rats - CHAPTER IX.


The Beginning of a Storm—A Ship in Distress—The Village Harbour—A Fisherman's Home—Little Jack, the Cripple—Waiting for the Boats—A Rough Old Fish-Wife—The Return of the Fishermen

            SUNDAY was to us all a real day of rest, and we enjoyed every minute of it, and for once listened to a very long sermon without the fidgets. The Rectory boys came up for a chat in the afternoon, so we let the dogs out and went down to the beach and strolled quietly about, neither dogs nor humans indulging in anything like play—all were too stiff and sore to think of it.

            We were all out again early on Monday morning, but without nets and taking only sticks; and we spent a short day, with a long lunch, looking up outlying rabbits in the hedges of the farm at the foot of the Denes; and here the two lurchers, who during the days at the nets had taken it easy and refused to face the gorse, had the chief of the work, for directly a rabbit was started by the other dogs, it made straight off across the open for the gorse on the Denes, and the lurchers were the only dogs fast enough to catch them. We finally had to give up work because the dogs of all sorts were too tired to move, and also because the weather, that had been fine and calm all the previous week, began to break, and before we reached shelter there was half a gale sending big green waves thundering on to the beach and carrying the salt spray far inland.

            That night, after Jack was in bed and asleep, I. put on my hat and went out, called by the noise of the waters. I joined a group of weather-beaten hard-featured men dressed in thick blue jerseys and "sou-wester" hats, who stood with their hands tucked deep into their trouser pockets, watching the sea from behind the shelter of a boat stranded high up on the beach. I got a civil word of greeting as I came up, and then we all watched in silence, for by this time the "half gale" had become a storm, and it was only by shouting we could have made each other hear. It was a wild weird scene, awe-inspiring, but intensely attractive—at least I found it so; but then such scenes did not often come before me, and I daresay my companions, who were well used to being out on such a night, only felt thankful they were safe on shore, and thought with anxiety of those of their friends and neighbours who were out battling with the storm. The moon when I reached the beach was nearly at the full and high up in the heavens, but it shed a fitful light, as each few seconds dark clouds and veils of mist flew across its face. One moment the sea lay before us a dark black mass, only marked along the beach by a broad strip of breaking, foam-crested waves; and the next it was a dancing, tossing, roaring sheet of ever-changing liquid silver; or far away we would see the spray like pearls rising high in the air before the storm, and at our feet the waves curled up like huge furious monsters, dashing at the sands and shingle as if bent on destruction, and then with a swirl sliding back, a mass oil foam, to meet and join the next wave, and with its help again come on to the attack.

            Over and over again I fancied I could hear the shrieks and groans of people in distress, and I turned for confirmation of my fancies to the faces of my companions; but all remained unmoved, but bore the quiet determined look that assured me that, had any unfortunate beings called for help from the midst of those wild waters, at the risk of those men's lives it would unhesitatingly have been given. Once for a moment, when a thin mist swept before the moon and made the light on the waters appear more like day than night, I clearly saw on the horizon the upper part of a ship's masts, with some sails bent to their yards, and all heeled over as if the ship were then about to founder, and I gave a loud exclamation; but an old sailor put his hand on my shoulder and called in my ear, "All right, master, all right! We have watched her for a quarter of an hour trying to make the point of the sands yonder, and she is now past them and has an open sea. She is as safe as you are now, thank God; but it was a near shave, and we thought she and all in her were gone." Often since then in my dreams I have seen that wind-tossed sea, and heard the roar of the waters and the screams of the storm, and seen those masts and sails heeling over, and have awoke with a start and dread fear in my heart.

