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The Terror of Revenants
The Haunted Dragoon
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
Beside the Plymouth road, as it plunges down hill past Ruan Lanihale church towards Ruan Cove, and ten paces beyond the lych-gate—where the graves lie level with the coping, and the horseman can decipher their inscriptions in passing, at the risk of a twisted neck—the base of the churchyard wall is pierced with a low archway, festooned with toad-flax and fringed with the hart's-tongue fern. Within the archway bubbles a well, the water of which was once used for all baptisms in the parish, for no child sprinkled with it could ever be hanged with hemp. But this belief is discredited now, and the well neglected: and the events which led to this are still a winter's tale in the neighbourhood. I set them down as they were told me, across the blue glow of a wreck-wood fire, by Sam Tregear, the parish bedman. Sam himself had borne an inconspicuous share in them; and because of them Sam's father had carried a white face to his grave.
My father and mother (said Sam) married late in life, for his trade was what mine is, and 'twasn't till her fortieth year that my mother could bring herself to kiss a gravedigger. That accounts, maybe, for my being born rickety and with other drawbacks that only made father the fonder. Weather permitting, he'd carry me off to churchyard, set me upon a flat stone, with his coat folded under, and talk to me while he delved. I can mind, now, the way he'd settle lower and lower, till his head played hidey-peep with me over the grave's edge, and at last he'd be clean swallowed up, but still discoursing or calling up how he'd come upon wonderful towns and kingdoms down underground, and how all the kings and queens there, in dyed garments, was offering him meat for his dinner every day of the week if he'd only stop and hobbynob with them—and all such gammut. He prettily doted on me—the poor old ancient!
But there came a day—a dry afternoon in the late wheat harvest—when we were up in the churchyard together, and though father had his tools beside him, not a tint did he work, but kept travishing back and forth, one time shading his eyes and gazing out to sea, and then looking far along the Plymouth road for minutes at a time. Out by Bradden Point there stood a little dandy-rigged craft, tacking lazily to and fro, with her mains'le all shiny-yellow in the sunset. Though I didn't know it then, she was the Preventive boat, and her business was to watch the Hauen: for there had been a brush between her and the Unity lugger, a fortnight back, and a Preventive man shot through the breast-bone and my mother's brother Philip was hiding down in the town. I minded, later, how that the men across the vale, in Farmer Tresidder's wheat-field, paused every now and then, as they pitched the sheaves, to give a look up towards the churchyard, and the gleaners moved about in small knots, causeying and glancing over their shoulders at the cutter out in the bay; and how, when all the field was carried, they waited round the last load, no man offering to cry the Neck, as the fashion was, but lingering till sun was near down behind the slope and the long shadows stretching across the stubble.
"Sha'nt thee go underground today, father?" says I, at last.
He turned slowly round, and says he, "No, sonny. 'Reckon us 'll climb skywards for a change."
And with that, he took my hand, and pushing abroad the belfry door began to climb the stairway. Up and up, round and round we vent, in a sort of blind-man's-holiday full of little glints of light and whiffs of wind where the open windows came; and at last stepped out upon the leads of the tower and drew breath.
"There's two-an'-twenty parishes to be witnessed from where we're standin', sonny—if ye've got eyes," says my father.
Well, first I looked down towards the harvesters and laughed to see them so small: and then I fell to counting the church-towers dotted across the highlands, and seeing if I could make out two-and-twenty. 'Twas the prettiest sight—all the country round looking as if 'twas dusted with gold, and the Plymouth road winding away over the hills like a long white tape. I had counted thirteen churches, when my father pointed his hand out along this road and called to me—
"Look'ee out yonder, honey, an' say what ye see!"
"I see dust," says I.
"Nothin' else? Sonny boy, use your eyes, for mine be dim."
"I see dust," says I again, "an' suthin' twinklin' in it, like a tin can—"
"Dragooners!" shouts my father; and then, running to the side or the tower facing the harvest-field, he put both hands to his mouth and called:
"What have 'ee? What have 'ee?"
—very loud and long.
"A neck—a neck!" came back from the field, like as if all shouted at once—dear, the sweet sound! And then a gun was fired, and craning forward over the coping I saw a dozen men running across the stubble and out into the road towards the Hauen; and they called as they ran, "A neck—a neck!"
"Iss," says my father, "'tis a neck, sure 'nuff. Pray God they save en! Come, sonny—"
But we dallied up there till the horsemen were plain to see, and their scarlet coats and armour blazing in the dust as they came. And when they drew near within a mile, and our limbs ached with crouching—for fear they should spy us against the sky—father took me by the hand and pulled hot foot down the stairs. Before they rode by he had picked up his shovel and was shovelling out a grave for his life.
