Poor Man's House
A POOR MAN'S HOUSE
We understand the artificial better than the natural. More soul,
but less talent, is contained in the simple than in the complex.
London: John Lane The Bodley Head New York: John Lane Compy. MCMIX
All rights reserved
Turnbull and Spears, Printers, Edinburgh
TO BOB AND TO EDWARD GARNETT
A few chapters, chosen from the completed work, have appeared in the
Albany Review, the Daily News and Country Life. To
the editors of those periodicals the author's acknowledgments are due.
The substance of A Poor Man's House was first recorded in a
journal, kept for purposes of fiction, and in letters to one of the
friends to whom the book is dedicated. Fiction, however, showed itself
an inappropriate medium. I was unwilling to cut about the material, to
modify the characters, in order to meet the exigencies of plot, form,
and so on. I felt that the life and the people were so much better than
anything I could invent. Besides which, I found myself in possession of
conclusions, hot for expression, which could not be incorporated at all
into fiction. A Poor Man's House consists then of the journal and
letters, subjected to such slight re-arrangement as should enable me to
draw the truest picture I could within the limits of one volume.
Primarily the book aims at presenting a picture of a typical poor
man's house and life. Incidentally, certain conclusions are expressed
whichneedless to sayare very tentative and are founded not alone on
this poor man's house. Of the book as a picture, it is not the
author's place to speak. But its opinions, and the manner of arriving
at them, do require some explanation; the right to hold such opinions
Educated people usually deal with the poor man's life deductively;
they reason from the general to the particular; and, starting with a
theory, religious, philanthropic, political, or what not, they seek,
and too easily find, among the millions of poor, specimensvery
frequently abnormalto illustrate their theories. With anything but
human beings, that is an excellent method. Human beings, unfortunately,
have individualities. They do what, theoretically, they ought not to
do, and leave undone those things they ought to do. They are even said
to possess soulsuntrustworthy things beyond the reach of
sociologists. The inductive methodreasoning from the particular to
the generalthough it lead to a fine crop of errors, should at least
help to counterbalance the psychological superficiality of the
deductive method; to counterbalance, for example, the nonsense of those
well-meaning persons who go routing about among the poor in search of
evil, and suppose that they can chain it up with little laws. Chained
dogs bite worst.
For myself, I can only claimI only want to claimthat I have
lived among poor people without preconceived notions or parti pris
; neither as parson, philanthropist, politician, inspector, sociologist
nor statistician; but simply because I found there a home and more
beauty of life and more happiness than I had met with elsewhere. So far
as is possible to a man of middle-class breeding, I have lived their
life, have shared their interests, and have found among them some of my
closest and wisest friends. Perhaps I may reasonably anticipate one
type of criticism by adding that I have felt something of the pinch and
hardship of the life, as well as enjoyed its picturesqueness. Since the
book was first written, it has fallen to me, on an occasion of illness,
to take over for some days all the housekeeping and cooking; and I have
worked on the boats sometimes fifteen hours a day, not as an amateur,
but for hard andwhat is more to the pointbadly-needed coin. It took
the gilt off the gingerbread, but it didn't spoil the gingerbread!
Would it were possible to check by ever so little the class-conceit
of those people who think that they can manage the poor man's life
better than he can himself; who would take advantage of their education
to play ducks and drakes with his personal affairs. For it is my firm
belief that in the present phase of national evolution, and as regards
the things that really matter, the educated man has more to learn of
the poor man than to teach him. Even Nietzsche, the philosopher of
aristocracy, went so far as to say that in the so-called cultured
classes, the believers in 'modern ideas,' nothing is perhaps so
repulsive as their lack of shame, the easy insolence of eye and hand
with which they touch, taste, and finger everything; and it is possible
that even yet there is more relative nobility of taste, and more
tact for reverence among the people, among the lower classes of the
people, especially among peasants, than among the newspaper-reading
demi-monde of intellect, the cultured class.
A POOR MAN'S HOUSE
The sea is merely grinding against the shingle. The Moondaisy
lies above the sea-wall, in the gutter, with her bottom-boards out and
a puddle of greenish water covering her garboard strake. Her
hunchbacked Little Commodore is dead. The other two of her old crew,
George Widger and Looby Smith are nowhere to be seen: they must be
nearly grown up by now. The fishermen themselves appear less
picturesque and salty than they used to do. It is slack time after a
bad herring season. They are dispirited and lazy, and very likely
These old lodgings of mine, with their smug curtains, aspidestria
plant, china vases and wobbly tables and chairs....
But I can hear the sea-gulls screaming, even here.
[Sidenote: GEORGE GONE TO SEA]
Yesterday morning I met young George Widger, now grown very lanky
but still cat-like in his movements. He was parading the town with a
couple of his mates, attired in a creased blue suit with a wonderful
yellow scarf around his neck, instead of the faded guernsey and ragged
sea-soaked trousers in which he used to come to sea. What was up? I
asked his father, and Tony had a long rigmarole to tell me. George had
got a sweetheart. Therefore George had begun to look about him for a
sure livelihood. George was not satisfied with a fisherman's prospects.
Yu works and drives and slaves, and don't never get no forarder. So
George had gone to the chief officer of coastguards without saying a
word to his father and had been found fit. George had joined the Navy.
He was going off to Plymouth that very day at dinner-time.
It is like a knight of romance being equipped by his lady for the
wars. But what must be the difficulty to a young fisherman of earning
his bread and cheese, when all he can do for his sweetheart is to leave
her forthwith! There's a fine desperation in it.
Tony seemed rather proud. They 'ouldn't think as I had a son old
enough for the Navy, wude they, sir? I married George's mother, her
that's dead, when I wer hardly olden'n he is. I should ha' joined the
Navy meself if it hadn' been for the rheumatic fever what bent me like.
I am. 'Tis a sure thing, you seeonce yu'm in it an' behaves
yourselfwi' a pension at the end o'it. But I'm so strong an'
capable-like for fishing as them that's bolt upright, on'y I 'ouldn't
ha' done for the Navy. Aye! the boy's right. Fishing ain't no job for a
man nowadays; not like what it used to be. They'll make a man of him in
In the evening, after dark, I saw Tony again. He was standing
outside a brilliantly lighted grocer's shop, his cap awry as usual, and
a reefer thrown over his guernsey. Something in the despondency of his
attitude haled me across the road. Well, Tony? George is there by
Iss ... I-I-I w-wonder what the boy's thinking o'it now....
The man was crying his heart out. I come'd hereto 'cause it don'
seem 's if I can stay in house. Went in for some supper a while ago,
but I cuden' eat nort. 'Tisn' 's if he'd ever been away from home
before, yu know.
Come along down to the Shore Road, Tony.
It seemed wrong, hardly decent, to let his grief spend itself in the
lighted-up street. The Front was deserted and dark, for there was rain
in the wind, and the sound of the surf had a quick savage chop in it.
Away, over the sea, was a great misty blackness.
As we walked up and down, Tony talked between tears and angertears
for himself and George, anger at the cussedness of things. He looked
straight before him, to where the row of lamps divided the lesser from
the greater darkness, the town noises from the chafing surf; it is the
only time I have ever seen a fisherman walk along shore without a
constant eye on the sea.
He's taken and gone away jest as he was beginning to be o' some use
wi' the boats, an' I thought he wer settling down. I didn' know
what wer going on, not till he came an' told me he wer off. But 'tisn'
that, though I bain't so strong as I was to du all the work be meself;
'tis what he's a-thinking now he've a-lef' home an' 'tis tu late to
come back if he wants tu. He's ther, sure 'nuff, an' that's all about
In the presence of grief, we are all thrown back on the fine old
platitudes we affect to despise. You mustn't get down over it, Tony,
I said. That won't make it a bit the better. If he's steadywoman,
wine and the resthe'll get on right enough. He's got his wits about
him; knows how to sail a boat and splice a rope. That's the sort they
want in the Navy, I suppose. He'll make his way, never fear.
Think how you'll trot him out when he comes home on leave. Why, they
say a Devon man's proper place is the Navy.
Iss, they du. I should ha' been there meself if it hadn'
been for the rheumaticsjest about coming out on a pension now, or in
the coastguards. I be in the Royal Naval Reserve, but I ain't
smart enough, like, for the Navy. The boy....
He's as smart and strong as they make 'em.
Aye! he's smart, or cude be, but he'll hae to mind what he's
a-doin' there. They won't put up wi' no airs like he've a-give'd
me. Yu've got to du what yu'm told, sharp, an' yu mustn't luke [look]
what yu thinks, let 'lone say it, or else yu'll find yourself in chokey
[cells] 'fore yu knows where yu are. 'Tis like walking on a six-inch
plank, in the Navy, full o' rules an' regylations; an' he won't get fed
like he was at home nuther, when us had it.
[Sidenote: GROG AS A SLEEPING DRAUGHT]
Why don't you go to bed and sleep, Tony?
How can I sleep wi' me head full o' what the boy's thinking o'it
More walking and he calmed down a little.
Come and have some hot grog for a sleeping draught, Tony, and then
go home to bed.
Had us better tu?
Come along, man; then if you go straight to bed you'll sleep.
I on'y wish I cude. The boy must be turned in by this time. 'Tis
like as if I got a picture of him in my mind, where he is, an' he ain't
When Tony went down the narrow roadway, homewards, he had had just
the amount of grog to make him sleep: no more, no less. That father's
griefthe boy gone to sea, the father left stranded ashoreit was bad
to listen to. While going up town, I wondered with how much sorrow the
Navy is recruited. We look on our sailors rather less fondly than on
the expensive pieces of machinery we send them to sea in. I don't think
I shall ever again be able to regard the Navy newspaper-fashion. It
seems as if someone of mine belongs to it....
Lucky George! to be so much missed.
This morning, when I saw Tony on the Front, he was more than a
little awkward; looked shyly at me, from under his peaked cap, as if to
read in my face what I thought of him. He had slept after all, and
spoke of the hot grog as a powerful, strange invention, new to him as a
sleeping draught. When, in talking, I said that I have only a back
bedroom and a fripperied sitting room, and that my old lodgings do not
please me as they used to, he clapped me on the shoulder with a jollity
intended, I think, to put last night out of my mind. What a pity yu
hadn't let we know yu cuden't find lodgings to your liking. Us got a
little room in house where they sends people sometimes from the
Alexandra Hotel when they'm full up. My missis 'ould du anything to
make 'ee comfor'able. Yu an't never see'd her, have 'ee? Nice little
wife, I got. Yu let us know when yu be coming thees way again; that is,
if yu don' mind coming wi' the likes o' us. We won't disturb 'ee.
[Sidenote: A NOISY PLACE]
Good fellow! It was his thanks. However I shall be going home
to-morrow. Tony Widger lives, I believe, somewhere down the Gut, in
Under Town, a place they call the Seacombe slum. You can see a horde of
children pouring in and out of the Gut all day long, and in the evening
the wives stand at the seaward end of it, to gossip and await their
husbands. Noisy place....
A card from Tony Widger:
Dear Sir in reply to your letter I have let to the hotel which
full for the 28th july until the 6th Aus, but I have one little
room to the back but you did not say about the time it would
you to walk down also John to Saltmeadow have let so you can
that room if you can manage or you can see when you come down
are a lot of People in Seacombe or you write and let me know
will see if I can get rooms for you if you tell me about the
you will be hear from yours Truly Anthony Widger.
Risky; but never mind. There is always the sea. It is something to
have the certainty of a bed at the end of a long day's tramp. Besides,
I want to see Tony, and George too, if by chance he is at home. And
there may be a little fishing. And
And stepping westward seems to be
A kind of heavenly destiny.
That's the real feeling at the back of my mind. I want to go
west, towards the sunset; over Dartmoor, towards Land's End, where the
departing ships go down into the sea.
After a hundred miles of dusty road, it is good to snuff the
delicately salted air. The bight of the Exe, where we crossed it by
steam launch, was only a make-believe for the sea. How wonderfully the
slight rippling murmur of a calm sea flows into, and takes possession
of one's mind.
I stood by the shore and watched the boats, and was very peaceful.
Then I went down the Gut to the house that I guessed was Anthony
Widger's. Many children watched me with their eyes opened wide at my
knapsack. A pleasant looking old womanshort, stout,
charwoman-shapedcame out of the passage just as I raised my hand to
knock the open door. Are you Mrs Widger? said I.
Lor' bless 'ee! I ben't Mrs Widger. Here, Annie! Here's a gen'leman
to see 'ee.
Mrs Widger, the afternoon Mrs Widger, is a quite slim woman
whostrangely enough for a working man's wifelooks a good deal
younger than she is. She has rather beautiful light brown hair and
dresses tastefully. I am afraid she will not feel complimented if the
old woman tells her of my mistake.
Her manner of receiving me indicated plainly a suspended judgment,
inclined perhaps towards the favourable. I was shown my room, a little
long back room, with ragged wall-paper, and almost filled up by a huge,
very flat, squashy bed. After a wash-over (I did not ask for a bath for
fear of exposing the lack of one) I went down to tea.
Bread, jam and cream were put before me, together with fairly good
hot tea from a blue, smoky, enamelled tin teapot which holds any
quantity up to a couple of quarts. Mrs Widger turned two guernseys, a
hat, several odd socks, and a boot out of a great chintz-covered chair
which lacked one of its arms. To my made conversation she
Dear me! My! Did you ever.... She was taking stock of me.
Presently she went to a cupboard, which is also the coal-hole, and
brought out an immense frying-pan, black both inside and out. She
heated it till the fat ran; wiped out it with a newspaper; then placed
in it three split mackerel. For Tony's tea, she explained. He's to
sea now with two gen'lemen, but I 'spect he'll be in house sune.
Voices from the passage: Mam! Tay! Mam, I wants my tay!
A deeper voice: Missis, wer's my tay? Got ort nice to eat?
It was Tony himself, accompanied by a small boy and a slightly
larger small girl.
Hullo, sir! Yu'm come then. Do 'ee think you can put up wi' our
little shanty? Missis ought to ha' laid for 'ee in the front room. Us
got a little parlour, you know.I be so wet as a drownded corpse,
The two children stood on the other side of the table, staring at me
as if I were a wild beast behind bars which they scarcely trusted.
'Tis a gen'leman! exclaimed the girl.
Coo'h! the boy ejaculated.
Tony turned on them with make-believe anger: Why don' 'ee git yer
tay? Don' 'ee know 'tis rude to stare?
Now then, you children, Mrs Widger continued in a strident voice,
buttering two hunks of bread with astonishing rapidity. Take off thic
hat, Mabel. Sit down, Jimmy.
Coo'h! Jam! said Jimmy. Jam zide plaate, like the gen'leman,
please, Mam Widger.
When you've eat that.
I never saw children munch so fast.
Tony took off his boots and stockings, and wrung out the ends of his
trousers upon the hearth-rug. He pattered to the oven; opened the door;
Her's got summat for my tay, I can see. What is it, Missis? Fetch
it outquick, sharp! Mackerel! Won' 'ee hae one, sir? Ther's plenty
Whilst Mrs Widger was helping him to the rest of his food, he ate
the mackerel with his fingers. Finally, he soaked up the vinegar with
bread, licked his finger-tips and turned towards me. Yu'm in the
courting chair, sir. That's where me an' Missis used to sit when we was
courting, en' it, Annie? Du 'ee see how we've a-broke the arm? When yu
gets a young lady, us'll lend 'ee thic chair. Didn' know as I'd got a
little wife like thees yer, did 'ee? Ay, Annie!
He turned round and chucked her under the chin.
G'out, you dirty cat! cried Mrs Widger, flinging herself back in
the chairyet not displeased.
It was a pretty playful sight, although Mrs Widger's voice is rather
like a newspaper boy's when she raises it.
This morning, when I arrived downstairs, the kitchen was all of a
caddle. Children were bolting their breakfast, seated and afoot; were
washing themselves and being washed; were getting ready and being got
ready for school. Mrs Widger looked up from stitching the seat of a
small boy's breeches in situ. I've a-laid your breakfast in the
Thither I went with a book and no uncertain feeling of
[Sidenote: BREAKFAST IN THE PARLOUR]
The front room looks out upon Alexandra Square. It is, at once,
parlour, lumber room, sail and rope store, portrait gallery of
relatives and ships, and larder. It is a veritable museum of the
household treasures not in constant use, and represents pretty
accurately, I imagine, the extent to which Mrs Widger's house-pride is
able to indulge itself. But I have had enough at Salisbury of eating my
meals among best furniture and in the (printed) company of great minds.
The noise in the kitchen sounded jolly. Now or never, I thought. So
after breakfast, I returned to the kitchen and asked for what bad
behaviour I was banished to the front room.
Lor'! If yu don't mind this. On'y 'tis all up an' down here....
I went yesterday to see my old landlady at Egremont Villas. She
asked me where I was lodging.
At Tony Widger's, in Alexandra Square.
Why, that's in Under Town.
Yes, in Under Town.
Oh, law! I can't think how you can live in such a horrid place!
On my assuring her that it was not so very horrid, she rearranged
her silken skirts on the chair (a chair too ornamentally slight for her
weight) and tilted up her nose. I must get and lay the table, she
said, for a lady and gentleman that's staying with me. Very
[Sidenote: ALEXANDRA SQUARE]
Under Town has, in fact, an indifferent reputation among the elect.
Not that it is badly behaved; far from it. The shallow-pated resent its
not having drawn into line with their cheap notions of progress. If
Under Town had put plate-glass windows into antique buildings....
Visitors to Seacombe, not being told, hardly so much as suspect the
existence of its huddled old houses and thatched cottages. The
shingle-paved Gut runs down unevenly from the Shore Road between a row
of tall lodging houses and the Alexandra Hotel, then opens out suddenly
into a little square which contains an incredible number of recesses
and sub-corners, so to speak, with many more doors in them than one can
discover houses belonging to the doors. Two cottages, I am told, have
no ground floors at all. Cats sun themselves on walls or squat about
gnawing fish bones. A houdan cockerel with bedraggled speckly plumage
and a ragged crest hanging over one eye struts from doorstep to
doorstep. The children, when any one strange walks through the Square,
run like rabbits in a warren to their respective doors; stand there,
and stare. Tony Widger's house is the largest. Once, when Under Town
was Seacombe, a lawyer lived herehence the front passage. It has a
cat-trodden front garden, in which only wall-flowers and some box
edging have survived. Over the front door is a broken trellis-work
porch. Masts and spars lean against the wall. The house is built of red
brick, straight up and down like an overgrown doll's house, but the
whole of the wall is weathered and toned by the southerly gales which
blow down the Gut from the open sea. Those same winds see to it that
Alexandra Square does not smell squalid, however it may look. At its
worst it is not so depressing as a row of discreet semi-detached
villas. It is, I should imagine, a pretty accurate mirror of the lives
that are lived in itpoor men's lives that scarcely anybody fathoms.
If one looks for a moment at a house where people have starved, or are
starving.... What a gift of hope they must possessand what a sinking
in their poor insides!
This morning they told me how my little hunchbacked Commodore died.
He had been ailing, they said; had come to look paler and more pinched
in his small sharp face. Then (it was a fisherman who told me this):
He was in to house one morning, an' I thought as 'e were sleepin', an'
I said, 'Harry, will 'ee hae a cup o' tay; yu been sleeping an't 'ee?'
An' 'e says, 'No, I an't; but I been sort o' dreaming.' An' 'e said as
he'd see'd a green valley wi' a stream o' water, like, running down the
middle o' it, an' 'e thought as 'e see'd Granfer there (that us losted
jest before 'en) walking by the stream. A'terwards 'e sat on 's
mother's lap, like 's if 'e wer a child again, though 'e wer nearly
nineteen all but in size; an' 'e jest took an' died there, suddent an'
quiet like; went away wi'out a word; an' us buried 'en last January up
to the cementry on land.
So the Moondaisy's luckiest fisherman packed up and went.
It is astonishing how hungry and merry these children are,
especially the boys. They rush into the kitchen at meal times and
immediately make grabs at whatever they most fancy on the table.
[Sidenote: MAN AND GEN'LEMAN]
Yu little cat! says their mother, always as if she had never
witnessed such behaviour before. Yu daring rascal! Put down! I'll gie
thee such a one in a minute. Go an' sit down to once. Then they climb
into chairs, wave their grubby hands over the plates, in a pretence of
grabbing something more, and spite of the whacks which sometimes fall,
they gobble their food to the accompaniment of incessant tricks and
roars of shrill laughter. Never were such disorderly, hilarious meals!
If Tony is here they simply laugh at his threats of weird punishment,
and if he comes in late from sea, they return again with him and make a
second meal as big as the first. Sometimes, unless the food is cleared
away quickly, they will clamour for a third meal, and clamour
successfully. What digestions they must have to gobble so much and so
To judge by their way of talking, they divide the world into folk
and gentlefolk. Who gie'd thee thic ha'penny? Mrs Widger asked Jimmy.
A man, to beach.
G'out! said Mabel. Twas a gen'leman.
Well, that ain't a man!
Usually, at breakfast time, the voices of Tony's small nieces may be
heard coming down the passage: Aun-tieAnn-ie! Aunt-ieAnn-ie! Their
tousled, tow-coloured little heads peep round the doorway. If we have
not yet finished eating, they are promptly ordered to 'get 'long home
to mother.' Otherwise, they come right in and remain standing in the
middle of the room, apparently to view me. Unable to remember which is
Dora and which Dolly, I have nicknamed them according to their hair,
Straighty and Curley. What they think of things, there is no knowing;
for they blush at direct questions and turn their heads away. So also,
when I have been going in and out of the Square, they have stopped
their play to gaze at me, but have merely smiled shyly, if at all, in
answer to my greetings. Yesterday, however, they had a skipping rope. I
jumped over it. Instantly there was a chorus of laughter and chatter.
The ice was broken. This morning, after a moment or two's consideration
behind her veil of unbrushed hair, Straighty came and clambered upon
the arm of the courting chairdabbed a clammy little hand down my
neck, whilst Curley plumped her fist on my knee and stayed looking into
my face with very wondering smiling blue eyes. By the simple act of
jumping a rope, I had gained their confidence; had proved I was really
a fellow creature, I suppose. Now, when I pass through the Square, some
small boy is sure to call out, Where yu going? And my name is
brandished about among the children as if I were a pet animal. They
have appropriated me. They have tamed that mysterious wild beast, 'the
One boy, Jimmya very fair-headed, blue-eyed, chubby little chap,
seven years oldTony's eldest boy at homeseems to have taken a
particular fancy to me. Whether it began with bananas, or with my
giving him a pick-a-back to the top of the cliffs, I hardly know. At
all events he has decided that I am a desirable friend. He has shown me
his small propertieshis pencil, and his boats that he makes out of a
piece of wood with wing-feathers for sails and a piece of tin, stuck
into the bottom, for centre-keel;has told me what standard he is in
at school; and one of the first things I hear whenever he comes into
the house, is: Mam! Wher's Mister Ronals?
[Sidenote: JIMMY OUT TO TEA]
To-day, on my way to the Tuckers' to tea, I passed Jimmy's school.
The boys were just let loose. Jimmy left a yelling group of them to
come along with me. Nearby the Tuckers' gate, I told him where I was
going, and said Good-bye. Jimmy fell behind. But whilst we were
at tea, I repeatedly saw a white head sneaking round the laurels
outside the window, and blue eyes peeping. Miss Tucker had him in;
whereupon, rather shyly, with hands horribly grubby from the school
slates, Jimmy ate much bread and butter and many cakelets, and ended up
by tucking three apples into his blouse. He came home very pleased
indeed with himself.
Tony was almost angry. However come'd 'ee, Missis, to let 'em go
out to a gen'leman's to tay in thic mess?
Stupid! How cude I help o'it?
What did 'ee think o'it, Jimmy?
The lady gie'd I dree apples!
Tony, though shocked, was also pleased; Jimmy delighted. Every now
and then he draws himself up with a Coo'h! I been out to tay wi'
They have a strange way, these children, of placing their hands on
one, smiling up into one's face, and saying nothing. It has the effect
of making one feel their separate, distinct personalities, and,
additionally, of making one feel rather proud of the approbation of
those small personages who think so much and divulge so little.
There has been no fishing. Either the sea has been too rough to ride
to a slingstone for blinn and conger, or else too calm, so that the
mackerel hookers could not sail out and therefore no fresh bait was
to be had. It is quite useless to fish for conger with stale bait. Tony
tells me that I ought to be here in a month's time, when he will have
fewer pleasure parties to attend to, and will go out for mackerel,
rowing if he cannot sail. He says there will have to be a good
September hooking season, because, though the summer has been fair, the
fisherfolk have not succeeded in putting by enough money to last out
the winter, should the herrings fail to come into the bay, as they have
failed the last few years. I should like to work at the mackerel
hooking with him. Indeed, although I am looking forward to a glorious
tramp across Dartmoor, yet I am more than half sorry that I have a room
bespoken at Prince Town for the day after to-morrow.
 A heavy stone used instead of an anchor over rocks, among
which an anchor might get stuck and lost.
 After the end of July, the mackerel are mostly caught not
nets, but by trailing a line behind a sailing boat.
[Sidenote: AN INOPPORTUNE REMARK]
Putting aside one or two things that are unpleasanta few
disagreeables resolutely facedit is wonderful how rapidly one feels
at home here. The welcome, the goodfellowship, is so satisfying. This
morning, the visitor from the hotel, who has Mrs Widger's front room,
so far presumed on the fact that we were educated men among
uneducatedboth gen'lemen, Tony would sayas to remark flippantly
though not ungenially, The Widgers are not bad sorts, are they? I say,
what a mouth Mrs Widger's got!
Mrs Widger has a noticeably wide mouth; I know that perfectly well;
but I can hardly say how indignant I felt at his light remark; how
insulted; as if he had spoken slightingly of someone belonging to me.
When I took leave of the Widgers, there was the question of payment
for my board and lodging. We were just finishing breakfast; the
children had been driven out, Mrs Widger was resting awhile, and the
table, the whole kitchen, was in extreme disorder.
I asked Mrs Widger what I owed, and, as I had expected, she replied
only: What you'm minded to pay.
Three and six a day, I suggested.
Not so much as that, said Mrs Widger. 'Tisn't like as if us could
du for 'ee like a proper lodging house.
Don' 'ee think, Missis, said Tony, as we might ask 'en jest to
make hisself welcome.
It was out of the question, of course. The mackerel season has been
so bad. Mrs Widger shot at Tony a look he failed to see. Otherwise, she
did not let herself appear to have heard him.
The discussion hung.
Say three shillings, then, I suggested again.
That 'll du, returned Mrs Widger, allowing nothing of the last few
minutes' brain-work to show itself in her voice.
[Sidenote: HOTEL LIFE]
Mrs Widger knows what it is to have to keep house and feed several
hungry children on earnings which vary from fairly large sums (sums
whose very largeness calls for immediate spending) to nothing at all
for weeks together.
As I was setting out, Jimmy said to his mother: Don' 'ee let Mister
Ronals go, Mam 'Idger. He followed me to the end of the Gut; would
have come farther had I not sent him back. That, and Tony's desire to
make me welcome, brightened the bright South Devon sunshine. I kept
within sight of the sea as long as possible. The little sailing boats
on it looked so nimble. I have a leaning to go back, a sort of
[Sidenote: DAWDLING v. WALKING]
I don't think I can remain here. To-morrow I shall move on, and
tramp around the county back to Seacombe. The Moor is as splendid as
ever, but this hotel life, following so soon on the life of Under
Town.... Though the good, well-cooked food, neither so greasy nor so
starchy as Mrs Widger's, is an agreeable change, I sit at the table
d'hôte and rage within. I am compelled to hear a conversation that
irritates me almost beyond amusement at it. These people here are on
holiday. Most of them, by their talk, were never on anything else. They
chirp in lively or bored fashion, as the case may be, of the things
that don't matter, of the ornamentations, the superfluities and the
relaxations of life. At Tony Widger's they discussand much more
merrilythe things that do matter; the means of life itself. Here,
they say: Is the table d'hôte as good as it might be? Is the society
what it might be? Is it not a pity that there is no char-à-banc or a
motor service to Cranmere Pool and Yes Tor? There, the equivalent
question is: Shall us hae money to go through the winter? Shall us hae
bread and scrape to eat? Here, a man wonders if in the strong moorland
air some slight non-incapacitating ailment will leave him: illness is
inconvenient and disappointing, but not ruinous. There, Tony wonders if
the exposure and continual boat-hauling are not taking too much out of
him; if he is not ageing before his time; if he will not be past
earning before the younger children are off his hands. Here, they laugh
at trifles, keeping what is serious behind a veil of conventional
manners, lest, appearing in broad daylight, it should damp their
spirits. There, they laugh too, and at countless trifles; but also
courageously, in the face of fate itself. By daring Nemesis, they
partially disarm her. With a laugh and a jestno matter if it be a
raucous laugh and a coarse jestthey assert: What will be, will be;
us can't but du our best, for 'tis the way o'it. Here, they skate over
a Dead Sea upon the ice of convention; but there, they swim in the
salted waters, swallow great gulps, and nevertheless strike out
manfully, knowing no more than anyone else exactly where the shore
lies, yet possessing, I think, an instinct of direction. Here, comfort
is at stake: there, existence. Coming here is like passing from a birth
and death chamber into a theatre, where, if the actors have lives of
their own, apart from mummery, it is their business not to show them.
It is like watching a game from the grand stand, instead of playing it;
betting on a race instead of running it. The transition hither is hard
to make. Retired athletes, we know, suffer from fatty degeneration of
the heart; retired men of affairs decay. I have walked lately at five
miles an hour with the Widgers, and I do not relish dawdling at the
rate of two with these people here. Better risk hell for heaven than
lounge about paradise for ever.
UNDER TOWN, SEACOMBE,
A fine tramp from Totnesand such a welcome back! Jimmy met me
three-quarters of a mile up the road, very much farther than he usually
strays from the beach. I thought as yu was coming this way 'bout now,
Mister Ronals. Dad's been out hooking an' catched five dozen mackerel
before breakfast. Mam's sick. I be coming out wiv yu t'morrow morning.
Dad couldn't go out after breakfast, 'cause it come'd on to blow. I've
'schanged my pencil, what yu give'd me, for a knife wi' two blades. So
anxious was he to take me in house that he scarcely allowed me time to
go down to the Front and look at the sea and at the boats lying among a
litter of nets and gear the length of the sunny beach.
Mrs Widger hastened to bring out the familiar big enamelled teapot,
flung the cloth over the table and began to cut bread and butter.
Coo'h! tay! exclaimed Jimmy. That's early, 'cause yu be come, Mister
Be yu glad Mr Ronals 's come back? his mother asked.
[Sidenote: THE CHILDREN]
What for? I asked jocularly.
'Cause yu gives us bananasan' pennies sometimes.
'Sthat all yu'm glad for? said Mrs Widger. Pennies an' bananas?
No vear! said Jimmy; and he meant it.
All the while, Tommy (Jimmy's younger brother, about five years old)
was sitting up to table, looking at the jam-jar with one eye and at me
with the other. He squints most comically, and is a more self-contained
young person than Jimmy. Four of the children are at home; Bessie,
Mabel, Jimmy and Tommy; George and the eldest girl are away. Bessie and
Mabel, too, are out the greater part of the day, either at school, or
else helping their aunts, or minding babies (poor little devils!), or
running errands for the many relatives who live hereabout. Both of them
are more featureless, show less of the family likeness, than the boys.
One cannot so easily forecast their grown-up appearance. At times,
during the day, they come in house with a rush, but say little, except
to blurt out some (usually inaccurate) piece of news, or to tell their
step-mother that: Thic Jimmy's out to baychI see'd 'enplayin' wi'
some boys, an' he's got his boots an' stockings so wet as....
Jest let 'en show his face in here! He shan't hae no tea! He
shall go straight to bed! shouts Mrs Widger, confident that hunger
will eventually drive Jimmy into her clutches.
The two girls, in fact, do not seem to enter so fully as the boys
into the life of the household, though they are always very ready to
take up the responsibility of keeping the boys in order.
Jimmy! Tommythere! Mother, look at thic Jimmy! Mother, Tommy's
fingering they caakes!
I'll gie thee such a one in a minute! Let 'lone.... Ther thee a't,
Mabel, doin' jest the same, 's if a gert maid like yu didn't ought to
Did 'ee ever hear the like o'it? asks Tony. Such a buzz! Shut up,
will 'ee, or I'll gie thee summut to buzz for! Wher's thic
The children merely laugh at him.
[Sidenote: TONY'S WEDDING]
At supper to-night, Tony was talking about his second wedding and
about his children, who, dead and alive, number twelve. Iss, 'tis a
round dozen, though I'd never ha' thought it, he said reckoning them
up on his fingers. Ther be six living an' four up to the cementry, an'
two missing, like, what nobody didn' know nort about, did they, Annie?
Janiethat's my first wife, afore this one,her losted three boys
when they was two year an' ten months old, an' one year an' seven
months, an' nine months old. An' her died herself when Mabel here was
six months old, didn' 'er, Annie? An' yu've a-losted Rosie, an' the
ones what never appeared in public. Our last baby, after Tommy, wer two
boys, twinses. One wer like George an' one like Tommy most; one wer my
child an' t'other wer yours, Annie. Six on 'em dead! Aye, Tony've a
see'd some trouble, I can tell 'ee, an' he ain't so old as what some on
'em be for their age, now, thru it all. But it du make a man's head
Mrs Widger's gaze at him while he talked about the dead children was
wonderful to seewide-eyed, soft, unflinchingwifely and motherly at
John, Tony continued, speaking of his youngest brother who has
only two children, John du say as a man what's got seven or eight
childern be better off than a man what's got on'y two, like he, 'cause
he don't spend so much on 'em. 'Tis rot, I say! Certainly, he du spend
so much on each o' his as us du on two o' ours p'raps; but I reckon a
hundred pounds has to be wrenched an' hauled out o' these yer ol'
rheumaticy arms o' mine for each child as us rears up.
Yes't hasgude that, said Mrs Widger.
'Tisn' that I don' du it willingly. I be willing enough. But it du
maake a man du more'n he'd hae to du otherwise, an' it wears 'en out
afore his time. Tony's an ol' man now, almost, after the rate, though
he bain't but forty or thereabout, an' s'pose us has six or a dozen
more come along, Annie....
Gude Lord! 'Twon't be so bad as that, for sure. An' if 'tis, can't
be helped. Us must make shift wi' 'em.
Then they went on to talk about their wedding. Best remembered,
apparently, are the hot wedding breakfast (an innovation then in
these parts), the Honiton lace that Mrs Widger's mother made her, and
the late arrival home from the village where they were marrieda trick
which procured them quietness, whilst depriving the people in the
Square of an excitement they had stayed up half the night to witness.
When us come'd home, 'twas all so dark and quiet as a dead plaace, an'
the chil'ern asleep upstairs, an' all, said Tony.
Yes, 'twer, Mrs Widger broke in, her eyes brightening at the
recollection of the successful trick. But 'twer queer, like, wi' the
childern asleep upstairs what wer to be mine, an' wasn't. I did wonder
to meself what I wer starting on. Howsbe-ever I wer fair maazed all
thic day. I wasn' ready when Tony drove out to where us lived,
No-o-o! Her had her sleeves tucked up like 's if her 'adn't
finished her housework. Her wern't dressed nor nothin' to ree-ceive
I didn' know what I wer doing all thic day.
An' the parson, I had to pay for he, an' he give'd the money
back to she 'cause her wer a nice li'I thingbit skinny though. 'Twer
a maazed muddle like. I ought to ha' had thic money be rights.
G'out! But I did the ol' parson up here. Us didn' hae no banns put
up to Seacombe. I told the clergyman to our home that Tony'd been
livin' there dree days, or dree weeks, or whatever 'twas, an' he
didn' know no better. 'Twon't be the first lie I've told, says I to
meself n'eet [nor yet] the last. I saved thee thic money, Tony.
Ah, yu'm a saving dear, ben' 'ee. Spends all my money.
Well for yu! I should like to know what yu'd do wi' it if yu hadn't
had me to lay it out for 'ee.
Tony did not wish to question that. The recollection of the wedding
had put him in high spirits. He got up from his second supper (so long
as food remains on the table he takes successive meals with intervals
for conversation between them), and pirouetted round the table singing,
Sweet Ev-eli-na, sweet Ev-eli-na!
My lo-ove for yu-u
Shall nev-ver, never die....
He dragged Mrs Widger out of her chair, whisked her across the room.
There! he said, setting her down flop. 'En't her a perty li'I dear!
Once again, after another little supper, he got up and held Mrs
Widger firmly by the chin, she kicking out at his shins the while. Did
'ee ever see the like o'it? Eh? Fancy ol' Tony marryin' thic! Wouldn'
'ee like a kiss o'it? I du dearly. Don' I, Missis?
G'out! says Mrs Widger, speaking furiously, but smiling
affectionately. G'out, you fule! Yu'm mazed!
Tony returned to his third supper quite seriously, only remarking:
I daresay yu thinks Tony a funny ol' fule, don' 'ee?
[Sidenote: BIRTH IN THE SQUARE]
That, I did not. Indeed, I begin to think them peculiarly wise.
There is the spontaneity of animals about their play, and a good deal
of the unembarassed movements of animalswith something very human
superadded. One reads often enough about the love-light in the eyes of
lovers, and sometimes one catches sight of it. Either frank ridicule,
or else great reverence, is the mood for witnessing so delicate and
strong, so racial a thing. Yet this love-light, seen in the eyes of a
man and wife who have been married ten years, and have settled down
long ago to the humdrum of married life, seems to me a far finer
manifestation of the hither mysteries, a far greater triumph. What
freshness, what perpetual rejuvenation they must possess! The more one
regards such a thing, the more magnificent and far-reaching it appears.
No philosophical bulwark against trouble can compare with it. Such love
ceases to be a matter for novels and selected moments and certain lusty
ages; ceases to be exceptional. It is the greatest of those very great
things, the commonplaces. Tony tells me that when he comes in at night,
cold from fishing, Mrs Widger always turns over to the other side of
the bed, leaving him a warm place to creep into. Mrs Widger says that
no matter what time Tony comes in or gets up, he never fails to make,
and take her up, a cup o' tay. So does their love direct the prosaic
details of living in one house together. I do not think I am wrong in
fancying that it percolates right down through the household, and even
contributes to the restfulness I feel here, spite of unorderly children
and the strident voices. Yu dang'd ol' fule! can mean so much. Here
it appears to be an expression of almost limitless confidence.
Mrs Widger has put me this time into the front bedroom, which
overlooks the Square and has, through the Gut, a narrow view of the
Tony's sister, who lives almost next door, is giving birth to a
child this evening. I can see the light in her windowa brighter light
than usual,and the shadows passing across the yellow blind. Many
other eyes are turned towards the window. There is a subdued chatter in
Little did I foresee what sleeping in the front bedroom means.
Tony's sister gave birth to a boy about ten o'clock. On hearing that
everything was as it should be, I went to bed, but, alack! not to
sleep. For the subdued chatter grew into an uproar which continued till
fully midnight. All the women in the neighbourhood seemed to have come
this way; and they meg-megged, and they laughed, and when their
children awoke they shouted up at the windows from outside. I heard
snatches of childbearing adventures, astonishing yarns, interspersed
with hard commonsense, not to say cynicismthe cynicism of people who
cannot afford to embroider much the bare facts of existence or to turn
their attention far from the necessities of life. Her'll be weak, one
woman said, an' for a long timenever so strong as her was before.
'Tis always worse after each one you has, 'cepting the first, which is
worst of all, I say. But there, her must take it as it comes....
Sundry other bits of good practical philosophy I perforce listened
to; and at last, when everybody had turned in (I imagined their
pleasant lightheadedness as they snuggled under the bedclothes in the
stuffy cottage roomsthe witticisms and echoes of laughter that were
running through their heads); when, I say, everybody had turned in, an
offended dog in the hotel yard began to howl.
If it were not that the window of the back bedroom is over the
scullery, the ash-heap and the main drain, I would ask to move back
In Under Town a birth makes the stir that is due to such a
[Sidenote: THE KITCHEN]
The Widger's kitchen is an extraordinary roomfit shrine for that
household symbol, the big enamelled tin teapot. At the NW. corner is
the door to the scullery and to the small walled-in garden which
containsin order of importanceflotsam and jetsam for firewood, old
masts, spars and rudders, and some weedy, grub-eaten vegetables. At the
top of the garden is a tumble-down cat-haunted linhay, crammed to its
leaky roof with fishing gear. No doubt it is the presence everywhere of
boat and fishing gear which gives such a singular unity to the whole
The kitchen is not a very light room: its low small-paned window is
in the N. wall. Then, going round the room, the courting chair stands
in the NE. corner, below some shelves laden with fancy china and
souvenirsand tackle. The kitchener, which opens out into quite a
comforting fireplace, is let into the E. wall, and close beside it is
the provision cupboard, so situated that the cockroaches, having ample
food and warmth, shall wax fat and multiply. Next, behind a low dirty
door in the S. wall, is the coalhole, then the high dresser, and then
the door to the narrow front passage, beneath the ceiling of which are
lodged masts, spars and sails. The W. wall of the kitchen is decorated
with Tony's Oddfellow 'cistificate,' with old almanacs and with a
number of small pictures, all more or less askew.
