Read CHAPTER THIRTY TWO of Deep Down‚ a Tale of the Cornish Mines , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

OUCHES ON LOVE AND ON PILCHARD FISHING

There can be no doubt that “Fortune favours the brave,” and Maggot was one of those braves whom, about this time, she took special delight in favouring.

Wild and apparently reckless though he was, Maggot had long cherished an ambitious hope, and had for some time past been laying by money for the purpose of accomplishing his object, which was the procuring of a seine-net and boats for the pilchard fishery.  The recent successes he had met with in Botallack enabled him to achieve his aim more rapidly than he had anticipated, and on the day following that in which Clearemout received his deserts, he went to Penberth Cove to see that all was in readiness, for pilchards had recently appeared off the coast in small shoals.

That same day Oliver Trembath, having spent a night of misery in Penzance, made up his mind to return to St. Just and face his fate like a man; but he found it so difficult to carry this resolve into effect that he diverged from the highroad ­as he had done on his first memorable visit to that region ­and, without knowing very well why, sauntered in a very unenviable frame of mind towards Penberth Cove.

Old Mr Donnithorne possessed a pretty villa near the cove, to which he was wont to migrate when Mrs D felt a desire for change of air, and in which he frequently entertained large parties of friends in the summer season.  In his heart poor Mr Donnithorne had condemned this villa “to the hammer,” but the improved appearance of things in the mines had induced him to suspend the execution of the sentence.  News of the appearance of pilchards, and a desire to give Rose a change after her late adventure, induced Mr Donnithorne to hire a phaeton (he had recently parted with his own) and drive over to Penberth.

Arrived there, he sauntered down to the cove to look after his nets ­for he dabbled in pilchard fishing as well as in other matters ­and Rose went off to have a quiet, solitary walk.

Thus it came to pass that she and Oliver Trembath suddenly met in a lonely part of the road between Penberth and Penzance.  Ah, those sudden and unexpected meetings!  How pleasant they are, and how well every one who has had them remembers them!

“Miss Ellis!” exclaimed Oliver in surprise.

“Mr Trembath!” exclaimed Rose in amazement.

You see, reader, how polite they were, but you can neither see nor conceive how great was the effort made by each to conceal the tumult that agitated the breast and flushed the countenance, while the tongue was thus ably controlled.  It did not last long, however.  Oliver, being thrown off his guard, asked a number of confused questions, and Rose, in her somewhat irrelevant replies, happened to make some reference to “that villain Clearemout.”

“Villain?” echoed Oliver in undisguised amazement.

“The villain,” repeated Rose, with a flushed face and flashing eye.

“What? why? how? ­really, excuse me, Miss Ellis ­I ­I ­the villain ­ Clearemout ­you don’t ­”

There is no saying how many more ridiculous exclamations Oliver might have made had not Rose suddenly said, ­“Surely, Mr Trembath, you have heard of his villainy?”

“No, never; not a word.  Pray do tell me, Miss Ellis.”

Rose at once related the circumstances of her late adventure, with much indignation in her tone and many a blush on her brow.

Before she had half done, Oliver’s powers of restraint gave way.

“Then you never loved him?” he exclaimed.

“Loved him, sir!  I do not understand ­”

“Forgive me, Rose; I mean ­I didn’t imagine ­that is to say ­oh!  Rose, can it be ­is it possible ­my dear girl!”

He seized her hand at this point, and ­but really, reader, why should we go on?  Is it not something like a violation of good taste to be too particular here?  Is it not sufficient to say that old Mr Donnithorne came suddenly, and of course unexpectedly, on them at that critical juncture, rendering it necessary for Rose to burst away and hide her blushing face on her uncle’s shoulder, while Oliver, utterly overwhelmed, turned and walked (we won’t say fled) at full speed in the direction of the cove.

Here he found things in a condition that was admirably suited to the state of his feelings.  The fishermen of the cove were in a state of wild excitement, for an enormous shoal of pilchards had been enclosed in the seine-nets, and Maggot with his men, as well as the people employed by Mr Donnithorne, were as much over head and ears in fishing as Oliver was in love.  Do you ask, “Why all this excitement?” We will tell you.

The pilchard fishing is to the Cornish fisherman what the harvest is to the husbandman, but this harvest of the sea is not the result of prolonged labour, care, and wisdom.  It comes to him in a night.  It may last only a few days, or weeks.  Sometimes it fails altogether.  During these days of sunshine he must toil with unwonted energy.  There is no rest for him while the season lasts if he would not miss his opportunity.  The pilchard is a little fish resembling a small herring.  It visits the southern coasts of England in autumn and winter, and the shoals are so enormous as to defy calculation or description.  When they arrive on the coast, “huers” ­sharp-sighted men ­are stationed on the cliffs to direct the boatmen when to go out and where to shoot their seine-nets.  When these are shot, millions of pilchards are often enclosed in a single net.

