Read CHAPTER IX of A Poor Man's House , free online book, by Stephen Sydney Reynolds, on ReadCentral.com.

SEACOMBE,
December.

1

We hired a drosky one of the little light landaus that they use with a single horse in this hilly district and thus we came down from the station. On the box were the coachman (grinning), a cabin trunk, a portmanteau, a gaping gladstone bag, and a rug packed with sweaters and boots. On the front seat, a large parcel of books, a typewriter, a dispatch case, a grubby moon-faced little friend of Tommy’s, Tommy himself, and Jimmy. On the back seat, Straighty, Dane and myself. The small boy stood up on the seat, and Dane squatting on his haunches, overtopped us all.

Down the hill we drove, swerving, wobbling, laughing a May party in leafless winter. Dane, in his efforts to lick the children’s faces, tumbled off his perch. We helped him back to his seat amid a chorus of happy screams. The grubby boy was just too astonished to cry, just too proud of travelling in a carriage. He screwed up his face and unscrewed it again. Every now and then Tommy sat back as far as he could from the disorder, the collection of jerking arms and legs, in order to adjust the Plymouth spectacles, of which he is so proud, on his small pug nose. As we passed the cross-roads, Straighty was trying to snatch a kiss. While we drove along the Front, the children waved their hands over the sides of the drosky, and shouted with delight. ’Twas a Bacchanal with laughter for wine. The Square turned out to witness our arrival. “Her’s come!” the kiddies cried. Dane leapt out first, found a rabbit’s head and bolted it whole. The rest of us scrambled out. The luggage was piled up in the passage. Hastening in his stockinged feet (he had been putting away an hour) to say that he was on the point of coming up to station, Tony bruised a toe and barked a shin. But it was no time to be savage. I wonder where else the two shillings I paid for the drosky would have purchased so much delight. Or rather, the delight was in ourselves, in the children; the two shillings served only to unlock it.

CHILDREN

What precisely there is of difference between these children and those of the middle and upper classes has always puzzled me. That there is a difference I feel certain. A few years ago, when I had so much to do with the boys and girls of a high school, they liked me pretty well, I think, and trusted me, but they did not take to me, nor I very greatly to them. They went about their business, and I about mine. If I invited them for a walk, they came gladly, not because it was a walk with me, but because I knew of interesting muddy places, and where to find strange things. Their manners to me were always good: good manners smoothed our intercourse. But in no sense were our lives interwoven. We were side-shows, the one to the other. I was content that it should be so, and they were too.

Here, on the other hand, my difficulty is to get rid of the children when I wish to go out by myself. They follow me out to the Front, and meet me there when I return, running towards me with shouting and arms upraised, tumbling over their own toes, and taking me home as if I were a huge pet dog of theirs. “Where be yu going?” they ask, and, “Where yu been?” Jimmy regards me as a fixture. “When yu goes away for two or dree days,” he says, “I’ll write to ’ee, like Dad du.” I cross the Square, and some child, lolling over the board across a doorway, laughs to me shrilly and waves its arms. If by taking thought, I could send such a glow to the hearts of those I love, as that child, without thinking, sends to mine.... But I cannot. I can only wave a hand back to the child, and be thankful and full-hearted. Often enough I wish I could have a piano and find out whether my fingers will still play Chopin, Beethoven, and Bach; often I hanker after a sight of a certain picture or a certain statue in the Louvre or Luxembourg, for a concert, a theatre, a right-down good argument on some intellectual point, or for the books I want to read and never shall. Yet, all in all, I am never sorry for long. This children’s babble and laughter, these simple, commonplace, wonderful affections, are a hundred times worth everything I miss.

It is not that I buy the children bananas or give them an infrequent ha’penny. When bananas and ha’pence are scarce, their love is no less. It is not that I am always good-tempered and jolly. Sometimes I snap unmercifully, so that they look at me with scared, inquiring eyes. It is not that they are always well-behaved. Frequently they are very naughty indeed. The causes of our sympathy lie deeper.

They are more naïve than the children who are in process of being well-educated; more independent and also more dependent. They feel more keenly any separation from those they love; they cry lustily if their mother disappears only for an hour or two; and nevertheless they can fend for themselves out and about as children more carefully nurtured could never do. Less able to travel by themselves, they do travel alone, and in the end quite as successfully. They make more mistakes and retrieve them better. Affection with them more rapidly and frankly translates itself into action. They laugh quickly, cry quickly, swear quickly. “Yu’m a fule!” they rap out without a moment’s hesitation; and I suppose I am, else they wouldn’t want to say so. Perhaps I overvalue the physical manifestations of love, but if a child will take my hand, or climb upon my knee, or kiss me unawares, then to certainty of its affection is added a greater contentment and a deeper faith. The peace of a child that sleeps upon one’s shoulder, is given also to oneself. The appurtenances of love mean much to me; nearness, warmth, caresses. But I cannot make the advances; I was bred in a different school where, though frankness was encouraged, naïvete was repressed; and I am the more grateful to these children for taking me in hand for being able to do so.

MANNERS

Tommy has returned from the Plymouth Eye Infirmary much quietened down in many respects and, as most people would say, much better mannered. He is neater and a better listener to conversation. He puts his shoes under the table, does not throw them. But he has brought back also some of the nurses’ exclamations of surprise “Oh, I say!” “Not I!” “You don’t say so!” “What idiocy!” and the like. No doubt those expressions sounded quite proper among the nurses, but on Tommy’s lips they seem curiously more vulgar than his natural and rougher expletives. It is, besides, as if one were eavesdropping outside the nurses’ common room.

