Ralph was soon at home in the regiment. He found his comrades a cheery and pleasant set of men, ready to assist the newly-joined young officers as far as they could. A few rough practical jokes were played; but Ralph took them with such perfect good temper that they were soon abandoned.
He applied himself very earnestly to mastering the mystery of drill, and it was not long before he was pronounced to be efficient, and he was then at Captain O'Connor's request appointed to his company, in which there happened to be a vacancy for an ensign. He had had the good luck to have an excellent servant assigned to him. Denis Mulligan was a thoroughly handy fellow, could turn his hand to anything, and was always good tempered and cheery.
"The fellow is rather free and easy in his ways," Captain O'Connor told Ralph when he allotted the man to him; "but you will get accustomed to that. Keep your whisky locked up, and I think you will be safe in all other respects with him. He was servant to Captain Daly, who was killed at Toulouse, and I know Daly wouldn't have parted with him on any account. His master's death almost broke Denis' heart, and I have no doubt he will get just as much attached to you in time. These fellows have their faults, and want a little humoring; but, take them as a whole, I would rather have an Irish soldier servant than one of any other nationality, provided always that he is not too fond of the bottle. About once in three months I consider reasonable, and I don't think you will find Mulligan break out more frequently than that."
Ralph never regretted the choice O'Connor had made for him, and found Denis an excellent servant; and his eccentricities and the opinions which he freely expressed afforded him a constant source of amusement.
A few days later Captain O'Connor came into his room. "Pack up your kit. The company is ordered on detached duty, and there is an end to your dancing and flirting."
"I don't know about flirting," Ralph laughed. "As far as I can see you do enough for the whole company in that way. But where are we going to?"
"We are ordered to Ballyporrit. An out of the way hole as a man could wish to be buried in. It seems that there are a lot of stills at work in the neighborhood. The gauger has applied for military aid. A nice job we have got before us. I have had my turn at it before, and know what it means. Starting at nightfall, tramping ten or fifteen miles over the hills and through bogs, and arriving at last at some wretched hut only to find a wretched old woman sitting by a peat fire, and divil a sign of still or mash tubs or anything else. We start the first thing to-morrow morning; so you had better get your kit packed and your flask filled to-night. We have nineteen miles march before us, and a pretty bad road to travel. I have just been in to Desmond's quarters, and he is tearing his hair at the thought of having to leave the gayeties of Cork."
"I think it is a nice change," Ralph said, "and shall be very glad to have done with all these parties and balls. Ballyporrit is near the sea, isn't it?"
"Yes. About a mile away, I believe. Nearly forty miles from here."
The detachment marched next morning. Ralph enjoyed the novelty of the march, but was not sorry when at the end of the second day's tramp they reached the village. The men were quartered in the houses of the villagers, and the officers took rooms at the inn. Except when engaged in expeditions to capture stills—of which they succeeded in finding nearly a score—there was not much to do at Ballyporrit. All the gentry resident within a wide circle called upon them, and invitations to dinners and dances flowed in rapidly. As one officer was obliged to remain always in the village with the detachment, Ralph seldom availed himself of these invitations. O'Connor and Lieutenant Desmond were both fond of society; and, as Ralph very much preferred staying quietly in his quarters, he was always ready to volunteer to take duty upon these occasions.
Ballyporrit lay within a mile of the sea, and Ralph, when he had nothing else to do, frequently walked to the edge of the cliffs, and sat there hour after hour watching the sea breaking among the rocks three or four hundred feet below him, and the sea-birds flying here and there over the water, and occasionally dashing down to its surface. A few fishing boats could be seen, but it was seldom that a distant sail was visible across the water; for not one vessel in those days sailed for the west to every fifty that now cross the Atlantic. The rocks upon which he sat rose in most places almost sheer up from the edge of the sea; but occasionally they fell away, and a good climber could make his way over the rough rocks and bowlders down to the water's edge. As, however, there was nothing to be gained by it, Ralph never made the attempt.
