Thomas Hardy.

Stories in Black and white online

. (page 3 of 13)
Online LibraryThomas HardyStories in Black and white → online text (page 3 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

almost abreast of Dowton G-ap ; and, if you
don't mind giving me a hand, sir, to carry
the corpse to the foot of the cliff, in case the
bobby the tide ye see "

" No," said I ; " you dragged it single-
handed from the rock. You are able to drag
it single-handed to the foot of the cliff. If
I touched the poor thing well, good night,
coastguard," and I walked off, leaving him
to handle the dead body single-handed, for
which I had no better excuse to make than
that I was possessed at the time by strong
feelings of horror, and perhaps fear, which
the presence of the coastguard in no degree


mitigated, and which were induced, as I can
now believe, by the suddenness and violence
of the obtrusion of an object of terror upon
my mind at a moment when it had been
rendered in a peculiar sense unprepared for
any such experience by the enervating charm,
the sweet relaxing magic of the soft and
glorious night of moonshine and silence, and
waters seething with the stealthy hiss of

I stepped out briskly, and as I walked I
seemed to behold many white bodies of drowned
men floating shore wards on the summer feather-
ing of the little breakers. When I arrived
at the town I met a policeman, to whom I
communicated the news, and I then returned
to my lodgings and sat in the open window
smoking a pipe, and as I lighted my pipe the
clocks in the town struck the hour of mid-

As I sat smoking thus, I surrendered my


mind so wholly to contemplation of the dead
white body I had suddenly fallen in with, that
I might well have supposed the impression
which the encounter would leave must be life-
long. But next day I returned to London,
and within a week the memory of the little
incident had as good as perished from my
mind. For a month I was very busy. My
employment was exceedingly arduous, and
often obliged me to work late into the night.
Then, at the expiration of the month, feeling
uncommonly fagged, I resolved to spend a
week at the same seaside town where I had
discovered the body on the rock.

The name of this town I will not give. I
do not wish to excite the anger of its boatmen.
" Ho ! " they will say, should I name their
town. " Ho ! " they will cry when they have
arrived at the end of my story, " what a loy !
This here piece is put into the newspapers
all along o' spite. The gent don't wish us


well, and he's invented this here blooming
yarn to scare folks from employing of us.
He's agoing to start a pleasure yacht for taking
o' people out at a shilling a head, and don't
mean that us pore watermen shall get a living/'
Thus would you declaim, oh, ye sons of the
beach ; and that you may in no wise suffer
from any statements of mine, I withhold the
name of your town, so that the reader may
take his choice of any port or harbour on the
coast of the United Kingdom. Nevertheless,
what I am about to relate is no " loy," but the
truth itself absolute, memorable, living.

I was again at the seaside. It was now the
month of August, and the hottest August that
I can remember. After the intolerable heat of
London, and the fatigue of my work there,
nothing, of course, could prove so beneficial,
so bracing, in all senses so restoring, as sea-
bathing. But for the bathing-machine sea-bath
I had the strongest aversion. First, there was


no depth of water for swimming. The necessary
depth for true enjoyment was to be gained only
when the limbs were well-nigh exhausted by
the labour of striking out for it. Then I
disliked to bathe in company. Again, I
objected to the crowds who stood watching the
bathers from the piers and sands. In fact, for
an expert swimmer, such as I, there is but one
method of bathing in the sea : he must take a
boat, row out a mile or two where the brine
sparkles foamless, where it is clear of the con-
tamination of the set of the inshore tide, where
the blue or green of it is darkly pure with depth,
On the morning following the day of my
arrival, somewhere about the hour of seven
o'clock, I threw some towels over my arm and
walked down to a part of the harbour where I
knew I should find a boatman. Even at this
early hour the bite of the sun was as fierce as
though he stood at his meridian. The atmo-
sphere was of a brilliant blue. There was a


little air of wind that delicately rippled the sea.
I beheld not a cloud in the sky no, not so
much as a shred of vapour of the size of a man's
hand. In the harbour the red canvas of smacks
preparing to go to sea painted the water under
them. The soft wind brought many wholesome
odours of tar, of sea- weed, of sawn timber to the
nostrils. A s I approached that part of the pier
off which most of the wherries belonging to the
town were congregated, a man who was leaning
with his back to me over a stone post, gazing
in the direction of the sands, turned his head,
arid, guessing at my intention, by observing
the towels I carried, stood erect with alacrity,
and called out " Boat, sir ? The werry morning
for a swim, sir. A sheet calm, and the flood's
only now agoing to make."

