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The Coastguard
by [?]

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.