Read Chapter Two - Zekle makes Hay. of A Terrible Coward , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on

At first sight nothing seems more frail than a herring or mackerel net, one of those slight pieces of mesh-work that, in a continuation of lengths perhaps half-a-mile long, is let down into the sea to float with the tide, ready for the shoals of fish that dart against it as it forms a filmy wall across their way.  The wonder always is that it does not break with even a few pounds of fish therein, but it rarely does, for co-operation is power, and it is in the multiplicity of crossing threads that the strength consists.

Harry Paul, as he struggled in the water, was like a fly in the web of a spider, for every effort seemed only to increase the tangle.  He could not break that which yielded on every side, but with fresh lengths coming over the lugger’s side to tangle him the more.  Even if he had had an open sharp knife in his hand he could hardly have cut himself free, and in the horror of those brief moments he found that his struggles were sending him deeper and deeper, and that unconsciously he had wound himself still farther in the net, till his arms and legs were pinioned in the cold, slimy bonds, which clung to and wrapped round him more and more.

A plunge deep down into the sea is confusing at the best of times.  The water thunders in the ears, and a feeling of helplessness and awe sometimes comes over the best of swimmers.  In this case, then, tangled and helpless as he was, Harry Paul could only think for a few moments of the time when he swam into the sea-cave at Pen Point at high tide, and felt the long strands of the bladder wrack curl and twist round his limbs like the tentacles of some sea-monster; and he realised once more the chilling sense of helpless horror that seemed to numb his faculties.  He made an effort again and again, but each time it was weaker, and at last, with the noise of many waters in his ears, and a bewildering rush of memories through his brain, all seemed to be growing very dark around him, and then he knew no more.

On board the lugger the fishermen were busily running the net from one compartment of the vessel into the other, still shaking the fish out as they went on, for a sudden squall at the fishing-ground had compelled them to haul in their nets hastily and run for home.  The slimy net grew into a large brown heap on one side, and the little hill of brilliantly-tinted mackerel bigger on the other, and in the evening light it seemed as if the wondrous colours with which the water shone in ripples far and near had been caught and dyed upon the sides of the fish.

Mark Penelly came over from the other side of the lugger, where he seemed to have been busy for a moment or two, while the men were bending over their work, and seated himself upon the low bulwark close to the master.

“Has he got round?” said the latter, looking up for a moment.

“Whom do you mean?” said Penelly, who was rather pale.

“Young Mas’r Harry.  Didn’t you see him?”

“See him? ­no.  I thought he had swum back.”

“Went round the other side,” said the master quietly.  “Here, you Zekle, don’t throw a fish like that on to the heap; the head’s half off.”

The man advanced, picked the torn mackerel off the heap, where he had inadvertently thrown it, and the work went on, till as the master raised his eyes to where Penelly sat, he saw how pale and strange he looked.

“Why, lad,” he exclaimed, “you’ve been too long in the water.  You look quite cold and blue.  I’d lay hold of one of the sweeps if I were you.  It will warm you to help pullin’.  Here, hallo!” he shouted, “who’s let all that net go trailing overboard?  Here’s a mess! we shall have to run it all through our hands again.”

Mark Penelly’s eyes seemed starting out of his head as, with a convulsive gasp, he seized hold of the net, along with the master and another, and they began to haul in fathom after fathom, which came up slowly, and as if a great deal of it were sunk.

“Why, there’s half the net overboard!” cried the master angrily.  “How did you manage it?  What have you been about?”

“There can’t be much over,” said the man who was helping; “she was all right just now.  There’s a fish in it, and a big one.”

“Don’t talk such foolery, Zekle Wynn,” said the master.  “I tell ’ee half the net’s overboard.”

“How can she be overboard when she’s nigh all in the boat?” said the man savagely.

“Zekle’s right,” cried Mark Penelly, who was hauling away excitedly; “there’s a big fish in it.  Look! you can see the gleam of it down below.”

“Well, don’t pull a man’s nets in like that, Mas’r Mark!” said the other, now growing interested and hauling steadily in; “nets cost money to breed.” [Note.  Cornish.  Making nets is termed “breeding.”] “Why, it’s a porpoise, and a good big ’un too!  Steady, lads; steady!  She’s swum into the net that trailed overboard.  Steady, or we shall lose her!  Here, hold on, lads, and I’ll get down into the boat and ­haul away!” he roared excitedly, as he had made out clearly what was entangled in the net.  “Quick, lads! quick!  It’s a man!  It’s ­my word if it ar’n’t young Harry Paul!”