Though I had from time to time visited the
town, I had never spent more than three days
at a time in it; and the boatmen, therefore,
were strangers to rne. I said to this man :


" Yes, it is the very morning for a swim.
What sort of a boat is yours ? "

" The best boat in the harbour, sir," he an-
swered. " There she lies, sir a real beauty,"
and he pointed eagerly at a wherry painted
blue, with raised tholepins, after the fashion of
the boats of the Thames watermen.

I looked at her and said, u Yes, she will do
very well to take a header from. Bring her

It was not until I was seated in the stern-
sheets of the boat that I particularly noticed
this waterman, who, having flung his oars over,
was propelling his little craft through the water
with a velocity that was warrant of an extra-
ordinarily powerful arm. My eyes then resting
upon his face, I found myself struck by his
uncommon appearance. His skin was very dark,
his hair jet-black, and his eyes were of a glassy
brilliance, with pupils of jet. Coarse as his hair

was, it curled in ringlets. He wore a pair of


immensely thick whiskers, every fibre of which
might have been plucked from a horse's tail.
His nose was heavy and large, and the curve of
the nostrils very deeply graven. In each ear
was a thick gold hoop, and the covering of his
head consisted of a cap fashioned out of a skin.
Otherwise he was habited in the familiar garb
of the British boatman in a blue jersey, large
loose trousers, of a yellow stuff called " fear-
naught;" top-boots under the trousers, which
were turned up to reveal a portion of the leather.
I observed that his gaze had an odd character
of staring ; it was fixed, stern, yet with a sug-
gestion of restlessness in it, as of temper.

" Are you a Jew ? " said I.

" No fear," he answered.

" Do not suppose that I ask the question out
of any disrespect to you. The Jews are a very
intelligent, interesting people. It would cause
me to wonder, however, to find a Jew a boat-



" I ain't no Jew, sir," said he.

" Perhaps you are what is called a Romany

" What's that ? " he cried, gazing at me with
his staring eyes.

" A gipsy, isn't it ? "

He grinned, and answered, " Well, I believe
I has some pikey blood in me."

" What do you mean by pikey ? "

" Gipsy," said he.

" That must be a local term," said I, " pro-
bably derived from the word ' turjapike,' as con-
necting the gipsies with the road." 1

He strained at his oars in silence ; but my
questions appeared to have excited some
curiosity in him as to myself, for I observed
that he ran his eyes over me, dwelling with
attention upon every part of my apparel, more
especially, as it struck me, upon the rings upon
my fingers, and upon my watch chain.

I stood up to look around. We were clear of


the harbour ; and the fine scene of the cliffs,
the houses on top, with their flashing windows,
the white lustrous line of sands, lay stretched
before my sight. We were the only small boat
upon the surface of the sea ; but near the pier
were a number of bathing-machines, and several
dark knots of heads like cocoanuts bobbed in
the snow-bright lines of the surf. The horizon
was broken by the outlines of a few vessels, and
one large steamer gliding stately and resplen-
dent, flashes of white fire, like exploding guns,
breaking from the double line of her glazed
portholes as her movements brought those
windows to the sun, gleams of ruddy flame
leaping from the polished brass furniture about
her bridge, and a long line of water glancing
astern of her, as though she towed from her
sternpost some league-long length of shimmer-
ing white satin.

" What might be the correct time, sir ? "
asked the boatman.


I drew out my watch, a handsome gold
repeater, and gave him the hour. He thanked
me, and said, "I suppose you're a good
swimmer, sir ? "

" I am a very good swimmer," I answered.

" Then the deeper the water, the better you'll
be pleased, sir. I've been told that arter six
fadom of water every furder fadom makes a
man feel so much more buoyant that it's like
strapping a fresh bladder on to him."

