I've spent yesterday and today reading R.M. Ballantyne's 1865 melodrama, The Lighthouse.
This chapter, a self-contained adventure in house-breaking featuring two coastal wreckers, was particularly enjoyable.
On the night in question, Big Swankie and a likeminded companion, who went among his comrades by the name of the Badger, had planned to commit a burglary in the town, and it chanced that the former was about that business when Captain Ogilvy unexpectedly ran against him and Davy Spink.
Spink, although a smuggler, and by no means a particularly respectable man, had not yet sunk so low in the scale of life as to be willing to commit burglary. Swankie and the Badger suspected this, and, although they required his assistance much, they were afraid to ask him to join, lest he should not only refuse, but turn against them. In order to get over the difficulty, Swankie had arranged to suggest to him the robbery of a store containing gin, which belonged to a smuggler, and, if he agreed to that, to proceed further and suggest the more important matter in hand. But he found Spink proof against the first attack.
“I tell ’ee, I’ll hae naething to do wi’t,” said he, when the proposal was made.
“But,” urged Swankie, “he’s a smuggler, and a cross-grained hound besides. It’s no’ like robbin’ an honest man.”
“An’ what are we but smugglers?” retorted Spink; “an’ as to bein’ cross-grained, you’ve naethin’ to boast o’ in that way. Na, na, Swankie, ye may do’t yersel, I’ll hae nae hand in’t. I’ll no objec’ to tak a bit keg o’ Auchmithie water (smuggled spirits) noo and then, or to pick up what comes to me by the wund and sea, but I’ll steal frae nae man.”
“Ay, man, but ye’ve turned awfu’ honest all of a suddent,” said the other with a sneer. “I wonder the thretty sovereigns I gied ye the other day, when we tossed for them and the case o’ kickshaws, havena’ brunt yer pooches.”
Davy Spink looked a little confused.
“Aweel,” said he, “it’s o’ nae use greetin’ ower spilt milk, the thing’s done and past noo, and I canna help it. Sae guidnight to ’ee.”
Swankie, seeing that it was useless to attempt to gain over his comrade, and knowing that the Badger was waiting impatiently for him near the appointed house, hurried away without another word, and Davy Spink strolled towards his home, which was an extremely dirty little hut, near the harbour.
At the time of which we write, the town of Arbroath was neither so well lighted nor so well guarded as it now is. The two burglars found nothing to interfere with their deeds of darkness, except a few bolts and bars, which did not stand long before their expert hands. Nevertheless, they met with a check from an unexpected quarter.
The house they had resolved to break into was inhabited by a widow lady, who was said to be wealthy, and who was known to possess a considerable quantity of plate and jewels. She lived alone, having only one old servant and a little girl to attend upon her. The house stood on a piece of ground not far from the ruins of the stately abbey which originated and gave celebrity to the ancient town of Aberbrothoc. Mrs Stewart’s house was full of Eastern curiosities, some of them of great value, which had been sent to her by her son, then a major in the East India Company’s service.
Now, it chanced that Major Stewart had arrived from India that very day, on leave of absence, all unknown to the burglars, who, had they been aware of the fact, would undoubtedly have postponed their visit to a more convenient season.
As it was, supposing they had to deal only with the old lady and her two servants, they began their work between twelve and one that night, with considerable confidence, and in great hopes of a rich booty.
A small garden surrounded the old house. It was guarded by a wall about eight feet high, the top of which bristled with bottle-glass. The old lady and her domestics regarded this terrible-looking defence with much satisfaction, believing in their innocence that no human creature could succeed in getting over it. Boys, however, were their only dread, and fruit their only care, when they looked complacently at the bottle-glass on the wall, and, so far, they were right in their feeling of security, for boys found the labour, risk, and danger to be greater than the worth of the apples and pears.
But it was otherwise with men. Swankie and the Badger threw a piece of thick matting on the wall; the former bent down, the latter stepped upon his back, and thence upon the mat; then he hauled his comrade up, and both leaped into the garden.
Advancing stealthily to the door, they tried it and found it locked. The windows were all carefully bolted, and the shutters barred. This they expected, but thought it as well to try each possible point of entrance, in the hope of finding an unguarded spot before having recourse to their tools. Such a point was soon found, in the shape of a small window, opening into a sort of scullery at the back of the house. It had been left open by accident. An entrance was easily effected by the Badger, who was a small man, and who went through the house with the silence of a cat, towards the front door. There were two lobbies, an inner and an outer, separated from each other by a glass door. Cautiously opening both doors, the Badger admitted his comrade, and then they set to work.
