I, sir."
"Well, we must not stand here. But what did you say?—I did not see what it was; they went off after a boy?"
The master spoke so civilly now that Archy forgot his anger, and entered into the trouble warmly.
"Yes," he said; "and it was a plan. That boy is as cunning as can be. We must have been close up to the way into the cave when he started out and led us all away from it."
"I say he jumped up and dodged about, knowing the place by heart, and kept hiding and running off again, to get us right away from the entrance."
"That's it—that's it, Mr Raystoke. Don't try any more, sir. You've hit it right in the bull's eye."
"You think so?"
"No, sir; I'm sure of it. A young fox. Now as soon as we've taken him prisoner, I'll put the matter before Mr Brough in such a way that the young scamp will be tied up, and get four dozen on the bare back."
"Hadn't we better catch him first, Mr Gurr?"
"Right, Mr Raystoke. Come on then; and the first thing is to get the men together. We shall catch him, never you fear that. These cunning ones generally get caught first. Now then, sir, let's listen."
They listened, but there was not a sound.
"'Pon my word! This is a pretty state of affairs!" cried the master. "What do you propose next?"
"Let's get right up to the top of this place and hail."
"That's good advice, Mr Raystoke, sir: so come on."
They started at once, and at the end of ten minutes they were at the top of a hill, but upon gazing round they could only dimly see other hills similar to the one on which they stood,—regular earth-waves of the great convulsion which had thrown the strata of the Freestone Shore into a state of chaos,—but nothing more.
"I'll hail," said Archy; and he shouted, but there was no reply.
"The scoundrels!" cried the master angrily. "They're all together in some public-house drinking, and glad to get away from us. Eh? What are you laughing at?"
"There are no public-houses out in this wild place, Mr Gurr."
"Eh? Well, no, I suppose not. I'll hail. Ahoy?"
A faint echo in reply. That was all.
"Which way shall we go?"
"I don't know, Mr Gurr."
"Can't make out which is the north, can you?"
"No, sir, nor the south neither."
"Humph! I think I could find the south if you told me which was the north," said the master drily. "Well, we must do the best we can. Let's strike along here. I seem to feel that this is the right direction."
Archy felt that it was the wrong direction, but, at he could not point out the right, he followed his leader for about a quarter of a mile, both pausing to shout and listen from time to time.
All at once Gurr came to a dead stop.
"I feel as if we're going wrong," he said. "You choose this time."
"Let's try this way," said Archy, selecting the route because it was down hill; but a quarter of an hour of this did not satisfy him, and he too stopped dead short.
"I feel just as much lost as I did in the dark in that cave, Mr Gurr," he said.
"Never mind, my lad," said the master good-humouredly. "It's all an accident, and nobody's fault. Wish I had my pipe."
"Ahoy!" shouted Archy, but there was no reply.
"I'd sit down and wait for morning, only conscience won't let me."
"Well, let's try this way," suggested Archy.
"Seems to me, my lad, that it don't matter which way we take, we only go wandering in and out among the stones and brambles and winding all sorts of ways. Never mind; we must keep moving, so come on."
They trudged on for how long they could not tell, but both were getting exceedingly weary, and as ignorant now ever as to their whereabouts; for, whether the direction they followed was east, west, south, or north, there was no indication in the sky; and they kept on, always cautiously, in dread and yet in hope that they might come upon the edge of the cliff, which would solve their difficulty at once, if they could see the cutter's lights.
"Though that aren't likely, Mr Raystoke. Strikes me that he'll lie there, and not show a light, on the chance of a smuggling lugger coming along, though that's hardly our luck."
"I don't know," said Archy bitterly. "Seems just the time for her to come when the skipper's so short-handed that he can't attack."
"Yes, we are an unlucky craft and no mistake, and I 'most wish sometimes I'd never sailed in her. Look here, for instance, here's a chance for us."
"Hist! Listen!" whispered Archy.
"What is it?"
"A hail right in the distance."
"No such luck, my lad. I don't know how I'm going to face Mr Brough. Hark!"
"Yes; there it is again, away to the left. Yes; there it goes. Ahoy!"
They stopped and listened after the midshipman had hailed as loudly as he could; and, to the intense delight of both, the hail was responded to.
Hurriedly changing their direction, they went on as rapidly as the rough ground would allow, getting an answering hail every time they shouted, and each time louder, as if those who called were also coming toward them.
Ten minutes later they heard voices, by degrees these became a murmur, and they knew that there must be several of the men together.
In another ten minutes they came upon a group steadily approaching.
Mutual inquiries took place.
No, the men had not captured the fugitive, but they were sure it was a boy; Dirty Dick was ready to take an oath to that effect, but he was not asked.
Then came the important question—Where were they?
The boatswain gave it as his opinion that they had been going westward, but he could give no reason why; and it was decided to continue in that direction, after Gurr had satisfied himself that the men were all present, though they learned that there had been a good deal of hailing before all were collected.
They trudged on almost in silence, for the whole party were wearied out, till an announcement galvanised them all, for suddenly Dick put an end to the question of their journeying west by suddenly shouting,—
"Eh? What do you mean?" cried the master.
