Story 3 | Chapter I | In a Gowt

Story 3—Chapter I.

Looks ominous, don’t it, to see nearly every gate-post and dyke-bridge made of old ships’ timber? Easy enough to tell that, from its bend, and the tree-nail holes. Ours is a bad coast, you see; not rocky, but with long sloping sands; and when the sea’s high, and there’s a gale on shore, a vessel strikes, and there she lies, with the waves lifting her bodily, and then letting her fall again upon the sands, shaking her all to pieces: first the masts go, then a seam opens somewhere in her sides, and as every wave lifts her and lets her down, she shivers and loosens, till she as good as falls all to pieces, and the shore gets strewn with old wreck.

Good wrecks used to be little fortunes to the folk along shore, but that’s all altered now; the coastguard look-out too sharp. Things are wonderfully changed to what they were when I was a boy. Fine bit of smuggling going on in those days; hardly a farmer along the coast but had a finger in it, and ran cargoes right up to the little towns inland. The coast was not so well watched, and people were bribed easier, I suppose; but, at all events, that sort of thing has almost died out now.

Never had a brush with the coastguard or the cutter in my time, for we were all on the cut-and-run system: but I had a narrow escape for my life once, when a boat’s crew came down upon us, and I’ll tell you how it was.

We were a strong party of us down on the shore off our point here at Merthorpe, busy as could be; night calm, and still, and dark, and one of those fast-sailing French boats—chasse-marées, they call them—landing a cargo. Carts, and packhorses, and boats were all at it; and the kegs of brandy, and barrels of tobacco, and parcels of lace were coming ashore in fine style; I and another in a little boat kept making trips backwards and forwards between the shore and the chasse-marée, landing brandy-tubs—nice little brandy-kegs, you know, with a VC—Vieux Cognac—branded on each.

I don’t know how many journeys I had made, when all at once there was an alarm given, and as it were right out of the darkness, I could see a man-of-war’s boat coming right down upon us, while, before I quite got over the first fright, there was another in sight.

Such a scrimmage—such a scamper; boats scattering in all directions; the French boat getting up a sail or two, and all confusion; whips cracking, wheels ploughing through the soft sand, and horses galloping off to get to the other side of the sandbank. We were close aside the long, low chasse-marée, in our bit of a skiff thing, when the alarm was given, and pushed off hard for the shore, which was about two hundred yards distant, while on all sides there were other boats setting us the example, or following in our wake; in front of us there was a heavy cart backed as far out into the sea as she would stand, with the horses turned restive and jibbing, for there was a heavy load behind them, and the more the driver lashed them, the more the brutes backed out in the shallow water, while every moment the wheels kept sinking farther into the sand.

I saw all this as the revenue cutter’s boats separated, one making for the chasse-marée, and the other dashing after the flying long-shore squadron; and as I dragged at my oar, I had the pleasure of seeing that we must either be soon overhauled, or else leap out into the shallow water, and run for it, and I said so to my companion.

“Oh, hang it, no,” he cried; “pull on. They’ll stave in the boat, and we shall lose all the brandy.”

I did pull on, for I was so far from being loyal, that I was ready to run any risk sooner than lose the little cargo we had of a dozen brandy-kegs, and about the same number of packages; but there seemed not the slightest prospect of our getting off, unless we happened to be unobserved in the darkness. However, I pulled on, and keeping off to the right, we had the satisfaction of seeing the revenue boat row straight on, as if not noticing us.

“Keep off a little now,” I whispered, “or we shall be ashore.”

“No, no—it’s all right,” was the reply; “we are just over the swatch;” which is the local term given to the long channels washed out in the sand by the tide, here and there forming deep trenches along the coast, very dangerous for bathers.

“They see us,” I whispered; when my companion backed water, and the consequence was, that the boat’s head turned right in-shore, and we floated between the piles, and were next moment, with shipped oars, out of sight in the outlet of the gowt.

