Read CHAPTER NINE - ANOTHER DRAG-NET HAULED-THE MISSION SMACK. of The Young Trawler , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

When the steamer left the fleet the wind was beginning to moderate, and all eyes were turned as usual towards the admiral’s smack to observe his movements.

The fishing vessels were still crowded together, running to and fro, out and in, without definite purpose, plunging over the heaving swells-some of them visible on the crests, others half hidden in the hollows-and behaving generally like living creatures that were impatiently awaiting the signal to begin a race.

While in this position two smacks came so near to the Evening Star, on opposite sides, that they seemed bent on running her down.  David Bright did not concern himself, however.  He knew they were well able to take care of themselves.  They both sheered off to avoid him, but after doing so, ran rather near to each other.

“One o’ them b’longs to the Swab,” said Billy.

“Ay,” said Joe, “if he hadn’t swabbed up too much liquor this morning, he wouldn’t steer like that.  Why, he will foul her!”

As he spoke the Swab’s bowsprit passed just inside one of the ropes of the other vessel, and was snapped off as if it had been a pipe-stem.

“Sarves him right,” growled Gunter.

“It’s a pity all the same,” said Trevor.  “If we all got what we deserve, we’d be in a worse case than we are to-day mayhap.”

“Come, now, Gunter,” said Joe, “don’t look so cross.  We’ll have a chance this arternoon, I see, to bear away for the mission-ship, an’ git somethin’ for your shins, and a bandage for Spivin’s cut, as well as some cuffs for them that wants ’em.”

Captain Bright did not like visiting the mission-ship, having no sympathy with her work, but as she happened to be not far distant at the time, and he was in want of surgical assistance, he had no reasonable ground for objecting.

By this time the admiral had signalled to steer to the nor’-east, and the fleet was soon racing to windward, all on the same tack.  Gradually the Evening Star overhauled the mission-ship, but before she had quite overtaken her, the wind, which had been failing, fell to a dead calm.  The distance between the two vessels, however, not being great, the boat was launched, and the skipper, Luke Trevor, Gunter and Billy went off in her.

The mission vessel, to which reference has more than once been made, is a fishing-smack in the service of the Mission to Deep-Sea Fishermen, and serves the purpose of a floating church, a dispensary, a temperance halt and a library to a portion of the North Sea fleet.  It fills a peculiar as well as a very important position, which requires explanation.

Only a few years ago a visitor to the North Sea fleet observed, with much concern, that hundreds of the men and boys who manned it were living godless as well as toilsome lives, with no one-at least in winter-to care for their souls.  At the same time he noted that the Dutch copers, or floating grog-shops, were regularly appointed to supply the fleets with cheap and bad spirits, and stuck to them through fair-weather and foul, in summer and winter, enduring hardship and encountering danger and great risk in pursuit of their evil calling.  Up to that time a few lay missionaries and Bible-readers had occasionally gone to visit the fleets in the summer-time, , but the visitor of whom we write felt that there was a screw loose here, and reasoned with himself somewhat thus:-

“Shall the devil have his mission-ships, whose crews are not afraid to face the winter gales, and shall the servants of the Lord be mere fair-weather Christians, carrying their blessed and all-important message of love and peace to these hard-working and almost forsaken men only during a summer-trip to the North Sea?  If fish must be caught, and the lives of fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons be not only risked but lost for the purpose, has not the Master got men who are ready to say, `The glorious Gospel must be carried to these men, and we will hoist our flag on the North Sea summer and winter, so as to be a constant witness there for our God and His Christ?’”

For thirty years before, it has been said, a very few earnest Christians among the fishermen of the fleet had been praying that some such thoughts might be put into the hearts of men who had the power to render help.

We venture to observe in passing that, perchance, those praying fishermen were not so “few” as appearances might lead us to suppose, for God has His “hidden ones” everywhere, and some of these may have been at the throne of grace long prior to the “thirty years” here mentioned.

Let not the reader object to turn aside a few minutes to consider how greatly help was needed-forty-six weeks or so on the sea in all weathers all the year round, broken by a week at a time-or about six or seven weeks altogether-on shore with wife and family; the rest, hard unvarying toil and exposure, with nothing to do during the brief intervals of leisure-nothing to read, nothing new to think of, no church to raise the mind to the Creator, and distinguish the Sabbath from the week-day, and no social intercourse of a natural kind, (for a society of men only is not natural), to elevate them above the lower animals, and with only drinking and gambling left to degrade them below these creatures; and this for forty or fifty years of their lives, with, in too many cases, neither hope nor thought beyond!