            I had been tired when I came in from work, and I had a snug warm bed waiting for me, and moreover I reasoned that watching a storm in the dead of night was no part of a rat-catcher's duty; but I was so fascinated I could not tear myself away, and I stood with my companions behind the boat till long after midnight. Then two other figures dressed like my companions joined us, and it was only when they spoke that I recognised one as the parson of the parish, and the other as the young curate who had helped us with the rabbits. Both asked a few questions of the sailors, who seemed eager to give them information; and then the rector, turning to me, said: "You will be perished by the cold if you stand here longer. Come with me, and I will show you a picture of a different sort, but yet one that I think will interest you." I readily accepted and followed my friend, who, though far from a young man, bore the buffeting of the storm manfully; and he led me up through the village street, and then turning down a short steep lane brought me to a little cove that was partly sheltered by a spit of rock that jutted out into the sea. There, such as it was, was the harbour of the village, and by the fitful light I could see some dozen fishing boats drawn up high on the beach above the force of the waves; and beyond, a cluster of low, one-storied cottages and sheds, with small boats, spars, timbers, windlasses, etc., all denoting the home of fishermen. From this cove, early that morning, two boats had sailed with their nets for the fishing grounds out beyond the sands, and it was for these my friends behind the boat were patiently watching, and it was to say a few words to cheer and comfort the wives and families of these men that the old rector had now come.

            From a latticed window just in front of us a bright lamp shed its rays over the cove, and the rector took me straight to the door of this house, and having knocked and been told to come in, he lifted the latch and ushered me inside. The room was like hundreds of others along that coast, the homes of the toilers of the deep, and bore evident signs of being made by men more used to ships than stone or brick buildings. It was a good large room, very low, with heavy rafters overhead, which, with the planks of which the walls were constructed, had doubtless been taken from boats and ships that had served their time on the sea. The open fireplace at the end, with its wide chimney, was the only part of the building not made of old ship timbers and planks, and there was a strong smell of tar from these and from sundry coils of dark rope that were stowed away in a far corner. The long table down the middle of the room was of mahogany and had seen better days in a captain's cabin. The benches round the walls had served as seats on some big ship's deck; and there were swinging lamps and racks hung overhead from the rafters, with rudders, boat-hook, snatch-block, belaying pins, and various things I did not know the use of; but all were neatly arranged. There was a large arm-chair made out of a barrel set ready by the side of the hearth, on which were spread clean flannel clothes to warm and air, in readiness for the home-coming of the wet and tired husband.

            In front of the fire, attending to it and to three or four pots and kettles that simmered on the hearth, stood a woman about thirty years of age—just an ordinary fisherman's wife, strong and well shaped, without beauty of feature, but bright and intelligent looking; and when a smile lit up her face, it shed such a kindly ray that one felt that the husband in the little fishing boat on the storm-tossed deep might have his eyes fixed on the lantern burning in the window, but it would be the light of the wife's smile that kept his hand steady on the helm and guided the boat, and made him long to round the point and come to anchor.

            On the other side of the hearth was another arm-chair, also made out of a barrel, but much smaller; and in this, packed tightly and snugly round with cushions, half-sat, half-reclined a boy about ten years of age; but, alas! a pair of crutches leaning in the corner beside him at once told a sad tale. I know the points and beauties of all sorts of dogs, and always admire them, but I am not much of a hand at the good points and beauties of men and women, and as for boys, it is rare I see anything but mischief written in their faces; but somehow I could not take my eyes off the boy in the chair. I suppose because it was so different to any other young face I had ever seen, and so different to what one might expect to find amid the surroundings of a fisherman's cottage.

            It was a dark, delicate, oval face, like a girl's, with finely cut features, and a complexion as fair as the petals of an apple blossom; but it was his great brown eyes and long eyelashes, black as night, that held the attention, together with a look of deep patient suffering, mingled with gentleness and love that lit all up, and filled even the heart of a rough old rat-catcher like me with a feeling of deep pity and an intense desire to protect and befriend a small creature who looked too fragile, too beautiful, and too good for this old work-a-day world of ours, and as if he were only tarrying for a short while before going to his eternal home, where his features will be beautified by perfect love, and will lose the look of suffering and pain.