The net was drawn in steadily over the roller at the lugger’s side, till Penelly and the master could lean down and grasp the arms of the drowning or drowned man, whom they dragged on board, and then, not without some difficulty, freed from the net that clung to his limbs.  He had struggled so hard that he had wound it round and round him, and so tight was it in places that, without hesitation, the master pulled out his great jack-knife and cut the meshes in three or four places.

“You can get new nets,” he said hoarsely, “but you couldn’t get a new Harry Paul.  There’s some spirit down in the cabin, Zekle.  Quick, lad, and bring the blanket out of the locker, and my oilskin.  Poor dear lad! he must have got tangled as he was swimming round.  I’ll break that Zekle’s head with a boat-hook for this job; see if I don’t.”

The threatened man, however, came just then with the blanket and spirits, when everything else was forgotten in the effort to restore the apparently drowned man.  Mark Penelly worked with all his might, and after wrapping Paul in the blanket and covering him with coats and oilskins, some of the spirit was trickled between his clenched teeth, and the men then rubbed his feet and hands.

“Get out the sweeps, lads.  There’s no wind, and we must get him ashore.  Poor dear lad!  If he’s a drowned man, Zekle Wynn, you’ve murdered him!”

“I tell ’ee I didn’t let no net trail overboard,” cried the man angrily, as he seized a long oar and began to tug at it, dropping it into the water every time with a heavy splash.

“Don’t stand talking back at me!” roared the master, seizing another oar and dragging at it with all his might, “pull, will ’ee? pull!”

“I am a-pulling, ar’n’t I?” shouted back the other, as the man and lad, who formed the rest of the crew, each got an oar overboard and began to pull.

“Yes, you’re a-pulling, but not half pulling!” roared the master, as if his man were half a mile away instead of close beside him.

Plenty more angry recrimination went on as all tugged at the long oars, and the lugger began to move slowly through the water towards the little harbour; but if Harry Paul’s life had depended upon the services of the doctor at Carn Du he would never have seen the sun rise on the morrow’s dawn.  But as it happened, the warmth of the wrapping, the influence of the spirit that had been poured liberally down his throat, and the chafing, combined with his naturally strong animal power to revive him from the state of insensibility into which he had fallen, and long before they reached the granite pier of the little harbour his eyes had opened, and he was staring in a peculiarly puzzled way at Mark Penelly, who still knelt beside him in the double character of medical man and nurse.

“Eh! lad, and that’s right,” cried the master in a sing-song tone; “why, we thought we was too late.  How came ’ee to get twisted up in the nets like that?”

Harry Paul did not answer, but lay back on the heap of what had so nearly proved to be his winding-sheet, trying to think out how it was that he had come to be lying on the deck of that fishing lugger, with those men whom he well knew apparently taking so much interest in his state.

For all recollection of his swim and the conversation that had preceded it had gone.  All he could make out was that Mark Penelly, who was never friendly to him, was now kneeling by his side looking in a curious way into his eyes.

By degrees, though, the cloud that had been over his understanding seemed to float away, and as they were nearing the harbour he began to recall the urgings he had received to leap from Carn Du, which now stood up black and forbidding on his left; the swim out to the lugger and round; and then ­“Well, how do you feel now, lad?” said the master.

“Better,” said Harry, forcing a smile.

“How came ye to swim into the net?  Didn’t ’ee see it?”

“No,” said Harry, thoughtfully; and as he spoke Mark Penelly watched him very attentively.  “I hardly know how it was, only that it seemed to come down on me all at once.”

“Just what I said,” cried the master angrily; “and if I was you I’d have it out of Zekle Wynn here, somehow ­leaves a heap of net so as it falls overboard.”

“Tell ’ee I didn’t,” roared Zekle, shouting out his words as if he was hailing a ship.  “Nets went over o’ theirselves.”

Mark Penelly seemed to breathe more freely, as he now rose and placed the spirits on the deck.

“I’d take a taste o’ that myself, Mas’r Mark, if I was you,” said the master.  “You don’t look quite so blue as you did.  But you seemed quite scared over this job.”