At last the fishermen’s prayers were answered, the thoughts of the visitor bore fruit, and, convinced that he was being led by God, he began to move in the matter with prayer and energy.  The result was that in the year 1881 he received the unsolicited offer of a smack which should be at his entire disposal for mission purposes, but should endeavour to sustain herself, if possible, by fishing like the rest of the fleet.  The vessel was accepted.  A Christian skipper and fisherman, named Budd, and a like-minded crew, were put into her; she was fitted out with an extra cabin, with cupboards for a library and other conveniences.  The hold was arranged with a view to being converted into a chapel on Sundays, and it was decided that, in order to keep it clear on such days, the trawl should not be let down on Saturday nights; a large medicine-chest-which was afterwards reported to be “one of the greatest blessings in the fleet,”-was put on board; the captain made a colporteur of the Bible Society, agent for the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society and of the Church of England Temperance Society.  The Religious Tract Society, and various publishers, made a grant of books to form the nucleus of a free lending library; the National Lifeboat Institution presented an aneroid barometer, and Messrs. Hewett and Company made a present of the insurance premium of 50 pounds.  Thus furnished and armed, as aforesaid, as a Mission Church, Temperance Hall, Circulating Library, and Dispensary, the little craft one day sailed in amongst the smacks of the “Short Blue” fleet, amid the boisterous greetings of the crews, and took up her position under the name of the Ensign, with a great twenty-feet Mission-flag flying at the main-mast-head.

This, then was the style of vessel towards which the boat of the Evening Star was now being pulled over a superficially smooth but still heaving sea.  The boat was not alone.  Other smacks, the masters of which as well as some of the men were professed Christians, had availed themselves of the opportunity to visit the mission smack, while not a few had come, like the master of the Evening Star, to procure medicine and books, so that when David Bright drew near he observed the deck to be pretty well crowded, while a long tail of boats floated astern, and more were seen coming over the waves to the rendezvous.

It was no solemn meeting that.  Shore-going folk, who are too apt to connect religious gatherings with Sunday clothes, subdued voices, and long faces, would have had their ideas changed if they had seen it.  Men of the roughest cast, mentally and physically, were there, in heavy boots and dirty garments, laughing and chatting, and greeting one another; some of the younger among them sky-larking in a mild way-that is, giving an occasional poke in the ribs that would have been an average blow to a “land-lubber,” or a tip to a hat which sent it on the deck, or a slap on the back like a pistol-shot.  There seemed to be “no humbug,” as the saying goes, among these men; no pretence, and all was kindly good-fellowship, for those who were on the Lord’s side showed it-if need were, said it-while those who were not, felt perhaps, that they were in a minority and kept quiet.

“Come along, Joe, what cheer!”

“Here you are, Bill-how goes it, my hearty!”

“All well, praise the Lord.”

“Ay, hasn’t He sent us fine weather at the right time? just to let us have a comfortable meetin’!”

“That’s so, Dick, the Master does all things well.”

“What cheer!  Johnson, I’m glad to see you here.  The boy has got some cocoa for’ard-have some?”

“Thank ’ee, I will.”

Such were some of the expressions heartily uttered, which flew about as friend met friend on the mission deck.

“I say, Harry,” cried one, “was it you that lost your bowsprit this mornin’?”

“No, it was the Swab,” said Harry, “but we lost our net and all the gear last night.”

“That was unfort’nit,” remarked a friend in a tone of sympathy, which attracted the attention of some of those who stood near.

“Ah! lads,” said the master of the mission-ship, “that was a small matter compared with the loss suffered by poor Daniel Rodger.  Did you hear of it?”

“Yes, yes,” said some.  “No,” said another.  “I thought I saw his flag half-mast this mornin’, but was too fur off to make sure.”

Most of the men crowded round the master of the smack, while, in deep sad tones, he told how the son of Daniel Rodger had, during the night, been swept overboard by a heavy sea and drowned before the boat could be launched to rescue him.  “But,” continued the speaker in a cheerful voice, “the dear boy was a follower of Jesus, and he is now with Him.”

When this was said, “Praise the Lord!” and “Thank God!” broke from several of the men in tones of unmistakable sincerity.

It was at this point that the boat of the Evening Star ranged alongside.  The master of the mission smack went to the side and held out his hand, which David Bright grasped with his right, grappling the smack’s rail at the same time with his left, and vaulted inboard with a hearty salutation.  As heartily was it returned, especially by the unbelievers on board, who, perchance, regarded him as a welcome accession to their numbers!

