A. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) Mason.

The truants; a novel online

. (page 8 of 26)
Online LibraryA. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) MasonThe truants; a novel → online text (page 8 of 26)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


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 dis-
covered 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



ON THE DOGGER BANK 99

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 un-
persuasive. 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 cmality 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 lassi-
tude, 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.



100 TEE TRUANTS

" 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 question-
ing 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 Warris-
den's ears ; whispers breathed upon the north wind, and all
the whispers were whispers of promise, bidding him take
heart. Warrisden listened and believed, uplif ted 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



ON THE DOGGER BANK 101

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 com-
mented. " 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



102 THE TRUANTS

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, un-
screwed 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.

" Xow why ? " asked the captain. " Don't you like it
nice and snug ? "



ON THE DOGGER BANK 103

"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 pur-
chaser. 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



104 THE TRUANTS

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, break-
ing 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 manoeuvre 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 clays 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 Persever-
ance ? " he asked.



ON THE DOGGER BANK 105

" 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.



106 THE TRUANTS

" 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. lie 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."



ON THE DOGGER BANK 107

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."



108 THE TRUANTS

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 ? "
" No."

"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



ON THE DOGGER BANK 109

weeks, and only four have passed. I cannot ran 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 Perse-
verance. 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.



110 THE TRUANTS



CHAPTER XII

tony's inspiration

Warrisden had failed. This was the account of his mission
which he had to give to Pamela Mardale ; and he gave it
without excuses. He landed at Billingsgate Wharf at eleven
o'clock on the second day after the sails of the Blue Fleet
had dropped out of sight behind the screen of breaking waves.
That afternoon he travelled down to the village of the three
poplars. It was night when he stepped out of the train on
to the platform of the little station. One can imagine what
bitter and humiliating thoughts occupied his mind. Away
on the crest of the hill the lights of the village shone brightly
through the clear night air, just as the lights of Margate
had shone across the bay when the steam-cutter had sprung
like a thing alive to the lift of the sea beneath her bows.
Then all the breeze had whispered promises ; now the high
hopes were fallen. " Do not fail ! " Pamela had cried, with a
veritable passion, hating failure as an indignity, lie could
hear the words in the very accent of her voice. Once she
had suffered failure, but it was not to be endured again.
That was what she had meant ; and he had failed. He
drove along that straight road which he had traversed with
Pamela at his side ; he slept under the roof of the inn where
Pamela had claimed his help. The help had been fruitless,
and the next morning he rode down the hill and along the
load with the white wood rails — " the new road " — to tell her
so. The sun was bright ; there was a sparkle of spring in
the air ; on the black leafless boughs birds sang. He looked



TONY'S INSPIRATION 111

back to the three poplars pointing to the sky from the tiny
garden on the crest of the hill. Quetta — yes ! But it
seemed there was to be no Seistan.

He had started early, fearing that there might be a meet
that day ; and he had acted wisely, for in the hall there
were one or two men lounging by the fire in scarlet, and
Pamela was wearing her riding-habit when she received him.
He was shown into a little room which opened on to the
garden behind the house, and thither Pamela came.

" You are alone ! " she said.

" Yes ; Stretton would not come."

" None the less, I am very grateful."

She smiled as she spoke, and sat down, with her eyes
upon him, waiting for his story. The disappointment was
visible upon his face, but not upon hers. Pamela's indeed,
was to him at this moment rather inscrutable. It was not
indifferent, however. He recognised that, and was, in a way,
consoled. It had been his fear that at the first word she
would dismiss the subject, and turn her back on it for good.
On the contrary, she was interested, attentive.

" You found him, then ? " she asked.

" Yes. You would like to hear what passed ? "

" Of course."

" Even though I failed ? "

She looked at him with some surprise at his insistence.

"Yes, yes," she said, a little impatiently.

" "We were nearly three days longer in reaching the
Blue Fleet than we anticipated," he began. " Stretton came

on board the fish-cutter " And Pamela interrupted

him —

" Why were you nearly three days longer ? Tell me
about your own journey out to the fleet from the beginning."

She was, in fact, as much interested in her messenger as
in the errand upon which she had sent him. Warrisden
began to see that his journey after all was not entirely a
defeat. The alliance to which they had set their hands up



112 THE TRUANTS

there in the village on the hill was bearing its fruit. It had
set them in a new relationship to each other, and in a closer
intimacy.

He told the story of his voyage, making light of his
hardships on the steam-cutter. She, on the other hand,
made much of them.

" To quote your captain," she remarked, with a smile,
" it was not a Bobby's job."

Warrisdcn laughed, and told her of Stretton's arrival in
the punt of the Perseverance. He described the way in
which he had come on board ; he related the conversation
which had passed between them at the stern of the cutter.

" He hadn't the look of a man who had failed," Warrisden
continued. " He stood there on the swinging deck with his
legs firmly planted apart, as easily as if he were standing
on a stone pavement. I, on the other hand, was clinging
desperately to a stay. He stood there, with the seas swinging
up behind him, and stubbornly refused to come."

" You told him of his father's illness ? " asked Pamela.



Online LibraryA. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) MasonThe truants; a novel → online text (page 8 of 26)