The Haunted Dragoon
by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch
I Saw Three Ships
and Other Winter Tales
Beside the Plymouth road, as it plunges down-hill past Ruan Lanihale
church towards Ruan Cove, and ten paces beyond the lych-gate—where the
graves lie level with the coping, and the horseman can decipher their
inscriptions in passing, at the risk of a twisted neck—the base of the
churchyard wall is pierced with a low archway, festooned with toad-flax
and fringed with the hart's-tongue fern. Within the archway bubbles a
well, the water of which was once used for all baptisms in the parish,
for no child sprinkled with it could ever be hanged with hemp. But this
belief is discredited now, and the well neglected: and the events which
led to this are still a winter's tale in the neighbourhood. I set them
down as they were told me, across the blue glow of a wreck-wood fire, by
Sam Tregear, the parish bedman. Sam himself had borne an inconspicuous
share in them; and because of them Sam's father had carried a white face
to his grave.
My father and mother (said Sam) married late in life, for his trade was
what mine is, and 'twasn't till her fortieth year that my mother could
bring herself to kiss a gravedigger. That accounts, maybe, for my being
born rickety and with other drawbacks that only made father the fonder.
Weather permitting, he'd carry me off to churchyard, set me upon a flat
stone, with his coat folded under, and talk to me while he delved.
I can mind, now, the way he'd settle lower and lower, till his head
played hidey-peep with me over the grave's edge, and at last he'd be
clean swallowed up, but still discoursing or calling up how he'd come
upon wonderful towns and kingdoms down underground, and how all the
kings and queens there, in dyed garments, was offering him meat for his
dinner every day of the week if he'd only stop and hobbynob with them—
and all such gammut. He prettily doted on me—the poor old ancient!
But there came a day—a dry afternoon in the late wheat harvest—when we
were up in the churchyard together, and though father had his tools
beside him, not a tint did he work, but kept travishing back and forth,
one time shading his eyes and gazing out to sea, and then looking far
along the Plymouth road for minutes at a time. Out by Bradden Point
there stood a little dandy-rigged craft, tacking lazily to and fro, with
her mains'le all shiny-yellow in the sunset. Though I didn't know it
then, she was the Preventive boat, and her business was to watch the
Hauen: for there had been a brush between her and the Unity lugger, a
fortnight back, and a Preventive man shot through the breast-bone, and
my mother's brother Philip was hiding down in the town. I minded,
later, how that the men across the vale, in Farmer Tresidder's
wheat-field, paused every now and then, as they pitched the sheaves, to
give a look up towards the churchyard, and the gleaners moved about in
small knots, causeying and glancing over their shoulders at the cutter
out in the bay; and how, when all the field was carried, they waited
round the last load, no man offering to cry the Neck, as the fashion
was, but lingering till sun was near down behind the slope and the long
shadows stretching across the stubble.
"Sha'n't thee go underground to-day, father?" says I, at last.
He turned slowly round, and says he, "No, sonny. 'Reckon us'll climb
skywards for a change."
And with that, he took my hand, and pushing abroad the belfry door began
to climb the stairway. Up and up, round and round we went, in a sort of
blind-man's-holiday full of little glints of light and whiff's of wind
where the open windows came; and at last stepped out upon the leads of
the tower and drew breath.
"There's two-an'-twenty parishes to be witnessed from where we're
standin', sonny—if ye've got eyes," says my father.
Well, first I looked down towards the harvesters and laughed to see them
so small: and then I fell to counting the church-towers dotted across
the high-lands, and seeing if I could make out two-and-twenty.
'Twas the prettiest sight—all the country round looking as if 'twas
dusted with gold, and the Plymouth road winding away over the hills like
a long white tape. I had counted thirteen churches, when my father
pointed his hand out along this road and called to me—
"Look'ee out yonder, honey, an' say what ye see!"
"I see dust," says I.
"Nothin' else? Sonny boy, use your eyes, for mine be dim."
"I see dust," says I again, "an' suthin' twinklin' in it, like a tin
"Dragooners!" shouts my father; and then, running to the side of the
tower facing the harvest-field, he put both hands to his mouth and
"What have 'ee? What have 'ee?"—very loud and long.
"A neck—a neck!" came back from the field, like as if all shouted at
once—dear, the sweet sound! And then a gun was fired, and craning
forward over the coping I saw a dozen men running across the stubble and
out into the road towards the Hauen; and they called as they ran, "A
"Iss," says my father, "'tis a neck, sure 'nuff. Pray God they save en!