Billy, Gunter, and the others tumbled on to the deck in the usual indescribable manner, and the former, making fast the long painter, added the Evening Star’s boat to the lengthening flotilla astern.

“Your man seems to be hurt,” said the master of the mission smack-whom we may well style the missionary-“not badly, I hope.  You’re limpin’ a bit.”

“Oh! nothin’ to speak of,” growled Gunter, “on’y a bit o’ skin knocked off.”

“We’ll put that all right soon,” returned the missionary, shaking hands with the other members of the crew.  “But p’r’aps you’d like to go below with us, first.  We’re goin’ to hold a little service.  It’ll be more comfortable under hatches than on deck.”

“No, thank ’ee,” replied Gunter with decision.  “I’ll wait till yer done.”

“P’r’aps you would like to come?” said the missionary to the captain.

“Well, I-I may as well as not,” said David with some hesitation.

“Come along then, lads,” and the genial sailor-missionary led the way to the capacious hold, which had been swept clean, and some dozens of fish-boxes set up on end in rows.  These, besides being handy, formed excellent seats to men who were not much used to arm-chairs.

In a few seconds the little church on the Ocean Wilderness was nearly full of earnest, thoughtful men, for these fishermen were charmingly natural as well as enthusiastic.  They did not assume solemn expressions, but all thought of sky-larking or levity seemed to have vanished as they entered the hold, and earnestness almost necessarily involves gravity.

With eager expectation they gazed at their leader while he gave out a hymn.

“You’ll find little books on the table here, those of you who haven’t got ’em,” he said, pointing to a little pile of red-covered booklets at his side.  “We’ll sing the 272nd.

  “`Sing them over again to me,
  Wonderful words of life!’”

Really, reader, it is not easy to convey in words the effect of the singing of that congregation!  Nothing that we on land are accustomed to can compare with it.  In the first place, the volume of sound was tremendous, for these men seemed to have been gifted with leathern lungs and brazen throats.  Many of the voices were tuneful as well as powerful.  One or two, indeed, were little better than cracked tea-kettles, but the good voices effectually drowned the cracked kettles.  Moreover, there was deep enthusiasm in many of the hearts present, and the hold was small.  We leave the rest to the reader’s imagination, but we are bound to say that it had a thrilling effect.  And they were sorry, too, when the hymn was finished.  This was obvious, for when one of the singers began the last verse over again the others joined him with alacrity and sang it straight through.  Even Gunter and those like-minded men who had remained on deck were moved by the fervour of the singing.

Then the sailor-missionary offered a prayer, as simple as it was straightforward and short, after which a chapter was read, and another hymn sung.  Then came the discourse, founded on the words, “Whosoever will.”

“There you have it, lads-clear as the sun at noonday-free as the rolling sea.  The worst drunkard and swearer in the Short Blue comes under that `whosoever’-ay, the worst man in the world, for Jesus is able and willing to save to the uttermost.” ("Praise God!” ejaculated one of the earnest listeners fervently.)

But fear not, reader, we have no intention of treating you to a semi-nautical sermon.  Whether you be Christian or not, our desire is simply to paint for you a true picture of life on the North Sea as we have seen it, and, as it were unwise to omit the deepest shadows from a picture, so would it be inexcusable to leave out the highest lights- even although you should fail to recognise them as such.

The discourse was not long, but the earnestness of the preacher was very real.  The effect on his audience was varied.  Most of them sympathised deeply, and seemed to listen as much with eyes as ears.  A few, who had not come there for religious purposes, wore somewhat cynical, even scornful, expressions at first, but these were partially subdued by the manner of the speaker as he reasoned of spiritual things and the world to come.

On deck, Gunter and those who had stayed with him became curious to know what the “preachin’ skipper” was saying, and drew near to the fore-hatch, up which the tones of his strong voice travelled.  Gradually they bent their heads down and lay at full-length on the deck listening intently to every word.  They noted, also, the frequent ejaculations of assent, and the aspirations of hope that escaped from the audience.

Not one, but two or three hymns were sung after the discourse was over, and one after another of the fishermen prayed.  They were very loath to break up, but, a breeze having arisen, it became necessary that they should depart, so they came on deck at last, and an animated scene of receiving and exchanging books, magazines, tracts, and pamphlets ensued.  Then, also, Gunter got some salve for his shins, Ned Spivin had his cut hand dressed and plastered.  Cuffs were supplied to those whose wrists had been damaged, and gratuitous advice was given generally to all to give up drink.