Looking back over the land the view was a dreary one. There was not a human habitation within sight, the hills were covered with brown heather, while in the bottoms lay bogs, deep and treacherous to those who knew not the way across. It was rarely that a human figure was visible. Once or twice a day a revenue man came along the edge of the cliff, and would generally stop for a talk with Ralph.
"There was," he said, "a good deal of smuggling carried on along that part of the coast during the war; but there is not so much of it now, though no doubt a cargo is run now and then. It does not pay as it did when the French ports were all closed, and there was not a drop of brandy to be had save that which was run by the smugglers. Now that trade is open again there is only the duty to save, and I fancy a good many of the boats have gone out of the business. You see, the revenue has got its agents in the French ports, and gets news from them what craft are over there loading, and what part of the coast they come from. Along the English coast there is still a good deal of it. There lace pays well; but there is not much sale for lace in Ireland, and not much sale for brandy either, excepting in the towns. The peasants and farmers would not thank you for it when they can get home-made whisky for next to nothing."
"I suppose that there is a good deal of that going on."
"Any amount of it, sir. For every still that is captured I reckon there must be a hundred at work that no one dreams of, and will be as long as barley grows and there are bogs and hills all over the country, and safe hiding-places where no one not in the secret would dream of searching. The boys know that we are not in their line of business, and mind our own affairs. If it were not for that, I can tell you, I wouldn't go along these cliffs at night for any pay the king would give me; for I know that before a week would be out my body would be found some morning down there on the rocks, and the coroner's jury would bring in a verdict of tumbled over by accident, although there wouldn't be a man of them but would know better."
"Well, I am sure I don't want to find out anything about them. I belong to the detachment in Ballyporrit, and of course if the gauger calls upon us we must march out and aid him in seizing a still. But beyond that it's no affair of ours."
And yet although he so seldom saw any one to speak to, Ralph had sometimes a sort of uncomfortable feeling that he was being watched. Once or twice he had caught a glimpse of what he thought was a man's head among some rocks; but on walking carelessly to the spot he could see no signs of any one. Another time, looking suddenly round, he saw a boy standing at the edge of some boggy ground where the land dipped suddenly away some two hundred yards from the edge of the cliff; but directly he saw that he was observed he took to his heels, and speedily disappeared down the valley.
Ralph did not trouble himself about these matters, nor did he see any reason why any one should interest himself in his movements. Had he wandered about among the hills inland he might be taken for a spy trying to find out some of the hidden stills; but sitting here at the edge of the cliff watching the sea, surely no such absurd suspicion could fall upon him. Had he been there at night the smugglers might have suspected him of keeping watch for them; but smugglers never attempted to run their cargoes in broad daylight, and he never came down there after dark. One day a peasant came strolling along. He was a powerful-looking man and carried a heavy stick. Ralph was lying on his back looking up at the clouds and did not hear the man approach till he was close to him, then with a quick movement he sprang to his feet.
"I did not hear you coming," he said. "You have given me quite a start."
"It's a fine day, yer honor, for sleeping on the turf here," the man said civilly.
"I was not asleep," Ralph said; "though I own that I was getting on for it."
"Is yer honor expecting to meet any one here?" the man asked. "Sure, it's a mighty lonesome sort of place."
"No, I am not expecting any one. I have only come out for a look at the sea. I am never tired of looking at that."
"It's a big lot of water, surely," the man replied, looking over the sea with an air of interest as if the sight were altogether novel to him. "A powerful lot of water. And I have heard them say that you often come out here?"
"Yes, I often come out," Ralph assented.
"Don't you think now it is dangerous so near the edge of the cliff, yer honor? Just one step and over you would go, and it would be ten chances to one that the next tide would drift your body away, and divil a one know what had become of you."
"But I don't mean to take a false step," Ralph said.
"Sure, there is many a one takes a false step when he isn't dreaming about it; and if ye didn't tumble over by yourself, just a push would do it."
"Yes, but there is no one to give one a push," Ralph said.
"Maybe and maybe not," the man replied. "I don't say if I was a gentleman, and could spind me time as I liked, that I would be sitting here on the edge of these cliffs, where you might come to harm any minute."
