Short Story Saturday: The Fairway


by Oliver Onions


EXCEPT that he called the gipsies the “Johnnie Faws,” there was little of the rustic in his speech; and as he told the tale we seemed to see them, these Johnnie Faws, coming down the hill on that wild January forenoon. They did not come by the Portsannet road—it would have passed mortal eyes to find a road in the whirl and scurry and drift of white he described—but spread out like pheasant-beaters, crying one to another in the Romany, sometimes flung forward by the tempest, sometimes huddled down and covered over almost entirely by the snow. Perhaps the fact that he had been a schoolmaster accounted for an occasional positiveness in his manner,—it seems to remain with schoolmasters to the end of their days,—and he was an old man, who must be let talk after his own fashion. He told us how the wind swept out the tracks of the Johnny Faws behind them, and how the South Ness women looked compassionately on their wilder sisters, who did not cover their breasts once in ten years, but who had sought refuge from the storm, as the hares and foxes had done before them; and then he wandered off again, schoolmaster-wise, to tell us how the footprints of a fox over the snow made but a single line, and how a hare would lie at form, and what sort of tracks a robin made…. By and by he took up his tale again.

“——So we knew it was bad when the Johnnie Faws came down. Queer people—dark, whipcord-looking fellows, and one singularly handsome woman, very swarthy and black-eyed. I remember our women looked at her as if—as if—but our women lived in houses, you see…. Well, first of all we asked them about the Lizzie Martin; but they’d never heard of her. Was she a South Ness boat? they asked. Next we asked them if there was much snow on the Heights; and they answered, No; the Heights were swept clean, but a man could not stand upright there for the wind. No snow was falling, they told us; all was being whirled up from the ground again, dry and powdery. There was one fellow they called Nunan. He carried a knife and wore gold earrings and talked in a shrill, eager voice; and he told us how up there the white world and the pale apple-green sky was one brilliant intermingling that spun and sparkled in the cold sunlight and smoked…. We asked them where they had left their horses. It seemed they’d dug a way for them under what looked like the lee of an old quarry, in an immense drift: they would weather it as best they could, as sheep do.

“The Johnnie Faws moved restlessly up and down the village; but most of them gathered at the ‘Dotterel,’ though they drank nothing. The greater part of the time they were silent, but occasionally they all talked at once in their own tongue; and I dare say we shouldn’t have had any tidings of Portsannet at all if the group about the door of the ‘Dotterel’ hadn’t quarrelled, or seemed to. It was something about a slipper-brake. It appeared that one of their men, Osa Couper, had turned down into Portsannet earlier in the day, before the storm had got quite so bad, to get a new hook or rivet for this brake. He had promised to overtake them; but (they said) somewhere over yonder—over the Heights—a man with a pair of long wooden runners on his feet (it was Andrews, we learned afterwards, mate of an old Norwegian timber-barque, turned farmer)—Andrews—had suddenly appeared among them from nowhere in particular,—just dropped in on them from out of the smothering white, and had advised them to avoid the shelter of the hollows: the hollows, you see, were drifted, but the short brown grass showed on the tops. Then Andrews had reported that a tall, Egyptian-looking fellow had flung himself into the Portsannet boat as she had put forth for the second time that morning; and then all at once the Johnnie Faws had missed him. He had seemed to vanish while they had all thought he was talking to Osa Couper’s woman yonder…. Of course we asked again if it was the Lizzie Martin they had put out for; but they didn’t know.

“You know what South Ness is like,—houses at all levels, and how you can step from the door of Broadwood’s house yonder almost on to the ‘Dotterel’ chimneys. Well, if the Heights were swept, we had the sweepings. We were blocked with snow up to the chamber windows,—the bedroom windows,—and there was right of way through anybody’s yard or passage or kitchen that was convenient. I remember it interested me (perhaps it won’t interest you) the way the wind seemed to have been deflected from the houses in a sort of backwash. It had made great scoops and trenches, ten foot high and clean-cut at the edges, as if shaped in marble; and men and women passed up and down these trenches. These cliffs, as you might call them, darkened the interiors of the cottages; and the wind hooted in the chimneys just as lads blow across the barrel of a key. Farmers with shovels, frozen over white as snow men, returned from digging out their cattle, but the fishermen idled moodily. The cobles and smacks tossed down in the harbour; but the wind drowned most noises except that of the surf away out on the Spit, and that was like continuous explosions. This was only midday, you know, but you could see nothing but white—white; bits of ice like diamonds on your lashes; and here and there a bit of blue or apple-green sky, all tossed together. I thought I had never seen anything so wild and beautiful; but then, I hadn’t a Lizzie Martin out….”

