The Truants

Chapter XI

On the Dogger Bank

A.E.W. Mason

The City of Bristol swung out of the huddle of boats off Billingsgate Wharf at one o’clock on the next afternoon. Mr. Chase, who stood upon the quay amongst the porters and white-jacketed salesmen, turned away with an episcopal wave of the hand. Warrisden leaned over the rail of the steamer’s bridge, between the captain and the pilot, and shouted a reply. The City of Bristol, fish-cutter of 300 tons, was a boat built for speed, long and narrow, sitting low on the water, with an upstanding forecastle forward, a small saloon in the stern, and a tiny cabin for the captain under the bridge on deck. She sidled out into the fair way and went forward upon her slow, intricate journey to the sea. Below the Tower she took her place in the long, single file of ships winding between the mud banks, and changed it as occasion served; now she edged up by a string of barges, now in a clear broad space she made a spurt and took the lead of a barquantine, which swam in indolence, with bare masts, behind a tug; and at times she stopped altogether, like a carriage blocked in Piccadilly. The screw thrashed the water, ceased, and struck again with a suggestion of petulance at the obstacles which barred the boat’s way. Warrisden, too, chafed upon the bridge. A question pressed continually upon his mind—“Would Stretton return?” He had discovered where Stretton was to be found. The tall grey spire of Stepney Church rose from behind an inlet thick with masts, upon the left; he was already on his way to find him. But the critical moment was yet to come. He had still to use his arguments; and as he stood watching the shipping with indifferent eyes the arguments appeared most weak and unpersuasive. Stretton’s father was dying, it was true. The son’s return was no doubt a natural obligation. But would the natural obligation hold when the father was unnatural? Those months in New York had revealed one quality in Tony Stretton, at all events; he could persist. The very name of the trawler in which he was at work seemed to Warrisden of a bad augury for his success—the Perseverance!

Greenwich, with its hill of grass, slipped behind on the right; at the Albert Docks a huge Peninsular and Oriental steamer, deck towering above deck, swung into the line; the high chimneys of the cement works on the Essex flats began to stand out against the pale grey sky, each one crowned with white smoke like a tuft of wool; the barges, under their big brown sprit-sails, now tacked this way and that across a wider stream; the village of Greenhithe and the white portholes of the Worcester showed upon the right.

“Would Stretton return?” The question revolved in Warrisden’s mind as the propeller revolved in the thick brown water. The fortunes of four people hung upon the answer, and no answer could be given until a night, and a day, and another night had passed, until he saw the Blue Fleet tossing far away upon the Dogger Bank. Suppose that the answer were “No!” He imagined Pamela sinking back into lassitude, narrowing to that selfishness which she, no less than he, foresaw; looking on again at the world’s show with the lack-lustre indifference of the very old.

At Gravesend the City of Bristol dropped her pilot, a little, white-bearded, wizened man, who all the way down the river, balancing himself upon the top-rail of the bridge, like some nautical Blondin, had run from side to side the while he exchanged greetings with the anchored ships; and just opposite to Tilbury Fort, with its scanty fringe of trees, she ran alongside of a hulk and took in a load of coal.

“We’ll go down and have tea while they are loading her,” said the captain.

The dusk was falling when Warrisden came again on deck, and a cold wind was blowing from the north-west. The sharp stem of the boat was cutting swiftly through the quiet water; the lift of the sea under her forefoot gave to her a buoyancy of motion—she seemed to have become a thing alive. The propeller cleft the surface regularly; there was no longer any sound of petulance in its revolutions, rather there was a throb of joy as it did its work unhindered. Throughout the ship a steady hum, a steady vibration ran. The City of Bristol was not merely a thing alive; it was a thing satisfied.

Upon Warrisden, too, there descended a sense of peace. He was en rapport with the ship. The fever of his questioning left him. On either side the arms of the shore melted into the gathering night. Far away upon his right the lights of Margate shone brightly, like a chain of gold stretched out upon the sea; in front of him there lay a wide and misty bay, into which the boat drove steadily. All the unknown seemed hidden there; all the secret unrevealed Beyond. There came whispers out of that illimitable bay to Warrisden’s ears; whispers breathed upon the north wind, and all the whispers were whispers of promise, bidding him take heart. Warrisden listened and believed, uplifted by the grave quiet of the sea and its mysterious width.