"I have no fear of coming to harm," Ralph answered; "and I should be sorry for any one who tried. I always carry a pistol. Not that I think there is any chance of having to use it but it's always as well to be prepared."
"It is that, yer honor, always as well; but I don't think I should be always coming out here if I was you."
"Why not, my good fellow? I harm no one, and interfere with no one. Surely it is open to me to come here and look at the sea without any one taking offense at it."
"That's as it may be, yer honor. Anyhow I have told you what I think of it. Good-morning to you."
"I wonder what that fellow meant," Ralph said, looking after him. "He meant something, I feel certain, though what it is I can't imagine. I thought it was as well to let him know that I had a pistol handy, though he didn't look as if he intended mischief. I suppose after this I had better not come here so often, though I have not the remotest idea in the world why I should annoy any one more by standing here than if I was standing on the cliff in front of Dover Castle. However, it certainly is a lonely place, and I should have precious little chance if two or three men took it into their heads to attack me here."
"They are queer people these Irish peasants of yours, O'Connor," Ralph said as they sat at dinner that evening.
"What's the matter with them now, Conway?"
"One can't even go and look at the sea from their cliffs without their taking it amiss," and Ralph related the conversation he had had with the peasant, adding that he was convinced he had been watched whenever he went there.
"It is curious, certainly," the captain said when he had finished. "No doubt they think you are spying after something; but that would not trouble them unless there was something they were afraid of your finding out. Either there has been something going on, or there is some hiding-place down there on the face of the cliff, where maybe they have a still at work. Anyhow, I don't think I should neglect the warning, Conway. You might be killed and thrown over the cliff, and no one be the wiser for it. I should certainly advise you to give up mooning about."
"But there is nothing to do in this wretched village," Ralph said discontentedly.
"Not if you stop in the village, I grant; but you might do as Desmond and I do when we are off duty; go over and take lunch at the Ryans', or Burkes', or any of the other families where we have a standing invitation. They are always glad to see one, and there's plenty of fun to be had."
"That's all very well for you, O'Connor. You are a captain and a single man, and one of their countrymen, with lots to say for yourself; but it is a different thing with me altogether. I can't drop in and make myself at home as you do."
"Why, you are not shy, Conway?" O'Connor said in affected horror. "Surely such a disgrace has not fallen on his majesty's Twenty-eighth Regiment that one of its officers is shy? Such a thing is not recorded in its annals."
"I am afraid it will have to be recorded now," laughed Ralph. "For I own that I am shy; if you call shy, feeling awkward and uncomfortable with a lot of strange people, especially ladies."
"Do not let it be whispered outside," O'Connor said, "or the reputation of the regiment is gone forever among Irish girls. Desmond, this is a sad business. What are we to do with this man? You and I must consult together how this thing is to be cured."
"No, no, O'Connor," Ralph said earnestly, knowing how fond O'Connor was of practical jokes, and dreading that he and the lieutenant would be putting him in some ridiculous position or other. "You will never cure me if you set about it. I shall get over it in time; but it's the sort of thing that becomes ten times worse if you attempt to cure it."
"We must think it over, my lad," O'Connor said seriously. "This is a serious defect in your character; and as your commanding officer I consider it my bounden duty, both for your sake and that of the regiment, to take it into serious consideration and see what is to be done. You may never have such a chance again of being cured as you have here; for if a man goes away from Ireland without being cured of shyness his case is an absolutely hopeless one. Desmond, you must turn this matter seriously over in your mind, and I will do the same. And now it is time for us to be starting for the dance at the Regans'. I am sorry you can't go with us, Desmond, as you are on duty."
"I shall be very glad to take your duty, Desmond," Ralph said eagerly. "I told you so this morning, and I thought you agreed."
"As your commanding officer," O'Connor said gravely, "I cannot permit the exchange to be made, Mr. Conway. You have your duty to perform to the regiment as well as Mr. Desmond, and your duty clearly is to go out and make yourself agreeable. I am surprised after what I have just been saying that you should think of staying at home."