“Lizzie Martin—the woman, not the boat—kept the ‘Dotterel.’ She was a pleasant body, plump (when she was twelve or thirteen she had one of these creases round her neck that means a double chin later on), and she was very honest and comfortable and motherly, though she hadn’t a child—just then. About two o’clock three of the gipsies had come into the ‘Dotterel,’—four, if you reckon the babe at the handsome woman’s breast,—and they sat over by the snowed-up window. There would be a dozen or so men round the hearth; but nobody was drinking, and nobody said anything in Lizzie’s presence about what we’d heard of this Osa Couper and the Portsannet boat, you understand. Now and then the child gave a little throaty cry, and once or twice Willie Harverson—he was a young giant, and his curly head always looked too little for his shoulders when he’d got his two or three winter ganseys on,—Willie had told her to bring the child nearer the fire. But she had only shaken her head and pointed behind her at the window. The panes had warmed a little, and the snow had peeled a couple of inches from them and then frozen again. Except for that narrow gleam of cold light, you’d have thought it was evening, for the candles were lighted, and they swealed and guttered every time the door opened. The gipsy woman had opened her breast again,—a sort of sling to carry the babe passed across it,—and she looked straight before her, like a handsome statue, a beautiful animal—like everything, else in nature except this self-conscious creature man…. I can’t tell you; never mind….

“Willie told her again to come near the fire, and then up piped Nunan in his high, eager voice. She’d do there till her man came back from Portsannet, he said (they didn’t seem to doubt that he’d gone out with the boat). I remember Willie muttered, ‘Christ rest his soul for a brave man if …’ You see, the Portsannet boat was an old Greathead boat, nearly as old as the century, fit for chopping up for kindling any time this five-and-twenty years; but ours at South Ness was a new, thirty-three-foot boat, mahogany, double-banked, self-emptying, self-righting, nearly seven hundred pounds with belts and tackle and carriage. She’d only been out twice, and there wasn’t a scratch on her blue and white. John Broadwood was cox. I knew what John thought of their chances of getting round the Spit if they were to put out; but they were so proud of the new boat that they were eager as lads to try it. Men were watch and watch about down at the boathouse, where they could see if Reuben Ward signalled from the station on the hill; but it wasn’t our day. With the wind due north, if a boat cleared Portsannet Head she cleared the Spit too. It was Portsannet’s turn, and the old boat’s….

“The men in the ‘Dotterel’ then were talking about the boat, when suddenly I heard John Broadwood say ‘Whisht!’ Lizzie stood there in the doorway, under a model of a brig in a glass case there used to be. ‘Did some of ye call?’ she said; and the men shuffled their feet and shifted about on stools and benches.—‘We told ye not to bother, Lizzie,’ Broadwood says; ‘we’ll wait on we’rsels.’—‘It must ha’ been the babe I heard,’ says Lizzie; ‘let her bring it near th’ fire, Willie.’ But the woman said again that she’d do till Osa Couper came; and Lizzie asked Nunan if he wasn’t her husband.”

*    *    *    *    *

He paused; and when in a minute he resumed again, there was the same magisterial, slightly querulous note in his voice that we had heard before—the schoolmaster’s note.

*    *    *    *    *

“Before we go further, let’s understand one another,” he said. “When I said that Nunan had a knife, I saw some of you anticipating—making ready—saying to yourselves, Ah! knives mean stabbing; never mind your comments; come to the tale and the knife!—Well, you’re wise in your day and generation, but for all that I think you’re a little wrong too. The tale’s a good deal, but the man who tells it is also something. I could show you Willie Harverson’s house, and you’d gape round for five minutes with your caps in your hands, thinking—well, goodness knows what you’d be thinking! You’ve seen ’em, perhaps, tourists, open-mouthed, in the room where somebody was born or died. To me it would always seem stupid if it weren’t so comical. Facts are neither the most interesting nor the most important things in the world—not that sort of fact. The knife was a fact, and we’re coming to the knife; but it’s a good deal like other things in life you look forward to—nothing when you get it. One of these new writers I don’t pretend to understand says there are two tragedies in life—not getting what you want, and getting it. I know I used to think that if ever I became head of a decent grammar-school … well, I’ve been head of a grammar-school. When I’d got that I wanted something else; and so on. And here I am, back again where I was born, with grammar-schools and suchlike all behind me. Garrulous too…. But tragedy or not, there’s little satisfaction in getting things. You see, you don’t drop dead in the perfect, glorious, fit moment when you attain ’em. Life goes on, a dull, stretched-out anti-climax; and there seems to be only one finish to it all. I’m an old man, and probably nearer it than you….