There is an abundance of chairs, most of them with an old cushion on
the seat, all of them more or less broken by the children's racket.
Over the pictures on the warm W. wallagainst which, on the other
side, the neighbour's kitchener standsis a line of clean
underclothing, hung there to air. The dresser is littered with fishing
lines as well as with dry provisions and its proper complement of odd
pieces of china. Beneath the table and each of the larger chairs are
boots and slippers in various stages of polish or decay. Every jug not
in daily use, every pot and vase, and half the many drawers, contain
lines, copper nails, sail-thimbles and needles, spare blocks and
pulleys, rope ends and twine. But most characteristic of the kitchen
(the household teapot excepted) are the navy-blue garments and jerseys,
drying along the line and flung over chairs, together with innumerable
photographs of Tony and all his kin, the greater number of them in
Specially do I like the bluejacket photographs; magnificent men,
some of them, though one strong fellow looks more than comical, seated
amid the photographer's rustic properties with a wreath of artificial
fern leaves around him and a broadly smiling Jolly-Jack-Tar face
protruding from the foliage. Some battleships, pitching and tossing in
fearful photographers' gales and one or two framed memorial cards
complete the kitchen picture gallery.
 Composite pictures apparently; made from a photograph of a
ship and of a bad painting of a hurricane.
It is a place of many smells which, however, form a not disagreeable
An untidy roomyes. An undignified roomno. Kitchen; scullery (the
scullery proper is cramped and its damp floor bad for the feet); eating
room; sitting room; reception room; storeroom; treasure-house; and at
times a wash-house,it is an epitome of the household's activities and
a reflexion of the family's world-wide seafaring. Devonshire is the sea
countyat every port the Devonian dialect. It is probably the pictures
and reminders of the broad world which, by contrast, make Mrs Tony's
kitchen so very homely.
[Sidenote: A DUTCH AUCTION]
Almost every evening, just now, Mrs Widger goes off to a Dutch
auction of hardware and trinkets at the Market House. She usually
brings home some small purchase, worth about half the money she has
paid; but if she were to go to an entertainment at the Seacombe Hall
she would be not nearly so well amused as by the auctioneer and the
other housewives, and at the end of the evening she would have nothing
whatever to show for her money. Besides, the children would never go
off to bed quietly if they imagined that she was going to a real
entertainment. As she did not return very early last night, Tony and I
got our own supperbread, cheese, a great deal of Worcester sauce, and
a pint of mother-in-law [stout and bitter] from the Alexandra. Then we
drew up to the fire and smoked. John, healthy and powerful fellow, had
been arguing in the daytime on the beach, that if a youth cannot do a
man's work at seventeen, he never will. Tony disagreed. Twenty-five to
thirty-five, he says, is a man's prime for strength and endurance
together. Nevertheless, he is sure that he often did more than a man's
work long before he was seventeen, which led him to talk about his
boyhood, when Granfer and Gran Widger had frequently not enough food in
the house for their many children to eat. Us had to rough it when I
wer a boy, I can tell 'ee, says Tony. 'Twer often bread an' a scraape
o' fat an' Get 'long out o'it!
[Sidenote: TONY'S DUTIES]
At nine years old, Tony was put with old Cloade, the grocer, now
dead; and by the time he was twelve, he was earning four shillings a
week, not a penny of which he ever saw or had as 'spending money'; for
his mother used to go to the shop every Saturday night and lay out all
poor Tony's wages in groceries. The only pocket-money he ever received
was a copper or two 'thrown back' from what he could earn by going to
sea for mackerel early enough to return to work by half-past six in the
morning. Besides running errands, he had to clean boots and knives and
to scrub out and tidy up the bar, which in those days was attached to
every Devon grocery. Then he could go home to breakfast. And if old
Cloade was going up on land, shooting, Tony had to get up and wake him
at half-past three and to cork bottles or something of that sort before
the master started out for his day's sport. And again, if Tony had
fallen foul of any of the shop assistants during the day, had cheeked
them perhaps, or stayed overlong at meals, then, waiting till closing
time at eight or nine in the evening, they would send him a couple of
miles inland, to the top of the hills, with a late parcel of groceries.
His possible working day was from 3.30 a.m. to 10.0 p.m.
The chief part of his work, when he was not cleaning up or running
errands, was the sorting of fruit and the cracking of sugar. Every nail
of his fingers has come off more than once on account of the damage
done them by the sugar-cracker. Better than any national event, he
recollects the introduction of cube sugar. When they tubs o'
ready-cracked sugar fust come'd down to Seacombe, 'twer thought a gert
thingan' so 'twas.
Nearly every year an attack of (sub-acute?) rheumatic fever gave him
a painful holiday, during which he crawled about the crowded cottage at
home on his hands and knees. The one advantage of his irregularly long
hours was that, if work were slack, he could linger over his meals. It
was the assistants who kept a sharp eye on his movements. Them he
hatedand cheeked. The more I done, the worse they treated me. An' as
I grow'd up an' did often enough more'n a man's work, so I got to know
it. One day I stayed home more'n an hour to breakfast, an' one on 'em
asted me wer I'd a-been, an' I said as I'd had me half-hour to
breakfast, an' he said as I'd had an hour an' a half, an' I told 'en
'twern't no business o' his an' dared 'en to so much as touch me or I'd
knock his head in, which I could easily ha' donean' there wer the
master standin' by! 'Fore I knowed, he gie'd me one under one yer wi'
one hand, an' one under t'other yer wi' t'other hand; knocked me half
silly; an' said if he had any more o' my chake he'd send me going
thereupon. 'Iss, I said, 'an I will go, an' if I can't pick up a
livin' on the baych wi' fishin' (I 'adn't no boats then, n'eet for
years a'ter), an' if I couldn't pick up a livin' wi' fishin', I'd go to
sea. An' I took an' lef the shop, an' went wi'out me pay due nor nort
further about it.
Well, I should think as I stayed away two or dree days, saying as,
if I couldn' live by the sea, I'd go off tu sea. By'm-by,
ol' Mr CloadeI could al'ys get on all right wi' he hisself'twer
they assistants.... Mr Cloade come'd down to baych an' said as he'd
rise me wages be two shillings, from four shillings to six a week. So I
went back. But 'twern't for long, for I wer turned seventeen then, an'
strong, an' I knowed that six shillin's a week, every penny o' which
mother laid out in groceriesp'raps givin' me dreepence for meself
latterlythat wern't no wage for me doing more'n a man's work, early
an' laate, at everybody's beck an' call. 'Twern't vitty.
[Sidenote: BRUISED ORANGES AND BRUISES]
It come'd soon a'ter.... I wer sorting oranges, an' one o' the
assistants called like they al'ays did: 'Widger, Widger! Widger!
Yer, Widger!' 'Twer al'ays, 'Widger! Widger!' in thic showblarsted
row! 'I wants 'ee to take thees yer parcel to Mr Brindley-Botton's
(what used to live to Southview House) in time for lunch. Hurry up!'
Tony, in short, put a couple of the bruised oranges into his pocket,
ran off, and delivered his parcel at Southview House. On the way back,
he ate one of the oranges and, boyishly, threw the peel about outside
Mr Brindley-Botton's side gate. He heard someone shouting to him
andbut without turning his headhe shouted Hell about it! airily
back. Then, as it was the dinner hour, he loitered on the Green Patch
to play marbles with some other lads, and to share the second bruised
orange. On returning to Cloade's:
Whu did I see but Mr Brindley-Botton's coachman wi' a little packet
in white paper. 'Twas thic orange peel, all neatly done up, an' a li'I
note saying as I'd a-been cheeky to him, which I hadn't, not knowingly.
Mr Cloade, he called me into his little office, asted me what I'd been
doing, where I went, an' where I got the oranges.
'Bought 'em,' says I.
'Twas a lie, an' I hadn't no need for to tell it, seeing I was
al'ays free to take a bruised orange or two when I wer sorting of 'em.
On'y I wer frightened. 'Where did you get them?' he asked.
'Up to Mrs Ashford's for a penny,' says I.
'Yes, sir,' says I.
'Are you telling me a lie? I can find out, mind.'
'No, sir,' I said.
'Be you sure you ain't telling of a lie?'
Then I broked down, an' I said they was bruised ones what I'd
a-took. Father, he wer working to Mr Cloade's then, fishing being bad,
an' the master called he. He walloped mewalloped me with a
rope's end. An' I swore as I'd never go back no more, an' I didn't.
Every time Father tried to make me, I up an' said as I'd go to sea.
[Sidenote: OUT DRIFTING ALL NIGHT]
Ay! for all I'm a man now, I 'ouldn't like to work like I did
thenmore'n a man's work an' less'n a boy's pay, an' hardly a penny
for meself. I tells John he don't know what 'tis to work like I
did then. I'ouldn't du it no more.
But, with his father's boat, Tony did work far harderhooking
mackerel at dawn, in with a catch and out to sea again, or up on land
hawking them round; out drifting all night; crabbing, lobster-potting,
shrimping, wrinkling, or taking out frights, wet and dry,
rough and calm, day and night. Aye, an' I be suffering from it now.
Thees yer bellyache what thins me every summer an' wears a fellow out,
don't come from nothing but tearing about then. I wer al'ays on the
tear, day an' night, in from sea to meals an' out again 'fore I'd had
time to bolt down two mouthfuls. Often I wer so tired that Father'd hae
to call me a dozen times afore I cude wake up, an' then I'd cry, cry, if I wer ten minutes laate to workwhen I had summut to du on land,
that was. Half the day I wer more asleep than awake, wi' bein' out
fishing all night. But I didn' let 'em see it. Not I! Rather'n that,
I'd go up to the closet an' catch off there for five minutes, before
they shude see I wern't fit to du me work. An' I never had nort o' me
own for years, for all I done. Whether I earned two pound, or thirty
shillings, or nothing at all, I never had so much as a penny for
pocket-money, to call me own. I had to take it all in houseaye! an'
tips too, when I got 'em. Father, he wern't doing much then, an' ther
were seven younger'n me. That's where my earnings went. An' me, as did
the work, was wearing Mother's boots an' Father's jacket.
 Periwinkle gathering.
 Freights, i.e. pleasure parties.
When Tony was indisputably grown up, one half of what he earned
went, according to custom, to the boat-owner, in this case his father,
frequently had be thu to pay for repairs and new gear. That went on for
years after he was married'hauling an' rowing an' slaving an' pulling
me guts out wi't!'until, in fact, the present Mrs Widger insisted on
his buying boats of his own.
[Sidenote: THE DEAD NOT WHOLLY SO]
Our talk shifted to Tony's first wife, who died (and Tony almost
died too) as the result of the landlord's taking up the drains, and
leaving them open, in the height of a hot summer. Tony told me about
her people and her native place, a fishing village along the coast. He
showed me photographs of her, and a framed, pathetically ugly,
imitation cameo memorial, which is getting very dirty now. I knew he
loved her very much. He nearly went out of his mind when she died,
leaving him with four young children. The untidy little kitchen, with
its bright fire, its deep shadows and its white clothes hung along the
line; Tony's drooping figure, bent over the hearth in an old blue
guernsey: the contrasting redness of his face, and the beam of light
from a cracked lamp-shade falling across his wet, memory-stuck blue
eyes.... The kitchen seemed full of the presence of the long-dead woman
whom Tony was still grieving for in some underpart of his mind. Iss,
her was a nice woman, he said, a gude wife to me; a gude wife: I
hadn't no complaint to make against she.
The one shabby sentence hit into me all his sorrow, that which
remains and that which has sunk into time.
* * * * *
The Mrs Widger that is, returned from the Dutch auction with an
elaborate badly-plated cruet. Al'ays using up my saxpinces what I has
to slave for, said Tony.
G'out! 'Tis jest what us wants.
You won't never use it.
We'll hae it out on thy birthdaythere! Will that zatisfy thee?
Not afore then? I wer born at the end o' the year, an' that's why I
al'ays gets lef' behind.
Not a day before thy birthday! What'll yu be saying if I buys
sauces to put in all they bottles?
Cut glass, is it?
No! What d'yu think?
What a woman 'tis! Gie yer Tony a kiss then.
G'out yu fule!
The wise fool took a kiss. We had a second supper and hot grog. We
were merry. But when I said Good night, I saw in Tony's eyes a
recognition that I had understood (so he felt, I think) some part of
what he seldom, if ever, brings up now to talk about.
Only a yarn about a man's first wife.... If so, why did I go to bed
feeling I had been privileged beyond the ordinary? Wives die every day;
worn out, most of them. There came into my mind's eye with these
thoughts a picture of the open sea; yet hardly a picture, for I was
there in the midst of it. On the waves and low-lying clouds, and
through the murk, was the glimmer of a light which, I felt, would make
everything plain, did it but increase. For a moment it flickered
upand there, over the stormy sea, I saw death as a kindly illusion. I
do not understand the wherefore of my little vision, nor why it made my
heart give one curious great thump....
A cats' courtship beneath my window broke it off.
[Sidenote: THE MOONDAISY]
Five or six years ago, when I was ill and left Seacombe, as I
thought, for good, I did not relish selling the Moondaisy. I was
too fond of her. So I gave her to the two men who had asked for the
first and second refusals of her, and neither of whom possessed a small
sailing boat. But I reckoned without those superficial beach jealousies
which overlie the essential solidarity of the fishermen. Neither man
used her much. Neither man looked after her. She was a bone of
contention that each feared to gnaw. While the poor little craft lay on
the beach, or in the gutter above the sea-wall, the mice ate holes into
her old sail and her gear was distributed half-way over Under Town.
Granfer, however, had in his cottage an old dinghy sail that fits
the Moondaisy. Her yard and boom were in his linhay, the sheet
and downhaul in Tony's. One oar, the tholepins, and the ballast bags
have not yet been found. I bent on the sail, spliced the sheet to the
boom; borrowed tholepins from Uncle Jake, ballast bags and a
mackerel line with a very rusty hook from Tony, an oar from Johnand,
at last, put to sea.
 Granfer's brother, Tony's uncle.
The windwesterly, off landwas too puffy for making the sheet
fast. I held it with one hand and tried to fish with the other. In
order not to stop the way of the boat and risk losing the lead on the
sea-bottom, I wore her round to lew'ard, instead of tacking to
wind'ard. A squall came down, the sail gybed quickly, and the boom
slewed over with a jerk, just grazing the top of my head. Had that boom
been a couple of inches lower, or my head an inch or two higher.... I
should have been prevented from sailing the Moondaisy home,
pending recovery from a bashed skull. Everything aboard that was loose,
myself included, scuttled down to lew'ard with a horrid rattle. A
malicious little gush of clear green water, just flecked with foam,
spurted in over the gun'l amidships. I wondered whether I could have
swum far with a cracked skull: the Moondaisy's iron drop-keel
would have sunk her, of course. Why I was fool enough to wear the boat
round so carelessly, I don't know.
Anyhow, I wound up the mackerel line; my catch, nil. Such an
occurrence makes one very respectful towards the fisherman who
singlehanded can sail his boat and manage five mackerel lines at
onceone on the thwart to lew'ard and one to wind'ard; a bobber on the
mizzen halyard and two bobbers on poles projecting from the boat. He
must keep his hands on five lines, the tiller and the sheet; his eyes
on the boat's course, the sea, the weather and the luff of the sail.
Probably I know rather more of the theory of sailing than he does; but,
when a squall blackens the sea to wind'ard, whilst I am thinking
whether to run into the wind or ease off the sheet; whilst by doing
neither or both, I very nearly capsize, or else stop the boat's way and
lose my mackerel leads on the bottomhe, almost without thinking, does
precisely what is needful, and another mackerel is hooked long before I
should have brought the boat up into the wind again.
[Sidenote: FISHERMEN'S SKILL]
The greatest charm of sailing lies in this: that it is the art of
making a boat move by dodging, by taking advantage of, a score of
possible dangers. Except when running before the wind, it is the
capsizing-power of the wind which propels the boat. The fisherman is an
artist none the less because his skill seems partly inborn; because he
sails his boat airily and carelessly, yet grimlyfor life and the
bread and cheese of it. The 'poor fisherman' for whom appeals to
charity are made, as if he were a hardworking, chance-fed, picturesque
but ignorant and helpless creature, is more than a trader, more than a
skilled labourer in a factory. To a peculiar extent he sells himself as
well as his skill and his goods. He lives contingently on his own life.
All that day the wind out in the Channel was blowing fresh from the
sou'west, as we could see by the blackness of the horizon and the
saw-edged sea-line beyond the outer headlands. During the afternoon, a
ground-sea crept into the bay, silently rolling in like an unbidden
unannounced guest who will not name his business. And when, at the turn
of the tide, the breeze in-shore also backed to the sou'west, a busy
lop was superposed on the long heaving swell. About half-past seven,
the Widgers were gathered together near their boats.
 A lop is a short choppy sea raised by the immediate
of a breeze. A swell consists of the long heaving
follow, and sometimes precede, a storm. The diverse action of
different sorts of waves on a shingle beach is interesting.
seas (i.e. short from crest to crest), even when they
high, have not nearly the force or run of a long,
lower ground-swell; that is they neither run so far up the
nor so greatly endanger the boats. All kinds of waves possess
more run at spring than at neap tides. A lop on a swell at
tide is therefore the most troublesome of all to the
What time be it high tide? asked Granfer. 'Bout ten, en' it?
Had us better haul the boats up over? said Tony. Tides be dead,
No-o-o, replied Uncle Jake. They 'en making.
'Tis goin' to blow, I tell 'ee, said Granfer. See how brassy the
sun's going down. Swell coming in too. Boats up be boats safe.
Hould yer bloody row, said John. What be talking 'bout? Plenty o'
time to haul up if the sea makes.
All very well for yu, Tony protested, living right up to
Saltmeadow. If the sea urns up to the boats in the night yu won't be
down to lend a hand, no, not wi' yer own boats. 'Tis us as lives to the
beach what has to strain ourselves to bits hauling your boats up over
so well as our own.
Let 'em bide, then!
Looks dirty, I say, said Granfer. Might jest so well haul up as
bide here talking about it. I shan't sleep till I knows the
boats be all right.
Thee't better lie awake then. An't got no patience wi' making such
a buzz afore you wants tu. With that, John shouldered his coat and
[Sidenote: JOHN WIDGER]
The rest of us pulled the boats up, John's included, till their
stems touched the sea-wall, and we placed the two sailing boats, John's
and Tony's, close beside the steps, handy for hauling up over if need
Tony and Granfer went in house. Uncle Jake watched them go with an
ironical smile on his wrinkled old face. Don't like the looks o' this
yer lop on a ground-swell, he said. There! Did 'ee see how thic sea
licked the baych? Let one o' they lift yer boat.... My zenses! 'Tis all
up wi' it, an' I should pick it up in bits, up 'long, for
firewood.Well, John's gone home along....
John is the youngest, handsomest and most powerfully built of the
Widgers; the most independent, most brutal-tongued and most logical,
though not, I fancy, the most perceptive. The inborn toughness, the
family tendency to health and strength, which made fine men of the
elder Widgers in spite of their youthful exposure and privations, has,
in the case of John who underwent fewer hardships, resulted in the
development, unimpeded, of a wonderful physique. Never heard o' John
being tired, says Uncle Jake.
Premature toil did not bend him; what he is the others had it in
them to be, and by their labour helped to make him. Because his spirit
has never been so buffeted, let alone broken, by hard times, he is also
the most self-reliant. And like the majority of lucky men, he takes
fate's forbearance as his due and adds it to his own credit.
Fair-haired, blue-eyed, his clean-shaven face deeply and clearly
coloured; a combination of the Saxon bulldog type with the seafaring
man's alertness; his heavy yet lissome frame admirably half-revealed by
the simplicity of navy-blue guernsey and trousers,it is one of the
sights of Seacombe to see him walk the length of the Front with his two
small boys. He lacks, however, the gift of expressing himself, except
when he is angryand then in a torrent of thrashing words. He
communicates his good-will by smiling all over his face with a tinge of
mockery in his eyes and the bend of his long neck; whether mockery at
oneself or at things in general is not evident. (It is mainly, I think,
by smiling at one another that we remain the very good friends we are.)
In any discussion, his Do as yu'm minded then! is his signal for
making others do as he is minded. The advantages possessed by
himhealth, strength, clear-headedness, and good lookshe knows how
to use, and that without scruple. He is never hustled by man or
circumstance; seldom gives himself away; and seldom acknowledges an
obligation. What one might reasonably expect him to do in return for
help or even payment, he carelessly, deliberately, leaves undone, and
performs instead some particularly nice action when it is least of all
anticipated. His opinion is respected less because it is known, than
because it isn't known, and by playing in the outer world with a crack
football team he adds to his prestige here. What du John say? is
often asked when it doesn't matter even what John thinks. Without
gratitude for it, unconsciously perhaps, he exacts from others a sort
of homage, which is certainly not rendered without protest. There's
more'n one real lady as John could ha' married if he'd a-been liked, I
heard Granfer say over his beer one day. The way they used to get he
to take 'em out bathing in a boat.... Put 'en under the starn-sheets, I
s'posehe-he-he-he-he! But they real ladies du tire o' gen'lemen
sometimes. Some on 'em had rather have a strong fellow like John. He
married out o' the likes o' us, as 'twas. Her what he married used to
eat wi' the gen'leman's family what her come'd yer with; sort o'
companion-nurse her was.
[Sidenote: A NICE DISTINCTION]
Once, when the Moondaisy was mine, John charged me sixpence
for putting me ashore from the steamer, after he had been earning money
with my boat that very same day. There is no meanness in his face, and
I wondered who had taught him so to distinguish between the borrowing
of a private boat and the use of a craft that was on the beach for
hirea perfectly sound distinction. Probably it was some
commercial-minded lodger or beach-chatterer, from whom he picked up the
opinion that nowadays, to get on, you must run with the hare and hunt
with the houndsa precept which he quotes with cynical gusto but
carries out only so far as suits his feelings. He aims at being
businesslike, but the businesslike side of his character is the more
superficial. Pride will not allow him to boggle over bargains. Take
it, or leave it, is his way. Most up-to-date in what he does do, he is
no pioneer, and follows a lead grudgingly when innovations are in
question. Most progressive outwardly, he is the most conservative at
heart. A reader of his daily paper, he speaks the broadest Devon of
them all; scrupulously groomed after the modern way, and a smoker of
cigarettes (he was laughed out of a pipe I've heard say), he still
wears the old-fashioned seaman's high-heeled shoes. Tobacco is his
obvious, his humane, weakness. What his other weaknesses are, I don't
know. He strikes one as master of his fate, never yet wrecked, nor
contemplating it. Did such a misfortune occur ... who knows what would
happen? He is now, in his youth, so full of strength.
* * * * *
About ten o'clock, Tony, who was snoozing in the courting chair (Mrs
Widger had gone on to bed) woke up with a How about they boats? I
went out to look.
[Sidenote: THE HIGH TIDE WAVES]
The sea was covered with that pallid darkness which comes over it
when the moon is hidden behind low rain-clouds. Out of the darkness,
the waves seemed to spring suddenly, without warning at one's very
feet. Every now and then, when a swell and a lop came in together,
their combined steady force and quick energy swept right up the beach,
rattling the pebbles round the sterns of the boats. For the better part
of an hour I waited. Then, after a sea had thrown some shingle right
into a boat, I called Tony.
'Tis past high water, en' it? he said sleepily.
Thee't better come out an' see for thyself!
He dragged himself up and out. 'Tis al'ys like thees yer wi' the
likes o' us. 'Tis a life o'it!
Aye, he said, the say's goin' down now sure 'nuff. Better git in
house again. Raining is it?
God! Look out!
A sea lifted Tony's and John's sailing boats; was sweeping them down
the beach. We rushed, one to each boat, and hung on. Another sea swept
the pebbles from under our feetit felt as if the solid earth were
Those was the high tide waves, said Tony. If us hadn' a-come out
both they boats 'ould ha' been losted. Yu've a-saved John hisall by
chance. Aye! that's like 'tis wi' us, I tell thee. Yu never knows.Be
'ee going to bed now?
I stayed out a little while longer: the loss of boats means so much
to men whose only capital they are. Just after Tony had gone in, the
clouds parted and the moonlight burst with a sudden glory over the sea.
In the moonglade, which reached from my feet to the far horizon, the
waters heaved and curled, most silvery, as if they were alive. That was
the wistful gentle sea from which, but a moment or two before, we had
wrested back our propertythat sea of little strivings within a large
peace. I thought at the time that there was surely a God, and that as
surely He was there. For which reason, I was glad, when I came in
house, that Tony had gone on to bed.
* * * * *
This morning John asked me: Whu's been moving my boat?
The sea, last night.
I'm going to make a salvage claim on your insurance company.
Happened to be out here and hung on, or else she'd have been swept
down the beach.
That's itwhile yu were snug.
Have 'ee got a cigarette on yu?Match?Thank yu.
[Sidenote: MRS PINN]
When I came into the kitchen early last evening, there was an old
woman sitting bolt upright in the courting chair. At least, I came to
the conclusion that she really was old after a moment or two's
watchfulness. Her flowered hat, her shapethough a little angular and
stiff,her gestures and her bright lively damson-coloured eyes were
all youthful enough. But one could see that her inquiet hands, which
were folded on her lap, had been worn by many a washing-day. Her skin,
though wrinkled, was taut over the outstanding facial bones, as if the
wrinkles might have opened out and have equalized the strain, had age
not hardened them to brown cracksand the tan of her complexion had
old age's lack of clearness. As so often happens when the teeth remain
good in spite of receding gums, her mouth was tightly stretched
semicircular-wise around them, and the lips had become a long, very
long, expressionless line, shaded into prominence, as in a drawing, by
a multitude of lines up and down, from chin and nose;a Simian jaw,
remindful of the Descent of Man. All the accumulated hand-to-mouth
wisdom of generations of peasantry seemed to lurk behind the old
woman's quick eyes; to be defying one.
I was introduced to herMrs Pinn, Mrs Widger's mother. She was
bound to shake my proffered hand; she did it, half rising, with a comic
mixture of respect and defiance; then sat back in the courting chair as
if to intimate, 'I knows how to keep meself to meself, I du!'
I went outdoors, leaving them to talk; helped Tony haul up the beach
his lumpy fourteen-foot sailing boat, the Cock Robin, and
returned with him to supper.
Hullo, Gran Pinn! he roared. Yu here! Didn' know I'd got a new
mate for hauling up, did 'ee? Have her got 'ee yer drop o' stout eet?
Us two'll take 'ee home if yu drinks tu much.
Oh yu.... screeched Mrs Pinn with facetious rage followed by a
swift collapse into company manners again.
Thees yer be my mother-in-law, sir.
Mr Whats-his-name knaws that, an' I knaws yu got he staying with
Well then, gie us some supper then.
Mrs Pinn'twas to be felt in the airhad been hearing all about
me. Beside her glass of stout and ale, she looked a little less prim
and defiant. But she was still on company manners. She sat delicately,
on the extreme edge of a chair, by the side of, not facing, her plate
of bread, cheese and pickles; approached them; mopped up, so to speak,
a mouthful and a gulp; then receded into mere nodding propinquity. Her
supper was a series of moppings-up. Me she kept much in her eye, and to
my remarks ejaculated Aw, my dear soul! or Did yu ever? I said with
feeble wit, in order to grease the conversation, that stout and bitter,
being called mother-in-law, was just the thing for Mrs Pinn.
Aw, my dear life! she exclaimed, taking a mouthy sip. What chake
to be sure!
It was Mrs Widger who, with a glint of amusement in her eyes, came
tactfully to my rescue.
[Sidenote: MY NIGHTCAP]
About ten o'clock, Mrs Widger took down two glasses and the sugar
basin, and set the conical broad-bottomed kettle further over the fire.
Mrs Pinn glanced at the top shelf of the dresser where my whiskey
bottle stands. Her bright eyes kept on returning to that spot. I should
have liked to ask Mrs Pinn to take a glass, but knew I could not afford
to let it be noised abroad that 'there's a young gen'leman to Tony
Widger's very free with his whiskey.' I dared not make a precedent I
should have to break; the breaking of which would give more
disappointment than its non-creation. Equally well, I knew that it was
no use going to bed without something to make me sleep.... I told Tony
I would go out and look at the weather.
Yu must 'scuse me 'companying of 'ee 'cause I got me butes off. My
veet du ache!
On my return, the bright eyes were still travelling to and fro, from
bottle to glasses. I yawned, Tony yawned noisily, Mrs Widger
capaciously. Mrs Pinn was herself infected. 'Tis time I was home....
Oh, Lor'! she yawned.
She went; and when I asked Tony to share my customary nightcap, it
was with ill-hidden glee that he replied as usual: Had us better tu?
His native politeness prevented him from saying anything, however,
and Mrs Widger showed not a sign of having observed the little victory,
so meanly necessary, so galling in every stage to the victor.
Tony declares that he will really and truly start mackerel hooking
to-morrow morningif 'tis vitty, and if the drifters an't catched
nort, and if 'tis wuth it, and if he du.
A creaking and shaking in the timbers of the old house, very early
this morning, must have half awakened me; then there was a muffled rap
on my door. Be 'ee goin' to git up?
Yes.... 'Course.... What time is it?
The only answer was a pad-pad-pad down the stairs. I looked
out over the bedclothes. The window, a grey patch barred with darker
grey, was like a dim chilly ghost gazing at me from the opposite wall.
By the saltiness of the damp air which blew across the room and by the
grind of the shingle outside, I could tell that the wind was off sea.
The sea itself was almost invisiblea swaying mistiness through which
the white-horses rose and peeped at one, as if to say, Come and share
our frolic. Come and ride us.
[Sidenote: MACKEREL LINES]
Tony, sleepy and sheepish in the eyes, was pattering about the
kitchen in his stockings (odd ones), his pants and his light check
shirt. The fire was contrary. We scraped out ashes; poked in more wood
and paper. Soon a gush of comfortable steam made the lid of the kettle
dance. The big blue tin teapot was washed out, filled and set on the
hob. The cupboards and front room were searched for cake. Tony went
upstairs with a cup o' tay for the ol' doman and came down with a roll
of biscuits. (Mrs Widger takes the biscuits to bed with her as maiden
ladies take the plate basket, and for much the same reason.)
Faint light was showing through the north window of the kitchen.
Coom on! said Tony. Time we was to sea. He refilled the kettle,
hunted out an old pair of trousers, rammed himself into a faded
guernsey and picked up three mackerel lines from the dresser. He
took some salted lasks from the brine-pot, blew out the lampand forth
we went. After collecting together mast, sails and oars from where they
were lying, strewn haphazard on the beach, we pushed and pulled the
Cock Robin down to the water's edge, and filled up the ballast-bags
with our hands, like irritable, hasty children playing at shingle-pies.
A li'l bit farther down. Look out! Jump in. Get hold the oars,
commanded Tony. With a cussword or two (the oars had a horrid
disposition to jump the thole-pins) we shoved and rowed off, shipping
not more than a couple of buckets of water over the stern.
 The fishermen's line is very different from the tackle
makers' arrangements. It varies a little locally. At
the upper part consists of 2-3 fathoms of stoutish conger
to take the friction over the gunwale, and 5-6 fathoms of
line, to the end of which a conical 'sugarloaf' lead is
by a clove hitch, the short end being laid up around the
part for an inch or so and then finished off with the strong,
neat difficue (corruption of difficult?) knot. A
better still simply an eyelet cut from an old boot, runs
just above the lead, between the clove hitch and difficue
To the eyelet is attached the 'sid'i.e., two or
of fine snooding;to the sid a length of gut on which half
inch ofclay pipe-stem is threaded, and to the gut a rather
hook. The bait is a 'lask,' or long three-cornered strip of
cut from the tail of a mackerel. The older fishermen prefer a
round lead, cast in the egg-shell of a gull, because it runs
sweeter through the water, but with this form the fish's bite
difficult to feel on account of the jerk having to be
through the heavy bulky piece of lead.
The lines are trailed astern of the boat as it sails up and
where the mackerel are believed to be. When well on the feed
will bite, even at the pipe clay and bare hook, faster than
can be hauled inboard. River anglers and even some sea
are disposed to deny the amount of skill, alertness and
which go to catching the greatest possible number of fish
they are up. It is often said that the mackerel allows itself
be caught as easily by a beginner as by an old hand. One or
mackerel may: mackerel don't. In hooking, as opposed to
fine with a rod, the sporting element is supplied by fish,
a fish; by numbers in a given time, not bend and
tackle brought to the sea by the superior angler, who thinks
knows more than those who have hooked mackerel for
is a wonder, delight, and irritation to professional
it is constructed in such robust ignorance of the habits, and
manner of biting, of mackerel, and it ignores so obstinately
conditions of the sport. Likewise the fish ignore it.
[Sidenote: DAWN AT SEA]
Tony scrambled aboard over the starboard bow, his trousers and boots
dripping. 'Tis al'ays like that, putting off from thees yer damn'd ol'
baych. No won'er us gits the rhuematics. He hung the rudder, loosed
the mizzen. I stepped the mast, hoisted the jib and lug, and made fast
halyards and sheets. Our undignified bobbing, our impatient wallowing
on the water stopped short. The wind's life entered into the craft. She
bowed graciously to the waves. With a motion compounded of air and
water, wings and a heaving, as if she were airily suspended over the
sea, the Cock Robin settled to her course. Spray skatted
gleefully over her bows and the wavelets made a gurgling music along
the clinker-built strakes of her.
Tony put out the lines: tangled two of them, got in a tear, as he
calls it, snapped the sid, bit the rusty hook off, spat out a shred of
old bait, brought the boat's head too far into the wind, cursed the
flapping sail and cursed the tiller, grubbed in his pockets for a new
hook, and made tiny knots with clumsy great fingers and his teeth.
An't never got no gear like I used tu, he complained, and then,
standing upright, with the tiller between his legs and a line in each
outstretched hand, he unbuttoned his face and broke into the merriest
of smiles. What du 'ee think o' Tony then, getting in a tear fust
start out? Do 'ee think he's maazedor obsolete? But we'll catch 'em
if they'm yer. Yu ought to go 'long wi' Uncle Jake. He'd tell 'ee
summutand the fish tu if they wasn't biting proper!
By the time the lines were out, the dun sou'westerly clouds all
around had raised themselves like a vast down-hanging fringe, a
tremendous curtain, ragged with inconceivable delicacy at the foot,
between which, and the water-line, the peep o' day stared blankly. The
whitish light, which made the sea look deathly cold, was changed to a
silvery sheen where the hidden cliffs stood. From immaterial shadows,
looming over the surf-line, the cliffs themselves brightened to an
insubstantial fabric, an airy vision, ruddily flushed; till, finally,
ever becoming more earthy, they upreared themselves, high-ribbed and
red, bush-crowned and splashed with greenour familiar, friendly
cliffs, for each and every part of whom we have a name. The sun slid
out from a parting of clouds in the east, warming the dour waves into
'Twas all a wonder and a wild delight.
As I looked at Tony, while he glanced around with eyes that were at
once curiously alert and dreamy, I saw that, in spite of use and habit,
in spite of his taking no particular notice of what the sea and sky
were like, except so far as they affected the sailing of the boat,the
dawn was creeping into him. Many such dawns have crept into him. They
are a part of himself.
[Sidenote: A TENDERHEART BY NATURE]
Look to your lew'ard line! he cried, they'm up for it!
He hauled a mackerel aboard, and, catching hold of the shank of the
hook, flicked the fish into the bottom of the boat with one and the
same motion that flung the sid overboard again; and after it the lead.
Wedging the mackerel's head between his knees, he bent its body to a
curve, scraped off the scales near its tail, and cut a fresh lask from
the living fish. He is a tenderheart by nature, but now: That'll hae
'em! he crowed.
The mackerel bit hotly at our new baits. Before the lines were
properly out, in they had to come again. Flop-flop went the fish on the
bottom-boards as we jerked them carelessly off the hooks. Every moment
or two one of them would dance up and flip its tail wildly; beat on the
bottom-boards a tattoo which spattered us with scales; then sink back
among the glistening mass that was fast losing its beauty of colour,
its opalescent pinks and steely blues, even as it died and stiffened.
 Undoubtedly, if the mackerel are only half on the feed, a
fresh lask is better than any other bait, better than an
brilliant salted lask. It is the shine of the bait at which
fish bite, as at a spinner, but probably the fresh lask
behind it in the water an odour or flavour of mackerel oil
keeps the shoal together and makes them follow the boat.
Suddenly the fish stopped biting, perhaps because the risen sun was
shining down into the water. The wind dropped without warning, as
southerly winds will do in the early morning, if they don't come on to
blow a good deal harder. The Cock Robin wallowed again on the
water. We'm done! said Tony. Let's get in out o'it in time for the
early market. There ain't no other boats out. Thees yer ought to fetch
'leven-pence the dizzen. We've made thees day gude in case nort else
don't turn up.
While I rowed ashore, he struck sail, and threw the ballast
overboard. Most pleasantly does that shingle ballast plop-rattle into
the water when there is a catch of fish aboard. We ran in high upon a
sea. Willing hands hauled the Cock Robin up the beach: we had
fish to give away for help. The mackerel made elevenpence a dozen to
Jemima Caley, the old squat fishwoman who wears a decayed sailor hat
with a sprig of heather in it. Yu don' mean to say yu've a-catched all
they lovely fish! she said with a rheumy twinkle, in the hope of
getting them for tenpence.
'Levenpence a dozen, Jemima!
Aw well then, yu must let I pay 'ee when I sold 'em. An't got it
now. Could ha' gived 'ee tenpence down.
With a mackerel stuck by the gills on the tip of each finger, I came
in house. The children were being got ready for school. When I returned
downstairs with some of the fishiness washed off, Mrs Widger was
distributing the school bank-cards and Monday morning pennies. (By the
time the children leave school, they will have saved thus, penny by
penny, enough to provide them with a new rig-out for serviceor Sunday
wear.) There was a frizzling in the topsy-turvy little kitchen.
[Sidenote: A DARING RASCAL]
Mam! I wants some vish. Mam 'Idger....
Yu shall hae some fish another time.
Well, jam zide plaate then.
Jimmy's finger was in the jampot.
Yu daring rascal! shrieks Mam Widger. Get 'long to school with
'ee! Yu'll be late an' I shall hae the 'spector round. Get 'longand
see what I'll hae for 'ee when yu comes back.
Coo'h! Bulls' eyes! Ay, mam? Good bye, Dad. Good bye, Mam. Bye,
Mister Ronals. Gimme a penny will 'ee?
God damn the childthat ever I should say itget 'long! I'll
hae a bull's eye for 'ee. Now go on.
A tramp of feet went out through the passage.
Mrs Widger shovelled the crisp mackerel from the frying-pan into our
plates. Tony soused his with vinegar from an old whiskey bottle. We
lingered over our tea till he said: Must go out an' clean they ther
boatsthe popples what they damn visitors' children chucks in for to
amuse theirselves, not troubling to think us got to pick every one on
'em out be hand, an' looking daggers at 'ee when you trys to tell 'em
o'it so polite as yu can. Ay, meour work be never done.
No more ain't mine! snapped Mrs Widger, moving off to her washtub.
For the last two or three days there has been a large flat
brown-paper parcel standing against the wall on the far side of my bed.
I have wondered what it was.
This evening, after we had all finished tea, while Tony was puffing
gingerly at a cigarette (he is nothing of a smoker) with his chair
tilted back and a stockinged foot in Mrs Widger's lap, Jimmy said, as
Jimmy usually says: Gie us another caake, Mam 'Idger. He laid a very
grubby hand on the cakelets.
Yu li'l devil! shouted his mother. Take yer hands off or I'll gie
'ee such a one.... Yu'd eat an eat till yu busted, I believe; an yu'm
that cawdy [finical] over what yu has gie'd 'ee....
Tony took up the poker and made a feint at Jimmy, who jumped into
the corner laughing loudly. With an amazing contrast in tone, Mrs
Widger said quietly: Wait a minute an' see what I got to show 'ee, if
[Sidenote: ROSIE'S PHOTOGRAPH]
She went upstairs with that peculiar tread of hersas if the feet
were very tired but the rest of the body invincibly energetic,and
returned with the flat parcel. She undid the string, the children
watching with greedy curiosity. She placed on the best-lighted chair an
enlargement of a baby's photograph, in a cheap frame, all complete.
There! she said.
What is ut? asked Tony. Why, 'tis li'l Rosie!
