By Let’s Talk short story competition runner-up Julie Hogg
Smugglers by Julie Hogg
Ten-year-old Bet was determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. Why were there muffled voices outside here bedroom window at night? Whose were they and why at night? None of it made sense to Bet and she needed to solve this mystery.
The Cornish village had been Bet’s home now for three months, following the death of her parents in a terrible accident. Being an orphan and only child, it had been decided that she would have to leave the city and go and live with Aunt Pol, who had married a Cornishman 20 years ago.
Bet had settled in fairly well and liked living in the village, which was situated on the south coast at the top of some rugged cliffs. Mornings, she attended the little school with about a dozen other children of mixed ages. Her aunt waved her off each morning from the pretty cottage which had become her home. Wisteria covered the outside and the leaded windows peeped through the purple flowers which bloomed every summer.
Bet had come to like the cottage, and indeed her aunt and uncle were very good to her. They had made her very welcome and she now felt as if she belonged there. She helped her aunt with the chores whenever she could and enjoyed meeting the local shopkeepers on visits into the village. Gradually she was getting to know the local village inhabitants and they were, in turn, getting to know Bet.
One of the villagers was a teenage boy called Jim. Bet had met him on a few occasions as he helped to land his father’s fishing boat in the early mornings. Jim and his father wanted to land their catch in time for the local markets and were always in a rush to offload their fishing baskets and whisk them away on the waiting cart. If Bet found that she had a few moments to spare before school, she would take a detour down to the shoreline to watch them and, because she found herself becoming fond of the banter she received from Jim, tried to catch his attention by throwing stones into the sea to see how far out they would go.
“You’ll be late for school Bet if you don’t get a move on. I can hear Miss Taylor ringing the bell!” Jim would call to her, smiling and teasing.
Bet would answer, usually conveying that she knew she was in time, but nonetheless didn’t want to get in their way or make a nuisance of herself.
On this particular evening as Bet got up from her bed and peeped through the curtains, she could see nothing, even though she could still hear the muffled voices. Her bedroom window, which was slightly open, was at the side of the cottage and Bet assumed that the voices were at the front of the house.
She knew that it had been some time since her aunt and uncle had gone to bed so she decided to leave the cottage by the back door and creep round to the front to see if she could discover what was going on.
After pulling on some warm clothes against the cool night air, she very quietly crept down the stairs, avoiding the stair number five which creaked, and made
her way into the kitchen, stroking Alfie the beagle in the hope that he wouldn’t be excited to see her.
Luckily the moon was out, although it was also cloudy. Bet noticed that, once the moon disappeared behind a passing cloud, it became quite dark, but when it shone, she could see quite well. Outside, she did up her jacket against a fresh breeze coming in off the sea. Creeping round the side of the house, she also heard cartwheels making their way along the track which passed by the front of the cottage. Something was definitely afoot!
Bet thought that it would be a good idea to keep herself hidden. After all, she had no idea what was going on and it was in the dead of night so she guessed that, whatever it was, these people wanted to remain unobserved.
As she peeped very carefully round the corner of the cottage, the muffled voices became louder. She could see men carrying huge loads on their shoulders up from the beach, over the cliff top and loading them on to carts. She could not count how many there were and decided to try to get a little closer.
If only she could make it as far as the front hedgerow. She could remain hidden as it was fairly high and she was not that tall. She looked up to her aunt and uncle’s bedroom window. Their window was also slightly open but the curtains were closed. Bet wondered if they could hear these sounds too. They must do!
She waited until a cloud concealed the moonlight and quietly made her way to the front hedge. Peeping through a small gap, Bet counted more than a dozen men busily filling up the carts with large barrels. Smugglers, thought Bet, and, as she looked down to the sea from the cliff top, she could see the wreck of a sailing ship just out in the bay.
She was so surprised, she took a sharp breath. Then she spied Jim standing just the other side of the fence. What’s more, he had heard her sigh and was looking through the hedge right at her. Their eyes met, just as the moon came out from behind the cloud. Would Jim betray her?
But not. He quickly put his finger to his lips as if to say “Ssshh,” and looked around to make sure no one else was looking. Bet crouched right down and didn’t move. She didn’t know how long she stayed crouching down; she only knew that it was a long time, making her legs ache.
Once the carts were loaded up they were taken further down the track, Bet had no idea where, but she could guess that the local hostelry might be their destination. She secretly made her way back to her bedroom, changing back into her nightdress and getting back into bed, her mind full of what she had seen and heard that night. Then she heard stair number five creak and footsteps making their way up to her aunt and uncle’s bedroom. Her uncle must be one of the smugglers!
The next morning, Bet went down to breakfast as normal. Her aunt and uncle were already having their porridge.
“Good morning Bet,” greeted her Uncle Jed. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes thanks Uncle Jed,” Bet replied, trying to act normally and not making eye contact. Aunt Pol dished up her porridge and she sat down at the table to eat her breakfast.
On her way to school, Bet was keen to see if Jim was down on the beach unloading his boat and hurried down the cliff path. But he was nowhere to be seen. Bet was disappointed. But there was no time to lose as she could hear Miss Taylor ringing the school bell.
Bet scampered quickly back up the cliff path and down the track towards the school. Coming the other way Bet spied Constable Jackson. He was looking on the ground at the cart tracks and Bet put two and two together. Constable Jackson was searching for evidence.
“Morning young Bet. You hurry on down to school now before Miss Taylor marks you late!”
“Yes Constable Jackson. I’m hurrying as fast as I can.”
“You mind that you do, young miss.”
But Bet was worried about Jim. What had happened to him? Had Constable Jackson caught the smugglers last night? “Are you looking for something Constable Jackson?”
“Nothing for you to worry about. Get you off to school!” Constable Jackson waved her off impatiently.
Bet thought that she had best not make Constable Jackson angry so carried on her way. When she had nearly reached the school gates, Bet spotted Jim and his father coming towards her. She thought quickly on how she should warn him:
“Hello Jim. Now don’t you go telling me off too for being late to school. Constable Jackson just told me off up the hill there. I promised I would get myself straight in to school!” She made sure Jim’s father was looking the other way and put her finger to her lips, miming “Sshhh!”. Jim realised and winked at her.
Picture: Dorling Kindersley/Thinkstock