But we dallied up there till the horsemen were plain to see, and their
scarlet coats and armour blazing in the dust as they came. And when
they drew near within a mile, and our limbs ached with crouching—for
fear they should spy us against the sky—father took me by the hand and
pulled hot foot down the stairs. Before they rode by he had picked up
his shovel and was shovelling out a grave for his life.
Forty valiant horsemen they were, riding two-and-two (by reason of the
narrowness of the road) and a captain beside them—men broad and long,
with hairy top-lips, and all clad in scarlet jackets and white breeches
that showed bravely against their black war-horses and jet-black
holsters, thick as they were wi' dust. Each man had a golden helmet,
and a scabbard flapping by his side, and a piece of metal like a
half-moon jingling from his horse's cheek-strap. 12 D was the numbering
on every saddle, meaning the Twelfth Dragoons.
Tramp, tramp! they rode by, talking and joking, and taking no more heed
of me—that sat upon the wall with my heels dangling above them—than if
I'd been a sprig of stonecrop. But the captain, who carried a drawn
sword and mopped his face with a handkerchief so that the dust ran
across it in streaks, drew rein, and looked over my shoulder to where
father was digging.
"Sergeant!" he calls back, turning with a hand upon his crupper;
"didn't we see a figger like this a-top o' the tower, some way back?"
The sergeant pricked his horse forward and saluted. He was the tallest,
straightest man in the troop, and the muscles on his arm filled out his
sleeve with the three stripes upon it—a handsome red-faced fellow, with
curly black hair.
Says he, "That we did, sir—a man with sloping shoulders and a boy with
a goose neck." Saying this, he looked up at me with a grin.
"I'll bear it in mind," answered the officer, and the troop rode on in a
cloud of dust, the sergeant looking back and smiling, as if 'twas a joke
that he shared with us. Well, to be short, they rode down into the town
as night fell. But 'twas too late, Uncle Philip having had fair warning
and plenty of time to flee up towards the little secret hold under Mabel
Down, where none but two families knew how to find him. All the town,
though, knew he was safe, and lashins of women and children turned out
to see the comely soldiers hunt in vain till ten o'clock at night.
The next thing was to billet the warriors. The captain of the troop, by
this, was pesky cross-tempered, and flounced off to the "Jolly
Pilchards" in a huff. "Sergeant," says he, "here's an inn, though a
damned bad 'un, an' here I means to stop. Somewheres about there's a
farm called Constantine, where I'm told the men can be accommodated.
Find out the place, if you can, an' do your best: an' don't let me see
yer face till to-morra," says he.
So Sergeant Basket—that was his name—gave the salute, and rode his
troop up the street, where—for his manners were mighty winning,
notwithstanding the dirty nature of his errand—he soon found plenty to
direct him to Farmer Noy's, of Constantine; and up the coombe they rode
into the darkness, a dozen or more going along with them to show the
way, being won by their martial bearing as well as the sergeant's very
friendly way of speech.
Farmer Noy was in bed—a pock-marked, lantern-jawed old gaffer of
sixty-five; and the most remarkable point about him was the wife he had
married two years before—a young slip of a girl but just husband-high.
Money did it, I reckon; but if so, 'twas a bad bargain for her.
He was noted for stinginess to such a degree that they said his wife
wore a brass wedding-ring, weekdays, to save the genuine article from
wearing out. She was a Ruan woman, too, and therefore ought to have
known all about him. But woman's ways be past finding out.
Hearing the hoofs in his yard and the sergeant's stram-a-ram upon the
door, down comes the old curmudgeon with a candle held high above his
"What the devil's here?" he calls out. Sergeant Basket looks over the
old man's shoulder; and there, halfway up the stairs, stood Madam Noy in
her night rail—a high-coloured ripe girl, languishing for love, her red
lips parted and neck all lily-white against a loosened pile of
"Be cussed if I turn back!" said the sergeant to himself; and added out
"Forty souldjers, in the King's name!"
"Forty devils!" says old Noy.
"They're devils to eat," answered the sergeant, in the most friendly
manner; "an', begad, ye must feed an' bed 'em this night—or else I'll
search your cellars. Ye are a loyal man—eh, farmer? An' your cellars
are big, I'm told."
"Sarah," calls out the old man, following the sergeant's bold glance,
"go back an' dress yersel' dacently this instant! These here honest
souldjers—forty damned honest gormandisin' souldjers—be come in his
Majesty's name, forty strong, to protect honest folks' rights in the
intervals of eatin' 'em out o' house an' home. Sergeant, ye be very
welcome i' the King's name. Cheese an' cider ye shall have, an' I pray
the mixture may turn your forty stomachs."