Wer did 'ee get 'en? he continued more softly. Yu an't had 'en
Give'd me? No! Thic cheap-jack.... But 'tisn' bad, is it?
Why, thic man to the market-housewer I got the cruet.
O-oh! I didn' never see he.... What did 'ee pay 'en for thic then?
Never yu mind. 'Twasn't none o' yours what I paid. What do 'ee
'Tisn' badvery nice, remarked Tony, bending before the picture,
examining it in all lights. Iss; 'tisn' bad by no means. Come yer,
Jimmy an' Tommy. Do 'ee know who that ther is?
Rosie! whispered Jimmy.
What was took up to cementry, added Tommy in a brighter voice.
Iss, 'tis our li'l Rosie to the life (mustn' touch), jest like her
A moment's tension; then, A surprise for 'ee, en' it? Mrs Widger
My ol' geyser!
The children's riot began again. Our Rosie.... they were saying.
Mam 'Idger, slipping out of Tony's grasp, carried the picture off to
the front room. She was sometime gone.
Wordsworth's We are Seven came into my mind:
But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!
'Twas throwing words away; for still
The little maid would have her will,
And said, Nay, we are seven!
I knew, of course, intellectually, that the poem records more than a
child's mere fancy; but never before have I felt its truth, have I been
caught up, so to speak, into the atmosphere of the wise, simple souls
who are able to rob death of the worst of its sting by refusing to let
the dead die altogether, even on earth. Rosie is dead and buried. I
perceive alsoI perceived, while Tony and the children stood round
that picturethat Rosie is still here, in this house, hallowing it a
little. The one statement is as much a fact as the other; but how much
more delicately intangible, and perhaps how much truer, the second.
[Sidenote: ROSIE'S DEATH]
While we waited for Tony to come in to supper, Mrs Widger told me
about Rosie's death. It must be awful, she said, to lose a child fo
them as an't got nor more. I know how I felt it when Rosie was took.
Nothing would please me for months after but to go up to the cementry,
to her little grave. 'Most every evening I walked up after teadidn'
feel as if I could go to bed an' sleep wi'out. Tony had to fend for
hisself if he wanted his supper early. Ther wasn't no reason, but it
did ease me, like, to go up there, an' it heartened me a little for
next day's work. 'Twas a sort o' habit, p'raps. What broke me of it was
my bad illness. [When the twins, 'what nobody didn' know nort about,'
were born.] At first, I used to think o' Rosie, when I were lyin' alone
upstairs, most 'specially at night time if Tony wer out to sea an' it
come'd on to blow a bit. I used to think, if ort happened to Tony....
Our room to the top o' the house, sways when it do blow. I don't
trouble me head about Tony when he's to sea ordinary timesexpects 'en
when I sees 'enbut then I wer weak, like, an' full o' fancies. An'
after I got about again I wer much too weak to go to cementry: I used
to faint every time I come'd downstairs. Howsbe-ever, I did come down
again, an' Tony used to go out and get me quinine wine and
three-and-sixpenny port an' all sorts o' messes, to put me on me legs
wi'out fainting. 'Twas thic illness as broke me o' going up to Rosie's
You walk up now on Sunday evenings.... I hazarded, recollecting
that then the children run wild for a couple of hours and come in tired
and dirty to cry for their mam.
Yes.... said Mrs Widger.
I saw that I had trespassed into one of the little solitary tracts
of her life.
One day, she continued, backing the conversation with an
imperfectly hidden effort, when Dr Bayliss come to see me, Tony was
asleep in the next bed, snoring under the clothes after a night to sea.
Dr Bayliss didn' say nort, 'cept he said: 'Your husband's a fisherman,
isn't he, Mrs Widger?' But I saw his shoulders a-shaking as he went out
the door, an' that evening he sent me a bottle o' port wine out o' his
own cellar, an' it did me a power o' gude. Tonyhe was that ashamed o'
hisself, though I told 'en 'twasn't nothing for a doctor to see
[Sidenote: FRANKNESS AND SMUT]
At that moment Tony returned. He really was ashamed of the doctor
finding him in bed, whether as a breach of manners or of propriety was
not plain. Possibly the latter. He has an acute sense of decency,
though its rules and regulations are not the same as those of the
people he calls gentry. Our conversation here would hardly suit a
drawing-room. Tony, if he comes in wet, thinks nothing of stripping
down to his shirt. But, curiously enough, one of his chief complaints
about the people who hire boats, is their occasionally unclean
conversation. The likes o' us 'ould never think of saying what they
du. Me, I didn' know nort about half the things they say till I wer
grow'd up an' learnt it from listening to the likes o' they. Yu'd hear
bad language wi' us an' plain speaking, but never what some o' they
talks about when they got no one to hear 'em 'cept us they hires, an'
they thinks us don't matter. Tony is right, I believe. Most of the
impropriety I used to hear at school, university, and in the smoking
room, though often little but a reaction against silly conventions, a
tilt against whited sepulchres,was well-named smut. It was
furtive, a distortion of life's facts and inimical therefore to life.
Impropriety here, on the other hand, is a recognition of life's facts,
an expression of life, a playful ebullition.
Tony, when he came in, enquired of Mam 'Idger what she had done with
the picture. Did Rosie die in the summer? I asked, remembering how
the children will run out to the milkman with a dirty can unless a
sharp eye is kept upon them, and how also the larder is fixed up over
the main drain.
Her died late in the autumn with convulsions from teething, Mrs
Widger replied. An' her didn't ought to ha' died then but for Dr
Brown. When her was took ill, proper bad, I sent one of the maidens for
Dr Bayliss, but he was out to the country for they didn' know how long.
So off I sends the maid to Dr Brown, an' he sends back a message as he
cuden' attend Dr Bayliss's patients wi'out Dr Bayliss asked him.
Certainly 'twas late; but my blood jest boiled, an' I took Rosie into
Grannie's an' goes up myself. Rosie didn' belong to no doctor. Her'd
never had one. Howsbe-ever, Dr Brown says to me the same as he'd told
the maid, that he cuden' come. An' then he says, 'My good woman, I
won't come!' Jest like that! My flare was up; I wer jest about to
let fly my mind at 'enan' I remembered Rosie lying in convulsions to
Grannie's, an' flew out o' his house like a mad thing. Rosie wer all
but dead. Her was gone when Dr Bayliss come'd next morning.
Aye! added Tony. That wer it. Some doctors be kind, an' some
don't trouble nort about the likes o' us when they got visitors to run
a'ter. I don' say they treats the likes o' us worse'n other people; I
don' know: oftentimes they'm so kind as can be; but when they don't
behave like they ought to, other people has the means to make 'em sorry
for it, an' us an't. They knows that. Us can't do nort an' that's the
way o'it. Rosie didn' never ought to ha' died.
No-o-o! said Mrs Widger.
One can see the tigress in most women, in every mother, if one waits
long enough. I saw it in Mrs Widger then. If she ever has the whip-hand
of Dr Brown....
This mackerel hooking, which is a two-man job though Tony could and
would do it by himself were I not here, has most fortunately raised me
out of the position of a mere lodger, a household excrescence,
tolerated only for the sake of certain shillings a week. It has
provided me with a niche of my own, which I occupyat sea the mate on
a mackerel hooker, on shore a loafer 'ready to lend a hand,' and in the
house a sort of male Cinderella. It is far pleasanter, I find, to be a
small wheel in the machine than to remain seated on a mound of pounds,
shillings and pencebeflunkeyed, as if in a soulless hotel!
[Sidenote: THE EARLY CUP O' TAY]
Tony cannot fill his spare time by reading: it makes his
long-sighted eyes smart. On account of that, and of nights at sea, with
rest taken when and where possible, he has developed an amazing talent
for 'putting it away'; that is, for sleeping. He can turn out perfectly
well at any hour, if need be, but at ordinary times he is most content
to follow somebody else's first. I on my part, sleeping indifferently
well, wake usually before dawn, and greatly dislike waiting for an
early cup o' tay.
About half-past four I jump out of bed, creep downstairs and chop
wood. That warms me. Then with a barbaric glee, I scrape out the ashes,
sending clouds of dust over the guernseys and boots that have been set
near the fire to dry. No matter; being light and fire-dry, it will
brush off the one and shake out of the other. People who never light
fires at dawn can have no idea of the exhilaration to be obtained from
a well-laid, crackling, flaming fire.
Tony appears at the door, half-dressed, yawning and stretching his
arms on high. Yu an't been an' made tay, have 'ee? he says with
delighted certainty. The cups are filled. He takes up Mam 'Idger's cup
and returns with the paper roll of 'Family Biscuits.' We forage for
tit-bits, feed standing, yawn again, and go out to 'see what to make
Unless the sea is broken by the wind, there is about it just before
dawn a peculiar creeping clamminess. It seems but half awake, like
ourselves. It has no welcome for us. Can't you wait, it seems to say,
till I begin to sparkle?
Tony looks out over. Had us better tu? he asks with a shiver.
Shove her down then. There's macker out there!
By the time the sun is rising (it never rises twice the same) south
of the easternmost headland, Tony has worked himself into a tear over
self-tangling lines, and has been laughed out of it again. We are
perhaps a mile or two out, and if the mackerel are biting well, we are
hauling them in, swiftly, silently, grimly; banging them off the hook;
going Tsch! if they fall back into the sea; cutting baits from
fish not dead. If, however, they are not on the feed, we sing blatant
or romantic or sentimental songs (it is all one out there), and laugh
with a hearty sea-loudness. And if the mackerel will not bite at all we
invent a score of reasons and blame a dozen people and things. But
there we areourselves, the sea, and the heavenly dawnthe sea
heaving up to us, and ourselves ever heaving higher, up and over the
lop. It exalts us with it. We hardly need to talk. A straight look in
the face, a smile.... We are in the more immediate presence of one
another. Did we lie to each other with our tongues, the greater part of
our communications would yet be truth.
[Sidenote: THE PRICE OF FISH]
We sail or row home, turn the mackerel out on the beach, count them
back into the box, wash the blood off them, and stoop low, turning them
over and over, whilst we haggle for our price. The other day, with the
exuberance of the sea still upon me, I slapped old Jemima Caley's rusty
shoulder and lo! she rose her price one penny.
Damme! she said, I'll gie 'ee ninepence a dozen if I has to go
wi' out me dinner for't! They be fine fish.
Sweet fish, Jemima!
Lor' bless 'ee, yes!
But she hawked them at twopence-halfpenny or threepence a pair
according to the customer. And now, her wry sly smile, peeping from
underneath her battered hat-brim, meets me at every back-street corner.
Soap and water, the buzz of the children, their mother's loud voice,
and mackerel for breakfast.... It is all quite prosaic and perfectly
commonplace, it is far from idyllic; yet it would need the touch of a
poet to bring out the wonder, the mystery, of it all: to light up the
door of the soul-house through which we pass to and fro, scarce
Tony comes in early to dinner after a morning's frighting. His
object is to get an hour or so for sleep before the visitors come out
from their later lunch. Mam 'Idger says we are lazy; that she 'don't
gie way to it, she don't!' (She did a couple of days ago.) When the
after-dinner tea is finished, Tony makes a start for 'up over!' Mrs
Widger enquires if I have some writing to doand asks also if I would
like to be awakened before tea-time!
Never does sleep at night come so graciously as that afternoon
snooze, while the sound of the sea and the busy noises of the square
float gently in at the windows; float higher and higher; float right
away. About half-past two, Tony goes down to take somebody out for a
sail or to paint his boats. I frequently do not hear him.
Is there not more than one signification to the words And I, if I
be lifted up, will draw all men unto Me? There are times when the mind
is lifted up by a master-emotion, arising one hardly knows how, nor
whither leading; a feeling that takes charge of one, as a big wave is
said to take charge of a boat when it destroys steerageway; an emotion
so powerful that it does but batten on all which might be expected to
clash with it. These are the periods when day and night are enveloped
in one large state of mind, and life ceases to be a collection of
discrete, semi-related moods. These are the dawns of the soul, the
spring seasons of the spirit. The world is created afresh.
Everything, and nothing, is prosaic. 'Tis all according. But
it is startling indeed how suddenly sometimes the earth takes on a new
wonderfulness, and Saint Prosaic a new halo. What, to put it in the
plainest manner possible, am I doing here? Merely fishing and sailing
on the cheap (not so very cheaply); roughing itpigging it, as one
would saywith people who are not my people and do not live as I have
been accustomed to do. Yet, as I know well all the time, this
change from one prosaic life to another has brought about a revelation
which, like great music, sanctifies things, makes one thankful, and in
a sense very humble; incapable of fitting speech, incapable of silence.
[Sidenote: UNDER TOWN]
Astonishment at, and zest in, these Under Town lives; the discovery
of so much beauty hitherto unsuspected and, indeed, not to be caught
sight of without exceptional opportunity, sets one watching and waiting
in order to find out the real difference of their minds from the minds
of us who have been through the educational mill; also to find out
where and how they have the advantage of us. For I can feel rather than
see, here, the presence of a wisdom that I know nothing about, not even
by hearsay, and that I suspect to be largely the traditional wisdom of
the folk, gained from contact with hard fact, slowly accumulated and
handed on through centuriesthe wisdom from which education cuts us
off, which education teaches us to pooh-pooh.
Such wisdom is difficult to grasp; very shy. My chance of observing
it lies precisely in this: that I am neither a sky-pilot, nor a
district visitor, nor a reformer, nor a philanthropist, nor any sort of
'worker,' useful or impertinent; but simply a sponge to absorb and, so
far as can be, an understander to sympathize. It is hard entirely to
share another people's life, to give oneself up to it, to be received
into it. They know intuitively (their intuitions are extraordinarily
acute) that one is thinking more than one gives voice to; putting two
and two together; which keeps alive a lingering involuntary distrust
and a certain amount, however little, of ill-grounded respectfulness.
(Respectfulness is less a tribute to real or fancied superiority, than
an armour to defend the poor man's private life.) Besides which, these
people are necessary to, or at least their intimacy is greatly desired
by, myself, whereas their own life is complete and rounded without me.
I am tangential merely. They owe me nothing; I owe them much. It is I
who am the client, they the patrons.
[Sidenote: CLASS DISTINCTIONS]
We are told often enough nowadays that capital fattens on labour,
naturally, instinctively, without much sense of wrong-doing, and has so
fattened since the days when Laban tried to overreach Jacob. What we
are not so often told is that the poor man not less instinctively looks
upon the gen'leman as legitimate sport. 'An 'orrible lie' between two
poor people is fair play from a poor man to a wealthier, just as, for
instance, the wealthy man considers himself at liberty to make speeches
full of hypocritical untruth when he is seeking the suffrage of the
free and independent electors or is trying to teach the poor man how to
make himself more profitable to his employer. It is stupid, at present,
to ignore the existence of class distinctions; though they do not
perhaps operate over so large a segment of life as formerly, they still
exist in ancient strength, notwithstanding the fashionable
cantlip-service only to democratic idealsabout the whole world kin.
There is not one high wall, but two high walls between the classes and
the masses, so-called, and that erected in self-defence by the
exploited is the higher and more difficult to climb. On the one side is
a disciplined, fortified Gibraltar, held by the gentry; then comes a
singularly barren and unstable neutral zone; and on the other side is
the vast chaotic mass. In Under Town, I notice, a gentleman is always
gen'leman, a workman or tramp is man, but the fringers, the
inhabitants of the neutral zone, are called persons. For
example: That man what used to work for the council is driving
about the gen'leman as stays with Mrs Smiththe person
what used to keep the greengrocery shop to the top of High Street afore
her took the lodging house on East Cliff. It is, in fact, strange how
undemocratic the poor man is. (Not so strange when one realises that
far from having everything to gain and nothing to lose by a levelling
process, he has a deal to lose and his gains are problematical.) I am
not sure that he doesn't prefer to regard the gen'leman as another
species of animal. Jimmy and Tommy have a name of their own for the
little rock-cakes their mother cooks. They call them gentry-cakes
because such morsels are fitted for theas Jimmy and Tommy
imaginesmaller mouths of ladies and gentlemen. The other afternoon
Mabel told me that a boat she had found belonged not to a boy but to a
gentry-boy. Some time ago I begged Tony not to sir me;
threatened to punch his head if he did. It discomforted me to be
belaboured with a title of respect which I could not reasonably claim
from him. Rather I should sir him, for he is older and at least
my equal in character; he has begotten healthy children for his country
and he works hard 'to raise 'em vitty.' Against my book-knowledge he
can set a whole stock of information and experience more directly
derived from and bearing upon life. I don't consider myself unfit to
survive, but he is fitter, and up to the present has done more to
justify his survivalwhich after all is the ultimate test of a man's
position in the race. At all events, he did cease sir-ing me
except on ceremonial occasions. At ordinary times the detested word is
unheard, but it is still: Gude morning, sir! Gude night, sir! And
sometimes: Your health, sir! At that the matter must rest, I suppose,
though the sir is a symbol of class difference, and to do away
with the symbol is to weaken the difference.
[Sidenote: THE WORD LIKE]
But at the same time, I am lucky enough to possess certain
advantages. I have, for instance, managed to preserve the ability to
speak dialect in spite of all the efforts of my pastors and masters to
make me talk the stereotyped, comparatively inexpressive compromise
which goes by the name of King's English. Tony is hard of hearing,
catches the meaning of dialect far quicker than that of standard
English, and I notice that the damn'd spot sir seldom blots our
conversation when it is carried on in dialect. Finally there is the
great problem of self-expression. There, at any rate, I am well to
The cause of the uneducated man's use of the word like is
interesting. He makes a statement, uses an adjective, andespecially
if the statement relates to his own feelings or to something
unfamiliarhe tacks on the word like, spoken in a peculiarly
explanatory tone of voice. What does the word mean there? Is it merely
a habit, a 'gyte,' as Tony would say? And why the word like?
When a poet wishes to utter thoughts that are too unformulated, that
lie too deep, for words
Break, break, break,
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me
he has recourse to simile and metaphor. Take, for example, the
transience of human life, a subject on which at times we most of us
have keen vague thoughts that, we imagine, would be so profound could
our tongues but utter them.
Blake's Thel is a symbol of the transience of life.
O life of this our Spring! why fades the lotus of the water?
Why fade these children of the Spring, born but to smile and
Thel, the transient maiden, is.... What is Thel? says Blake, in
effect. Thel cannot be described straightforwardly. What then is Thel
Ah! Thel is like a watery bow, and like a parting cloud,
Like a reflection in a glass, like shadows on the water,
Like dreams of infants, like a smile upon an infant's face,
Like the dove's voice, like transient day, like music in the
Shakespeare, in a corresponding difficulty, uses one convincing
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Drummond of Hawthornden exclaims:
This Life, which seems so fair,
Is like a bubble blown up in the air
By sporting children's breath....
Bacon speaks more boldly and concisely. He forsakes simile for
metaphor, leaving the word like to be understood.
The World's a bubble, and the Life of Man
Less than a span....
Were Tony to try and express himself by the same means, he would
say: The world's a bubble, like, and the life of man less than a span,
Like, in fact, with the poor man as with the poet, connotes
simile and metaphor. The poor man's vocabulary, like the poet's, is
quite inadequate to express his thoughts. Both, in their several ways,
are driven to the use of unhackneyed words and simile and metaphor;
both use a language of great flexibility; for which reason we find
that after the poet himself, the poor man speaks most poetically.
Witness the beautiful description: All to once the nor'easter springed
out from the land, an' afore us could down-haul the mainsail, the sea
wer feather-white an' skatting in over the bows. New words are eagerly
seized; hence the malapropisms and solecisms so frequently made fun of,
without appreciation of their cause. Obsolete has come hereto
from the Navy, through sons who are bluejackets. Now, when Tony wishes
to sum up in one word the two facts that he is older and also less
vigorous than formerly, he says: Tony's getting obsolete, like. A
soulless word, borrowed from official papers, has acquired for us a
poetic wealth of meaning in which the pathos of the old ship, of
declining years, and of Tony's own ageing, are all present with one
knows not what other suggestions besides. And when obsolete is
fully domesticated here, the like will be struck off.
 The flexibility and expressiveness of dialect lies
in its ability to change its verbal form and pronunciation
speech very broad indeed to something approaching standard
English. For example, You'm a fool, is playful; You'm a
less so. You're a fool, asserts the fact without blame;
Thee't a fule, or Thee a't a fule! would be spoken in
and the second is the more emphatic. The real differences
I an't got nothing, I an't got ort, and I an't got
nort,Oo't? Casn'? Will 'ee? and Will you?You'm
not, You ain't, You bain't, and Thee a'tn't,are
to be appreciated by those who speak only standard English.
Thee and thou are used between intimates, as in
Thee is usual from a mother to her children, but is
disrespectful from children to their mother.
[Sidenote: THOUGHTS AND MIND PICTURES]
In short, every time Tony uses like, he is admitting, and
explaining, that he has expressed himself as best he could, but
inadequately notwithstanding. He has felt something more delicately,
thought upon something more accurately, than he can possibly say. He is
always pathetically eager to make himself plain, to be understood. One
knows well that touching look in the eyes of a dog when, as we say, it
all but speaks. Often have I seen that same look, still more intense,
in Tony's eyes, when he has become mazed with efforts to express
himself, and I have wished that as with the dog, a pat, a small caress,
could change the look into a joyfulness. But it is just because I am
fond of him that I am able to feel with him and to a certain extent to
divine his half-uttered thoughts; to take them up and return them to
him clothed in more or less current English which, he knows, would
convey them to a stranger, and which shows him more clearly than before
what he really was thinking. That seems to be one of my chief functions
herethought-publisher. Evidently grateful, he talks and talks,
usually while the remains of a meal lie scattered on the table. Aye!
he says, at the end of a debauch of likes. I don' know what I
du know. Tony's a silly ol' fule!
He does not believe it; nor do I; for I am often struck with wonder
at the thoughts and mind-pictures which we so curiously arrive at
The old feudal class-distinctions are fast breaking down. But are we
arriving any nearer the democratic ideal of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité? In place of the old distinctions, are we not
setting up new distinctions, still more powerful to divide? There is
to-day a greater social gulf fixed between the man who takes his
morning tub and him who does not, than between the man of wealth or
family and him who has neither. New-made and pink, the 'gentleman'
arises daily from his circle of splashes, a masculine Venus from a foam
of soap-suds. (About womenfolk we are neither so enquiring nor so
particular.) For the cults of religion and pedigree we have substituted
the cult of soap and water, and 'the prominent physician of Harley
Street' is its high priest. Are you a reputed atheist? Poor man!
doubtless God will enlighten you in His good time. Are you wicked?
Well, well.... Have you made a fortune by forsaking the official
Christian morality in favour of the commercial code? You can redeem all
by endowing a hospital or university. But can they say of you that
somehow or other you don't look quite clean? Then you are damn'd!
The cottage where the heroine of the 'nice' book lives is always
spotlessly clean. A foreigner who adopts the bath-habit, is said to be
just like an Englishman. It is the highest praise he can earn, and will
go further in English society than the best introductions.
Cleanliness is our greatest class-symbol. In living with people who
have been brought up to different ways of life, a consideration of
cleanliness is forced upon one; for nothing else rouses so
instantaneously and violently the latent snobbery that one would fain
be rid of. Religiously, politically, we are men and brothers all. Yet
stillthere are men we simply cannot treat as brothers. By what
term of contempt (in order to justify our unbrotherliness) can we call
them? Not poor men; for we have Poor but honest too
firmly fixed in our minds, and we would all like a colonial rich rough
diamond of an uncle to appear suddenly in our family circle. Hardly
men of no family; for men of no family are received at court. Not
workmen; for behold the Carlylese and Smilesian dignity of labour!
Not the masses; for the masses are supposed to be our rulers.
What then can we call these people with whom we really cannot associate
on equal terms? Why, call them THE GREAT UNWASHED. O felicitous phrase!
O salve of the conscience! That is the unpardonable social sin. At the
bottom of our social ladder is a dirty shirt; at the top is fixed not
laurels, but a tub! The bathroom is the inmost, the strongest fortress
of our English snobbery.
Cleanliness as a subject of discussion is, curiously enough,
considered rather more improper than disease. Yet it has to be faced,
and that resolutely, if we would approach, and approaching, understand,
the majority of our fellow-creatures.
Chemically all dirt is clean. Just as the foods and drinks of a good
dinner, if mixed up together on a dish, would produce a filthy mess, so
conversely, if we could separate any form of dirt into the pure solid,
liquid and volatile chemical compounds of which it is composed, into
pretty crystals, liquids and gases, exhibited in the scientific manner
on spotless watch-glasses and in thrice-washed test-tubes,we might
indeed say that some of these chemicals had an evil odour, but we could
not pronounce them unclean. Prepared in a laboratory, the sulphuretted
hydrogen gas which makes the addled egg our national political weapon,
is a quite cleanly preparation. Dirt is merely an unhappy mixture of
clean substances. The housewife is nearest a scientific view of the
matter when she distinguishes between 'clean dirt' and 'dirty dirt,'
and does not mind handling coal, for instance, because, being clean
dirt, it will not harm her. Cleanliness is a process by which we keep
noxious microbes and certain poisons outside our systems or in their
proper places within. (It has been shown that we cannot live without
microbes, and that there exist normally in some parts of the body
substances which are powerfully poisonous to other parts.) Rational
cleanliness makes for health, for survival. It is, ultimately, an
expression of the Will to Live.
Far, however, from being rational, our notions on cleanliness are in
the highest degree superficial. We make a great fuss over a flea;
hardly mention it in polite company; but we tolerate the dirty housefly
on all our food. We eat high game which our cook's more natural taste
calls muck. We are only just beginning to realise the indescribable
filthiness of carious teeth, than which anything more unclean, a few
diseases excepted, can scarcely be found in slums. Even in this great
age of pseudo-scientific enlightenment, we do not have a carious tooth
extracted until it aches, though we have a front tooth cleaned and
stopped on the first appearance of decay. What the eye doth not see....
Yet we presume to judge men by their deviation from our conventional
standards of cleanliness.
My lady goes to the doctor for her headaches and crises de nerfs. Dyspepsia and autotoxæmia, says the doctor. Try such-and-such a
diet for a month, then go to Aix-les-Bains. But how would my lady be
ashamed did he tell her plainly: Madam, though I observe that you
bathe frequently, your cleanliness, like your beauty, is only
skin-deep. You are fair without and foul within. Your alimentary canal
is overloaded and your blood is so unclean that it has poisoned your
nervous system. Eat less, take more exercise and drink plentyof
water. Try to be as clean as your gardener. It has been remarked that
the labourer who sweats at his work is, in reality, far cleaner than
the bathing sedentary man, for the labourer has a daily sweat-bath,
whereas the other only washes the outside of him: the cleanliness of
the latter is skin-deep, and of the former blood-deep. Once stated, the
fact is obvious. Moreover, the labourer has the additional advantage of
being self-cleansing, whereas the sedentary man, for his inferior kind
of cleanliness, requires a bath and all sorts of apparatus. No doubt,
in time we shall learn to value both kinds of cleanliness, each at its
worth. The Martians of fiction, when in a fair way to conquer the
earth, succumbed before earthly microbes to which they were
unaccustomed, against which they had not acquired immunity. If by
antiseptics they could have kept these microbes at bay, they would have
done well, but if, like mankind, they had possessed self-resistance
against them (that is, if they had been self-cleansing) it would have
been still better. There is no paradox in saying that, practically, it
is very difficult for a healthy person to be genuinely unclean; and
that ideally, in the surgeon's eyes, we are, all, rich man and tramp,
so unclean that there is little to choose between us, and every one of
us requires a comprehensive scrubbing in an antiseptic tub.
But just as the habit of aiding nature by eating predigested food is
bad, so too rigid a habit, too great a need of cleanliness is a
positive disadvantage in the struggle for existence. Harry Stidston
says fleas are loveable little creatures. I have had to learn to put up
with one or two sometimes. Tommy makes his mother undress him in the
middle of dinner to find one. In other words, Harry Stidston can do his
work and live under conditions which would put me to flight, and I have
a like advantage over Tommy. Again, Tony can do with an occasional bath
and can eat his food with fishy hands, while I am a worm and no man
without my daily bath, or at least a wash-over, and, except at sea,
turn against the best of food if I can smell fish on my fingers. The
advantage is Tony's. It is good to be clean, but it is better to be
able to be dirty.
The upshot is half-a-dozenmaybe unpleasanttruths, without
recognition of which the latter-day citadel of snobbery cannot be
stormed, nor the poor man and his house appreciated at their worth;
1. Ideally: We are all so unclean that there is little to
choose between us.
2. Scientifically: Cleanliness, as practised, is
conventional and irrational.
3. Blood-cleanliness is better than skin-cleanliness.
4. To be self-cleansing is better than to be cleansed by outside
5. It is hard for a healthy, active person to be really unclean.
6. Practically: The need of cleanliness is a weakness.
According to the orthodox standards, this house of Tony's is by no
means so clean as the rose-embowered cottage of romance. It was not
hygienically built. The children gain health by grubbing about outside,
then come in house and demonstrate their healthy appetite by grabbing.
I could wish at times that they were a little more conscious of their
noses. We cannot, try how we will, get wholly rid of fleas, because
fleas flourish in beaches, boats and nets. There are several things
here to turn one's gorge, until prejudices are put aside and the matter
regarded scientifically. For, as one may see, the effective cleanliness
of this household strikes a subtle balance between more contending
needs than can be fully traced out. If, for instance, Mrs Widger came
down earlier and scrupulously swept the house, her temper would suffer
later on in the day. If she did not sometimes 'let things rip,' and
take leisure, her health, and with it the whole delicate organisation
of the household, would go wrong. Of a morning, I observe she has
neck-shadows. Horrid! Perhaps, but being a wise woman, pressed always
for time, she postpones her proper wash until the dirty work is done.
Were we to kill off the wauling cats which make such a mess of the
garden, the neighbourhood would lose its best garbingers. Baked dinner
is never so tasty as when the tin, hot from the oven, is placed upon a
folded newspaper on the table. Tony and the children tear fish apart
with their fingers. It does not look nice, but that is the reason why
they never get bones in their throats, for, as a fish-eating
instrument, sensitive fingers are much superior to cutlery and plate,
and so on....
I used to think that I was pigging it here. Now I do not.
 On the moral aspect of cleanliness I have not touched.
M. Loane, a Queen's Nurse, in her remarkable book The Next
Street but One, observes Cleanliness has often seemed to
strangely far from godliness. Where the virtue is highly
developed there is often not merely an actual but an absolute
shrinkage in all sweet neighbourly charities. If an invalid's
bedroom needs scrubbing and there is no money to pay for the
service, or if a chronic sufferer's kitchen is in want of a
'thorough good do-out,' if two or three troublesome children
to be housed and fed during the critical days after an
on father or mother, do I look for assistance from 'the
woman in the street?' Alas, no; whether she be wife, widow,
spinster, I pass her by, careful not to tread on her
much less her doorstep, and seek the happy-go-lucky person
own premises would be better for more water and less grease,
from whose presence neither husband nor child ever hastens
[Sidenote: JIMMY COMES HOOKING]
The dawns are later now. We do not need to get up quite so early,
and usually, just as we are drinking our cup o' tay, we hear a
pattering of naked feet on the staircase. Jimmy, the Dustman still in
his eyes, appears at the door. He has an air of being about to do
something important. He picks out his stockings and old grey suit from
the corners where they were left to dry. He does not ask to have his
boots laced up nor complain of their stiffness. Then with his coat
exceedingly askew on his shoulders, he demands: Tay! please.
What do yu want? Git up over to bed again.
I be comin' hooking wiv yu.
Be 'ee? Yu'll hae to hurry up then.
When the sea is not too loppy nor the wind too cold, Jimmy goes with
us. The soft-mouthed mackerel need hauling up clear of the gunwale with
a long-armed swing, beyond Jimmy's power to give, and therefore as a
rule he is not at first allowed to have a line; for fish represent
money and mackerel caught now will be eaten as bread and dripping in
the winter. Jimmy sits huddled up on the lee side for'ard. He becomes
paler, looks plaintively, and sighs a big sigh or two.
What's the matter, Jim-Jim? Do 'er feel leery?
If Jimmy volunteers a remark, nothing is the matter. But if he
merely answers No-o-o! he means yes, and in order to stave off
sea-sickness he must be given a line.
[Sidenote: EDUCATION EVILS]
Then is Jimmy 'proper all right.' Then does he brighten up. How
many have us catched? he asks. The sight of him fishing in the
stern-sheets re-assures me as to his future, about which I am sometimes
fearful, just as some men are depressed by a helpless baby because they
foresee, imaginatively, the poor little creature's life and all
possible troubles before it. When I watch Jimmy in house, rather
naughty perhaps, or when I hear Bessie, fresh from the twaddle that
they put into her head at school, saying, If Dad'd earn more money,
mother, us could hae a shop an' he could buy me a pi-anno; or when, as
I am out and about with the boats, a grubby small hand is suddenly
slipped into mine and a joyful chirping voice says, What be yu
'bout?then, and at a score of other times, I am fearful of what they
may be led to do with Jimmy; fearful lest they may put the little chap
to an inland trade where he is almost bound to become a lesser man than
his father, be removed from the enlarging influence of the sea, and
have it given him as the height of ambition to grow up a dram-drinking
or psalm-smiting, Sunday-top-hatted tradesmen. Then I desire savagely
to have the power of a God, not that I might direct his lifehe can
sail his own boat better than I,but that I might keep the ring clear
for him to fight in, and prevent foul play. What indeed would I not do
to remove some of the guilt of us educated men and women who force our
ideas on people without asking whether they need them, without caring
how maimed, stultified and potent for evil the ideas become in process
of transmission, without seeing that for the age-old wisdom of those
whom we call the uneducated we are substituting a jerry-built
knowledgegot from bookswhich we only half believe in ourselves? New
lamps for old! The pity of it! The farce!
But when I watch Jimmy fishing, I grow confident that the sea has
its grip on him; that it will drag him to itself as it dragged his
father from the grocery store; that whatever happens, it will always be
part of his life to keep trivialities, meannesses and education from
quite closing in around him.
[Sidenote: THE FISHER FATHER AND CHILD]
The Fisher Father and Child
As I pulled the boat across a loppy sea
The bumping and splashing boat,
With the sail flapping round my head,
And the pile of mackerel amidships ever growing larger and
in the light
And the sun rose behind the cliffs to eastward, and the sky
(A graciously coloured veil twixt the earth and all mystery
And the wavelets sparkled and darted like ten thousand fishes
in the ambient dawn,
It seemed that the sky and the sea and the earth gathered
And became one vast kind eye, looking into the stern of the
At the father and boy.
Navy-blue guernsey, and trousers stained by the sea, scarce
the ribbed muscles;
Tan-red face, the fresh blood showing through;
Blue eyes, all of a flash with fishing and the joy of hauling
now on the luff of the sail (out of habit, there being
sail-full of air), now to wind'ard, and again smiling on
Big pendulous russet hands, white in the palms from salt water,
splashed with scales
Hands that seem implements rather, appearing strangely no part
man, but something, like the child, that has grown away
him and has taken a life of its own
Strong for a sixteen-foot sweep, delicate to handle the silken
A man that the winds and the spray have blown on, gnarled and
the sea's own liking,
And the boy
Like delicate dawn to the sunset was the child to his father
A sturdy slight little figure, as straight as the mast,
A grey and more gently coloured figure, glancing round with the
father's self-same gestures softened, and with childish
trustful sea-blue eyes;
Pattering with naked feet on the stern-sheets, and hauling the
with a wary cat-like motion....
O splendid and beautiful pair!
O man of the sea! O child growing up to the sea!
You have given yourselves to the waters, and the waters have
of their spirit to you,
And I know when you speak that the sea is speaking through you,
And I know when I look at the sea, 'tis the likeness of your
And I know that as I love you, I am loving also the sea
O splendid and beautiful portions of the sea!
[Sidenote: MRS FINN'S PROFESSIONS]
Mrs Pinn has put aside her respectful defiance, has ceased
addressing me as sir, and turns out to be a most jolly old
woman, possessed of any amount of laughing camaraderie. She
frankly explains the change thus: I used to think yu was reeligious.
Yu du look a bit like a passon [parson] sometimes. Do 'ee know 't?No,
not now; be blow'd if yu du! Yu'm so wicked as the rest of 'em, I
believe, but yu ben't like they ol' passons. I'll 'llow yu'm better'n
they. My own recollection, however, runs back to the evening when she
brought her damped-down washing round, and I turned the mangle for her.
It is hardish work. 'Tis a wonder how she, an old woman, can do it
when, if births are scarce, she is reduced to taking in washing for a
week or two. Tony calls her the Tough Old Stick. Excellent name! I can
picture her in her cottage up on land, bringing up her long family with
much shouting, much hard common sense, some swearing and a deal of
useful prejudice. Now, in her second youthnot second childhoodshe
is mainly a lace-worker and midwife. One night, Tony and myself broke
into her cottage, locked the door behind us and helped ourselves to
what supper we could findwhich was pickled beetroot and raw eggs.
Grannie Pinn climbed in upon us through the little window, and
afterwards, to gain breath, she sat down to her lace pillow. Her
dexterity was marvellous. She threw the bobbins about. I could
not follow them with my eyes. She makes stock patterns only; refuses to
be taught fresh patterns at her time of life, and cannot read them up
for herself because she has never learned to read. The butterfly is her
masterpiece. Working from early morning till evening's gossip-time, she
can earn no less than nine pennies a day. What the lace-selling shop
makes out of her, the lace-selling shop does not state.
As a midwife, no doubt, she earns more. She must be full of tonic
sayings. I am told that when her patients are dying, she takes away the
pillow 'so that they can die more proper like,' and also in order that
they may get the dying over quicker. What scenes the Tough Old Stick
have must been present at! Yet she is spryer by far than those who keep
clear of tragedy. When I ask her to tell me truly how many patients she
has killed off in her professional career, her eyes glitter and she
bursts out: Aw, yu! What chake yu got, to be sure!
She has her share of professional pride, but nevertheless I should
like to know how many corpses she really has laid out for burialand
what she thought the while.
Usually she comes in just before supper-time:
Ain't yu gone yet? I know; yu got some mark or other to Seacombe.
Come on! which o' the young ladies is't? Out wi' it! Which on 'em
is't? When I tell her that she is the best girl in Seacombe and that I
won't give her the chuck until she finds me a mark as youthful as
herself and a hundred times as rich, she says:
Then yu'm done! her won't hae nort still, 'cause I an't got nort,
an' a hundred times nort be nothinghe-he-he! I knaws thiccy.
The jokes, 'tis true, are poor. But the Tough Old Stick's enjoyment
franks them all. You may fling a stinging fact in her face; tell her,
if you like, that she could find plenty of marks for herself because,
being old, she will have to die soon and then the poor fellow would be
free again. I know't! she says, and flings you back another stinging
fact. Admirable Old Stick! She never flinches at a fact, howsoever
grisly it be.
Above all, she revels in a little mild blasphemy; hardly
blasphemyimaginary details, say, about hell, in the manner of Mark
Twain. Aw, my dear soul! she exclaims. How yu du go on! Aw, my dear
soul! Yu'm going to hell, sure 'nuff yu be!
But her horror is only a pretence. She does not take such matters
seriously. Indeed, few things have surprised me so much as the
thoroughgoing agnosticism that prevails here. Uncle Jake is the
religious member of the Widger family. For the rest, religion is the
business of the clergy who are paid for it and of those who take it up
as a hobby, including the impertinent persons who thrust hell-fire
tracts upon the fisherfolk. Us can't 'spect to know nort about it,
says Tony. 'Tain't no business o' ours. May be as they says; may be
not. It don't matter, that I sees. 'Twill be all the same in a hunderd
years' time when we'm a-grinning up at the daisy roots.
Nevertheless, he is not atheistical, nor even wholly fatalistic.
When his first wife was lying dead, he saw her in a dream with one of
her dead babies in her arms, and he is convinced that that meant
something very spiritual, although what it meant he does not care to
enquire. The agnosticism refers not so much to immortality or the
existence of a God, as to the religions, the nature of the God, the
divinity of Christ, and so on.
Us don' know nort about that, n'eet does anybody else, I believe,
an' all their education on'y muddles 'em when they comes to weigh up
thic sort o' thing.
If the sparrows themselves had been acquainted with 'Are not two
sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall to the
ground without your Father,' their attitude towards religion might have
resembled Tony'sa mixture of trust and insouciance, neither of
them driven to any logical conclusion and both tempered by fatalism.
When yu got to die, yu got tu, says Tony, and it makes little
difference to him whether the event has been decreed since the
beginning of time, or whether it is to be decreed at some future date
by a being so remote as God. The thing is, to accept the decree
The children go to Sunday School, of course; it is convenient to
have them out of the way while Sunday's dinner is being cooked and the
afternoon snooze being taken. Besides, though the Sunday School
teaching is a fearful hotch-potch of heaven, hell and self-interest,
the tea-fights concerts and picnics connected with it are well worth
going to. But the household religion remains a pure sparrowism,
and an excellent creed it is for those of sufficient faith and courage.