A lantern, which could be uncovered or concealed in a moment, enabled them to see their way.
“That’s the dinin’-room door,” whispered the Badger.
“Hist! haud yer jaw,” muttered Swankie; “I ken that as weel as you.”
Opening the door, they entered and found the plate-chest under the sideboard.
It was open, and a grin of triumph crossed the sweet countenances of the friends as they exchanged glances, and began to put silver forks and spoons by the dozen into a bag which they had brought for the purpose.
When they had emptied the plate-chest, they carried the bag into the garden, and, climbing over the wall, deposited it outside. Then they returned for more.
Now, old Mrs Stewart was an invalid, and was in the habit of taking a little weak wine and water before retiring to rest at night. It chanced that the bottle containing the port wine had been left on the sideboard, a fact which was soon discovered by Swankie, who put the bottle to his mouth, and took a long pull.
“What is’t?” enquired the Badger, in a low tone.
“Prime!” replied Swankie, handing over the bottle, and wiping his mouth with the cuff of his coat.
The Badger put the bottle to his mouth, but unfortunately for him, part of the liquid went down the “wrong throat”. The result was that the poor man coughed, once, rather loudly. Swankie, frowning fiercely, and shaking his fist, looked at him in horror; and well he might, for the Badger became first red and then purple in the face, and seemed as if he were about to burst with his efforts to keep down the cough. It came, however, three times, in spite of him,—not violently, but with sufficient noise to alarm them, and cause them to listen for five minutes intently ere they ventured to go on with their work, in the belief that no one had been disturbed.
But Major Stewart had been awakened by the first cough. He was a soldier who had seen much service, and who slept lightly. He raised himself in his bed, and listened intently on hearing the first cough. The second cough caused him to spring up and pull on his trousers; the third cough found him halfway downstairs, with a boot-jack in his hand, and when the burglars resumed work he was peeping at them through the half-open door.
Both men were stooping over the plate-chest, the Badger with his back to the door, Swankie with his head towards it. The major raised the boot-jack and took aim. At the same moment the door squeaked, Big Swankie looked up hastily, and, in technical phraseology, “doused the glim.” All was dark in an instant, but the boot-jack sped on its way notwithstanding. The burglars were accustomed to fighting, however, and dipped their heads. The boot-jack whizzed past, and smashed the pier-glass on the mantelpiece to a thousand atoms. Major Stewart being expert in all the devices of warfare, knew what to expect, and drew aside. He was not a moment too soon, for the dark lantern flew through the doorway, hit the opposite wall, and fell with a loud clatter on the stone floor of the lobby. The Badger followed at once, and received a random blow from the major that hurled him head over heels after the lantern.
There was no mistaking the heavy tread and rush of Big Swankie as he made for the door. Major Stewart put out his foot, and the burglar naturally tripped over it; before he could rise the major had him by the throat. There was a long, fierce struggle, both being powerful men; at last Swankie was hurled completely through the glass door. In the fall he disengaged himself from the major, and, leaping up, made for the garden wall, over which he succeeded in clambering before the latter could seize him. Thus both burglars escaped, and Major Stewart returned to the house half-naked,—his shirt having been torn off his back,—and bleeding freely from cuts caused by the glass door.
Just as he re-entered the house, the old cook, under the impression that the cat had got into the pantry, and was smashing the crockery, entered the lobby in her nightdress, shrieked “Mercy on us!” on beholding the major, and fainted dead away.
Major Stewart was too much annoyed at having failed to capture the burglars to take any notice of her. He relocked the door, and assuring his mother that it was only robbers, and that they had been beaten off, retired to his room, washed and dressed his wounds, and went to bed.
Meanwhile Big Swankie and the Badger, laden with silver, made for the shore, where they hid their treasure in a hole.
“I’ll tell ’ee a dodge,” said the Badger.
“What may that be?” enquired Swankie.
“You said ye saw Ruby Brand slinking down the market-gate, and that’s he’s off to sea?”
“Ay, and twa or three more folk saw him as weel as me.”
“Weel, let’s tak’ up a siller spoon, or somethin’, an’ put it in the auld wife’s garden, an’ they’ll think it was him that did it.”
“No’ that bad!” said Swankie, with a chuckle.
A silver fork and a pair of sugar-tongs bearing old Mrs Stewart’s initials were accordingly selected for this purpose, and placed in the little garden in the front of Widow Brand’s cottage....