"Well, of course, if you want me to go I will go," Ralph said reluctantly. "But I don't know the Regans, and don't want to."
"That is very ungracious, Conway. Mr. Regan is a retired pork merchant of Cork. He has given up his business and bought an estate here, and settled down as a country gentleman. They say his father was a pig-driver in Waterford. That's why he has bought a place on this side of the county. But people have been rather shy of them; because, though he could buy three-fourths of them up, his money smells of pork. Still, as the election is coming on, they have relaxed a bit. He's got the militia band, and there will be lashings of everything; and his girls are nice girls, whether their father sold pork or not. And it would be nothing short of cruel if we, the representatives of his majesty's army, did not put in an appearance; especially as we have doubtless eaten many a barrel of his salt pork at sea. So put on your number one coatee and let's be off."
With a sign Ralph rose to carry out his orders, and he would have been still more reluctant to go had he observed the sly wink that passed between his captain and lieutenant.
"He is quite refreshing, that boy," O'Connor said as the door closed behind Ralph. "That adventure in the West Indies showed he has plenty of pluck and presence of mind; but he is as shy as a girl. Though I don't know why I should say that, for it's mighty few of them have any shyness about them. He will grow out of it. I was just the same myself when I was his age."
Lieutenant Desmond burst into a roar of laughter.
"I should have liked to have known you then, O'Connor."
O'Connor joined in the laugh.
"It's true though, Desmond. I was brought up by two maiden aunts in the town of Dundalk, and they were always bothering me about my manners; so that though I could hold my own in a slanging match down by the riverside, I was as awkward as a young bear when in genteel company. They used to have what they called tea-parties—and a fearful infliction they were—and I was expected to hand round the tea and cakes, and make myself useful. I think I might have managed well enough if the old women would have let me alone; but they were always expecting me to do something wrong, and I was conscious that whatever they were doing they had an eye upon me.
"It's trying, you know, when you hear exclamations like this: 'The saints presarve us! if he hasn't nearly poked his elbow into Mrs. Fitzgerald's eye!' or, 'See now, if he isn't standing on Miss Macrae's train!' One day I let a cup of coffee fall on to old Mrs. O'Toole's new crimson silk dress. It was the first she had had for nine years to my knowledge, and would have lasted her for the rest of her natural life. And if you could have heard the squall she made, and the exclamations of my aunts, and the general excitement over that wretched cup of coffee, you would never have forgotten it.
"It had one good result, I was never asked to hand things round again and was indeed never expected to put in an appearance until the tea-things were taken away. I suffered for months for that silk dress. My aunts got two yards of material and presented them to Mrs. O'Toole; and for weeks and weeks I got short allowance of butter to my bread and no sugar in my tea, and had to hear remarks as to the necessity for being economical. As for Mrs. O'Toole she never forgave me, and was always saying spiteful things. But I got even with her once. One evening the doctor, who was her partner at whist, was called out, and I was ordered to take his place. Now, I played a pretty good game at whist, better than the doctor did by a long chalk I flattered myself; but I didn't often play at home unless I was wanted to make up a table, and very glad I was to get out of it, for the ill-temper of those old harridans when they lost was something fearful.
"It was only penny points, but if they had been playing for five pounds they couldn't have taken it more to heart; and of course if I had the misfortune of being their partner they put it down entirely to my bad play. Well, we held good cards, and at last we only wanted the odd trick to win. I held the last trump. Mrs. O'Toole was beaming as she led the best spade, and felt that the game was won. I could not resist the temptation, but put my trump on her spade, led my small card, and the game was lost. Mrs. O'Toole gave a scream and sank back in her chair almost fainting, and when she recovered her breath and her voice went on like a maniac, and had a desperate quarrel with my aunts. I made my escape, and three days later, to my huge delight, was sent off to Dublin and entered the university. I only stayed there about six months, when a friend of my father's got me a commission; but that six months cured me of my shyness."
"I am not surprised," Desmond laughed; "it can only have been skin deep, I fancy, O'Connor."
"I will give Conway his first lesson to-night," the captain said.