"I know yon hill," said Dick, pointing to an eminence dimly seen away before him. "That's just close to the cove, and if we keep straight on, we shall be in the road in less than half an hour, and at the boats ten minutes later."
"No, no, my lad," said the master; "I don't think that's right.—Yes, it is, my lad; I'm 'most sure of it now."
Right it was, as was proved a quarter of an hour later, by their striking the rough road at right angles, and there a halt was called.
"Don't seem any good to go searching along again in the dark, Mr Raystoke," said the master; and the boatswain shook his head decisively.
"All 'bout done up," he growled.
"We could do no good now," said Archy, "for of course I am not sure where the entrance is."
"Must be getting toward morning too, and time to be aboard, Mr Raystoke. There, sir, sometimes we win and many more times we lose. We've lost this time, so let's go back aboard, according to orders. Forward right, my lads, and let's make the best of it."
"Never mind, Mr Gurr," said Archy in a low voice. "I was regularly in despair as I was being taken from one prison to be shut up in another, when I ran up against you. Perhaps we may run up against the smugglers after all."
"Wish we might," said the master. "Oh, how I could fight!"
But they ran up against no smugglers on their way to the boats, which they hailed from the strand, where the water was very low; and soon after they were passing in the lowest of low spirits, out of the cove to the open channel, when once more every one was thrilled with excitement, for right away in the offing they heard a gun.
CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN.
"Can't be, sir," said Gurr, as he tried to pierce the darkness, "because the skipper must be lying at anchor where we left him."
"Hah! See that?" cried Archy, as the men bent to their oars and made the now phosphorescent water flash.
"Only the oars, lad. Water brimes."
Thud! came the report of a heavy gun.
"You're right, lad! 'Twas the flash from a gun. Some one's pursuing of something. Pull away, my lads, let's get aboard, and the skipper may join in. Bah! What's the good o' shore-going? Man's sure to get wrong there."
The men forgot their weariness in the excitement, as they realised that some vessel was in chase of a smuggler, but they murmured among themselves at their ill luck at being away from the cutter; for if they had been aboard at the first shot, the anchor would have been weighed or slipped, and the White Hawk gone to see what was going on, probably to help capture a heavily laden smuggler craft.
"And we should have took our share, lads," said Dick in a whisper. "Hey, boot we are out o' luck."
"Don't sit muttering and grumbling there, my lad, but pull hard, and let's get aboard," cried the master, and the oars dipped away in the dark sea, seeming to splash up so much pale lambent fire at every stroke.
But this was no novelty to the men, and the boats sped on, one in the other's wake, with the crew straining their heads over their left shoulders to catch a glimpse of the next flash which preceded the gun.
"Good six mile away from where we are now," said Gurr. "Oh, my lad, my lad, I wish we were aboard."
But it was a long pull from the cove to where the cutter lay, nearly a mile and a half from the shore, and, though the master and Archy kept straining their eyes to catch sight of their little vessel, she was invisible.
As they rowed on, they kept on increasing their distance from the shore, steering so as to pass along one side of a right-angled triangle, instead of along by the cliff and then straight off; but, as the cutter showed no lights, this was all guess-work, and made the task rather anxious.
The firing kept on, the dull thud of the gun being preceded by the flash, and at each notification of a shot the men gave such a tug at the stout ash blades that they bent, and the boat leaped through the water.
"Hurrah! Morning," cried Archy, and the men answered his remark with a cheer, for there was a grey light coming fast now in the east, but, to the utter astonishment of all, the cutter did not become visible.
They gazed round excitedly as the light broadened, but there was no cutter where they expected she would be, but ten minutes later, dimly seen as yet, they made her out miles away under full sail, in chase of a long, low, three-masted lugger, at which she was keeping up a slow and steady fire.
The men cheered as the direction of the boats' heads was changed.
"Pull, my lads, pull!" cried master and boatswain. The men responded with another cheer, and the water rattled under their bows.
"It's a long pull," cried the master; "but as soon as she sees us, she'll run down and pick us up."
"Hurrah!" shouted the men.
"Well done, Mr Brough, well done!" cried Gurr excitedly. "Think of him, with hardly a man to help him, sailing the cutter, and keeping up a steady fire like that. Oh, Mr Raystoke, why aren't we aboard?"
"Ah, why indeed? There she goes again. I say, Mr Gurr, won't she be able to knock some of her spars overboard."
"I wish I was aboard the lugger with an axe," growled Gurr, shading his eyes; and then, placing his foot against the stroke oar, he gave a regular thrust with the man's pull, a plan imitated by the boatswain on board the other boat.
The light increased rapidly now, and the soft grey sky gave promise of a glorious day, but this did not take the attention of those on board the boats, who could see nothing but the lugger trying to escape, and gradually growing more distant, while the cutter kept on slowly, sending a shot in her wake, evidently in the hope of bringing down one of her masts.
"What boat's that, Mr Gurr?" said Archy at last, drawing the master's attention to one in full sail in the opposite direction to that in which they were going.
"Dunno, my lad. Never mind her. Lobster, I should say."