Mark declined, however, saying that he was quite well; and soon after, in spite of the opposition he met with from the master, who said it was foolishness, Harry Paul plunged overboard, and swam to the bathing-place, where he dressed; and, saving that he was suffering from a peculiar sensation of stiffness, he was not much the worse.

Mark Penelly watched him as he swam ashore easily and well, and the bitter feelings of dislike which had for the time being lain in abeyance before the scene of peril of which he had been witness, began once more to grow stronger, completely changing the appearance of his face as now, to get rid of the thoughts that troubled him, he took hold of one of the sweeps and began to row.

“Nice lad, Harry Paul,” said the master to him then.

“Yes, very,” said Penelly dryly.

“Good swimmer, too.”

“Yes,” replied Penelly.

“Narrow ’scape for him, though, poor lad.  Lucky thing we saw that the nets was overboard in time.  If I was him I’d just give Zekle Wynn there the very biggest hiding he ever had in his life, that I would.  He ain’t content with doing a thing wrong, but he ain’t man enough to own it.  I haven’t patience with such ways!”

Penelly did not speak, and Zekle remained silent, but he was evidently moved to indignation at what had been said, for he kept lifting his big oar and chopping it down in the water as if he were trying to take off the master’s head.

The buoy outside the harbour was reached, however, directly after, and as soon as the oars were laid in all hands were busy for the next two hours shaking out and landing mackerel ready for basketing and sending across country to catch the early morning train.

It was soon known all over Carn Du that Harry Paul had had a very narrow escape from drowning, and knot after knot of fishermen discussed the matter and joined in blaming Zekle Wynn for letting the net trail overboard.

“Still, he must have been a foolish sort of a creature to go and swim right into a tangle o’ net,” said the man who always had his hands in his pockets.

“Not he,” said old Tom Genna; “Harry Paul’s too clever a swimmer to go and do such a thing as that.”

“Here’s Zekle Wynn,” cried another eagerly, for such an event caused plenty of excitement, and was seized upon with avidity.  “Hi!  Zekle! it was you as left the net trailing, warn’t it?”

“Skipper says so,” replied Zekle grimly, as he took out some tobacco and made himself a pill to chew.

“You’re a pretty sort of a chap,” said another; “why, you’ll be running the lugger on the rocks next.”

“Shouldn’t wonder,” said Zekle.

“Well,” said Tom Genna, “if I was Harry Paul, I’d knock you down with the first thing I could get hold of, capstan-bar or boat-hook, or anything.”

“Ah, that’s what our old man said!” replied Zekle coolly.

“You ought to be ashamed o’ yourself, Zekle Wynn, that you ought, and I wouldn’t sail in the same boat with you.”

“No, it wouldn’t be safe,” said Zekle dryly.

“Yes, you ought to be ashamed of yourself,” said someone else angrily.  “I don’t like Harry Paul, for he’s a regular coward ­chap as hasn’t had courage to take the big dive as yet; but that’s no reason he should be drowned by a fellow who can’t manage a drift-net no better than to leave half on it trailing overboard.”

“Well, if you come to that,” said Tom Genna, who was an authority in the place, “I think it was the skipper’s dooty to ha’ seen that his nets was all in the boat, and not leave it to a fellow like Zekle Wynn here, who don’t seem to have so much brains as a boy.”

“Quite right!” said Zekle, “quite right!”

“Yes:  what I say’s quite right,” said Tom Genna; “but as for you, young fellow, you’re quite wrong, and it’s my belief you’re about half out of your mind.”

Zekle Wynn stared vacantly round at the speakers, and then, putting his hand to his head, he walked thoughtfully away.

“He is going wrong,” said the fishing sage, nodding his head; and this formed a fresh subject for discussion, especially as one of the knot of idlers recollected that a second cousin of Zekle Wynn’s was an idiot.

But Zekle Wynn was not going out of his mind, but, as soon as it was dark, straight up to the house where Mark Penelly lived with his father, and as soon as he had watched Penelly, senior, out of the house, he went boldly up and asked to see Mark.

The latter came at the end of a few minutes, looking curiously at his visitor.

“Sit down, Zekle,” he said.  “Brought a message?”

“No!” said Zekle.

“Brought up some fish, then?”

“No!” was the very gruff reply.

“Did you want to see my father?”


“Then what do you want?” exclaimed Penelly sharply.