“So when Lizzie asked Nunan if he wasn’t the handsome gipsy’s husband, there was John Broadwood shaking a great fist with a blue anchor on it over Lizzie’s shoulder, and Willie making foolish shapes with his mouth without a sound, and Jemmy Wild hawking in his throat and knocking his pipe out noisily; … but Nunan popped out with it—about Osa and the guns at Portsannet, and so on—and then he spluttered out a ‘Hey! Would ye do that, man?’ You see, Willie had clapped his hand over his mouth, and there was a wicked gleam in Nunan’s eyes, and his hand went to the small of his back where the knife was; and that’s all about the knife, except that the woman told Nunan to sit still.

“But Lizzie was trembling pitifully; and when I saw her eyes go round the men I backed away behind the settle, so that somebody else might tell her. Then her head came down on her arms and thumped on the table, while Nunan sulked. We watched her broad back heaving; and then all at once she threw up her head. ‘Oh, hear it goyling down th’ chimley!’ she cried; and I saw John Broadwood biting his pipe hard; ‘Frank—Frank o’ th’ Lizzie Martin—ye were his mates, and here ye sit—he called her after me—she were Lizzie Martin afore I were—I were Lizzie Collison o’ th’ Heights——’ …Broadwood bade her Whisht! whisht! but she went on. ‘It were a Valentine’s day, a Thursday, and he came into th’ kitchen that morning—Jess never barked when he came courting, but she’d never let him go without I took him to th’ gate——’ …And so on, young gentlemen. Lizzie and Frank had seen the valentine from the top of the hill, on the sea below, as if on a sheet of glass. ‘Don’t, Lizzie!’ says Broadwood, choking; ‘we can’t bide to hear ye!’…

“John Broadwood was a fine, independent, self-sufficient sort of fellow, with a good deal of John Broadwood about him altogether, but he broke down. Lizzie’s eyes, wandering wildly, fell on the gipsy woman and the babe. The gipsy’s husband, for anything we knew, was in peril too; but I think it was something else that came over Lizzie—the sight of the child: I see you understand. She sobbed something;—I didn’t hear what—and the gipsy woman turned, quite unmoved, and looked at Lizzie from head to heel. ‘I see your time’s coming,’ she said, ‘and them that lives in chambers of stone need comfort; come then.’ And with that she moved the babe in the sling, and produced an old pack of cards. Strange folk….

“They say symbols are what you take them for, or else a cross might just as well be a gallows, but those cards looked very secular to me. It was a grim, cheerless power that those were a symbol of. I think Lizzie thought so too, for the sight of them seemed to bring her round a little. She knitted her fat fingers together on the gipsy’s knee and sank to the floor. ‘Nay, woman,’ she said, ‘we’ll have a surer comfort than that, you and I;’ and the woman glanced from the cards, as she cut and cut them, to Lizzie’s head on her knee, incuriously…. I went out. I’d seen one or two of the men glancing at the door, as if they’d have liked to be on the other side of it; but I just walked out. I thought I’d take a walk—to see Reuben Ward at the station.

“Coming out of the candle-light, I blinked like a flittermouse. The sky was still a keen blue, with the snow whirling and glittering and dancing; but the light was dying, and I guessed it would be about half-past four—the hands of the school-house clock were fast frozen to its face. I turned up the blacksmith’s alley to get a shovel: it was smooth to the eaves with snow, and little wisps and curls played on the surface like smoke. The wind was blowing big guns intermittently, and in the intervals I could hear the thunder of the Spit. I set out for the station, and in a dozen yards was up to my waist in a river of snow.

“There was a windmill before you came to the station. There’s one yet, but it’s a dummy—a sailing-mark for ships, and the Board of Trade looks after it. It worked in those days, and belonged to a fellow called Rhodes. I was a strongish chap, you must know, not so tall as Willie Harverson, but as broad, or thereabouts; but by the time I reached the mill I was glad enough of its shelter. And then I looked up, and backed away again. The sail-shutters were open, and the wind screamed through them; but the gearing—all those cranks and elbows about the pin—that had gone; and two or three blades of the steering-fan hummed like bits of ribbon in the wind. The whole thing had swung round like a weathercock, and the heavy top storey rocked and lifted, like a mouth opening and shutting. Underneath it a man was lying on his back in the snow, watching it as if it were a plaything.

“I shook him and bawled in his ear. He didn’t speak. His face glittered all over with ice particles, and I knew who he would be by his hair and eyes. I dragged him out from under the toppling mill; by his mouth I could make out that he was saying something about ‘my people,’ and I nodded, and shouted, ‘What about Portsannet?’

