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In The Cliff Land Of The Dane






A LETTER TO THE REVEREND LAURENCE STERNE AT COXWOLD FROM JOHN HALL
STEVENSON AT SKELTON CASTLE, AS SET DOWN BY HIS NEPHEW FREDDY HALL.


The truth is, reverend sir, that being eventually designed for the Bar,
I had taken up this quest with an additional vigour, for here was a
mystery wherein my Lord Chief-Justice himself would have had a
difficulty in seeing the proper clue on 't.

For some months previous to my sojourn at Skelton Castle there had been
mysterious midnight thefts of sheep, heifers, and suchlike cattle on the
hills about here, Redcar, and Danby-way, and even on occasion a murder
added, as in the case of poor Jack Moscrop, the shepherd, who was found
in the early morning with his head cut in twain, as though by some
mighty cleaver, stark dead and cold on the low-lying ground beyond
Kirkleatham.

Much disquietude had been caused thereby amongst the farmer folk, and
the whole countryside was agape with excitement and conjecture, but
nothing had been discovered as to the malefactor, though many tales were
told, more especially by the womenfolk, who put down all mishaps to the
same unknown agent.

Some said 'twas a black man who had escaped off a foreign ship that had
been stranded by Teesmouth, but in that case one would imagine that such
an one would have eaten his victim raw, whereas the sheep and heifers
that were killed had always been 'gralloched,' as the Scotch term it,
that is, had been cut open with a knife and disembowelled, and the
carcases removed.

Some again avowed 'twas an agent of the Prince of Darkness, for there
were hoofmarks of an unshod horse discovered on one or two occasions
leading up and away from the scene of the slaughter, and blood drops
alongside, as though the booty had been slung from the horse's quarters,
and there dripped down as he sped along.

Now as you may imagine, I too had battered my brain with various
conjectures, but without practical result till one night after hunting
all day, and having lamed my mare badly with an overreach, I was
returning slowly homeward by a short cut across Eston Nab, so as to
strike the Guisboro' Road, and thence straight to Skelton.

'Twas a stormy November night, time about nine o'clock, for I had stayed
supper with a friendly yeoman, one Petch, of a noted family hereabout,
and was trudging a-foot, so as to ease the mare, along the desolate
hill-top, where in a kind of basin there lies a lonely pool of water,
set round in the farther side by a few draggled, wind-torn firs.

There was a swamped moon overhead, shining now and again as wreckage
shows amongst billows, the gleam but momentary, so that when I caught
sight of a kneeling figure across t' other side of the mere I could
scarce distinguish anything at all, whether 'twere a boggart, as they
say here, or some solitary shepherd seeking his sheep.

However, at that moment there was a break overhead, and the moon,
rheumy-eyed, shook her head clear of cloud, whereby I saw plain enough
'twas a tall, burly man kneeling beside some object or other, and a
mighty big horse standing a bit to the rearward of him.

I drew nigher without being perceived, and the light still holding, saw
that 'twas a young stirk or heifer the man was disembowelling.

'Ha, ha!' shouts I, without a further thought than that here was the
midnight miscreant and cattle-stealer, and that I had caught him
red-handed.

With that he lifts his head and gazes across the pool at me fixedly for
an instant of time, then with a whistle to his horse, leaps to his feet,
vaults to the saddle, and swings away at a hard gallop round the mere's
edge, the moonlight flashing back from some big axe he was carrying in
his right hand.

'Tally ho!' shouted I, commencing to run after him, bethinking me he was
for escaping, but no sooner had he rounded the edge some hundred and
fifty yards away than I saw 'twas he who was chasing me.

Another look at him tearing towards me was sufficient to change my
resolution, and hot foot I tore round to t' other end, trusting to win
to the wood's edge before he could catch me up.

I heard the hard breathing of the horse close behind me, the crunch of
his hoofs coming quicker and quicker; one fleeting glimpse I threw
backward, and saw a bright axe gleam above me, then my foot catching in
a tussock, I sank headlong, the horse's hoofs striking me as I fell.

I must suppose--for at that moment the moon was swallowed again by a
swirl of cloud--that in the changing light he had missed his blow, and
finding myself unhurt, I was able to gain my feet, make a double and
gain the wall's edge by the plantation before he had caught me up once
more. Just as I vaulted over a crash of stones sounded, some loose ones
at top grazing my foot as I touched the ground on the far side.

