Read CHAPTER TEN - A STRONG CONTRAST-A VICTIM OF THE COPER. of The Young Trawler , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

Birds of a feather flock together, undoubtedly-at sea as well as on land.  As surely as Johnston, and Moore, and Jim Frost, and such men, hung about the mission-ship-ready to go aboard and to have a little meeting when suitable calms occurred, so surely did David Bright, the Swab, and other like-minded men, find themselves in the neighbourhood of the Coper when there was nothing to be done in the way of fishing.

Two days after the events narrated in the last chapter, the Swab-whose proper name was Dick Herring, and who sailed his own smack, the White Cloud-found himself in the neighbourhood of the floating grog-shop.

“Get out the boat, Brock,” said Herring to his mate-who has already been introduced to the reader as Pimply Brock, and whose nose rendered any explanation of that name unnecessary; “take some fish, an’ get as much as you can for ’em.”

The Swab did not name what his mate was to procure in barter with the fish, neither did Brock ask.  It was an old-established order, well understood.

Soon Brock and two hands were on their way to the floating “poison-shop,” as one of the men had named it.  He was affectionately received there, and, ere long, returned to the White Cloud with a supply of fire-water.

“You’re good at a bargain, Brock,” said his master, with an approving nod, tossing off a glass of the demon that held him as if in chains of steel-chains that no man could break.  “I wish,” he added, looking round on the sea wistfully, “that some of our friends would come to join us in a spree.”

“So do I,” said Brock, slightly inflaming his nasal pimples, by pouring a glass of spirits down his throat.

There must be some strange, subtle sympathy between drunkards, for, at the very time these two men expressed their wish, the master of the Evening Star said to Gunter, “Get out the boat.  I’ll go cruisin’.”

It must not be supposed that by this he meant to declare his intention of going off on a lengthened voyage in his little boat.  David Bright only meant that, having observed through his telescope the little transaction between the White Cloud and the Coper, his intention was to pay that vessel a visit-to go carousing, or, as the North Sea smacksmen have it, “cruisin’.”

Gunter obeyed the order with satisfaction and alacrity.

“Jump in, Spivin, and you come too, Billy.”

“I say, father,” said the boy in a low voice, “are ye goin’ to drink wi’ the Swab after what ye heard aboard the mission smack?”

“You clap a stopper on your jaw an’ obey orders,” replied the skipper angrily.

Although full of light-hearted insolence, which his mates called cheek, Billy was by no means a rebellious boy.  He knew, from sad experience, that when his father made up his mind to “go in for a drinking-bout,” the consequences were often deplorable, and fain would he have dissuaded him, but he also knew that to persist in opposing him would only make matters worse, and probably bring severe chastisement on himself.  With an air of quiet gravity, therefore, that seemed very unnatural to him, he leaped into the boat and took an oar.

“What cheer, David?” said the Swab, offering his rugged hand when the former jumped on the deck of the White Cloud.  “I thought you’d come.”

“You was right, Dick,” returned David, shaking the proffered hand.

“Come below, an’ wet your whistle.  Bring your men too,” said Dick.  “This is a new hand?” pointing to Ned.

“Ay, he’s noo, is Ned Spivin, but he can drink.”

“Come down, then, all of ’ee.”

Now, Ned Spivin was one of those yielding good-natured youths who find it impossible to resist what may be styled good-fellowship.  If you had tried to force Ned Spivin, to order him, or to frighten him into any course, he would have laughed in your face and fought you if necessary; but if you tempted Ned to do evil by kindly tones and looks, he was powerless to resist.

“You’re right, skipper, I can drink-sometimes.”  They all went below, leaving Billy on deck “to look after the boat,” as his father said, though, being made fast, the boat required no looking after.

Immediately the party in the little cabin had a glass round.  Ere long it occurred to them that they might have another glass.  Of course they did not require to be reminded of their pipes, and as nearly all the crew was in the little cabin, besides the visitors, the fumes from pipes and glasses soon brought the atmosphere to a condition that would have failed to support any but the strongest kind of human life.  It supported these men well enough, however, for they soon began to use their tongues and brains in a manner that might have surprised a dispassionate observer.

It is, perhaps, needless to say that they interlarded their conversation with fearful oaths, to which of course we can do no more than make passing reference.

By degrees the conversation degenerated into disputation, for it is the manner of some men, when “in liquor,” to become intensely pugnacious as well as owlishly philosophical.  The subject-matter of dispute may be varied, but the result is nearly always the same-a series of amazing convolutions of the brain, which is supposed to be profound reasoning, waxing hotter and hotter as the utterances grow thicker and thicker, and the tones louder and louder, until the culminating point is reached when the point which could not be proved by the mind is hammered home with the fist.