“I made out a few words: ‘Twice—oars broke—old boat—help.’ And then I asked, ‘What about the station?’ It seemed Reuben was helpless. The mast and cones and drums had gone; he’d been firing, but we hadn’t heard, and he was waiting for dark to signal with the rockets. ‘D’ye know what boat?’ I shouted, putting my arm round his neck and my mouth at his ear; and he tried two or three times to tell me, but had lost his voice. He stooped down and wrote in the snow with his finger, ‘SN, 102.’ Seeing that that was the Lizzie’s number, I didn’t bother about Reuben and the station. I collared him, and off we blundered into the drifts between Rhodes’s mill and South Ness.

“They were much as I’d left them when Osa and I got to the ‘Dotterel.’ The tall Johnnie Faw wouldn’t touch brandy, I remember. The two women were not to be seen. I told them to stir themselves, and they were on their feet in an instant. John Broadwood, who had said she could never live round the Spit, was first at the door. ‘Out o’ the road, ye farmers!’ he grunted; and I was for telling Osa to go into the kitchen to his wife, when all at once I saw Lizzie in the doorway. ‘Reuben’s signalled, then?’ she said; and somebody said ‘Ay.’ The gipsy woman didn’t take her eyes off Osa, who was talking to Nunan in the Romany; but she didn’t speak.”

*    *    *    *    *

He stopped for so long that we thought he wasn’t going on again. It was minutes before he resumed; but evidently he had got his digression over within himself, for he went straight on.

*    *    *    *    *

“There were lights and moving figures down by the boat-house, but they were blotted out from time to time: the night had fallen. The cobles and craft were huddled close in, and they were tossing and hissing and groaning—fenders grunting and rubbing on wood, blocks banging, tackle shrieking, parted ropes cracking like whips…. The little jetty seemed to run out a yard or two into the night. The surf thundered out on the Spit, a deep solemn sound. A fellow was bawling through a trumpet: his voice sounded throttled, something like a bassoon. The moon wasn’t due up for a couple of hours yet.

“We ran her down on the carriage,—men at the wheels and life-lines and at the horse’s heads,—and then we stood in the knee-deep water to see her lift. She lifted, and every man flung himself headlong out of the way. She came up from the carriage in a monstrous cant, and then she came down broadside in the broken, boiling wave. I heard the snapping of the port oars,—it was a short crackle in the tempest,—and then I was thirty yards away, scrambling among the carriage and horses and men. A broken shaft danced up and down in the white backwash.

“We beached her by hand, and already the wheelwright had a wrench and was unscrewing the nuts of the broken shaft. We carried four men to the boathouse, two of them with their hands on their chests where the broken oars had caught them. Eh? Oh yes, they’d jackets on…. We tried again, waiting till the breaker had spread away roaring in the darkness, and she rose again. She seemed to hang for a dreadful long time between the two crests of curling white that rushed together to meet her,—the wave was a slanting wall all laced over with a pattern of grey foam,—and then she disappeared. But she was on the wrong side still, and her rudder was smashed. A man struck at me as I dragged him out of the water: it was John Broadwood. I’d got hold of his right wrist, and it dangled when I let it go; so I took him by the other arm. We headed the horses round to try again, edging close under the shelter of the jetty and the plunging cobles; and that time I turned my face away as she lifted—she was so frightfully near the jetty. But when I looked again, there she was. She’d neither ridden it nor got through it; and the Spit, booming a mile away, seemed to mock us that we couldn’t get through the breakers.

“We all gathered in the boathouse again—farmers, fishermen, injured men, gipsies. Osa Couper was talking to old Joe Barker, and a fellow who was listening turned suddenly away and pulled out his pipe. That cut us—cut those who saw him: it seemed all there was to do—to light your pipe. And then we heard women’s voices again: Lizzie and the gipsy woman were among us. What were we waiting for? they asked; and the man who was lighting his pipe nodded at the injured men. Lizzie’s bosom lifted, and she began to talk again. She talked as she had talked before in the ‘Dotterel’….

“The boat was high on the beach, and they’d taken the horses out; they put them in again and made a fourth attempt—a fifth—a sixth. After the sixth we went back to the boathouse; another man had given it up now, and had taken up an old lobster-pot and was setting the broken ends straight. Useful occupation….

“I told you—did I tell you?—about old Joe Barker. He had turned sixty then. He’d a wrinkled, nut-cracker face, and his mouth and chin chopped up and down together when he spoke, like one of these talking dolls; he’d deep furrows from the corners of his mouth, just like one of these ventriloquist’s dolls. He was chopping and chewing now to Osa Couper; and all at once he cried out, ‘Have ye done all ye can, ye fishermen?’ They scowled at him.