"Looks fast and smart for a lobster-boat," thought Archy, as he kept glancing at the craft, whose aspect seemed to have a strange attraction for him alone. In fact, every eye was fixed upon the two vessels in the offing, while it seemed to Archy that the boat, which was sailing rapidly, had changed her course on seeing them, and was trying to get close up under the cliffs, apparently to reach the cove from which they had come.
There was nothing suspicious in a sailing-boat making for the cove, but, as the middy looked at it, the boat heeled over in a puff of wind, and he fancied that he caught sight of a familiar figure behind the sail.
It was only a momentary glance, and directly after he told himself it was nonsense, for the figure which had started up in the night, away on the cliff was Ram Shackle, and he could not be in two places at once.
"We shall never do it, my lads," said the master suddenly. "Easy—easy. It's of no use to break your backs, and your hearts too. She's sailing two knots to our one. Easy in that boat," he shouted. "We can't do it."
A low murmur arose from both crews.
"Silence there!" shouted Gurr. Then, more gently, "I don't want to give it up, but you can see for yourself, bo's'n, we can't do it."
"No," came back abruptly.
"It would only be hindering her too. No, Mr Raystoke, it's only our old bad luck, and common sense says it's of no use to fight again it."
"Mr Gurr," said Archy excitedly, speaking with his eyes fixed on the sailing-boat.
"Yes, my lad, what is it?"
"Do you think it possible that yonder boat has had anything to do with the lugger?"
"Eh? What?" cried the master sharply. "Haven't got a glass. I dunno. They're such a set of foxes about here that she might."
He shaded his eyes with his hand, and took a long look at her, and once more a puff of wind caught her sail and heeled her over, so that he could get a good look over her side.
She was about a mile away, and well in toward the shore, keeping far enough from the cliffs to catch the land breeze, and now, as the task of catching up the cutter was given up as impossible, the boat took the attention of all.
"Why, she's got a lot of men in her," cried Gurr excitedly; "nine or ten lying down in her bottom."
"Yes," cried Archy; "and it doesn't take ten men to catch a lobster."
"Ahoy, bo's'n!" cried Gurr; "pull off to the west'ard sharp, and cut off that boat if she makes for that way. Try and head her in under the cliff where there's no wind, if she tries to pass you. Look out! She has a lot of men on board."
The direction of the second boat was altered at once, the men began to pull hard; and just as a dull thud from seaward told that the White Hawk was still well on the heels of her quarry, the first boat turned smartly and began to chase.
"I hope you're right, Mr Raystoke," said the master. "I should like to have one little bit o' fun before we go back aboard. Ah, look at her! She don't mean us to overhaul her. Be smart, my lads. Don't cheer, but seem to be taking it coolly. You're right, Mr Raystoke," he added a minute later; "there's something wrong with that boat, or she would not want to run away."
For the direction of the little yawl they were making for was suddenly changed, and it was evident that, seeing how the second boat, commanded by the boatswain, was going to head her off from the west, she was being put on the other course, so as to run east.
But the first boat was going rapidly through the water now, and a turn of the helm changed her course, so that it would be easy to cut the yawl off from going in the new direction, while an attempt to pass between the boats and head straight for sea was also met by the steersmen of the pursuers.
"Why, what's she going to do?" said Gurr. "Ah, my lad, it's all a flam. Only a lobster-boat after all. She's going to run in under the cliffs where there's no wind, and of course it's to take up her lobster-pots."
"If she was only going to take up lobster-pots she wouldn't have tried to run," said Archy sharply. "I'd overhaul her, Mr Gurr."
"Going to, my lad. Don't you be scared about that. I'll overhaul her, if it's only to get some fresh lobsters for breakfast. There, I told you so," he continued, after a few minutes' interval, during which the boat was sailing straight in for the cliffs, about five hundred yards away from the landing ledge, away to the west; and as the master spoke the mainsail was rapidly lowered, the jib dropped, and those in the White Hawk's leading boat saw that there was a good deal of busy work on board; and before they had recovered from their surprise, several men rose up, oars were thrust over now that the wind had failed, and, with eight men pulling, they were going straight for the cliff.
"Smugglers!" shouted Gurr excitedly. "Jump up, Mr Raystoke, and signal the bo's'n to come on. We shall have a prize after all, though it's only a little one. Pull my lads, pull?"
The smugglers' boat was now about half a mile away, the men in her pulling with all their might, but the King's boat was the more swift, though after a few minutes' chase it was evident that the start was in the smugglers' favour.
"Hang them! They're going to run ashore. They've got a nook there, I'll be bound, and as soon as they're landed they'll be scuffling up the side of the cliff. Pull, my lads, and as we reach the rock, out with you and chase them; you can climb as well as they can. If they're getting away, cover them with your pistols, and tell 'em they shall have it if they don't surrender."
The excitement was now tremendous: the cutter's boat was going fast, and the second boat was closing up, so that it would be impossible for the smugglers to escape by sea. And now, as they drew nearer, Archy saw that his first surmise was right: Ram was in the boat, and right forward, his red cap showing out plainly in the morning light. Jemmy Dadd was there too, and Shackle, beside the big dark fellow who had tricked the lieutenant, while the rest of the crew were strong-looking fellows of the fisherman type.
