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The Lively Poll: A Tale of the North Sea

The Lively Poll: A Tale of the North Sea

Author:R. M. Ballantyne


Manx Bradley was an admiral--"admiral of the fleet"--though it must be admitted that his personal appearance did not suggest a position so exalted...
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  Manx Bradley was an admiral--"admiral of the fleet"--though it must beadmitted that his personal appearance did not suggest a position soexalted.

  With rough pilot coat and sou'-wester, scarred and tarred hands, easy,rolling gait, and boots from heel to hip, with inch-thick soles, likethose of a dramatic buccaneer, he bore as little resemblance to thepopular idea of a lace-coated, brass-buttoned, cock-hatted admiral as asea-urchin bears to a cockle-shell. Nevertheless Manx was a realadmiral--as real as Nelson, and much harder worked.

  His fleet of nearly two hundred fishing-smacks lay bobbing about onefine autumn evening on the North Sea. The vessels cruised round eachother, out and in, hither and thither, in all positions, now on thistack, now on that, bowsprits pointing north, south, east, and west, asif without purpose, or engaged in a nautical game of "touch."Nevertheless all eyes were bent earnestly on the admiral's vessel, forit was literally the "flagship," being distinguishable only by a smallflag attached to its fore stay.

  The fleet was hovering, awaiting orders from the admiral. A fine smart"fishing breeze" was blowing. The setting sun sparkled on thewave-crests; thin fleecy clouds streaked the sky; everything gavepromise of a satisfactory night, and a good haul of fish in the morning.

  With the quiet air of an amiable despot Manx nodded his venerable head.Up went the signal, and in a few minutes the fleet was reduced to order.Every smack swept round into position, and, bending over on the sametack, they all rushed like a shoal of startled minnows, away in the samedirection--the direction signalled by the admiral. Another signal fromour venerable despot sent between one and two hundred trawl-nets down tothe bottom of the sea, nets that were strong enough to haul up tons offish, and rocks, and wreckage, and rubbish, with fifty-feet beams, likeyoung masts, with iron enough in bands and chains to sink them, and soarranged that the beams were raised a few feet off the ground, thuskeeping the mouths of the great nets open, while cables many fathoms inlength held the gears to their respective vessels.

  So the North Sea Fishermen began the night's work--the _Nancy_, the_Coquette_, the _Rattler_, the _Truant_, the _Faith_, the _Playfellow_,the _Cherub_, and all the rest of them. Of course, although the breezewas fresh, they went along slowly, because of the ponderous tails thatthey had to draw.

  Do you ask, reader, why all this order? why this despotic admiral, andall this unity of action? why not "every man for himself"? Let me replyby asking you to think for a moment.

  Wind blowing in one direction, perhaps you are aware, does notnecessarily imply vessels sailing in the same direction. With variationof courses possible, nearly two hundred tails out astern, and no unityof action, there would arise the certainty of varied and strikingincident. The _Nancy_ would go crashing into the bows of the_Coquette_, the bowsprit of the _Rallier_ would stir up the cabin of the_Truant_, the tail of the _Faith_ would get entangled with that of the_Cherub_, and both might hook on to the tail of the _Playfellow_; inshort, the awful result would be wreck and wretchedness on the NorthSea, howling despair in the markets of Columbia and Billingsgate, and nofish for breakfast in the great metropolis. There is reason for mostthings--specially good reason for the laws that regulate the fisheriesof the North Sea, the fleets of which are over twelve in number, and thefloating population over twelve thousand men and boys.

  For several hours this shoal of vessels, with full sails and twinklinglights, like a moving city on the deep, continued to tug and plungealong over the "banks" of the German ocean, to the satisfaction of thefishermen, and the surprise no doubt of the fish. About midnight theadmiral again signalled, by rocket and flares, "Haul up," andimmediately, with capstan, bar, and steam, the obedient crews began tocoil in their tails.

  It is not our intention to trouble the reader with a minute account ofthis process or the grand result, but, turning to a particular smack, wesolicit attention to that. She is much like the others in size and rig.Her name is the _Lively Poll_. Stephen Lockley is her skipper, as finea young fisherman as one could wish to see--tall, handsome, free,hearty, and powerful. But indeed all deep-sea fishermen possess thelast quality. They would be useless if not physically strong. Many aSamson and Hercules is to be found in the North Sea fleets. "No betternursery or training-school in time of war," they say. That may be true,but it is pleasanter to think of them as a training-school for times ofpeace.