Of how the Sunday School teaching is translated by the children into
terms of every day life, we had a fine example two or three weeks ago.
Jimmy came home full of an idea that 'if you don' ast God to stop it,
Satant 'll have 'ee,' and Mrs Widger asked him: What's the difference
then between God an' Satant?
Ther ain't nort.
Yes, there is. What does God du?
God don't do nort unless yu asks Him.
An' what does Satant du?
OhI know!Satant gets into yer 'art, an' gives 'ee belly-ache
Not many days afterwards, Tommy was being sent to bed for getting
his feet wet. Yu daring rascal! I'll knock yer head off if yu du it
again. Yu'll die, yu will! An' what'll yu du then?
Go to heaven, o' course.
An' what do you think they'll say to 'ee there? Eh?
Tommy was puzzled.
You can ask 'em to send us better weather. I suggested.
Tell 'ee what I'll do, said Tommy with a prodigiously wise squint.
I'll take up a buckle-strap to thiccy ol' God, if 'er don't send
better weather, an' then yu won't none on 'ee get sent to bed for wet
At a corner near here, there is a very blank cottage wall, and in
the centre of it a little window. Behind the closed window, all day and
every day, sits an old woman at her lace pillow. Some
portraitsRembrandt's especiallygive one the impression that a
shutter has suddenly been drawn aside; that behind the shutter we are
allowed to watch for a moment or two a face so full of meaning as to be
almost more than human. The same impression is given me by the old
lace-maker in the window when I pass to and fro, and catch sight of her
face so still, her hands so active, her bobbins so swift and, because
of the intervening glass, so silent. How nervously the hands speed with
the bobbins, how very deliberately with the pins that make the pattern!
How hardly human it is!
One evening, however, the window was open, children stood round in a
group, and I heard the small click of the bobbins through the still
air. The children were laughing, delighted with the old woman's
swiftness. She that had been a picture, was become a living being.
No doubt, she is working at her lace pillow now. She has several
mouths to feed. I wonder does she earn as much as Grannie Pinn?
This long time I have wished to go congering all night, but have
been unable to do so for want of a mate. It is more than one man's work
to haul a boat up the beach in daytime, let alone the middle of the
night or at early dawn. If the Moondaisy's old crew was here....
Ah! those were dayswhen George and the Little Commodore and the
Looby and myself used to row out with a swinging stroke at sundown to
Elm-beech-tree and Conger Pool. The choosing of the mark; the
careful heaving of the sling-stone; the blinn, skate, pollack,
spider-crabs, and conger eels, we used to catch; the fights with the
conger in the dark or by the light of matches or of an old lantern that
blew out when it was most wanted; the absurd way the crew turned up
their noses at my nice tomato sandwiches and gobbled down stringy
corned beef; their quiet slumber round the stern seats and my solitary
watch amidships over all the lines, and at the sea-fire trailing in the
flood-tide; their crustiness when I awoke them to shift our mark and
their jubilation when a whopper was to be gaffed; the utter
peacefulness of the night after they had gone to sleep again; our merry
row home and hearty beaching of the boat; the cup of hot tea.... It is
all clean gone. George is in the Navy and the Little Commodore is under
a glass box of waxen flowers up on land. Did I bring back a catch
alone, perhaps the old boat would be stove in.
 A spot found by getting an elm-tree on the cliffs in a
with a beech-tree up on land.
Tony, however, has been saying that, on the rough ground a mile or
so out, good-sized conger can be caught by day. On Saturday, therefore,
I collected gear from the Widger linhays, borrowed a painter and
anchor, and, the wind being easterly, I luffed the Moondaisy out
a mile and a half south-east. There I dropped anchor.
Tony had given me two mackerel for bait, one fresh and the other
somewhat otherwise; that is to say it was merely fishmonger
freshquite good enough for eating but hardly good enough for conger
who, though they have a reputation for feeding on dead men, will only
touch the freshest of bait. With the fresh mackerel I caught one large
conger (it ripped in the sail a hole that took Mam Widger an hour to
mend) and two dog-fish. Nothing at all would bite at the stale
mackerel. The easterly sea was making a little and skatting in over the
bows. Besides which, the Moondaisy began to drag her anchor. My
hand to jaw-and-tail fight with the conger had made me a little
unsteady; had made my muscles feel as if they might string up with
cramp; which is not good for stepping a heavyish mast and sailing a
boat. So I stepped the mast and set sail, to make sure, and ran
homewards with the wind almost abeam.
We decided to save the conger for Sunday's dinner.
Mrs Widger made a most savoury stew of it, and when Tony came in as
usual, asking, Be dinner ready, Missis? she placed the stew on the
Tony's face fell.
Be this my dinner, Annie?
Iss, for sure.
[Sidenote: HOT BAKE]
What d'yu think then?
Thees! Wer's yer baked spuds?
Do' ee gude to hae a change. Ther's some cold taties to the larder
if you likes to get 'em.
Thees! Why, I wish thees yer conger hadn't never been
G'out!Now then, you childern....
Tony picked over the fish, going Tsch! for every bone his
fingers came across.
Thee't look so sulky as an ol' cow, said Mam Widger.
Well, what do 'ee think? Thees yer.... Did 'ee ever see the like
Presently it occurred to him to peep inside the oven. His face
brightened. I know'd her 'ouldn't du me out o' me Sunday dinner. Bring
it out, Missis. Sharp! Gie thiccy stuff to the cat. Baked spuds! What's
Sunday wi'out baake? 'Tain't no day at all! I couldn' ha' put away an
hour after thic.
For the remainder of the meal, when Tony was not eating, he was
singing; and several times he chucked Mam Widger under the chin, and
she retorted: G'out, yu cupboard-loving cat!
This is the recipe for baked dinner:
Turn out the children and turn on the oven. Into the middle of a
large baking tin place a saucer piled up with a mixture of herbs
(mainly parsley), one sliced onion and breadcrumbs, the whole made
sticky with a morsel of dripping. Round about the saucer put a layer of
large peeled potatoes, and on top of all, the joint. Set the baking tin
on the hob and into it pour just enough warm water to run over the rim
of the saucer. Soon after the water boils, transfer the whole to a
fairly quick oven. When the meat is brown outside, slow the oven down.
Serve piping hot from the oven, placing the tin on a folded newspaper
and the joint, if large, on a hot plate.
To dish up hot bake in the ordinary way would be to let the nature
out of it. The smell is a wonderful blend, most hunger-provoking. True,
the joint, unless pork or veal, is apt to be a little tough, but the
taties are a delicious shiny brown, their soft insides soaked through
and through with gravy. Bake is a meal in itself. Pudding thereafter is
a work of supererogationalmost an impertinence.
Mrs Widger's cookery, though sometimes a little greasy for one who
does no great amount of manual labour and undergoes no excessive
exposure, is far from bad.
Food reformers; patrons of cookery schools where they try, happily
in vain, to teach the pupils to prepare dishes no working man would
adventure on; physical degenerates who fear that unless the working man
imitates them, he will become as degenerate as they are, and quite
unfit to do the world's rough workforget that whereas they have only
one staple food, if that, namely bread, the poor man has several staple
dishes which he likes so well that he is loth to touch any other.
One day we did have at my suggestion a rather fanciful supper. Tony
tasted, ate, and cleared the dish. Then he asked: An't 'ee got nort to
make a meal on, Missis? no cold meat nor spuds? He believes in the
theory that good digestion waits on appetite rather than on digestible
or pre-digested foods; that the meal which makes a man's mouth water is
the best to eat; and that solid foods give solid strength. And if the
same dish can make his mouth water nearly every day in the week, how
much more fortunate is he than fickle gourmets!
When I first came here, I used periodically to run after the
flesh-pots. I used to sneak off to tea at a confectioner's. Now I
seldom feed out of housesimply because I don't want to. We start the
day about sunrise with biscuits and a cup of tea which I make and take
up myself. (Mam Widger and Tony look so jolly in bed, her indoor
complexion and white nightgown beside his blue-check shirt and
magnificently tanned face, that I've dubbed them 'The Babes in the
Wood.') For breakfast, we have fried mackerel or herrings, when they
are in season; otherwise various mixtures of tough bacon and perhaps
eggs (children half an egg each) and bubble and squeak. Sometimes
the children prefer kettle-broth, but they never fail to clamour
for 'jam zide plaate.' Bake, hot or cold, and occasionally (mainly for
me, I think) a plain pudding, or on highdays a pie, make up the dinner
that is partaken of by all. But before the pudding is eaten, Tony and
myself are already looking round to see that the kettle is on a hot
part of the fire, and when the children are gone off to school, Mam
Widger throws us out a cup o' tay each, with now and then a newly baked
gentry-cake. Tony, who would like meat or a fry of fish for tea, has
usually to content himself with bread and butter. The children go off
to bed with a biscuit or a small chunk of cheese, and we may eat the
same with pickles, or else fried or boiled fish if there is any in the
house.... Supper, in fact, is the meal of many inventions, including
all sorts of crabs, little lobsters, and such unsaleable fish as
dun-cow [dog-fish], conger, skate or weever, together with
dree-hap'orth, or a pint, of stout and bitter from the Alexandra. Just
before turning in, Tony and myself have a glass of hot grog.
 Fried mixed vegetables.
 Bread broth with butter, or dripping, and water instead
milk. A dash of skim milk is sometimes added.
From such a list of our fare, it would seem as if we over-ate
ourselves as consistently as the en pension visitors at the
hotels. (Mrs Widger, who has done a good deal of waiting, frequently
tells us how manfully the visitors endeavour to eat their money's worth
at the tables d'hôte). Tony's appetitehis habit of pecking at
the food after a meal is over and the way he, and the children too if
they have the chance, mop up pickles and Worcester sauceis a
continual joy to me. We do not drink much alcohol. On the other hand,
the children are curiously discouraged from drinking cold water. Skim
milk, tea, stout, ale, or even very dilute spirit is considered better
for thema prejudice which dates probably from the days before a pure
water supply. Since, however, I who am known to possess a contemptible
digestion, have been seen to drink down several glasses of cold water
daily, and to take no hurt, the ban on it has been more or less
The above-mentioned goodies are distributed, it is true, over a good
many days in the year, and I fancy that my being here drives up the
scale of living somewhat. At all events, we do not go short. Waste on
the one side, mainly arising from small eyes being bigger than small
stomachs, is more than counterbalanced by a wonderful ability to
swallow down gristle, rinds and hard bits without apparent harm.
Granfer, indeed, says that he 'wouldn't gie a penny a pound for tender
meat that don't give 'ee summut to bite at.' The children clamour
always for 'jam zide plaate.' Without that or the promise of it, they
often refuse to eat anything. They do not believe me when I tell them
that they have more food than ever I did at their age; that I had to
eat a piece of bread and a potato for each slice of meat; that jam and
butter together was not thought good for me except on birthdays and
Sundays. G'out! they say. Ye lie! Sometimes their mother is
irritated into calling them 'cawdy li'l devils.' It does seem almost a
pity that they have not had any of the discipline of starvation. The
Yarty children who go half the day, and only too often whole days, on
empty stomachs, are certainly as happy as ours: they never cry because
dinner is not so good as they expect, and if we give them half a pie
their earth is straightway heavenly. Tony thinks now and then how hard
it will go with his children if the money runs short, as it has done
and may easily do again. I mind the time, he says, when I used to
come in hungry and kneel down beside me mother wi' me head across her
lap, crying! Her crying too; mother 'cause her hadn't got nort to eat
in house, and me 'cause her didn't get nort, and 'cause her cuden't get
nort, not even half an ounce o' tay, not havin' no money in house to
get it with. An' then I used to go out an' try an' earn something,
twopence maybe, just to stay us on.
And that it is which has helped to make Tony the man he is.
[Sidenote: A SUDDEN STORM]
Seldom does one catch the exact moment of an abrupt change in
nature. Yesterday, however, I watched a wonderful thingthe oncoming
of a sudden storm.
Uncle Jake had been holding forth on the beach. Us ain't had no
equinoctial gales thees year, not proper like us used to. This season's
going to break up sudden and wi' thunder, an' when it du, look out! I'd
rather be here now than out in the offing, for all the sea's so calm.
Ah! pointing to a dinghy that was shoving off the beach, they bwoys
'ould laugh in me faace if I was to go an' say, 'Don' go. 'Tisn't fit.'
But I knows.
I left him gazing seaward over the stern of his drifter, and walked
up to the Western Cliffs. The air, scarcely a breath from the
north-east, was oppressive in the extreme; very warm, too, for autumn.
The sea was almost unruffled; the sky to westward magnificently heaped
up with what Uncle Jake calls wool-packs. A fog crept over all the
southern horizon, dimming with its misty approach the eastern headlands
and making the sea like a dulled mirror. I felt, rather than heard,
The fog lifted. It hung low in the sky, a sulky blue cloud. Beneath
it, the sea, still unruffled, was of a dense blue that, so it seemed,
would have been black altogether but for its transparency and the
refracted light within it.
Going on, I walked for some distance beneath a semi-arch of the
wind-bowed lichenous thorns that grow upon the cliff-edge.
Without any warningmaybe there was a little hum in the aira
leafless bough, like a withered arm with its sinews ragged out, bent
over across my path. The sea gulls screamed and screeched; they flocked
out from the cliff-ledges, and with still wings they towered up into
the sky. Every twig and leaf began to play a diabolic symphony. Where
the hedge ended I was blown back upon my heels.It was more than half
a gale of wind from the south-east.
The horizon was become clear; jagged like a saw. Divergent strings,
marvellously interlaced on the water, streamed in with the wind,
broadened into ribands fluttering over green-grey patches. The whole
sea trembled, as if life were being breathed into it. White spots,
curling wavelets, dotted it; then broke abroad as white-horses in full
mad landward career. The whistle in the grass rose louder and shriller;
the boughs bent further and let fly their autumn foliage horizontally
into the wind; the gulls screeched wildly and more wildly; the chafing
of the surf below took possession of the air....
[Sidenote: UNCLE JAKE ON FOOLS]
I saw the dinghy put about and run for shore.
When I got back, Uncle Jake was still watching.
Ah! he said. Ah! Ah! I don't like they centre-keel boats wi'
bumes [booms]. They'm all right for fine weather, but.... Ah! They'm
goin' to gybe if they ain't careful. There! Did 'ee see? Why don't they
ease their sheet off more? If the wind catches thic sail the wrong
side.... Did 'ee see that? Thic bume was all but coming over. Gybe,
gybe, yu fules! Yu'm capsized if yu du, wi' thic heavy bume. Look'se!
Have 'em got their drop-keel up, I wonder? Not they! They thinks that's
the same as extra ballast. 'Twon't make no difference if a sea takes
charge of 'em. Ah! did 'ee see the leach o' the sail flutter? Nearly
over! Let 'em gybe, if they'm set on it. 'Twill upset they.O-ho!
They'm goin' to haul down an' row for it. Best thing the likes o' they
can du. They calls me an ol' fule for joggin' along in my ol' craft
while they has drop-keels and bumes, all the latest. I've a-know'd
thees yer sea for fifty year an' more, an' I say, I tell thee, that two
oars be better than two reefs any day. Le'but the seas take charge o'
one o' they boats running afore the wind.... All up! They spins like a
top, an' gybes.... 'Tis all up! Howsbe-ever, they'm saafe now, if they
don't sheer broadside coming ashore. But they won't learn their
lesson; not they. They maakes fun o' us as knows.
There! the wind be softening now. I've a-know'd they thunder-puffs
come down on 'ee like a hurricane. If they lasted long.... 'Tis blowin'
out in the Channel still. The horizon's blacksee? 'Twill back, an'
blow from the nor'east to-night, in here, but 'twill be east to
south-east in the Channel, an' wi' thees flood tide runnin' up against
it, yu'll see the say make!
It did blow during the night; it must have been rough out in the
Channel; then the wind dropped to a light breeze. But before ever Tony
and myself were out of doors we heard the heave and thump of the long
We hauled the Cock Robin down to the water's edge, put in
five bags of ballast (Doesn't look 's if it's blow'd itself out, said
Tony) and a spare oarand stood and looked.
Be it wuth it? he questioned.
Not much wind now, is there?
Can the two o'us shove off in thees yer swell? Can ee see any o'
the other boats shoving down?
There won't be much frighting to-day, for sure. Must make the day
gude if us can. Yer's a calm. Jump in quick. Shove! Shove, casn'! Row.
Lemme take an oar. Keep her head on. Pullthic west'ard oar!
We were fairly afloat outside the surf-line, both of us very red in
the face. We upsailedand away. After a few minutes' worry, deciding
whether the mainsail and mizzen without the foresail would be enough,
on a sea so much bigger than the wind, and looking for the Cock
Robin's chronic leak, the bouncing, tumbling and splashing, the
heave up and the mighty rushes down, put us both in high spirits. We
decided to hoist the foresail after all. Let her bury her head if her
Accordingly, I went for'ard to hook the foresail's tack to the
bumkin [short iron bowsprit]. The thimble was too small. As I sat on
the bow and leaned out over, my hand all but dipped into the waves. A
stream of water did once run up my sleeve. Looking round and seeing
Tony smile, I yelled back aft: What be smiling 'bout, Tony? He
replied: I was a-gloryin' in yer pluck.
Which was very pleasant to hearfor a moment.
My position on the bow of the boat was absolutely safe, and I knew
it. There was no risk at all, except of a bruise or a wetting. My toe
was firmly hooked under the for'ard thwart, and short of my leg
breaking, I could not have lost my hold. Besides, even had I fallen
overboard, I could easily have swum round while Tony 'bouted the boat.
Tony was deceived. There was no pluck.
His words set me thinking, and I had to recognise, rather bitterly,
that what I call pluck did not form a great part of my birthright. I
find myself too apprehensive by nature; imagine horrid possibilities
too keenly; and indeed would far rather hurt myself than think about
doing so. I suppose I have a certain amount of courage, for I am
usually successful in making myself do what I funk; but I like doing it
none the better for that. And up to the present, I have not failed
badly in tight corners. On the contrary, I find (like most nervy
people) that actual danger, once arrived, is curiously exhilarating;
that it makes one cooler and sharper, even happy. One has faced the
worst in imagination, and the reality is play beside it.
[Sidenote: AND COURAGE]
In the dictionary, courage is defined as 'The quality which
enables men to meet danger without fear.' Pluck is merely
defined as courage. There is, or ought to be, an essential difference
between the meaning of the two words. Courage is a premeditated matter,
into which the will enters, whilst pluck is an unpremeditated
expression of the personality, an innate quality which, so to speak,
does not need to be set in operation by the will. Courage rises to the
occasion; pluck is found ready for it. Would it not, therefore, be more
correct to say that pluck is the quality which enables men to
meet danger without fear: and that courage is the quality which
enables men to meet danger with fear overcome? The greatest courage
might go farther than the greatest pluck, but for occasions on which
either can be used, pluck, the more spontaneous, is also the superior.
Most of us are irregularly, erratically plucky; one man with horses,
who funks the sea; another man at sea who is afraid of horses. One man
who fears live fists may think nothing of watching by the dead. Another
who stands up pluckily in a fight, refuses to go near a corpse. One of
the pluckiest men I know 'don't like dogs.' Pluck runs in streaks, but
courage, to whatever degree a man possesses it, runs through him from
top to bottom.
All the churches in the world may talk about sin and virtue, and
make most admirable and subtle distinctions. We know very well in our
hearts that pluck and courage are the great twin virtues, and that
cowardice is the fundamental sin. The perfectly plucky and courageous
man would never sin meanly; he would have no need to do so. He, and not
the beefy brute or the intellectual paragon, would be Superman. The
Christ, it often seems to me, keeps his hold on the world, and will
keep it, not because he was God-man or man-God, not because he was born
normally or abnormally, not because he redeemed mankind or didn't, not
because he provided a refuge for souls on their beam-ends, but because,
of all the great historic and legendary figures, he is the one who
convinces us that he was never afraid. In him, as we picture him,
courage and pluck were the same thing, and perfect.
But the present point is, or points are: How many men whose pluck
and courage I have admired so much, have deceived me as I deceived
Tony? And what combination of pluck and courage is it which enables
these fishermen to follow their constantly dangerous occupation with
equable mind; which, indeed, enables so many working men to follow
their dangerous trades? For it is one thing to approach danger by way
of sport, and another to work for a livelihood in danger.
One's analytics fail. It is, however, stupid merely to say, Ah,
they are inured to it. Familiarity has bred contempt. Seafaring men
realise the dangers of the sea a good deal better than anyone else.
Familiarity with the sea does not breed contempt; the older the seaman
the more careful he is. I have met old seamen, heroes in their day,
whom one would almost call nervous on the water. And in any case, what
a state of mind it isto be inured to danger! to be on familiar
terms with the possibility of death! to be able to flout, to play with,
to live on, that which all men fear!
I have been up the coast to have dinner and a chat with my old
coastguard friend, Ned Luscombe, the man who taught me knots and
splices during the night watches when I was a visitor here years ago.
To go to his house now is very pleasant. For a long time after their
first baby died on the day they entered a new house, before even the
beds were up, it seemed as if Mrs Luscombe, a gentle, delicate woman,
'with the deuce of a will of her own,' Luscombe says, was going to
decline and die too. The new baby, which was to have killed her, has
put new life into her instead. They are touchingly proud of it, and
very happy altogether. I do like to see married couples happy.
Luscombe himself is rather an extraordinary man; short, vivacious
and solid; full of generous impulses, yet very well able to look after
his own interests. It was he who dared the neighbourhood, and caused
his wife to invite often to their house a crippled girl that had been
raped by a scoundrel and then given the cold-shoulder by everyone else.
Something of a sea-lawyer, he is one of the sharpest-brainedI don't
say deepest-thinkingmen I have ever come across. Hardly educated at
all as a boy, he races through books (he read my Cary's Dante in
a week), extracts the main gist of them, and is always learning some
new thing, from shorthand to cooking, though he has no need to do much
but behave himself for a pension. Almost harshly honest, he yet brings
out with pride a large edition of Pope that he 'nicked' from the
second-hand bookstall of a heathen Chinee at Singapore. That little
episode will not make a very big blot, I imagine, on the Book of
Judgment. If I remember aright, the British Navy was then occupied in
protecting land or concessions that the nation itself had 'nicked' from
Luscombe's opinion on books, men and things, unless it has been
borrowed from a newspaper, is always well worth hearing. His light of
nature, by which he judges, is exceptionally powerful.
While we were smoking in his front roomfurnished with a curious
mixture of cheap English things and beautiful Eastern curiosa steward
from one of the great liners came in. He began talking about the
behaviour in a gale of a rich snobbish Jew and the behaviour of Jews
generally on shipboard, and was inclined to take up the high, superior,
patriotic attitude that Jews, not being Englishmen, were necessarily a
nuisance in a storm. Well, said Luscombe, all I know is, when a man
tells me he's never been afraid of anything anywhere, I tells him to
his face, 'You'm a damn'd liar!' One day, in a pub at Plymouth, there
was a mana bluejacket tooboasting he'd never known what fear was,
and I up and asked him, 'Eh, chum? Did you say Never?'
'Never!' he says. 'Never in me life!'
'You'm a liar then,' says I.
'We'll see,' says hegoodish-sized chap.
'You'm a bloody liar,' says I, 'and what's more, you ain't
So we squared up there and then, and the bung and his men hyked us
out into the street and we was having our scrap out when the police
came up. He ran! 'Eh, Mr Liar!' I yelled after him. 'Did you say you
was never afraid?'
If I hadn't wasted time doing that, I shouldn't have got caught
either. Very nearly landed me in chokey, that did. We was shipmates
afterwards, me and that man, and very good friends. He's a warrant
[Sidenote: LOWER DECK TO QUARTER-DECK]
Thence the conversation passed naturally to promotion from the
ranks. I don't believe in it, not as a general rule, said Luscombe.
Officers ought to be officers, and men ought to be men, and a ship's
always more comfortable when both keep their places. Rankers as
officers are apt to be bullies: that we all know jolly well. And
besides that, the likes of us can't keep our kecker up the same as
gen'lemen, and therefore I says we ain't fit for the quarter-deck, not
yet awhile. Tisn't that the lower deck ain't so brave as the
quarter-deck, because it is; only it can't keep it up so long; it gets
discouraged like, when 'tis a long job, specially when 'tis one of
those waiting-an-doing-nothing jobs. We ain't bred up to it, and our
fathers wasn't, and there's no good to be got out of trying to pretend
We argued on. Luscombe would not yield an inch of his position. I
can't say offhand how far history bears him out, but I fancy that he is
right to this extent: the lower deck has less flexibility of mind. It
cannot view a depressing situation from so many sides at once. It is
not, for instance, so quick to see the underlying humour of an
emergency; not so ready to appreciate the so-called irony of fate. It
cannot so easily turn round and laugh at itself and its predicament.
So, though the lower deck's courage may be fully as great as, or
greater than, that of the upper deck, it is applied more constantly,
with less mental diversion, and therefore it tires sooner. Hence, it
may not be so effective.
The argument undoubtedly has a true bearing on that sort of
promotion which, in the prevailing educational cant, is called giving
every poor boy (by free education, scholarships and other lures) his
chance of climbing to the top of the ladderas if success in life were
one great tall ladder instead of many ladders of varying builds and
heights. In attempting to justify modern educational policy, its
victims are egged on too fast into a field of commercial, intellectual,
or emotional stress for which they lack the fundamental grit, or rather
for which the fundamental grit they do possess is not adapted, nor can
be adapted in a generation. Their spirit, fine and valuable for the old
purpose perhaps, is not suited to the new. Therefore, of good workmen
in posse we make bad clerks and shopmen in esse; of good
clerks detestable little bureaucrats or mean-minded commercial men, and
so on. Possible wives and mothers we turn into female creatures. And
Merrie England swarms with makeshift folk and breakdowns.
Happily nature, heredity, sometimes intervenes, and at adolescence
the sharp boy, the pride of the examination room, develops into quite a
nice commonplace young man, like the missionaries' nigger boy, and is
saved, if he be not already committed to an unsuitable career.
Otherwise, what mental deformity and slaughter! It was well said that
educationwhat is called educationwas the cruellest thing ever
forced upon the poor. Mam Widger agrees. She knows her two boys are
above the average in brains, but she says: I'd far rather for them to
fend for themselves an' make gude fishermen like their father or gude
sailors like their uncles, than for 'em to be forced on by somebody
else to what they ain't fitted for. 'Tis God helps them as helps
themselves, they du reckon, but I can't see as he helps them as is
Uncle Jake allows us fine weather for the Regatta. But when it du
break up, after this yer logie [dull, hazy, calm] spell, look out! he
says. Iss; look out!
The day before yesterday, we were having a yarn together on the
Front. Must go t'morrow an' pick Jemima Cayley some wrinkles
[periwinkles], he said. I got a lot o' work to do wi' my taties up to
my plat [allotment], but I promised Jemima her should hae 'em for
Regatta, an' her shall, if I lives to get 'em. Her says my wrinkles be
twice so heavy as anybody else's what her hasan' so they be, proper
gert gobbets! They t'other fellows don' know where to go for 'em, but I
dumaster wrinkles, waiting there for Jake to pick 'em. On'y I ain't
goin' to tell they beer-barrels where 'em be. Not I!Wude yu like to
come? Nobody goes where I goes.
Ah! Down to Longo. Yu'll see, if yu comes.
Haven't yu got a mate for it then?
[Sidenote: UNCLE JAKE]
Mate! I'd rather go be myself than wi' some o' they
bladder-headed friends o' brewers. They don' like wrinklin' wi'
Jake; makes 'em blow too much when they has to carry a bushel o'
wrinkles, like I've a-done often, over the rocks an' up the cliff, two
or dree miles home. They Double-X Barrels can't du that. Lord! can't
expect 'em to.We'll go in the Moondaisy t'morrow, an'
then if we can't sail home, we can row, an' if it comes on a fresh
wind, we'll haul her up to Refuge Cove an' go'n look how my orchards be
It is good to hear Uncle Jake talk about the work that nobody else
will do. (The exposure alone would be too much for many of them.) His
face wrinkles up within its grey picture-frame beard, his keen yet
wistful eyes open wide, and he draws up that youthful body of hisclad
in faded blue jumper and torn trouserson which the head of a
venerable old man seems so incongruously set. He is the owner of a big
drifter which hardly pays her expenses; he feels that taking out
pleasure parties is no work for a fisherman'never wasn't used to be
at the beck an' call o' they sort o' people when I wer young';and
therefore he picks up a living, laborious but very independent, between
high and low tide mark for many miles east and west of Seacombe. Nobody
learns exactly when or where he goes, nor what little valuables are in
the old sack that he carries. He seldom sleeps for more than two hours
on end; has breakfast at midnight, dinner in the early morning, and
tea-supper only if it happens to be handy; and he feeds mainly on
bread, cheese, sugar and much butter, with an occasional feast of half
a dozen mackerel at once, or a skate or a small conger. Singularly
straightforward in all his dealings, a little of the old West-country
wrecking spirit yet survives in him, and he enjoys nothing better than
smuggling jetsam past the coastguards. Social position saves no one
from hearing what Uncle Jake thinks. His tongue is loaded with scorn
and sarcasm, but his heart holds nothing but kindness. He will jeer and
taunt a man off the Front, and give him money round the corner or food
in house. His nicknames are terriblethey stick. Few would care to
turn and fight such an old man, and if they did he would almost
certainly knock them into the dust or throw them into the sea. He is
childless; and, since her illness several years ago, his wife, an
untidy woman with beautiful eyes, has been scatterbrained and more
trouble than use, a spender of his savings. He nursed her himself for
many months. He does most of the housework now. He may remark on his
wife, if he knows you very well, but about the childlessness he never
At eight in the morning we made sail with the wind just north of
east. The little Moondaisy was full of sacks, old boots and
gear. Past Refuge Cove we sailed, past Dog Tooth Ledge, and across the
out-ground of Landlock Bay, which holds the last long stretch of pebble
beach for some miles down. Uncle Jake pointed to the western end of it.
If ever yu'm catched down here by a sou'wester, yu can al'ays run
ashore, just therecalm as a mill-pond no matter how 'tis blowing. Yu
can beach there when yu can't beach to Seacombe for the roughness o'
the sea. Aye, I've a-done it! But yu can't get out o' Landlock Bay,
though I mind when you could climb up the cliff jest to the east'ard o'
thic roozing [landslip]. Howsbe-ever, 'tis a heavy gale from the
south-east on a long spring tide as'll drive 'ee out o' thic cave there
where the beach urns up. Now yu knows that: 'tisn't all o'em does.
Similar bits of lore or reminiscence did he give me about every few
yards of the coastline. Most merrily had the easterly wind and a
following sea brought us down. Now we drew near the rocks, where at
high tide the land drops sheer to the water. In the dry sunshine, such
a sparkle was on the waves, such a shimmer on the high red cliffs, that
it was hard to follow Uncle Jake when he said, as if he revered the
place, 'Tis an ironbound show! 'Tis a shop! Poor devils, what gets
throwed up here! But I know where ther's some fine copper bolts waiting
for me. I'll hae 'em! I've had some on 'em, an' I'll hae the rest when
they rots out o' the timbers. Year '63 that wreck waslovely vessel,
loaded wi' corn. I mind it well. 'Twas a night!
[Sidenote: AN IRONBOUND SHOW]
We ran the Moondaisy ashore at Brandey-Keg Covea little
beach running up into a deep gloomy cave where the smugglers used to
store their cargoes and haul them up over the cliff. Us can walk down
to Lobster Ledge an' west from there to Tatie Rock. I knows where they
master gobbets be, if nobody an't had 'eman' nobody an't. They don'
like this iron-bound shop. They leaves it to Jake. But they wuden't, if
they know'd what was here.
I ate some of my breakfast while Uncle Jake was changing his boots
and shifting his outer clothing. He would accept only one of my small
cheese sandwiches. I got some bread and butter here, he said, but I
'took partic'lar notice,' as Tony puts it, that he ate none of the
bread and butter. And he refused to take a second sip of my tea because
his sensitive nose detected that there had been whiskey in the bottle.
As we walked along the rocks, he placed above high-tide mark what
bits of wreckage he could find, and kept a sharp look-out for any
rabbits which might have fallen over the cliff. The only two we found,
however, had been partially eaten by sea-gulls and rats. Let 'em hae
'em an' welcome, said Uncle Jake. The winter's coming. I can't think
how they poor gulls lives when all the sea round about is a hustle o'
froth. I al'ays feeds 'em when I can. Don't yu think that they
gets hungry tu?
At Lobster Ledgea jumble of peaked rocks with pools betweenhe
left his sack conspicuously on the top of a high stone, and
hoppedseemed to hopdown to a pool. They'm here! he cried. I heard
them clatter-clatter into his old cake tin, and then a tin-full rattle
into his sack. On those rocks, where few can step at all without great
care, he raced about, bent down double, and jumped and glided as
actively as an acrobata veritable rock-man. Come here! he called.
Jest yu turn over thic stone. Ther's some there. My senses, what
gobbets they be! If they ther fuddle-heads what goes nosing about
Broken Rocks, on'y know'd....
Underneath the stone, clinging to it and lying on the bed of the
pool, were so many large winkles that instead of picking them out, I
found it quicker to sweep up handfuls of loose stuff and then to pick
out the refuse from the winkles. When Uncle Jake came across an
unusually good pocket he would call me to it and hop on somewhere else.
There was an element of sport in catching the dull-looking gobbets so
many together. I soon got to know the likely stonesheavy ones that
wanted coaxing over,and discovered also that the winkles hide
themselves in a green, rather gelatinous weed, fuzzy like kale tops,
from which they can be combed with the fingers. They love, too, a
shadowed pool which is tainted a little, but not too much, by decaying
vegetable matter. Uncle Jake likes the stones turned back and then
replaced 'as you finds 'em.'
[Sidenote: WHAT GOBBETS THEY BE!]
I emptied my baler, holding perhaps a quart, into the ballast-bag.
How one's back ached! How old and rheumaticy had one's knees suddenly
become! Uncle Jake feels nothing of that, for all his sixty-five years.
He still skipped from pool to pool. He flung me a lobster. There! put
that in your bag for tay. Tide's dead low. The wind's dying away: sun's
burnt it up. Shuden' wonder if it don't come in sou'west, an' if it du
we'll hae a fair wind home along.Well, how du 'ee like it? Eh?
Ah! yu ought to be down here in the winter, like I been, when you
got to put your hands wet into your pockets to get 'em warm enough to
feel the gobbetsaye, to hold 'em! Then carry 'em five mile home on
your back to make 'ee warm again.
So we went on: grab, grab, grab! clatter-clatter! rattle! We talked
less and worked harder, because we were tired. The tide crept up. The
wind veered to south-east and strengthened. 'Tis time to be off out of
thees yer, said Uncle Jake. The lop'll rise when the flid tide makes.
Yu may know everything there is to know about fishing, but, he added
grimly, if yu don' know when to be off, 'twill all o'it be no gude to
'ee some day. Blast thees wind! We'll hae to row home now, or ratch out
a couple o' miles to fetch in.
We shouldered our sacks for the half-mile walk to the Moondaisy. Walk.... Scramble! Uncle Jake seemed to glide from rock to rock, but
with two or three stone weight awkwardly perched on my shoulder, the
wet running down my neck and an arm going numb, I slithered down the
weed-covered slopes in a very breakneck fashion. I rather felt for the
bladderheads who refuse to go wrinkling far from home.
[Sidenote: CAUGHT BY THE TIDE]
Afloat again, we used the winkles for ballast in place of shingle.
The lop had made, and was against us. We rowed up Landlock Bay
to the western side of Dog Tooth Ledge. Uncle Jake made an exclamation
and stood up. What's that? Whoever's that? There! down there to
Lobster Ledge! A gen'leman an' lady, looks so. How did us come to miss
they? Look! They'm sittin' down, the fules!Hi, yu! Hi! Hi!They'm
catched. When yu see the water washing over the Dog's Tooth, yu can't
get round the ledge wi'out swimming.Hi, yu! Hi!They'm in for a
night o'it sure, till the tide falls, if we don' take 'em round to
Refuge Cove. Ther's nowhere there where they be, to get upon land.Hi!
Hi! Yu!They'm mazed. An' her an't got no stockings on nuther.Hi!
hi! Hurry up!Can't bide here all day. The flid and the sea's making
They came on at a leisurely pace. The Dog's Tooth was continuously
awash. Spray broke on it. D'yu know, said Uncle Jake when they were
near enough, that yu'm catched by the tide? Yu'm in for a night o'it
on this yer beach, wi'out yu swims round the ledge or lets we row yu to
the lane in Refuge Cove. Yu can't get up on land herefrom.
Oh.... said the man. We'd better come on board your boat then.
It took Uncle Jake nearly half-an-hour to row the three-quarters of
a mile across the tide-rip on the ledge and into Refuge Cove. I
carefully refrained from doing anything to lead them to suppose that
they were aboard other than a fishing boat. It was Uncle Jake's
expedition: his the prospective reward. When I helped the man ashore,
he put some coppers into my hand. There's threepence for the old man's
tobacco, he said with an air of great benevolence. I was too surprised
to speak: I pushed off and then burst into a laugh.
What did 'er give 'ee?
Threepence. Threepence! For your tobacco!
Thank yu. I don't use tobacco. Yu'd better keep thic donation.
They'd ha' catched their death o' cold there all night, an' there ain't
no other boats down here along, nor won't be. That's what they reckons
their bloody lives be worth, an' that's what the lives of the likes o'
they be worth, tu! Dreepence! My senses....
We roared with laughter. It put heart into us for our stiff row home
against wind, wave and tide. When I went for'ard to place the cut-rope
ready, Uncle Jake had to call me aft again: spite of his strength the
boat was being beaten to leeward.
It was nearly four o'clock when we had hauled up and were carrying
the winkles on our backs down one of the untidy little roadways into
Under Town. No dinner or high-tea was waiting for Uncle Jake. The house
was unswept. How draggled the little bits of fern in the old china pots
looked! The fire was out; the hearth piled up with ashes; and on the
table stood a basin of potatoes in water, most of them unpeeled.
Uncle Jake came to a standstill, acutely alive in the midst of a
domestic deadness. He raised himself upright beneath his load of
winkles. That's what I got to put up wi', he said. An't had a bite
since breakfast at four by the clock this morning, 'cept thic sandwich
o' yours. Tis a wonder how I du put up wi' it. I don' know for sure.
[Sidenote: MEASURING UP]
Thees is what I got to put up wi'! he repeated when Mrs Jake came
in from a neighbour's.
I forgot, she said with a gay high-pitched little laugh which had
in it a tang of acquiescent despairthe echo of a mind that has ceased
fighting anything, even itself.
Forgot! Yu forgets! Then in a softer tone: Gie us the quart cup.
He emptied my winkles out upon the stone floor, knelt down, and
measured them back into the ballast-bag: onetwothreefour, that's
onefivesixseveneight, that's two pecksninetenhalf a peck
over; good for you, skipper! He had four pecks himself, together with
several small lobsters which he threw out to me.
But you'll eat those....
No, I shan't. Don't want 'em. Take 'em in home for yer tay.
Then he hunted out of an inside breast-pocket a screw of newspaper,
and from it took a half-crown piece:
That's your share.
Go on! If you hadn' a-come I should ha' been the poorer by more'n
that, an' that's what one o' they beery bladderheads would ha' had if
they'd a-comeon'y I won't hae 'em 'long wi' me. Better yu to hae it
than one o' they, to gie to the brewer. I wishes 'ee to take it. Yu've
earned it, an' thank yu for your help. I done all right out
The Regatta has gone off well. The day was fine, the wind nor'west
and not too squally. There was a brave show of bunting; very many
people and several bands came down to the short Front; and there were
races on the water, in the water, and, in the evening, on land. The sea
sparkled. The place was all of a flutter. Uncle Jake, irritated by the
invasion of his beach, became most scornful over the abundance of high
starched collars, and the kid gloves of the shop-assistants. Some of
the young Seacombe braves collected round to tease him and, if
possible, to work him into one of his famous passions. But they dared
not so much as nudge him; he is too earnest, too vigorous. He lashed
them off with his tongue. And when a dinghy capsized through trying to
sail off the wind in a squall, it was the old man who was quickest at
the water's edge with a punt, and first on the spot, although a
four-oared boat raced out to the rescue.
