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Chapter VI.: A NIGHT WATCH. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 6 (Messrs. Vanderput and Snoek, The Loom and the Lugger Parts 1 & 2) 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1834). Vol. 6.
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A NIGHT WATCH.
The night of the gipsy late-wake was one of the clearest and coldest moonlight. Such a night,—when the smallest skiff showed black on the glistening sea, and every sailing bird cast its shadow on the chalky cliff, and each stationary figure on the heights exhibited a hard outline against the sky,—was little fit for smuggling adventure; yet the officers of the Coast Guard had a strong impression that a landing of contraband goods was to be attempted, in defiance of the lady moon, and of the watchers who “blessed her useful light.” A gipsy festival afforded an excellent pretence for collecting the country people in sufficient force to brave the guard; and it was suspected that the people themselves thought so, as tidings of the festival were most industriously spread through all the country, and certainly very eagerly received. Lieutenant Storey held consultations with his brother officers at all the stations near; and every precaution was taken to enable a great force to assemble with speed at the points where it seemed pretty certain that a landing would be attempted. One or two trusty men were sent to overlook the wake from a height, that they might report the numbers and apparent disposition of the people; and Lieutenant Storey visited these men on their posts soon after the beginning of the ceremony.
“Well! what news?” said Matilda, anxiously, as the Lieutenant entered the room where his wife, mother, and sister were waiting supper for him.
“Why, it is a fine freezing night,” he replied, rubbing his hands, and accepting the seat which was offered him close by the blazing fire. “So you have Elizabeth to keep you company, as I advised you. That is very well, as I rather think you will not be persuaded to go to bed till late. And you, too, mother! Who would have thought of your climbing up to us so late in the day?”
“But the gipsies!” cried the ladies. “Did you see the wake?”
“I heard more than I saw of it; for the banks are so high that one could only catch a glimpse of a few heads now and then. But there was a strong glare from their torches, there being little moonlight, I suppose, in the hollow way: and their noise is really inconceivable. Such yelling and howling, and what I suppose they call singing! They will wake up all the sheep in the pens for a mile round.”
“I am afraid there are a great many collected,” observed Matilda.
“I should think there must be, for I never heard any gabble or din to compare with it, except when the wind and the sails are wrangling in a storm at sea. But come, let us have supper. I must be gone again presently; and this is not an air to take away one's appetite.”
His mother inquired whether they could learn anything of the progress of events by looking out of the windows, or whether they must wait for news till his return. He replied, “You will see nothing by going to the window but as fine a moonlight sea as ever you saw; and the light-house, and perhaps poor Nicholas staring about him, as he is bound to do.”(If there is any affray, it will be far out of your sight. We keep our eyes upon Birling and Crowlink Gap. Either of them is an easy place of rendezvous from the wake. You will be as still as death here, and I advise you all to go to sleep till I knock you up to let me in.”
The mother and sister wondered what he thought they could be made of to go to bed at such a time. Matilda piled fresh logs on the fire, and looked to see that the lamp was trimmed.
“I'll tell you what,—I'll desire Nicholas to come, from time to time, to tell you whether he hears or sees anything or nothing,” said the Lieutenant, “I have put him on the nearest beat, where I am pretty sure of his having nothing to do; and he can just step to the gate, if you like to be at the trouble of hearing that he has nothing to tell.”
“Do be less presumptuous, my dear son,” said Mrs. Storey.' How dare you make sure of nothing happening?”
“It was only a hasty word, mother. I have not been presumptuous in reality, as you would say if you saw how completely we are prepared. More ale, if you please, Elizabeth. And now, I must not stay any longer. I shall be sure to tell Nicholas: but you will not detain him from his post.”
Matilda ran out before him to have his parting kiss at the gate, and to watch him of sight. The full light from the beacon turned at the moment upon her face, stronger than the moonlight, and showed that tears were upon her cheek.
“I cannot scold you, love,” said her husband, as he wiped them away. “I do pity you women that have to sit waiting at home when anything is to happen. I could fancy myself crying like a baby if I were obliged to do so. But go in now, there's a good girl.”
“The moment you are out of sight. I suppose you really cannot tell,—you cannot even tell me,—when you are likely to be home again.”