To little Billy, who had been left in sole charge of the deck, and whose little mind had been strangely impressed on board the mission-ship, the words and sounds, to say nothing of the fumes, which proceeded from the cabin furnished much food for meditation.  The babel of tongues soon became incessant, for three, if not four or five, of the speakers had become so impressed with the importance of their opinions, and so anxious to give their mates the benefit, that they all spoke at once.  This of course necessitated much loud talking and gesticulation by all of them, which greatly helped, no doubt, to make their meaning clear.  At least it did not render it less clear.  As the din and riot increased so did the tendency to add fuel to the fire by deeper drinking, which resulted in fiercer quarrelling.

At last one of the contending voices shouted so loud that the others for a few moments gave way, and the words became audible to the little listener on deck.  The voice belonged to Gunter.

“You said,” he shouted fiercely, “that I-”

“No, I didn’t,” retorted Brock, breaking in with a rather premature contradiction.

“Hear him out.  N-nothin’ like fair play in ar-argiment,” said an extremely drunken voice.

“Right you are,” cried another; “fire away, Gunter.”

“You said,” resumed Gunter with a little more of argument in his tone, though still vehemently, “that I said-that-that-well, whativer it was I said, I’ll take my davy that I niver said anything o’ the sort.”

“That’s a lie,” cried Brock.

“You’re another,” shouted Gunter, and waved his hand contemptuously.

Whether it was accident or design we know not, but Gunter’s hand knocked the pipe out of Brook’s mouth.

To Billy’s ear the well-known sound of a blow followed, and he ran to look down into the cabin, where all was instantly in an uproar.

“Choke him off,” cried David Bright.  “Knock his brains out,” suggested Herring.  Billy could not see well through the dense smoke, but apparently the more humane advice was followed, for, after a good deal of gasping, a heavy body was flung upon the floor.

“All right, shove him into a bunk,” cried the Swab.

At the same moment Ned Spivin sprang on deck, and, stretching himself with his arms extended upwards, drew a long breath of fresh air.

“There, Billy,” he said, “I’ve had enough of it.”

“Of grog, d’ye mean?” asked the boy.

“No, but of the hell-upon-earth down there,” replied the young man.

“Well, Ned, I should just think you have had enough o’ that,” said Billy, “an’ of grog too-though you don’t seem much screwed after all.”

“I’m not screwed at all, Billy-not even half-seas-over.  It’s more the smoke an’ fumes that have choked me than the grog.  Come, lad, let’s go for’ard an’ git as far from it as we can.”

The man and boy went to the bow of the vessel, and seated themselves near the heel of the bowsprit, where the sounds from the cabin reached them only as a faint murmur, and did not disturb the stillness of the night.

And a day of quiet splendour it certainly was-the sea as calm as glass, insomuch that it reflected all the fleecy clouds that hung in the bright sky.  Even the ocean-swell had gone to rest with just motion enough left to prove that the calm was not a “dead” one, but a slumber.  All round, the numerous vessels of the Short Blue fleet floated in peaceful idleness.  At every distance they lay, from a hundred yards to the far-off horizon.

We say that they floated peacefully, but we speak only as to appearance, for there were other hells in the fleet, similar to that which we have described, and the soft sound of distant oars could be distinguished now and then as boats plied to and fro between their smacks and the Coper, fetching the deadly liquid with which these hells were set on fire.

Other sounds there were, however, which fell pleasantly on the ears of the two listeners.

“Psalm-singers,” said Billy.

“They might be worse,” replied Ned.  “What smack does it come from, think ’ee?”

“The Boy Jim, or the Cephas-not sure which, for I can’t make out the voices.  It might be from the Sparrow, but that’s it close to us, and there could be no mistake about Jim Frost’s voice if he was to strike up.”

“What! has Jim Frost hoisted the Bethel-flag?”

“Ay, didn’t you see it flyin’ last Sunday for the first time?”

“No, I didn’t,” returned Ned, “but I’m glad to hear it, for, though I’m not one o’ that set myself.  I do like to see a man not ashamed to show his colours.”

The flag to which they referred is supplied at half cost to the fleet by the Mission to Deep-Sea Fishermen-and is hoisted every Sabbath-day by those skippers in the fleet who, having made up their minds boldly to accept all the consequences of the step, have come out decidedly on the Lord’s side.

While the two shipmates were conversing thus in low tones, enjoying the fresh air and the calm influences around them, the notes of an accordion came over the water in tones that were sweetened and mellowed by distance.

“Ha! that’s Jim Frost now,” said Billy, in subdued excitement, while pleasure glittered in his eyes.  “Oh!  Ned, I does like music.  It makes my heart fit to bu’st sometimes, it does.  An’ Jim plays that- that what’s ’is name-so beautiful!”