" No doubt/' said I. " What depths have you

" Oh, here," cried he, contemptuously glanc-
ing over the side, " why, there ain't twelve foot
of water here. We're right on top of a bank.
Ye'll need to let me pull you about a mile and
a half out to get the soundings you want for
a first-class swim."

" Well," said I, " there is no hurry. You
know all about these waters, of course ? By
the way, when I was here a month ago I


found a drowned body on the sands down

" Oh, was you the gent, then, as fell in with
that body ? " said the man, regarding me with
his peculiar gipsy stare. " There was a matter
of twenty pound offered for that discovery.
Wish Td had the finding of the poor fellow.
Twenty pound. Only think. And it was all
paid over to a coastguard."

" That's right," said I. " I walked up that
break in the cliffs yonder to the coastguard's
hut there and gave notice. Who was the
drowned man, do you know?"

"It came out in the cronner's 'quest, but I
forget the name."

" How was he drowned ? "

" Why, by awading out of his depth, I allow."

"The coastguard told me he was drowned
by bathing from a boat."

" He didn't know nothen about it," answered
the boatman. " There never yet was a man


drownded by bathing out of a boat in these
parts. Didn't ye see the account of the 'quest
in the newspapers ? "


" Well," said the man, " it was supposed he
was took with cramp. There's too many
drownding jobs of that sort going on along
the coast. It don't do us watermen any good.
It creates a prejudice agin the places where
the accidents happen. What does a man want
to go out of his depth for if he ain't no
swimmer ? "

We fell silent, and he continued to row with
great energy, whilst I lay back in the stern-
sheets enjoying the sweet cool freshness of the
salt air breathing upon the face of the waters,
and greatly enjoying the noble and brilliant
spectacle of the sea shining under the sun, and
of the coast, whose many colours, and whose
many features of structure, of elbow, of cliff,
of green slope, of down on top, every stroke


of the oar was now making more tender, more
delicate, more toy-like.

After rowing for about twenty minutes, the
gipsy- faced boatman rested upon his oars, and,
taking a look round, and then gazing over the
side into the water, he exclaimed, " This here'll
be the spot, sir."

I at once undressed, stood up in the stern-
sheets, put my hands together, and went over-
board into the cool, green, glass-clear profound.
I came to the surface, and, with a shake of the
head, cleared my eyes, and perceived the boat-
man very leisurely pulling his wherry still
further out to sea. This was, perhaps, as it
should be. He might, indeed, have headed his
boat in for the land ; but, in any case, he was
right to keep her in motion as an invitation
to me to swim after her. I swam with great
enjoyment ; the embrace of the water pene-
trated to my inmost being, and every pulse
in me beat with a new vitality. I swam


directly in the wake of the boat, past the rim
of whose stern I could see the head of the boat-
man. He held me in view, and he watched
me intently, though from time to time he
would direct his gaze to that part of the land
where the town was situated, and sometimes
he would turn his head and look behind him
that is to say, over the bows of his boat, in the
manner of one who cannot satisfy himself that
something is not approaching.

Presently, I thought I would catch hold of
the boat by the gunwale to rest myself, and
I called to him to stop rowing, that I might
corne up with him ; but he did not stop rowing.
When I called he turned his face from me, and
continued to ply his oars. I called to him
again, but he paid no attention to me. There
was the sullen air of murder in his averted
face, and in his whole manner of determination
not to hear me. My heart beat furiously, and
I felt faint, for now, with the velocity of


thought, I was linking the fate of the man
whose dead body I had lighted upon with the
gipsy ruffian ahead of me in the boat ; and I
said to myself, he might have been drowned,
and perhaps by that very demon there, as I


am to be drowned ; left, as I am to be left, to
swim until he sank from exhaustion, as I am
to sink, that the boatman might possess him-
self of his watch and chain and money, as my


watch and chain and money are the objects for
which I am to be obliged to struggle here until
I perish.