  The night was very dark. Black clouds overspread the sky, so that nolight save the dim rays of a lantern cheered the men as they went tramp,tramp, round the capstan, slowly coiling in the trawl-warp. Sheets ofspray sometimes burst over the side and drenched them, but they carednothing for that, being pretty well protected by oilskins, sou'-westers,and sea-boots. Straining and striving, sometimes gaining an inch ortwo, sometimes a yard or so, while the smack plunged and kicked, thecontest seemed like a doubtful one between _vis inertiae_ and the humanwill. Two hours and a half it lasted, until the great trawl-beam cameto the surface, and was got up on the vessel's side, after which theseindomitable men proceeded to claw up the huge net with their fingers,straining and heaving with might and main.

  "Yo, ho!" cried the skipper, "heave her in, boys!"

  "Hoy!" growled Peter Jay, the mate, giving a tug that should have tornthe net to pieces--but didn't!

  "Looks like as if we'd got hold of a lump o' wreck," gasped Bob Lumsden,the smack's boy, who was also the smack's cook.

  "No, no, Lumpy," remarked David Duffy, who was no respecter of names orpersons, "it ain't a wreck, it's a mermaid. I've bin told they weighover six ton when young. Look out when she comes aboard--she'll bite."

  "I do believe it's old Neptune himself," said Jim Freeman, another ofthe "hands." "There's his head; an' something like his pitchfork."

  "It does feel heavier than I ever knowed it afore," remarked FredMartin.

  "That's all along of your bein' ill, Fred," said the mate.

  "It may be so," returned Martin, "for I do feel queer, an' a'most asweak as a baby. Come heave away!"

  It was indeed a huge mass of wreck entangled with sea-weed which hadrendered the net so heavy on that occasion, but there was also asatisfactory mass of fish in the "cod-end," or bag, at the extremity ofthe net, for, when, by the aid of the winch, this cod-end was finallygot inboard, and the cord fastening the bottom of it was untied, fish ofall kinds gushed over the wet decks in a living cataract.

  There were a few expressions of satisfaction from the men, but not muchconversation, for heavy work had still to be done--done, too, in thedark. Turbot, sole, cod, skate, and all the other treasures of thedeep, had to be then and there gutted, cleaned, and packed in squareboxes called "trunks," so as to be ready for the steam-carrier nextmorning. The net also had to be cleared and let down for another catchbefore daybreak.

  Now it is just possible that it may never have occurred to the reader toconsider how difficult, not to say dangerous, must be the operation ofgutting, cleaning, and packing fish on a dark night with a smack dancinga North Sea hornpipe under one's feet. Among the dangers are two whichmerit notice. The one is the fisherman's liability, while working amongthe "ruck," to run a sharp fish-bone into his hand, the other to gashhimself with his knife while attempting to operate on the tail of askate. Either accident may be slight or it may be severe.

  A sudden exclamation from one of the men while employed in this cleaningand packing work told that something had happened.

  "There goes Martin," growled Joe Stubley; "you can always tell when it'shim, 'cause he don't curse an' swear."

  Stubley--or Stubby, as his mates called him--did not intend this for acompliment by any means, though it may sound like one. Being anirreligious as well as a stupid man, he held that all who professedreligion were hypocritical and silly. Manliness, in poor Jo's mind,consisted of swagger, quiet insolence, cool cursing, and generalgodlessness. With the exception of Fred Martin, the rest of the crew ofthe _Lively Poll_ resembled him in his irreligion, but they were verydifferent in character,--Lockley, the skipper being genial; Peter Jay,the mate, very appreciative of humour, though quiet and sedate; Duffy,jovial and funny; Freeman, kindly, though reckless; and Bob, theboy-cook, easy-going both as to mind and morals. They all liked Martin,however, in spite of his religion, for he practised much and preachedlittle.

  "What's wrong?" asked Lockley, who stood at the tiller looking out forlights ahead.

  "Only a bone into my left hand," replied Martin, going on with hissomewhat dirty labours.

  "Well that it's no worse, boy," observed Freeman, "for we've got nomedicine-chest to fly to like that lucky Short-Blue fleet."

  "That's true, Jim," responded Martin; "I wish we had a Gospel smack withour fleet, for our souls need repairing as well as our bodies."

  "There you go," growled Stubley, flinging down a just finished fish witha flap of indignation. "A feller can't mention the name o' them missioncraft without rousin' you up to some o' your hypocritical chaff. For mypart, if it wasn't for the medicine-chest and the mittens, I think we'dbe better by a long way without Gospel ships, as ye call 'em. Why, whatgood 'ave they done the Short-Blues? I'm sure _we_ doesn't wantchurches, or prayin', or psalm-singin' or book--"

  "Speak for yourself, Jo," interrupted Puffy.

  "Although your head may be as thick as a three-inch plank, through whichnothin' a'most can pass either from books or anything else, you mustn'tthink we've bin all built on the same lines. I likes a good bookmyself, an', though I don't care about prayin' or psalm-singin', seein'I don't understand 'em, I say `good luck' to the mission smacks, if itwas for nothin' else than the books, an' doctor stuff, an' mitts whatthe shoregoin' ladies--bless their hearts!--is so fond o' sendin' tous."