“An’ don’t let the moderate drinkers deceive you lads,” said the skipper, “as they’re apt to do-an’ no wonder, for they deceive themselves.  Moderate drinkin’ may be good, for all I know, for old folk an’ sick folk, but it’s not good for young and healthy men.  They don’t need stimulants, an’ if they take what they don’t need they’re sure to suffer for it.  There’s a terrible line in drinkin’, an’ if you once cross that line, your case is all but hopeless.  I once knew a man who crossed it, and when that man began to drink he used to say that he did it in `moderation,’ an’ he went on in `moderation,’ an’ the evil was so slow in workin’ that he never yet knew when he crossed the line, an’ he died at last of what he called moderate drinkin’.  They all begin in moderation, but some of ’em go on to the ruin of body, soul, an’ spirit, rather than give up their moderation!  Come now, lads, I want one or two o’ you young fellows to sign the temperance pledge.  It can’t cost you much to do it just now, but if you grow up drinkers you may reach a point-I don’t know where that point lies-to come back from which will cost you something like the tearing of your souls out o’ your bodies.  You’ll come, won’t you?”

“Yes, I’ll go,” said a bright young fisherman with a frame like Hercules and a face almost as soft as that of a girl.

“That’s right!  Come down.”

“And I’ve brought two o’ my boys,” said a burly man with a cast-iron sort of face, who had been himself an abstainer for many years.

While the master of the mission smack was producing the materials for signing the pledge in the cabin, he took occasion to explain that the signing was only a help towards the great end of temperance; that nothing but conversion to God, and constant trust in the living Saviour, could make man or woman safe.

“It’s not hard to understand,” he said, looking the youths earnestly in the eyes.  “See here, suppose an unbeliever determines to get the better of his besettin’ sin.  He’s man enough to strive well for a time.  At last he begins to grow a little weary o’ the battle-it is so awful hard.  Better almost to die an’ be done with it, he sometimes thinks.  Then comes a day when his temptation is ten times more than he is able to bear.  He throws up the sponge; he has done his best an’ failed, so away he goes like the sow that was washed to his wallowing in the mire.  But he has not done his best.  He has not gone to his Maker; an’ surely the maker of a machine is the best judge o’ how to mend it.  Now, when a believer in Jesus comes to the same point o’ temptation he falls on his knees an’ cries for help; an’ he gets it too, for faithful is He that has promised to help those who call upon Him in trouble.  Many a man has fallen on his knees as weak as a baby, and risen up as strong as a giant.”

“Here,” said a voice close to the speaker’s elbow, “here, hand me the pen, an’ I’ll sign the pledge.”

“What, you, Billy Bright!” said the missionary, smiling at the precocious manliness of the little fellow.  “Does your father want you to do it?”

“Oh! you never mind what my father wants.  He leaves me pretty much to do as I please-except smoke, and as he won’t let me do that.  I mean to spite him by refusin’ to drink when he wants me to.”

“But I’m afraid, Billy,” returned the missionary, laughing, “that that’s not quite the spirit in which to sign the pledge.”

“Did I say it was, old boy!” retorted Billy, seizing the pen, dabbing it into the ink, and signing his name in a wild straggling sort of way, ending with a huge round blot.

“There, that’ll do instead of a full stop,” he said, thrusting his little hands into his pockets as he swaggered out of the cabin and went on deck.

“He’ll make a rare good man, or an awful bad ’un, that,” said the missionary skipper, casting a kindly look after the boy.

Soon afterwards the boats left the mission smack, and her crew began to bustle about, making preparation to let down the gear whenever the Admiral should give the signal.

“We carry two sorts of trawl-nets, Andrew,” said the captain to his mate, who was like-minded in all respects, “and I think we have caught some men to-day with one of ’em-praise the Lord!”

“Yes, praise the Lord!” said the mate, and apparently deeming this, as it was, a sufficient reply, he went about his work in silence.

The breeze freshened.  The shades of night gathered; the Admiral gave his signal; the nets were shot and the Short Blue fleet sailed away into the deepening darkness of the wild North Sea.

Note.  Since that day additional vessels have been attached to the Mission-fleet, which now, 1886, consists of five smacks-and will probably, ere long, number many more-all earning their own maintenance while serving the Mission cause.  But these do by no means meet the requirements of the various North Sea fleets.  There are still in those fleets thousands of men and boys who derive no benefit from the Mission vessels already sent out, because they belong to fleets to which Mission-ships have not yet been attached; and it is the earnest prayer of those engaged in the good work that liberal-minded Christians may send funds to enable them not only to carry on, but to extend, their operations in this interesting field of labour.