THERE was commotion on the beach at Mersea City.
A man of war, a schooner, lay off the entrance to the Blackwater, and was signalling with bunting to the coastguard ship, permanently anchored off the island, which was replying. War had been declared with France some time, but as yet had not interfered with the smuggling trade which was carried on with the Low Countries. Cruisers in the Channel had made it precarious work along the South Coast, and this had rather stimulated the activity of contraband traffic on the East. It was therefore with no little uneasiness that a warship was observed standing off the Mersea flats. What was the purport of the correspondence carried on between the schooner and the coastguard? Such was the query put about among those gathered on the shingle.
They were not long left in doubt, for a boat manned by coastguards left the revenue vessel and ran ashore, the captain sprang out, and went up the beach to his cottage, followed by a couple of the crew. The eager islanders crowded round the remainder, and asked the news.
The captain was appointed to the command of the schooner, the Salamander, which had come from the Downs under the charge of the first lieutenant, to pick him up. The destiny of the Salamander was, of course unknown.
Captain Macpherson was a keen, canny Scot, small and dapper; as he pushed through the cluster of men in fishing jerseys and wading boots he gave them a nod and a word, "You ought to be serving your country instead of robbing her, ye loons. Why don't you volunteer like men, there's more money to be made by prizes than by running spirits."
"That won't do, captain," said Jim Morrell, an old fisherman. "We know better than that. There's the oysters."
"Oysters!" exclaimed the captain; "there'll be no time for eating oysters now, and no money to pay for them neither. Come along with me, some of you shore crabs. I promise you better sport than sneaking about t he creeks. We'll have at Johnny Crapaud with gun and cutlass."
Then he entered his cottage to say farewell to his wife.
Attention was all at once distracted by a young woman in a tall taxcart who was endeavouring to urge her horse along the road, but the animal, conscious of having an inexperienced hand on the rein, played a number of tricks, to her great dismay.
"Oh, do please some of you men lead him along. He is frightened by seeing so many of you."
"Where are you going, Phoebe?" asked old Morrell.
"I'm only going to Waldegraves," she answered. "Oh bother the creature! There he goes again!" as the horse swung round.
"De Witt!" she cried, "do hold his head."
George at once went to the rescue.
"Lead him on, De Witt, please, till we are away from the beach."
The young man good-naturedly held the bit, and the horse obeyed.
"Why, Phoebe," said De Witt, "what are you driving for? Waldegraves is not more than a mile and a half off, and you might have walked the distance well enough."
"I've sprained my ankle, and I can't walk. I must go to Waldegraves, I have a message there to my aunt, so Isaac Mead lent me the horse."
"Can't you go on now?" asked De Witt letting go the bridle. The horse began to jib and rear.
"You are lugging at his mouth fit to break his jaw, Phoebe. No wonder the beast won't go."
"Am I, George? I don't understand the horse. Oh dear! I shall never get to Waldegraves by myself."
"Don't jab his mouth in that way."
"He is turning round. He will go home again. Oh George! Save me."
"Of course he will turn if you drag at the rein."
"I don't understand horses," burst forth Phoebe, and she threw the reins down. "George, there's a good, dear fellow, jump in beside me. There's room for two, quite cosy. Drive me to Waldegraves." She put her two hands together, and looked piteously in the young man's face.
Phoebe Musset was a good-looking girl, fair with bright blue eyes, and yellow hair, much more delicately made than most of the girls in the place. Moreover, she dressed above them. She was a village coquette, accustomed to being made much of, and of showing her caprices. Her father owned the store at the city where groceries and drapery were sold, and was esteemed a well-to-do man. He farmed a little land. Phoebe, his only child, was allowed to do much as she liked. Her father and mother were hard-working people, but Phoebe's small hands were ever unemployed. She liked to be in the shop, to gossip with anyone who came in, and perhaps the only goods she condescended to sell was tobacco to the young sailors. She was always becomingly dressed. Now, in a chic bonnet trimmed with blue riband, and tied under the chin, with a white lace-edged kerchief over her shoulders, covering her bosom, she was irresistible. De Witt climbed into the gig, and assumed the reins.
"I'm not much of a steersman in a craft like this," said George laughing, "but I can save you from wreck."
Phoebe's eyes peeped timidly up in the fisherman's face. "Thank you so much, George. I shall never forget your great kindness."
"I'd do the same for any girl."
"I don't think you need drive quite so fast, George; I don't want to get the horse hot."
"A jog trot like this will hurt no horse."
"Perhaps you want to get back. I am sorry I have taken you away. No doubt you want to get to the Ray." A little twinkling sly look up accompanied this speech. De Witt waxed red.
"I'm in no hurry, myself," he said.
"How delightful, George, nor am I."
The young man could not resist stealing a glance at the little figure beside him, so neat, so trim, so fresh. He was a humble fellow, and never dreamed himself to be on a level with such a refined damsel. Glory was the girl for him, rough and ready, who could row a boat, and wade in the mud. He loved Glory. She was a sturdy girl, a splendid girl. Phoebe dazzled him, but he could not love her. She was none of his sort.
"A penny for your thoughts!" said Phoebe roguishly. He coloured. "I know what you were thinking of. You were thinking of me."
"Why," answered George with a clumsy effort at gallantry, "I thought what a beauty you were."
"Oh, George, not when compared with Mehalah."
De Witt fidgeted in his seat.
"Mehalah is quite of another kind, you see, Miss."
"I'm no Miss, if you please. Call me Phoebe."