Much of the charm of these children, and of the grown-ups too, lies in the fact that, apart from a few points on which etiquette is very strict, they have no manners. I don’t mean that they are bad-mannered; quite the contrary; what I mean is that their manners are not codified. Having no rules for behaviour under various circumstances, they must on each occasion act according to their kindliness and desire to please, or the reverse. They must go back to the first principles of manners. What they are, that they appear. What they feel at the moment, that they show. The kind man or child is kindly; the brutal or spiteful by nature are brutal or spiteful in manner. Elsewhere, among people of breeding, manners make the man and hide him. Here, the man makes his own manners, and in so doing still further reveals himself.

I have known a professional man who was rather well-spoken of for his good manners, fail lamentably so soon as he found himself in surroundings not his own. His code of manners did not apply there, and outside his code he had no manners. He was excessively rude. He showed at once that his customary good manners were founded on rules well learnt, and not on any real consideration for other people’s feelings. The incredible impertinence of clergymen and district visitors furnishes plenty of cases in point. Their manners, no doubt, are pretty good among themselves. Yet it is a common saying here, “What chake they gentry’ve got!” A ‘district lady’ entered Mrs Stidson’s cottage without knock or warning, just when Mrs Stidson was cleaning up and wanted no visitors of any sort. “What’s the matter with your eye?” asked the district lady. Mrs Stidson refused to answer. ("Untidy, intractable woman!”) But a neighbour upspoke and said, “Tis her husband, mam, as have give’d her a black eye.” At which the district lady exclaimed, “My good woman, why don’t you leave him. You ought to leave him at once!” Mrs Stidson has a number of young children.

TONY’S FOOT IN IT

It might have been expected, on the other hand, when Tony and myself went on holiday up-country, stayed at a largish much-upholstered hotel, and dined out several times as he had never done before, that he would have been like a fish out of water, very awkward, and would have committed a number of bad faux pas. Nothing of the sort. He was nervous, certainly, and the numerous knives, forks and glasses somewhat confused him at first. But Tony’s good manners are not codified. He is sensitive, kindly, desirous of pleasing, quick to observe. On that basis, he invented for himself, according to the occasion, the manners he had not been taught. At the same time he remained himself. And he was a complete success. Nobody had any reason to blush on Tony’s behalf. Except once; when he remarked to some ladies after dinner that he found Londoners very nice and free-like; that a pretty young lady had stopped him in the Strand the evening before, and had called him Percy; that he hadn’t had time to tell her she’d made a mistake, and that, in fact, he might have knowed her tu Seacombe, only he didn’t recollect.

There was a bad pause.

Tony doesn’t think ill of anybody without cause. Honi soit qui mal y pense might very well be his motto.

2

News has come along from Plymouth that the boats there have fallen in with large shoals of herring. The air here has since been charged with excitement the excitement of men who earn their livelihood by gambling with the sea. The drifters have fitted out. Most of the boats are up over lying on the sea wall but a few days ago many busy blue men slid the big brown drifters down their shoots to the beach. Looking along, one saw a couple of men standing in each drifter and, with the leisurely haste of seamen, drawing in their nets. It gave a peculiar savour, a hopeful animation, to the blank wintry sea. It was as if the spring had come to us human beings prematurely, before it was ready to seize on nature.

ON THE CLIFFS

Yesterday afternoon I felt too unwell to lend a hand in shoving off the boats. So I climbed to the top of the East Cliff. The air was cool and still so still that all the Seacombe smoke hung in the valley and drifted slowly to seawards and faded there. While the sun was setting behind a bank of sulky dull clouds, some woolpacks, faintly outlined in white against the grey, rose almost imperceptibly in the western sky. Everything, the sea itself, seemed very dry. Nothing moved on the cliffs, except some small birds which flittered homelessly among the black and twisted burnt gorse. They were very tiny and pitiful against, or indeed amid, the solemn gathering of the great slow clouds. On looking down from the edge of the cliff, a slight mistiness of the air gave one the impression that there was, lying level above the sea, a sheet of glass that dulled the sound of the water yet allowed one to discern every half-formed ripple, and even the purple of the rocks beneath. Five hundred feet below and a quarter of a mile out, were three boats. They also, like the birds, seemed pitifully tiny. But, unlike the birds, they did not seem purposeless. It was evident they were moving, though one could not see rowers, oars, or splashes, for they progressed in short jumps and above the dulled rattle of a billow breaking on the pebbles, the faint click-thud of oars between thole-pins was plainly audible. I had an odd fancy that the six men were rowing through immensity, into eternity, to meet God; and that they would so continue rowing, eternally.

This morning, very early, the crackle of burning wood in the kitchen fireplace awoke me. Then I heard the sea roaring; then Tony’s bare feet on the stairs. “Wind’s backed an’ come on to blow,” he said. “They’ve a-had to hard up an’ urn for it. Two on ’em’s in, an’ one have a-losted two nets. I told ’em ’twasn’t vitty when they shoved off. ’Tis blowing hard. I be going out along to see w’er t’other on ’em’s in eet.”

The sea was angry, the moon obscure. The dead-asleep town stood up motionless before the madly-living breakers. It seemed as if a horrible fight was in progress; loud rage and dumb treachery face to face in the semi-darkness; and between the livelong combatants, little men ran to and fro, peering out to sea.

Presently the third boat ran ashore. Its bellied sail hid everything from us who waited at the water’s edge. It was hoisted on a high wave, and cast on land. The sea did not want it then. The sea spewed it up. The sea can afford to wait, even until the clean bright little town is a ruin on a salt marsh.

Returning in house, we made hot tea, and laughed.

3

We had, as it were, said Good-Night to the town, though it was only half-past three in the afternoon. Most lazy we must have looked as we sailed off to the fishing ground with a light fair wind, NNW. John’s young muscular frame was leaning against the mainmast, like a magnificent statue dressed for the moment in fishermen’s rig. Tony aft was lounging across the tiller. He fits the tiller, for he is older and bent and his eyes are deeply crowsfooted with watching. Both of them showed the same splendid contrast of navy-blue jerseys against sea eyes and spray-stung red and russet skins. I was lying full length along the midship thwart. We lopped along lazily, about three knots to the hour.