Forty valiant horsemen they were, riding two-and-two (by reason of the narrowness of the road) and a captain beside them—men broad and long, with hairy top-lips, and all clad in scarlet jackets and white breeches that showed bravely against their black war-horses and jet-black holsters, thick as they were wi' dust. Each man had a golden helmet, and a scabbard flapping by his side, and a piece of metal like a half-moon jingling from his horse's cheek-strap. 12 D was the numbering on every saddle, meaning the Twelfth Dragoons.
Tramp! tramp! they rode by, talking and joking, and taking no more heed of me—that sat upon the wall with my heels dangling above them—than if I'd been a sprig of stonecrop. But the captain, who carried a drawn sword and mopped his face with a handkerchief so that the dust ran across it in streaks, drew rein, and looked over my shoulder to where father was digging.
"Sergeant!" he calls back, turning with a hand upon his crupper; "didn't we see a figger like this a-top o' the tower, some way back?"
The sergeant pricked his horse forward and saluted. He was the tallest, straightest man in the troop, and the muscles on his arm filled out his sleeve with the three stripes upon it—a handsome red-faced fellow, with curly black hair.
Says he, "That we did, sir—a man with sloping shoulders and a boy with a goose neck." Saying this, he looked up at me with a grin.
"I'll bear it in mind," answered the officer, and the troop rode on in a cloud of dust, the sergeant looking back and smiling, as if 'twas a joke that he shared with us. Well, to be short, they rode down into the town as night fell. But 'twas too late, Uncle Philip having had fair warning and plenty of time to flee up towards the little secret hold under Mabel Down, where none but two families knew how to find him. All the town, though, knew he was safe, and lashins of women and children turned out to see the comely soldiers hunt in vain till ten o'clock at night.
The next thing was to billet the warriors. The captain of the troop, by this, was pesky cross-tempered, and flounced off to the "Jolly Pilchards" in a huff. "Sergeant," says he, "here's an inn, though a damned bad 'un, an' here I means to stop. Somewheres about there's a farm called Constantine, where I'm told the men can be accommodated. Find out the place, if you can, an' do your best: an' don't let me see yer face till to-morra," says he.
So Sergeant Basket—that was his name—gave the salute, and rode his troop up the street, where—for his manners were mighty winning, notwithstanding the dirty nature of his errand—he soon found plenty to direct him to Farmer Noy's, of Constantine; and up the coombe they rode into the darkness, a dozen or more going along with them to show the way, being won by their martial bearing as well as the sergeant's very friendly way of speech.
Farmer Noy was in bed—a pock-marked, lantern-jawed old gaffer of sixty-five; and the most remarkable point about him was the wife he had married two years before—a young slip of a girl but just husband-high. Money did it, I reckon; but if so, 'twas a bad bargain for her. He was noted for stinginess to such a degree that they said his wife wore a brass wedding-ring, weekdays, to save the genuine article from wearing out. She was a Ruan woman, too, and therefore ought to have known all about him. But woman's ways be past finding out.
Hearing the hoofs in his yard and the sergeant's stram-a-ram upon the door, down comes the old curmudgeon with a candle held high above his head.
"What the devil's here?" he calls out.
Sergeant Basket looks over the old man's shoulder; and there, halfway up the stairs, stood Madam Noy in her night rail—a high-coloured ripe girl, languishing for love, her red lips parted and neck all lily-white against a loosened pile of dark brown hair.
"Be cussed if I turn back!" said the sergeant to himself; and added out loud—
"Forty souldjers, in the King's name!"
"Forty devils!" says the old Noy.
"They're devils to eat," answered the sergeant, in the most friendly manner; "an', begad, ye must feed an' bed 'em this night—or else I'll search your cellars. Ye are a loyal man—eh, farmer? An' your cellars are big, I'm told."
"Sarah," calls out the old man, following the sergeant's bold glance, "go back an' dress yersel' dacently this instant! These here honest souldjers—forty damned honest gormandisin' souldjers—be come in his Majesty's name, forty strong, to protect honest folks' rights in the intervals of eatin' 'em out o' house an' home. Sergeant, ye be very welcome i' the King's name. Cheese an' cider ye shall have, an' I pray the mixture may turn your forty stomachs."
In a dozen minutes he had fetched out his stable-boys and farm-hands, and, lantern in hand, was helping the sergeant to picket the horses and stow the men about on clean straw in the outhouses. They were turning back to the house, and the old man was turning over in his mind that the sergeant hadn't yet said a word about where he was to sleep, when by the door they found Madam Noy waiting, in her wedding gown, and with her hair freshly braided.
Now, the farmer was mortally afraid of the sergeant, knowing he had thirty ankers and more of contraband liquor in his cellars, and minding the sergeant's threat. None the less his jealousy got the upper hand.
"Woman," he cried out, "to thy bed!"
"I was waiting," said she, "to say the Cap'n's bed—"
"Sergeant's," says the dragoon, correcting her.
"—Was laid i' the spare room."
"Madam," replies Sergeant Basket, looking into her eyes and bowing, "a soldier with my responsibility sleeps but little. In the first place, I must see that my men sup."