"Now then there!" shouted Gurr, rising up, but retaining his hold of the tiller with one hand. "It's of no use. Surrender!"
A yell of derision came from the boat, and Ram jumped up and waved his red cap, with the effect that it seemed as if some of the dye had been transferred to Archy's face, which a minute sooner had been rather pale with excitement.
"Pull, my lads, pull, and you'll have them before they land!" cried the master, stamping his foot. "Here, take the tiller, Mr Raystoke;" and he shifted his position, passed the tiller to Archy, and stood up and drew his sword.
"Starboard a little—starboard!" he said. "Run her right alongside, my lad; and you, my men, never mind your oars, the others'll pick them up. The moment we touch, up with you, out with your cutlashes, and down with any man who does not surrender."
"Ay, ay, sir!" cheered the men.
"Now, then," shouted Gurr, "do you surrender?"
A derisive laugh came from the smugglers, who pulled their hardest, pretty closely followed by the king's boat, when, just as they seemed to be coming stem on to the rocks at the foot of the cliff, the four men on the starboard side suddenly plunged their oars down deep, backing water, while the men on the larboard pulled furiously, the result being that the head of the boat swung round, and she glided right out of sight behind a tall rock, which seemed part of the main cliff from a few yards out.
A fierce cry of rage came from the master, but he was quick at giving directions, checking the course of his boat, and then proceeding cautiously; and having no difficulty in following under a low archway for some twenty yards,—a passage evidently only possible at extreme low water,—and directly after they were out again in broad daylight, and at the bottom of a huge funnel-like hollow, from which the rocky cliffs rose up some three hundred feet.
It was a marvellously beautiful spot, but the occupants of the White Hawk's boat had only eyes then for the smugglers, who had run their boat into a nook just across the bottom of the pool, and they had had time to leap on to the rock, and were rapidly climbing a rough zigzag path.
"And us never to have been along here at the right time of the tide to find this hole!" thought Archy, as, in obedience to a sign, he steered the boat across the beautiful transparent pool, and laid her alongside the smugglers boat.
Then oars were thrown down, the men sprang across the smugglers' craft, and, headed by Archy and Gurr, began to climb rapidly after their enemies.
"It's of no use to call upon them to surrender," said Gurr rather breathlessly, as they toiled up the zigzag.
"We'll make them do it later on," cried Archy, whose youth and activity helped him to get on first.
"Steady, my lad, steady!"
"But I want to see which way they go."
"Right, but keep out of danger, my lad. If they show fight, keep back."
Archy heard, but made no reply, and toiled on up the rugged ascent, straining every nerve as he saw the last smuggler disappear over the top, and, at the next turn he made in the zigzag, he caught a glimpse of the ascent from top to bottom, with the sailors climbing up, and just then there was a fresh cheer, which made him turn swiftly again, to look round and see the second boat gliding through the rocky arch into the pool.
It was rather risky, for he was on a narrow slippery place at one of the turns of the zigzag, and nearly lost his footing, but, darting out a hand, he caught at the rock, recovered himself, and climbed on, to reach the top just in time to see Ram's red cap disappearing some four hundred yards away over a rounded eminence due west of where he stood.
He glanced down again, and then, breathless as he was, ran on over the down-like hillside till he reached the spot where he had seen Ram's red cap disappear, and here he stopped, to make sure of Mr Gurr seeing the direction he had taken, standing well up with his sword raised above his head in the bright sunshine.
There was nothing visible but soft green rolling cliff top, and he looked vainly for some sign of the enemy, eager to go on, but taught caution, and not knowing but what Ram might have taken one direction to lure the pursuers away, while the men were in hiding in another.
But, as he waited and scanned the place around, he suddenly caught sight of what seemed to be a rift against the sky in the edge of a cliff which rose up rapidly, and his heart gave a great throb.
"Let Ram play what tricks he likes," he said, "I know where I am now."
"Well, my lad, well!" panted Gurr, running up, followed by the men. "Don't say they've got away!"
"No," cried Archy excitedly. "I think I can lead you to the foxes' hole. This way."
And, as he spoke, there came in rapid succession a couple of dull thuds from seaward, and a cheer from the crew behind, as, led by Archy Raystoke, the men now went over the undulating cliff top at a trot.
CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT.
The discovery of the way through the cliff made clear to Archy several matters connected with the appearance and disappearance of Ram and his companion with the boat, for upon more than one occasion it had seemed impossible that they could have rowed six miles to the cove and come back again. And, excited as the midshipman was, these ideas occurred to him while running along over the top of the down-like cliff.
On looking back beyond the first boat's crew, the head of the second crew could be seen as they reached the top of the zigzag path, where the boatswain waited till the last man was up, and then gave the word for them to double after their fellows.
Seeing that he was so well supported, the master felt that he was ready for any force the smugglers might have to back them up, and, turning to Archy, he suggested that the midshipman should point out the way into the smugglers' cave, and then leave them to do the work.
"It will be time enough to talk about that, Mr Gurr," said Archy rather breathlessly, "when we have found the place."
"But I thought you had found it, my lad!"
"After the tricks played us, I shall not be certain until I see you all right in the cave."
"But you think it's close here?"