HERRING DRIFTING

As we lounged and smoked, each of us sang a different song, more or less in tune. It sounded not unmelodious upon the large waters. At intervals we asked one another where the ‘gert bodies of herrings’ had gone off to. Eastwards, westwards, to the offing, or down to the bottom to spawn?

So near the land we were, yet so far from it in feeling. There, to the NE. was the little town, sunlit and brilliantly white, with the church tower rising in the middle and the heather-topped cloud-capped hills behind. There around the bay, were the red cliffs, crossed by deep shadows and splotched with dark green bushes. The land was there. We were to sea. The water, which barely gurgled beneath the bows of the drifter, was rushing up the beaches under the cliffs with a myriad-sounding rattle. Gulls, bright pearly white or black as cormorants, according as the light struck them, were our only companions. The little craft our kingdom was twenty-two foot long by eight in the beam, and a pretty pickle of a kingdom!

Mixed up together in the stern were spare cork buoys, rope ends, sacks of ballast and Tony. Midships were the piled up nets and buoys. For’ard were more ballast bags and rope ends, some cordage, old clothes, sacks, paper bags of supper, four bottles of cold tea, two of paraffin oil and one of water, the riding lamp and a very old fish-box, half full of pebbles, for cooking on. All over the boat were herring scales and smelly blobs of roe. It’s sometime now since the old craft was scraped and painted.

But the golden light of the sunset gilded everything, and the probable catch was what concerned us.

We chose our berth among the other drifters that were on the ground. We shot two hundred and forty fathom of net with a swishing plash of the yarn and a smack-smack-splutter of the buoys. We had our supper of sandwiches and tatie-cake and hotted-up tea.

“Can ’ee smell ort?” asked John sniffing out over the bows.

“Herring!” said I. “I can smell ’em plainly.”

“Then there’s fish about.”

Tony however remarked the absence of birds, and declared that the water didn’t look so fishy as when they had their last big haul. “They herrings be gone east,” he repeated.

“G’out! What did ’ee come west for then? I told yu to du as yu was minded, an’ yu did, didn’ ‘ee? Us’ll haul up in a couple o’ hours an’ see w’er us got any.”

We didn’t turn in. We piled on clothes and stayed drinking, smoking, chatting, singing a boat-full of life swinging gently to the nets in an immense dark silence, an immense sea-whisper.

HAULING IN THE NETS

About nine o’clock we hauled in for not more than nine dozen of fish. The sea-fire glimmered on the rising net, glittered in the boat, and then, with an almost painful suddenness, snuffed out. “They be so full as eggs,” said John every minute or two, holding out fish to Tony, who felt them and answered, “Iss, they’m no scanters [spawned or undersized fish]. They bain’t here alone.”

Nets inboard, we rowed a little east of another boat, to shoot a second time. John said, “Hoist the sail, can’t ’ee.” Tony said, “What’s the need?”

Before eleven we were foul of the other boat’s nets and had again to haul in. Tony puffed and panted with the double weight; John disentangled the mesh and swore.

“If we’d a-hoisted the sail...” he grumbled.

“There wasn’t no need if we’d a-pulled a bit farther.”

“What’s the good o’ pulling yer arms out?”

“I knowed where to go, on’y yu said we was far enough.”

“No I didn’t!”

“S’thee think I don’ know where to shute a fleet o’ nets?”

“Well, we’m foul, anyhow.”

“I was herring drifting afore yu was born. I knows well enough.”

“Why don’ ’ee hae yer own way then, if yu knows. Yu’m s’posed to be skipper here.”

“If I’d had me own way....”

“Hould thy bloody row, casn’!”

It sounded like murder gathering up; but Tony calls it their brotherly love-talk, and they are no worse friends for it all. The better the catch, the more exciting the work, and the livelier the love-talk. They say, therefore, that it brings luck to a boat.

A third time we shot nets, safely to the east of every other craft. Then John with his legs in a sack and a fearnought jacket round him, snored in the cutty, whilst Tony nodded sleepily outside. The sky eastwards had already in it the weird whitish light of the coming moon. The risen wind was piping out from land. I could see the bobbing lights of the other drifters to westward, and the glint of the Seacombe lamps on the water. Every now and then a broken wave came up to the boat with a confidential hiss. I had a constant impression that out of the dark flood some great voice was going to speak to me speak quite softly.

“Shall us hot some more tea?” said Tony. “My feet be dead wi’ cold.”

We took the old fish-box and placed on the pebbles in it an old saucepan half full of oakum soaked in paraffin. Across the saucepan we ledged a sooty swivel, and on the swivel a black tin kettle which leaked slowly into the flame. Tony and myself lay with our four feet cocked along the edge of the box for warmth. The smoke stank in our nostrils, but the flame was cheery. By that flickering light the boat looked a great deep place, full of lumber and the blackest shadows. The herring scales glittered and the worn-out varnish was like rich brown velvet. And how good the tea, though it tasted of nothing but sugar, smoke, paraffin and herring.

A LONG NIGHT AT SEA

It was nearly midnight. Tony suggested forty winks.

John was still sprawling beneath the cutty. Tony and I snoozed under the mainsail, huddled up together for the sake of warmth, like animals in a nest. At intervals we got up to peep over the gunwale or to bale the boat out. Then with comic sighs we coiled down together again. It was bitterly cold in the small hours. We pooled our vitality, as it were, and shared and shared alike. When we finally awoke, about five in the morning, the wind had died down, the sky and moon were clouded, and a dull mist was creeping over the sea.

We hauled in the net fathoms of it for scarcely a fish.

“Have ’ee got anything to eat?” asked Tony.

“No.”

“Have yu got ort to drink?” asked John.

“No.”

“Got a cigarette?” I asked.

“Not one.”

“If we was to go a bit farther out and shute....” said Tony.

“G’out! Hould yer row!”