In a dozen minutes he had fetched out his stable-boys and farm-hands,
and, lantern in hand, was helping the sergeant to picket the horses and
stow the men about on clean straw in the outhouses. They were turning
back to the house, and the old man was turning over in his mind that the
sergeant hadn't yet said a word about where he was to sleep, when by the
door they found Madam Noy waiting, in her wedding gown, and with her
hair freshly braided.
Now, the farmer was mortally afraid of the sergeant, knowing he had
thirty ankers and more of contraband liquor in his cellars, and minding
the sergeant's threat. None the less his jealousy got the upper hand.
"Woman," he cries out, "to thy bed!"
"I was waiting," said she, "to say the Cap'n's bed—"
"Sergeant's," says the dragoon, correcting her.
"—Was laid i' the spare room."
"Madam," replies Sergeant Basket, looking into her eyes and bowing,
"a soldier with my responsibility sleeps but little. In the first
place, I must see that my men sup."
"The maids be now cuttin' the bread an' cheese and drawin' the cider."
"Then, Madam, leave me but possession of the parlour, and let me have a
chair to sleep in."
By this they were in the passage together, and her gaze devouring his
regimentals. The old man stood a pace off, looking sourly.
The sergeant fed his eyes upon her, and Satan got hold of him.
"Now if only," said he, "one of you could play cards!"
"But I must go to bed," she answered; "though I can play cribbage, if
only you stay another night."
For she saw the glint in the farmer's eye; and so Sergeant Basket slept
bolt upright that night in an arm-chair by the parlour fender. Next day
the dragooners searched the town again, and were billeted all about
among the cottages. But the sergeant returned to Constantine, and
before going to bed—this time in the spare room—played a game of
cribbage with Madam Noy, the farmer smoking sulkily in his arm-chair.
"Two for his heels!" said the rosy woman suddenly, halfway through the
game. "Sergeant, you're cheatin' yoursel' an' forgettin' to mark.
Gi'e me the board; I'll mark for both."
She put out her hand upon the board, and Sergeant Basket's closed upon
it. 'Tis true he had forgot to mark; and feeling the hot pulse in her
wrist, and beholding the hunger in her eyes, 'tis to be supposed he'd
have forgot his own soul.
He rode away next day with his troop: but my uncle Philip not being
caught yet, and the Government set on making an example of him, we
hadn't seen the last of these dragoons. 'Twas a time of fear down in
the town. At dead of night or at noonday they came on us—six times in
all: and for two months the crew of the Unity couldn't call their
souls their own, but lived from day to day in secret closets and
wandered the country by night, hiding in hedges and straw-houses.
All that time the revenue men watched the Hauen, night and day, like
dogs before a rat-hole.
But one November morning 'twas whispered abroad that Uncle Philip had
made his way to Falmouth, and slipped across to Guernsey. Time passed
on, and the dragooners were seen no more, nor the handsome
devil-may-care face of Sergeant Basket. Up at Constantine, where he had
always contrived to billet himself, 'tis to be thought pretty Madam Noy
pined to see him again, kicking his spurs in the porch and smiling out
of his gay brown eyes; for her face fell away from its plump condition,
and the hunger in her eyes grew and grew. But a more remarkable fact
was that her old husband—who wouldn't have yearned after the dragoon,
ye'd have thought—began to dwindle and fall away too. By the New Year
he was a dying man, and carried his doom on his face. And on New Year's
Day he straddled his mare for the last time, and rode over to Looe, to
"Goody-losh!" cried the doctor, taken aback by his appearance—
"What's come to ye, Noy?"
"Death!" says Noy. "Doctor, I hain't come for advice, for before this
day week I'll be a clay-cold corpse. I come to ax a favour. When they
summon ye, before lookin' at my body—that'll be past help—go you to
the little left-top corner drawer o' my wife's bureau, an' there ye'll
find a packet. You're my executor," says he, "and I leaves ye to deal
wi' that packet as ye thinks fit."
With that, the farmer rode away home-along, and the very day week he
The doctor, when called over, minded what the old chap had said, and
sending Madam Noy on some pretence to the kitchen, went over and
unlocked the little drawer with a duplicate key, that the farmer had
unhitched from his watch-chain and given him. There was no parcel of
letters, as he looked to find, but only a small packet crumpled away in
the corner. He pulled it out and gave a look, and a sniff, and another
look: then shut the drawer, locked it, strode straight down-stairs to
his horse and galloped away.