Now, I am not prepared to give the derivation of the word “gowt,” but I can describe what it is—namely, the termination, at the sea-coast, of the long Lincolnshire land-drains, in the shape of a lock with gates, which are opened at certain times, to allow the drainage to flow under the sand into the sea, but carefully closed when the tide is up, to prevent flooding of the marsh-lands, protected by the high sea-bank, which runs along the coast and acts the part of cliffs. From these lock-gates, a square woodwork tunnel is formed by means of piles driven into the shore, and crossed with stout planks; and this covered water-way in some cases runs for perhaps two hundred yards right beneath the sandbank, then beneath the sand, and has its outlet some distance down the shore; while, to prevent the air blowing the tunnel up when the sea comes in, a couple of square wooden pipes descend at intervals of some fifty yards through the sand into the water-way; at high water, when the mouth is covered, and the lock-gates closed, the air comes bellowing and roaring up these pipes as every wave comes in; and at times, when the tunnel is pretty full, the water will, after chasing the air, rush out after it, and form a spray fountain; while, as the waves recede, the wind rushes back with a strange whistling sound, and a draught that draws anything down into the tunnel with a fierce rush. But there was another peculiarity of the hollow way that was strangely impressed upon my memory that night—namely, its power of acting as a vast speaking-tube, for if a person stood at one of the escape-pipes and whispered, his words were distinctly audible to another at the other pipe some fifty yards off, who could as easily respond.

Well, it was into the mouth of the gowt tunnel that we had now run the boat, where we were concealed from view certainly; and thrusting against the piles with his hands, my companion worked the boat farther into the darkness, until the keel touched the soft sand.

“That’s snug,” he whispered: “they’ll never find us here.”

“No,” I said, as a strange fear came upon me. “But isn’t the tide rising?”

“Fast,” he said.

“Then we shall be stopped from getting out.”

“Nonsense!” he said. “It will take an hour to rise above the tunnel-mouth, and if it did, we could run her head up higher and higher. Plenty of fresh air through the pipes.”

“If we’re not drowned,” I said.

“There, if you want to lose the cargo, we’ll pull out at once, and give up,” he said.

“But I don’t,” I replied; “I am staunch enough; only I don’t want to risk my life.”

“Well, who does?” he said. “Only keep still, and we shall be all right.”

The few minutes we had been conversing had been long enough for the tide to float the boat once more, and this time I raised my hand to the root and thrusting against the tunnel-covered, weed-hung, slimy woodwork, soon had the boat’s keel again in the sand, so as to prevent her being sucked out by the reflux of the tide. At times we could hear shouts, twice pistol-shots, and then we were startled by the dull, heavy report of a small cannon.

“That’s after the chasse-marée,” whispered my companion; “but she sails like a witch. She’s safe unless they knock a spar away.”

“I wish we were,” I said, for I did not feel at all comfortable in our dark hole, up which we were being forced farther and farther by the increasing tide; while more than once we had to hold on tightly by the horrible slimy piles, to keep from being drawn back.

“Just the place to find dead bodies,” whispered my companion, evidently to startle me.

“Just so,” I said coldly. “Perhaps they’ll find two to-morrow.”

“Don’t croak,” was the polite rejoinder; and then he was silent; but I could hear a peculiar boring noise being made, and no further attempts at a joke issued from my friend’s lips.

“Suppose we try and get out now?” I whispered, after another quarter of an hour’s listening in the darkness, and hearing nothing but the soft rippling, and the “drip, drip” of water beyond us; while towards the mouth came the “lap, lap” of the waves against the sides of the tunnel, succeeded by a rushing noise, and the rattling of the loose mussels clustering to the woodwork, now loudly, now gently; while every light rustle of the seaweed seemed to send a shiver through me.

The noise as of boring had ceased some time, and my friend now drew my attention to one of the kegs, which he had made a hole through with his knife; and never before did spirits come so welcome as at that moment.

“Better try and get out now,” whispered my companion.

“They must be somewhere handy, though one can’t see even their boat,” said a strange voice, which seemed hollow and echoing along the tunnel, while the rattling of the shells and lapping of the water grew louder.

All at once I raised my head, as if to feel for the hole down which the sound of the voice came, when, to my alarm, I struck it heavily against the top of the tunnel, making it bleed against the shelly surface.

“Wait a bit,” said my companion thickly; “they’re on the look-out yet; it’s madness to go out.” And I then heard a noise which told me that he was trying to drown consciousness in the liquor to which he had made his way.

However, it seemed to me madness to stay where we were, to be drowned like rats in a hole; and taking advantage of the next receding wave, I gave the boat a start, and she went down towards the mouth of the tunnel for a little way, when a coming current would have driven her back, only I clung to the root now very low down, and rather close to which the boat now floated. Another thrust, and I pushed her some distance down, but with the next wave that came in, my hand was jammed against the slimy roof, and, unnerved with horror, I gasped: “Rouse up, Harry! the mouth’s under water!”

