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A short story by James Runciman

The Coastguard

Title:     The Coastguard
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

Winter and summer, every night about six o'clock, a tall man, dressed in blue, strode over the moor. Sometimes he looked on the ground for a long time together, and seemed to be buried in deep thought. When he came to the stream he always found another man waiting for him on the far side, and this man was accompanied by a rough water-spaniel. The two friends, who were both coastguards, held a little chat, and then the dog was told to go over for the letters. The spaniel swam across, received the blue despatches, and carried them to his master; then, with a cheery good-night, the men turned back and went across the dark moor to their homes.

In the morning the tall coastguard was astir very early. He walked along the rock tops with his old telescope under his arm, and looked acutely at the vessels that crept round the bay. During the middle of the day he had little to do. In fine weather he would sit outside his door with a book, and in bad weather he was always to be found, from ten to four o'clock, on the long settle beside the great fire in his little cottage. He was one of the old school, and had entered the service at the time when civilians were admitted, so he had the utmost contempt for the new school of boatmen who came from on board men-of-war. He was rarely troubled with visits from inspecting officers; in fact, after a certain memorable occurrence, the commander of the station let him alone. A very shrewd officer wished to show his own cleverness, and to find out his men's weakness; so one night, when thick clouds were flying across the moon, he crept round the bay in a six-oared cutter, ran ashore on the sand, hauled up half a dozen empty kegs, and told his men to bury them in the sand. This ingenious captain proceeded as he fancied smugglers would have done, and he intended to go round to the coastguard's cottage and inform him of the trick in the morning. Just as the casks had been triumphantly covered, a voice called sharply, "Who goes there?"

The clever officer was thrown off his guard, and was too confused to speak.

The challenge was repeated, and presently a couple of bullets whizzed sharply among the party. The coastguard had emptied both his pistols, and one of the bullets cut through the officer's shoulder-knot.

The modern coastguardmen never expect to find such an animal as a smuggler: all contraband business is done by dint of craft and not by daring. Firemen and engineers scoop out coal from the bottom of a ship's bunkers and fill the space up with tobacco. Sometimes a clever carpenter will actually hollow out a beam in the forecastle or a block of wood which is used as a stool; the whole article looks perfectly solid, and the Custom-house officers are apt to pass it by. But our friend the coastguard had been used to the old-fashioned smugglers--desperate men who would let fly a ball on the very slightest provocation.

Before the piping times of peace came he had known what it was to charge with a party right amongst a gang of desperate fellows who were bumping kegs ashore.

When in the grey of the evening the low black lugger crept stealthily towards the shore, the coastguard had been used to stalk the gliding vessel like some wild beast. He could not row off and board her, because the lugger would have spread her brown wings and flown away into the uttermost dark. The coastguardsmen had to catch the smugglers in the act of bringing their goods ashore, and in order to do this he had to contend against a conspiracy of the villagers, who were always ready to lend their horses and their labour to those who were cheating the king. No amount of logic could ever persuade the small farmer that smuggling was in any way immoral, so the coastguard had to combat the cunning of the bold sailors who ran across from Cherbourg, and the still greater cunning of the slouching fellows who signalled his movements from the shore. This was his training, and when the time came for smuggling to be given over entirely to merchant seamen instead of being carried on by desperadoes, the change left the old officer still ready and resolute, and quick with his pistol.

It was well for the Revenue that one at least of their servants retained the habits and instincts of the ancient race of preventive-men.

One night, just as the tide was flowing, our friend stepped out of his cottage and looked across the bay. Suddenly he saw a light, which flashed for a short time and then was darkened; another flash came and then another; the flood was pouring south in a sombre stream; there was not a gleam on the water, and the whole sea looked like a huge dark abyss. From the depths of the troubled blackness the coastguard saw another light flash back in answer to the one which had been waved from the shore; the seaward light was simply like the ordinary mast-head lantern of a fishing-boat; but the coastguard noticed that it was waved three times, as if in answer to a set signal. He did not quite like the look of things, so he got out a pony from the stables at the Hall and galloped around till he was near the place from which he guessed that the flashes had come. He lay down amongst the long grass and waited in an agony of expectation for something that might help him to solve the puzzle. It turned out that a set of fellows had determined to go back to the old ways, and the flash that the coastguard saw from the sea was shown from an ordinary herring-boat which now lay perilously close to the beach. He saw the black hull wavering like a shadow amid the uncertain gloom and the solemn water. Presently a hand touched him, and a terrible thrill of momentary terror shook his nerves. The man that touched him gave a sharp cry and recoiled; before he could utter another sound the coastguard was upon him, and the muzzle of a great horse-pistol was clapped to his face. The coastguard said: "Tell me where they are going to land?"

The prostrate man hesitated; whereupon his stern assailant said: "I'll give you until I count three!"

The frightened lout stammered: "They are coming past this way."

A few long minutes went by, and then the coastguard heard a sound of laboured breathing; this sound came from a horse which was dragging a large hay-cart through the heavy sand. Two men walked, one on each side of the horse, and a third pushed the cart from behind. The coastguard man had only two shots to spare, and he did not know in the least whether the men opposed to him were armed or not. His decision had to be made swiftly. He was a kind man, fond of dumb animals, and averse to hurting anything in the world; but he saw that there was only one way of preventing the cargo from being safely carried inland. It went sorely against him to take an innocent life; but just as the horse passed him, he fired, aiming a little behind the near shoulder. The horse gave a convulsive stagger and fell dead in the shafts. There was then left one man with a pistol against four, who might or might not be armed. Luckily it happened that the smugglers only carried bludgeons. The coastguard saw that he could not hope to catch any of them, so he said quietly: "I have another shot here, and I am quite safe up to thirty paces. If you don't clear away, I'll have one of you; but I don't say which one it will be."

This practical address had a very good effect; the men wisely ran away. The coastguard loaded his other pistol and mounted guard on the cart.

In the morning a passing tramp brought him help; the cart was conveyed to the station, and it was found that a splendid haul had been attempted. There was a load of silks and brandy, which was worth a great deal of money. This was the very last attempt at old-fashioned smuggling that ever was made on the north-east coast, and there is no doubt that the attempt would have been successful if only raw young sailors had been employed as guards, instead of an old hand who knew every move of the game.

The coastguardman received his promotion soon afterwards, and he continued to express his contempt for man-o'-war's men and smugglers till he arrived at a very old age.

[The end]
James Runciman's short story: Coastguard