"The maids be now cuttin' the bread an' cheese and drawin' the cider."
"Then, Madam, leave me but possession of the parlour, and let me have a chair to sleep in."
By this they were in the passage together, and her gaze devouring his regimentals. The old man stood a pace off, looking sourly. The sergeant fed his eyes upon her, and Satan got hold of him.
"Now if only," said he, "one of you could play cards!"
"But I must go to bed," she answered; "though I can play cribbage, if only you stay another night."
For she saw the glint in the farmer's eye; and so Sergeant Basket slept bolt upright that night in an armchair by the parlour fender. Next day the dragoons searched the town again, and were billeted all about among the cottages. But the sergeant returned to Constantine, and before going to bed—this time in the spare room—played a game of cribbage with Madam Noy, the farmer smoking sulkily in his armchair.
"Two for his heels!" said the rosy woman suddenly, halfway through the game. "Sergeant, you're cheatin' yoursel' an' forgettin' to mark. Gi'e me the board; I'll mark for both."
She put out her hand upon the board, and Sergeant Basket's closed upon it. 'Tis true he had forgot to mark; and feeling the hot pulse in her wrist, and beholding the hunger in her eyes, 'tis to be supposed he'd have forgot his own soul.
He rode away next day with his troop: but my uncle Philip not being caught yet, and the Government set on making an example of him, we hadn't seen the last of these dragoons. 'Twas a time of fear down in the town. At dead of night or at noonday they came on us—six times in all: and for two months the crew of the Unity couldn't call their souls their own, but lived from day to day in secret closets and wandered the country by night, hiding in hedges and straw-houses. All that time the revenue men watched the Hauen, night and day, like dogs before a rat-hole.
But one November morning 'twas whispered abroad that Uncle Philip had made his way to Falmouth, and slipped across to Guernsey. Time passed on, and the dragooners were seen no more, nor the handsome devil-may-care face of Sergeant Basket. Up at Constantine, where he had always contrived to billet himself, 'tis to be thought pretty Madam Noy pined to see him again, kicking his spurs in the porch and smiling out of his gay brown eyes; for her face fell away from its plump condition, and the hunger in her eyes grew and grew. But a more remarkable fact was that her old husband—who wouldn't have yearned after the dragoon, ye'd have thought—began to dwindle and fall away too. By the New Year he was a dying man, and carried his doom on his face. And on New Year's Day he straddled his mare for the last time, and rode over to Looe, to Doctor Gale's.
"Goody-losh!" cried the doctor, taken aback by his appearance—"What's come to ye, Noy?"
"Death!" says Noy. "Doctor, I bain't come for advice, for before this day week I'll be a clay-cold corpse. I come to ax a favour. When they summon ye, before lookin' at my body—that'll be past help—go you to the little left-top corner drawer o' my wife's bureau, an' there ye'll find a packet. You're my executor," says he, "and I leaves ye to deal wi' that packet as ye thinks fit."
With that, the farmer rode away home-along, and the very day week he went dead.
The doctor, when called over, minded what the old chap had said, and sending Madam Noy on some pretence to the kitchen, went over and unlocked the little drawer with a duplicate key, that the farmer had unhitched from his watch-chain and given him. There was no parcel of letters, as he looked to find, but only a small packet crumpled away in the corner. He pulled it out and gave a look, and a sniff, and another look: then shut the drawer, locked it, strode straight down-stairs to his horse and galloped away.
In three hours' time, pretty Madam Noy was in the constables' hands upon the charge of murdering her husband by poison.
They tried her, next Spring Assize, at Bodmin, before the Lord Chief Justice. There wasn't evidence enough to put Sergeant Basket in the dock alongside of her—though 'twas freely guessed he knew more than anyone (saving the prisoner herself) about the arsenic that was found in the little drawer and inside the old man's body. He was subpna'd from Plymouth, and cross-examined by a great hulking King's Counsel for three-quarters of an hour. But they got nothing out of him. All through the examination the prisoner looked at him and nodded her white face, every now and then, at his answers, as much as to say, "That's right—that's right: they shan't harm thee, my dear." And the love-light shone in her eyes for all the court to see. But the sergeant never let his look meet it. When he stepped down at last she gave a sob of joy, and fainted bang-off.
They roused her up, after this, to hear the verdict of Guilty and her doom spoken by the judge. "Pris'ner at the bar," said the Clerk of Arraigns, "have ye anything to say why this court should not pass sentence o' death?"
She held tight of the rail before her, and spoke out loud and clear—
"My Lord and gentlemen all, I be a guilty woman; an' I be ready to die at once for my sin. But if ye kill me now, ye kill the child in my body—an' he is innocent."
Well, 'twas found she spoke truth; and the hanging was put off till after the time of her delivery. She was led back to prison, and there, about the end of June, her child was born, and died before he was six hours old. But the mother recovered, and quietly abode the time of her hanging.
Excerpted from Great Tales of Terror by S. T. Joshi. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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