“‘Then let th’ farmers have a try; Jerry—Tom—Matthy Dodd——’ He jumped about here and there, singling out men and giving orders, all about horses. Broadwood sprawled on a locker, and he raised himself on his sound arm. ‘Yours is no good if ours won’t face it,’ he cried; but Joe took no notice. He and Dodd began to fetch out sweeps and spars and ropes and tackle, and the men outside pitched them into the boat. ‘Up!’ he cried to Broadwood; and John slid down while he got a stone jar of brandy and a couple of pannikins out of the locker. Some walked slowly out and up the beach, looking back over their shoulders, and then all at once a man broke into a quick trot. A dozen hangers-about followed, questioning as they ran. In ten minutes the clattering of horses was heard on the beach; and a man, coming in for more ropes, said that a hundred shovels were clearing the village street….

“Well, you’ve heard the tale, or you wouldn’t have come to me: you know what we did and how it ended. What more do you want? To be told what you don’t know, you’ll say. Not you. Nobody wants to be told what they don’t know. They want to be told what they do know, or think they know. Why, all the fellows we glorify are those who tell us in the main what we already know—tell us we’re nearly quite right; a bit—eh?—here, or a trifle there that our worships have overlooked in our general rightness, but wonderfully right on the whole. You’ll listen as long as I tell this tale as you already know it; then you’ll go away and say, Queer old chap; been master of a grammar-school—disappointed—disillusioned; but for all that he was one of ’em…. Well, just as you like.

“A hundred yards out of the village we turned the women back. All of a sudden Willie Harverson’s wife sprang forward and kissed him, and then the pent cheer broke out. It was as if for the first time we had all thought clearly what we had begun to do. The wind scattered it, but our hearts rose passionately. We hadn’t spoken coming up through the village; we had started beaten, or at least just to endure as much as men could endure; and now that shout made all the difference. It was arrogant, boastful, young, foolish, victorious. Heigho! You see, we forget all the shouts of the same sort that end in failure: we only remember them when they come off. The other sort are like the revolts that never succeed: they’re revolutions when they do. But then, I suppose we could never endure to remember all our pride and confidence that’s come to nothing…. So the men kissed their wives. I had nobody to kiss—I’ve never been married. I saw Reuben’s rocket rise clear above the gale, and then we started.

“We had twenty horses, and perhaps twice as many men with shovels. We’d lashed a spar to the boat-carriage, a sort of whiffle-tree, and from that to the ten pair of horses ran such a tackle of ropes and traces as you never saw—all thicknesses, plain and hawser, pieced out and joined everywhere with sailors’ knots and hitches. Willie Harverson, on the frame of the carriage, was shouting orders through the speaking-trumpet—to find the ridge past the mill, to rouse High Lee village on the way—I don’t suppose anybody heard half he said, for already the digging had begun. Old Joe Barker had donned a cork jacket for warmth, and was flat on the fore air-chamber: he was directing, and Willie, off and on the carriage continually, was his spokesman. Without a captain, you see, forty diggers are little better than a dozen. The men who weren’t digging were scouting, starting her after each halt, or standing by to see that the traces didn’t get mixed.

“I said the snow was dry: it was so dry that half of it fell from the shovels of the diggers, blown away by the wind. That meant twice as much stooping, and the men were up to their waists in it. The fellows who scouted for rising ground appeared and disappeared in the drifts, and the snow crusted on their lanterns, melting and freezing both at once. We couldn’t hear the sea now; instead there rose the shrill notes of trees and the silky soft whistle of the ice particles over the snow. We came to a quickset hedge: they dug through the drift to it, slapped the quarters of the horses with the shovels, and we came through with branches of briar and thorn caught in the trace-ropes.

“It’s seven miles to Portsannet, with High Lee village half way, and after that the Heights, seven hundred feet of them. I came on to shovel with the second shift. You can dig till you can’t straighten your back. I thought myself strong, but—well, a grammar-school was what I was really working for in those days. You may be strong, but you can’t pitch stuff behind you at three times the ordinary rate with men who are always forking hay, or hoeing turnips, or loading peats; and by the time my turn came round to dig for the second time and the third, I wasn’t the only one who was fagging. Then you can go on digging till you don’t mind so much; you’re getting stupid then—what employers of bodily labour call a ‘good man’; and I began to be a good man—except that a good man shouldn’t quarrel with his tools, and at the last change I’d got hold of a garden spade instead of a flanged shovel—a thing that carried about half a pound—and a self-emptier, like the new boat. I became so good a man that when a fellow took that spade from me I asked him what an odd hum of vibrating iron was that I’d heard for some time past; and he pointed to Rhodes’s mill not a dozen yards away. It was the pin-shaft that hummed. I can’t tell you how it had managed to stop up there while the rest of the top storey lay a heap of wreckage below; I suppose things don’t smash quite as you expect ’em to…. During my rest I’d been hanging on to one of the flapping life-lines of the boat. Another man had now got it, and I felt irritated, as if he might have found one of his own; but I clutched the next one, and by and by noticed that the moon was rising. And somewhere about that time we struck the ridge to High Lee.