"Yes; unless I am quite wrong, the old quarry is in that great cliff where the grass runs right up to the edge."
"Then if it's there, and those fellows have gone in, we'll find the way, and go in too."
"Oh!" ejaculated Archy, stopping short.
"What's the matter, lad?—hurt?"
"No. The place is dark as pitch, and we have no lights."
"Then we'll strike some with our pistol locks, and set fire to some wood. Never mind the lights. If it's light enough for them, it will be light enough for us, lad. Let's find the way in, and that will be enough. They won't show fight. Let's get on, and we shall be marching them all out tied two and two before they're much older."
The party kept on along the rugged undulating top of the cliffs, till, after a careful inspection in all directions, Archy declared that they must now be over the cavern.
The second boat's crew had overtaken them now, and, upon receiving this information, the master spread his men out a few yards apart, to sweep the ground after the fashion observed on the previous night.
"You must find it now, my lads," he said. "I should say what you've got to look for is a hole pretty well grown over with green stuff right up at the end of a bit of a gully, and looking as if no one had been there for a hundred years."
"Yes, something like the mouths of the old quarries we have seen," added Archy.
"Then there's something of the sort down yonder," cried Dick, pointing to a spot where the ground seemed to have sunk down.
"Yes," cried Archy eagerly; "and that's the place. Look here, Mr Gurr."
"What at, my lad?"
"Well, we want to find smugglers, not grass, my lad."
"Yes, but don't you see that some one has gone over here lately. The dew is all brushed off, and you can see the footmarks."
"I can't, my lad. Perhaps you can with your young eyes."
"Oh, it's all right," growled the boatswain.
"Keep a sharp look-out, then, and mind no one gets by."
The little force advanced, with the men spread out to right and left, the officers in the centre, following the trail which led right to the gully-like depression, once doubtless a well-worn track, but now completely smoothed over and grass-grown; and there, sure enough, as discovered only a short time before by Celia, was the scooped-out hollow filled with fern, bramble, and wild clematis, and the rough steps down, and the archway dimly seen beyond the loose stones.
"Halt!" cried the master; and, after a careful inspection had shown that the footprints in the dewy grass had gone no farther than the entrance, the men were called up, and stood round the pit.
There it all was, exactly as Archy had pictured it in his own mind: the loose stones at the bottom of the hole covering, he was sure, the trap-door he had so often heard opened and shut; but, as he went down a few steps in his eagerness, and scanned the place, he was puzzled and disappointed; for the trap-door, if that was the spot where it lay, was covered, and therefore the men could not be in the cave.
"Bad job we've got no lanthorns," said Gurr, who was looking over Archy's shoulder at the low-browed arch of the passage leading right in; "and it looks bad travelling, but in we've got to go if they won't surrender. Let me go first, my lad."
For answer the midshipman went down to the bottom of the rough steps, and stood over the trap-door on the loose stones.
"No, no, my lad," said Gurr kindly, as he joined him. "Too rough a job for you. I'll lead, and, hang it! I shall have to crawl. Not very good work for one's clothes. Come along, my lads. You, Mr Raystoke, and four men stop back, and form the reserve, to take prisoner any one who tries to escape."
The men descended till every step was occupied, the little force extending from top to bottom.
"Stop a minute, Mr Gurr. Let the bo's'n guard the entry here; I must go with you to act as guide."
"It aren't all passage, then, like this?"
"No; it's a great open place supported by pillars, big enough to lose yourselves in. But stop; that can't be the way, sir."
"Oh, hang it all, my lad!" cried the master in disappointed tones. "Don't say that."
"But I do," cried Archy. "There ought to be a trap-door covered with stones leading down a place like a well."
"Yes; that's what we've come down."
"No, no, another. I think it was down here."
He stamped his foot on the loose stones, and then uttered a cry of joy, for there was a curious hollow sound, and on stooping down he pulled away some of the great shaley fragments, and laid bare a rough plank with a bolt partly visible.
"Right! Got 'em at last," cried Gurr. "Clear off more stones, my lads. No; stop!" he said.
"Yes, I know what you are thinking, Mr Gurr," said Archy. "The men couldn't have shut themselves in there."
"Course not, my lad. But you are right, that's the way down to their curiosity shop, and they're hiding in this hole here."
Then, thrusting in his head, and holding on by the rugged stones, he shouted into the hollow passage,—
"Now then, my lads, out you come!"
"D'yer hear? The game's up, and if you don't come out quietly, we shall have to fetch you out on the rough."
Still no reply.
"Come, come, my lads, no nonsense! Surrender. I don't want to use pistols and cutlashes to Englishmen. You know the game's up. Surrender."
Still no reply.
"I don't think that hole goes in far, Mr Raystoke," whispered the master. "There's no echo like, and it sounds smothered." Then aloud,—
"Now, then, is it surrender? Oh, very well; I've got some nice little round messengers to send in after you."
He drew a pistol from his belt and cocked it, winking at Archy as he did so. "Now, then, once—twice—fire!"
He pointed the mouth of the pistol downward, and drew the trigger, and in the semi-darkness below the overhanging brambles and clematis there was a dull flash, the report sounded smothered, and the place was filled with the dank, heavy-scented smoke.