“All very well for yu. Yu been sleeping there for all the world like a gert duncow [dog-fish]. Why didn’ ‘ee wake up an’ hae a yarn for to keep things merry like?”

NORT’ AT ALL

John was leaning out over the bows. He rose up; stretched himself. “Shute again!” he said with scorn. “Us an’t got nort to eat, nort to drink, nort to smoke, nor nort to talk about, an’ us an’t catched nort. Gimme thic sweep there, an’ let’s get in out o’ it, I say.”

It was foggy. I steered the boat by compass over a sea that, under the smudged moon, was in colour and curve like pale violently shaken liquid mud. In time we glimpsed the cliffs with the mist creeping up over them. Day was beginning to break, and with a breath of wind that had sprung up from the SE., we glided like a phantom ship on a phantom sea towards a phantom town between whose blind houses the wisps of the fog writhed tortuously.

Sixteen hours to sea in an open boat for three hundred herrings and the price three shillings a hundred!

It is nothing to fishermen, that; but we were all glad of our breakfast, a smoke and our beds.

4

Tony was gone to sea on Christmas Eve. (They caught three thousand). Mrs Widger had cricked her back, or had caught cold in it standing at the back door with the steaming wash-tub in front of her and a northerly wind behind. We wanted some supper beer....

I felt more than a little shy on entering the jug and bottle department with a jug. It is such a secret place. To face a bar full of people and plump a jug down on the counter, is one thing; but it is quite another to slink up the stairs and into the wooden box about seven feet high and four by four that does duty for the jug and bottle department, and the privy tippling place, of the Alexandra Hotel. There is no gas there. Light filters in from elsewhere. It holds about five people, jammed close together. Round it runs a shelf for glasses, and at one end is a tiny door through which jugs are passed to the barman. Once there was a curtain across the entrance, but it was put to such good and frequent use that they removed it. Talk in the jug and bottle box is usually carried on in soft whispers punctuated by laughter.

Three cloaked old women were there and one young one. Their jugs stood on the shelf, ready to take home, but meanwhile they were having a round of drinks on their own account. They looked surprised at my arrival (it was an intrusion); and more surprised still when, on hearing that the barman was merely having a chat the other side, I rattled the jug on the shelf and bumped the little door. They gasped when I slipped the bolt of the little door with a penknife. What chake to be sure! The hotel shows respect to its light-o’-day customers, but the dim jug and bottle box is supposed to show respect to the hotel. It calls the barman Sir. It said, “Good-night, sir!” in astonished chorus to me.

But just as the mere act of jumping a skipping rope made me long ago a freeman among the children, so I notice that fetching the supper beer has resulted in another indefinable promotion. I am not so much now ‘thic ther gen’leman tu Tony Widger’s.’ I am become ’Mister So-and-so’ myself alone.

When I returned with the jug Jimmy was seated at the table and saying between tears, “I want some supper, Mam. I be ’ungry.”

“Yu daring rascal! Yu’ll catch your death o’ cold if yu goes on getting your feet wet like this, night after night. I’ll break every bone in your body, I will! Take off they beuts to once, an’ go on up over. An’t got no supper for the likes o’ you. Yu shan’t wear your best clothes to-morrow, n’eet at all, spoiling ’em like this, yu dirty little cat! I’ll beat it out o’ ’ee. Now then! Up over!”

Very tearful, very hungry, and very slowly, Jimmy went to bed.

“No supper’s the thing for the likes o’ he,” his mother remarked. “I shall gie it to him one o’ these days, but I don’t hold wi’ knocking ’em about tu much.”

Her impatience in speech and patience in action are alike extraordinary. She says she will half kill the children and seldom strikes even: if I had the responsibility of them, I fear I should do both.

SUNDAY CLOTHES

Next morning there was a fine dispute over the Sunday clothes. Both Jimmy and Tommy went upstairs defiantly, and routed them out. The kitchen was filled with cries and jeers and threats. Tommy appealed to me. I told him I knew nothing about it, because I hadn’t got any Sunday clothes myself.

“Iss, yu ’ave,” said Tommy.

“No, not a rag.”

“Yu ’ave.”

“I haven’t. I’ve none at all. You’ve never seen them.”

“G’out!”

“That’s right.”

“Well,” said Tommy confidentially, “Yu got a clean chimie-shirt then, an’t ’ee?”

In the laughter which followed, the Sunday clothes were slipped on. And while Jimmy was struggling with a new pair of boots, he paid me the nicest compliment I have ever heard. He looked up, red but thoughtful. “Yu’m like Father Christmas,” he said.

“Why for, Jimmy?”

“’Cause yu’m kind.”

Jimmy doesn’t know how kind he is to me. And I don’t suppose it would do him any good to tell him.

We had a very typical and enjoyable English Christmas. We over-ate ourselves, and were well pleased, and the children went to bed crying.

5

THE “SHOOTING STAR” FITS OUT

Shuteing Star o’ Seacombe!Tis a purty crew to go herring driftin’! I’d so soon fall overboard in a gale o’ wind as go out to say wi’ thic li’l Roosian like that ther. Lord! did ’ee ever see the like o’it? I never did. But there, what can ’ee ’spect when the herring be up in price an’ men an’ boats as hasn’ been to sea for years fits out for to go herring driftin’? Coo’h! driftin’!”

That was Uncle Jake’s opinion. He stood on the shingle with his old curiosity of a hat cocked on one side and his hands deep in his trouser pockets, turning himself round inside his clothes to rub warmth into his skin; talking, always talking, whilst his twinkling eyes watch sea and land; but ready to help a boat shove off, and willing to take as pay the opportunity of talking to, and at, its crew. “’Tis blowing a fresh wind out ’long there, I tell ’ee,” was his formula of encouragement for a starting boat.