“Impossible. It may be two hours, or it may be twelve.”
Matilda had only to pray that it might be two, while she watched her husband on his way to Nicholas's beat, where he stopped to speak with the figure perched upon the brow of the cliff. Presently the figure might be seen to touch its hat; the Lieutenant waved his hand towards the station-house, and speedily disappeared, leaving Matilda to re-enter the parlour, whose clear fire, double windows, and listed doors she would willingly have exchanged for the biting air on Hotcombe Flat, by her husband's side.
During the hour which elapsed before Nicholas lifted the latch of the gate, whose welcome slick brought all the ladies to the door, Matilda had wished twenty times that she was alone. Elizabeth was full of groundless fears of her own devising, while she ridiculed those of other people; and Mrs. Storey gave a lecture on patience every time Matilda moved on her chair, looking up in her face with all possible anxiety, however, at each return from an excursion to the upper windows. The methodical Nicholas was more tiresome still. He began with an explanation of what his orders were about giving intelligence to the ladies, and of his purpose in now appearing before them. He proceeded with an account of where he had stood, and how he had looked round and listened, and what he had been thinking about; and it was only at the last that it came out that he had seen and heard nothing particular.
“And do you think you could hear a pistol-shot from Birling Gap, or from so far as Crow-link Gap.?'”
Nicholas could not answer for it, having never heard a pistol fired from either place while on duty on his present beat; but he soon recollected that his officer had told him that it was a very calm night, and that he could certainly be able to hear the sound in question from the farthest of the Seven Sisters; and therefore Nicholas fully believed that he should hear a pistol as soon as fired.
“Very well,” said Matilda, venturing upon such a breach of discipline as handing him a glass of ale. “Now we will not detain you: we were desired not; but come again in an hour, and sooner, if anything happens.”
Nicholas's heart, which was always warm towards the lady, was rarefied by the honours and benefits of this night. To be appointed, in some sort, her special servant,—to be treated with kind words from her lips, and with ale from her own hands,—was enough, in combination with the ale itself, to raise his spirits to the highest pitch of which, as a sober man, he was capable. He could scarcely refrain from whistling as he went back to his beat, and was actually guilty of humming “Rules Britannia,” as he flung himself down in a sort of niche on the very brow of the dizzy cliff, whence he was wont to gaze abroad over the expanse.
“‘ Rule, Britannia!’—Ay, that lady is worth a thousand of the bigger and smarter one, and the old one too, if a poor man may think so.—‘ Britannia rule the waves.’—Hoy, hoy! where did this sloop come from, that I did not see her before? She's waiting for an early cargo of chalk, I'll be bound; but it is odd I did not see her before, only that she lies so close under, one could not see without looking over. ‘ And come again in an hour,’ says she, ‘ or sooner, if anything happens.’ I wonder how the hour goes.—‘ Britons never shall be slaves!’—If I had my mother's old watch, now!. Bless her! she's now asleep, I suppose, in the bed with the green checked curtains. She says she thinks of me in her prayers, and has all the sea before her as she goes to sleep, and me marching above it, helping to guard the nation.—' Britannia rule the waves!'—It is only a fair turn for me to think of her when she is asleep, as I hope she is now. Lord! how she used to beat me! and all, as she says now, for tenderness, to make a great man of me.
To be sure, I never guessed it at the time,—‘ Britons never shall be slaves! Never! never!’ I don't know that I had not best walk; it is so different sitting here from what it is when the sun is out, platting straw for my hat. It is time I had a new hat; I thought I saw the lady glancing at it. Think of her taking notice of such little things! Kind heart! ‘ Come again within the hour,’ says she, ‘ and sooner, if anything happens.’ That's she looking out, I warrant, where there is a little bit of light from the window. There 'tis gone 'Tis the will of Providence that she should notice me so. I wish she knew how my mother thinks of me: but that is no doing of mine, either; it is the will of Providence too; and I doubt whether anybody is so happy as, by the will of Providence, I am, with my mother, and the people here all so harmless to me, and the lady! And it is something to see such a bright sea as this, so like what I saw in the show-box at Weyhill fair, when my mother treated me, then a young boy. I am sure everybody is wonderfully kind to me. I wonder how the hour goes. It is bitter cold, to be sure; and I think yon bit of shelter is best, after all.—
‘Britons never, ne—ver——’”
And Nicholas once more crouched in his recess, where he rocked himself to the music of the waves, and looked in vain over the wide expanse for the smallest dark speck, in watching which he might find occupation. He soon found that his observation would have been better bestowed nearer home. While walking, he had disdained the well-worn path along the chalk line, strewed within a few feet of the verge for the guidance of the watchers on dark nights. As it was light enough for safety, he availed himself of the opportunity of varying his beat, and trod the less bare path from the chalk line to the very edge of the cliff. He had looked straight before him, whether his back was turned north or south, giving no attention to the right hand or the left. He had also been too hasty in his conclusion that the vessel which lay below, in the deep, broad shadow of the cliffs, was a chalk sloop, waiting for the tide.