Hollowly sounded my voice as the wave sank, and I felt once more free, and in sheer despair forced the boat lower down the tunnel; but this time, when the tide came in again, I had to lie right back, the boat rose so high, and I felt the dripping seaweed hanging from the roof weep coldly and slimily over my face; when, before the next wave could raise us, I thrust eagerly at the side, forcing the boat inward again, but in the fear and darkness, got her across the tunnel, so that head and stern were wedged, and as the next rush of water came, it smote the boat heavily, and made her a fixture, so that in spite of my efforts, it could not move her either way.

Wash came the water again and again, and at every dash a portion came into the boat, drenching me to the skin; while I now became aware that Harry Hodson was lying stupefied across the kegs, and breathing heavily.

I made one more effort to move the boat, but it was tighter than ever; and after conquering an insane desire to dive out, and try and swim to the mouth, I let myself cautiously down on the inner side, and stood, with the water breast-high, clinging to the gunwale. The next moment it rose above my mouth, lifting me from my feet, and as it rushed back, sucked my legs beneath the boat; but I gained my feet again, and began to wade inward.

Yet strong upon me as was the desire for life, I could not leave my companion to his fate in so cowardly a way; so I turned back, and this time swimming, I reached the boat, now nearly full of water; and half dragging, half lifting, I got his body over the side, and holding on by his collar, tried once more for bottom. But it was a horrible time there in the dense black darkness—a darkness that, in my distempered brain, seemed to be peopled with hideous forms, swimming, crawling, and waiting to devour us, or fold us in their slimy coils. The dripping water sounded hollow and echoing; strange whispers and cries seemed floating around; the mussels rustled together: and ever louder and louder came the “lap, lap, lapping” of the water as it rushed in and dashed against the sides and ceiling of the horrible place.

I was now clinging with one hand to the boat’s side, while with the other I held tightly by Hodson’s collar; but though I waited till the wave receded before I tried the bottom, it was not to be touched; so, shuddering and horror-stricken, I waited the coming wave, and struck off swimming with all my might. It was only a minute’s task; but when, after twice trying, my feet touched the bottom, I was panting heavily, and so nervous, that I had to lean, trembling and shaking, against the side. But I had a tight hold of Hodson, whose head I managed to keep above water; and it was not until warned of my danger by the rising tide, and the difficulty I found keeping my feet that I again essayed to press forward.

Just then, something cold and wet swept across my face, and dashing out my arms to keep off some monster of the deep, my hands came in contact with a round body which beat against my breast and in my horror, as I dashed away, I was some paces ere the dragging at my limb told me that I had left my comrade to his fate. The next moment however, he was swept up to me; and once more clutching his collar, and keeping his head above water, I waded slowly along the tunnel, when again I nearly lost my hold, for the same wet slimy body swept across my face; but raising my hand, I only dashed away one of the long strands of bladder-weed which hung thickly from the cross timbers of the roof.

It was no hard matter to bear my companion along with me, for I had only to keep his head up, his body floating along the surface, but my foothold was uncertain, for now the bottom was slimy, and my feet sunk in the ooze deeper and deeper, for I was nearing the gates through which the fresh water of the marshes was let in; and though the water was now only to my middle, I made my way with difficulty, for there was a perceptible current against me.

Breathing would have been easy, had it not been for my excitement; and now a horrid dread seemed to check the very act, for all at once I heard a heavy reverberating noise, and the thought struck me that they were opening the gates, and in another instant the fearful rush of fresh water would come bearing all before it—even our lives.

In the agony of the moment I uttered a wild unearthly shriek—so fearful a cry, that I shrank against the side afterwards, and clung to a slimy post, trembling to hear the strange whispering echoes, as the cry reverberated along the place, and mingled with the lapping rush of the water, the dripping from the root and a loud sound as of a little waterfall in front.

Now came again the shape of something round swimming up against me, and as it struck my side, I beat at it savagely, though I smiled at my foolish fear the next moment, for it was one of the brandy-kegs washed out of the boat. But horror still seemed to hold me, as I waded on farther and farther, till once more the water began to deepen, and the ooze at the bottom grew softer; so I stopped, listening to the heavy rushing of water in front, where the drainage escaped, and washed heavily down, deepening the tunnel at the foot of the doors; while in that hollow, cavernous place, growing smaller moment by moment, the rushing sound was something hideous. Danger in front, for the great gates might at any time be opened; and danger behind, where the tide was coming in ceaselessly, and deepening the water around me with its regular beating throb, minute by minute. Thoughts of the past and present seemed to surge through my brain, so that I grew bewildered, and had any chance of escape presented itself I could not have seized it, though I could not but tell myself that escape was impossible. A few minutes—ten, twenty, thirty perhaps, and the black darkness seemed to be growing blacker.