Dancing had already begun when Captain O'Connor and Ralph drove up in a dog-cart to the Regans', who lived some four miles from Ballyporrit. O'Connor introduced Ralph to his host, and then hurried away. In a short time he was deep in conversation with Miss Tabitha Regan, who was some years younger than her brother, and still believed herself to be quite a girl. She was gorgeously arrayed with a plume of nodding feathers in her headdress.
"You are looking splendid to-night, Miss Regan," O'Connor said in a tone of deep admiration. "You do not give your nieces a chance."
"Ah! you are flattering me, Captain O'Connor."
"Not at all, Miss Regan; it's quite a sensation you make. My young friend Conway was tremendously struck with your appearance, and asked me who that splendid woman was." Which was true enough, except for the word "splendid;" for as they had walked through the room Ralph's eyes had fallen upon her, and he had exclaimed in astonishment, "Who on earth is that woman, O'Connor?"
"He is dying to be introduced to you. He is a little young, you know; but of good family, and may come into a lot of money one of these days. Only son, and all that. May I introduce him?"
"How you do go on, Captain O'Connor," Miss Tabitha said, much flattered. "By all means introduce him."
O'Connor made his way back to Ralph.
"Come along, Ralph; I will introduce you to our host's sister, Miss Regan. Charming creature, and lots of money. Awfully struck with your appearance. Come on, man; don't be foolish," and, hooking his arm in Ralph's, he led him across the room to the lady Ralph had before noticed.
"Miss Regan, this is my brother-officer, Mr. Conway, Ralph, this is Miss Regan, our host's sister, although you would take her for his daughter. Miss Regan, Mr. Conway is most anxious to have the pleasure of the next dance with you if you are not engaged."
Ralph murmured something in confirmation, and Miss Regan at once stood up and placed her hand in his arm. Ralph gave a reproachful glance at his captain as he moved away. Fortunately, he was not called upon to say much, for Miss Regan burst out:
"It is too bad of you not having been here before, Mr. Conway—quite rude of you. Captain O'Connor has spoken of you frequently, and we girls have been quite curious to see you. There is the music striking up. I think we had better take our places. I suppose as I am at the head of my brother's house we had better take the place at the top."
Ralph never forgot that dance. Miss Regan danced with amazing sprightliness, performing wonderful steps. Her ostrich plumes seemed to whirl round and round him, he had a painful feeling that every one was grinning, and a mad desire to rush out of the house and make straight for his quarters.
"Your aunt is going it," Captain O'Connor remarked to one of the daughters of the house with whom he was dancing. "She sets quite an example to us young people."
The girl laughed. "She is very peculiar, Captain O'Connor; but it is cruel of you to laugh at her. I do wish she wouldn't wear such wonderful headdresses; but she once went to court a good many years ago at Dublin, and somebody told her that her headdress became her, and she has worn plumes ever since."
"I am not laughing at her, Miss Regan," O'Connor said gravely; "I am admiring her. Conway is doing nobly too."
"I think he looks almost bewildered," the girl laughed. "It's a shame, Captain O'Connor. I was standing quite close by when you introduced him, and I could see by your face that you were playing a joke upon him."
"I was performing a kindly action, Miss Regan. The lad's young and a little bashful, and I ventured to insinuate to your aunt that he admired her."
"Well, you shall introduce him to me next," the girl said. "I like his looks."
"Shall I tell him that, Miss Regan?"
"If you do I will never speak to you again."
As soon as the dance was over Captain O'Connor strolled up with his partner to the spot where Miss Tabitha was fanning herself violently, Ralph standing helplessly alongside.
"That was a charming dance, Miss Regan. You surpassed yourself. Let me recommend a slight refreshment; will you allow me to offer you my arm? Miss Regan, allow me to introduce my brother-officer, Mr. Conway."
Ralph, who had not caught the name, bowed to the girl thus left suddenly beside him and offered her his arm.
"Why, you look warm already, Mr. Conway," she began.
"Warm is no word for it," Ralph said bluntly. "Did you see that wonderful old lady I have been dancing with?"