“What is it, then, my good fellow?” said Penelly, speaking now in a haughty tone, for the man’s way was rude and offensive.

“I want to know something,” said Zekle.

“Then why don’t you go to somebody else?”

“’Cause you know best what I want to know.”

“Speak out, then, quickly, for I am busy,” said Penelly, who, while in an ordinary way ready enough to chat and laugh with the fishermen, was at times, on the strength of his father’s position as a boat-owner, disposed to treat them as several degrees lower in social standing.

“Busy, eh?” said Zekle scornfully.  “I dessay you are; but you mus’n’t be too busy to talk to me.”

“What do you mean?” said Penelly hotly.  “How dare you speak to me in that insolent way?”

“Insolent, eh?” said the man.  “Ah! you call that insolent, do you?” he continued, raising his voice.  “What would you call it, then, if I was to speak out a little plainer?”

“Look here, Zekle Wynn,” said Penelly; “there are times when I come down to the harbour, and into the boats, and go fishing with the men; but recollect, please, whom you are talking to.”

“Oh, I know who I’m talking to,” said Zekle; “I ain’t blind.”

“If you speak to me again like that I’ll kick you out of the house.  How dare you come in here and address me in this way?”

“Where’s your father?” said Zekle; “suppose I talk to him.”

“Go and talk to him, then; and mind how you speak, sir, or you’ll get different treatment to that you receive from me.”

“All right, then!” said Zekle mockingly.  “I shall go to him and tell him that, while I was busy shaking out fish in our boat to-night, young Harry Paul come swimming up, and our mas’r says, `Come aboard,’ he says; but Mas’r Harry Paul he says, `No,’ he says, `I shall swim round,’ he says, and he swims round our boat.”

“Well, he knows that,” said Penelly, looking at him strangely.

“And then I’m going to tell him,” continued Zekle, “that as soon as ever a certain person who was aboard our boat sees young Mas’r Harry coming, he goes and sits on the other side.”

“Yes, I did,” said Penelly sharply.

“Oh, you did, did you?  You owns to that?”

“Of course,” replied Penelly scornfully.  “What then?”

“What then?  Ah!  I’ll soon tell you what then,” said Zekle.  “You ups with an armful of net, and just as young Harry Paul comes round under you, you drops it on top of his head.”


Mark Penelly sprang at the speaker and clapped his hand over his lips.

“I thought,” said Zekle, freeing himself, “that it was only for a bit of mischief; I’d forgot all about young Mas’r Harry; but now I know as you did it to drown ­”

“Hush!” cried Penelly again hoarsely, and his face was like ashes.  “I didn’t; indeed I did not, Zekle.”

“Why, I see you with my own eyes,” said the man.

“Yes, I did drop the net over, but it was only out of mischief.  I did not think it would do more than duck him well.  I never thought it would be so dangerous.  I meant it in fun.”

“But it was dangerous,” said Zekle with a grin; “and as people know you hate Mas’r Harry, they’ll say you meant to mur ­”

“Hush!” cried Penelly again; and he clapped his hand once more upon the speaker’s lips.

“Oh, that won’t stop me from speaking!” said Zekle.  “I’m going to tell all I know, and it’s my belief as they’ll have you up, and bring it in ’tempt to kill young Mas’r Harry.”

“But you won’t speak about it, Zekle,” said Penelly imploringly.

“But I just will,” said Zekle, “and I come to ask you what they’ll do to you for it.  I don’t want to tell, but you see it’s ’bout my dooty.”

“I’ll give you anything to be silent.”

“But I must tell,” said Zekle, shaking his head; “it’s my dooty to, and I wouldn’t hold my tongue not for twenty pounds.”

Penelly gave a gasp, and in those few moments of thought he saw all the consequences of his escapade ­the disgrace and shame ­perhaps prosecution for an attempt at murder, for a magistrate might refuse to listen to his plea that it was only in fun.

But there was a gleam of hope.  Zekle had mentioned money.  He would not hold his tongue for twenty pounds he said.  Perhaps he would.  Penelly had not twenty pounds, nor yet five; but perhaps he could get it.  Turning to Zekle then he said: 

“If I give you ten pounds, Zekle, will you swear that you will never say a word?”

“No,” said Zekle stoutly, “nor yet for twenty; and now I’m going to tell all I know.”

As he spoke he turned towards the door, and Mark Penelly made a clutch at the nearest chair.