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The Lifeboat

The Lifeboat

Author:R. M. Ballantyne


There existed, not many years ago, a certain street near the banks of old Father Thames which may be described as being one of the most modest and retiring little streets in London...
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  There existed, not many years ago, a certain street near the banks ofold Father Thames which may be described as being one of the most modestand retiring little streets in London.

  The neighbourhood around that street was emphatically dirty and noisy.There were powerful smells of tallow and tar in the atmosphere,suggestive of shipping and commerce. Narrow lanes opened off the mainstreet affording access to wharves and warehouses, and presenting attheir termini segmentary views of ships' hulls, bowsprits, and booms,with a background of muddy water and smoke. There were courts withunglazed windows resembling doors, and massive cranes clinging to thewalls. There were yards full of cases and barrels, and great anchorsand chains, which invaded the mud of the river as far as was consistentwith safety; and adventurous little warehouses, which stood on piles, upto the knees, as it were, in water, totally regardless of appearances,and utterly indifferent as to catching cold. As regards the populationof this locality, rats were, perhaps, in excess of human beings; and itmight have been observed that the former were particularly frolicsomeand fearless.

  Farther back, on the landward side of our unobtrusive street, commercialand nautical elements were more mingled with things appertaining todomestic life. Elephantine horses, addicted to good living, drewthrough the narrow streets wagons and vans so ponderous and giganticthat they seemed to crush the very stones over which they rolled, andran terrible risk of sweeping little children out of the upper windowsof the houses. In unfavourable contrast with these, donkeys, of themost meagre and starved aspect, staggered along with cartloads of fustyvegetables and dirty-looking fish, while the vendors thereof howled thenature and value of their wares with deliberate ferocity. Lowpawnbrokers

chiefly in the "slop" line

obtruded their seedy wares fromdoors and windows halfway across the pavement, as if to tempt the naked;and equally low pastry-cooks spread forth their stale viands in unglazedwindows, as if to seduce the hungry.

  Here the population was mixed and varied. Busy men of business and ofwealth, porters and wagoners, clerks and warehousemen, rubbed shoulderswith poor squalid creatures, men and women, whose business or calling noone knew and few cared to know except the policeman on the beat, who,with stern suspicious glances, looked upon them as objects of specialregard, and as enemies; except, also, the earnest-faced man in seedyblack garments, with a large Bible


in his pocket, wholikewise looked on them as objects of special regard, and as friends.The rats were much more circumspect in this locality. They were whatthe Yankees would call uncommonly "cute," and much too deeply intent onbusiness to indulge in play.

  In the lanes, courts, and alleys that ran still farther back into thegreat hive, there was an amount of squalor, destitution, violence, sin,and misery, the depth of which was known only to the people who dweltthere, and to those earnest-faced men with Bibles who made it their workto cultivate green spots in the midst of such unpromising wastes, and tofoster the growth of those tender and beautiful flowers which sometimesspring and flourish where, to judge from appearances, one might betempted to imagine nothing good could thrive. Here also there wererats, and cats too, besides dogs of many kinds; but they all of them ledhard lives of it, and few appeared to think much of enjoying themselves.Existence seemed to be the height of their ambition. Even the kittenswere depressed, and sometimes stopped in the midst of a faint attempt atplay to look round with a scared aspect, as if the memory of kicks andblows was strong upon them.

  The whole neighbourhood, in fact, teemed with sad yet interesting sightsand scenes, and with strange violent contrasts. It was not a spot whichone would naturally select for a ramble on a summer evening afterdinner; nevertheless it was a locality where time might have beenprofitably spent, where a good lesson or two might have been learned bythose who have a tendency to "consider the poor."

  But although the neighbourhood was dirty and noisy, our modest street,which was at that time known by the name of Redwharf Lane, wascomparatively clean and quiet. True, the smell of tallow and tar couldnot be altogether excluded, neither could the noises; but these scentsand sounds reached it in a mitigated degree, and as the street was not athoroughfare, few people entered it, except those who had businessthere, or those who had lost their way, or an occasional street boy ofan explorative tendency; which last, on finding that it was a quietspot, invariably entered a protest against such an outrageous idea asquietude in "the City" by sending up a series of hideous yells, andretiring thereafter precipitately.

  Here, in Redwharf Lane, was the office of the firm of Denham, Crumps,and Company.

  Mr Denham stood with his back to the fire, for it was a coldish autumnday, with his coat-tails under his arms. He was a big bald man offive-and-forty, with self-importance enough for a man offive-hundred-and-forty. Mr Crumps sat in a small back-office, workingso diligently that one might have supposed he was endeavouring to bringup the arrears of forty years' neglect, and had pledged himself to haveit done before dinner. He was particularly small, excessively thin,very humble, rather deaf, and upwards of sixty. Company had died oflockjaw two years previous to the period of which we write, and istherefore unworthy of farther notice. A confidential clerk had taken,and still retained, his place.