Some of the Widgers won races, I believe. One takes no great note of
prizes: they are too small. The Regatta is not primarily an affair of
the fisherfolk; to take any great part in it would be to neglect their
own work; and when they do race, they have a neat method of defeating
the patronage of the townsfolk who provide prize-money in order that
they and the visitors may enjoy the spectacle of fishermen (in fisher
phrase) pulling their insides out for nort. The prize-money is pooled
and divided among all the competitors. In consequence, the races are
rowed and sailed with great dignity, and many of the visitors excite
themselves halfway to delirium over the extremethe make-believe
closeness of the finishes. It is not very sporting perhaps, but
indulgence in the sporting spirit is for those who can afford it. The
Seacombe fisherfolk can't.
A confounding number of the Widger family and its connexions arrived
by boat, road and rail. Two or three grand teas were provided one after
the other. Mrs Widgerlooking really very young, alert, and
prettypacked the children off to the beach with gentry-cakes in their
hands. Well she did so, for every chair in the kitchen was occupied by
some relative, and the display of best clothes was most alarming. Worst
of all, one party had brought the family idiota simpering, lollopy
creature, stiff in the wrong places, who could not feed himself
properly. With a vigorous tapping of the forehead, he was pointed out
to me. He's a little deeficient, you know, sirsomething lacking.
The idiot, finding himself the centre of attraction, fairly crowed with
delight. Ou-ah! he went. Ou-ah! ou-ah!
On the pretext that a boat wanted hauling up, I escaped, with a
piece of bread and jam in my hand, like the children.
A man of slightly unsober dignity accosted me in the Gut, and asked
if Jim somebody-or-other was within. Him and me don't speak, nor eet
meet, he explained. I won't hae nort to do wi' he, nor enter the
house where he is, for all we be related.Come an' have a drink 'long
wi' me, sir; now du; I asks 'ee.'Tis safer, yu know, for us not to
For the second time I lied, and escaped.
[Sidenote: THE VETERANS' RACE]
Uncle Jake ran up from the beach. Yer! he said, there's a race to
Saltmeadow, a veteran's race, for men over fifty. Yu come wi' me, an'
I'll go in for itan' beat the lot, I will. I knows I can. Off we
went, Uncle Jake in a high excitement. At the centre of the big oblong
ring, two clean-built jumpers, men in the heyday of their strength,
were making a local record for the high jump. Uncle Jake shouted out
praise and sympathy to them. We found our way to where the veterans
were grouped together, encouraging each other to enter with much foul
languagewhich made them feel young again, no doubt. What a lot they
were! some aged to thinness, others become fat and piggish. Only Uncle
Jake appeared quite sound in wind and limb. He took off his boots and
stockings, walked into the ring with a fine imitation of the athlete's
swagger combined with a curious touch of shyness. Go it Uncle Jake!
they shouted. At the end of the first lap, he found himself so far
ahead that he threw his old round sailor's cap high into the air and
caught it, and he skipped along to the winning-post like a young lamb.
A great cheer was echoed from cliff to cliff. Uncle Jake has not spoken
his mind all his life for nothing. Seacombe does not unanimously like
him, but it has the sense to be rather proud of him. A veterans' race
is usually a sad spectacle, a grotesque memento mori: for Uncle
Jake 'twas a triumph.
The next great sight of the evening was to watch the fishermen from
other villages put off to their boats. Most of them were 'half seas
over,' some nearly helpless. They were thrown aboard from the punts and
had their sails hoisted for them; or, if they did it themselves, it was
with most comic jerks. The gods, who undoubtedly have a tenderness for
drunkardswhy not?must have looked after them, for no news has come
of any accident.
On returning in house, I met Tony with several of his men relatives.
He drew me aside. Maybe I'll come home drunk to-night, but I promise
'ee I won't disturb 'ee, an' if yu hears ortwell, yu'll know, won'
For some reason not easily to be fathomed his kindly warning made me
feel ashamed of my own sobriety, ashamed that I dared not 'go on the
bust' with him. I firmly believe that it does a man good to 'go on the
bust' occasionally. It develops fellow-feeling. And besides, who has
the right to cast a stone at a man for snatching a little jollity when
he may, be it alcoholic or not? The truth is, that Tony, who has no
craving for drink, was prepared to plunge into the fastest current of
the life around him, and to take his chance, whilst I, for niggardly,
self-preservative, prudential reasons, was not.
However, he came home quite sober.
[Sidenote: THE SQUARE'S AWAKENING]
Up-country, next week, I shall greatly miss my window overlooking
Alexandra Square. I have lived (rebelliously) in suburban streets where
only clattering feet, tradesmen's carts and pitiful street singers
broke the monotony; in a Paris chambre à garçon, au sixième,
where the view was roofs and the noise of the city was attenuated to a
murmur; in country houses which looked out on sweeps of hill, down,
vale and sea, so changeable and lovely that they were dreamlike and as
a dream abide in the memory.... Here I have quick human life just below
my window, andup the Guta view of the sea unbroken hence to the
horizon; a patch of water framed on three sides by straight walls and
on the fourth by the sky-line; a miniature ocean across which the
drifters sail to the western offing, and the little boats curvet to and
The stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill.
There is always, here, a sound of the sea. When, at night, the
Square is still, it seems to advance, to come nearer, to be claiming
one for its own.
But the Square, though still at night compared with daytime, is
never dead, never absolutely asleep. Fishermen returning from sea
crunch on the gravel. Lights in the windows (most of the people seem to
burn night lamps) give it a cosy appearance; the cats make one think
that fiends are pouring out of hell, through a hole in the roadway.
Peep o' day is the stillest time of all. The cats seat themselves on
walls. Sparrows chirp sleepily. Some rooks and a hoary-headed jackdaw
come down from the trees nearby, quarter the roadway for garbage, and
fly away croaking. Busy starlings follow. If the weather is hard and
fish offal scarce on the beach, the gulls will pay us a supercilious
visit. About six o'clock the children begin singing in bed, and soon
afterwards one hears the familiar conversation of families getting up.
Edie! what for the Lord's sake be yu doing? Yu'll catch your death o'
cold. Johnnie, if yu don't make haste, I'll knock your head off, I
will! A child or two may cry, but on the whole their merriment does
not seem greatly damped by their mothers' blood-curdling threats. I
hear also, but not very often, the shrill wailing monotone, the weep
dissolved in a shout, of a woman upbraiding her man for the previous
The children being dressed, but not washed (it is useless to wash
the average child very long before sending it off to school), they run
out to the beach to see what there is to be seen and to inspect the
ash-buckets for treasure. An ash-bucket is Eldorado to them. If nothing
is happening, are they at a loss for something to do? By no means. They
come in house, fetch out tin cans, and beat them in a procession round
The milkmen arrive, then several greengrocers. One would think that
Under Town lived on vegetables. The explanation is that the
greengrocers can come here, and, in tidying up their carts, can throw
their refuse upon the roadway, as they would not be allowed to do in
'higher class' streets. They swear genially at the housewives, and are
So the work and gossip of the day goes on, with a slight quieting
down in the afternoon and an incredible amount of conversation after
work, in the evening.
[Sidenote: THE ALEXANDRA BACK-DOOR]
On Sundays, the great fact of best clothes lends a different and, to
my mind, a less pleasanta hardertone to the children's voices. But
their merriment cannot wholly be suppressed. Did those who dislike the
Salvation Army wish to illustrate its shortcomings, they could find a
biting satire ready-made by the children of Under Town. A fat small boy
comes round here, who has attentively studied the meetings; who can
copy the canting, up-and-down, gentle-explosive, the Behold I am
saved, ye sinners! tone to a nicety. He marches at the head of a
band of serious infants who bear rags, tied to sticks and parasols, as
banners. Every now and then he circles them to a standstill for an
harangue about blood, fire and Jesus. (It is the gory part which
delights him.) Then the procession re-forms, imitating brass
instruments as unbroken voices can, and singing a Salvation hymn. They
are earnest, the children; except Tommy Widger, whose irrepressible
spirit causes him to march in the rear with a mocking dance and an
infinitely grotesque squint. He is a pagan. He can turn the children's
serious imitation into roaring Aristophanic farce. He represents the
healthful laughing element of an age wherein rest from sorrow is too
much sought in fever. He infects us all with jollity.
* * * * *
The back-door of the Alexandra, which opens on the Gut, is my home
comedy. It is strangely fascinating; sad in a way, but very human; for
nothing on earth, except one or two of the very great things of life,
is so democratic as the back-door of a public house. Soon after
breakfast, or even before, the tradesmen sneak round for their
pick-me-ups. Then the housewives go for their jugs of ale and stout.
Some people never enter the Alexandra except by the back way. They
march down the Gut as if on important business; then, in the twinkling
of an eye, they are gone within. One worn little woman, who wears a
loose cape and a squalid sailor hat, walks up and down the Gut till it
is completely clear, then jumps into the door, and closes it very
quietly. When she comes out again it is as a rabbit comes from a
bolt-hole when a ferret is just behind. She runs five yards, stands
still, looks up and down, and tries very hard to walk home
unconcernedly. Sunday evenings, she hangs about outside until the bar
is opened. With the turn of the key, in she goes. Once a servant,
gossiping with her sailorman, kept the little woman outside for fully
ten minutes after the lock was shot back. Poor little woman, how great
her craving must be!
Last week, I saw a policeman standing at the top of the Gut. Up he
looked; down he looked; Seacombe was orderly. Stepping as if to arrest
a malefactor, he marched down the Gut.... Where was the policeman? A
battered billycock and a rakish pipe looked round the corner, then
withdrew. The battered billycock knew where the policeman was. The
price of a glass, and billycock would have been there too.
I was glad; for a few days before that the same policeman had
arrested a man by flinging him halfway across the street into the mud.
It was only a tramp. His witnesses, being poor people, dared not
volunteer to give evidence on his behalf, and would not have been
believed had they done so. He was sentenced to fourteen days: drunk and
incapable, abusive moreover. A drunkard cannot legally be arrested
unless he is also incapable or disorderly. It used to be a trick of the
police to shadow a harmless Weary Willie until he happened to
stumble, or even to butt him down themselves. He then becomes drunk and
incapable within the meaning of the act, for, if the magistrate should
doubt, is there not dirt on his clothes? Obviously, circumstantially,
he was incapable. He, of course, must be a poor man. The trick
is not safe with tradesmen. These things are commonplaces amongst the
But billycock hat will not forget!
[Sidenote: MACKEREL DRIFTING]
Yesterday morning early there was a great excitement along the
beach. Drift-boats could be seen in the offing. I tell thee what
'tis, they said, the whiting be in an' us chaps an't been out to look
for 'em. Us don't du nort nowadays like us used tu. Later on, however,
we heard that the Plymouth drifters had been out after an autumn shoal
of mackerel, had caught some thousands and had made good prices. The
season for mackerel drifting here usually ends with July or August, but
good October mackerel, mixed with herring, have occasionally been
caught. Tony, John and myself decided to put to sea. When the other
boats saw our fleet of nets being hauled aboard (in a furious hurry),
they fitted out too.
We shoved off just before dark. The wind was strongish WSW.off
land, that isso that inshore the sea was almost calm, except for the
swell running in from outside. What it was like outside the white
horses and the wind-streaks showed. Hardly had we gone half a mile
before we heard the queer clutching noise which meant that a strong
puff of wind had compelled Tony to let the sheet fly. The squall past,
he hauled it in again, put his legs across the stern and hung on. We
sailed eight miles from land in ten minutes under the hourspeed,
that, for a twenty-two-foot open boat with its mainsail reefed! Where
we downhauled to shoot the nets, the sea, unsheltered by cliffs and
headlands, wasas Tony beautifully put it'rising all up in heaps.'
Whilst I was trying to keep the boat before the wind, for net-shooting,
a great comber plopped over the stern right upon my back. The sky was
weird. Great wind-drifts of rain-cloud constantly spread out from the
west, and wolves, higher up in the sky, were driving across the moon.
We heated tea, but did not try to sleep. Tony and John kept up a
curious dialogue. What do 'ee think o' it, then?
'Tisn't vitty. I said so all along.
[Sidenote: HAULING INBOARD]
If a skat o' rain comesand 'tis raining on land, seems sothe
wind'll back out to sou'west, an' us'll hae to rin for it. A perty
lop'll get up tu, an' we'm more'n a mile from land.
Us'll haul in be 'leven. No gude hanging on out here. If the wind
I have never heard them talk so much about the weather. And all the
while, the sky drove into splendid cloud-forms, all windy, nearly all
rainy. We lost the Eddystone light, then lost the Seacombe light and
recovered the former, as a storm drifted along shore. From time to time
we thought the wind was backing a bit.
Supper, for me, had to be crammed down on a rather queasy stomach.
We'm all ways to once! Tony remarked. The wind did definitely back a
point or two. Only let it once die away, said Tony in the tone of
I told you so; then yu'll see how it can spring from the sou'west
when 'tis a-minded.
One minute I wished myself home, safe in bed, and thought with
grotesque grief of some unfinished work. Next minute, I knew that I
would not have missed the night out there for any consideration. The
grey, slightly sheeny boil of the sea around us; the sweeping savagery
of the sky; the intimacy of the waters....
But we were all relieved when eleven o'clock came. The watchfulness
was a strain.
When one is steering instead of hauling, the getting-in of nine
forty-fathom nets seems interminable. One net, two nets, three netsa
third of nine,four, fivemore than half the fleet,sixtwo-thirds
of nine,seven, eightnine all but one;and so on, with an
occasional wave coming inboard, until the very last square buoy comes
bobbing towards the boat; hand over hand, buoy by buoy, net by net,
holding fast when the pull of the tide is too strong, and pausing
irritably to pick out the fish. We stepped the great mast, shifted all
the ballast to wind'ard. John came aft to steer, and seated himself on
the counter, a strangely powerful, statuesque figure in his wet
oilskins. Have 'ee got the sheet in yer hand? Tony called out from
John did not trouble to reply.
Have 'ee got the sheet in yer hand, John?
No, I an't! What the hell do 'ee want the sheet for? Wind's abeam.
Might want it bad, said Tony.
[Sidenote: A REMBRANDTESQUE PICTURE]
We left it fast however; and with the same, an elemental passion
took possession of my mind; ousted all else. I had been anxious about
the sheet, had thought John foolhardy. Now I didn't care. I could have
cried out aloud for joy as the brave old craft rose to the seas with a
marvellous easy motion and the waves came skatting in over the bows.
Before long, I was on my knees with the baler; John was getting every
inch out of the wind, and Tony was standing abaft the nets with the
sheet dangling through his hand. By the light of the riding-lamp on the
mizzen mast (its glass patched with an old jam cover), they in their
angular wet oil-skinsthe rain was peltingand the rich wet brown of
the boat's varnish, made a wonderful Rembrandtesque picture. I hardly
know how long we were sailing home; it slipped my mind to take the
time. About two o'clock I was halfway down the beach with Tony cursing
above me and John doing the same below. Someone had 'messed up' our
capstan wire. While Tony was putting that right in the darkand
pinching his fingers severelythe boat washed broadside on and began
to fill. We had only five dozen fish. They sold badly.
In time, and with practice, I could, I believe, do most that these
fishermen do except one thing: I doubt I could stand the racket of my
own thoughts. Tony and John would go out to-night, to-morrow, every
night. But I have slept so dead (not from bodily tiredness) that, the
door being bolted against the children, they were unable to waken me
for dinner, and in the end Tony told them to 'let the poor beast bide.'
Of what nature was that passion, so exultant and so tiring? Are these
fishermen so used to it that they 'don't take much note o'it'? For they
feel it. I have seen it in their faces. One can always tell. The eyes
widen and brighten; hasty movements become so desperately cool. If what
was an episode in my life, is part and parcel of theirs, how much the
better for them!
To-day the sea passion, or whatever it is, came again.
While I was asleep, the wind backed and freshened. Balks of wood
from a naval target kept washing in. Balks make winter firing when coal
is dear and money scarce. Boats had been bringing them in all the
morning, till the sea became too rough. Tony had none however. In the
afternoon he complained bitterly:
They all got some wude but me, an' us an't got enough in house for
the winter nuther. Just then we saw a large piece washing along on the
flood tide over the outside of Broken Rocks. Get a ropegrass rope,
mind. Down with her. The Cock Robin! Quick. Jump aboard. Take
oars. Hurry up casn'? Get hold thic oar. Look out!
[Sidenote: OUT AFTER FLOTSAM]
No time to wait for a smooth. Tony shoved the Cock Robin into
a surf we should not otherwise have thought of facing. As it turned
out, we got off better than we usually do in only a moderate sea,
though we should have capsized to a certainty had the boat sheered.
'Twas, Look out! Damme, look out! Here's a swell coming! Get her head
to it or we'm over. Gude for us! Some of the waves, rising and topping
in the shallow water over the rocks, seemed to make the Cock Robin
sit upright on her stern, like a dog begging, and the higher the seas
rose the more we gloried in them. Sufficient for the moment was the
wave thereof. We swore at each other in a sort of chant. I had to
repress an impulse to jump overboard and swim to the balk, instead of
trying to work up to it with a boat that had, every other moment, to be
turned bows on to the sea. The slightest error of judgment on Tony's
part, and we should indeed have swum for it. I had such a curious
feeling of being in the seaas much a part of it as the waves
themselvesthat the affair ceased to be a struggle. It became a
glorious great big game. Yet for work we were so cool that, though we
towed our balk ashore and shoved off after another, we hardly got wet
above the knees.
We were beside ourselves, and all ourselves. Where does that
exultant feeling, that devil-beyond-oneself, come from? From what depth
of human personality does it uprise, whirling, like those primitive
passionssex, hunger, rage, fearwhich may be boxed up awhile by the
will, but which, once unloosed, sweep the will aside and carry one off
like froth in a gale, until physical exhaustion sets in and allows the
will to re-assert itself? One understands the evolution of the
primitive self-preservative and race-preservative passions. How has
this latent daredevilry become so implanted in us that it rises from
the bottom depths of one's nature; and how has it become ordinarily so
Above all what is the effect of this passion on seafaring men? To
say that familiarity breeds contempt iseven if it be correctto beg
the question. What is the effect of that familiarity? It might be said
that they are the subjects of a sub-acute, persistent form of the
daredevilry which uprose in me unexpectedly and acutely. But again, the
sub-acute lifelong form of it is likely to have the greater influence
on a man's self, on his morale and his character. Hence, I believe, the
width of these men, their largeness. It was good to hear Tony talk in
the most matter-of-fact manner (yet with a touch of reverence, as
towards an ever-possible contingency) of a Salcombe fisherman who was
drowned. Her was drownded all through his own carelessness, and didn't
rise in the water for a month. ('Tis nine days down and nine days up,
wi' the crab bites out of 'ee, as a rule.) An' he wer carried up by the
tide an' collected, like, out o' the water just at the back o' his own
house. Nice quiet chap he was. That coolness of speech one saw
plainly, is the outcome not of contempt, still less of non-feeling, but
of familiarity, of a breadth of mind in looking at the catastrophe. I
have not noticed such breadth of mind elsewhere except among those who
live precariously and the few of very great religious faith.
An hour after bringing in the balks, we were hauling the boats over
the wall, and at high tide the seas swept across the road.
[Sidenote: A SING-SONG]
Many an evening we have had small sing-songs in the kitchen.
To-night, on account of my going and the need to give me a cheery
send-off, we had quite a concert. Tony was star.
Supper being pushed back on the table and a piece of wreckage flung
on the fire, he made himself ready by taking off his soaked boots and
stockings, and plumping his feet on Mam Widger's lap; then brought
himself into the vocal mood with a long rigmarole that he used to
recite with the Mummers at Christmas time. Soon we were humming,
whistling and singing Sweet Evelina, whose sole musical merit is that
her chorus goes with a swing. The fire crackled and burnt blue. The
fragrant steam of the grog rose to the ceiling and settled on the
window. We leaned right back in our chairs.
Missis, said Tony, I feels like zingin' to-night.
Wait a minute while I shuts the door, else they kids'll be down for
Us got it, an't us?
Yes, but they've had enough.
When Tony sings, he throws his head back and closes his eyes, so
that, but for the motions of his mouth, he looks asleep, even
deathlike, and is, in fact, withdrawn into himself.
I think he sees his songs, as well as sings them. I often wonder
what pictures are flitting through his mind beneath (as I imagine) the
place where the thick grizzled hair thins to the red forehead. His
voice is a high tenor. I make accompaniment an octave below, whilst Mrs
Widgera little nasal in tone and not infrequently adrift in
tunesupports him from above.
We sang The Poor Smuggler's Boy
Your pity I crave,
Won't you give me employ?
Or forlorn I must wander,
Said the poor smuggler's boy.
Then the Skipper and his Boy
Over the mounting waves so 'igh,
We'll sail together, my boy and I-I,
We'll sail together, my bo-oy and I!
Have 'ee wrote to George? Tony asked.
'Tis your place to du that.
I an't got time....
Thee asn't got time for nort!
The fisher's is a merry life!
Blow, winds, blow!
The fisher and his vitty wife!
Row, boys, row!
He drives no plough on stubborn land,
His fruits are ready to his hand.
No nipping frosts his orchards fear,
He has his autumn all the year,
Blow, winds, blow!
The farmer has his rent to pay,
Blow, winds, blow!
And seeds to purchase every day,
Row, boys, row!
But he who farms the rolling deep,
He never sows, can always reap,
The ocean's fields are fair and free,
There ain't no rent days on the sea;
The fisher's is a merry life!
Blow, winds, blow!
Blow, damn ye, blow!
Aye! said Tony with conviction, thic's one side o'it.
[Sidenote: ROLLING HOME]
He tried a note or two at different pitches, then struck with energy
into the fine song, Rolling Home. (Who that has steered for England
in a shipand by ship I do not mean a bustling steam-packet or a
floating hotel, but a ship to whose crew England stands for fresh food,
women, wine, home.... Who that has so steered the course for England,
does not feel a catch at his vitals on hearing the melody, at once
plaintive and triumphant, of Rolling Home?)
Pipe all hands to man the capstan, see your cables run down
Soon our ship will weigh her anchor, for old England's shores
If we heave round with a will boys, soon our anchor it will
And across the briny ocean we will steer our gallant ship:
Rolling home, rolling home!
Rolling home across the sea!
Rolling home to Merrie England!
Rolling home, true love, to thee!
Man the bars then with a will, boys, clap all hands that can
As we heave around the capstan, we will sing this well-known
It will bring back scenes and changes of this parting gift so
We shall hear sweet songs of music softly whispering through
Rolling home, rolling home!
Rolling home across the sea!
Rolling home to Merrie England!
Rolling home, true love, to thee!
Up aloft amid the rigging, as we sail the waters blue,
Whilst we cross the briny ocean, we will always think of you;
We will leave you our best wishes as we leave this rocky shore;
We are bound for Merrie England, to return to you no more!
Rolling home, rolling home!
Rolling home, across the sea!
Rolling home to Merrie England!
Rolling home, my love to thee!
To Mrs Widger's great disgust, Tony has been learning in bed
the correct words (he knew the tune) of Gay Spanish Ladies. That he
gave us as a finale.
Farewell and adieu to you, gay Spanish Ladies.
Farewell and adieu to you, Ladies of Spain!
For we've received orders for to sail for old England.
But we hope in a short time to see you again.
We'll rant and we'll roar like true British heroes,
We'll rant and we'll roar across the salt seas,
Until we strike soundings in the Channel of old England.
From Ushant to Scilly is thirty-five leagues....
How we did rant and roar the wonderful up-Channel verse, with its
clever use of the high-sounding promontories of the south!
The first land we made, it was called the Deadman,
Next Ram Head off Plymouth, Start, Portland and Wight,
We passed up by Beachy, by Parley and Dungeness,
And hove our ship to off the South Foreland light....
Our glasses were empty. We drove out the cat, gutted some fish,
extinguished the lamp, and came upstairs to the tune, repeated, of
Rolling Home. All the tunes are ringing in my head.
[Sidenote: ART THAT IS LIVED]
There is something about this singing of sea-songs by a seafarer
which makes them grip one extraordinarily. They are far from perfect in
execution, they are not always quite in tune, especially on Tony's high
notes, yet, I am certain, they are as artistic in the best sense as any
of the fine music I have heard. Tony sings with imagination: he sees,
lives what he is singing. Between this sort of song and most, there
is much the same difference as between going abroad, and reading a book
of travels; or between singing folk-songs with the folk and twittering
bowdlerised versions in a drawing-room. However imperfect technically,
Tony's songs are an expression of the life he lives, rather than an
excursion into the realms of artinto the expression of other kinds of
lifewith temporarily stimulated and projected imagination. His art is
perpetual creation, not repetition of a thing created once and for all.
The art that is lived, howsoever imperfect, has an advantage
over the most finished art that is merely repeated. Next after the
music of, as one might say, superhuman creative forcelike Bach's and
Beethoven'scomes this kind, of Tony's.
Cultured people talk about the artistic tastes of the poor, would
have them readwell, they don't quite know whatsomething 'good,'
something namely that appeals to the cultured. It has always been my
experience in much lending of books, that the poor will read the
literature of life's fundamental daily realities quickly enough, once
they know of its existence. What they will not read, what in the
struggle for existence they cannot waste time over, is the literature
of the etceteras of life, the decorations, the vapourings. Sane
minds, like healthy bodies, crave strong meats, and the strong meats of
literature are usually the worst cooked. I am inclined to think that
the taste of the poor, the uneducated, is on the right lines, though
undeveloped, whilst the taste of the educated consists of beautifully
developed wrongness, an exquisite secession from reality. As Nietzsche
pointed out, degenerates love narcotics; something to make them forget
life, not face it. Their meats must be strange and peptonized.
Therefore they hate, they are afraid of, the greatest things in
lifethe commonplace. Much culture has debilitated them. Rank life
would kill themor save them.
It is just at dawn that the coming day declares itself most plainly;
not earlier, not later. This morning at peep o' day the wind was NNW.,
the air delicate and peaceful. A band of dirty red water washed in
fantastic outline along the cliffs. The sea, with its calm great
rollers, bore upon it only the rags of last night's fury; as if it had
been less a part of the storm than a thing buffeted by the storm, and
now glad to sink into tranquillity. The air was scented with land
smells. Shafts of the dawn's sunlight beamed across it. Three punts put
off to find out if the lobster-pots had been washed away; the sea had
its little boats upon it again. But the sky, to the SW., was looking
very wild. The wind was SW. in the offing.
While we were at breakfast a southerly squall burst open the kitchen
door. Mrs Widger got up to see what child it was. A screaming sea-gull
The storm came. The trees by the railway bowed and tossed. Rain
spattered against the carriage windows. Dead leaves scurried by. I
wanted to get out, to go back. I wanted to know whether Tony was at
sea. Here, at Salisbury they are already talking about the 'great
storm'; some of the beautiful elms are down. What must the storm have
been at Seacombe!
Curiously, I felt, the first time for years, as if I were leaving
home for boarding schoolthe warmth behind, the chill in front. I
smelt again the rank soft-soap in the great bare schoolrooms.
A postcard from Tony
quite please to get your letter this morning it as been rough
since you left Seacombe it was a gale the night you went Back
sea was all in over and knocking the boats about the road. I
been out sea sinsce it is still rough hear now it is blowing a
of wind I expect we shall get some witing and herring in the
when the weather get fine the sea hear is like the cliff now
Us aven catched nort nobody cant go to sea.
I will write a letter soon.
P.S. Tony just waked up. George is coming home, Tony mazed with
excitement and wishes you was here.
So do I!
[Sidenote: TONY OFF TO SEA]
The evening before I left Seacombe, Tony was telling us how upset
and miserable he was, how he cried, when his two elder brothers left
home to join the Navy. Also he told us what I knew nothing of
beforehis own one attempt to go to sea aboard a merchantman. When he
was at Cloade's he looked on fishing as a refuge from groceries, and
when he had given up groceries for fishing, he looked on a ship's
fo'c'stle as a refuge from that. Fishing was very bad one summer. He
and Dick Yeo agreed to run away together:
Us was doin' nort noway wi' the fishingnort 't all. Father,
Granfer that is, wer away to his drill wi' the Royal Naval Reserves. So
Dick Yeo an' me agreed to go off together. Where he went, I was to go
tu, an' where I went, he was to come. He had two pounds put away, in
gold. I only had half a crown, an' cuden't see me way to get no more
nuther. 'Casn' thee ask thy maid for some?' Dick said. I was ashamed,
like, but I did.
'What's thee want it for? her asked.
'Tisn' nothing doing down here,' I says, 'an' I wants to go to
'I an't got no money,' the maid says.
'Casn' thee get nort?' I asks, having begun, you see. I'd been
goin' with her for nigh on two years.
Her cried bitter at the thought o' me going, but her did get seven
shillin's from a fellow servant. I told me motherher cried tu'an'
off us started, going by train to Bristol and stopping the night at the
Sailor's Rest. 'Twasn't bad, you know. They Restis be gude things.
Dick, he woke in the morning wi' a swelled faace, but I didn' feel
Dick Yeo paid both our boat fares from Bristol to Cardiff. The
stewardwhat us urned against aboard shiprecommended us to a lodging
house in Adelaide Street, an' he giv'd me a note for a man at the Board
o' Trade, sayin' we was Demshire fishin' chaps an' gude seamen.
Well, us went to the lodging house an' gave in our bags an' took a
room wi' fude [food] for two an' six a dayeach, mind yu. Then us
looked into a big underground room wer there was a lot o' foreigners
gathered round a fire an' us didn' much like the looks o' that. So us
went straight down to the docks an' tried to ship together on several
sailing ships an' steamers. Some on 'em would on'y take me, an' some
were down to sail at a future date, like, what our money wouldn't last
out tu. I cude ha' got a ship, 'cause I had me Naval Reserve
ticket, but nobody cuden't du wi' both on usan' where one went
t'other was to go tu, by agreement.
[Sidenote: AT THE BOARD O' TRADE]
Us went back to the lodging house, into a sort o' kitchen in a
cellar, where there was a 'Merican wi' a long white beard cooking, an'
men drunk spewing, an' men lying about asleep like logs. The 'Merican,
his beard looking so red as hell in the firelight, wer stirring some
kind o' stew. Yu shade ha' see'd the faaces what the glow o' they coals
shined on! An' the fude.... An' the tables an' plates.... I've a-gone
short many a time in my day, but I'd never ha' touched muck like they
offered to gie us there. Dick an' me crept up the staircase to bed wi'
empty bellies thic night.
Soon a'ter we was to bed, Dick says to me: 'Can 'ee feel ort yer
'No,' I says, an' whatever 'twas, I didn' feel ort o'it. But I
see'd 'em crawling so thick as sea-lice on the wall in a southerly
gale, an' I tell 'ee, 'twas they things what took the heart out o' me
more'n ort else, aye! more'n the food an' being away from home. Us
cuden turn out, 'cause the landlord had our bags an' us hadn' got no
money to get 'em back wi', nor nowhere else at all to go tu.
Next morning, us went straight down to the docks again. Cuden' eat
no breakfast what they give'd us. Didn' know what to du. I only had
tuppence left, which wuden' ha' taken me home again, not if I'd been
willing to give up and go. Come to the last, us was forced to break our
agreement. I signed on as able seamanable seaman 'cause I was
a fishing chap an' had me Royal Naval Reserve ticketaboard the
Brooklands, bound for Bombay. Penny o' me tuppence, I spent writing
home to tell mother. I cuden' stay aboard the ship (an' get summut to
eat) 'cause I had my gear to get an' a ship to find for Dickan' we
still had hopes, like, o' getting a ship together. Howsbe-ever, us
cuden't, nohow. The writer aboard the Brooklands wuden't advance
me no wages to get any gear. He told me the landlord to the lodging
house wude, him what had our bags a'ready.
Then I thought o' the steward's note to the Board o' Trade officer,
an' us inquired our way to the Board o' Trade, where ther was a gert
crowd outside. 'Twas by that us know'd the place. A man told us as the
officer what the note was directed tu, wude appear outside the door an'
call. Sure 'nuff, he didwi' gold buttons on his coatan' called out:
'Six A.B.'s for the Asia'!
'Who be that?' I asked.
'That's he,' the man said. 'He'll come out again by'm-bye.'
Us worked our way to the frontgetting cussed horrible for our
painsan' when Mr Gold-Buttons 'peared again, I give'd him the
steward's note. He luked at itan' us. He cude offer me something an'
said as he'd du his best for me, but he cuden' hold out no promise for
Dick because, see, he hadn' got no Naval Reserve ticket.
[Sidenote: WER DICK GOES, I GOES]
'Wher Dick goes, I goes,' I says, like that. With which the Board
o' Trade officer leaves us waiting there.
After an hour or so, he com'd out an' called, as if he hadn' ha'
know'd us: 'Anthony Widger an' Richard Yeo! Richard Yeo an' Anthony
Widger o' Seacombe!'
'Yer we be, sir,' shouts I, thinking we was fixed up.
'Be yu Anthony Widger an' Richard Yeo? Come in.'
Dick, he went in behind the officer, an' me behind Dick. 'Twer a
darkish passage, but as the door closed I luked, an' there, hidden
behind the door, sort o' flattened against the wall, who did I see but
Dick's mother; her'd come all that way by herself. I called to Dick.
'What the bloody hell be doin' here?' said Dick swearing awful.
'Don't thee swear at thy mother, Dick,' I says.
'Dick!' her says, 'Dick, come home again. Your father's breakin'
'Go to bry!' says Dick, swearing worse'n ever, 'cause he
was wanting in his heart to be home again, yu see.
I burst out crying, then and there, wi' seeing Dick's mother cry,
an' all o'it what we'd been drough. The Board o' Trade officer repeated
as he'd help me an' no doubt find me a ship, but Dickhis mother was
come'd for he.
'Wer Dick goes, I goes,' says I.
Then Dick's mother, her says: 'Will 'ee come home then, Tony?'
'Wer Dick goes, I goes,' I says again. 'Twas fixed in me head,
'Well,' her says, 'if Dick comes home, will yu come too?'
I told her: 'I've a-signed on aboard the Brooklands, an'
I'll hae to tramp it 'cause I an't got no money.'
'Well, if I pays your fare too?'
'Wer Dick goes, I'll go!' I says.
So her got over Dick a bit, an' the Board o' Trade man told us to
come again, saying as he'd do anything for me, but Dick's mother was
come'd for he. An' Mrs Yeo asked us to go wi' her to a restaurant....
That turned me more'n ort else 'cause us hadn' eaten the stuff to the
lodging house an' us was hungry. An' her telegraphed home to
Dick's father for a trap to meet us to Totnes, for 'twas a Saturday an'
there wern't no trains no nearer home.
Us went to the station, Dick swearing awful, an' in the end us
come'd to Totnes to find the trap.
The trap was there at the inn, sure 'nuff, an' the ostler was
waiting up, but the man what come'd wi' the trap was disappeared. We
on'y found 'en at two in the morning, sleeping dead drunk in the
manger, an' then he an' the ostler began fighting on account o' the
ostler casting out a slur 'cause Dick's mother didn' gie him no more
than a shilling. A policeman come an' cleared us out o' it!
[Sidenote: CARRIAGE PEOPLE]
Two or dree mile out o' Totnes the horse stops dead an' begins to
go back'ards. Us coaxed 'en, like, an' still he kept on stopping an'
walking back'ards. Dick an' me got out to walk to the halfway inn.
There the landlord wuden' come down for us. But he did when the trap
come'd upus was carriage people than, yu see. We had drinks round,
an' us give'd flour an' water to the horse to make 'en go. But us hadn'
gone far when he stopped an' began to go back'ards again. Dick, he
started swearing. 'Let's walk on,' I says, to get 'en out o'it; an' so
us did for a mile or so. 'Twas dark, wi' a mizzling rainan'
quietan' the trees like shadows. A proper logie night 'twas. Wude 'ee
believe me when I says I cude smell the flowers I cuden' see? Us was
glad when a tramp caught up wi' us.
'Have 'ee see'd ort o' a horse an' trap wi' two persons in 'en?' I
'Two mile back,' he says.
'Us lef 'en only a mile back,' Dick says.
'He've a-gone a mile back'ards then!' says I.
And with the same, Dick laughs out loud, an' I laughs, an' the
tramp, he laughs.... 'Twas the first laugh us had since us left
Seacombe, an' I reckon it did us gude. Us went on better a'ter that. I
covered the tramp up wi' hay in a hay loft, advising of him not to
smoke. I could ha' slept tu; I wer heavy for a gude bed; but I saw
lights in the farmhouse winder, an' us wer so near home again.
Well, we crept into Seacombe by the back (people was jest astir,
Sunday morning) going each our way from the churchyard, an' I listened
outside mother's door. Father was home again, an' they was to
breakfast. Her'd had my letter telling them as I'd a-shipped for
'They'll Bumbay the beggar!' father was saying, only 'twasn't
'beggar' as he did say.
Then my sister Mary, cried out: 'Here's Tony!'
'I know'd he'd never go to Bumbay!' outs father so quick as
But they was so pleased as Punch to see Tony back, cas I ude see,
if they'd ha' cared to say so. I don' know 'xactly why I went off to
seasummut inside driving of me'twasn't only 'cause there wern't
nothing doin'but I an't never been no more. An' thic Mam Widger
there'd hae summut to say about it now. Eh, Annie?
[Sidenote: THE SEA'S STAMP]
It is an Englishman's privilege to grumble, and a sailorman's duty;
yet one thing always strikes me in talking to seafaring men, namely how
indelible the sea's stamp is; how indissolubly they are bound to the
seawith sunken bonds like those which unite an old married
couple,and also what outbursts of savage hatred they have against it.
Tony says that if he could earn fifteen shillings a week regularly on
land, he would give up the sea altogether. I very much doubt it. The
sea has him fast. He says further that nobody would go to sea unless he
were caught young and foolish, and that few would stay there if they
could get away. There are, among the older fishermen of Seacombe, some
who have worked well, and could still work, but prefer to stay ashore
and starve. Tony holds them excused. Aye! he says, they've a-worked
hard in their day, an' they knows they ain't no for'arder. An' now
they'm weary o' it all, an' don't care; an' that's how I'll be some
day, if I livesweary o'it, an' just where I was!
But the sea has her followers, and will continue to have them,
because seafaring is the occupation in which health, strength and
courage have their greatest value; in which being a man most nearly
suffices a man. It is remarkable that Baudelaire, decadent Frenchman,
apostle of the artificial, who was violently home-sick when he went on
a voyage, should have expressed the relation of man and the seatheir
enmity and lovemore subtly than any English poet.
Homme libre, toujours tu chériras la mer;
La mer et ton miroir; tu contemples ton âme
Dans le déroulement infini de sa lame,
Et ton esprit n'est pas un gouffre moins amer.
Tu te plais à plonger au sein de ton image;
Tu l'embrasses des yeux et des bras, et ton coeur
Se distrait quelquefois de sa propre rumeur
Au bruit de cette plainte indomptable et sauvage.
Vous êtes tous les deux ténébreux et discrets:
Homme, nul n'a sondé le fond de tes abîmes,
O mer, nul ne connaît tes richesses intimes,
Tant vous êtes jaloux de garder vos secrets!
Et cependant voilà des siècles innombrables
Que vous vous combattez sans pitié ni remord,
Tellement vous aimez le carnage et la mort,
O lutteurs éternels, ô frères implacables!
The sea is never mean. Strife and brotherhood with it give a
largeness to men which, like all deep qualities of the spirit, can be
neither specified nor defined; only felt, and seen in the outcome. The
Seacombe fishermen are more or less amphibious; ocean-going seamen look
down on them. They are petty in some small things, notably in jealousy
lest one man do more work, or make more money, than another: to say a
man is doing well is to throw out a slur against him. Nevertheless in
the larger, the essential things of life, their sea-largeness nearly
always shows itself. They are wonderfully charitable, not merely with
money. They carp at one another, but let a man make a mess of things,
and he is gently treated. I have never heard Tony admit that any
maneven one who had robbed himhad not his very good points. Is a
man a ne'er-do-well, a drunkard, an idler? Ah, they say, his father
rose he up like a gen'leman, an' that's what comes o'it. In their
dealings, they curiously combine generosity and
close-fistednessclose-fistedness in earning, and generosity in
spending and lending. A beachcomber, for simply laying a hand to a
rope, receives a pint of beer, or the price of it, and next moment the
fisherman who paid the money may be seen getting wet through and
spoiling his clothes in order to drag a farthing's worth of jetsam from
the surf. Tony fails to understand how a gen'leman can possibly haggle
over the hire of a boat. When he goes away himself, he pays what is
asked; regrets it afterwards, if at all; and comes home when his money
is done. If a gen'leman, he says, can't afford to pay the rate, what
du 'ee come on the beach to hire a boat foran' try to beat a fellow
down? I reckon 'tis only a sort o' gen'leman as does that!
Like most seafarers, the fishermen are fatalistic. What's goin' to
be, will be, an' that's the way o'it. But they are not thoroughgoing
fatalists, inasmuch as disappointment quickly turns to resentment
against something handy to blame. If, for example, we catch no fish,
Tony will blame the tide, the hour, the weather, the boat, the sail,
the leads, the line, the hooks, the bait, the fish, his mateanything
rather than accept the one fact that, for reasons unknown, the fish are
off the bite. A thoroughgoing fatalist would blame, if he did not
acquiesce in, fate itself or his luck.