In three hours' time, pretty Madam Noy was in the constables' hands upon
the charge of murdering her husband by poison.
They tried her, next Spring Assize, at Bodmin, before the Lord Chief
Justice. There wasn't evidence enough to put Sergeant Basket in the
dock alongside of her—though 'twas freely guessed he knew more than
anyone (saving the prisoner herself) about the arsenic that was found in
the little drawer and inside the old man's body. He was subpoena'd from
Plymouth, and cross-examined by a great hulking King's Counsel for
three-quarters of an hour. But they got nothing out of him.
All through the examination the prisoner looked at him and nodded her
white face, every now and then, at his answers, as much as to say,
"That's right—that's right: they shan't harm thee, my dear." And the
love-light shone in her eyes for all the court to see. But the sergeant
never let his look meet it. When he stepped down at last she gave a sob
of joy, and fainted bang-off.
They roused her up, after this, to hear the verdict of Guilty and her
doom spoken by the judge. "Pris'ner at the bar," said the Clerk of
Arraigns, "have ye anything to say why this court should not pass
sentence o' death?"
She held tight of the rail before her, and spoke out loud and clear—
"My Lord and gentlemen all, I be a guilty woman; an' I be ready to die
at once for my sin. But if ye kill me now, ye kill the child in my
body—an' he is innocent."
Well, 'twas found she spoke truth; and the hanging was put off till
after the time of her delivery. She was led back to prison, and there,
about the end of June, her child was born, and died before he was six
hours old. But the mother recovered, and quietly abode the time of her
I can mind her execution very well; for father and mother had determined
it would be an excellent thing for my rickets to take me into Bodmin
that day, and get a touch of the dead woman's hand, which in those times
was considered an unfailing remedy. So we borrowed the parson's
manure-cart, and cleaned it thoroughly, and drove in together.
The place of the hangings, then, was a little door in the prison-wall,
looking over the bank where the railway now goes, and a dismal piece of
water called Jail-pool, where the townsfolk drowned most of the dogs and
cats they'd no further use for. All the bank under the gallows was that
thick with people you could almost walk upon their heads; and my ribs
were squeezed by the crowd so that I couldn't breathe freely for a month
after. Back across the pool, the fields along the side of the valley
were lined with booths and sweet-stalls and standings—a perfect
Whitsun-fair; and a din going up that cracked your ears.
But there was the stillness of death when the woman came forth, with the
sheriff and the chaplain reading in his book, and the unnamed man
behind—all from the little door. She wore a strait black gown, and a
white kerchief about her neck—a lovely woman, young and white and
She ran her eye over the crowd and stepped forward a pace, as if to
speak; but lifted a finger and beckoned instead: and out of the people a
man fought his way to the foot of the scaffold. 'Twas the dashing
sergeant, that was here upon sick-leave. Sick he was, I believe.
His face above his shining regimentals was grey as a slate; for he had
committed perjury to save his skin, and on the face of the perjured no
sun will ever shine.
"Have you got it?" the doomed woman said, many hearing the words.
He tried to reach, but the scaffold was too high, so he tossed up what
was in his hand, and the woman caught it—a little screw of
"I must see that, please!" said the sheriff, laying a hand upon her arm.
"'Tis but a weddin'-ring, sir"—and she slipped it over her finger.
Then she kissed it once, under the beam, and, lookin' into the dragoon's
eyes, spoke very slow—
"Husband, our child shall go wi' you; an' when I want you he shall
—and with that turned to the sheriff, saying:
"I be ready, sir."
The sheriff wouldn't give father and mother leave for me to touch the
dead woman's hand; so they drove back that evening grumbling a good bit.
'Tis a sixteen-mile drive, and the ostler in at Bodmin had swindled the
poor old horse out of his feed, I believe; for he crawled like a slug.
But they were so taken up with discussing the day's doings, and what a
mort of people had been present, and how the sheriff might have used
milder language in refusing my father, that they forgot to use the whip.
The moon was up before we got halfway home, and a star to be seen here
and there; and still we never mended our pace.
'Twas in the middle of the lane leading down to Hendra Bottom, where for
more than a mile two carts can't pass each other, that my father pricks
up his ears and looks back.
"Hullo!" says he; "there's somebody gallopin' behind us."
Far back in the night we heard the noise of a horse's hoofs, pounding
furiously on the road and drawing nearer and nearer.
"Save us!" cries father; "whoever 'tis, he's comin' down th' lane!"