The wood, however, was pitch black, thick with unpruned trees; I bent
double and dived deeper into its gloomy belly.

'Safe now,' thinks I, as utterly outdone I sank on a noiseless bed of
pine-needles; and by the Lord Harry 'twas none too soon, for if it
hadn't been for the kindly moon dipping I'd have been in two pieces by
now. 'To Jupiter Optimus Maximus I owe an altar,' says I, in my first
recovered breath, and, 'curse that infernal reiver,' says I in my
second, 'but I'll be up ends with him yet.'

No sound came from without; all was still, save for the soughing in the
pines overhead.

A quarter of an hour passed perhaps, and I determined to creep to the
wall and see if my assailant were anywhere visible.

The wind had freshened; the clouds were unravelling to its touch, and I
could see clearly enough now across the desolate hill-top. Nothing
living showed save my mare, who was cropping the coarse grass tufts just
where I had left her.

Surmounting the wall, I approached the spot where I had seen the reiver
first. There lay red remnants that clearly told a tale. The carcase,
however, had been 'lifted,' and I could trace the direction in which my
raider had gone by the drops of blood that lay here and there by the
side of the horse's track.

As the ground in places was soft with peat or bog, by a careful
examination of the hoof marks of his horse, I was able to ascertain the
direction in which he had gone, which seemed to be nearly due
north-east, or at least east by north. The marks proved another thing,
moreover, and that is, that here was the same miscreant who had killed
the shepherd and carried off the cattle elsewhere, for 'twas an unshod
horse that had galloped over Eston Nab top that night.

'Twas sore-footed that I gained home at last, but all the way I
discussed a many plans for the discovery and punishment of my
moss-trooper.

'Tis an unpleasant remembrance to have fled; next time we met I swore to
be in a better preparation for the encounter.

Next morning I started to explore, for I knew something of the
direction. I knew also that my man was a tall, well-built, burly fellow
with a big ruddy beard, and the horse a fine seventeen hands roan that
would be known far and wide in the district.

Determining to stay out till I had discovered somewhat, I rode down to
the low-lying ground between Boulby and Redcar, as being the likeliest
region to get news of horse or man and, sure enough, at the second time
of inquiry, I was informed at a farmhouse that some six months ago
Farmer Allison, away over by Stokesly, had lost a fine, big, upstanding
roan stallion, of which he had been inordinately proud.

Of the man, though, I could glean nothing, till finally, a good
housewife, overhearing her man and myself conversing, cried out, 'Eh!
but by my surely, there's that Red Tom o' the "Fisherman's Rest," nigh
to Saltburn, that's new come there, who features him you speak of; but
he's nowt but a "fondy," oaf-rocked, they say he is; why, Moll who hawks
t' fish about says his wife beats him an' maks him wash up t'
dishes--the man being a soart o' cholterhead by all accounts.'

However, 'fondy' or no, I was sworn to go and see for myself, though the
thought that 'twas perhaps a disguise the reiver had worn gave me
discomfort, and made my quest seem foolish enough.

As I drew close to the little tavern above the cliff, I could hear a
dispute going on inside; then a crash as of some crockery falling, and
shortly a big, burly man with an auburn beard came tumbling forth in an
awkward haste, pursued by the high tone of a woman's voice within.

Shaking his sleeve free of some water-drops, he sat down on a low rock
near hand, and fell knitting at a stocking he proceeded to draw from his
jacket.

''Tis surely the man,' says I to myself, for in height, build, and
colour of hair, he seemed the fellow of the midnight raider, but yet it
seemed impossible; there might be a brother, however.

I rode up to him, and asked if I could bait my horse and seek
refreshment within.

'Ay, sir, surely ye can; if ye'll dismount I'll tak your horse, sir, an'
give him a feed o' corn,' and shambling away he touched a greasy lock at
me as he led my horse to the stable behind.

I turned to the inn, and encountered mine hostess, fuming within the
bar.

'Please draw me a pot of ale, ma'am,' says I, 'while my horse gets a
feed. Your good man, I suppose 'tis, who took him away outside?'

'Ay, he's mine, so says t' Church an' t' law, Aah b'lieve, but 'od
rabbit him, Aah says, who knaws the clumsiness o' the creature. Just fit
for nowt else but cuttin' up t' bait for t' harrin' fishin'.'

'Been here long?' says I further, carelessly.

'Six months mair or less,' says she with a snap, eyeing me suspiciously.