By leaning forwards a little, any one in Nicholas's present seat could command a view of a winding and perilous, almost perpendicular, track, which ascended from the spot where the gipsies had assisted at the last unloading of a smuggling vessel. Something like rude steps occurred at small intervals in this track; but they were so imperfect, and it was so steep, that the assistance of either ropes or mutual support was necessary to those who would mount, with or without a load on their shoulders. As the tide had till now been too high to permit access to this spot by the beach, it was one of the last in which Nicholas could have expected to see foes. For want of something to do, he picked two or three flints out of a layer which was bedded in the chalk within reach, and amused himself with sending them down the steep, in order to watch what course they would take. Leaning over, to follow with his eye the vagaries of one of these, his ear was struck by a bumping, dead sound, which could not be caused by his flint. Looking a little to the right, without drawing back, he perceived something moving in the shadowy track. But for the sound which had excited his suspicions, he would have concluded that some cliff-raven or sea-bird had been disturbed in its hole, and he watched intently for a few seconds to discover whether this was not the case; but it soon became evident to his sharpened sight that there was a line of men laboriously climbing the track, each with his two small tubs braced upon his shoulders. Whether they had a strong rope by which each might help himself, or whether each supported the one above him, could not be discovered from the distance at which Nicholas sat; nor could he guess whether they were aware of his being so near.
He started up, and stood in the broad moonlight, fumbling for his pistol, which was not quite so ready to his hand as it ought to have been. A subdued cry spread up and down, from mouth to mouth, among his foes, a large body of whom appeared instantly on the ridge, from the hollow where they had collected unobserved. One of them cried,—
“Hand over your pistol, lad, and sit down quietly where you were, and we will do you no harm.”
To do anything but what his officer had desired was, however, too confusing to Nicholas's faculties to be borne. The order to fire as soon as smugglers were perceived came upon his mind, as if spoken at the moment in the Lieutenant's own voice, and saved him the trouble of all internal conflict. He fired, and was instantly fired upon in turn, and wounded. As he staggered far enough back from the verge to fall on safe ground, he had the consolation of hearing (after the cloud of flapping sea-birds had taken themselves far out to sea) a repetition of shots along the cliffs on either hand, fainter and shorter in the increasing distance. The ominous roll of the drum,—the most warlike signal of the smugglers,—was next heard from the hollow to the right, and more sea-birds fluttered and screamed. Silence was gone; the alarm was given; and poor Nicholas need not resist the welcome faintness that stretched him on the grass. The smugglers, annoyed by former repeated failures in their attempts to intimidate or gain over the Preventive watch, were now exasperated by Nicholas's unflinching discharge of his duty; and they determined to make an example of him, even in the midst of their preparations to resist the force which they knew to be on the way to attack them. The first necessary precaution was to range the batmen who had been collected by the sound of the drum, in two rows, from the vessel to the foot of the cliff, and again from the verge of the cliffs to where the carts were stationed, surrounded with guards. This being done, their pieces loaded, and their bludgeons shouldered, a small party was detached to take possession of the wounded man. On raising him, it was found that he was not dead, and that it was by no means certain that his wounds were mortal. When he recovered his senses, he felt himself lifted from the ground by a rope tied round his middle, and immediately after was being lowered over the edge of the precipice, carefully protected from being dashed against the face of the cliff by the men who stood at regular distances down the track, and who handed him from one to the other till he reached the bottom, where two stout men received him, and supported him on either side to a little distance along the shingle.