"There's precious little room in there," whispered the master. "If there'd been much of it, we should have heard the sound go rolling along instead of coming back like a slap in the face. Here, one of you, reload that. You, Dick, follow me. If they show fight, you come on next, bo's'n, with the whole of your boat's crew."
"Ay, ay, sir."
"Hi! In there. Do you surrender?"
There was not a sound, and, after a momentary pause, the master spat in his fist, gripped his cutlass, went down on all fours, after driving his hat on tightly, and crawled into the hole, followed by Dick.
"Keep a cheery heart on it, lad," said one of the men just before to Dick. "We'll fetch you out and bury you at sea."
Dick drove his elbow into the man's chest for an answer, grinned as he felt the point of his cutlass, and dived into the hole, while the boatswain and his men stood waiting eagerly, ready to plunge forward at the first sound of a scuffle.
Archy peered in at the dark passage, his heart beating as he listened to the noise made by the two men crawling in, and the last of the two had hardly disappeared when there was a shout, a scuffle, and the boatswain plunged in.
"All right!" they heard Gurr say. "I've got him. Hold still, you varmint, or I'll cut your ears off. Here, Dick, get by me, and go forrard if you can."
There was more scuffling, and the rattle of a stone or two, as the listeners pictured in their own minds the man squeezing past the master and his prisoner, and then Dick's voice came out in a half smothered way:
"Can't get no farther. All choked-up."
"All right, then, but make sure."
"Oh, I'm sure enough," said Dick. "It's all a stopper here."
"Then out you come, my lad," said the master; and the next minute his legs were seed as he backed out, dragging evidently some one after him who was resisting.
"Here, Dick," came in smothered tones.
"Ay, ay, sir."
"Says he won't come. If he gives me any more of his nonsense, touch him up behind with the pynte of your cutlash."
"Ay, ay, sir."
"Yah! Cowards!" came in angry tones.
"Ram!" exclaimed Archy, as the boy, looking hot and fierce, was dragged out by the master, to stand looking round him as fiercely as a wild cat.
"Hullo!" cried Archy. "It's my turn now, Ram;" but he repented his words directly, as he saw the reproachful look the boy darted at him. Then he forgot all directly, as he exclaimed,—
"I see, Mr Gurr, I see! The smugglers are down here after all, and they left this boy behind to fasten the door, and cover it over with stones."
Unable to contain himself, Ram thoroughly endorsed the midshipman's words by giving an angry stamp upon the bottom of the hole.
"That's it!" cried Gurr. "Here, chuck these stones into the passage, my lads;" and the rough trap-door was laid bare, the two bolts by which it was secured were seen to be unfastened, and the lock unshot.
"No way out, Mr Raystoke, is there?"
"Then we've got 'em trapped safe this time," said Gurr, as the door was thrown open. "Bad job we've no lanthorns; but never mind, my lads. If they won't surrender, you must feel your way with the pyntes of your toothpicks."
There was a murmur of excitement among the men, and then Gurr leaned down over the hole, put his hand to his mouth, and shouted,—
"Below there! In the King's name—surrender!"
His words went rolling and echoing through the place, but there was no reply.
"Once more, my lads, to save bloodshed, will you surrender?"
"Very well. It's your fault, my lads, and very onsensible. Bo's'n, it's a big place, and I shall want all my men. You're all right here; with one you ought to be able to hold this."
"And the prisoner?"
"No; we'll take him with us. Here, lash his hands behind him, and tie his legs together. We'll lay him down to have a nap somewhere yonder down below. That's right," he continued, as a man produced a piece of line, and firmly secured the boy, who was lowered down to one of the men who had descended, laid on the stones in a corner at the bottom; and then, after giving the word to be ready, Gurr braced himself up.
"You'll stop aside me, Mr Raystoke, and try and guide."
"You understand, bo's'n, down with the first who tries to escape up the hole here."
"Then, now, forward!" cried Gurr; and, closely followed by Archy and his men, he descended into the old quarry, and then stood listening at the top of the slope, before preparing to advance into the enemy-peopled darkness right ahead.
CHAPTER THIRTY NINE.
Archy felt his heart throb as he led the way down the slope, every step of which seemed so familiar that he advanced without hesitation, the knowledge of how many sturdy men he had at his back keeping away the natural shrinking which under other circumstances he might have felt.
"Halt!" said the master suddenly, and then in a whisper to his guide, "Strikes me as they'll have the best of it if they should fight, my lad."
"Not much," replied Archy; "it's as dark for them as it is for us, so that they can't take us at a disadvantage. Call on them to surrender again."
"Ay, to be sure," cried the master; and once more he summoned the smugglers to give in.
There was not a sound to suggest that his orders were heard.
"Don't know what to do, my lad," whispered the master again. "If we go forward, we're leaving the way open for the enemy to attack the watch at the entrance, and we don't want that. Are you sure they're here?"
"I feel certain of it," said Archy in the same low tone. "They must be, but they're hiding, so as to try to escape, or else to take us at a disadvantage."