'Well, here's for luck and a smarter man at the next time of asking,'
and with that I tossed down the ale, paid the reckoning, and strode out
to the stable, for nothing further was to be got out of the vinegar lips
of Mrs. Boniface.

I looked narrowly round the low-roofed and ill-lit stable, but no sign
of a big roan horse anywhere did I see, only a jack-spavined cob, such
as a fishwife might hawk her fish about with.

'Ever seen or heard tell of that big roan of Farmer Allison's, strayed,
stolen, or lost, about six months since?' so I accosted Boniface anew,
on finding him rubbing down my horse's hocks with a bit of straw.

'Noah, sir, not Aah; Aah nevver seen 'im, sir. What soart o' a mak o'
horse was 'e, sir?'

I looked him full in the face as question and answer passed, and not a
shred of intelligence could I detect in his opaque, fish-like eyes.

'Oaf-rocked,' truly enough; he seemed as incapable of dissimulation as a
stalled ox, and with a heavy feeling of disappointment I inquired what
was to pay, and rode away down the slope.

'Curious,' I mused, 'how imagination plays one tricks at times! Once get
the idea of a red beard into your mind, and Barbarossa is as often met
with as the robin redbreast.'

Then all in a moment my eye caught in the spongy bottom a thin mark cut
clearly crescent-wise upon the turf. There was something strangely
familiar about the horseshoe curve. Then I remembered the unshod roan of
the night before.

'Twas the same impress, for in neither case was there any trace of the
iron rim. 'Where the horse is the rider will not be far away,' thinks I,
and hope kindled afresh in my heart, as I rode slowly on, resolving
various conjectures.

I determined finally to go call upon the farmer at Kirkleatham, whose
heifer it was, as I had learnt, that had been killed and carried off the
night before.

He was said to be tightfisted, so probably would be in a mood for
revenge, and ready enough to join in any scheme for discovery of the
reiver.

As luck had it, Farmer Johnson was within doors, and in a fine taking
about the loss of his beast: he was ready to swear an oath that he
wouldn't rest till he had caught the malefactor, and agreed upon the
instant to watch out every night in the week with me round about 'The
Fisherman's Rest' on chance of coming across the suspect either going or
returning.

'Ay, Aah'll gan mahself, an' Aah'll tak feyther's owd gun wi' me there,
for Aah'll stan' none o' his reiver tricks, an' Tom and Jack, they'll
come along too, an' 'od burn him, but we'll nab him betwixt us, the
impudent scoundrel, if it's a leevin' man he is.'

By eight o'clock we four had ensconced ourselves in hiding-places on all
sides of the little inn, having tethered our horses within a small but
thick-grown covert above the rise that led to the inn door. Here I
stationed myself and for better vision climbed a tree wherefrom I
commanded the whole situation. The others hid themselves as they found
shelter convenient, one below the cliff's edge some two hundred yards to
the east, another amongst broken boulders to the southward, while Farmer
Johnson crouched behind the wall that girt the road leading past the
ale-house from the north.

'Twas weary work watching, more by token that that night nothing
appeared save a thirsty fisherman or two, and a stray, shuffle-footed
vagrant or the like.

Next night the same, and I for one was growing somewhat cold, but Farmer
Johnson, bull-like in his obstinacy, swore he wouldn't shave his chin
till he had 'caught summat,' so off we started on the third night to our
rendezvous.

'The third time brings luck,' thought I, as I squatted down in the fork
of the same old twisted elm; 'and 'tis something stormy this evening,
which might suit our reiver's tastes.'

It would then be about eight of the clock, as I may suppose, the wind
from the seaward, the clouds lowering, fringed with a moonlight border
like broidery on a cloak, and that raw, cold touch in the air that
chills worse than the hardest winter's frost.

The night grew stormier; vapour lifted upward, and assumed strange and
threatening shape. The cloud forms might be the giants rising up out of
Jotunheim, and advancing to attack Odin and the Aesir--the evil wolf
Fenrir in the van--his bristles silvered by the moon.

An hour passed, and I began to wish I had never undertaken the quest, or
mentioned the matter to Farmer Johnson, when I heard, as if some way
off, not exactly a neigh, but a sort of defiant snorting, such as a
stallion breathes forth when he wishes to be free. Then a sound as of a
heavy stone falling succeeded, mingled with a scraping and a trampling
noise.