“What are you going to do with me?” he faintly asked; but they made no answer.
“For God's sake spare my life”
“Too late for that, lad,” replied one.
“No, not too late,” said Nicholas, with renewed hope. “I don't think you have killed me. I shall get well, if you will let me go.”
“Too late, lad. You should not have fired.”
“You are going to murder me then,” groaned the victim, sinking down upon a large stone where he had often leaned before, it being the one from which he was wont to look out to sea. “I did not expect it of you, for your people have always behaved very well to me. Everybody has been kind to me,” he continued, his dying thoughts getting into the train which the spot suggested. “But, if you will do me one more kindness, do, some of you, tell the lady at the station why I could not come as she bade me. ‘ Come within the hour,’ says she——”
He stopped short on hearing two pistols cocked successively. No duty to be done under orders being immediately present to his mind, a paroxysm of terror seized him. He implored mercy for his mother's sake, and, with the words upon his lips, sank dead before the balls were lodged in his body as in a mark.
The proceeding was witnessed by some of his comrades, and by his officer, from the top of the cliff; and fierce were the cries and numerous were the shots which followed the murderous party, as they quickly took up the body, and fell back among the crowd of smugglers within the deep shadow where they could no longer be distinguished.
The party being three hundred strong, any resistance which the Preventive Force could offer was of little avail to check their proceedings, as long as they were disposed to carry them on. They persevered for some time in landing, hoisting up, and carting away their tubs, the batmen keeping line, and frequently firing, while the carriers passed between with their burdens. At length, a shot from one of the guard, which took more effect than was expected, seemed to occasion some change in their plans. They drew in their apparatus, ascended the track in order, bearing with them the bodies of their slain or wounded companions, and formed round the carts, in order to proceed up the country, deserting a portion of the cargo which was left upon the shore. The vessel, meanwhile, hoisted sail, and wore round to stand out to sea.
“Can you see how many are killed or disabled?” inquired the Lieutenant of one of his men. “What is this they are hauling along?”
“Two bodies, sir; whether dead or not, I can't say.”
“Not poor Nicholas's for one, I suppose.”
“No, sir; they have both their faces blacked, I see.”
“We must get Christian burial for Nicholas, if it be too late to save him,” said the Lieutenant to his men, who were boiling with rage at the fate of their comrade.
“They have pitched him into the sea, no doubt, sir, unless they have happened to leave him on the beach as a mockery.”
The procession passed with their load, like a funeral train; and to stop them would only have occasioned the loss of more lives. There were no stragglers to be cut off, for they kept their corps as compact as if they had been drilled into the service, and practised in an enemy's country. It was, in fact, so. They had been trained to regular defiance of laws which they had never heard spoken of but in terms of hatred; and whenever the agents of government were around their steps, they felt themselves in the midst of enemies.
When the smugglers had proceeded so far inland as to be out of danger, they made a halt, and gave three cheers,—an exasperating sound to the baffled guard.
“Let them cheer!” cried the Lieutenant, “our turn will come next. Down to the beach, my lads, before the tide carries off what belongs to you there. If any of you can find tracks of blood, it may not be too late for poor Nicholas, after all. Down to the beach, and seize whatever you can find.”
He remained for a few moments on the steep, ranging the horizon with his glass, internally cursing the rapid progress that the lugger (which few but Nicholas would have taken for a sloop, however deep the shadow) was making in her escape.
“The cutter always contrives to be just in the wrong place,” thought he, “or to arrive too late when called. She will come, as she did before, full sail, as soon as the smuggler has got out of sight, and changed her course.”
On joining his men, he found they had partly recovered their spirits, amidst the booty which lay before their eyes. Some few had given their first attention to searching for the body of their comrade, but the greater number were insisting on the necessity of removing the seizure to the Custom-house, before the tide should have risen any higher. It was already washing up so as to efface any marks of blood which might have remained on the shingle; and it seemed most probable, in the absence of any clue, that the body of Nicholas was being dashed in the surf which sent its spray among those who defied its advances to the last, before they mounted once more upon the down. They were obliged to leave a few tubs floating, after they had secured the goods which it was most important to keep dry. If these kegs could hold together amidst the dashing of the waves, they would be recoverable in the morning from the sea, as the law forbade all floating tubs to be picked up by anybody but the Coast Guard, and the watch on the shore could keep an eye on the observance of the law, for the short time that would be necessary.