"That is my aunt, Mr. Conway; but she is rather wonderful all the same."
Ralph had thought before that he was as hot as it was possible for a man to be; but he found now that he was mistaken.
"I beg your pardon," he stammered. "I did not catch your name; but of course I oughtn't to have said anything."
"I wonder you didn't see the likeness," the girl said demurely. "My aunt considers there is a great likeness between us."
"I am sure I cannot see it the least bit in the world," Ralph said emphatically; "not the smallest. But I hope you forgive me for that unfortunate remark; but the fact is, I felt a little bewildered at the time. I am not much of a dancer, and your aunt is really so energetic that I had to exert myself to the utmost to keep up with her."
"I think you did admirably, Mr. Conway. We quite admired you both. There," she said laughing at Ralph's confusion, "you need not be afraid about my not forgiving you for the remark. Everyone knows that Aunt Tabitha and we girls never get on very well together; and she does make herself dreadfully ridiculous, and I think it was too bad of Captain O'Connor putting you up with her."
"Thank you, Miss Regan," Ralph said earnestly. "The fact is I haven't joined long, and I don't care much for parties. You see, I have only left school a few months, and haven't got accustomed to talk to ladies yet; and O'Connor—who is always up to some fun or other—did it just to cure what he calls my shyness. However, I can quite forgive him now."
"I don't think you are so very shy, Mr. Conway," Miss Regan said with a smile. "That last sentence was very pretty, and if I had not hold of your arm I should make you a courtesy."
"No, please don't do that," Ralph said, coloring hotly. "I didn't mean anything, you know."
"Now, don't spoil it. You meant I suppose, what was quite proper you should mean, that Captain O'Connor by introducing me to you had made up for his last delinquency."
"Yes, that is what I did mean," Ralph agreed.
"Captain O'Connor tells me that you have been through all sorts of adventures, Mr. Conway—been carried off by a French privateer, and taken to a pirate island, and done all sorts of things."
"The 'all sorts of things' did not amount to much, Miss Regan. I made myself as useful as I could, and picked up French; and at last when the privateer sailed away I walked down to the shore and met our sailors when they landed. There was, I can assure you, nothing in any way heroic about the part I had to play."
"Still it was an adventure."
"Oh! yes, it was that; and upon the whole I think I liked it, except when there was a chance of having a fight with our own people."
"That would have been dreadful. What would you have done?"
"Well, I certainly wouldn't have fought; but what I should have done would, I suppose, have depended upon circumstances. I suppose I should have jumped overboard if I had the chance."
"And is it true what Captain O'Connor was saying, that you had to do like the other pirates on the island?"
"I don't know that there was anything particular they did, except to get drunk, and I didn't do that."
"He hinted that the rule was that each man had to take a wife from the people they captured."
"What nonsense!" Ralph exclaimed indignantly. "The idea of my taking a wife. You mustn't believe what Captain O'Connor says, Miss Regan; except, of course," he added slyly, "when he is saying pretty things to you."
"I think you will do, Mr. Conway," the girl laughed, "Six months in Ireland and you will be able to give Captain O'Connor points if you go on as well as you are doing. You have paid two very nicely-turned compliments in ten minutes. But there, our dance is finished."
"May I have another later on, Miss Regan?"
"Yes. Let me see; I am engaged for the next five. You can have the sixth if you like, if you haven't secured my aunt for that."
"You are getting on, Conway," Captain O'Connor said as they drove away from the Regans. "I have had my eye upon you. Three dances with Polly Regan, beside taking her down to supper."
"It was too bad of you putting me on to her aunt in that way."
O'Connor laughed. "It was a capital thing for you, youngster, and paved the way for you with Polly; who, by the way, is not such a respectful niece as she might be. But she is a very nice little girl. I had thought of making up in that quarter myself, but I see it's no use now."
"None at all," Ralph said seriously. "We are not actually engaged, you, know, but I think we understand each other."
"What!" Captain O'Connor exclaimed in a changed voice. "You are not such a young ass as to get engaged before you have joined three months?"
Ralph burst into a laugh. "That's good," he said. It is not often I get a rise out of you, O'Connor."