The City of Bristol turned northward into the great channel of the Swin, keeping close to the lightships on the left, so close that Warrisden from the bridge could look straight down upon their decks. The night had altogether come—a night of stars. Clusters of lights, low down upon the left, showed where the towns of Essex stood; upon the light hand the homeward-bound ships loomed up ghost-like and passed by; on the right, too, shone out the great green globes of the Mouse light like Neptune’s reading-lamps. Sheltered behind the canvas screen at the corner of the bridge Warrisden looked along the rake of the unlighted deck below. He thought of Pamela waiting for his return at Whitewebs, but without impatience. The great peace and silence of the night were the most impressive things he had ever known. The captain’s voice complaining of the sea jarred upon him.

“It’s no Bobby’s job,” said the captain in a low voice. “It’s home once in three weeks from Saturday to Monday, if you are in luck, and the rest of your time you’re in carpet slippers on the bridge. You’ll sleep in my chatoo, to-night. I sha’n’t turn in until we have passed the Outer Gabbard and come to the open sea. That won’t be till four in the morning.”

Warrisden understood that he was being offered the captain’s cabin.

“No, thanks,” said he. “The bench of the saloon will do very well for me.”

The captain did not press his offer.

“Yes; there’s more company in the saloon,” he said. “I often sleep there myself. You are bound for the Mission ship, I suppose?”

“No; I want to find a man on the trawler Perseverance.”

The captain turned. Warrisden could not see his face, but he knew from his attitude that he was staring at him in amazement.

“Then you must want to see him pretty badly,” he commented. “The No’th Sea in February and March is not a Bobby’s job.”

“Bad weather is to be expected?” asked Warrisden.

“It has been known,” said the captain dryly; and before the lights of the Outer Gabbard winked good-bye on the starboard quarter at four o’clock in the morning, the City of Bristol was taking the water over her deck.

Warrisden rolled on the floor of the saloon—for he could not keep his balance on the narrow bench—and tried in vain to sleep. But the strong light of a lamp, swinging from the roof, glared upon his eyes, the snores of his companions trumpeted in his ears. Moreover, the heat was intolerable. Five men slept in the bunks—Warrisden made a sixth. At four in the morning the captain joined the party through his love of company. The skylight and the door were both tightly closed, a big fire burned in the stove, and a boiling kettle of tea perpetually puffed from its spout a column of warm, moist steam. Warrisden felt his skin prickly beneath his clothes; he gasped for fresh air.

Living would be rough upon the fish-carrier, Chase had told him; and rough Warrisden found it. In the morning the steward rose, and made tea by the simple process of dropping a handful of tea into the kettle and filling it up with water. A few minutes later he brought a dish of ham and eggs from the galley, and slapped it down on the table.

“Breakfast,” he cried; and the five men opened their eyes, rubbed them, and without any other preparation sat down and ate. Warrisden slipped up the companion, unscrewed the skylight and opened it for the space of an inch. Then he returned.

The City of Bristol was rolling heavily, and Warrisden noticed with surprise that all of the five men gave signs of discomfort. Surely, he thought, they must be used to heavy weather. But, nevertheless, something was wrong; they did not talk. Finally, the captain looked upwards, and brought his hand down upon the table.

“I felt something was wrong,” said he; “the skylight’s open.”

All stared up to the roof.

“So it is.”

“I did that,” Warrisden said humbly.

At once all the faces were turned on him in great curiosity.

“Now why?” asked the captain. “Don’t you like it nice and snug?”

“Yes; oh yes,” Warrisden said hurriedly.

“Well, then!” said the captain; and the steward went on deck and screwed the skylight down.

“After all, it’s only for thirty-six hours,” thought Warrisden, as he subsequently bathed in a pail on deck. But he was wrong; for the Blue Fleet had gone a hundred miles north to the Fisher Bank, and thither the City of Bristol followed it.

The City of Bristol sailed on to the Fisher Bank, and found an empty sea. It hunted the Blue Fleet for half-a-dozen hours, and, as night fell, it came upon a single trawler with a great flare light suspended from its yard.

“They’re getting in their trawl,” said the captain; and he edged up within earshot.

“Where’s the Blue Fleet?” he cried.

“Gone back to the Dogger,” came the answer.

The captain swore, and turned southwards. For four days and nights Warrisden pitched about on the fish-carrier and learned many things, such as the real meaning of tannin in tea, and the innumerable medical uses to which “Friar’s Balsam” can be put. On the morning of the fifth day the City of Bristol steamed into the middle of the fleet, and her engines stopped.