Tony is a black pessimist as regards the present and to-morrow;
convinced that things are not, and cannot be, what they were; but as
regards the further future, the day after to-morrow, he is a resolute
optimist. Never mind how bad things du look, summut or other'll sure
to turn up. It always du. I've a-proved it. I've a-see'd it scores o'
times. He can earn money by drifting for mackerel and herring, hooking
mackerel, seining for mackerel, sprats, flat-fish, mullet and bass,
bottom-line fishing for whiting, conger or pout, lobster and crab
potting, and prawning; by belonging to the Royal Naval Reserve; by
boat-hiring; by carpet-beating and cleaning up. I have even seen him
dragging a wheel chair. His boats and gear represent, I suppose, a
capital of near a hundred pounds. It would be hard if he earned
nothing. Yet he is certain that his earnings, year in and year out,
scarcely average fifteen shillings a week. Yu wears yourself out wi'
it an' never gets much for'arder. The money, moreover, comes in
seasons and lump-sums; ten pounds for a catch perhaps, then nothing for
weeks. Mrs Widger must be, and is, a good hand at household management
and at putting money by. I doubt if Tony ever knows how much, or how
little, gold she has, stored away upstairs. Probably it is as well. He
is a generous man with money. He 'slats it about' when he has it.
[Sidenote: OPEN BOATS]
It has to be realised that these fishermen exercise very great skill
and alertness. To sail a small open boat in all weathers requires a
quicker hand and judgment than to navigate a seagoing ship. Seacombe
possesses no harbour, and therefore Seacombe men can use no really
seaworthy craft. 'Tis all very well, Tony says, for people to buzz
about the North Sea men an' knit 'em all sorts o' woollen gear. They
North Sea men an' the Cornishmen wi' their big, decked harbour boats,
they have got summut under their feetsomewhere they can get in
under, out the way o'it. They can make themselves comfor'able,
an ride out a storm. But if it comes on to blow when we'm to sea in our
little open craft, we got to hard up an' get home alongif us can. For
the likes o' us, 'tis touch an' go wi' the sea!
Tony knows. At places like Seacombe every boat, returning from sea,
must run ashore and be hauled up the beach and even, in rough weather,
over the sea-wall. The herring and mackerel drifters, which may venture
twenty miles into the open sea, cannot be more than twenty-five feet in
length else they would prove unwieldy ashore. To avoid their heeling
over and filling in the surf, they must be built shallow, with next to
no keel. They have therefore but small hold on the water; they do not
sail close to the wind, and beating home against it is a long wearisome
job. Again, because the gear for night work in small craft must be as
simple as possible, such boats usually carry only a mizzen and a
dipping lugthe latter a large, very picturesque, but unhandy, sail
which has to be lowered or 'dipped' every time the boat tacks. Neither
comfort nor safety is provided by the three feet or so of decking, the
'cuddy' or 'cutty,' in the bows. To sleep there with one's head
underneath, is to have one's feet outside, and vice versa. In
rough broken seas the open beach drifter must be handled skilfully
indeed, if she is not to fill and sink.
I have watched one of them running home in a storm. The wind was
blowing a gale; the sea running high and broken. One error in steering,
one grip of the great white sea-horses, meant inevitable wreck. Every
moment or two the coastguard, who was near me with a telescope to his
eye, exclaimed, She's down! But no. She dodged the combers like a
hare before greyhounds, now steering east, now west, on the whole
towards home. It was with half her rudder gone that she ran ashore
after a splendid exhibition of skill and nerve, many times more
exciting than the manoeuvres of a yacht race. Were there not many such
feats of seamanship among fishermen, there would be more widows and
[Sidenote: BOATS SHEERING]
Those are the craft, those the sort of mentwo usually to a
boatthat put to sea an hour or two before sunset, ride at the nets
through the night, and return towards or after dawn. Anything but a
moderate breeze renders drifting impossible. In a calm, the two men are
bound to row, for hours perhaps, with heavy 16-20 ft. sweeps. Moreover,
if the sea makes, or a ground swell rises, the least mistake in
beaching a boat will cause it to sheer round, capsize, and wash about
in the breakers with the crew most probably beneath it. Yarns are told
of arms and legs appearing, of a horrible tortured face appearing,
while the upturned boat washed about in the undertow, and those ashore
were powerless to help. There is nothing the fishermen dread so much.
One of them owns to leaving the beach when he has seen a boat running
in on a very rough sea, so that he might not endure witnessing what he
could not prevent.He peeped however.
These risks need considering, not in order to exaggerate the dangers
of drifting in open beach boatsin point of fact, accidents seldom do
happen,but to show what skill is habitually exercised, what a touch
and go with the sea it is.
Sundown is the time for shooting nets. Eight to fourteen are carried
for mackerel, six to ten for herringsthe scantier the fish, the
greater the number of nets. At Seacombe they are commonly forty fathoms
in length along the headrope which connects them all, and five fathoms
deep. Stretching far away from the boat, as it drifts up and down
Channel with the tides, is a line, perhaps a thousand yards long, of
cork buoys. From these hang the lanyards which support the
headrope, from the headrope hang perpendicularly the nets themselves.
Judgment is needed in shooting a fleet of nets. They may get foul of
the bottom or of another boat's fleet. When, on account of careless
shooting or tricks of the tide, the nets of several boats become
entangled, there is great confusion, and the cursing is loud.
 For herrings the lanyards may be of such a length that
foot of the net almost touches the sea-bottom. For mackerel,
which is a surface and midwater fish, they are much shorter,
that the headrope lies just below the top of the water.
Nets shot, the fishermen make fast the road for'ard; sup, smoke,
sing, creep under the cutty, and sleep with one eye open.
Sometimes they are too wet to sleep; often in the winter it is too
Afterwards, the laborious hauling inone man at the headrope and
the other at the foot. Contrary to a very general impression, the fish
are not enclosed within the net, as in seining or in pictures of the
miraculous draught of fishes. They prod their snouts into the meshes,
and are caught by the gills. There may not be a score in a whole fleet
of nets, or they may come up like a glittering mat, beyond the strength
of two men to lift over the gunwale. Twenty-five thousand herring is
about the burthen of an open beach drifter. Are there more, nets must
be given away at sea, or buoyed up and leftor cut, broken, lost.
Small catches are picked out of the nets as they are hauled in, large
[Sidenote: FISHERMEN FLEECED]
It is ashore that the fisherman comes off worst of all. Neither
educated nor commercialized, he is fleeced by the buyers. And if he
himself dispatches his haul to London.... Dick Yeo once went up to
Billingsgate and saw his own fish sold for about ten pounds. On his
return to Seacombe, he received three pounds odd, and a letter from the
salesman to say that there had been a sudden glut in the market.
Fishermen boat-owners have an independence of character which makes it
difficult for them to combine together effectively, as wage-servers do.
They act too faithfully on the adage that a bird in the hand is worth
two in the bush, and ten shillings on the beach a sovereign at
Billingsgate. So 'tis, when
There's little to earn and many to keep,
and no floating capital at a man's disposal.
In recent years, owing to bad prices and seasons and general lack of
encouragement, or even of fair opportunity, the number of sea-going
drifters at Seacombe has decreased by two-thirds. Much the same has
happened at other small fishing places along the coast. This
declineso complacently acquiesced in by the powers that beis of
national importance; for the little fisheries are the breeding ground
of the Navy. Nowadays fishermen put their sons to work on land.
'Tain't wuth it, they say, haulin' yer guts out night an' day, an'
gettin' no forrarder at the end o'it. Luckily for England the sea's
grip is a firm one, and many of the sons return to it.
When one hears Luscombe talk about the maddening trouble he has had
in teaching plough-tail or urban recruits to knot and splice a rope, or
watches, as I have, a couple of blue-jackets drive ashore in a small
boat because they couldn't hoist sail, then one comprehends better the
importance of the fisher-families whose work is made up of endurance,
exposure, nerve and skill; who play touch and go with the sea; and who
in the slack seasons haveunlike the ordinary workmanonly too much
time to think for themselves. They are the backbone of the Navy.
Whilst the train was drawing up at the platform, I noticed the
people moving and looking downwards as if dogs were running wild
amongst them. Then I saw two whitish heads bobbing about in the crowd.
It was Jimmy and another boy come to meet me.
We gave the luggage to the busman, and walked on down.
Tommy's gone tu Plymouth.
They'm going to cut his eyes out an' gie 'en spectacles.
When did he go?
A rather sulky silence....
Then: Us thought 'ee was going to ride down. Dad said as yu'd be
'Tisn't far to walk, Jimmy....
Us be tired.
Alack! I had done the wrong thing. Their little festivity, that was
to have made them the envy of 'all they boys tu beach,' had fallen
flat. They had expected to ride down 'like li'l gentry-boys.' However,
we bought oranges, and then I was taken to see yesterday's fire, and
was told how Tony had rushed into the blazing house to rescue a carpet
'an' didn' get nort for it.'
Tony himself came downstairs from putting away an hour in bed. I'd
ha' come up to meet 'ee, he said sleepily, if anybody'd a reminded me
o'it. Us an't done nort to the fishing since you went away.
An' yu an't chopped up to-morrow morning's wude nuther! added Mrs
Grannie Pinn came in at tea-time. We invited her to sit down and
have a cup. Do 'ee think I an't got nothing to eat at home? she
asked. Well, I have, then!Ay, she continued, bobbing her head
sententiously, yu got a mark in Seacombe, else yu wuden't be down yer
again so sune. That's what 'tisa mark! I knows, sure nuff. Come on!
who be it now? What's her like, eh?
She cannot understand how any young unmarried man can be without his
sweetheart. Everybody according to her, must have a mark, or be in
search of one. I told her with the brutality which delights her factual
old mind, that if she herself had been a little less antique and
There! if I don't come round and box yer yers. Yu'm al'ays ready
wi' yer chake.
[Sidenote: A MARK]
Then I offered her five per cent. of the lady's fortune, if
she would find me a mark with unsettled money. Though she laughed it
off, she was not a little scandalized by my levity. The Tough Old Stick
has not outlived her memory of romance. Indeed, I think she holds to it
all the tighter for her hardheadedness in every-day affairs.
Midway through tea, Straighty crept into the kitchen. What do yu
want? shouted Grannie Pinn. Bain't there enough kids yer now?
Straighty stood in the centre of the kitchen, sucking three fingers and
looking shyly at me from beneath her tousled tow-coloured hair.
You've not forgotten me, Straighty? I asked. You're not
frightened of me, are you?
Go an' speak to 'en proper, commanded Grannie Pinn. Wer's yer
Yu didn' speak to me proper, Grannie Pinn! Wer's yours?
Aw, my dear soul! Now du 'ee shut up wi' yer chake!
Straighty remained sucking her fingers in the middle of the kitchen.
She seemed about to cry. Quite suddenly, her eyes brightened. She
glided over to me, put her wet fingers round my neck (Dora! from Mrs
Widger), and gave me a big kiss on the chin. Then she told me all about
everything, sitting with her head on my shoulder in the old courting
A tiny little episode, I grant; but very sweet.
That's your mark? Grannie Pinn shouted. You'll hae tu wait for
Straighty is established as my mark, and takes her duties, as she
has learnt to conceive them, with amusing seriousness. She will not let
me go out through the Square without being told where I am off to, nor
let me return in house until I tell her where I have been. At the
beginning of every meal we hear her creeping up the passage; see her
yellow hair against the door-post. By the end of the meal she has
summoned up courage to claim a kiss. Now be off tu your mother! says
Mrs Widger has let the back bedroom to a young married couple
possessed of a saucer-eyed baby that cries lustily whenever its mother
is out of its sight. How they succeed in living, sleeping, baby-tending
and doing their minor cookery in the one pokey little room, already
half filled by the bedstead, is difficult to understand. They do it. We
see little of them, except just when we had rather see nothing at all.
For dinner and the subsequent cup o' tay, Mam Widger allows one
hour. But usually, before even the pudding is out of the oven, first
one of us, then another, glances round to make sure that the kettle is
well on the fire.
[Sidenote: MRS PERKINS]
Nowadays, however, when the kettle is beginning to sing, Mrs
Perkins, the baby in her arms, comes downstairs and proceeds to cook
for her husband a couple of small chops or a mess of meat-shreds and
bubble and squeak. She stirs and chatters; she holds forth on the
baby's beauty and goodness, its health, its father's love of itand,
in short, she talks to us as if we were delighted to see her and her
baby. Tony's good manners triumph comically over his desire to get his
cup o' tay and put away an hour up over. (He likes to take every chance
of making up for wakeful nights at sea.) We all wish she would go
quickly. Meanwhile, we feign an interest in what blousy, skirt-gaping,
slop-slippered, enthusiastic maternity has to say.
And when she does go, it is with a most joyful haste that we move
the kettle to the very hottest part of the fire.
The family hubbub over Tommy's stay in the Plymouth Eye Infirmary
has hardly died down yet. Recognizing with uncommon good sense that his
double squint would bar him from the Navy or Army (he shows an
inclination towards the latter), Mrs Widger took him to Plymouth; and
on hearing that an operation would cure him, she did not hesitate, did
not bring him home to think about it; she left him there. Then.... What
a buzz! The child is to return very thin. Mrs Widger's cousin declares
loudly that she would rather lead her boy about blind (he squints
excessively) than let him go to one o' they places. Tony says, Aye!
they may feed 'en on food of a better quality like, after the rate, but
he won't get done like he is at home. Several times daily he wants to
know how long they will keep Tommy there, and when Mrs Widger replies,
six weeks, he asks in a woe-begone voice: Do 'ee think 'er'll know his
dad when 'er comes home again?
All of which is easy to laugh at.
No doubt hospitals are a godsend to the poor, immediately if not
ultimately. At the same time, it cannot be said that the prejudice
against them is wholly unreasonable. Poor people declare that they are
starved in hospital, and it is, in fact, now recognized in dietetics
that comparatively innutritious food, eaten with gusto, is better
assimilated than the most scientifically chosen but unpalatable
nutriment. A man, a poor man especially, can be half starved or at all
events much thinned, on good food, who would do well on the habitual
coarse fare that he enjoys. His life is a long adventure in a land
where every other turning leads to starvation, but his adventurousness
seldom extends to new sorts of food.
No one is so depressed by strange surroundings as the average poor
man or woman. (Children get on much better.) Very likely he has never
been alone, has never slept away from some relative or friend, the
whole of his life. The unfamiliarity and precise routine of hospitals,
the faces and ways all strange, are capable not only of greatly
intensifying a man's sufferings, but even of retarding his recovery.
Hospitals must necessarily be governed by two main conditions:(1)
The need of doing the greatest good to the greatest number; (2) The
advancement of medical science and experience. Under (1) the
overpressure on medical skill and time is bound to diminish tact and
sympathy. Under (2) the serious or interesting cases are aptas
everyone who has mixed with hospital staffs knows very wellto receive
attention not disproportionate to the nature of the malady, but
disproportionate to the bodily, and particularly to the mental,
suffering. The poor man can appreciate sympathy better than skill. He
may not know how ill he is, but he knows how much he suffers. He is
quick to detect and to resent preferential treatment. From the point of
view of the independent poor, hospitals are far from what they might
be. They are last straws for drowning men, useful sometimes, but best
 I trust I make it plain that these statements imply no
general disparagement of hospitals. Whether or no they do the
best possible under the circumstances is not to be discussed
shortly or by the present writer. Since penning the above, it
fallen to me to take a patient to the out-department of one
the great London hospitals. We had some time to wait, with
many others, on long wooden benches. I cannot express the
unbearable depression, the sense of ebbing vitality, the
of being jammed in a machine, which took possession of me,
was quite well. And I wish I could adequately express my
admiration of the visiting surgeon's manipulation of his
instruments and his management of the patient.
[Sidenote: JACKS THE RIPPER]
Jacks is a very energetic young country surgeon. He is keen on his
work and will procure admission to the hospital for any operative case.
But he finds it by no means easy to get his patients there; for he is
so keen on his work that he treats their feelings carelessly; hustles
them through an operation; pooh-poohs their fear of anaesthetics and
the knife. Jacks is well disliked by the poor. He has to live, and
therefore he has to cultivate a professional manner and to dance
attendance on wealthy hypochrondriacal patients whom otherwise he would
probably send to the devil. The poor people have told him to his face
that he runs after the rich and cuts about the poor; and they have
nicknamed him Jacks the Ripper.
Tony would have to be very far gone before he would willingly go
into a hospital. Just now, between the mackerel and herring seasons, he
is fat and sleepy, very sleek for him. Rheumatic fever in boyhood and
neglected colds have left him rather deaf, and subject to noises in the
head and miscellaneous bodily pains. He is 'a worriter' by nature.
When I gets bothered, he says, I often feels as if summut be busted
in me head. As the herring season comes round, so will Tony 'hae the
complaints again,' and few will pity a man who always looks so well. A
few years back, Mrs Widger procured for his deafness some quack
treatmentwhich did do him good;but he himself had little faith in
it, and did not persevere. Like the mothers who rejoice in delicate
children rather than feed them properly and send them early to bed,
Tony prefers to think his ailments constitutional, a possession of his,
a curse of fate, which flatters him, so to speak, by singling him out
for its attentions. In a couple of years' time, when he comes out of
the Royal Naval Reserve, he will have the option of accepting £50 down
at once, or of waiting till he is sixty for a pension of four shillings
a week. Mrs Widger understands perfectly that unless he wants to buy
boats and gearunless, in other words, he can make the £50
productivehe had much better wait for the pension and be sure of a
roof over his head when he is past work. Tony, however, will probably
take the lump sum. He fears he may die and get nothing at all. He does
not feel that he will never see sixty, but he is of opinion that
he will not, and sixty to a man of his temperament is such a long way
hence. He thinks as little as possible of old age. Aye! he
saysalmost chants, so moved is he,the likes o' us slaves an'
slaves all our life, an' us never gets no for'arder. Like as us be when
we'm young, so us'll be at the end o'it all. Come the time when yu'm
past work, an' yu be done an' wearied out, then all yer slavin's gone
for nort. Tis true what I says. I dunno what to thinkbut 'tis the way
o'it. 'Tain't right like. 'Tain't right!
Go shrimping wi' the setting-nets t'night, I reckon, said Uncle
Jake. Tide be low 'tween twelve and one o'clock. Jest vitty, that.
It was one of those evenings, wind WSW., when the sea and sky look
stormier than they are, or will be. Uncle Jake stood on the very edge
of the sea wall, his hands in his pockets, his torn jumper askew, and
his old cap cocked over one ear. From time to time he turned half round
to deride a dressy visitor, or for warmth's sake twisted his body about
within his clothing, or shrugged his shoulders humorously with a, 'Tis
a turn-out o'it! The seine net had just been shot from the beach for
less than a sovereign's worth of fishto be divided, one third for the
owner of the net and the remainder among the seven men who had lent a
Coo'h! Uncle Jake exclaimed. 'Tis a crib here! Nort 't all doing.
Not like 't used tu be. I mind when yu cude haul in a seine so full
as.... Might pick up a shilling or tu t'night shrimping, if they damn
visitors an' bloody tradesmen an't been an' turned the whole o' Broken
Rocks up an' down. I tells 'em o'it!
Shrimps or prawns, d'you mean?
Why, prawns! Us calls it shrimping hereabout. You knows that.
There's prawns there if yu knows where to look, but not like 't used to
be. On'y they fules don' know where to look. An' they don' see Jake at
it, an' I never tells 'em what I gets nor what I sells at; an' so they
says I don' never du nort. I'd like to see they hae tu work waist-deep
in water every night for a week when they'm sixty-five. An' in the
winter tu!If yu'm minded to come t'night, yu be up my house 'bout
'leven o'clock, an' I'll fetch me nets from under cliff if they by
brs o' boys an't been there disturbin' of 'em.
Uncle Jake's cottage looks outside like a small cellar that has
somehow risen above the ground and then has been thatched with old
straw and whitewashed. Inside, it is a shadowy place, stacked up high
with sailing and fishing gear, flotsam, jetsam, balks of wood and all
the odds and ends that he picks up on his prowlings along the coast.
With tattered paper screens, he has partitioned off, near the fire and
window, a small and very crowded cosy-corner. There he was sitting when
I arrived; bread, butter, onions, sugar and teahis staple foodson
the round table beside him, and his prawn-nets on the flagstones at his
feet. Three cats glided about among the legs of the table and chairs,
on the lookout to steal. Using the gentle violence that cats love from
those they trust, Uncle Jake flung them one by one to the other side of
the room. They returned, purring, to snatch at the none too fresh berry
[eggs] of spider-crab with which the nets were being baited.
The shallow small-meshed setting-nets are about two feet in diameter
at the top. Stretched taut from side to side of the rim are two doubled
strings or thirtswhich cross at right angles directly above
the centre of the net, and into which, near the middle, the four pieces
of bait are ingeniously and simply fixed by little sliders on the
thirts themselves. The whole apparatus hangs level from a yard or more
of stout line, at the upper end of which is a small stick, a stumpy
fishing rod, so to speak, often painted white so that it may be easily
found as it lies on the dark rocks. Uncle Jake's net-sticks, however,
are anything but white. Capable almost of finding them with his eyes
shut, he would sooner lose his nets altogether than let whitened sticks
point out to other people the pools which he alone knows.
We put the nets into a couple of sacks and shouldered them. A long
light pole was placed into my hand. Don't yu never leave your pole
behind. Yu'll want it, sure 'nuff, afore this night's over.
So we set out. One by one the cats who were following, left us to go
back home. We did not walk towards the sea. On the contrary we went
inland, through some roads with demure sleeping villas on either side.
If they bloody poachers, Uncle Jake explained, see'd us going
straight towards the sea, they'd follow. I knows 'em! They takes
away the livelihood o' the likes o' us an' sells it. Sells itan' says
'tis sport! I leads 'em a dance sometimes. I goes along a narrow ledge
that's jest under water, wi' ten or twelve feet depth on either side.
On they comes a'ter me. 'Uncle Jake knows where to go,' they says. And
in they goesnot knowing the place like I duhead over heels
an' a swim for it! O Lor'! they don' like it when I tells 'em they
better go home an' tumble into dry clothes. Yu shude hear the language
they spits out o' their mouths 'long wi' the salt water. Horrible, tu
Broken Rocks, a playground for children by day, look wild and
strange on a night when clouds are driving across the moon, when the
cliffs fade into darkness high above the beach, and everything not
black is grey, except where the white surf beats upon the outermost
ledge. Then Broken Rocks have personality. A sinister spirit rises out
of them with the heave of the sea. It is as if some black mood, some
great monotony of strife, were closing in around one. On the sea wall,
in the sunshine, I used to wonder why Uncle Jake calls Broken Rocks a
terr'ble place. Now I do not. He works there by night.
We peered out from the beach underneath the cliffs. Nobody had
forestalled us. Uncle Jake was pleased. He laughed hoarsely, and the
echo of it was not unlike the natural noises of the place. Us'll make
a start there, he said, pointing to a ledge between which and
ourselves was a wide sheet of water. Yu follow me an' feel for a
foothold wi' your pole. Don't yu step afore yu've felt.
Into the water he went; seemed, indeed, to run across it. Be 'ee
wet? he asked when I stepped out the other side.
Half way up my thighs!
Yu hadn't no need to get wet so far up as your knees. I didn't. An'
yu might ha' gone in there over your head. Yu use your pole, skipper.
Feel afore yu steps. I'll set 'ee your two nets for a beginning.
With his pole he felt the depth of the water around the ledge. Then
he dropped the nets down, edging them carefully under the overhanging
weed, and placed the sticks on the rock above. Don't yu forget where
yu sets your nets. Yu won't see'em. An' when yu hauls up, go
gently, like so, else off goes all they master prawns, d'rec'ly they
feels a jerk.... Leave 'em down a couple o' minutes.... But there, yu
knows, don' 'ee? Us won't catch much till the tide turns. They prawns
knows when 'tis beginning to flow so well as yu an' me. Yu work this
yer, an' along easterly. I be going farther out.
When I hauled up my first net I heard the faint clicketty
noiselike paper scratching metalof three or four prawns jumping
about inside. My hand had to chase them many times round the net. One
jumped over; one fell through. Nothing is more difficult to withdraw
from a net than prawns, except it be a lobster, flipping itself about,
hardly visible, and striking continually with its nippers. There was a
lobster in the second net. It had to go into the same pocket as the
prawns. It was something of an adventure afterwards to put a hand into
the pocketful of lobster claws and prawn spines.
Working eastward and outward, plunging in to the water or sliding
with bumps and bruises off a rock, I must have passed Deadman's Rock,
Danger Gutter, Broken Rock and the Wreckstone. (Things of the sea
nearly always take name from their evil aspects.) Uncle Jake could have
told me at any moment exactly where I was.
At last, near the surf, I saw in front of me a flat table-rock,
standing up alone, and as I descended towards the foot of it, a high
black rocky archway became plain. Broad-leaved oarweed covered it like
giant hair, and hung drooping into the deep black pool beneath. The
moonlight glinted on the oarweed. The pool, though darkly calm, ebbed
and flowed silently with the waves outside. I recognized the place. It
was Hospital Rockthe rock the little boats strike on because it is
smooth on top and the waves do not break over it very much. I half
expected the ugly head of a great conger to look out at me from the
pool. As I lay flat on the rock to drop my nets, the rattle and roar of
the sea beyond, vibrating through the solid stone, the whistle of the
wind through the downhanging oarweed, sounded like an orchestra of the
I caught nothing there, and was not sorry. The place was too eerie
to stay in long. Ah! said Uncle Jake when we met again on the inner
reef, I've knowed they amateurs run straight off home when they've
a-found theirselves under Hospital. A terr'ble place! Yu knows now. Did
'ee set your nets there? Eh?
He took some fresh bait from his prawn bag and fixed it in the
thirts of my nets. 'Tis nearly over, he said, but jest yu try that,
an' if they'm there that'll hae 'em. There's no bait like that there
when yu can get it, on'y nobody knows o'it.
The nature of that bait I shall not divulge, any more than I shall
name the place where Uncle Jake goes to play with the young ravens in
the spring. Somebody might catch his prawns; somebody would shoot his
ravens. We had caught about two hundred prawns between us, a few
lobsters and some wild-crabs. As we walked homewards, the three cats
came down the lane, one by one, to welcome Uncle Jake.
[Sidenote: EAST WITH A SKIM-NET]
Next day we sailed east in the Moondaisy. Uncle Jake
straddled the pools and lifted the heavy stones. Then in a
skim-net, with marvellous dexterity, he caught the almost invisible
prawns as they darted away. He dragged lobsters out of holes, and
cursed the neighbouring villagers who had been down to the shore after
crabs and had disturbed his favourite stones. He knows how each one
ought to lie; he even keeps the seaweed on some of them trimmed to its
proper length. But 'tain't like 't used to be, he says.
 Like a landing net, but shallower and with a shorter
He has almost given up going to sea for fish; some say because he
will not take the trouble; but I think it is because he loves his rocks
and cliffs so well. No one knows how much by night and day he haunts
the wilder stretches of shore, nor how many miles he trudges in a week.
But the gulls know him well, and will scream back to him when he calls.
His laugh has something of the gulls' cry in it. I have heard it
remarked that when his time comes (no sign of it yet) he will be found
one morning dead among his familiar rocks. He is acquainted with death
there. He has borne home on his shoulder by night the body of a woman
who had fallen from the cliffs above; and again a negro that had washed
ashore. With a little self-control one might have carried the woman all
right, but the drowned nigger.... Imagine his face in the darknesshis
eyes! Only a man with greatness in him, or a very callous man, could
have brought such a corpse home, all along under the crumbling cliffs;
and Uncle Jake is certainly not callous.
Let 'em try any o' their tricks on me! They can turn out the likes
o' us all right, I s'pose. But I can tell 'em what I thinks on 'em,
here's luck. Thank God I don't live in no tradesman's house, an' can
deal where I likes. Not that I shouldn't anyway....
Grannie Pinn's shrill angry voice pierced the kitchen door. The
occasion was a mothers' gossiping; the subject, a kind of boycott that
is practised in Seacombe. On the table there was a jug of ale and stout
and an hospitably torn-open bag of biscuits. Around it sat Grannie
Pinnbolt upright in the courting chair, with her hands foldedMrs
Meer and Mam Widger. The feathers in Grannie Pinn's hat shook like a
bush on the cliff-edge. All of them looked as if they felt a vague
responsibility for the right conduct of the world. In short, they
[Sidenote: POOR MAN v. TRADESMAN]
The poor people here live in small colonies scattered behind the
main street and among the villas, in little blocks of old neglected
property, some of which has been bought up by tradesmen. So much of the
former village spirit still survives, and so many of the tradesmen have
but recently risen from poorer circumstances, that between some of the
oldest and the youngest of them, and the workmen, there is even yet a
rather mistrustful fellowship. They call each other, Jim, Dick, Harry
and so onover glasses, at all events. The growth of the class spirit,
as opposed to the old village spirit, can be seen plainly when Bessie
returns from school, saying: Peuh! Dad's only a fisherman. Why can't
'er catch more fish an' get a little shop an' be a gen'leman? Seacombe
tradesmen have been withdrawing into a class of their ownthe class of
'not real gen'lemen'and have been showing a tendency to act together
against the rest of the people, and to form rings for the purpose of
keeping shops empty or prices up. Nobody minds their bleeding visitors.
That is what God sends visitors for; and besides, the season is so
short. But when they began to overcharge their fellow townsmen, in
summer because it was the season and in winter because it wasn't the
season, the poor people revolted, and amid tremendous hubbub, thunders
of talk and lightnings of threat, a co-operative store was opened. Then
did the tradesmen remind the poor of old family debts, legacies from
hard times. Then did the poor say: Very well, us'll hae our own store
and bakery, and pay cash down to ourselves. Unable to obtain the
tenancy of a shop, they bought one. They refused to raise the price of
bread. They laughed at advertisements which professed to point out the
fallacies of all co-operation. They succeeded, but the class difference
was widened and clinchedpoor man versus tradesman.
Grannie Pinn, Mrs Meer and Mam Widger were reckoning up the number
of people who have been turned out of their cottages, or are under
notice to quit, for neglecting to deal with their tradesmen landlords.
Their indignation having found vent, they went on to talk of Virgin
Offwill, who has acquired celebrity by living alone in a cottage on no
one knows what, by sleeping in an armchair before the fire (when she
can afford one), and by never washing. Sometime last month, Virgin sent
for Dr Jacks because, so she said, she was wished [bewitched]; and she
would not let him go until he threatened to report the state of her
house to the medical officer of health.
[Sidenote: GOD SAVETHE DINNER]
The tale of Virgin Offwill was capped by anotherthat of old Mrs
Widworthy. Several years ago (these gossips have long memories) she
received a postal order from her son together with an invitation to
visit him in London. The post arrived after her man had gone to work.
She did not wait; she sent out a neighbour's child to change the order,
packed her few things in a basket, and went off to her son by the
midday train. On the table she left a note:
Widworthy, I am gone to London. Your dinner is in the saucepan.
shall be back directly.
There was loud laughter in the kitchen; another round of stout and
ale; then silence. The mothers fidgeted, each after her own manner,
meditatively. In all the world, and Seacombe, there seemed nothing to
talk aboutor too much.
Have 'ee heard ort lately of Ned Corry? asked Grannie Pinn with a
delightful mixture of gusto and propriety. Have 'er still got Dina wi'
Yes, I think.
An' his wife tu?
Bessie burst into the room. Neither Tony nor Mrs Widger approve of
discussing the intimate humanities before children, so Bessie was
allowed to fling her news to us unchecked. Mother, Miss Mase says I
can leave school so soon as yu've found me a place. Then I'll hae some
money o' my own earnings, won't I?
Yu'll bring it to me, same as I had to what I earned, an' yu'll
stay on to school till I thinks vitty. You'm not fit for a gen'leman's
Yes, I be. I can work. That's what yu'm paid for, ain't it?
How many cups an' saucers have yu smashed this week?
Have they learned 'ee all yu wants to know up to school? inquired
Grannie Pinn quietly, but with a twinkle at the company.
They an't learned me to play the pi-anno. That's what I wants now.
If Dad 'd get one, I'd play.
Have they learned 'ee to cook a dinner?
Anybody can du thic. I've learned to play God Save the King
on the school pi-anno.
How do 'ee start then?
Why, you puts your fingers....
Naw! I means how du 'ee start to cook dinner?
Her an't learned tidiness, said Mam Widger. Lookse! Her scarf on
one chair, gloves flinged on another, coat slatted on the ground an'
her hat on the dressernow, since her's come in! Pick 'em up to once,
else thee't hae my hand 'longside o'ee!
Bessie scrabbled up her clothes and, making sounds of disgust, went
Her'll steady down, I hope, remarked Mrs Widger. Her's wild, but
a gude maid to try an' help a body, though her makes so much work as
Ay! said Grannie Pinn grimly. If work don't steady her, there's
[Sidenote: NED CORRY]
When Bessie was gone the conversation reverted to Ned Corry and the
ages of his children. I met him last summerhave never ceased hearing
about him, for his sayings are often repeated and his adventures at sea
recounted. He came down here on holiday with his wife, who appeared to
be very happy and was obviously very proud of her Ned. The morning he
went back, he collected all of his old mates he could find, before
breakfast, into a public-house, treated them to whisky until his
pockets were empty, and then borrowed money to return to London. His
personality seems to have left a deeper impression than any other on
Seacombe. He is a man very alive; big, generous and uncontrollable in
all things; so broad that he seems short; great in voice, great in
strength, greatest in laughter. Very dark, and prominent in feature
where his fierce black beard allows any of his face to be seen, he is a
kind of Hebraic Berserker in general appearance, in the uncompromising
force of him and the squat sloppiness of his clothes. Yet his eyes,
almost bedded in hair, have often the bright peeping humorousness of a
He had the most boats on the beach, and mighty strokes of luck with
the fish; employed more men than anyone before or since; paid them well
when he had the money, and with an irregularity which would have been
tolerated from no other boat-owner. Dina went to lodge at his house. He
made of her, so gossip says, a second wife. He succeeded in running a
household of three; then bought two lodging houses and set a wife to
manage each. Ned was all right, Tony says, on'y he didn't know how
to look after hisselfdidn't carenor after his money when he made
it. One evening, Tony found him in his bath in the middle of the
kitchen whilst his womenfolk were cooking him a good hot supper. It was
not his being in his bath which made Tony blush, but the freedom with
which he called, Come in!
When the prudent-minded of Seacombe clamoured to Ned for their
money, he sold up his boats and furniture, went to London, took without
apprenticeship a well-paid job at the docks, and now, as he walks home
along the dockside streets, he is given Good Night from London
Bridge to Tilbury. The exerting of strength seems to have been his
leading impulse; pride in Ned Corry his only check. He was too big for
Seacombe. In London he remains entirely himself'West-country Ned!'
Before Ned Corry's affairs were finished with, Tony came into the
kitchen, saying: I just been talking out there to Skinny Chubb. Nice
quiet chap, he is. His wife is gone.
Well, didn't 'ee know that?
Then I heard a wonderful tale of self-restraint. Chubb is a good
workman, a man of about fifty with grown up boys and girls. His wife
has been no good to him. She used to have men in the house when he was
away. She provided them with grog and food, but there was never
anything for Chubb to eat, except abuse. She won the daughters over to
her side. Sometimes she would go away to London, taking perhaps one of
the girls with her. Only the eldest son, who was not at home, sided
with his father. Neighbours used to hear the couple quarrelling half
the night, but during the whole of their married life he never once
struck or beat her. All he used to tell other people was:'Tis a
wonder how a man can stand all her du say to me, day an' night, early
Just before Michaelmas, she decided to leave her husband: to go to
London with a German flunkey. They broke up the home. Chubb packed up
for her the best of the furniture. He wrote out her labels, said
Good-bye, paid her cab fare to the station. Now he is living in
lodgings. Rumour has it that the German has left her. In answer to
inquiries, Chubb merely says: Well, I tell 'ee, I be glad to be
out o'it all at last. I'll never hae her back.
It is a sound old piece of psychology which distinguishes a man's
bark from his bite. The poor man's bark is appalling; I often used to
think there was murder in the air when I heard some quite ordinary
discussion; there would have been murder in the air had I myself been
worked up to speak so furiously. But, comparatively speaking, he seldom
bites; hardly ever without warning; and he can as a rule stay himself
in the very act. The educated man, on the other hand, does not bark
much; one of the most important parts of his education has been the
teaching him not to do so; but when he does bite, it is blindly, and he
makes his teeth meet if he can. We hear, of course, much more of the
poor man in the police courts, and we imagine (spite of Herbert
Spencer's warning) that education is to diminish his crimes. How very
simple and fallacious! In the first place, the poor, the uneducated or
but slightly educated, greatly out-number the educated. Suppose by
means of complete and trustworthy criminal statistics, we could work
out the percentage criminality of the different classes. I fancy
that the poor man would not then showeven judged by our whimsical
legal and moral standardsa greater percentage criminality than the
educated. And if in our statistics we could include degrees of
provocation to the various crimes, such as hunger, poverty, want of the
money to leave exasperating surroundingsit would probably be found
that the poor are, if anything, less criminally disposed than other
sections of the community; that, though they lack something of the
secondary self-restraint which prevents bark and noise, they are, other
things being equal, actually stronger in that primary self-restraint,
the lack of which leads directly to crime. On a priori,
historical, grounds one would anticipate such a conclusion.
It is certain that they forgive offence more readily.
I have often wondered how many nice quiet respectable vindictive
murders are yearly done by educated men too clever to be found out. The
poor man is a fool at 'Murder as a Fine Art.' He hacks and bashes.
Sighting, as we thought, some balks of timber, floating away on the
ebb tide over the outside of Broken Rocks, two of us shoved a small
boat down the beach. Our flotsam was a trick of the fading light on the
sea, just where Broken Rocks raised the swell a little; but in the
exquisite, the almost menacing, calm of the evening, we leaned on our
oars and watched for a while. To seaward, the horizon was a peculiar
lowering purple, as if a semi-opaque sheet of glass were placed there.
On land, over the Windgap, the sunset was like many ranks of yellow and
shining black bannershard, brassy. The sea was a misty blue. One by
one, according to their prominence, the bushes on the face of the
cliffs faded into the general contour. As we landed, a slight lop came
over the water from the dark south-east. Ah! said Uncle Jake. We'm
going to hae it. South-easter's coming!
[Sidenote: CALLED OUT BETIMES]
There was some discussion as to whether or not we should haul the
boats up over the sea-wall. In the end we hauled the smaller ones,
leaving the Cock Robin and the drifter upon the beach.
In the very early morningit was so dark I could not see the
outline of the windowI half awoke to an indistinct sensation that the
house was rocking and hell unloosed outside. Something solid seemed to
be beating the wall. Than I heard Grandfer's voice roaring at the foot
of the stairs:What is it? Why, tell thic Tony he'd better hurry up
else all the boats 'll be washed away. Blowing a hurricane 'tis! Sea's
making. Oughtn't to ha' left they boats....
Be quiet! yu'll wake all the kids up.
Blowing a hurricane 'tis! Nort to me if the boats du wash off.
Tony'd never wake.
All right, I'll wake him.
In five minutes we were downstairs, with the fire lighted and the
Outside, it was pitch dark. There was nothing there, it seemed,
except a savage wind and stinging splotches of rain and the cry of the
low tide on the sand. I felt my way up the Gut and out, sliding one
foot before the other so as not to fall over the sea-wall. John Widger
bumped into me, and together we crept along to the capstan. A white
shadow of surf was just visible. We dropped gingerly off the wall to
the beach, trusting there was no iron gear there to smash our ankles.
Then for an hour we fumbled our way about; pushed, hauled,
disentangled, slid and swore; grasping sometimes the right rope and
sometimes the wrong one with hands almost too cold and stiff, too
painful, to grasp anything at all.
Out of the blackness came another hurricane squall with rain that
lashed. The rushing air itself shook. We crouched, all humped up, in
the lew of a drifter's bows, whilst the rain water washed around our
boots and coat-tails. This 'll tell 'ee what 'tis like for us chaps,
said Tony. I be only sorry, Uncle Jake added, for them what's out to
sea now in ships wi' rotten gear.
[Sidenote: A DISCOLOURED FURY]
As the dawn broke thick, the sea rose still further, until it was a
discoloured fury battering the shore. With Uncle Jake I watched some
long planks, four inches in thickness and ten broad, swept off the top
of the beach. We saw them hurtled over Broken Rocks, now dashed against
the cliff, now careering, so to speak, on their hind legs. Such were
their mad capers that we laughed aloud. We were far from wishing to
save them. We rejoiced with them.