"Well," said Gurr, "let them. So long as they come out and fight fair, I don't care what they do. Here, four of you stop here; Dick, take command. We'll go forward and turn the enemy, and try to take them in the rear. Stand fast if they come at you; no pistols, but use your cutlasses. We shall come up to you at the least sound, to help."
The men uttered a low, "Ay, ay, sir," speaking as if they were oppressed by the darkness, and the master whispered.
"Now, my lad," he said, "try and give us the shape of the place like."
Archy obeyed, and explained where the smugglers' stores lay, and the pile of little kegs, if they had not been moved, the place where he had slept, and the positions of the huge pillars and heaps of broken stones.
"And you was shut up here all that time, and didn't go mad!" said Gurr. "Well, you are a wonder! Tell you what, my lad, I should just like to make sure that those brandy kegs are still here, and then I think we'll be off, and come back with lights. There's no one here but ourselves. Place isn't big enough for any one to be hiding without our hearing them?"
"Plenty, Mr Gurr," said Archy firmly; "and I am sure they are here; but it is impossible to search without lights. They may be hiding behind the pillars or piles of stone. Have lights got as soon as possible, and then we can come and make them prisoners."
All this was said in a hurried whisper, as the two stood together in front of their men, and in absolute darkness, for they had advanced into the place far enough for the faint light which filtered down from the trap-door to be completely lost.
"Yes; but I'd like to be able to tell the skipper that we have got something in the way of a prize for the men. Can you lead us to it, my lad?"
"But you couldn't take it away."
"Well, we might carry one keg aboard, as a sample. Now then, where will it be from here?"
"Give me your hand, and I'll lead you right to it."
"There you are. Take care how you go. Can you keep close behind us, my lads? Better join hands. Now then, are you ready?"
"Ay, ay," came in a low murmur; and, grasping the master's hand, Archy led on, fully believing that the smugglers were still there, but feeling that they would keep in hiding, and try to escape when they were gone.
"Say, my lad," whispered the master, "I pity you—I do from my soul. Think of you being shut up all alone in a place like this! Hah! Look out!"
The order was needless, for the smugglers gave every one warning to do that.
One moment the King's men were advancing cautiously through the darkness, the next, without a sound to warn them, there was a rush; blows fell thick and fast, cudgel striking head, cutlass, shoulder, anything that opposed the advance; and in less time than it takes to describe the encounter, the sailors were beaten down or aside, and the party of four, who were warned of what to expect by the noise in their front, advanced to the help of their friends, but only to be beaten down or aside by the gang which rushed at them.
"Stop them, Dick. Down with them!" shouted the master, as soon as he could get on his feet. "Hi, Dick! Pass the word to the bo's'n to look out. Here, Mr Raystoke! Hi, bo's'n, down with that trap and make it fast. Mr Raystoke, I say, where are you? Which way is it? Who's this?"
"No, no, sir," cried one of them; "it's on'y me."
"Mr Gurr! Here!" cried Archy. "Where are you?"
"At last. Where were you, then?"
"On the stones, half stunned," cried Archy. "Here, all get together and follow me."
"What are you going to do?"
"Make for the trap-door—sharp! They're fighting there."
"Oh, dear, who'd have thought it was this way!" grumbled the master. "Talk about blind man's buff! Sure you're going right, lad? Shall I fire a pistol to make a flash?"
"No; I know."
"Hah!" cried Gurr, as an echoing bang ran through the great cavern. "Bravo, bo's'n!"
The bang was followed by a heavy rattling sound perfectly familiar to Archy, as he hurried the master along to the foot of the slope.
"Are you all there?" cried Archy.
"Yes,"—"No,"—"No," came from different directions.
"Then keep up this way, and be ready for another rush."
"Ay," cried the master loudly; "and I warn you fellows now, I'd have treated you easy; but if you will have it, the word's war, and a volley of bullets next time you come on."
"No, no, don't fire! You'll hit our own men," whispered Archy, as he reached the top of the slope. "Ah! Who's this?" he cried, as he nearly fell over a prostrate figure.
"Steady, my lad, steady!"
"Steady it is," said another voice.
"Yes, sir, and me too. Oh, my head! How it bleeds!"
"Why, what are you doing here?"
"They came at us, sir, like mad bulls, and 'fore I knew where I was they had me. Pair o' hands pops up out of the hole, takes hold of my legs, and I was pulled down, had a crack of the head, was danced on, and here I am, sir."
"And me too, sir," said the other voice. "But, I'm much worse than him."
"But the smugglers?"
"All seemed to come over us, sir; banged the door down, and they've been rattling big stones on it. There, you can hear 'em now."
In corroboration of the boatswain's words, there was a dull thunderous sound overhead, as of great stones being thrown down over the trap-door, and all listened in silence for a time till the noise ceased.
The silence was broken by Gurr, who suddenly roared out, as if he had only just grasped the position,—
"Why, they've got away!"
"Every man jack of 'em, sir, and they all walked over me."
"And they've shut us in!"
"Yes, Mr Gurr," said Archy sadly; "they've shut us in."
"But if they were here," cried the master; "that's what I wanted to do to them. I say, Mr Raystoke, you've done it now."