These were the days before the steam-trawler. The sailing-ships were not as yet laid up, two by two, alongside Gorleston quay, and knocked down for a song to any purchaser. Warrisden looked over a grey, savage sea. The air was thick with spindrift. The waves leaped exultingly up from windward and roared away to leeward from under the cutter’s keel in a steep, uprising hill of foam. All about him the sailing-boats headed to the wind, sinking and rising in the furrows, so that Warrisden would just see a brown topsail over the edge of a steep roller like a shark’s fin, and the next instant the dripping hull of the boat flung out upon a breaking crest.

“You will have to look slippy when the punt from the Perseverance comes alongside with her fish,” the captain shouted. “The punt will give you a passage back to the Perseverance, but I don’t think you will be able to return. There’s a no’th-westerly gale blowing up, and the sea is increasing every moment. However, there will be another cutter up to-morrow, and if it’s not too rough you could be put on board of her.”

It took Warrisden a full minute to realise the meaning of the captain’s words. He looked at the tumbling, breaking waves, he listened to the roar of the wind through the rigging.

“The boats won’t come alongside to-day,” he cried.

“Won’t they?” the skipper replied. “Look!”

Certainly some manœuvre was in progress. The trawlers were all forming to windward in a rough semicircle about the cutter. Warrisden could see boat tackle being rigged to the main yards and men standing about the boats capsized on deck. They were actually intending to put their fish on board in the face of the storm.

“You see, with the gale blowing up, they mayn’t get a chance to put their fish on board for three or four days after this,” the captain explained. “Oh, you can take it from me. The No’th Sea is not a Bobby’s job.”

As Warrisden watched, one by one the trawlers dropped their boats, and loaded them with fish-boxes. The boats pushed off, three men to each, with their life-belts about their oil-skins, and came down with the wind towards the fish-carrier. The trawlers bore away, circled round the City of Bristol, and took up their formation to leeward, so that, having discharged their fish, the boats might drop down again with the wind to their respective ships. Warrisden watched the boats, piled up with fish-boxes, coming through the welter of the sea. It seemed some desperate race was being rowed.

“Can you tell me which is the boat from the Perseverance?” he asked.

“I think it’s the fifth,” said the captain.

The boats came down, each one the kernel of a globe of spray. Warrisden watched, admiring how cleverly they chose the little gaps and valleys in the crests of the waves. Each moment he looked to see a boat tossed upwards and overturned; each moment he dreaded that boat would be the fifth. But no boat was overturned. One by one they passed under the stern of the City of Bristol, and came alongside under the shelter of its wall.

The fifth boat ranged up. A man stood up in the stern.

“The Perseverance,” he cried. “Nine boxes.” And as he spoke a great sea leapt up against the windward bow of the cutter. The cutter rolled from it suddenly, her low bulwarks dipped under water on the leeward side, close by the Perseverance boat.

“Shove off!” the man cried, who was standing up; and as he shouted he lurched and fell into the bottom of the boat. The two men in the bows pushed off with their oars; but they were too late. The cutter’s bulwark caught the boat under the keel; it seemed she must be upset, and men and boxes whelmed in the sea, unless a miracle happened. But the miracle did happen. As the fish-cutter righted she scooped on to her deck the boat, with its boxes and its crew. The incident all seemed to happen within the fraction of a second. Not a man upon the fish-cutter had time to throw out a rope. Warrisden saw the cutter’s bulwarks dip, the sailor falling in the boat, and the boat upon the deck of the cutter in so swift a succession that he had not yet realised disaster was inevitable before disaster was avoided.

The sailor rose from the bottom of the boat and stepped on deck, a stalwart, dripping figure.

“From the Perseverance, sir. Nine boxes,” he said, looking up to the captain on the bridge; and Warrisden, leaning by the captain’s side upon the rail, knew the sailor to be Tony Stretton. The accent of the voice would have been enough to assure him; but Warrisden knew the face too.

“This is the man I want,” he said to the captain.

“You must be quick, then,” the captain replied. “Speak to him while the boat is being unloaded.”

Warrisden descended on to the deck.

“Mr. Stretton,” said he.

The sailor swung round quickly. There was a look of annoyance upon his face.

“You are surely making a mistake,” said he, abruptly. “We are not acquainted,” and he turned back to the fish-boxes.

“I’m not making a mistake,” replied Warrisden. “I have come out to the North Sea in order to find you.”

Stretton ceased from his work and stood up. He led the way to the stern of the cutter, where the two men were out of earshot.