Herrings were up! Sixteen shillings a thousand they had been before Christmas; then eighteen, twenty-three, thirty-one.... “They’m fetching two poun’ a thousand tu Plymouth, what there is, an’ buyers there waiting from all over the kingdom. An’ they’m still going up, ’cause there ain’t none. Nine bob a hunderd tu St Ives, I’ve a-heard say. There’s a Plymouth buyer here to-day. I’ve a-see’d our Seacombe buyers luke. They Plymouth men be the bwoys!”

Herrings too have been in our bay as they have not come for years ’gert bodies of ’em’ while a succession of gales and blizzards has been sweeping the whole of the rest of the British coasts, and driving the steam-drifters into harbour. Hence the price of fish: quotations very high; business nil, or next door to it. Our bay however, by a fortunate freak of the weather, has been amply calm for our little undecked drifters, though squalls off land have made sailing tricky in the extreme. We have seen the snow on the distant hills but none has fallen here. We have had the ground-swell, rolling in from outside, but of broken seas, not one.

The boats that came in early on Christmas night (they didn’t like the look of the weather) brought hauls of ten thousand or so. They had given away netfuls of herring to craft from other places, because they had caught so many, and the wind was against them and the sky wild.

Next night, much the same thing. It was rumoured that some Cornish craft were beating up to the bay.

Next day, the Little Russian, a small, snug, ragged, much-bearded man, was to be seen painting the stern of his old boat a craft more tattered and torn, if possible, than her owner.

“What be doing, Harry?”

No reply. Great industry with the paint-brush.

“Be going to sea then?”

“Iss intye! What did ’er think?”

The Little Russian went on doggedly with his work, and when he rose from his knees, there appeared complete, on the stern of his boat, in lanky, crooked white letters: Shooting Star of Seacombe.

“Be it true yu’m going to sea t’night, Harry?”

“Iss.”

“What do ’ee ’spect to catch? Eh?”

No answer again. The Little Russian was hauling a couple of nets aboard.

“Who be going with ’ee?”

Öl’ Joe Barker an’ ’Gustus Theodore.”

“Good Lord! ’Tis a crew, that! Be ’ee going to catch dree dozen or ten thousand?”

“We’m on’y taking two nets,” replied the Little Russian quite seriously.

He was very busy.

AND SHOVES OFF

About three in the afternoon, when the drifters put out to sea, the nor’west wind was springing out from land in squalls. It had not sea-space to raise big waves, but it blew the white tops off the wavelets which hurried out against, and on the top of, the sou’westerly swell that was heaving its way in. As Uncle Jake remarked: “’Tis blowing fresh, I can tell ‘ee, an’ not so very far out at that. An’ ’tis blowing half a gale from the sou’west outside in the Channel. Do ’ee see thic black line across the horizon? That’s the sou’west wind, an’ plenty o’it. Luke at thees yer run along the shore, wi’ a calm sea. ’Tis the sou’west outside as makes that tu.”

The boats hoisted their smaller mainsails. “Aye, an’ they’ll hae to reef they down afore they gets out far. There! did ’ee see thic? That’s thiccy seine-boat as fitted out. Seine-boats ain’t no fit craft for herring driftin’.”

The mainmast of the seine boat had toppled over to port. No sooner was it re-stepped, and the sail hoisted, than over it went again. “Step o’ the mast gone, I’ll be bound,” said Uncle Jake. “They’m going to capsize, going on like that, if they bain’t careful. Poor job! when mastises goes over like that. Better to row.... There’s thic Li’l Roosian shoving off!”

In fact, the Shooting Star was shoved off, but a wave threw her back upon the shore. She was again shoved off. Again she grounded on the sand, and there she stuck. A roar of laughter broke forth all along the beach. The Little Russian and his crew stood up in the heeled-over boat, and by using their oars like punt poles, they tried to prevent the seas from slewing them round broadside on. Very helpless they looked, very comic, very futile.

A swarm of small boys buzzed around and jeered. The Little Russian jumped up and down with vexation. Augustus Theodore, rowing frantically in a foot or so of water, splashed and ‘caught crabs.’ Joe Barker, tall, patriarchal, thin and thinly clad, stood up to his oar, looked savage curses from his sunken old eyes and muttered them into his beard.

AND GETS OFF

“That be a purty crew!” repeated Uncle Jake. “I ‘ouldn’ go to say wi’ ’em, not if.... A purty fellow, thic ’Gustus Theodore! They calls chil’ern by names nowadays, but they called he ‘Gustus Theodore, an’ us can’t get over thic, so us al’ays calls ’en ’Gustus Theodore in long. Bain’t no gude tu hisself nor nobody else. I’ve a-took ’en to say.... Never again! ‘Er ain’t no fisherman nuther. An’ thic Joe Barker’s past it. He’ve had his day. Been in the Army an’ been in the Navy, an’ an’t brought no pension out o’ the one n’eet out o’ t’other. Helped throw a ’Merican midshipman overboard once, so they say, drough a porthole. Thought they was going to be hanged for it, but they wasn’t. He’ve a-lived wildish in his time, I can tell ‘ee; an’ now he’s the man for sleep. Take ’en out shrimping or lifting crab-pots, stop rowing a minute an’ he’s fast asleep. The Li’l Roosian hisself an’t been to say thees dozen years. ’Tis a crew o’it! Luke! they can’t shove off. I can see they wants Uncle Jake there.”

The Shooting Star was still being shoved. The Little Russian was still jumping up and down in the stern-sheets; Augustus Theodore was still rowing fast and fruitlessly; and Joe Barker stood impassively tall a mummy of a man, wrapped up in aged clothes and a great dirty white beard. Life was contracted within him. No more than his eyes seemed alive, and hardly those until you looked closely; for the yellow rims and whites appeared to be dead, and the old cursing flame of life burnt only in the pupils.

“Do ’ee really mean to go?” asked Uncle Jake, taking up a long oar to shove with. “’Tisn’t nowise fit for a crazy craft like thees yer.”