As the day blew on, the wind moderated inshore and the lop gathered
itself together into a heavy swell. And after dark, at half tide, Uncle
Jake and myself worked hard. We dragged the heavy planks from a surf
that seemed ever advancing on us to drive us towards the cliffs, yet
never did, and we propped up the planks against cliffs whose crumbling
drove us constantly down to the sea. There's a winter's firing there.
We talkedout-howling the noise jerkilyof wrecks and wreckages.
Had we had the chance, we might then conceivably have wrecked a ship.
For there, on the narrow strip of shingle between the wash of the waves
and the unstable cliff, we were primitive men, ready without ruth to
wreck for ourselves the contrivances of civilization.
Tony has received one or two presents this autumn, and now the gales
have put an end to all kinds of fishing, he is beginning to write his
letters of thanks. Or rather, he bothers Mam Widger to write them for
him, and when she has said sufficiently often, G'out yu mump-head! Du
it yourself! he sets to work. After long hesitation, pen in hand, and
a laborious commencement, he dashes off a letter, protests that it
ought to be burnt, and sends it to post. He acts, indeed, a comic
version of the groans and travail about which literary men talk so
[Sidenote: PRESENTS AND TIPS]
Whether he prefers a present or a tip is doubtful, and depends
largely on the amount of money in the house. Presents are more valued;
tips more useful. He feels that 'there didn't ought to be no need of
tips'; knows obscurely that they are one of the effects, and the
causes, of class difference; that they are either a tacit admission
that his labour is underpaid, or else such an expression of good-will
as a man would not presume to give to 'the likes o' himself,' or else
an indirect bribe for some or other undue attention. Usually, however,
not wishing to go into the matter so thoroughlyhaving come in contact
with outsiders chiefly when they have been on holiday and least
economicalhe considers a tip merely as the outflowing of a
gen'leman's abundance. They can afford it, can't 'em? They lives in
big houses, an' it helps keeps thees yer little lot fed an' booted.
If, however, he has reason to believe that 'a nice quiet gen'leman'
is really hard-up, then he is very sorry, and will reduce the rate of
hire by so much as half. In such cases, it is well that the gen'leman
should add a small tip, for his niceness' sake. Then is Tony more than
The gentleman, as such, seems to be losing prestige. Gentility is
being made to share its glory with education, 'Ignorant' is becoming a
worse insult than 'no class.' Grandfer, in argument will think to prove
his case by saying: Why, a gen'leman told us so t'other day on the
Front. A gen'leman told me, I tell thee! Grandfer's sons would like
the gen'leman's reasons. In fact the stuff and nonsense that the
chatting gen'leman, feeling himself safe from contradiction, will try
to teach a so-called ignorant fisherman, is most amazing. If he but
knew how shrewdly he is criticised, afterwards....
Education even is esteemed not so much for the knowledge it
provides, still less for its wisdom, as for the advantage it gives a
man in practical affairs; the additional money it earns him. No doubt
they educated people knows a lot what I don't, says Tony, an' can du
a lot what I can't; but there's lots o' things what I puzzles me old
head over, an' them not the smallest, what they ain't no surer of than
I be. Ay! an' not so sure, for there's many on 'em half mazed wi' too
Bessie has finally left school. The excitement, the chatter, the
sudden air of superiority over the other children, the critical glance
round the room when she returns home.... She has learnt next to nothing
of school-workwhich matters little, since she is strong, hopeful, and
has a genuine wish to do her best. What does matter is, that she is
careless, inclined to be slatternly, and has no idea of precision
either in speech or work. (Few girls have.) This is in part, no doubt,
mere whelpishness to be grown out of presently. She picks up some piece
of gossip. Mother! Mrs Long's been taken to hospital. Her's going to
die, I 'spect.
No her an't gone to hospital nuther. Dr Bayliss says as her's got
to go if she ain't better to-morrow. Isn't that what you've a-heard
Yesbut I thought her'd most likely be gone 'fore this, says
Bessie without, apparently, the least sense of shame, or even of
The other day she reached down a cup to get herself a drink of
water. Then she took some pains to see if the cup still looked
clean, and finding it did, she replaced it among the other clean ones
on the dresser.
Her mother sent her out to the larder for some more bread. Bessie
brought in a new loaf.
That ain't it, said Mrs Widger. There's a stale one there.
No, there ain't.
Yes, there is.
I've looked, an't I?
Yu go an' look again, my lady.
Well, 'tis dark, an' I an't got no light to see with.
Protesting vehemently, Bessie found the stale loaf. Were I her
mistress, she would irritate me into a very bad temper, and then, by
her muddle-headed willingness, would make me sorry. She is untrained.
School has in no way disciplined her mind. From early childhood, of
course, she has had to do many odd jobs for her mother, but a woman
with the whole burden of a house on her shoulders, who has never found
the two ends more than just meet, cannot spare time or thought to train
her girls systematically. It is so much easier to do the whole of the
work herself. Bessie's usefulness, such as it is, speaks a deal for her
disposition. After all, how many women in any station of life, have
precision and forethought enough to lay a fire so that it will burn up
at once? Bessie is only thirteen. It is, indeed, her ability for her
age that tempts one to judge her by a standard which elsewhereexcept
among women discussing their servantswould only be applied to a girl
Suppose fathers judged their daughters as mothers judge their
[Sidenote: GOING INTO SERVICE]
For the present, Bessie is in daily service at a lodging-house. For
a 'gen'leman's residence,' which would be better for her, she is
over-young and would, besides, need an outfit of dresses, caps and
aprons which she is not yet old enough to take care of, nor will be
until she is ready to fall in love. She can go to Mrs Butler's in a
torn dress and dirty pinafore. She is not expected to appear before the
visitors; only to do the dirty, rough, and heavy work behind the
scenes. It was a condition of her leaving school so young, that she
should go into service and sleep there. Very naturally, Mrs Widger and
Mrs Butler soon arranged that the 'education lady,' when she came to
inspect, should be shown Bessie's bedroom at the lodging-houseand
that Bessie should sleep at home. It was better for all three; for Mrs
Butler who is short of room, for Mrs Widger who wants Bessie's help,
and for Bessie who still requires her mother's authority and oversight.
Educationalists don't seem to understand.
In return for two shillings a week and her food, Bessie is supposed
to work twelve hours a day, from eight till eight. All she does might
possibly be crammed into three hours a day; that is all she is paid
for. She brings home her supper in a piece of newspaper. One evening
she brought some chicken bones which had been in turn the foundation of
roast chicken, cold chicken, stewed chicken, and soup. Bessie rather
enjoyed them. Another evening, she unwrapped a whole cake. It fell on
the floor, whack! neither bouncing, nor breaking. It was full of dough.
A basin of soup-dregs which she brought home two days ago was found to
contain a length of stewed string. Stewed to rags, it was, like badly
boiled meat. Bessie says that Mrs Butler did miss a bell-rope.
There was a rush and a banging up the passage. The kitchen door
burst violently open. A girl (though she wore long skirts her figure
was unformed and her waist had a stiff youthful curve) ran quickly into
Her eager bright-coloured young facethat also not yet fully
formedwas overshadowed by a flapping decorated hat obviously
constructed less for a woman's headless still for a maiden'sthan
for a cash draper's window. Her chest was plastered with a motley
collection of cheap jewellery and lace. Her boots had not been cleaned.
She dropped her cardboard boxes on the floor. Regardless of her
womanly attire, like nothing so much as a hasty child, she flung her
arms round Tony's neck.
Hallo, Dad! How be 'ee? Eh? How's everybody? Lord, I'm hungry. Look
what I got for 'ee. An't forgot nobody this time, though 'tisn't
everybody as remembers me. Look, Dad!
What is it? asked Tony, looking blankly, as if he could hardly
realise so much clatter.
Lookse, Dad! What do 'ee think o'it?
A box was torn open. From it came a couple of glass ornaments, and
various sorts of 'coloured rock' and sticky toffee for the children.
[Sidenote: BACK FROM SERVICE]
It was Tony's eldest daughter, Jenny, come home from service. She
walked round the room picking up things to examine, things to eat,
things that she claimed were hers, and things that she desired given
her. She talked without, so far as I could see, any connection between
the sentences. Mouthfuls of food reduced her babbling shriek to a
Be 'ee glad to see your daughter, Dad?
Iss.... said Tony, looking at her very fondly, but still puzzled.
Don't believe yu be. Why didn't 'ee write then if yu loves me so?
Thic's Mam 'Idger's job.
G'out! said Mrs Widger,Jenny, you an't see'd our addition, have
I held out my hand. Jenny blushed; then she said: Good evening,
sir; then she giggled; and finally she turned her back on me. It took
a minute or two for her happy carelessness to return.
Domestic servants on holiday, more than any other class of people,
strain one's tact and rouse one's ingrained snobbery. They tend to be
over-respectfulthe sort of respectfulness that presupposes
reward,and to brandish sirs, or to be shy and silly, or else
to treat one with a more airy familiarity than the acquaintanceship
warrants. In the matter of manners, they sit between two chairs, the
class they serve has one code; the class they spring from has another,
equally good perhaps, certainly in some respects more delicate, but
different. In imitating the one code, unsuccessfully, they lose their
hold on the other. Their very speecha mixture of dialect and standard
English with false intonationsbetrays them. They are like a man
living abroad, who has lost grip on his native customs, and has
acquired ill the customs of his adopted country. It is not their fault.
Circumstances sin against them.
Mrs Widger tells me that, when she left her mother's for service,
she felt nothing so keenly as the loneliness, the isolation, of being
in a house where no one could be in any full sense of the word her
confidant, where she was at the beck and call of strangers from the
time she got up till the time she went to bed, where her irregular
hours of leisure were passed quite alone in a kitchen. It seems, as
might be anticipated, that mental comfort or discomfort is at
the bottom of the servant question, and that class differences, class
misunderstandings, are ultimately the cause of it. Often enough the
mistress wishes to be kind, but she fails to understand that what she
values most differs from what is most valued by her servants. Often
enough the servants wish to do their best, but little irritations,
unsalved by sympathy and not to be discussed on terms of equality, lead
to sulky, don't-care moods which exasperate the mistress into positive,
instead of negative, unkindness. So a vicious circle is formed. The
covert enmity between one woman and another simply calls for give and
take where both are of the same class, but when one of them is, for
payment and all day, at the disposal of the other.... How many homes
there are where the menfolk can get anything done willingly, and the
mistress nothing whatever! The girls go out so early. They miss the
rough and tumble of their homes. They have their own little ambitions,
hardly comprehensible to anyone else. Whether or no they desire to be
satisfactory, they do want their own little flutters.
[Sidenote: LITTLE SERVANT GIRLS]
Poor brave small servant girls, earning your living while you are
yet but children! I see your faces at the doors, rosy from the country
or yellowish-white from anæmia and strong tea; see how your young
breasts hardly fill out your clinging bodices, all askew, and how your
hips are not yet grown to support your skirts properlydraggle-tails!
I see you taking the morning's milk from the hearty milkman, or going
an errand in your apron and a coat too small for you, or in your
mistress's or mother's cast-off jacket, out at the seams,
puffy-sleeved, years behind the fashion and awry at the shoulders
because it is too big. I see your floppety hat which you cannot pin
down tightly to your hair, because there isn't enough of it;your
courageous attempts to be prettier than you are, or else your
carelessness from overmuch drudgery; your coquettish and ugly gestures
I picture your life. Are you thinking of your work, or are you
dreaming of the finery you will buy with your month's wages; the
ribbons, the lace, or the lovely grown-up hat? Are you thinking of what
he said, and she said, and you said, you answered, you did? Are you
dreaming of your young man? Are you building queer castles in
the air? Are you lonely in your dingy kitchen? Have you time and
leisure to be lonely?
I follow you into your kitchen, with its faint odour of burnt grease
(your carelessness) and of cockroaches, and its whiffs from the
scullery sink, and a love-story that scents your life, hidden away in a
drawer. I hear your mistress's bell jingle under the stairs. You must
go to bed, and sleep, and be up early, before it is either light or
warm, to work for her; you must be kept in good condition like a cart
horse or a donkey; you must earn, earn well, your so many silver pounds
In mind, I follow you also into your little bedroom under the roof,
with its cracked water-jug that matches neither the basin or the
soap-dish, and its boards with a ragged scrap of carpet on them, and
your tin box in the corner; and the light of the moon or street lamp
coming in at the window and casting shadows on the sloping whitewashed
ceiling; and your guttered candle. What will you try on to-night? A
hat, or a dress, or the two-and-eleven-three-farthing blouse? Shift the
candle. Show yourself to the looking-glass. A poke here and a pull
thereand now put everything away carefully in the box under the bed,
and go to sleep.
Though I say that I follow you up to your attic, and watch you and
see you go to sleep, you need not blush or giggle or snap. I would not
do you any harm; your eyes would plague me. And besides, I do not
entirely fancy you. You are not fresh. You are boxed up too much. But I
trust that some lusty careless fellow, regardless of consequences,
looking not too far ahead, and following the will of his raceI trust
that he will get hold of you and whirl you heavenwards, and will fill
your being full to the brim; and will kiss you and surround you with
himself, and will make you forget yourself and your mistress and all
the world, the leaves and birds of the Lover's Lane, the shadowy cattle
munching in the field and the footsteps approaching.
I wish you luckthat your young man may stick to you. It is after
all a glimpse of God I wish you, perhaps your only one.
You've got a longish time before you.
[Sidenote: MRS YARTY]
Mrs Yarty, up Back Lane, is reduced to that last extremity of poor
women: she is cleaning her cottage and preparing as well as she can 'to
go up over' on credit, without either doctor or midwifeunless she
becomes so ill that someone sends for the parish doctor. She will not
wish that done, and probably when her time comes, some neighbour will
look in to see if she is going on as well as can be expected. Were
Yarty and his wife sufficiently servile to attend church or chapel,
prayer-meetings or revivals, all sorts of amateur parsons, male and
female, would flock round; but in any case, Mrs Yarty has no time for
such goings-on, and if Yarty found anyone sniffing about his house, he
would certainly tell them that it was his house.
A while ago one of the 'district ladies' came here, to Tony's. We
were a little short with her, and as a last resource, she remarked
superciliously, in a tone of pleasant surprise: You are really very
clean here. 'Twas an untruth. We are not very clean: we are as
cleanly as is practicable. I should have liked to show her the door.
'Tis only the way of 'em! said Mrs Widger. They'm stupid, but they
means all right.
[Sidenote: THE YARTY CHILDREN]
Mrs Yarty is not low-spirited at all, and though her voice sounds
rather hysterical, it is merely her manner of speaking, slightly
accentuated perhaps by more trouble than usual. She is fairly well used
to such events by now. Yarty himself is angry. His ordinary habits are
bound to be upset for a few days; for ever, if Mrs Yarty dies. He is
what successful and conceited people call a waster. There ain't no
harm in him, Tony says. He wuden't hurt a fly. The only thing is, 'er
don't du much. I have never seen him actually drunk. He keeps very
nearly all his irregular earnings for his own use in a strong locked
box upstairs. His house is a sort of hotel to him, where he expects to
find a bed and food, and it is apparently not his business to inquire
how the food is obtained. If there is none, he makes a fuss, and will
not take for an answer that he has failed to bring the money. Bobby
Yarty, thin, pale, big-eyed, the eldest son but onea nice intelligent
boy though he swears badly at his motheris ill of a disease which
only plenty of good food can cure. If, however, food is scarce, it is
first Mrs Yarty who goes short, then the children. Whether they do, or
don't, have as much as a couple of chunks each of bread and dripping,
Yarty must have his stew or fry. The wage-earner has first claim on the
food, and even when the wage-earner does not earn, the custom is still
kept up. It is possible also that Mrs Yarty has still an underlying
affection for her man, a real desire, become instinctive, to feed him.
She does not say so. Far from it. She says that she is sorry she
ever left a good place to marry Yarty. She would, she declares, go back
into service but for her children. Washing-day, she swears, is her
jolliest time, and she boasts, with what pride is left her, of there
being places at twelve or fourteen shillings a week still open to her.
She did take a place oncewas allowed to take her baby with herbut
at the end of a fortnight she arrived home to find that her husband,
impatient for his tea, had thrown all the crockery on the floor. She
saw then that she must be content with things as they are.
Her present worry is, what will become of the children while she is
up over, and who will feed them? Mam Widger will do her share, I don't
doubt. Very often now she puts aside something for them. There is a
sort of pleasantness in watching them take it: they run off with the
dish or baking tin like very polite and very hungry dogs, and bring it
back faithfully with exceeding great respectfulness towards a household
where there is food to spare.
Mrs Yarty is one of those people who work better for others than for
themselves. She is no manager. They says, she remarked the other day,
as He do take care of the sparrows. She is a sparrow herself; she
grubs up sustenance, rubs along without getting any forwarder, where
others would go under altogether. Years ago she must have been
good-looking. Her patchily grey hair is crisp; she still has a few
pretty gestures. But trouble and too much child-bearing have done next
to their worst with her. Sensible when she grasps a thing, she is often
a bit mazed. She has the figure of an old womanbent, screwedand the
toughness of a young one. Her words, spoken pell-mell in a high
strained voice which oscillates between laughter and tears, seem to be
tumbling down a hill one after another. Spite of all her household
difficulties, she retains the usual table of ornaments just inside the
front door. Last summer she reclaimed from the roadway a tiny
triangular garden, about five inches long in the sides, by wedging a
piece of slate between the doorstep and the wall. There she kept three
stunted little wall-flowersno room for morewhich she attended to
every morning after breakfast. Cats destroyed them in the end. She
laughed, as it were gleefully. Her laugh is her own; derisive,
open-mouthed, shapeless, hardly sanebut she has a smilea smile at
nothing in particular, at her own thoughtswhich is singularly sweet
and pathetic. I cannot but think that the spirit which enables her to
live on without despair, to love her little garden and to smile so
sweetly, is better worth than much material comfort. Hers, after all,
is a life that has its fragrance.
[Sidenote: TONY AS NURSEMAID]
Mrs Widger went off after tea to look at Rosie's grave. She likes to
go alone, without the children, and she also likes to stop and have a
chat with someone she knows up on land. In consequence, Tony, taking
his Sunday evening promenade, found the children on the Front just in
that state when they want, and do not wish, to go to bed. They followed
Wer's thic Mam 'Idger?
Her's gone to cementry.
Didn' ought to leave 'ee like thees yer.
Her's gone to see Rosie.
Tony felt himself rather helpless. Now then, he cried with a vain
nourish, off to bed wi' 'ee!
No!No!Shan't!Us an't had no supper.
Wer is yer supper? What be going to hae?
Don' know.Mam! Mam 'Idger!
One started crying, then the other.
Casn' thee put 'em to bed thyself? I asked.
I don' know! Better wait.... Her's biding away a long time. I'll
hae to talk to she.
Tony sat down in the courting chair. The two boys climbed one on
each of his knees. They wriggled themselves comfortable, and fell
asleep. He woke them. Won' 'ee go to bed now? I wants to go out.
No! No! they cried peevishly. Wer's thiccy Mam?
Their white heads, turned downwards in sleep on either side of
Tony's red weathered face, looked very patient and bud-like. Tony's
eyes twinkled over them with a humorous helplessness, crossed
occasionally by a shade of impatience. So the three of them waited for
the household's source of energy to return. Tony had been wanting a
glass of beer. He nearly slept too.
Mam Widger said, when she did come, that they were 'all so big a
fule as one another.' Casn' thee even get thy children off to bed?
I can't help o'it, was Tony's reply.
[Sidenote: LOSS OF TEMPER]
She has taken the household affairs so completely on her shoulders
that he is almost helpless without her. In many ways, and in the
better, the biblical, sense of the word, he is still so childlike that
he often gets done for him what it would be useless for other people
who have little of the child in them, to expect. For the same reason,
bullies choose him out for attack. If I should happen to lose my temper
with him, it is a fault on my part, quickly repented of and quicker
forgiven, but a fault nevertheless. If he, on the other hand, loses his
temper with me, he merely says afterwards: Ah! I be al'ays like
thatirritable like; I al'ays was an' I al'ays shall be to the end o'
the chapter. He assumes that there was no fault on his part, that his
loss of temper was simply the outcome of the nature of things and of
himself, and consequently that there was nothing to call for
forgiveness. The curious thing is that one feels his view to be right.
One does not forgive children; nor the childlike spirit either.
Returning from sea one evening, more lazy than tired, he said: You
wash me face, Mam, an' I'll wash me hands myself. His face was washed
amid shouts of laughter, and I tugged off his boots. We were all quite
pleased. Happy is the man for whom one can do that sort of thing!
Mrs Widger explained the other day at dinner that for a time after
they were married, Tony used to help a great deal with the housework,
until once, when he was doing something clumsily, she said: Git 'long
out wi' 'ee, I can du that!
Iss, added Tony, I used to scrub, and help her wi' the washing
(an' kiss her tu), but I ain't done nort to it since her spoke to me
rough, like that, an' now I be got out the way o'it, an' that's the
reason o'itthic Mam 'Idger there!
G'out! 'tis thy....
Oh well, I du cuddle 'ee sometimes, when yu'm willing!
Against the beach the listless sea made a sound like a rattle, very
gently and continuously shaken by a very tired baby. Nothing was doing.
The air was a little too chilly for pleasure boating. Tony had gone to
'put away up over' the after-dinner hour. I lay down to read, and fell
asleep to the meg-meg of Mam Widger's voice chatting in a neighbour's
Two or three small pebbles jumped through the open window. Uncle
Jake was below. When he says, on the Front, that he is going somewhere,
he may set off this week, next week, or never; but when he wakes one
up.... I hastened down.
[Sidenote: PRAWNING WITH BOAT-NETS]
Going shrimpin' wi' the boat-nets, he said, flavouring, as it
were, a tit-bit in his mouth. Must try and earn summut if I bean't
going to feel the pinch o' thees winter. Then he added as if it
were an afterthought: Be 'ee coming?
Nowso sune as I can get enough bait. I've a-got a beautiful cod's
head towards it. Back about midnight, I daresay.
Put some clothes on your back. I'll bring a bottle o'taybetter
than brewers' tackan' go'n get the boat ready. Take the Moondaisy.... Eh?
Tony, just downstairs and still rubbing his eyes (when he snoozes he
goes right to bed), asked what was up. Shrimping wi' Uncle Jake, I
replied. That'll gie thee a doing! he said. Yu ask George. George
used to be Uncle Jake's mate. 'Tis, 'Back oar-for'ardback wi'
insidesteadysteadydamn yer eyes!' George couldn't put up wi' it.
Jake don' never sleep hisself, and wuden' let he sleep.
The poor little Moondaisy, lying on ways at the water's edge,
looked as if she had a small deckhouse aft. Sixteen boat-nets, with
their lines and corks, were piled up on the stern seats. In the
stern-sheets were two baskets, one of them very smelly, and a newspaper
parcel that reeked. Piled up in the bows were bits of old rope, sacks
and bags (very catty), chips of wood, empty tea-bottles, and all the
litter that collects in a boat used by Uncle Jake.
 Boat-nets are the same in construction as setting-nets
p. 192), but upwards of a yard in diameter. Instead of a cord
stick, they have attached to them four or five fathoms of
line. A few small flat oval corks are spliced at short
into the end of the line remote from the net, and at the
extremity is a cork buoy about half as large as a man's head.
Where are we going? I asked.
I knows; but if anybody asks yu where we'm going, or where
we've been, don't yu tell 'em. Don't want none o' they treble-X-ers on
our ground. You say like ol' Pussey Pengelly used to: 'Down to Longo.'
I don't hae nobody 'long wi' me what can't keep a quiet tongue.I can
see some o' they hellers down there now, but they ain't so far west as
we'm going, not by a long way. An' yu wuden' see 'em where they be if
they didn't think 'twas going to be a quiet night with not much pulling
attached to it. But I shuden' be surprised to see a breeze down
easterly 'fore morning. Don't du to get caught down to Longo be an
easterly breeze. Lord, the pulls I've a-had to get home 'fore now!
[Sidenote: THE HIGH-TIDE WAVES]
A very old-fashioned figure Uncle Jake looked, standing up in the
stern-sheets and bending rhythmically, sweep and jerk, sweep and jerk,
to his long oar, as if there were wires inside him. His grey
picture-frame beard seems to have the effect of concentrating the
expressiveness of his face, the satiric glint of his eyes, the dry
smile, the straightness of his shaven upper lip, and the kindly
lighting-up of the whole visage when he calls to the sea-gulls and they
answer him back, and he says with the delight of a child, There! Did
'ee hear thic? Keeping close along shore in order to avoid the
strength of the flood tide against us, we rode with a perfection of
motion on the heave of the breaking swell. As we were passing over the
inside of Broken Rocks, three waves ran far up the beach. Did 'ee hear
thic rattle? Uncle Jake exclaimed. That was the high-tide wave, then,
whatever the tide-tables say. Yu'll hear the low tide t'night if yu
Once I backed the boat ashore for Uncle Jake to go and look at one
of the numerous holes under the cliffs, in every one of which he has
wreckage stored up for firewood against the winter. He can at least
depend on having warmth. When he is nowhere to be found, he is a as a
rule down-shore carrying jetsam into caves. Much of it he gives away
for no other payment than the privilege of talking sarcastically at
those who don't trouble to go and of blazing forth at them when they
The November sun went down while we rowed, an almost imperceptible
fading of daylight into delicate thin colours and finally into a shiny
grey half-light. More and more the cliffs lowered above us. They lost
their redness except where a glint of the sun burned splendidly upon
them; coloured shadows, as it were, came to life in the high earthern
flanks, lifted themselves off, and floated away into the sunset, until
the land stood against and above the sea, black and naked, crowned with
distorted thorn bushes. Very serene was the sky, but a little hard.
Wind down east t'morrow, Uncle Jake repeated. We passed Refuge Cove,
over Dog Tooth Ledge, and along Landlock Bay. We tossed over the Brandy
Mull, a great round pit in a reef, where even in calm weather the tide
boils always. No further were there any beaches. The sea washed to the
sheer cliffs through tumbled heaps of rocks. 'Tis an ironbound shop!
said Uncle Jake. Poor fellows, that gets wrecked hereabout! I knows
for some copper bolts when they rots out o' the wreck where they be.
We had rowed down to Longo on the calm sea; we were on the sea,
almost in it, in so small a boat; and shorewards were the tide-swirls,
the jagged rocks, the high black cliffs. The relation of sea and land
was become reversed for us. The sea was no longer a thirsty menace, an
unknown waste. It was the land, the rocks and the cliffs, which
threatened hungrily. Night-fears, had there been any, would surely have
sprung out from the land.
[Sidenote: A COD'S HEAD]
We rowed into a bay whose wide-spreading arms were like an
amphitheatre of shadows.
Take thees yer oar, said Uncle Jake. Wer's thic cod's head?
Everywhere in the boat, to judge by one's nose. He found it, hacked
it, then beat it with a pebble, and hacked again, and tore. From it
came two awful separate smellsone like that of a dissecting room, the
other like bad crab's inside, or like fearfully perverted cocoa, just
wetteda sort of granulated stink that stopped one's breath. Beautiful
Now then, while I fixes the bait between the thirts, said Uncle
Jake, yu paddle westward. Keep 'en straight, else if a bit of a breeze
comes, us'll never find the buoys. While I rowed very slowly, he flung
overboard first a buoy and then its net, a buoy and its net, till he
had hove the whole sixteen with about four boat's lengths between each.
The plop was echoed from the cliff, and as the nets sank the
sea-fire glittered green upon them. He drew on a ragged pair of oilskin
trousers, stationed himself on the starboard side of the stern-sheets,
and grasped the longer tiller. On account of the ebb tide and
consequent lay of the corks, we worked back, in reverse order,
eastwards. It was for me to row the boat up until the bow was just
inside the large buoy. Then Uncle Jake's directions, more or less
abbreviated, came fast one after another:
Back outside oar (or Pull inside oar), to bring the
bows round towards the buoy.
Pull both oars, to bring the boat up to the buoy.
Pull outside oar, to bring the stern of the boat a nice
striking distance from the line between the buoy and the small corks.
(Uncle Jake strikes under and up with the tiller.)
Pull both oars, while he hauls in the loose line.
Back both, to stop the boat's way.
Back outside oar, to keep the line just clear of the gunwale.
Stop, while he hauls very slowly and stealthily at first,
lest prawns and lobsters jump out, then swiftly, raising his arms high
above his head, until the net is aboard.
So, in single and even half strokes, with variations according to
current and wind, for all the sixteen buoys and nets. Whilst Uncle
Jake, on his part, dropped the prawns into a bag which hung from his
neck, flung the wild-crabs amidships, and the lobsters under the stern
seat, and hove out the net again a few yards from where it was at
firstI, on my part, had to spy the next buoy, a mere rocking blot on
the water, to find out how the line lay from it, and then to hold the
boat steady till he was ready with the tiller. After a time, one became
a little mazed, one's head ached with screwing it round to sight the
buoys, and his directions ceased so long as everything was going right.
[Sidenote: MAKING THE ROUNDS]
Very wonderful, even exhilarating was the silence and loneliness,
the feeling that ourselves only, of all the world, were in that
beautiful mysterious place. Had I had prayers to say, I should have
said them, sure that some sort of a God was brooding on the waters and
suspicious perhaps, at the back of my mind, that where the black cliffs
upreared themselves, there the devil was.
After we had hauled and shot again the sixteenth net, Uncle Jake
counted one hundred and seventy odd prawns from his bag into the
basket. Do 'ee see how whitish they be? he asked. They'm al'ays like
that in the dirty water after a gale. Lord, what a battering they poor
things must get when it blows on thees yer coast! He picked over the
lobsters to see if any were saleable, but found only small
onescockroachesthat, as he said, it don't do to let the bogie-man
[fishery inspector] glimpse.An' I've a-catched, he added, more than
five shill'orth o' fine lobsters in one round of the prawn-nets 'fore
they bloody men from the west'ard came up hereabout wi' their pots. Ah,
shrimpin' ain't what 't used to be!
We made three more rounds in that bay, then hauled all our nets into
the boat, rowed further west, and shot our nets round a submarine
ledge, the whereabouts of which Uncle Jake knew to a yard. A couple of
rounds there, and we brought up to the buoy of a lobster pot (for the
ebb tide, washing round the headland, kept on hurtling us out to sea),
had our supper, and waited. Prawns take longer to go into the nets
after a second round in the same water.
A haziness that had been in the sky, strengthened into a lurry of
little cloudlets between us and the stars. That's where 'tis going to
be, said Uncle Jake. Easterly! Do 'ee feel this bit of a swell? Us
won't be here to-morrow night.There! Did 'ee hear that? Eh?
Two waves gave forth a peculiar confidential chuckle, long drawn out
and very gentle, very fatiguedas if the sea were making some signal
to us; as if it wished to say that it was tired of ebbing and flowing.
The cliff shadow listened, I thought, immovable and pitiless, but I
fancy that I heard the cry of a bird a quarter of a mile to the
eastward. Sea life wakes up with the flow of the tide. I had forgotten
the gulls and the ravens; had forgotten the existence of all living
things except prawns, lobsters and wild-crabs. No more waves
chuckled.... That's the low tide waves sure 'nuffthic chuckle.
There's mostly three on 'em. An' I can al'ays hear the rattle of the
high tide waves tuiss, even in a gale o' wind. What a rattle they
makes on the beach, to be sure! They fules o' visitors 'ould laugh at
'ee if yu was to tell 'em thatthey've a-laughed at mebut 'tis true.
Yu've heard, an't 'ee?
The end buoy was troublesome to find. And in the middle of the
round, I rowed up to a shadow thinking to find a buoy, and there close
beside the boat, revealed as the swell sank, was a reef of rock, humped
and covered with seaweed which stood up on end as the water flowed
shallowly over the ledge. It was like a grisly great head, ages old,
immense, and of terrible aspect, heaving itself up through the sea at
[Sidenote: UNCLE JAKE'S MATES]
With much careful working of the boat, we picked up the middle buoys
from the ledge, and hove them further to sea. Uncle Jake swore at the
reef, at the nets, at himself, at his luck. 'Tis a bloody crib! Didn't
think the tide was going to fall so far. This same happened the very
last time I was down yer wi' old Blimieold Sublime, us calls 'en.
'Let's get out o' this!' he said. 'Leave the blasted nets an' let's get
out o' it quick!' But I 'ouldn't let 'en, not Ius had three thousand
shrimps thic night; an' he very nearly cried, he did. 'Tis some
mates I've had for thees yer job. Most of 'em won't come when they can
pay the brewer any other way. I'll never come out again wi' the
last three on 'em, not if I starves for it. One of 'em went to sleep;
t'other cuden' see the buoys; an' old Blimie was blind and not willing
neither. 'Wer be the cursed things?' he'd say. 'Back!' I'd say. 'Back
oars! You'm on top o' it!' 'Well, I be backing, bain't I?' he'd say,
an' go on pulling jest the same. Then 'er said 'er was ill and wanted
to go home. He won't come no more, not if he starves, an' me
too. I won't hae 'en!
A ripple came down from the east. The sound of its lap-lap-lap
under the boat stole on one's ears sleepily, but it roused Uncle Jake
to quick action. Do 'ee see thees little cockle on the water? he
said. Do 'ee feel the life o'it in the boat? Must get out of thees
yer, else we shan't never find the buoys.
We picked up the buoysthose we had shifted out of line were hard
to find, for the stars were now all hidden by cloudand a little
breeze followed the ripple from the east. Rowing along under the
cliffs, even inside some of the rocks, through passages that only Uncle
Jake is sure of, we caught the young flood tide. The north-easter, that
blew out freshly from the Seacombe valley, chilled us to the bone.
Seacombe was asleep. No one was on the Front. We had to carry the
nets up from the water's edge to the seawall before our utmost
straining could drag the Moondaisy up the bank of shingle. For
more than an hour we hauled.
When at last it was over, I brought Uncle Jake in house and made him
a cup of cocoa. We had been nine hours' rowing. Though he could have
done the same again, without food or rest, he looked a little haggard.
It seemed impossible to believe that the grey old man with disordered
hair and beard, clothed in rags and patches, sipping cocoa in a windsor
chair, was that same alert shadow who had been reckoning up life, so
humorously and wisely, in the darkness under the cliffs. He referred
again to the winter's pinch. It must mean that he has not enough money
put by from summer for the days coming, when even he will not be able
to find some odd job. Yet, as I know very well, when the pinch does
come he will go short and say nothing whatever to anybody. He will be
merely a shade more sarcastic. One of the children may come home saying
that 'thic Uncle Jake an't had half a pound of butter all this week,'
or that he has been in one of his passions with Aunt Jake for taking in
a loaf of bread without paying cash for it. He will bring out a
ha'penny from a little screw of newspaper to buy milk for his cats, and
he will take some crumbs to leave on dry rocks under the cliffs for the
robins that flutter after him there. Poor things! he'll say. And to
people he will still be saying what he thinks, fair or foul, gentle or
hard. To understand his sternness and his kindness, it needs to go with
him wrinkling in the sunshine and prawning in the dark. He is become
very like his beloved rocks and cliffs. He is, as one might say, a
voice for them, and his words and deeds are what one would expect their
words and deeds to be, did they not stand there, warm, sunny and
graciously coloured, or dark and stern, fronting the sea immovably, as
Uncle Jake fronts life. Du I want to die? he says when asked
his age. Why, I'd like to live a thousand years!
[Sidenote: NARCOTICS AND STIMULANTS]
Tony is singularly free from any craving either for narcotics or
stimulants. Most people I know, especially those who do brain work or
live in cities, are satisfied if they can strike a working balance
between the two. Granfer must have his glass of beer regularly, but
neither smokes nor drinks much tea; Uncle Jake snuffs and loves his
tea, but drinks no alcohol whatever; John Widger smokes heavily; and I
have never known Mrs Widger get up in the morning without her cup o'
tay. Tony, on the other hand, smokes, for politeness' sake, an
occasional cigarette when it is offered him, does not hanker after his
tea, and scarcely ever drinks alone. He gets drunk now and then, not
because he greatly wants to, but socially; because, when half-a-dozen
of them are drinking in rounds, 'What can a fellow du?' Even then he
often leaves untouched a glassful that has been ordered for him, though
all the while after his third or fourth glass, he may be asking other
men to 'drink up and hae another.' Drinking with him is an expression
of jollity, not the means of it.
The Perkinses went at the end of last week into a jerry-built villa
up on land. To escape the brunt of moving in, probably, Perkins took
Tony to a football match at Plymouth. It was not so much that they
drank a great deal, as that they came home, singing, in a very
overcrowded and smoky railway carriage. I s'pose I got exzited like,
Tony says. He was all right until they got out into the fresh air, and
then ... Perkins brought him in house and laid him along the passage.
Here's your husband, Mrs Widger. Being rather afraid of Mrs Widger,
because she always speaks her mind, Perkins disappeared quickly.
[Sidenote: TONY ON DRINK]
In vino veritas, no doubt. When Tony is drunk he becomes most
affectionate, and begins 'slatting things about'not violently or
maliciously, but simply out of joyous devilment and a desire to feel
that he is doing something. Mrs Widger neither wept nor upbraided him.
Yu silly gert fule! she said. Yu silly gert fule! Shut up, or yu'll
wake they chil'ern.
Be glad tu see yer Tony?
G'out! Git yer butes off.
Tony made the chairs skip round the room and thought he'd like to
see the table (with the lamp) upside down. The window curtains annoyed
him. Mrs Widger took steps.
Luckily, she is not with child, or otherwise delicate, and can
therefore stand a deal of rough and tumble. She pushed him headlong
into a chair and took off his boots. (Those two, there alone, for Under
Town was asleep.) Then she shouldered him upstairs, like a heavy piece
of luggage, and laid him on their bed. Poor Tony was more than leery.
He swam. He moaned. He was sick. He could neither lie down nor get up.
Sarve thee damn well right! said Mam Widger.
I can't help o'it....
Yu can't help o'it!
Between three and four in the morning, she went downstairs,
relighted the fire and made him and herself a cup o' tay. After that,
not so very long before daylight, they slept.
To-day Tony is ill and subdued, if not repentant. He reckons he will
do the same again (What chap don't, 'cept they mump-headed long-faced
beggars?), but at present he turns from liquor; he always does for a
day and a half after 'going on the bust.' Didn' ought never to drink
more'n one glass, he says; no, n'eet none at all! Seeing what it
would mean for the family if Tony took to drink, Mrs Widger is, and was
at the time, wonderfully calm and cheerfulhow far from reliance in
herself, or from trust in Tony, is not plain. I asked her what she
would do if he became a drunkard and brought no money home.
Oh, she said carelessly, I s'pose I should turn tu and get some
work to du and keep things going somehow.
Would you let him have any pocket-money?
Ay, I 'spect I shouldenough for his pint.
There's not a shadow of doubt but she would do both.
Tony has always been a man for the girls; so much so, and so
naively, that whatever he might do would seem quite innocent; as
innocent as the love-play of animals. Along the Front, of an evening,
he calls out, How be 'ee, my dear? to any girl he chooses, and
perhaps takes her arm for a few steps. Given half a chance, he snatches
a playful kiss. They never seem to turn rusty with him. He has the
primitive quality of knocking their conventionality to bits at one
Just before the Perkinses left, he turned out at five in the morning
to see if the high long tide was flowing up to the boats. At six he
made tea and went with it to bed again. When he came downstairs at
eight o'clock (in his pants, darning the seat of his trousers), Mrs
Widger and Mrs Perkins both had breakfasts frying on the fire. Mrs
Widger, very loud-voiced that morning, was packing the children off to
school; Mrs Perkins was bent over the pan, browning sausages. Tony
crept up behind her, seized her by the waist, and kissed her.
Oh, you naughty man! said Mrs Perkins, who was married out of a
drapery establishment and has the drapery style of talking to
perfection. If my dear hubby knew....
Tell him! retorted Tony. I be ready for 'en. I feels lively this
morning. I'll gie 'ee another if yu'll darn thees yer trousers for me.
Thic Mam 'Idger there won't du nort. You wuden' think I'd had two
nights o'it, wude 'ee? I went to bed last night, an' then I got up,
five o'clock, and 'cause there weren't nort doing I went to bed again
an' had an hour or an hour an' a half's more sleep.
Oh, you sleepy man!
I didn' want to sleep. I wanted the missis here to cuddle me, on'y
her 'ouldn't. Her turned away from me that cold.... I went off to
sleep. An' when I woke up again, thinkin' her'd cuddle me then, her
gave me a kick an' got out bed. I never see'd ort like it. Her ain't
what her used to be, for all her ain't a bad li'l thing, thee's know.
G'out! said Mrs Widger. I be olderand wiser.
Don' know about that. I shall go into Plymouth an' git a nice li'l
girl there.... Oh, I've know'd plenty on 'em. All the li'l girls likes
I know they do, remarked Mrs Perkins sententiously, while Mrs
Widger laughed rather proudly.