These thoughts swept with the speed of a
dream through my head. I cried aloud in a
voice of bitter despair as acutely realizing
now the murderous villain's intention as though
I had spent an hour in digesting it " For
God's sake, do not leave me here to drown.
Take what you want ; take all that I have.
Have mercy upon me. Let me reach your
boat and rest I "

He continued to row, with his face averted
from me, and I was near enough to him to
easily observe the villainous, diabolical ex-
pression that now sat upon his dark counte-
nance as he stared in silence towards the land.
I turned upon my back to rest myself, and all
the while my feverishly-beating heart seemed
to be saying, " What is to be done ? Must you
drown? You are not two miles from the


shore. Cannot you swim that distance ? Rest
awhile on your back, and then strike out like
a man. You have no other chance for your
life. That demon yonder intends that you
shall drown. He will secrete the booty he
means to take out of your pockets, and will
row ashore and put on a face of consternation,
and report that when you were overboard you
were seized with cramp, and sank on a sudden
like a stone."

Whilst I thus lay upon my back, besieged by
the most dreadful thoughts, half mad with
wrath and with despair, the boatman sculled
back to me, and, putting the blade of his left
oar upon my breast, thrust with it with the
idea of submerging me. I grasped the oar,
and held it with the tenacity of a dying man.
He could not shake me off; his right oar slipped
from his hand and went overboard ; the boat
swayed dangerously. My desire, indeed, was
to capsize it, because I should have the ruffian



at an advantage if I could get him into the
water, heavily clad as he was, even though
he should be as expert a swimmer as I ; and
then there would be the boat to hold to, be-
cause, being light and without ballast, even if
she filled she would not sink ; furthermore,
there was the certainty of our situation being
witnessed from the coast, and of help being
despatched forthwith.

It might have been that he feared the boat
would capsize, and it might have been that he
guessed we should be presently observed
through some telescope levelled at us from
the pier or cliif. He suddenly cried with a
furious curse, " Get in, get in ! " and, letting
go his oar, he dragged me into the boat,
flinging me from him, so that I fell over an
after thwart, and lay for a few moments
breathless, and almost unconscious, in the
bottom of the boat. He then threw his oar
over and manoeuvred the wherry, so as to re-


cover the other oar, which done, he adjusted
himself on his seat and fell to rowing on a
course parallel with the coast.

I rose, trembling in every limb ; the shock
had been terrible; my rescue a miracle. I
seemed to feel the hand of death cold upon my
heart, even as I staggered on to my feet ; and
still I was in dire peril alone with a powerful,
muscular ruffian, who, having already attempted
my life, might again, in self-defence, to silence
my testimony against him, renew his murderous
effort in another direction. With an exhausted
hand I passed a towel over my body and then
clothed myself. Meanwhile, not a word was
uttered. The man eyed me with ferocity, and
his under-lip moved as though he were rehears-
ing some thoughts to himself in an impish
jargon. We still continued to be the only boat
upon the water. The great steamer had long
since passed out of sight, and upon the horizon
hung the few sails, scarcely impelled by the


languid breath of the air that was slowly
weakening as the sun gained in power.

At last I said to the man, " Where are you
going ? "

" That's my business," he answered.

" Where are you taking me to ? " I exclaimed.

He fastened his staring, gleaming eyes upon
me and answered, " I'm going to put ye

"But you are not rowing the boat in the
direction of the town."

" I know I'm not."

"I want you to set me ashore at the place
where we started from."

u Ye may want," he replied, pausing upon
his oars to advance his head towards me as
he spoke, as though, in another moment, he
would leap upon me.

By this time I had rallied my wits somewhat.
The feeling of profound exhaustion was also
passing. I was dressed, and the mere being


dressed was in its way a help towards the
composure of the mind. I was man to man
with the ruffian, but not his match no, I had
but to run my eye over his figure to understand
that. I sat contemplating his villainous face
and thinking. There was a boat-stretcher at
my feet; but the man's fierce, keen eye was
upon me ; before I could grasp and employ
the stretcher, the fellow would have guessed
my intentions, and I must therefore either sit
still and wait until I could understand what
he meant to do, or fling myself upon him and
take the chance of being hurled overboard.
No purpose could be served by my capsizing
the boat. I was now clothed, and my move-
ments in the water would, therefore, be
seriously hampered ; and then, again, if I en-
gaged in a struggle, with the intention of
capsizing the boat, and succeeded in doing so,
it might be his fortune to regain her and to
keep me off from her, and, apparelled and


exhausted as I was, T should not long be able
to remain afloat.