“When a man,” said the Little Russian solemnly, “when a man has a chance to catch herring and pay his way, and pay a debt or two maybe, ’tis on’y right to try.”

“For sure ’tis. But why an’t ’ee been to say thees twelve year then?”

“An’t been fit....”

“Fit! Tis the price o’ herring fetches the likes o’ yu. Have ’ee got yer lead-line and compass aboard?”

“I’ve broke mine.”

“’Tis tempting Providence to go away wi’out ’em Be yu off? Off yu goes then. Luke out!”

A yell went up as a wave broke in over the stern and soaked Joe Barker’s back.

“They’m off!” cried Uncle Jave with ironic merriment. “Wet drough to the skin they be!”

The Little Russian rowed steadily on the same side as ’Gustus Theodore. Both of them just balanced Joe Barker, who rowed on the other side in strong jerks, as if his aged strength revived for a part only of each stroke.

Darkness, drawing in over the sea, hid the drifters from sight. Along the beach we asked one another in jest, “I wonder what the Shuteing Star is doing now?”

The commonest answer was a laugh. But we did want to know.

Between eleven o’clock and midnight sail after sail appeared silently on the black darkness, as if some invisible hand had suddenly painted them there. The boats were coming in. Creaks and groans of winches sounded along the beach.

AND RETURNS

“Who be yu?” was the greeting from a rabble of youths who scuttled up and down the waters’ edge to guide boats to their berths and gain first news of the catches. “Have ‘ee see’d ort o’ the Shuteing Star?” they shouted.

“No-o-o-o!”

I shan’t go to bed till they comes in,” said Uncle Jake. “Cuden’ sleep if I did. ’Tis a craft! Her’s so leaky as a sieve, lying dry all these years. Not but what her was a gude ’nuff li’l craft in her time tu small for winter work. But I wishes ’em luck, I du.”

At last, the Shooting Star did row in. They had not dared to sail her. She touched the beach before we glimpsed her, for all our watching. A crowd ran down to haul her up and to crack jokes on her.

“Have ’ee catched ort, Harry?”

“Tu or dree dizzen, an’ half a ton o’ coral an’ some wild-crabs.”

“Did ’er sail well keep up to the wind? Eh?”

“Us rowed. ‘Tis blowin’ a gale out there.”

“What yu done to your nets?”

“Broke ’em.”

“On to the bottom?”

“Iss.”

“Why didn’t ’ee go crab-fishing proper? Be ’ee going again?”

The little Russan saw no joke. He bustled about the boat and replied: “A-course we be, if ’tis fit.”

“Well, I wishes ’ee luck then.”

We all wished luck to the Shooting Star to that cranky old boatload of pluck, ill-luck, and ancient desperation.

Said Uncle Jake: “I’d rather see they come in wi’ a boatload o’ herring than any boat along the beach. ‘Tis a purty craft an’ a purty crew, but they du desarve it.”

So said we all. ’Twas the least payment we could make for our entertainment.

As soon as they were hauled up, Joe Barker lit his pipe, and, instead of going to bed, he went west along the shore, and carried up and sifted sand till dawn.

“Jest what he be fit for now,” Uncle Jake remarked. “That’ll get ’en his bread an’ baccy far sooner’n drifting for herring in thic Shuteing Star.”

But if we only could have looked into the Shooting Star at sea. The Shooting Star of Seacombe!

6

“Us got ’em at last then!” so we tell one another. We have caught the catch of the season.

For three or four days the hauls had been fairly good. Elsewhere on the coast, the snow, sleet, wind and wrecks continued. Here alone, in Seacombe Bay, it got colder and colder, and the sea became calmer and sunnier. “Tis like old days,” Uncle Jake said while he spliced a new cut-rope to the drifter. “The herring be come again, in bodies, and the price be up. Us’ll hae ’em.”

PAYING CALLS AT SEA

An hour before sunset on Saturday afternoon we were shoved off the beach Tony, John, and myself. Every article of underclothing in duplicate, a couple of guernseys and a coat or two were next to nakedness. We were bloated with clothes, but that northerly air, it seemed to be fingering our very skins. Yet there was hardly wind enough to fill the sail. Ricketty-rock, ricketty-rock, went the sweeps between the thole-pins, as we rowed to the fishing ground six miles or so away. Not one of us wished to shirk the heavy work. ’Twas indeed our only source of warmth. The sun was setting. The moon began to rise. The sea was all of a glimmer and glitter.

“I should think we was nearly where they fish be,” said John.

“Bit farther,” said Tony. “Us’ll drift back ’long when the flid tide makes.”

“Du as yu’m minded tu.”

“Steer her a little bit in,” directed Tony.

“A little bit out,” directed John the next minute.

It was a middle course that turned out so happily.

We shot our nets seven forty-fathom nets we had aboard between the dying sunlight and the rising moon. Very still was the sea, and quiet, except where the other drifters were shooting their nets. Their talk lingered on the water; small voices that yet sounded strong. By the light of the moon I counted twenty-seven drifters, some of them great harbour craft from Cornwall, carrying fifteen or more nets. It seemed as if not a herring on that little fishing ground could escape the long fleets of nets.

We lighted the paraffin flare; supped on sandwiches and oily tea. We stamped about the stern-sheets to try and warm our feet. We sat awhile beneath the cutty. We thought we smelt fish, but it might have been only the smoke from our oil fire and the herring roe plastered about the boat. Despairing of sleep in such a cold, we sang and smoked.

Presently a plash of oars. Little punts were detaching themselves from the larger drifters and flitting about on the sea like slow-winged moon-butterflies. One came alongside.

“Whu’s that there?”

“Tony an’ John Widger Have ’em been catching much to Hallsands? Be they Plymouth drifters up t’night? What price yu been making? How deep yu got yer nets? Have ’ee catched holt the bottom? How’s Aaron an’ Charles? Did he get back ort o’ his gear? Us an’t done a gert deal eet. Few thousands thees week. Be yu going to haul in soon? Better, be her? Thought her was dead by now....”