  "Ay, an the cheap baccy, too, that they say they're a-goin' to send tous," added Freeman.

  "P'r'aps they'll send us cheap grog at last," said Puffy, with a laugh.

  "They'll hardly do that," remarked Martin; "for it's to try an' keep usfrom goin' for our baccy to the _copers_ that they've started this newplan."

  "I wish 'em success," said Lockley, in a serious tone. And there wasgood ground for that wish, for our genial and handsome skipper waspeculiarly weak on the point of strong drink, that being to him apowerful, almost irresistible, temptation.

  When the fish-cleaning and packing were completed, the men went below tosnatch a few hours' repose. Wet, weary, and sleepy, but with a largestock of reserve strength in them, they retired to the little cabin, inwhich they could scarcely stand up without bumping their heads, andcould hardly turn round without hitting their elbows on something orother. Kicking off their long boots, and throwing aside oilskin coatsand sou'-westers, they tumbled into their narrow "bunks" and fell asleepalmost without winking.

  There was one among them, however, who did not sleep long that night.Fred Martin was soon awakened by the pain of his wound, which had begunto inflame, and by a feeling of giddiness and intense uneasiness withwhich he had been troubled for several days past.

  Turning out at last, he sat down in front of the little iron stove thatserved to cook food as well as to warm the cabin, and, gazing into theembers, began to meditate on his strangely uncomfortable sensations.

  "Hallo, Martin, anything wrong?" asked the mate, who descended at thatmoment to relight his pipe.

  "I believe there is, mate. I never felt like this afore. I've fowtagainst it till I can hardly stand. I feel as if I was goin' to knockunder altogether. This hand, too, seems gittin' bad. I do think myblood must be poisoned, or somethin' o' that sort. You know I don'teasily give in, but when a feller feels as if little red-hot wires wastwistin' about inside of him, an' sees things goin' round as if he wasdrunk, why--"

  "Why, it's time to think of goin' home," interrupted Jay, with a laugh."But let's have a look at you, Fred. Well, there does seem to be someo' your riggin' slack. Have you ever had the measles?"

  "Not as I knows of."

  "Looks like it," said the mate, lighting his pipe. "P'r'aps it'll be aswell to send you into dock to refit. You'd better turn in again,anyhow, for a snooze would do you good."

  Fred Martin acted on this advice, while Jay returned to the deck; but itwas evident that the snooze was not to be had, for he continued to turnand toss uneasily, and to wonder what was wrong with him, as stronghealthy men are rather apt to do when suddenly seized with sickness.

  At grey dawn the admiral signalled again. The order was to haul up thenets, which had been scraping the bottom of the sea since midnight, andthe whole fleet set to work without delay.

  Martin turned out with the rest, and tried to defy sickness for a time,but it would not do. The strong man was obliged to succumb to astronger than he--not, however, until he had assisted as best as hecould in hauling up the trawl.

  This second haul of the gear of the _Lively Poll_ illustrated one ofthose mishaps, to which all deep-sea trawlers are liable, and which areof frequent occurrence. A piece of wreck or a lost anchor, orsomething, had caught the net, and torn it badly, so that when itreached the surface all the fish had escaped.

  "A night's work for nothing!" exclaimed Stephen Lockley, with an oath.

  "_Might_ have been worse," suggested Martin.

  By that time it was broad daylight, and as they had no fish to pack, thecrew busied themselves in removing the torn net from the beam, andfitting on a new one. At the same time the crews of the other smackssecured their various and varied hauls, cleaned, packed, and got readyfor delivery.

  The smoke of the steam-carrier was seen on the horizon early in theforenoon, and all the vessels of the fleet made for her, as chickensmake for their mother in times of danger.

  We may not pause here to describe the picturesque confusion thatensued--the arriving, congregating, tacking, crossing, and re-crossingof smacks; the launching of little boats, and loading them with"trunks;" the concentration of these round the steamer like minnowsround a whale; the shipping of the cargo, and the tremendous hurry andenergy displayed in the desire to do it quickly, and get the fish freshto market. Suffice it to say that in less than four hours the steamerwas loaded, and Fred Martin, fever-stricken and with a highly inflamedhand and arm, started on a thirty-six hours' voyage to London.

  Then the fleet sheered off and fell into order, the admiral issued hisinstructions, and away they all went again to continue the hard,unvarying round of hauling and toiling and moiling, in heat and cold,wet and dry, with nothing to lighten the life or cheer the heart save agame at "crib" or "all fives," or a visit to the _coper_, that terriblecurse of the North Sea.