“Brady, post off to the station-house, and let the ladies know we are all safe but one. Stay! You will not thank me for sending you away from your booty; and, besides, they will not believe you. I must go myself. Halt a minute, my lads.”
The officer directed his steps to the gleam which shone out through the curtain of Matilda's window. Though he found her voiceless, and his mother and sister in a state of restless terror, he could not stay to revive them. The firing had seemed to them so fearful that they would scarcely credit the testimony of their own eyes that the Lieutenant was safe, or his assurance that only one life had been lost on the side of the Preventive Force. He did not say whose life that was, for he knew that there was not a man under his command whom his wife would miss more than poor Nicholas. This painful communication he left to the morning. With an assurance that the enemy had all marched off, and that no dangerous duty remained, the officer entreated his family to go to rest. It was very probable that he might not come home till daylight, and it would now be folly to waste any more anxiety upon him.
Elizabeth thought it really would be very foolish, though she declared she did not expect to sleep a wink for a month to come. She began her preparations, however, by putting up her work with alacrity, and lighting her mother to her bedroom. Matilda went also to hers, but not to remain. As soon as all was quiet, she stole town lo the fire-side, laid wood upon the embers, put out her light, and sat down, preferring a further watch to broken dreams. The cracking of the fuel and the ticking of the time-piece composed her agitated thoughts; but, instead of cheerfulness, a deep melancholy succeeded to the internal tumult of so many hours—a melancholy which grew with that it fed on.
Matilda had not hitherto been given to deep thought, or strong feeling, for any one but her husband; but the new influences of circumstance, of late suspense and fear, of the hour, and of her present social position,—all combined to stimulate her to higher reflection than, as a light-hearted girl, she had been wont to encourage. She would fain have known which of the men had fallen,—what home was to be made desolate by the tidings that must soon be on their way. Were they to stun the young wife who, like herself, had——O, no! It was too dreadful to think of! Were they to smite the matron, who, in her Irish cabin, daily told the little ones around her knee tales of the brave and tender father who was to come back and caress them one day 2 Were they to wither the aged parent, who prayed for his roving son, and looked for the return of the prodigal before he died; or the band of young kindred who watched with longing the glory of their elder brother, and would be struck dumb at this ignoble close of his envied service? Whoever it was, a life was gone! And how? Men of the same country, members of the same social state, had been made enemies by arbitrary laws. They had been trained to deceive and to defy one another when they should have wrought, side by side, to nourish life instead of to destroy it,—to strengthen peace instead of inflicting woe. He who made the human heart to yearn at the voice of kindliness, and to leap up at the tone of joy, thereby rebukes the system which gives birth to mutual curses, and flings sorrows into many homes;—He who gradually discloses to the roused human ear the music of His name, does it for other purposes than to have it taken upon human lips in mockery as a pass-word to the meanest frauds;—He who made yon glittering sea a broad path by which his children might pass to and fro, so that the full may bear bread to the hungry, and the skilful send clothing to the naked, must pity the perverseness by which such mutual aid is declined, or yielded only at the expense of crime—artificial crime, which brings on natural, as its sure consequence;—He who scatters his bounties over the earth with impartial hand, his snow and sunshine, his fruits and gems;—He who lets loose his herds on the plains of the tropics, and calls the fishy tribes into the depths of Polar seas;—He who breathes upon the cornfields, and they wave; who whispers among the pine-forests of the North, and they bow before him, —thus works that men may impart and enjoy; and yet man will not impart, and forbids his fellow-man to enjoy;–He' who in still small voice says to the Hindoo beneath the palm-tree, “Get three a home;” who visits the broken sleep of the toil-worn artizan to bid him get food and rest; who comes in the chill wind to the shivering boor to warn him to provide apparel; who scares the crouching Arab with thunders among the caverned rocks, and the Greenlander with tempests on the icy sea, and the African with wild beasts in the sultry night, that out of their terror may arise mutual protection and social case,–is daringly gainsaid by intermeddlers, who declare that one nation shall have scanty