To give an idea of the numbers of fish and the extent of the fishing, in a few words, we may state the fact that, in 1834, one shoal of great depth, and nearly a mile broad, extended from Hayle River to St. Ives, a distance of two and a half miles.  A seine was shot into this mass, and 3,600 hogsheads were carried to the curing cellars.  As there are 3,000 pilchards in each hogshead, the catch amounted to nearly eleven million fish!  The value of these might be 3 pounds a hogshead, and the clear profit about 1 pound a hogshead, so that it is no wonder we hear of fortunes having been made in a few hauls of the pilchard seines.  At the same time, losses are sometimes very heavy, owing to gales arising and breaking or carrying away the nets.  Such facts, combined with the uncertainty of the arrival or continuance of the fish on any particular part of the coast, tend to induce that spirit of eager, anxious excitement to which we have referred as being so congenial to Oliver Trembath’s state of mind at the time of which we write.

On the beach the young doctor found Maggot and his men launching their boats, and of course he lent them a hand.

Pilchards been seen?” he inquired.

“Iss, iss, doctor,” was the smith’s curt reply; “jump in, an’ go ’long with us.”

Oliver accepted the invitation, and was rowed towards a part of the bay where the sea appeared to be boiling.  The boat was a large one, attended by several others of smaller dimensions.  The boiling spot being reached, Maggot, whose whole being was in a blaze of enthusiasm, leaped up and seized the end of a seine-net ­three hundred fathoms long by fourteen deep ­which he began to throw overboard with the utmost energy, while the boat was rowed swiftly round the mass of fish.  David Trevarrow assisted him, and in less than four minutes the whole net was in the sea.  One of the other boats, meanwhile, had fastened another net to the first, and, rowing in an opposite direction from it, progressed in a circular course, dropping its net as it went, until the two met ­ and thus an immense shoal of pilchards were enclosed.

The nets being floated on the surface with corks, and their lower ends sunk to the bottom with leads, the fish were thus securely imprisoned.  But the security was not great; a gale might arise which would sweep away the whole concern, or the pilchards might take a fancy to make a dash in one particular direction, in the event of which they would certainly burst the net, and no human power could save a single fin.  In order to prevent this, the men in the smaller boats rowed round the seine, beat the sea with their oars, hallooed, and otherwise exerted themselves to keep the fish in the centre of the enclosure.  Meanwhile a little boat entered within the circle, having a small net, named a “tuck-net,” which was spread round the seine, inside, and gradually drawn together, until the fish were raised towards the surface in a solid, sweltering mass.  The excitement at this point became tremendous.  Thousands of silvery fish leaped, vaulted, and fluttered in a seething mass on the sea.  Maggot roared and yelled his orders like a Stentor.  Even mild David Trevarrow lost self-command, and shouted vociferously.

“Hand the basket!” cried Maggot.

A large basket, with a rope attached to one handle, was produced.  Maggot seized the other handle, and thrust it down among the wriggling pilchards.  Trevarrow hauled on the rope, lifted the basket out of the sea, and a cataract of living silver was shot into the boat, accompanied by a mighty cheer.  Basketful after basketful followed, until the men stood leg-deep in fish.

“Hold on a bit!” cried Maggot, as, with rolled-up sleeves, dishevelled hair, and glaring eyes, he threw one leg over the side of the boat, the more easily to continue his work.

“Have a care,” cried Oliver at that moment, stretching out his hand; but he was too late.  The excitable smith had overbalanced himself, and was already head and shoulders deep down among the pilchards, which sprang high over him, as if in triumph!

To catch him by the legs, and pull him back into the boat, was the work of a moment, but the proceedings were not interrupted by the mishap.  A laugh greeted the smith as he was turned head up, and immediately he braced himself to his arduous labour with renewed energy.

The boat filled, it was rowed to the shore, and here was received by eager and noisy men, women, and children, by whom the precious contents were carried to the “cellars,” or salting-houses, where they were packed in the neatest possible piles, layer on layer, heads and tails, with a sprinkling of salt between.

Maggot’s family had followed him to Penberth.  Mrs M was there, busy as a bee ­so was Zackey, so was little Grace, and so was the baby.  They all worked like Trojans, the only difference between baby Maggot and the others being, that, while they did as much work as in them lay, he undid as much as possible; was in every one’s way; fell over and into everything, including the sea, and, generally, fulfilled his mission of mischief-maker with credit.  The chet was there too!  Baby Maggot had decreed that it should accompany him, so there it was, living on pilchards, and dragging out its harassed existence in the usual way.  What between salt food, and play, kicks, cuffs, capers, and gluttony, its aspect at that time was more demoniacal, perhaps, than that of any other chet between John o’ Groat’s and the Land’s End.

Volumes would scarcely contain all that might be written about this wonderful scene, but enough has been said to indicate the process whereby Maggot secured and salted some hundreds of thousands of pilchards.  The enclosing of the fish was the result of a few minutes’ work, but the salting and packing were not ended for many days.  The result, however, was that the lucky smith sent many hogsheads of pilchards the way of most Cornish fish ­namely, to the Mediterranean, for consumption by Roman Catholics, and in due course he received the proceeds, to the extent of three thousand pounds.

Thus did Maggot auspiciously begin the making of his fortune ­which was originated and finally completed by his successful mining operations at Botallack.

And let it be observed here, that he was neither the first nor the last poor man who became prosperous and wealthy by similar means.  There are men, not a few, now alive in Cornwall, who began with hammer and pick, and who now can afford to drink in champagne, out of a golden flagon, the good old Cornish toast ­“Fish, tin, and copper.”