He continued to row along a course that was
still parallel with the coast. He rowed with
a sort of sulky energy, and often directed a
furious look at me, whilst his leather nether
lip worked as though he were reciting some
charm to himself. Presently I said to him,
" Where are you taking me to ? Why will
you not put me ashore where we started from ?
You have tried to drown me, and your object
can be nothing but plunder, for I have not
offended you, I have done you no wrong, and,
therefore, your only reason for attempting to
drown me must be the jewellery upon rne, and
such money as you may hope I have in my
pocket. Now, I will give you all that I possess
my watch and chain, this ring, and the two or
three pounds which I have in my pocket if
you will set me ashore where I came from."

He stared fiercely at me, but made no response.


" Do you fear I will charge you with the
crime you have attempted ? " said I. " If you
will set me ashore in safety I swear not to say
a word upon what has happened."

" I'm going to set ye ashore," he exclaimed.

"But where?"

He flung his villainous head backwards to-
wards the sea over the bows of his boat and
said, " You'll be finding out afore long."

" Ah/' thought I, " if I had but a revolver in
my pocket, if I had but a knife, if I had but
any sort of weapon that I could furtively draw
forth and instantly employ ! "

The line of coast ran away down on the left-
hand side. The nearest town in the direction
the boatman was taking would be some miles
distant from the place in which I was staying.
The cliffs gradually rose to an altitude of hard
upon a hundred feet, with many indents and
little coves ; but the face of them, as we
advanced, grew more and yet more precipitous,


and in places the rocks stood abrupt and clean
as the side of a wall. When the harbour \
had quitted was out of sight, and the fii.a
group of houses on our side was hidden by the
bend of the cliffs, the boatman took a swift look
over his shoulder, then slightly changed the
course of his boat, making her head in for the
coast to a sort of bight of it, as it seemed,
formed by an angular projection of the huge,
iron-faced sea-terrace, so that it looked as
if the land ended where that point of coast
stood, for the horizon went to it, and we were
not far enough out to see the sweep of land

That the boatman designed some diabolical
act I did not doubt, but I could not imagine
what form it was to take. He meant to set me
ashore, he said. Did he intend to land and
then murder me ; to land me in some lonely
bight or cave, and there fall upon me, and slay
me ? No, I did not believe that. If lie in-


tended to make away with me for the sake of
my money and jewellery, it would be his busi-
ness to provide that I should appear to have
been drowned by accident. Otherwise, how
would he account for my disappearance ? Or,
if my body should be discovered, and marks of
a devilish outrage were visible upon it, what
answer would he be able to make to the charge
of having murdered me ?

But what then did he mean to do ? To set
me ashore ? In that case I should be able to
walk home and report what had happened.
Did he mean to return to the town that he
belonged to ? That could not signify, for let
him make for any port that he chose his capture
was ultimately certain.

He swept the boat in rapidly to the coast,
heading her for a curvature in the land that
might have passed for a miniature bay. The
sea remained a blank, save for those dim and
distant sails upon the horizon. The water


washed to the foot of the coast ; but in the
little bay, for which the villain was aiming, I
could perceive, as the boat rose on the slight
swell that was now running, the gleam of sand.
Nothing stirred on the heights ; we were now
within a quarter of a mile, but not a moving
object was visible. He continued to row until
the boat was in the embrace of the bay. The
dark cliffs soared like a. colossal rampart to high
overhead, and at either extremity of the curve
of the bay, at the point of either horn of it,
there was a little play of surf. The man flung
in his oars and stood up.

" Grive me that watch and chain of yourn ! "
he shouted.

I rose to my feet.

" Grive me that watch and chain," he roared
again, and thrusting his great dark hand into
his breeches pocket he whipped out a big clasp
knife, which he opened. " No trouble," he
exclaimed, " or I'll cut your throat."


I placed the watch and chain down upon a
thwart, and he pocketed them.

" Now pull out all the money you have."

This I did, and he took the coins and put
them in his pocket.

" Pull off that ring."

This I also did. He eyed me all over, still
grasping the knife. Then looking towards the
beach, he said, " That's where I'm going to
land ye. You're a good swimmer. Jump over-

1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Online LibraryThomas HardyStories in Black and white → online text (page 3 of 13)