“The moon showed a grotesque procession. She rose, a bloated disc of dull orange, over the steaming horses and labouring figures, over the big boat squatted among the drifted hills…. The wind wasn’t blowing quite in such gusts neither, and I remember thinking that if it would only stop for an hour the snow might pack. We had eased on the digging with the beginning of the ridge, and with the help of the men at the wheels were going at a good three miles an hour. Soon I let go my life-line: I hadn’t come as a passenger. There was digging—always more or less digging; a ridge of land isn’t the same thing as a ridge on a second-form school-map. And there were walls too, and cross-walls, and drifts at each. But it only took a minute or two to uncape and break the walls. As I say, we were going nicely; and as the moon mounted and the wind dropped more and more, we could hear the coughing of the horses and the creaking and straining of the tackle on the spar…. And now let me see; let me see….

“H’m! Never mind. It doesn’t matter so much about Nunan the gipsy; but Nunan was daft about his horses—the Johnnie Faws’ horses. He thought the quarry where they’d left them would be somewhere about there. He wanted us to stop and look for them, and climbed up into the boat to put the matter in a reasonable light to Joe. He woke Osa Couper—did I say that Osa was asleep in the boat? He was; but of course Joe wasn’t going to burrow up and down the headland for the Johnnie Faws’ horses, and Nunan became morose. By and by Joe packed him off with another fellow to rouse Hadwen—he was a farmer—and to meet us with the farm-horses at the Beck; and I began to envy Osa in the boat myself. Let me see….”

*    *    *    *    *

He tapped with his lean fingers, as if continuing to himself: it is not unlikely we missed part of the tale. He was very old; and when at last he went on again, it was with a little rousing and pulling of himself together.

*    *    *    *    *

“Well, we saw it at last, when the moon got high—what the wind had done to the snow. It was glorious, that mounting … all in a frost of brilliant stars, … and it showed us a miracle. We could see half over the Head now. Acre after acre was fluted and rippled and ravelled, all so still and quiet and spotless; … and only thin copses, a mile, two, four miles away, broke the whiteness. The wind had touched and left it in tresses and flounces; … far away it was channeled like billows, and again thick and smooth; … and trees and bushes were as if something thick and white had been poured over them, all coronets and garlands. The lanterns were murky orange spots, and every detail of the boat, the horses, the harnessing, old Joe’s artificial chin over the gunnel…. The Lizzie Martin might be driftwood by this time on the other side of the Heights. I didn’t think of the Lizzie Martin; I didn’t think of that grammar-school I was going to have one day; I only wanted to look at the snow and the serene moon…. Ah well!…

“From the top of the next rise we could see Lee Wood, black below us, and the grey Heights beyond. For the first time the grass showed in patches, and the boat rocked on the carriage, and we dragged back as we descended the slope. Then all at once Joe Barker shouted, ‘Don’t turn ’em!’

“It seemed that a cart-track ran through the wood that would save a mile and more. In the deep dip at the bottom Nunan was waiting with Hadwen’s horses; and we had taken the dip and risen again on the other side through a gap in a wall before anybody had fairly counted the risk. It was too late to turn them, or perhaps worth chancing—a thirty-foot boat, and all that tangle of cordage…. Anyway, we went on, and the wood closed in behind us.

“I think Joe saw his mistake as soon as a branch whipped his hat from his head, for he began to dance and curse. We could hear him blundering about in the boat for the one carpenter’s axe we carried. Lifeboats are specially made with a big beam, and they’ve no business in woods anyway. There was now little snow, but that only made the wood the darker.

“So, soon our spar fetched up against an elm or something, and startled a screeching white owl: we backed the horses and freed it. The shouting and smashing and ripping of branches must have been heard a mile off; and then the check came. She wedged between two ash-trees, and Joe sprang down with his axe.

“‘For God’s sake, keep them cattle to th’ track!’ he screamed, beside himself; and a young farmer snatched the axe from him and ran round to the nearest ash. The delay cost us a quarter of an hour, and then we moved forward again. We were savage now, and the farmers flogged the horses and kicked them cruelly under their bellies. The next check was a deep ravine with a beck at the bottom, and the team was in heaps, slipping, stumbling, pulling all ways at once. We lifted her over,—lifted her, with shoulders at spokes, sweeps and spars for levers, men at the ropes among the horses. Then Joe served brandy round. Nunan trotted off to warn the men of High Lee that we were coming, and to get their help. We didn’t stop. We forced back bushes with our bodies, and tore at branches, and wedged the wheels with stones while we chopped partly through trees and then fetched them down with ropes. A rage of cursing took us as we laboured, and some shook torn and bleeding fists at trees. Joe Barker gesticulated impotently, and whimpered that this was bird-nesting, nutting, black-berrying; and he danced up and down whenever a sapling gave with a loud crack, or twenty yards of clear track showed ahead.