“I must be free,” I muttered; and dragging Hodson’s handkerchief from his neck, I bound it to my own, and then making them fast beneath his arms, felt among the woodwork till I could find a place where I could pass them through, so that I could secure him from slipping down, or being swept away by the ebbing and flowing of the water.

I was not long in finding a place; but then the handkerchiefs were not long enough, and I had to add one from my pocket; then I left the poor fellow quite insensible and half-hanging from one of the timbers. And now I waded about, searching for the mouth of the air-pipe, in the hope of shouting up it for succour, since I felt convinced that the tide would effectually fill the tunnel, while the very thought of the gates being opened half-maddened me; and heedless now of who might hear me, so that they brought succour, I hunted aimlessly about, yelling and shrieking for aid.

It was a fearful struggle between reason and dread; and for ever dread kept getting the upper hand: now it was a floating keg again and again making me dash away now one of the packages hurried in by the tide; while the strange drippings and hollow whisperings were magnified into an infinity of horrors. Every monster with which imagination has peopled the sea seemed to be there to attack me—strange serpent or lizard like beasts, slimy and scaled, thronging along the ceiling or up the sides, swimming around me, or burrowing through the sand. More than once I actually touched some swimming object, but the contact was momentary, and the stranger darted off. Then reason would gain supremacy for a while; and trying to cool my throbbing brow with the water, I thought of my position, whispered a few prayers, and endeavoured to compose myself. There was even now a doubt: the tide might not rise high enough to cover me; certainly it was now at my breast, and I was standing with difficulty in the shallowest place I could pick. The next moment, as the waves receded, it would fall to my waist; but again it was up to my chest, and in spite of gleams of hope, despair whispered truly that it was now higher up my chest than before. True; but one wave in so many always came higher than the others. The tide might still be at its height, and this be that particular wave.

I moved again and again, but ever with the same result; and at last, despairingly, I was clinging to a shell-covered piece of timber at the side, with the water at my chin.

A noise, a clanking noise as of chains rattling and iron striking iron; and now hope fled, for I knew that this must be the opening of the doors of the gowt; but, to my surprise, no rush of water followed; only a little came, which lapped against my lips, while a rush of air smote my forehead.

Voices, shouts, and Hodson’s name uttered; but I could not shout in reply. Then my own name; and I gave some inarticulate cry by way of answer, while once more reason seemed to get the better of the dread, for I knew that the far doors of the gowt had not been opened, and that they kept up the drainage, while the pair nearest to me had only had the pressure upon them of the water escaping from the first. And now a good bold swim, and I could have been in the big pit-like opening between the two pairs of gates; but the spirit was gone, the nerve was absent and still clinging to the shelly piece of timber, I closed my eyes, for I felt that near as rescue seemed, I could do nothing to aid it. As for Hodson, in this time of dread, I had forgotten him—forgotten all but the great horror of the water lap, lap, lapping at my lip, and occasionally receding, its fizzing spray in my nostrils.

Higher and higher, covering my lip; but by a desperate effort I raised myself a few inches, but only to go through the same agonies again, as the water still crept up and up, slowly but surely, while in this my last struggle my head touched the top timbers, the weed washed and swept over it, and as I forced my fingers round the timber to which I clung, my body floated in the water.

Another minute, and I felt that all was over, for the water covered my face once, twice; and half strangled, I waited gasping for the third time; but it came not. Half a minute passed, and then again it washed over my face, seeming as if it would never leave it; but at last it was gone, and too unnerved to hope, I awaited its return, but it came not.

I dared not hope yet, till I felt that the water was perceptibly lower, and then the reaction was so fearful that I could hardly retain my hold till the tide had sunk so that once more I could stand, when my shouts for help brought assistance to me through the gowt, for they lowered down a little skiff with ropes, and I was brought out as nearly dead as my poor companion.

That night’s work sprinkled my hair with grey, and was my last experience with the smuggling business. The loss was heavy; but I had escaped with life, while poor Hodson was followed to the grave by some score the following Sunday.