HAULING IN

The fish-gossip over, we knew all the news of our stretch of coast. After taking another cigarette and another pull at our ‘drop o’ summut short,’ the man in the punt rowed off to his drifter.

“D’ yu know your fourth buoy’s awash?” he shouted back.

“Is it, by God!” said John.

“I can see ’tis,” said Tony.

“G’out! why didn’ ’ee see ‘twas afore then? Let’s go an’ luke.”

We buoyed the end of the road and started rowing alongside the net-buoys. The fourth was bobbing up and down. The fifth appeared now and then. None of the others was visible.

“Damn’d if us bain’t going to see some sport!” shouted John as we hastened back to take up the road.

We tugged on oilskins and then waited watchfully for the inside net to fill as well. The third buoy disappeared. The second went awash. “Now ’tis time, ain’t it?”

“Iss, I reckon.”

We bent to it, and began to haul.

The road come in heavy: John hauled and Tony coiled. As the net rose we saw a shimmer in the water, not of sea-fire it was too cold but of silver-sided herring. Then John took the foot of the net, Tony the mesh and myself the headrope. One strain. Altogether! Net and fish came in over the gunwale.

“No use to try and pick ’em out yer!” said John.

“Us ‘ould never ha’ got ’em in wi’ two,” panted Tony.

“Haul, casn’! Trim the boat. We’m going to hae all us can carry if t’other nets be so full as thees yer.”

We hauled, and pulled, and puffed and swore. The fish came over the side like a band of jewels, like shining grains on a huge and never-ending ear of corn, like a bright steel mat.... It was as if the moonlight itself, that flooded air and water, was solidifying into fish in the dimmer depths of the sea. A good catch must have dropped back out of the net. At times, it seemed as if nothing could move the headrope. I jammed a knee against the gunwale, waited till the dipping of the boat gave me a foot or two of line, then jammed again to hold it. The sea-birds screeched at their feast.

Tony, an inflated mannikin, danced on the piled-up nets and fish. “Help, help!” he cried to the next drifter. “Us got a catch.”

“Hould yer row!”

“Help, help!”

“Shut up, yu fule! We’m not done yet. Thee doesn’t want to pay for help, dost?”

THE CATCH OF THE SEASON

We hauled, pulled, puffed and swore again. Yard by yard the nets came up, now foul, now broken, now tangled, now wound about the headrope and almost solid with fish.

“Oh, my poor back.”

“Lord, my arms!”

“Casn’ thee trim a boat better’n that?”

“Where ’er down tu?”

“There’s only two strakes to spare.”

The water was within less than a foot of the gunwale, and we were five or six miles from home.

“Help, help!” shouted Tony again, and this time we let it pass. Five out of our seven nets were aboard; we could not take the remaining two.

Another drifter came alongside and took in the sixth net.

“Come on! here’s the seventh the last.”

“Can’t take no more.”

“Ther’s on’y thees yer outside net. Casn’ thee take thic?”

“Can’t du it. We’m leaking now. Here’s your headrope. Good-night.”

Tony gave a gesture of despair. “What shall us du? Us can’t take in much more.

“Hould yer row, an’ haul!”

The last net was fuller than ever. We hauled in half of it. A punt came near. “Can ’ee take one net?” yelled Tony.

“Us got ’en half in now,” said John.

“Iss, but the wind’s gone round north-easterly dead against us. An’ luke at the circle round the mune. Ther’s wind in thic sky, I tell ’ee. Us got so much now as we can carry home on a calm sea, let ’lone choppy.”

We cut the net.

“Hurry up! Hoist sail and get in out o’it ’fore the wind rises. Come on!”

With two oars out to windward we started beating home. We made a tack out to sea. There the waves skatted in over the bows, for the deeply-laden boat was down by the head because the heavy pile of net and fish prevented the water from running aft where we could have bailed it out. If we had had to tack much farther to sea.... We should have lost the catch, and perhaps ourselves.

We put the boat round towards Seacombe. “Luff her up all yu can,” said John. “Luff her up, I tell thee, or we’m never going to fetch. The sea’s rising an’ us an’t got nort to spare.”

By keeping the luff of the sail in a flutter, sometimes too much into the wind, I just fetched. Then we rowed into smoother water.

“’Tis fifteen thousand if ’tis one,” said John.

“’Tis more’n that,” said Tony with a note of respect in his voice.

PACKING THE FISH

“Better wait till they sends some boats out. Us can’t baych the boat wi’ thees weight in her.”

We yelled, anchored, then waited; swore, yelled and waited. Someone came at last. The great heavy mast was sent ashore. Two boatloads of net and fish followed, and finally the drifter herself was beached.

The crowd that had gathered on the shingle worked at the winch and ropes. We walked about among them answering questions, but for the moment doing nothing. We felt we had a right to watch the landlubbers work in return for the herrings we threw out to them. We had been to sea; had caught the catch of the season.

I came in house and fried some herrings for supper. Tony and John went back to the boat. All night long they worked under the moon, drawing out the net and picking the fish from it, standing knee-deep in fish, spotted with scales like sequins. Far into Sunday they worked, counting and packing the fish while the Sunday folk in their best clothes strolled along the sea-wall and sniffed.

Twenty-two long-thousand herrings squashed, dirty and bloodstained were carted away in the barrels. Twenty-eight hours Tony and John had worked. Then they washed, picked herring scales off themselves, and rested. The skin was drawn tightly over their faces and, as it were, away from their eyes. I saw, as I glanced at them, what they will look like when they are old men: the skull and crossbones half peeped out. And I said to myself: “When we feed on herrings we feed on fishermen’s strength. Though we don’t cook human meat, we are cannibals yet. We eat each other’s lives.”

Rightly considered, that’s not a nasty thought. Nor a new one either.