“Now,” he said. He stood in front of Warrisden, in his sea-boots and his oilskins, firmly planted, yet swaying to the motion of the ship. There was not merely annoyance in his face, but he had the stubborn and resolute look of a man not lightly to be persuaded. Standing there on the cutter’s deck, backed by the swinging seas, there was even an air of mastery about him which Warrisden had not expected. His attitude seemed, somehow, not quite consistent with his record of failure.

“Now,” said Stretton, “we must be quick. The sea is getting worse each minute, and I have to get back to the Perseverance. You are——?”

“Alan Warrisden, a stranger to you.”

“Yes,” Stretton interrupted; “how did you find me out?”

“Chase told me.”

Stretton’s face flushed angrily.

“He had no right to tell you. I wished for these few weeks to be alone. He gave me his word he would tell no one.”

“He had to break his word,” said Warrisden, firmly. “It is necessary that you should come home at once.”

Stretton laughed. Warrisden was clinging to a wire stay from the cutter’s mizzen-mast, and even so could hardly keep his feet. He had a sense of coming failure from the very ease with which Stretton stood resting his hands upon his hips, unsupported on the unsteady deck.

“I cannot come,” said Stretton abruptly; and he turned away. As he turned Warrisden shouted—for in that high wind words carried in no other way—“Your father, Sir John Stretton, is dying.”

Stretton stopped. He looked for a time thoughtfully into Warrisden’s face; but there was no change in his expression by which Warrisden could gather whether the argument would prevail or no. And when at last he spoke, it was to say—

“But he has not sent for me.”

It was the weak point in Warrisden’s argument, and Stretton had, in his direct way, come to it at once. Warrisden was silent.

“Well?” asked Stretton. “He has not sent for me?”

“No,” Warrisden admitted; “that is true.”

“Then I will not come.”

“But though he has not sent for you, it is very certain that he wishes for your return,” Warrisden urged. “Every night since you have been away the candles have been lighted in your dressing-room and your clothes laid out, in the hope that on one evening you will walk in at the door. On the very first night, the night of the day on which you went, that was done. It was done by Sir John Stretton’s orders, and by his orders it has always since been done.”

Just for a moment Warrisden thought that his argument would prevail. Stretton’s face softened; then came a smile which was almost wistful about his lips, his eyes had a kindlier look. And the kindlier look remained. Kindliness, too, was the first tone audible in his voice as he replied; but the reply itself yielded nothing.

“He has not sent for me.”

He looked curiously at Warrisden, as if for the first time he became aware of him as a man acting from motives, not a mere instrument of persuasion.

“After all, who did send you?” he asked. “My wife?”


“Who then?”

“Miss Pamela Mardale.”

Stretton was startled by the name. It was really the strongest argument Warrisden had in his armoury. Only he was not aware of its strength.

“Oh,” said Stretton, doubtfully; “so Miss Mardale sent you!”

He thought of that morning in the Row; of Pamela’s words—“I still give the same advice. Do not leave your wife.” He recalled the promise she had given, although it was seldom long absent from his thoughts. It might be that she sent this message in fulfilment of that promise. It might be that, for some unknown reason, he was now needed at his wife’s side. But he had no thought of distrust; he had great faith in Millicent. She despised him, yes; but he did not distrust her. And, again, it might be that Pamela was merely sending him this news thinking he would wish to hear of it in time. After all, Pamela was his friend. He looked out on the wild sea. Already the boats were heading back through the foam, each to its trawler.

“One must take one’s risks,” he said. “So much I have learnt here in the North Sea. Look!” and he pointed to the boats. “Those boats are taking theirs. Yes; whether it’s lacing your topsail or taking in a reef, one must take one’s risks. I will not come.”

He went back to the middle of the ship. The punt of the Perseverance was already launched, the two fishermen waiting in it. As it rose on a swell, Stretton climbed over the bulwarks and dropped into the stern.

“Good-bye,” he said. “I have signed on for eight weeks, and only four have passed. I cannot run away and leave the ship short-handed. Thank you for coming; but one must take one’s risks.”

The boat was pushed off and headed towards the Perseverance. The waves had increased, the crests toppled down the green slopes in foam. Slowly the boat was rowed down to the trawler, the men now stopping and backing water, now dashing on. Warrisden saw them reach the ship’s side and climb on board, and he saw the boat slung upwards and brought in on to the deck. Then the screw of the City of Bristol struck the water again. Lurching through the heavy seas, she steamed southwards. In a few minutes the Blue Fleet was lost to sight.

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