“I don’t know how long we were in the wood,—no very great time, I suppose, as time is reckoned; and then all at once I seemed to see John Swire of High Lee among us, and Nunan again, and a dozen axes going at once. Dreaming? Oh no, I wasn’t; there really were the axes. The High Lee men had come to help us out, and their horses were waiting at the edge of the wood. We soon came through then, of course, and saw, a field’s-length away, dark shapes and lanterns in the snow.

“John Swire was right: she didn’t look much like a new boat by this time. Not that she was splintered much,—double cross mahogany from gunnel to gunnel doesn’t splinter much,—but half her life-lines were gone from the ring-bolts, and her new paint was fouled with bark and earth and tree-scrapings—a sight to see. Men swarmed up and overhauled her anxiously; but she was little the worse save in appearance, and they swarmed down again and began to take out our exhausted horses and to put in their own. They were at the knotted cordage thick as flies round a treacle-string in summer—lengthening, splicing, piecing, sheepshanking, stretching all out, it seemed interminably; for they had twice our number of horses—too many, I think. They fixed another spar for a double-tree, and set oars across at intervals to keep that monstrous cat’s-cradle in something like position: men were told off specially to watch it. A fellow came shouting up with some oxen; but we couldn’t begin to make yokes for his oxen—the fool hadn’t brought any; and they were sent back with the lads and worn-out horses to High Lee.

“I forget lots of things that happened just then; but I remember one thing distinctly—I laughed at the High Lee men when we set off again, for they cheered. I suppose it seemed silly to me. Cheer when you’ve done things, if you’ve nothing better to do; but where on earth is the sense in…. We knew what cheering was worth. Cheering didn’t help Nunan much, who was fretting again about his horses; nor Joe Barker, who was bewailing the time his blunder had lost us—for we remembered now and then that we were going to Portsannet. It didn’t help anybody except perhaps the High Lee men themselves, and they’d come to their senses before we were over the moonlit Heights…. We let them do the work for a bit: it was digging, digging again, and the rise and fall of their backs was wearisome to watch. There was little choice of roads now, Osa said (we woke him to ask him). As nearly as he could tell, he’d come fairly straight past the alum-works; and for the alum-works we made. Soon our feet felt the rise….”

*    *    *    *    *

He seemed very tired, as if the memory of the weariness wearied him again. He rested for three or four minutes. He nodded; and it is possible that again he had lost the direct thread of his tale, for when he resumed after his rest it was apparently nowhere.

*    *    *    *    *

“You need purpose, you see. No amount of work kills if you have the purpose. You needn’t achieve it; they say it’s often as well for you when you don’t; but without it you’re hitting the air. Practically, you must have a little reward, too—just enough to make it worth your while to go on; it’s only once in five centuries that a hero’s born who can see his work apparently swallowed up in the ocean with equanimity. Yes, yes; principle’s the biggest thing—the vision, the ideal; nobody denies that. But, as the world’s arranged, it’s much if you can get forward a step at a time and catch a glimpse of your vision between whiles. If you’d asked us, we should have told you, of course, that we were going to Portsannet. We should have thought you a fool; and yet I doubt if it really occurred to us. I don’t say that I myself didn’t think (if you call it that) of the Lizzie Martin. We’ve all thought we’ve been thinking things all our lives, till one day something happens and we think them really and piercingly; but I do say I think we went on mainly because we’d started. It wasn’t what we thought—it was what we didn’t think: we didn’t think of stopping…. They used to call me ambitious when, as a youngster, I sometimes spoke of my grammar-school. Well, every fool’s ambitious, if ambition is only thinking that your grammar-school, whatever it is, would be a nice comfortable thing to have. Ambition—purpose—means a lot more than that to me. It’s a positive, a vital thing—not mere patience and endurance. It’s never to forget that first presumptuous cheer; it’s both to see your goal and never to lose sight of the means to it. You haven’t got to let the work get its grind in…. But we were half way there, you say?—we had a little reward to encourage us? Yes, more than half way. We were past the first lift of the Heights. But what besides? Twice the boat had slid clean off the tail of the carriage, spilling belts and jackets and paraphernalia in the snow; and twice we lashed her on again; and there’s so mighty little carriage to lash a big lifeboat to that we had to tauten up every few minutes, and men were hauling direct on the boat to keep her somewhere near the wheels. And what besides? Till we’d come to the Heights we hadn’t done enough work to keep us warm, and the High Lee men were frenzied, as we’d been in the wood. Nunan was seeing his quarry every hundred yards, and looking for air-holes, as if his horses had been sheep. Willie Harverson had been left half a mile back at a house—ribs crushed the first time the boat shifted. We digged and hauled and righted the boat, and digged again. The horses rolled with their legs among the ropes; … the load, … the keel alone weighed half a ton…. Men were sleeping as they went, and shoving as they slept…. I tell you, you don’t know anything about it. It’s the purposeless work that kills, and practically we had no purpose. You can’t have purpose and be frantic…. Wait a bit….