"Well, you did there fairly," the captain admitted, joining in the laugh. "I thought for a moment you were serious."
"No," Ralph said. "I may make a fool of myself in other directions; but I don't think I am likely to in that sort of way."
"Prior attachment—eh?" Captain O'Connor asked quizzically.
"Ah, that's a secret, O'Connor," Ralph laughed. "I am not going to lay my heart bare to such a mocker as you are."
When they reached the village they found a body of twenty men drawn up opposite their quarters.
"Is that you, O'Connor?" the lieutenant asked as the trap stopped. "Just after you had gone the gauger came in and requested that a party might accompany him at three o'clock this morning to hunt up a still among the hills. I am glad you are back in time, as I did not like going away without there being any one in charge here. It's a nuisance; for it is just beginning to rain. However, it can't be helped."
"I will go if you like Desmond," Ralph said, jumping down. "I should like a good tramp this morning after that hot room."
"Are you quite sure you would like it?" the lieutenant asked.
"Quite sure. Beside, it's my turn for duty this morning; so that really it's my place to go with them, if Captain O'Connor has no objection."
"Not the least in the world, Conway. I don't suppose Desmond has any fancy for tramping among the hills, and if you have, there is no reason in the world why you should not go."
A couple of minutes sufficed to exchange the full-dress regimentals for undress uniform, covered by military greatcoat, then Ralph hurried out just as the excise officer came up.
"We are going to have a damp march of it, Mr. Fitzgibbon," Ralph said.
"All the better, sir. There will be a thick mist on the hills that will hide us better even than night. There is a moon at present, and as likely as not they will have a boy on watch. Are you ready, sir?"
"Quite ready. Attention! Form fours! March!" and the little party started.
"How far are we going?" Ralph asked the revenue officer.
"About seven miles, sir. It's about half-past three now; we shall be there somewhere about six. It does not begin to be light until seven, so there is no particular hurry."
"I hope you know the way, Mr. Fitzgibbon? It is so dark here I can scarcely see my hand. And if we get into the fog you talk about it will be as black as ink."
"Oh, I know the way," the officer said confidently. "We keep along the road for two miles, then turn up a track leading up a valley, follow that for three miles; then branch to the right, cross over one or two slight rises, and then follow another slight depression till we are within a hundred yards of the place. I could find my way there with my eyes shut."
"That sounds easy enough," Ralph said; "but I know how difficult it is finding one's way in a fog. However, we must hope we shall get there all right. Sergeant, have the men got anything in their haversacks?"
"Yes, sir. Captain O'Connor ordered them to take their breakfast ration of bread, and he told me to see that their water bottles were filled; and—" (and here he moved closer up to Ralph, so that he should not be heard by the men) "he gave me a couple of bottles of whisky to mix with the water, and told me to fill the bottles myself, so that the men shouldn't know what was in them till they had their breakfast; otherwise there would be none left by the time they wanted to eat their bread. He is always thoughtful the captain is."
"That's a very good plan, sergeant. I shall bear it in mind myself for the future. They will want something before they get back after a fourteen-mile march."
The fine mist continued steadily as they tramped along; but the night seemed to grow darker and darker. They turned off from the road; and as they began to ascend the track along the valley the cloud seemed to settle round them. The excise officer walked ahead, keeping upon the path. Ralph followed as closely as he could in his footsteps; but although almost touching him he could not make out his figure in the darkness.
"Tell the men to follow in single file, sergeant," he said; "keeping touch with each other. As long as we are on the beaten track we know we are right, but there may be bowlders or anything else close by on one side or the other."
Marching as closely as they could to each other the party proceeded.
"How on earth are you going to find the place where we turn off, Mr. Fitzgibbon?" Ralph asked.
"We shall find it easy enough sir. The path regularly forks, and there is a pile of stones at the junction, which makes as good a guide as you can want on a dark night. We can't miss that even on a night like this."
Ralph had struck a light with his flint and steel, and looked at his watch at the point where they turned off from the road, and he did the same thing two or three times as they went along.