Iss; us was to Plymouth once, an' a nice li'l girl wi' a white bow
roun' her neck came up an' spoke to me when I was a-looking into a shop
window, an' her said, 'I lives jest here,' an' I said, 'Do 'ee, my
dear? I'll be 'long in a minute....'
Where was Mrs Widger then?
Oh, her was 'bout ten yards in front.
Iss; if her won't be nice to me when I wants her tu, I shall go
into Plymouth an' find out my li'l girl there....
Garn then, yu fule! I can du wi'out 'ee. I shall hae thic divorce.
Thee's think, I s'pose, as I can't get 'long wi'out 'ee? Thee's much
Git 'long out wi' 'ee! repeated Mrs Widger, laughing and very
proudly. Git 'long out an' let me clear these yer breakfast things.
What have yu got for dinner, me dear? Then I'll remain with 'ee an'
not go out at all.
Amid loud laughter, Tony snatched a kiss from both ladies, and
[Sidenote: MRS WIDGER]
'Tisn't no use to be jealous, Mrs Widger says. I used to be a bit
taken that way once, but I ain't now, an' 'twuden' make no difference
if I was. Doubtless she is quite right, and she certainly succeeds in
never showing what jealousy she may feel when, for instance, she
catches sight of Tony strolling in through the Gut with his arm half
round another woman's waist, as his playful way is. If Tony speaks of
his first wife she does not, like most second wives, stop talking. If
she hears of a woman unhappily married, she usually dismisses the
affair with a Well, her shuden't ha' married 'en: her must put up wi'
'en now her's got 'en. The goings-on of unmarried people do not easily
scandalise her. I reckon, she says, yu can du as yu like afore yu'm
married, but after that yu'm fixed. She is so confident of the
fastness of the marriage tie (it is, of course, much more indissoluble
for poor people who cannot travel, have no servants, and cannot afford
lawyers for divorce proceedings) that she can afford to give Tony
plenty of rope in small things. Her trust in his faithfulness is
absolute, and justified. She has him; he cannot get along without her;
she knows that. Her attitude is founded on experience and common-sense;
not on some abstract system of morality that never controlled men's
lives, and never will.
When I used to look upon fishermen as picturesque common objects of
the seashore, I thought their womenfolk rather dreadful. Now, however,
the more I see of this household the more I admire Mrs Widger's
management of it. I know of few other women who could direct it better
and with less friction. Indeed, I am acquainted with no middle-class
woman at all who could direct any of these poor men's households as
their own wives so noisily and so cleverly do. Mrs Widger does not
attempt to gain her own way by sheer force and hardness, not even with
the children; she bends to every current; but she never breaks, and
finally prevails. Like most West-country people, she has more staying
power than visible energy. By going not straight over the hills, like a
Roman road, but round by the valleys and level paths, she arrives at
her journey's end just as quickly and with much less disturbance and
fatigue. She does nothing quite perfectly; neither cooking, mending,
cleaning nor child-rearing; but she does everything as well as is
practicable, as well as is advisable. Tony would often like things a
little better done, but if he had to do them they would be done a
little worse. Some people here greatly pride themselves on keeping
their homes spotlessly clean, and their front doors locked so that no
dirty boot shall soil the oilcloth in the passage. Mrs Widger says that
her house is for living in. Children run in and out of it, laughing and
In some respects, she and Tony remind one of a French bourgeois
couple. He has the sentiment, the expressed ideality, the
sensitiveness. He perceives a great deal, but perceives much of it
vaguely. He seldom makes up his mindthen unalterably. He is like the
little man in Blake's drawing, who stands at the foot of a long ladder
reaching up to the moon, and cries, I want! What he wants, he does
not precisely know. Summut or other. Mrs Widger, on the other hand,
knows what she wants very exactly; so exactly that she is content to
bide her opportunity. When they were married, Tony had neither boats
nor gear. He has them now.
[Sidenote: A STEADY HEAD]
How she keeps a steady head passes my understanding; at
breakfast-time, for example, when the boys are clamouring for their
kettle-broth or loudly demanding fish, or trying to sneak lumps of
sugar; and the girls, nearly late for school, are asking what she wants
from the butcher's or stores; and one or two of them require clean
things, or something darned, or have not washed their faces or combed
out their hair properly; and Tony's and my breakfasts are cooking; and
the kettle is boiling out or over; and Tony is asking her where he has
left his other guernsey, and everybody is talking nineteen to the
dozenand she wants her own breakfast too. It is at such a moment that
she displays best her most characteristic gesture.
Most people who work with a will, possess some gesture or movement
which is typical of, and sums up, the major part of their
activitiesthe gesture that sculptors and painters try to catch. To
lay out on home and family the earnings of a workman who is regularly
paid, calls for skill and care enough on the part of a wife who has no
reserve fund and must make the weekly accounts balance to within a few
ha'pence. But successfully to lay out, and to lay by, the earnings of a
man like Tony, whose family is large and whose money comes in with
extreme irregularity, requires a combination of forethought and
self-control which falls little short of genius. And it has to be done
on a cash basis, for debt would worry Tony out of his wits. The family
purse must necessarily be the centre, and the symbol, of Mrs Widger's
household activities; a matter to which she must give more thought than
to any other one thing.
Mabel, I want you to go out for me, she says. Get me my purse.
[Sidenote: CHARACTERISTIC GESTURE]
Standing, as a rule, by the dresser, she receives the purse into her
hand, opens it meditatively, looks in, pokes a ringer in, tips the
purse and peers between the coins as they fall apart; takes one or two
out and replaces them as if they fitted into slots. Then with a
wide-armed gesture, curiously commanding and graceful, she hands out to
the child perhaps a ha'penny. Get me a ha'porth o' new milk, quick!
The purse is put away.
So striking is the little ceremony, so symbolic, so able to stop our
chatter while we look, that we have nicknamed Mam Widger The Purse
That is the name for herPurse Bearer.
Downstairs in the front room there are two or three photographs of
George, that he himself has sent home since that day he went off to the
Navy. The earliest shows him still boyish, sitting small, as it were,
and a little shy of his new uniform. In the latest, taken not long ago,
nor very long in point of time after the first, he is sitting bolt
upright, chest inflated, arms akimbo with a straight, level, almost
ferocious look in his eyes. He has apparently taken a measure of the
world outside Under Town, and is all the surer of his feet for having
stood up against greater odds and for having walked the slippery plank
of Navy regulations. If you'm minded to run up against me, he seems
to be saying, come and try; here I am. The two photographs suggest
the difference between a bird in winter and in the mating season.
George's uniform, in the later photograph, has become his spring
[Sidenote: GEORGE HOME]
When he sent word that he was coming home on leave, I was prepared
for a great change in him, but scarcely for the new George. He used to
be so like a cat on a sunny wall; used to lie along the stern seat of
the Moondaisy so lazy and content that only his ever-watchful
eyes held any expression. He was deeply sunburnt: scraggy in the neck;
strong and lissome, but not very smart.
He is returned home no less strong and lissome, and exceedingly
smart. The sunburn is gone; indeed there's many a maiden would envy his
complexion; and his long stout neck, with the broadening bands of
muscle, would delight a sculptor. The alert expression, that used to be
more or less limited to his eyes, has spread, so to speak, over all his
face, over the whole of him and into all his movements. He is
organised; unified. In repose now, he would not be simply lazy; he
would be being lazy. His features, rather indeterminate of old,
have become curiously refined, almost delicate, almost supercilious (in
the pride of young strength), but not quite either. It is noticeable
generally that an orderly mental existence has great power to
regularise the features, and in so doing, to refine them. Hence perhaps
this refinement of feature in George; for if, in the effort to gain
promotion, he has been putting his heart into his workthe routine
work of his ship and the Naval barracksit follows that his mental
existence must have been very orderly and regular. But how far the
total change in him is due to Navy discipline, and how far to his
arrival at mating time, one cannot say, neither probably could he.
Among working people nothing so smartens a young man and so quickly
sets him on his own feet as a little traffic with the maidens;
especially when he can't get his own way too easily. George, I gather,
is paying attention to two or three.
Whereas his toilet used to consist of dragging on trousers, guernsey
and boots, and lacing up the last-named aboard his boat, if at all, it
is now a function delightful to witness as he stumps backwards and
forwards between the kitchen looking-glass and the scullery-sink. What
a washing and spluttering! what a boot-blacking and hair brushing! what
retouches and last glances into the glass! The cap comes off and is
replaced at a jauntier angle, a ribbon is tied again, the lanyard is
put just right, and George goes forth to a war that began before
battleships were thought of. One makes fun of his titivations, and
admires nevertheless. Pride o' life, I have heard it called. Hitching
one's wagon to a star is doubtless good; so is driving one's wagon
along mankind's track. Thank God we have still a deal of the monkey in
I should like to see how Master George would carry on the land
campaign if he had money to spare. That, however, he has not. The
presents he brought home for the whole family, as is customary, must
have cost him a good deal. He has had, too, a spell in the Naval
barrackswhich means spending money on shore amusements instead of
putting it by. And as he has bought some civilian clothes on the
instalment system, and will have that to pay off, he cannot borrow much
of his father or mother.
Being 'on his own' now, he does not, of course expect a supply of
money from his father, nor on the other hand does Tony try to force his
authority upon George. Whilst he was here, George met a few of his old
chums up in the Town, and about midnight he came home rather drunk. We
were all abed; he had to knock several times; and in the end Tony went
down to let him in. 'Twas a good opportunity for a quarrel that would
have wakened the whole Square. But Tony said nothing then. He saw
George safely to bed, and merely remarked next day in George's hearing,
that 'Tisn't gude to drink tu much if you can help o'it, specially
when yu'm young; besides, it costis tu much. George was very ashamed.
[Sidenote: MRS WIDGER'S DIPLOMACY]
Mrs Widger it was who had the row over George's spree, but not with
George, and owing to her clever diplomacy it was hardly a row at all.
Mabel rushed into the house at breakfast-time.
Mother, is George come home?
Course he is. What next?
Well, Lottie Rousdon says as he come'd home last night an' yu an'
Dad wuden' let 'en in. Drunk's a handcart, falling about, her says he
Tis a lie! began Mrs Widger loudly. Then she appeared to think of
something; her eyes widened, and she spoke quietly.
Who told yu thic tale?
Why, May Rousdon jest as I was coming in now. Her stopped me an'
asked if what Lottie'd told her was true.
Yu go an' tell Lottie Rousdon that if she has a minute to spare
when she comes home this afternoon to clean herself [Lottie Rousdon is
a day servant], as mother'd like to see her. Don't yuthis with
rising voicedon't yu tell anything more'n that or I'll break your
neck for yu.
Mabel rushed out full of importance.
The lying bitch! remarked Mam Widger.
Lottie Rousdon walked into the trap. She came in the early evening,
feathers flying, very innocent. She was in a strange house, not in the
Square or among her relatives. Mrs Widger was on her own ground. Both
went into the front room.
What for did yu we could not help hearing.
Oh, I didn't, Mrs Widger; I'm sure I didn't
Mabel, called Mrs Widger. Go'n ask May Rousdon to kindly step
May Rousdon came.
Who told yu what yu told Mabel about George, this morning? Did
yu make it up?
'Twas Lottie told me, Mrs Widger.
There! if I didn't think.... Don't yu ever say such a wicked thing
again! Yu don' know what harm....
The parlour door was shut fast. A hubbub went on within. After a
time, Lottie, weeping, was led out of the house by her sister.
The lying bitch, Mrs Widger repeated. I've a-give'd it to her.
Making up that tale so pat as if 'twas all true! That's the sort o'
thing they used to put about when Tony and me was first married, but I
fought 'em down, I did, an' I thought 'twas all stopped long ago. They
tried to make out as 'twas me drove George to sea. Nobody can't ever
say I haven't luked after Tony's first wife's children so well as I
have me ownbut they have said it, all the same, an' I've up
an' give'd it to 'em 'fore now. Whenever I used to correct the
children, they'd only to run out o' the house an' they cude always find
someone to listen to 'em and say as I was cruel to 'em and God knows
what. One time, when I wasn't very well, I felt I cuden' put up wi' it
any longer. But I did. An' here I be, same's ever. Pretty times us used
to have, I can tell yu, when we was first married an' some of 'em put
my blood up!
I understand that she cursed severalliterally kicked one or
twoout of the house; but now when anybody is ill, or anything has to
be done, she is the first person to be sent for; and when George said
goodbye to her at the station, he wept.
[Sidenote: IN THE BAR]
I was in the Alexandra bar this evening, drinking bitter ale. Apart
from the new saloon counter, it is an old-fashioned place, full of
wooden partitions and corners and draughts. The incandescent light was
flickering dimly in the draught that the sea-wind drove through the
window and the front door. Seated around the fireplace or against the
painted partitions, and standing about in groups, were fishermen in
guernseys, ex-fishermen, some bluejackets, and some solid-looking men
who were pensioners or sailors in mufti. A couple of repulsive
lodging-house keepers (they eat too much that falls from the lodgers'
tables) were talking local politics with a foxy-faced young tradesman
of the semi-professional sort. The barman, who had had enough to drink,
was thumb-fingered, loud-voiced, hastily slow. Sometimes the sound of a
heavier wave than usual broke through the buzz of conversation, and
sometimes, when the conversation dropped, wave after wave could be
heard sweeping the shingle along the beach.
A party of vagrant minstrels came to the front-door steps. They
played a comic song, and the voices within rose in defiance of the
music, so that when it stopped suddenly, they were surprised into
Up through that silence welled the opening notes of Schubert's
Serenade. Nobody spoke. The barman took up a glass cheerily. My
doctor ordered me to take a little when I feel I need it, he said; and
was hushed down. Some edged towards the door, others sat back
with faces and pipes tilted up, and others gazed down at the floor. A
memory-struck, far-away look came into their eyes. Only the barman with
his glass, and the tradesman in his smart suit, seemed wholly
The Serenade ceased. None spoke. The light gave a great
flicker. What the bloody hell! exclaimed John Widger. The
day-dreamers awoke, as if from a light sleep. An everyday look came
quickly into their eyes and each one shifted in his seat. Some even
shook themselves like dogs. A joke was made about the woman who came in
to collect pence, and the conversation rose till nothing of the sea's
noise could be heard.
I realised with a shock that in four days I shall not be here, and
when I left the bar, I forgot entirely to say Good-night.
[Sidenote: A GLIMPSE]
It was as if, for the moment, we had all been very intimate; as if
we had all gone an adventure together and had peeped over the edge of
Chillinessa social and emotional chilliness that can with
difficulty be defined or nailed down to any causeis, above and below
all, what one feels on returning from a poor man's house into
middle-class surroundings. It is not unlike that chill with which
certain forms of metropolitan hospitality strike a countryman. He meets
a London friend, a former fellow-townsman, perhaps, who has migrated to
London and whom he has not seen for a year or two. Glad to see you,
says the Londoner. You must call on my wife before you go back. Her
day is Wednesday. Or, You must come to dinner one evening. When are
you free? Next Tuesday? or Friday? If the hospitality had begun
forthwith, and the countryman had been haled off, country fashion, to
the very next pot-luck meal, he would have had a pleasant adventure. It
would have been like old times. The former glow of friendship would
have more than revived. But the calculated invitation for a future
date, the idea that the countryman will like to call for a twenty
minutes' chat on generalities and a couple of cups of bad afternoon
tea.... Though he may understand that a multiplicity of engagements in
London renders this sort of thing convenient, he none the less feels a
chill when it is applied to himself, and usually cares little whether
he go or not. He becomes conscious of the desire to save trouble, which
is at the bottom of such calculations. Had the Londoner revisited the
country, he would have found old friends ready to upset all their
arrangements for the sake of entertaining him. The London hospitality
is the 'better done,' but country hospitality is warmer. Middle-class
life runs smoother than the poor man's, it is more arranged and in many
ways 'better done,' and it is chillier precisely because, for smooth
running, the warmer human impulses, both good and bad, must be
repressed. 'Something with a little love and a little murder' in it,
was what the illiterate old woman wanted to learn to read. It is what
we all want in our hearts, much more than smooth running and
impenetrable uniform politeness.
Down at Seacombe we warm our hands, so to speak, at the fire of
life; hunger lurks outside, and the fire is dusty and needs looking
after; but it glows, and we sit together round it. Here at Salisbury,
throughout the social house, we have an installation of hot-water
pipes; they may be hygienic (which is doubtful), and they are little
trouble to keep going; but they don't glow. Give me the warmth that
glows, and let me get near the heart of it.
Voices are often raised in Under Town and quarrels are not
infrequent, but the underlying affections are seldom doubted, and when
they do rise to the surface, there they are, visible, unashamed. 'Each
for himself, and devil take the hindmost,' is more admired in theory
than followed in practice. 'Each for himself and the Almighty for us
all,' is Tony's way of putting it. The difference lies there.
My acquaintances here are well off for the necessities of life. No
one is likely to starve next week. Nevertheless, they are full of
worry, and by restraining their expressions of worry so as not to
become intolerable to the other worriers, they make themselves the more
lonely and increase their panic of mind. They are afraid of life.
At Seacombe, though there were not a fortnight's money in the house,
we lived merrily on what we had. In Tony's Summut 'll sure to turn up
if yu be ready an' tries to oblige there is more than philosophy;
there is race tradition, the experience of generations. The Fates are
treacherous; therefore, of course, they like to be trusted, and the
gifts they reserve for those that trust them are retrospective.
All of us at Tony's wanted many thingsa pension, enough to live
on, work, a piano, or only 'jam zide plaate'God knows what we didn't
want! But the things that men haven't, and want, unite them more than
those they have. I want is life's steam-gauge; the measure of
its energy. It is the ground-bass of love, however transcendentalised,
and whether it give birth to children or ideas. I have is
stagnant. And I am afraid is the beginning of decay.
It is still I want, rather than I am afraid, that
spurs the poor man on.
For his first marriage and towards setting up house, Tony succeeded
in saving twenty shillings. He gave it to his mother in gold to keep
safely for him, and the day before the wedding, he asked for it. Yu
knows we an't got no bloody sovereigns, said his father. It had all
been spent in food and clothes for the younger children. So Tony went
to sea that night and earned five shillings. A shilling of that too he
gave to his mother; then started off on foot for the village where his
girl was living and awaiting him. She had a little saved up: he knew
that, though he feared it might have gone like his. They were married,
however; they fed, rejoiced, and joked; and 'for to du the thing proper
like,' they hired a trap to drive them home. With what money was left
they embarked on married life, and their children made no unreasonable
delay about coming. Aye! says Tony, I'd du the same againthough
'twas hard times often.
Before I left Seacombe I asked a fisherman's wife, who was expecting
her sixth or seventh child, whether she had enough money in hand to go
through with it all; for I knew that her husband was unlikely to earn
anything just then. I have, she said, an' p'raps I an't. It all
depends. If everything goes all right, I've got enough to last out, but
if I be so ill as I was wi' the last one, what us lost, then I an't.
Howsbe-ever, I don't want nort now. Us'll see how it turns out. She
went on setting her house in order, preparing baby linen and making
ready to 'go up over,' with perfect courage and tranquillity. When one
thinks of the average educated woman's fear of childbed, although she
can have doctors, nurses, anæsthetics and every other alleviation, the
contrast is very great, more especially as the fisherman's wife had
good reason to anticipate much pain and danger, in addition to the
possibility of her money giving out.
Those are not extraordinary instances, chosen to show how courageous
people can be sometimes; on the contrary, they are quite ordinary
illustrations of a general attitude among the poor towards life. To
express it in terms of a theory which in one form or another is
accepted by nearly all thinkersthe poor have not only the Will to
Live, they have the Courage to Live.
[Sidenote: THE COURAGE TO LIVE]
On the whole, they possess the Courage to Live much more than
any other class. And they need it much more. The industrious
middle-class man, the commercial or professional man, works with a
reasonable expectation of ending his days in comfort. He would hardly
work without. But the poor man's reasonable expectation is the
workhouse, or some almost equally galling kind of dependency. The
former may count himself very unlucky if after a life of work he comes
to destitution; the latter is lucky if he escapes it. Yet the poor man
works on, and is of at least as good cheer as the other one. If he can
rub along, he is even happy. He is, I think, the happier of the two.
The more intimately one lives among the poor, the more one admires
their amazing talent for happiness in spite of privation, and their
magnificent courage in the face of uncertainty; and the more also one
sees that these qualities have been called into being, or kept alive,
by uncertainty and thriftlessness. Thrift, indeed, may easily be an
evil rather than good. From a middle-class standpoint, it is an
admirable virtue to recommend to the poor. It helps to keep them off
the rates. But for its proper exercise, thrift requires a special
training and tradition. And from the standpoint of the essential, as
opposed to the material, welfare of the poor, it can easily be
over-valued. Extreme thrift, like extreme cleanliness, has often a
singularly dehumanising effect. It hardens the nature of its votaries,
just as gaining what they have not earned most frequently makes men
flabby. Thrift, as highly recommended, leads the poor man into the
spiritual squalor of the lower middle-class. It is all right as a means
of living, but lamentable as an end of life. If a penny saved is a
penny earned, then a penny earned by work is worth twopence.
The Courage to Live is the blossom of the Will to Live
a flower far less readily grown than withered. It might be argued that
since apprehensiveness implies foresight, the poor man's Courage to
Live is simply his lack of forethought. In part, no doubt, it is
that. But he does think, slowly and tenaciously, as a cuttlefish grips.
He foresees pretty plainly the workhouse; and he has the courage to
face its probability, and to go ahead nevertheless. His reading of life
is in some ways very broad, his foothold very firm; for it is founded
closely on actual experience of the primary realities. He looks
backwards as well as forwards; his fondness and memory for anecdote is
evidence of how he dwells on the past; instead of comparing an
occurrence with something in a book, he recalls a similar thing that
happened to So-and-so, so many years ago, you mind.... He knows vaguely
(and it is our vaguer knowledge which shapes our lives) that only by a
succession of miracles a long series of hair's-breadth escapes and
lucky chances, does he stand at any moment where he is; and he doesn't
see why miracles should suddenly come to an end. Hence his active
fatalism, as opposed to the passive Eastern variety. In Tony's opinion,
'Tis better to be lucky than rich. I have never heard him say that
fortune favours the brave. He assumes it.
[Sidenote: INTELLECTUAL TYRANNIES]
As one grows more democratic in feeling, as one's faith in the
people receives shock after shock, yet on the whole brightensso does
one's mistrust of the so-called democratic programmes increase. One
becomes at once more dissatisfied and less, more reckless and much more
cautious. One sees so plainly that the three or four political parties
by no means exhaust the political possibilities. The poor, though
indeed they have the franchise, remain little more than pawns in the
political game. They have to vote for somebody, and nobody is prepared
to allow them much without a full return in money or domination. They
pay in practice for what theoretically is only their due. Justice for
them is mainly bills of costs. The political fight lies still between
their masters and would-be masters; not so much now, perhaps, between
different factions of property-owners as between the property-owners
and the intellectuals. Out of the frying-pan into the fire seems the
likely course; for the intellectuals, if they have the chance, enslave
the whole man; they are logical and ruthless. The worst tyrannies have
been priestly tyrannies, whether of Christians, Brahmins or negro
witch-doctors; and those priests were the intellectuals of their time.
I wonder when we shall have a party of intellectuals content to find
out the people's ideals and to serve them faithfully, instead of trying
to foist their own ideals upon the people.
Law-makers, however, will probably continue to work for the supposed
benefit of the people rather than on the people's behalf; and equally,
the supposed welfare of the people will continue to be the handiest
political weapon; for the property-owning, articulate classes are
better able to prevent themselves being played with. To those two facts
one's political principles must be adjusted. The articulate classes,
moreover, are actually so little acquainted with the inner life of the
poor that there is no groundwork of general knowledge upon which to
base conclusions, and it is impossible to do more than speak from one's
own personal experience. I don't mind confessing that, though I should
prefer justice all round, yet, if injustice is to be doneas done it
must be no doubtI had rather the poor were not the sufferers. There
is no reason to believe that present conditions cannot be betteredto
believe, with Dr Pangloss, que tout est au mieux dans ce meilleur
des mondes possibles. I have found that to grow acquainted with the
class that is the chief object of social legislation is to see more
plainly the room for improvement, and also to see how much better, how
much sounder, that class is than it appeared to be from the outside:
how much might be gained, of material advantage especially, and at the
same time how much there is to be lost of those qualities of character
which have been acquired through long training and by infinite
sacrifice. To learn to care for the poor, for their own sake, is to
fear for them nothing so much as slap-dash, short-sighted social
[Sidenote: THE WILL TO LIVE]
The man matters more than his circumstances. The poor man's
Courage to Live is his most valuable distinctive quality. Most of
his finest virtues spring therefrom. Any material progress which tends
to diminish his Courage to Live, or to reduce it to mere Will
to Live, must prove in the long run to his and to the nation's
disadvantage. And the Courage to Live, like other virtues,
diminishes with lack of exercise. Therefore every material advance
should provide for the continued, for an even greater, exercise and
need of the Courage to Live. If not, then the material advance
is best done without.
That is the main constructive conclusion to be drawn. Somewhat akin
to it is another conclusion of a more critical nature.
In Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil there is an apophthegm to
the effect that, Insanity in individuals is something rarebut in
groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule. And whilst, on
the one hand mental specialists have been extending the boundaries of
insanity to the point of justifying the popular adage that everyone is
a bit mad, they have, on the other hand, tended to narrow down the
difference between sanity and its reverse until it has become almost
entirely a question of mental inhibition, or self-control.
The highest aim of Mental Hygiene should be to increase the
of mental inhibition amongst all men and women. Control is the
basis of all law and the cement of every social system among
and women, without which it would go to pieces....
power of self-control should be the essence and test of
 The Hygiene of Mind, by T. S. Clouston, M.D.,
F.R.S.E., (London, 1906). Without an extension which Dr
Clouston provides, though not in so many words, the
definition I have italicized is psychologically a little
superficial. Mental inhibition, generally, needs dividing
into self-control and, say, auto-control. Where one man
self-control himself by an effort of will, another
in the same predicament, might auto-control
instinctively, without a conscious effort of will. Which
the saner, and likelier to remain so, under ordinary
circumstances and under extraordinary circumstances,
most difficult to determine. Many people are only sane in
action because they know that they are insane in impulse,
take measures accordingly. They keep a sane front to the
world by legislating pretty sternly for themselves.
[Sidenote: SOCIAL HYGIENE]
It is too gratuitously assumed by law-makers (i.e. agitators
for legislation as well as legislators) that the poor man is woefully
deficient in inhibition and must be legislated for at every turn.
Because, for instance, he furnishes the police courts with the majority
of 'drunks and disorderlies,' he is treated as a born drunkard, to be
sedulously protected against himself, regardless of such facts as (1)
there is more of him to get drunk, (2) he prefers 'going on the bust'
to the more insidious dram-drinking and drugging, (3) he has more cause
to get drunk, (4) he gets drunk publicly, (5) tied-house beer and cheap
liquors stimulate to disorderliness more than good liquor. The truth is
that the poor have a great deal of self-restraint, quite as much
probably as their law-makers; but it is exercised in different
directions and, possibly, is somewhat frittered away in small
occasions. The poor man has so much more bark than bite. He fails to
restrain his cuss-words for examplebut then cuss-words were invented
to impress fools. There is much in his life that would madden his
law-makers, and vice versa. If control is the cement of every
social system and if it is the highest aim of mental hygiene, it
follows that control should be the highest aim of legislation and
custom, which together make up social hygiene. Andalways remembering
that control is of all virtues the one which strengthens with use and
withers with disuseevery piece of new legislation should be most
carefully examined as to its probable effect on the self-control of the
people. Control, in short should be the paramount criterion of new
legislation. A proximate advantage, unless it be a matter of life and
death, is too dearly purchased by an ultimate diminution of
Since the Industrial Revolution and rise of the press, the
middle-class has become more and more the real law-maker. The poor have
voted legislators into power; the upper class in the main has formally
made the laws; but the engineering of legislation has been, and is, the
work of the middle class. And the amusing and pathetic thing is that
the middle class has used its power to try to make other classes like
itself. That it has succeeded so badly is largely due to the fact that
the poor man is not simply an undeveloped middle-class man. The
children at Seacombe showed true childish penetration in treating a
gentry-boy as an animal of another species: the poor and the middle
class are different in kind as well as in degree. (More different
perhaps than the poor and the aristocrat). Their civilizations are not
two stages of the same civilization, but two civilizations, two
traditions, which have grown up concurrently, though not of course
without considerable intermingling. To turn a typical poor man into a
typical middle-class man is not only to develop him in some respects,
and do the opposite in others; it is radically to alter him. The
civilization of the poor may be more backward materially, but it
contains the nucleus of a finer civilization than that of the middle
[Sidenote: TWO CIVILIZATIONS]
The two classes possess widely dissimilar outlooks. Their morale is
different. Their ethics are different. Middle class people
frequently make a huge unnecessary outcry, and demand instant
unnecessary legislation because they find among the poor conditions
which would be intolerable to themselves but are by no means so to the
poor. And again, the benevolent frequently accuse the poor of great
ingratitude because, at some expense probably, they have pressed upon
the poor what they themselves would like, but what the poor neither
want nor are thankful for. The educated can sometimes enter fully, and
even reasonably, into the sorrows of the uneducated, but it is seldom
indeed that they can enter into their joys and consolations.
 The more one sees of the poor in their own homes, the
one becomes convinced that their ethical views, taken as a
can be more justly described as different from those of the
classes than as better or worse. (The Next Street but One.
M. Loane. London, 1907.)
Broadly speaking, the middle-class is distinguished by the
utilitarian virtues; the virtues, that is, which are means to an end;
the profitable, discreet, expedient virtues: whereas the poor prefer
what Maeterlinck calls 'the great useless virtues'useless because
they bring no apparent immediate profit, and great because by faith or
deeply-rooted instinct we still believe them of more account than all
the utilitarian virtues put together.
 When one begins to know the poor intimately, visiting
same houses time after time, and throughout periods of as
eight or ten years, one becomes gradually convinced that in
real essentials of morality, they are, as a whole, far more
advanced than is generally believed, but they range the list
virtues in a different order from that commonly adopted by
more educated classes. Generosity ranks far before justice,
sympathy before truth, love before chastity, a pliant and
obliging disposition before a rigidly honest one. In brief,
less admixture of intellect required for the practice of any
virtue, the higher it stands in popular estimation. (From
Point of View. By M. Loane. London, 1908.)
It is difficult to see on what grounds Miss Loane impliesif
does mean to implythat the poor would do well to exchange
own order of the virtues for the other order. Christianity
certainly affords no such grounds, nor does any other
or religion, except utilitarianism perhaps.
The poor, one comes to believe firmly, if not interfered with by
those who happen to be in power, are quite capable of fighting out
their own salvation. A clear ring is what they wantthe opportunity
for their 'something in them tending to good' to develop on its own
lines. (When I say 'a clear ring' I do not mean that one side should
have seconds and towels provided and that the other side should be left
with neither.) That their culture, so developed, will be different from
our present middle-class culture, is certain; that it will be superior
is probable. The middle class is in decay, for its reproductive
instincts are losing their effective intensity, and it is afraid of
having children; its culture, that it grafted on the old aristocratic
stem, must decay with it. When the culture derived from the lower
classes is ready to be grafted in its turn upon the old stem it is
possible that mankind's progress will go backwards a little to find its
footing, and will then take one of its great jumps forward.
[Sidenote: THE SOCIO-POLITICAL PROBLEM]
The socio-political problem turns out, on ultimate analysis, to be a
wide restatement of the old theological Problem of Pain. Suffering does
not necessarily make a fine character, but the characters that we
recognise as fine could not, apparently, have been so without
suffering. It is possible to say, I have suffered, and though I am
scarred and seared, yet I know that on the whole I am the better for
that suffering. I do not now wish that I had not had that suffering. I
even desire that those I love shall suffer so much as they can bear,
that their conquest may be the greater, their joys the fuller, and
their life the more intense. Nevertheless, the very next moment, the
same man will try by every means possible to avoid suffering for
himself and for those he loves. That is the dualism which dogs humanity
in the mass no less than in the individual. That lies at the core of
domestic politics. But it may be that the part of our nature which
finds reason to be grateful for past suffering is higher than that part
which seeks to avoid it in the future.
Waste of the benefits of suffering is waste indeed.
We hired a droskyone of the little light landaus that they use
with a single horse in this hilly districtand 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, laughinga 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 faceand
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.
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, naïveté was repressed; and I am
the more grateful to these children for taking me in handfor being
able to do so.
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 surpriseOh, 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 manand 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 himat
once! Mrs Stidson has a number of young children.
[Sidenote: 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
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.
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 excitementthe excitement of men who earn their livelihood by
gambling with the sea. The drifters have fitted out. Most of the boats
are up overlying on the sea wallbut 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.
[Sidenote: 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 stillso 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.
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
[Sidenote: 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
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 wastwenty-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, singinga boat-full of life swinging gently to the nets in
an immense dark silence, an immense sea-whisper.
[Sidenote: 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
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
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 mespeak 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.
[Sidenote: 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 netfathoms of it for scarcely a fish.
Have 'ee got anything to eat? asked Tony.
Have yu got ort to drink? asked John.
Got a cigarette? I asked.
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?
[Sidenote: 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 boatfor three hundred
herringsand 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.
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 boxabout
seven feet high and four by fourthat 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
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
[Sidenote: 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
Iss, yu 'ave, said Tommy.
No, not a rag.
I haven't. I've none at all. You've never seen them.
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.
[Sidenote: 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 boata 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?
What do 'ee 'spect to catch? Eh?
No answer again. The Little Russian was hauling a couple of nets
Who be going with 'ee?
Ol' 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
He was very busy.
[Sidenote: 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
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
[Sidenote: 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
talla 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
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
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.
[Sidenote: 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.
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 timetu 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 wellkeep up to the wind? Eh?
Us rowed. 'Tis blowin' a gale out there.
What yu done to your nets?
On to the bottom?
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 Starto 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
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
But if we only could have looked into the Shooting Star at
sea. The Shooting Star of Seacombe!
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.
[Sidenote: PAYING CALLS AT SEA]
An hour before sunset on Saturday afternoon we were shoved off the
beachTony, 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
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 netsseven forty-fathom nets we had aboardbetween 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 WidgerHave '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....
[Sidenote: 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 watchfullyfor 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-fireit was too coldbut 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!
Shut up, yu fule!We'm not done yet.Thee doesn't want to pay for
[Sidenote: 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 sevenththe 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
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 roundnorth-easterlydead 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
We cut the net.
Hurry up! Hoist sail and get in out o'it 'fore the wind rises. Come
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.
[Sidenote: 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 herringssquashed, dirty and
bloodstainedwere 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
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
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....
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....
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 odourthey were being
stewed in vinegarstole 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
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 dayone 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
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....
[Sidenote: 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 bestthe desperation that the treacherous sea itself
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 struckting-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 boatsfor 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.
I am often asked why I have forsaken the society of educated people,
and have made my home among 'rough uneducated' people, in a poor man's
house. The briefest answer is, that it is good to live among those who,
on the whole, are one's superiors.
It is pointed out with considerable care what ill effects such a
life has, or is likely to have, upon a man. It is looked upon as a kind
of relapse. But to settle down in a poor man's house is by no means to
adopt a way of life that is less trouble. On the contrary, it is more
It is true that most of what schoolmasters call one's
accomplishments have to be dropped. One cannot keep up everything
It is true that one goes to the theatre less and reads less. Life,
lived with a will, is play enough, and closer acquaintance with life's
sterner realities renders one singularly impatient with the literature
of life's frillings. I do not notice, however, that it makes one less
susceptible to the really fine and strong things of literature and art.
It is true that one drops into dialect when excited; that one's
manners suffer in conventional correctness. I suppose I know how to
behave fairly correctly; I was well taught at all events; but my
manners never have been and never will be so good, so considerate as
Tony's. 'Tisn't in me.
It is true that one becomes much coarser. One acquires a habit of
talking with scandalous freedom about vital matters which among the
unscientific educated are kept hid in the darkand go fusty there. But
I do not think there is much vulgarity to be infected with here.
Coarseness and vulgarity are incompatibles. It was well said in a book
written not long ago, that Coarseness reveals but vulgarity hides.
Vulgarity is chiefly characteristic of the non-courageous who are
everlastingly bent on climbing up the social stairs. Poor people are
hardly ever vulgar, until they begin to 'rise' into the middle class.
It is true that, so far as knowledge goes, one is bound to be cock
o' the walk among uneducated peoplewhich, alone, is bad for a man.
But knowledge is not everything, nor even the main thing. Wisdom is
more than knowledge: it is Knowledge applied to life, the ability to
make use of the knowledge well. In that respect I often have here
to eat a slice of humble-pie. For all my elaborate education and
painfully gained stock of knowledge, I find myself silenced time after
time by the direct wisdom of these so-called ignorant people. They have
preserved better, between knowledge and experience, that balance which
makes for wisdom. They have less knowledge (less mental dyspepsy too)
and use it to better purpose. It occurs to one finally that, according
to our current standards, the great wise men whom we honourChrist,
Plato, Shakespeare, to name no morewere very ignorant fellows.
Possibly the standards are wrong.
[Sidenote: DIFFERENTIAL EVOLUTION]
To live with the poor is to feel oneself in contact with a greater
continuity of tradition and to share in a greater stability of life.
The nerves are more annoyed, the thinking self less. Perhaps the
difference between the two kinds of life may be tentatively
expressednot necessarily accounted forin terms of Differential
Evolution, somewhat thus:
(1) The first, the least speculative, evolutionary criterion of
animal is its degree of adaptation to its environment.
(2) Man exhibits a less degree of adaptation to environment than
any other animal; principally because (a) he consists,
speaking, incomparably more than any other animal, of three
interdependent partsbody, thinking brain, and that higher
function that we call spiritthe development of any one of
beyond a certain stage, is found to be detrimental to the other
two; and because (b) he is able possibly to control
own evolution, and certainly to modify it indirectly by
the environment in which he evolves. He is able to make
his own evolution.
(3) The typical poor man is better adapted to his environment,
as it is, than the typical man of any other class; for he has
kept in closer contact with the primary realitiesbirth,
risk, starvation;in closer contact, that is to say, with
sections of human environment which are not of human making and
which are common to all classes. He has fewer mistakes to go
 Evolution is at present the last refuge of
minds which think they have explained a process when they
have given it a new name, just as chemists used to call
obscure chemical action catalytic and then assume
nature was plain. Evolution means an unfolding. In that
sense it is an observed fact, though exactly how the
unfolding is brought about is still conjectural. But it
not matter for the purposes of my argument whether human
beings evolve by the transmission to offspring of
characteristics, or by bequeathing to them as birthright
environment that their fathers had to make. The material
constructing any theory of mental, or joint mental and
physical evolution, is so hazy that one cannot do more
speculate. It may be noted, however, that acquired mental
characteristics appear to be more transmissible, and less
stable, than acquired physical characteristics; and that
mental evolution (in the broad sense again) proceeds
and collapses more readily than physical evolution.
It might be said, of course, that mal-adaptation at any given
moment is more than counterbalanced by greater evolutional
potentialities, or by greater inducement to evolve; and that
above chain of reasoning simply goes to prove that the poor man
more of an animalless evolved. On the other hand, from an
evolutionary standpoint, the animal faculties are the most
all. A sound stomach is more necessary than a highly developed
brain, and good reproductive faculties are essential; because
first demand of evolution is plenty of material. It does not
that our typical poor man is more of an animal, is less
has a smaller potentiality to evolve, because he has preserved
better the animal faculties which lie at the basis of
(4) There is a reasonable probability that an interior balance,
between body, brain, and spirit, is more needful for realising
potentialities of evolution than rapidity of development in any
single respect. Mens sana in corpore sanoanimaque integra
is an ideal as sound as it is unachieved. More haste less
probably true of human evolution. A healthy baby is more
than a mad adult.
(5) The typical poor man does, now, exhibit a better balance
between these three components of him. Less evolved in some
he is on the whole, and for that reason, more forward. His
evolution is proceeding with greater solidity. It is more
and more likely to realise its potentialities.
* * * * *
That is a speculation among probabilities and possibilities; an
attempt to go in a bee-line across fields that are mainly hidden
ditches; a first spying out of a country that wants mapping; a course
over a sea that can never perhaps be buoyed, where bearings must be
taken afresh from the sun for each voyage that is made. In any case, my
belief grows stronger that the poor have kept essentially what a
schoolboy calls the better end of the stick; not because their
circumstances are bettermaterially their lives are often terrible
enoughbut because they know better how to make the most of what
material circumstances they have. If they could improve their material
circumstances and continue making the most of them.... That is the
Good Luck to us all!