“And I knew it was silly to keep on thinking with every step, ‘This brings you nearer the grammar-school—Portsannet—Portsannet and the grammar-school.’ Rousseau did it, you know. But once in a while, when you’ve laboured till your spirit seems freed from your body, it does seem all one—all part of something you’re trying to do, you don’t know what—something you’re trying to make of your life…. It was only seven miles; but seven miles or seven hundred isn’t the point. The point is just the limit of your endurance: if it’s only seven yards, seven hundred, or seven million, it comes to just that…. Wait a minute…. The moon was very little higher, so we couldn’t have been very long. I remember noticing this and shouting it out, but I don’t know whether it steadied them or not. My mind was somewhere in advance, over the Heights. I was thinking that, once over the top, the men who were pulling would fall back to check her; that without a pole the team would be useless; that a pole might be made of a long spar; that we might zigzag down; put props through the valve-holes; elementary mechanics, parallelogram of forces, grammar-school again, and a lot more light-witted stuff. Then somebody sighted the alum-works, a quarter of a mile to the left…. One minute….

“We were at the top. It’s forty-five years ago, and you can persuade yourself of a lot in less than that time. We persuaded ourselves afterwards that it was a moment of triumph—there was no harm in that; but we knew better really. We knew in our hearts that the Portsannet men would have to man the boat for themselves, for we reeled like drunkards, went forward like drunkards, with the drunkard’s instinct for his bed. But we boasted foolishly: we would put out ourselves—take her back that night—show what men could do,—I don’t know what. Nobody said it was nonsense. Joe Barker alone seemed to realise that it didn’t follow that because we’d got through, the Lizzie Martin had. We could hear the sea now, a dull roar, and far on our right the Abbey light flashed white and red. There was a babel of talking. Men with horses seemed to join us every few minutes. A man called Lockwood came from Lizzie’s old home with two Galloways and a mare in foal, and they hitched them on behind. As they did so we stood for a moment looking down on Portsannet, the river, the scattered lights far up the valley, the grey beyond the harbour-wall….

“They came up, the fish-wives of the quay—the women who swear so—they turned out with the men; men and women, there were enough to carry the boat and us with it. Three boats had managed to keep head-up the whole of the day—you know that—and the Lizzie was one of them. The shouts and lanterns were bewildering, and I heard a fellow give a shout of recognition to Osa Couper. We turned into the street that leads to the movable bridge over the river. The river’s tidal, of course, and there was a beach of mud and pebbles; and the Portsannet men fought for places as we put her in. She danced on the water again, and they pulled down the river. We trooped across the bridge to the boat-house. They were jacketed, and had fresh oars by the time we caught them up, and the sea was bursting on the sea-wall with tremendous shocks. They got out the very first time….

“You know how many they saved? Frank and another man and a lad from the Lizzie, and seven from a barque, and six from a Lowestoft boat. We saw them all in, and then they wanted us to go to bed. ‘Why should we go to bed?’ we said. We didn’t want to go to bed. I went to bed sometime the next day, but it wasn’t till the following night that I slept—not to call sleeping…. Nunan, they said, was worse than I; the horses, perhaps, though they got them the next day but one, all but two….”

His eyes were half closed, and we prepared to leave him: he opened them again, hearing us move.

“I want to know if you can tell me something before you go,” he said; “it’s often puzzled me. I can tell you in half a minute. It’s this: If you were to ask me whether I thought my own life worth such and such a vast deal of labour,—the risk of other lives too, maybe,—I think I should have to say, No. At any rate, it would be a question of balance, value for value, and so on, you see. And I know other men think the same. But as soon as it’s a question of anybody else’s life, the case seems to be different. John Broadwood would have jumped up just the same if Frank Martin had been the biggest rapscallion who ever handled a net. Now where’s the sense in it? I’m not saying there isn’t any; I’m asking. I went too. I’d have gone in the boat, but it would have kept a better man out of a place; and I ask myself the reason of it all. It isn’t reason—can’t be; and yet reasonable men will do it. ‘Thank God for that,’ you say. Well, that’s unanswerable too…. I see you can’t help me. I’ve been asking such questions all my life, and shall go on, I suppose, till the end now…. I’m very tired…. Good-night….”

Oliver Onions
Oliver Onions



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