"She's more — " he puzzled his head for an explanation of his meaning. "She is more boaty than you are — "
"Than you are," with hesitation, "Phoebe."
"I know; strides about like a man, smokes, swears, and chews tobacco."
"You mistake me, Phoebe."
"I have often wondered, George, what attracted you to Mehalah. To be sure, it will be a very convenient thing for you to have a wife who can swab the deck, and tar the boat and calk her. But then I should have fancied a man would have liked something different from a jack tar to take to his heart. It is not for me to speak on such matters, only I somehow can't help thinking about you, George, and wonder whether you will be happy. She has the temper of a tom cat, I'm told. She blazes up like gunpowder."
De Witt did not like this conversation.
"Then she is half a gipsy. She'll keep with you as long as she likes, and then on with her wading boots and away she goes."
De Witt gave the horse a stinging switch across the flank, and he started forward. A little white hand was laid on his.
"I'm so sorry, George my friend; I have teased you unmercifully, but I can't help it. When I think of Mehalah in her wading boots and jersey and cap, it makes me laugh — and yet when I think of you together, I'm ashamed to say I feel as if I could cry. George!" she suddenly ejaculated.
"The wind is cold, and I want my cloak and hood. They are down somewhere behind the seat. If I take the reins will you lean over and get them?"
He brought up the cloak and adjusted it round Phoebe's shoulders, and drew the hood over her bonnet.
"Hallo! we are in the wrong road. We have turned towards the Strood."
"Dear me! so we have. That is the horse's doing. I did not notice it."
De Witt endeavoured to turn the horse.
"Oh don't attempt it!" exclaimed Phoebe. "The lane is so narrow, that we shall be upset. Better drive round by the Barrow Farm; there is not half-a-mile difference."
"A good mile, Phoebe. However, if you wish it.
"I do wish it. This is a pleasant drive, is it not, George?"
"Very pleasant," he said, and to himself added, "too pleasant."
So they chatted on till they reached the farm called Waldegraves, and there Phoebe alighted.
"I shall not be long," she said, turning and giving him a look which might mean a great deal or nothing, according to the character of the woman who cast it.
When she came back she said, "There, George, I cut my business as short as possible. Now what do you say to showing me the Decoy? I have never seen it, but I have heard a great deal of it, and I cannot understand how it is contrived."
"It is close here," said De Witt.
"The little stream in this dip feeds it. Will you show me the Decoy?"
"But your foot — Phoebe. You have sprained your ankle."
"If I may lean on your arm I think I can limp down there. It is not very far."
"Then come along, Phoebe."
The Decoy was a sheet of water covering an acre and a half in the midst of a wood.
The clay that had been dug out for its construction had been heaped up, forming a little hill crowned by a group of willows. The pond was fringed with rushes, except at the horns, where the nets and screens stood for the trapping of the birds. From the mound above the distant sea was visible through a gap in the old elm trees that stood below the pool. In that gap was visible the war-schooner, lying as near shore as possible. George De Witt stood looking at it. The sea was glittering like silver, and the hull of the vessel was dark against the shining belt. A boat with a sail was approaching her.
"That is curious," observed George. "I could swear to yon boat. I know her red sail. She belongs to my cousin Elijah Rebow. But he can have nought to do with the schooner."
Phoebe was impatient with anything save herself attracting the attention of the young fisherman. She drew him from the mound, and made him explain to her the use of the rush-platted screens, the arched and funnel-shaped net, and the manner in which the decoy ducks were trained to lead the wild birds to their destruction.
"I suppose some little ducks are dreadfully enticing," said Phoebe with a saucy look. "Look here, George, my bonnet-strings are untied, and my hands are quite unable to manage a bow, unless I am before a glass. Do you think you could tie them for me?"
"Put up your chin, then," said De Witt with a sigh. He tried to think of Mehalah, but could not with those blue eyes looking so confidingly into his. He put his finger under her chin and raised it. He was looking full into that sweet saucy face.
"What sort of a knot? I can tie only sailor's knots."
"Oh, George! something like a true lover's knot."
George stooped and kissed the wicked lips, and cheeks, and eyes.
Phoebe drew away her face at once, and hid it. He took her arm and led her away. She turned her head from him, and did not speak.
He felt that the little figure at his side was shaken with some hysterical movement, and felt frightened.
"I am very sorry. I could not help it. Your lips did tempt me so; and you looked up at me just as if you were saying, 'Kiss me!' I could not help it. You are crying. I have offended you."
"No, I am laughing. Oh George! Oh George!"
They walked back to the farm without speaking. De Witt was ashamed of himself, yet felt he was under a spell which he could not break. A rough fisher lad flattered by a girl he had looked on as his superior, and beyond his approach, now found himself the object of her advances; the situation was more than his rude virtue could withstand. He knew that this was a short dream of delight, which would pass, and leave no substance, but whilst under the charm of the dream, he could not cry out nor move a finger to arouse himself to real life.
At last, George De Witt turned, and looking with a puzzled face at Phoebe Musset said, "You asked me on our way to Waldegraves what I was thinking about, and offered me a penny for my thoughts. Now I wonder what you are lost in a brown study about, and I will give you four farthings for what is passing in your little golden head."
"You must not ask me, George — dear George."
"You must tell me."
"I dare not. I shall be so ashamed."
"Then look aside when you speak."
"No, I can't do that. I must look you full in the face; and do you look me in the face too. George, I was thinking — Why did you not talk to me, before you went courting that gipsy girl, Mehalah. Are you not sorry now that you are tied to her?"
His eyes fell. He could not speak.