"It's an hour and twenty minutes since we turned off, Mr. Fitzgibbon. Even allowing for our stoppages when we have got off the path, we ought to be near the turning now."
"Yes, I fancy we are not far off now, sir. I can feel that we are rising more sharply, and there is a rise in the last hundred yards or so before we reach the place where the road forks. We had better go a little more slowly now, sir."
Another five minutes there was a stumble and a fall in front of Ralph.
"Halt!" he exclaimed sharply. "What is it, Mr. Fitzgibbon?"
"I have fallen over the pile of stones," the officer said, "and hurt myself confoundedly."
"Don't you think we had better halt till daylight?"
"I think we can keep on, sir. The nearer we get there the better; and if we should miss the path we can halt then and wait till daybreak."
"Well, we can do that," Ralph agreed.
"I will go on ahead, sir, twenty or thirty yards at a time and then speak, and you can bring the men on to me, then I will go on again. It will be slow work, but I can keep the path better if I go at my own pace."
Ralph agreed, and they proceeded in this manner for some time.
"I don't think we are on the track now," Ralph said at last.
"Oh, yes, we are," the officer replied confidently.
Ralph stooped and felt the ground. "The grass is very short," he observed, "but it is grass."
The officer followed his example.
"Oh, it is only a track now," he said. "Just a footpath, and the grass is not worn off. I am convinced we are right."
"Well," Ralph said, "just go a little way to the right and left, and see if the grass gets longer. It seems to me all the same."
The officer did so, and was obliged to own that he could not perceive any difference. Ralph now spread his men out in a line and directed them to feel on the ground to see if they could discover the track. They failed to do so, and Ralph then ordered them together again.
"We will halt here, sergeant, till daylight. It's no use groping about in the dark. For anything we know we may be going exactly in the wrong direction. The men can of course sit down if they like; and they may as well eat a piece of bread and try their water-bottles. But tell them not to eat more than half their ration. We may be longer before we get out of this than we expect."
The order was given, the men piled their arms and seated themselves on the short turf. Presently Ralph heard a sudden exclamation of surprise and satisfaction as one of the men tasted the contents of his water-bottle, and in a minute there was a buzz of talk. Before scarce a word had been spoken; the men had been marching in a sort of sulky silence, disgusted at being taken from their beds for work they disliked, and at their long march through the damp night air; but their satisfaction at this unexpected comfort loosened their tongues.
Pipes were produced and lighted, and the discomfort of the situation altogether forgotten. Desmond had handed to Ralph the flask and packet of sandwiches he had prepared for himself, and he, too, felt less strongly the chilling effects of the damp and darkness after partaking of them. The excise officer had also made his preparations.
"We should be more certain as to our whereabouts if we had stopped at that heap of stones as I proposed, Mr. Fitzgibbon."
"I don't deny, sir, you were right as it has turned out; only I wouldn't have believed that I could have missed the path, and I did want to get close to the place before we were observed. I knew that we couldn't actually surprise them till morning; for the hut lies some distance in a bog, and there would be no crossing it unless we could see. Still if we could have got to the edge without the alarm being given, they would not have time to hide the things before we reached them. I have ridden across this place many a time after dark, and never missed my way."
"That was the sagacity of your horse more than your own, I expect," Ralph said. "A horse can find his way along a path he has once traveled better than any man can do. In the first place, I think he can see better in the night; and in the second, he has some sort of instinct to guide him. However, I don't suppose it much matters; we shall find the path easily enough in the morning. And, as you said, the mist will hide our movements quite as effectually as the darkness would do."
At last the morning began to break in a dim misty light, and as it grew stronger they were able to perceive how dense was the fog that surrounded them. At three paces distant they were invisible to each other.
"It does not seem to me that we are much better off than we were before, so far as finding the path lies. What do you think?"
"It looks bad, certainly," the officer admitted reluctantly. "I am awfully sorry I have led you into this mess."
"It can't be helped," Ralph said. "We must make the best of matters. At any rate it's better than it was, and the mist is not nearly as heavy as when we were marching up that valley."