“His accordion,” said Ned.

“Yes-his accordium-”

“No, Billy, not accordium, but accordion.”

“Well, well-no matter.  I don’t care a button what you calls it, so long as Jim plays it.  Why, he’d make his fortin’ if he was to play that thing about the streets o’ Lun’on.  Listen.”

Jim Frost deserved all the praise that the enthusiastic boy bestowed on him, for, besides possessing a fine ear and taste for music, and having taught himself to play well, he had a magnificent tenor voice, and took great delight in singing the beautiful hymns which at that time had been introduced to the fleet.  On this particular day he was joined by his crew, whose voices-more or less tuneful-came rolling over the water in a great volume of melody.

“He’s got Singin’ Peter a-visitin’ him,” said Billy.  “Don’t you hear him?”

“Ay, I hear him, boy.  There’s no mistakin’ Singin’ Peter’s voice.  I’d know it among a thousand.”

“If it’s hell here,” remarked Billy, with a great sigh of satisfaction, after the hymn was done, “it do seem like heaven over there.  I only wish we had Jim Frost on board of us instead of that brute Gunter.”

“Don’t be hard on Gunter, Billy,” said Ned.  “We don’t know what he’s got to bear.  Some men are born, you see, wi’ narves that are for ever screwin’ at ’em, an’ ticklin’ of ’em up; an’ other men have narves that always keep smoothin’ of ’em down.  The last are the pleasantest to have to do with, no doubt, but the others ain’t quite so bad as they look sometimes.  Their bark is worse than their bite.”

“Hush!” exclaimed the boy, holding up a finger at the moment, for Jim Frost’s accordion again sent forth its rich tones in the prelude to a hymn.  A few moments later and the tuneful voices came rolling towards them in that beautiful hymn, the chorus of which ends:-

  “We shall know each other better when the mists are rolled away.”

When the last verse was sung little Billy found a tear struggling to get out of each eye, and a lump sticking in his throat, so he turned his head away to conceal them.

“Ain’t it beautiful?” he said, when the lump had disappeared.

“And ain’t it curious,” answered Ned, “that it should touch on what we was talkin’ about afore they began?  P’r’aps we shall know John Gunter better `when the mists are rolled away.’”

Billy shook his head dubiously.  “I’m not so sure o’ that,” he said.  “Anyhow, there’s a deal o’ mist to be rolled away before we can know him better.”

“There’s a breeze comin’ up from the south’ard,” remarked Ned, who, to say truth, did not seem to care very much about getting to know his surly shipmate better; “we’ll have to get your father aboard soon.”

“That won’t be an easy matter,” said Billy, and he was right, for when David Bright was set down with a friend, and a glass, and a pack of cards, it was very difficult to move him.  He was, indeed, as fond of gambling as of drinking, and lost much of his hardly earned gains in that way.  Billy, therefore, received little but abuse when he tried to induce him to return to his own vessel, but the freshing of the breeze, and a sudden lurch of the smack, which overturned his glass of grog into Gunter’s lap, induced him at last to go on deck.

There the appearance of things had changed considerably.  Clouds were beginning to obscure the bright sky, the breeze had effectually shattered the clear mirror of the sea, and a swell was beginning to roll the White Cloud, so that legs which would have found it difficult to steady their owners on solid land made sad work of their office on the heaving deck.

“Haul up the boat,” cried Brock in a drivelling voice as he came on deck; “where are you steerin’ to?  Let me take the helm.”

He staggered toward the tiller as he spoke, but Dick Herring and one of his mates, seeing that he was quite unable to steer, tried to prevent him.  Brock, however, had reached that stage of drunkenness in which men are apt to become particularly obstinate, and, being a powerful man, struggled violently to accomplish his purpose.

“Let him have it,” said Herring at last.  “He can’t do much damage.”

When set free, the miserable man grasped the tiller and tried to steady himself.  A lurch of the vessel, however, rendered his effort abortive.  The tiller fell to leeward.  Brock went headlong with it, stumbled over the side, and, before any one could stretch out a hand to prevent it, fell into the sea and sank.

His comrades were apparently sobered in an instant.  There was no need for the hurried order to jump into the boat alongside.  Ned Spivin and Billy were in it with the painter cast off and the oars out in a couple of seconds.  The boat of the White Cloud was also launched with a speed, that only North Sea fishermen, perhaps, can accomplish, and both crews rowed about eagerly while the smack lay-to.  But all without success.  The unfortunate man was never more seen, and the visitors left the vessel in sobered silence, and rowed, without exchanging a word, to their own smack, which lay about a quarter of a mile distant on the port quarter.