            The rector, taking off his "sou'-wester" as he entered, turned to the woman with a cheery voice, and said, "Well, Mary, how are you and the boy?—how are you, my man? I happened to be passing" (just as if it were quite a common thing for a parson to be out on the loose at one a.m. on a winter's night), "and I thought I would just call in to say that the men at the boats tell me that the bark of this gale is far worse than its bite, and that it is a fair, honest, rattling gale that such good sailors as your husband care nothing for, and that we may expect the boats in with the daylight, so you may keep the pots boiling. But why isn't that youngster snug in bed and asleep? Oh! he can't sleep when the wind howls, and Jack is away! Why, my boy, Jack will laugh at you when he comes home, and say he don't want such big, tired-looking eyes watching for him! Well, it will be morning soon, and, please God, Jack will be here, and will have popped you into bed himself before most of the world are up and about." At this Mary smiled; and the little boy, with a low laugh, said "Jack knows Mary and I are waiting for him. Jack says he can often see us, and all we are doing, when he is out at sea in a raging storm, and the night is ever so dark; and he'd feel bad, Jack would, if I was not up to see him eat his supper; and besides, Mary could not sit here alone and listen to the wind and sea, and I am never tired and sleepy when waiting for Jack. Besides, Jack says he must tell someone all he has done and seen while he gets his supper, and Mary is too busy after the nets and things, so I sit here, and Jack tells me of such wonderful things: it is just lovely to hear him."

            The rector would not sit down, and soon hurried me off to another cottage, much such another as the first; but instead of Mary and the boy, we found a great, tall, gaunt old woman, sitting up before the fire, waiting for her two grandsons, who were away in the same boat with Jack; but to the rector's cheery, hopeful words, the woman answered with a bitter, sharp, complaining tongue: "I don't want no stop-at-home idle chaps to tell me what a storm is. Danger! who says there's danger? Danger with a little puff of wind like this? Not but what both of those boys will be washed ashore one day as their grandfather and father were. It's in the blood, and trying for a lone woman. Drat the boys! I told them not to go off with Jack. I could see plain for days that it was coming on to blow; but oh, no! they know better than me, who have lived to lose their father in such a storm as this, and to see his boat with my own eyes go to pieces on the Point as she came in, and not a man saved, and me left with them boys to keep. God only knows how I did it, and now they are that masterful they won't pay no attention to me." And then, as a hurricane of wind dashed at the door and windows and sent the smoke from the wood fire far out into the room, the poor old thing started and turned to the night outside with a look of terror; and, as the storm rushed on, and then there was a lull, she threw her apron over her head and sobbed for fear and deep anxiety for her grandsons.

            The rector comforted her with gentle words and praise of her pluck and nerves; and as he and I returned to the beach, he told me that the old woman had once been the prettiest girl for many miles round, that when her boys were far too young to help her the father had been drowned by the upsetting of his boat on the Point, and from that day she had worked and toiled, mending nets and selling fish in fair weather and foul, often weary and half-starved, but succeeding in the end to keep her old cottage over her head, and to bring her boys up respectably and turn them out two of the smartest fishermen along the coast.

            As we left the cottage the first tender light of the morning was paling the eastern sky far out to sea, and hastening on to the Point, we could just make out a distant sail appearing now and then out of the departing darkness of the night, and before half an hour was over the rector declared it to be Jack's boat coming in fast before the wind. All the village was astir in a minute, old men and young women and children hurrying to the cove and making ready for the homecoming; and in a few minutes the boat, with Jack holding the helm and the old woman's boys sitting crouched low down, dashed past the Point, turned sharp into the cove, and down in a moment fell the sail and the anchor-chain rattled out of the bows. There was no cheering or noisy welcome or rejoicing, for such scenes were the daily incidents in the life of the village; but everyone lent a helping hand, and in a few minutes Jack and his men were on shore. The old grandmother was there, but took no notice of her grandsons, who marched off to the cottage laden with oars, etc., where the old woman had just preceded them to put out the breakfast.

            The rector and I turned to go home, and as I passed the cottage where Jack lived I glanced in and saw him standing on the hearth, tall, massive, weather-beaten and rugged, with the lame boy high up in his arms looking hard in his face, and both man and child had such a happy contented smile on their faces that it did me good to see, and I think may have rejoiced even the angels above.

            When parting from me at the inn door, the rector said that if I liked to step up to the rectory that evening after my supper he would find me a pipe of tobacco, and tell me all that was known of the history of the little boy who had awakened such an interest in me, for, he added, "it is a very curious story."

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