Craning my neck forward, I saw under a broadened fringe of moonlight the
roan horse with the ruddy-bearded reiver beside him. They had evidently
crept through some secret passage that issued into the bottom below me.

I was just upon the point of raising the hue and cry on him when an
action of his took me by surprise.

Holding up his battle-axe--for such was his weapon--he raised it aloft,
then thrust its handle deep into the soft moss of the hollow. Next, he
threw the horse's reins over the head of it, and sinking down upon his
knees, appeared to be pouring forth a prayer to Heaven, expressed in old
Danish, which I have set down in English as nearly as I can:

'Vafoder, the swiftness of Sleipnir
Breathe Thou into my roan.
Let him fly like Thy ravens
Black Munin and Hugi.
May my axe be as Thor's,
When he wieldeth Miolnir.
Winged Thor's mighty weapon.
The pride of Valhalla.
This grant me, O Odin,
Grim, Ygg and All Father.'

He then drew forth from his breast a small phial, and having set up a
square stone beside him poured forth into the cup or hollow at the top,
liquid of a dark colour, which I imagined must be either blood or wine.
This done, he seemed to fall to prayer afresh, but in so low a tone
that I could not catch the words of his utterance with any distinctness.

Then he leapt to his feet, lifted the axe, tossed it into the air,
caught it as it fell, and had vaulted upon the stallion's back before I
had even recovered from my first astonishment.

'Tally-ho!' shouts I, 'yonder he goes; forrard Mr. Johnson! forrard Tom
and Jack!' and, scrambling down my tree, I made for my horse.

The next thing I heard was a 'pang,' evidently the discharge of Farmer
Johnson's musket, and thereat a weird, smothered, savage note of pain
and rage broke out upon the night.

Seizing my horse I mounted, and out of the covert across a gap in the
wall. Dimly I could see a centaur-like figure plunging and snorting upon
the short turf by the cliff's edge, then three figures running from the
north, south, and east towards it.

The roan horse plunged and reared like one demented; the rider sitting
the while firm and supple as an Indian; then, seizing on a sudden the
bit 'twixt his teeth, off set the stallion at a tearing gallop
southward.

Away I followed hotly, the others giving chase and halloaing in the
background.

Dyke after dyke we flew headlong in the grey-white mist--the space still
even betwixt us--then, at a sudden high dry-stone wall, which loomed up
as a wave of darkness seaward, my horse jumped short, and down we fell
together, on the turf beyond.

As I lay there for a moment or two, I was certain I heard a heavy
rumbling of rock or stone by the cliff edge hard by, followed by a deep
plunge far below into the sea.

I rose to my feet and looked around me. There was no sign of horse or
rider; both had disappeared.

The cliff here made a sudden bend inland, so that I could even catch the
come and go of the waves in the far void below, and I felt 'twas lucky
for me that I had been riding the nethermost line of the twain of us.

Cautiously approaching the edge, I noticed it had been just broken away
under the tramplings of a horse, and as I peeped over I caught sight of
an indistinct figure lying on a broad slab of rock below that jutted out
some way from the cliff.

Feeling carefully around for support of root or stone, I made my way
down, and discovered, as I had already conjectured, 'twas the reiver
that lay there.

He was lying motionless, spread on his back, and was murmuring to
himself as I drew close.

I knelt beside him to lift him up, and could catch, as I tried to raise
him, what he was saying.

'Whisht ye, then, whisht, Effie, Aah never meant to break t' dish, Aah
tell thee. Leave us aloan, then, lass, doan't plague t' life oot of a
man. Ay, Aah'll fetch t' coo in i' guid time, there's no call t' bang
us that gait.'

Then he babbled indistinctly; his lips grew whiter and ceased from
moving; and when the others had come up I think he was already dead.

As I rode off for the physician in Redcar, I minded me I had once read
in a book, Reverend Sir, that this same Cleveland was once 'the
Cliff-land of the Danes,' and that the older name of Roseberry
Topping--the famous hill of these parts--was Othenesberg, or Odin's
Hill, together with much else of an antiquarian interest and varied
conjecture, which I must even leave to wiser heads than mine to
determine the true issues of, as well as their bearing upon the events
just narrated, but this I may say, that here is the same 'crazy tale' my
cousin mentioned to you, set down in all true verisimilitude by,
reverend sir, your very faithful and humble servant to command,

FREDDY HALL.





Next: The Doppel-ganger

Previous: The Muniment Room



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