7

New Year’s Eve last night.... Tony did not go to sea. He announced that he would turn over a new leaf, and be a gen’leman, and not do no work no more. “Summut’ll turn up,” he said when I asked him how he was going to feed his family. “Al’ays have done an’ al’ays will, I s’pose. Thees yer ol’ fule ‘ll go on till he’s clean worked out. Thee casn’ die but once, an’ thee casn’ help o’it nuther.

“Shut thee chatter an’ bring in some wude,” said Mrs Widger. “Now then yu children, off yu goes! Up over, else my hand’ll be ’longside o’ee!”

“Gude-night!” say the children in chorus. “Gude-night! Gude-night! See yu t’morrow morning. Du us hae presents on New Year’s Day, Mam?”

“Yu’ll see. P’raps a cracker....”

“Coo’h....”

“Up over!”

“What ’tis tu be a family man,” said Tony.

“Whu’s fault’s that?” Mam Widger retorted.

“There, me ol’ stocking, don’t thee worry a man! Gie us a kiss....”

“G’out!”

DREE-HA’P’ORTH

The Christmas decorations and the little spangled toys from the children’s crackers were still hanging from clothes-lines across the kitchen. We piled wood on the fire; it had barnacle shells on it; with the wreckage of good ships we warmed ourselves. Mam Widger laid the supper. The steam from the kettles puffed merrily into the room. Herrings were cooking in the oven. A faint odour they were being stewed in vinegar stole out into the room to give us appetite and for the moment a sense of plenty. Mrs Widger took a penny-ha’penny from the household purse and handed it, together with a jug to Tony. “Dree-ha’p’orth o’ ale an’ stout. Go on.”

Tony returned with tupence-ha’p’orth. He had added a penny out of his own pocket because he is ashamed to ask for less than a pint. Grannie Pinn came in at the same time. “I got the t’other pen’orth for me mither-in-law,” said Tony.

“Chake again!” Grannie Pinn cried. “I wants more’n a pen’orth, I du.”

Tony slipped off his boots just in time. It was I who had to fetch an extra dree-ha’p’orth.

We supped with the uproariousness that Grannie Pinn always brings here. Some other people dropped in to see how we were doing. Not staying to clear the supper, we sang. The songs, as such, were indifferently good, but we meant them and enjoyed them. For a while Grannie Pinn contented herself with humming and nodding to the chorus. She started singing: swore at us for laughing at her. “I cude sing a song wi’ anybody once,” she said; and therewith she struck up a fine, very Rabelaisian old song in many verses. She lifted up her face to the ceiling, blushed (I am sure the Tough Old Stick blushed), and in a high cracked voice that gradually gathered tone and force, she trolled her verses out. With an infectious abandonment, we took up the chorus. After all, ’twas a song of things that happen every day one of those pieces of folk-humour which makes life’s seriousness bearable by carrying us frankly back to the animal that is in us, that has been cursed for centuries and still remains our strength.

Grannie Pinn’s song was the event of the evening. Excited by her efforts to the point of hardly knowing whether to laugh or cry, she told us we were ‘a pack o’ gert fules,’ and went. The other visitors followed after.

“Don’ know what yu feels like,” said Tony when they were all gone. “I feels more-ish. ’N hour agone I wer fit for bed, now I feels ’s if I cude sing for hours on end....”

THE NEW YEAR

“May as well welcome in the New Year now ’tis so late as ’tis,” said Mrs Widger, taking from one of her store-places a bottle of green ginger-wine and another of fearful and wonderful ‘Invalid Port’ which, as she remarked, ‘ain’t so strengthening as the port what gentry has.’ Tony added hot water to his ginger-wine, lay back in the courting chair, plumped his feet on Mrs Widger’s lap, and sang some more of those sea songs that have such melancholy windy tunes and yet most curiously stimulate one to action. I think it must be because they echo that particular sub-emotional desperation which causes men to do their reckless best the desperation that the treacherous sea itself engenders.

At a minute or two before twelve by the clock, the three of us went out to the back door. When the cats had scuttled away, the narrow walled-in garden was very still. By the light of the stars, shining like points in the deep winter heavens, I could see the beansticks, the balks of wood and the old masts and oars. I could also smell the drain. Tony, in his stockinged feet, leant on his wife’s shoulder while he raised first one foot from the cold stones, and then the other. We were a little hushed, with more than expectancy. So we waited; to hear the church clock strike and to welcome in the New Year.

And we waited until Tony said that his feet were too cold to stay there any longer. The church clock struck ting-tang, ting-tang in the frosty air.... A quarter past! The New Year had been with us all the while. It was our German-made kitchen clock had stopped.

We laughed aloud because the strain was relaxed; then bolted the door and began putting away the supper things.

“If anybody wants to make me a New Year’s Gift,” said Tony, “they can gie me a thousand a year.”

“And then yu’d be done for,” I said. “Yu cuden’ stand a life o’ nort to du. Nor cude I. We’m both in the same box, Tony. We’ve both got only our strength and skill and health, and if that fails, then we’m done. We’m our own stock-in-trade, and if we fail ourselves, then we’ve both got only the workhouse or the road.”

“Iss,” said Mam Widger, “an’ I don’ know but what yu’m worse off than Tony. He cude get somebody to work his boats for a time. An’ I cude work. But afore yu comes to the workhouse yu jest walk along thees way, an’ if us got ort to eat yu shall hae some o’it.”

“Be damn’d if yu shan’t!” said Tony. (I was putting away the pepper-pot at the moment). “Us ’ouldn’t never let thee starve, not if us had it ourselves for to give ’ee.”

So there ’tis. I’d wish to do the same for him, that he knows. How much the spirit of such an offer can mean, only those who have been without a home can understand fully. This New Year’s Day has been happier than most. Life has made me a New Year’s Gift so good that I cannot free myself from a suspicion of its being too good.

It has given me home.