food, and another miserable clothing; and that a third must still find holes in the rocks, or a refuge in the trees, because neither wood nor iron shall be given for habitations. Shall there not come a day when the toil-worn Briton shall complain, “I was hungry, and ye gave me no food;” and the Pole, “I was naked, and ye clothed me not;” and the Syrian wanderer. “I was houseless, and ye sheltered me not;” and the gem-decked hungering savage. “I was poor and miserable, and ye visited me not, nor let me enrich you in return?” When will men learn that the plan of Divine Providence indicates the scheme of human providence; that man should distribute his possessions as God scatters his gifts; that, as man is created for kindliness and for social ease, he should be governed so as to secure them; that, as all interests naturally harmonize under a law of impartial love, it is an impiety to institute a law of partiality, by which interests are arbitrarily opposed? When will men learn that it should be with their wrought as with their natural wealth,—that, as the air of heaven penetrates into all hidden places, and nourishes the life of every breathing thing, all the elements of human comfort should expand till they have reached and refreshed each partaker of human life; that as the seeds of vegetation are borne here and there by gales, and dropped by birds upon ridges and into hollows, the means of enjoyment should be conveyed to places lofty or lowly in the social scale, whence the winged messengers may return over the deep with an equal recompense? When will governments learn that they are responsible for every life which is sacrificed through a legislation of partiality; whether it be of a servant of its own, murdered by rebellious hands, or of a half-nourished babe dying on its sickly mother's knee, or of a spirit-broken merchant, or of a worn-out artizan? When will the people learn that, instead of acquiescing in the imposition of oaths which they mean to break, of a watch which they permit to be insulted and slaughtered, of a law which they bring up their children to despise and to defy, they should demand with one voice that freedom in the disposal of the fruits of their toil, upon which mutual interest is a sufficient check, while it proves a more unfailing Stimulus than any arbitrary encouragement given to one application of industry at the expense of all others? When shall we leave the natural laws which guide human efforts as they guide the stars in their courses to work, without attempting to mend them by our bungling art? When shall man cease to charge upon Providence evils of his own devising, and pray for deliverance from the crimes he himself has invented, and from the miseries which follow in their train? We implore that there may be no murder, and put firelocks into the hands of our smugglers. We profess our piety, and hold the Bible to unhallowed lips in our custom-houses. W'e say “Avaunt!” to all that is infernal when we bring our children to the font, and straightway educate them to devilish subtilty and hatred. We weekly celebrate our love for our whole race, and yet daily keep back a portion of the universal inheritance of man. O, when will man come in singleness of heart before his Maker, and look abroad upon His works in the light of His countenance!
Matilda's eyes were shining tearful in the firelight when her husband entered.
“Hey! tears, my love? I saw no tears when there was more cause,—two hours ago.”
“I had no time for them then,” said Matilda, brushing them away.
“And why now? Do you dread more such nights, or are you worn out, or——”
“No, no; it was not for myself. It was shame.—O, I am so ashamed!”
“Of me, love? Do not you like my duty? or, do I not perform it well?”
“O, no, no. I am so ashamed at the whole world, and especially at our own nation, which thinks itself so Christian. Here we send one another out man-hunting. We make a crimp, tempt a man into it, and punish him for it. Is this Christian?”
“It would be a disgrace to paganism.”
“We are proud of being made in God's image, and we take pains to make human governments the reverse of the Divine. How dare we ask a blessing upon them?'”
“Come, come, my good girl, you must think of something more cheerful. The hearing of a life being lost has been too much for you. You never were so near the scene of a murder before, I dare say.”
“Never,” replied Matilda, with quivering lips.
“It will not affect you so much again. You will become more used to the circumstances of such a situation as ours. You will feel this sort of adventure less painfully henceforward.”
“But I do not wish that,” was all that Matilda chose to say, lest her sorrow should be charged upon discontent with her individual lot. She looked out once more upon the sea, darkening as the moon went down, and satisfied herself that the time would come for which she had been inquiring,—when man would look above and around him, and learn of Providence.