Half angry, half amused, but all the while smarting with the pain caused by a blow he had received, Archy remained silent, listening to the heavy breathing and muttering of his companions in misfortune. The sounds above ground had ceased, and it was evident that the smugglers had made good their escape.
Again the silence was broken by the master, who raging with pain and mortification, exclaimed,—
"Well, Mr Raystoke, sir, you know all about this place; which is the way out?"
"Up above here, Mr Gurr, close to where we stand."
"Very well, sir; then why don't you lead on?"
"Because they have shut and fastened the trap, and heaped about a ton of stone upon it."
"Well, then, we must hack through the door with our cutlashes, and let the stone down."
"What's that?" cried Archy excitedly,—"a light!"
For there was a dull report and a flash of blue like lightning; and, running down the slope, the midshipman beheld that which sent a thrill of terror through him. For, away toward the far end of the cave, there was a great pool of flickering blue light; and, as it lit up the ceiling and the huge square stone supports of the place, he saw that which explained the meaning of what had seemed to be a wonderful phenomenon.
There, beyond the flickering pool of blue and yellow flame, which was rapidly spreading in every direction, he could dimly see quite a wall of piled-up kegs, one of which lay right in the edge of the pool of fire, and suddenly exploded with a dull report, which blew the tongues of fire in all directions, half extinguishing them for the moment, but instantaneously flashing out again in a volume of fire, which quadrupled the size of the pool, and began to lick the sides of the kegs.
"The wretches! They fired the spirits before they escaped," cried Archy, who realised to the full what had been done; and, for the sake of our common humanity, let us say it must have been an act of vindictive spite, aimed only at the destruction of the proof spirit, so that it might not fall into the sailors' hands—not intended to condemn them to a hideous death.
"Back quick to the entrance! We must hack down that door," roared Archy.
"Ay, ay," shouted the men, who the moment before were mad with terror, but who leaped at the command as if their safety were assured.
"No, no!" shouted the midshipman, as a fresh keg exploded; and in the flash of flame which followed, the place glowed with a ghastly light.
"Yes, sir, yes!" shouted the men.
"I tell you no," cried Archy; "we should be burned or suffocated long before we could get that open."
And, as in imagination he saw the men fighting and striving with one another to get to the trap-door, which remained obstinately closed, he clapped his hand on Mr Gurr's shoulder.
"I know another way," he cried. "Follow me."
"Hurrah!" yelled the men, and the lad had taken a dozen steps toward the pool of fire, when a wild shout came from near the entrance.
"All! Who's that?" cried Archy, as he mentally saw a wounded man being left behind.
"Don't leave a poor fellow to be burnt to death, Mr Raystoke," cried a familiar voice.
"Ram!" cried Archy, running back to where the boy lay bound behind a pile of stones, forgotten for the time, and unheeded by his companions.
"Yes, it's me," said the boy excitedly.
"Quick! Get up. Can you walk?" said Archy, cutting him free.
"Yes," cried the lad.
"Then come on!"
"For the top passage," whispered Ram. "That's the only way now."
"Yes. Follow me."
The midshipman had hardly given the command when there was another explosion, a fresh flash of fire, which nearly reached them, and he saw beyond the dancing tongues of flame the black opening he sought.
But this fresh explosion—one of which he knew scores must now rapidly follow—checked him for the moment, and he saw that Ram had disappeared.
"It's our only chance, my lads," cried Archy. "Are you all ready?"
"Hold your breath, then, as you get to the fire, and follow me."
"Through that blaze, my lad?" whispered the master.
"Yes. Don't stop to talk. Now, then," roared Archy, "come on!"
"Hurrah!" cried the men wildly; and Archy dashed forward, but was thrown back, and had to retreat, as a fresh keg exploded and added to the size of the pool, now almost a river of fire many yards wide.
"It's now or never!" cried Archy frantically, and he rushed into the blue flames, which leaped about his feet and up as if to lick his face.
A dozen strides, splashing up blue fire at every step, and he was through it, and where a faint current of cold air seemed to be meeting him.
Almost as he reached the farther side, the men came leaping and yelling after him, to stand beating the tongues of fire from their feet and legs.
Bang—bang—a couple more explosions, and the men crowded up to Archy, the master included, as if to ask what next.
"Are you all here?"
"Ay, ay, sir."
"And that boy?"
"I'm here," cried Ram. "Quick, before they all go off."
"Yes," said Archy. "Forward!"
He led the way into the darkness once more, but into an atmosphere which he could breathe. Then up the familiar way, with its rugged steps, and on to the newly mortared wall, with its loophole, through which the glorious light of day streamed.
"Now, my lads, cutlasses here. That wall's new. Four of you work, and loosen the stones, the others take them and throw them back below."
The men cheered, and, headed by Mr Gurr and Dick, worked as they had never worked before.
The stones were hard to move at first, but it was child's play compared to the toil through which the young midshipman had gone when he attacked the wall. First one yielded, then another, and, as they were dragged out, the men cheered, and passed them back to those down the rough steps.
With every stone removed, hope strengthened the little party; but as the explosions followed fast, and the flames began to flicker and play up the passage in which they were penned, Archy closed his eyes for a few moments to mutter a prayer, for his thoughts were getting wild.