And in a minute's time the clatter was close on us and someone shouting
"Hurry that crawlin' worm o' yourn—or draw aside in God's name, an' let
me by!" the rider yelled.
"What's up?" asked my father, quartering as well as he could.
"Why! Hullo! Farmer Hugo, be that you?"
"There's a mad devil o' a man behind, ridin' down all he comes across.
A's blazin' drunk, I reckon—but 'tisn' that—'tis the horrible voice
that goes wi' en—Hark! Lord protect us, he's turn'd into the lane!"
Sure enough, the clatter of a second horse was coming down upon us, out
of the night—and with it the most ghastly sounds that ever creamed a
man's flesh. Farmer Hugo pushed past us and sent a shower of mud in our
faces as his horse leapt off again, and 'way-to-go down the hill. My
father stood up and lashed our old grey with the reins, and down we went
too, bumpity-bump for our lives, the poor beast being taken suddenly
like one possessed. For the screaming behind was like nothing on earth
but the wailing and sobbing of a little child—only tenfold louder.
'Twas just as you'd fancy a baby might wail if his little limbs was
being twisted to death.
At the hill's foot, as you know, a stream crosses the lane—that widens
out there a bit, and narrows again as it goes up t'other side of the
valley. Knowing we must be overtaken further on—for the screams and
clatter seemed at our very backs by this—father jumped out here into
the stream and backed the cart well to one side; and not a second too
The next moment, like a wind, this thing went by us in the moonlight—
a man upon a black horse that splashed the stream all over us as he
dashed through it and up the hill. 'Twas the scarlet dragoon with his
ashen face; and behind him, holding to his cross-belt, rode a little
shape that tugged and wailed and raved. As I stand here, sir, 'twas the
shape of a naked babe!
Well, I won't go on to tell how my father dropped upon his knees in the
water, or how my mother fainted off. The thing was gone, and from that
moment for eight years nothing was seen or heard of Sergeant Basket.
The fright killed my mother. Before next spring she fell into a
decline, and early next fall the old man—for he was an old man now—had
to delve her grave. After this he went feebly about his work, but held
on, being wishful for me to step into his shoon, which I began to do as
soon as I was fourteen, having outgrown the rickets by that time.
But one cool evening in September month, father was up digging in the
yard alone: for 'twas a small child's grave, and in the loosest soil,
and I was off on a day's work, thatching Farmer Tresidder's stacks.
He was digging away slowly when he heard a rattle at the lych-gate, and
looking over the edge of the grave, saw in the dusk a man hitching his
horse there by the bridle.
'Twas a coal-black horse, and the man wore a scarlet coat all powdered
with pilm; and as he opened the gate and came over the graves, father
saw that 'twas the dashing dragoon. His face was still a slaty-grey,
and clammy with sweat; and when he spoke, his voice was all of a
whisper, with a shiver therein.
"Bedman," says he, "go to the hedge and look down the road, and tell me
what you see."
My father went, with his knees shaking, and came back again.
"I see a woman," says he, "not fifty yards down the road. She is
dressed in black, an' has a veil over her face; an' she's comin' this
"Bedman," answers the dragoon, "go to the gate an' look back along the
Plymouth road, an' tell me what you see."
"I see," says my father, coming back with his teeth chattering, "I see,
twenty yards back, a naked child comin'. He looks to be callin', but he
makes no sound."
"Because his voice is wearied out," says the dragoon. And with that he
faced about, and walked to the gate slowly.
"Bedman, come wi' me an' see the rest," he says, over his shoulder.
He opened the gate, unhitched the bridle and swung himself heavily up in
Now from the gate the bank goes down pretty steep into the road, and at
the foot of the bank my father saw two figures waiting. 'Twas the woman
and the child, hand in hand; and their eyes burned up like coals: and
the woman's veil was lifted, and her throat bare.
As the horse went down the bank towards these two, they reached out and
took each a stirrup and climbed upon his back, the child before the
dragoon and the woman behind. The man's face was set like a stone.
Not a word did either speak, and in this fashion they rode down the hill
towards Ruan sands. All that my father could mind, beyond, was that the
woman's hands were passed round the man's neck, where the rope had
passed round her own.
No more could he tell, being a stricken man from that hour. But Aunt
Polgrain, the house-keeper up to Constantine, saw them, an hour later,
go along the road below the town-place; and Jacobs, the smith, saw them
pass his forge towards Bodmin about midnight. So the tale's true
enough. But since that night no man has set eyes on horse or riders.