  Messrs. Denham, Crumps, and Company, were shipowners. Report said thatthey were rich, but report frequently said what was not true in thosedays. Whether it has become more truthful in the present days, remainsan open question. There can be no question, however, that much businesswas done at the office in Redwharf Lane, and that, while Denham lived ina handsome mansion in Russell Square, and Crumbs dwelt in a sweetcottage in Kensington, Company had kept a pony phaeton, and had died ina snug little villa on Hampstead Heath.

  The office of Denham, Crumps, and Company was small and unpretending, aswas the street in which it stood. There was a small green door with asmall brass plate and a small brass knocker, all of which, when openedby their attendant, a small tiger in blue, with buttons, gave admittanceto a small passage that terminated in a small room. This was the outeroffice, and here sat the four clerks of the establishment on four tallstools, writing in four monstrous volumes, as furiously as if they weredecayed authors whose lives depended on the result. Their salaries did,poor fellows, and that was much the same thing!

  A glass door, with scratches here and there, through which the head ofthe firm could gaze unseen, separated "the office" from Denham's room,and a wooden door separated that from Crumps' room, beyond which therewas a small closet or cell which had been Company's room before thatgentleman died. It was now used as a repository for ancient books andpapers.

  "Very odd," said Mr Denham, and as he said so he touched a small silverbell that stood on his writing-table.

  The tiger in blue and buttons instantly appeared.

  "Here, Peekins, post these letters. Has no one called this afternoon; Imean, no one resembling a sailor?"

  The boy in blue started, and his face became very red.

  "Why, what's the matter, boy? What do you mean by staring at me,instead of answering my question?"

  "Please, sir," stammered Peekins meekly, "I didn't mean no 'arm, sir,but you see, sir, his face was so drefful fierce, and he looked sich awild--"

  "Boy, are you mad?" interrupted Mr Denham, advancing and seizing thetiger by his blue collar; "what are you talking about? Now, answer myquestion at once, else I'll shake the little life you have out of yourbody. Did any sailor-like man call at the office this afternoon?"

  "Oh, sir, yes, sir,--I--I--thought he was drunk and wouldn't let 'im in,sir; he's bin a standin' stampin' at the door for more than--"

  The end of the sentence was cut short by Mr Denham suddenly ejectingthe boy from the room and shouting, "Let him in!"

  In a few seconds a heavy tread was heard in the outer office, and theboy ushered in a tall young man, of unusually large proportions, withextremely broad shoulders, and apparently about twenty-three years ofage, whose rough pilot-coat, wide pantaloons, and glazed hat bespoke hima sailor. His countenance was flushed, and an angry frown contractedhis brow as he strode into the room, pulled off his hat and stood beforethe head of the house of Denham, Crumps, and Company.

  "I beg pardon, sir," began the sailor, somewhat sharply, yet withoutdisrespect, "when I am asked to come--"

  "Yes, yes, Bax," interposed Mr Denham, "I know what you would say.Pray calm yourself. It is a pity you should have been kept waitingoutside, but the fact is that my boy is a new one, and apparently he isdestitute of common sense. Sit down. I sent for you to say that I wishyou to take the `Nancy' to Liverpool. You will be ready to start atonce, no doubt--"

  "Before the schooner is overhauled?" inquired Bax, in surprise.

  "Of course," said Denham, stiffly; "I see no occasion for _another_overhaul. That schooner will cost us more than she is worth if we go onrepairing at the rate we have been doing the last two years."

  "She needs it all, sir," rejoined Bax, earnestly. "The fact is, MrDenham, I feel it to be my duty to tell you that there ain't a soundplank or timber in her from stem to stern, and I'm pretty sure that ifshe costs you money, she's likely to cost me and the men aboard of herour lives. I strongly advise you to strike her off the books, and get anew one."

  "Mr Bax," said Denham, pompously, "you are too young a man to offeryour advice unless it is asked. I believe the engineer employed by meto examine into the condition of my vessels is quite competent to judgein these matters, and I have unbounded confidence in him. When I placedyou in command of the `Nancy,' I meant you to navigate, not to criticiseher; but if you are afraid to venture--"

  "Afraid!" cried the young sailor, reddening. "Is anxiety about thelives of your men and the safety of your property to be called fear?_I_ am willing to sail in the `Nancy' as long as a plank of her willhold to her ribs, but--"

  Bax paused and bit his lip, as if to keep back words which had betternot be spoken.

  "Well, then," rejoined Mr Denham, affecting to disregard the pause,"let me hear no more about repairs. When these require to be done, they_shall_ be done. Meanwhile, go and make preparation to sail by themorning tides which serves about--what hour, think you?"

  "Flood at half after six," said Bax, curtly.

  "Very well, come up here at half-past five, one of the clerks will seeyou. You will have to run down to Dover in the first place, and whenthere my agent will give you further instructions. Good afternoon!"

  Bax rose and quitted the room with a stern "Good day, sir."

  As he passed through the outer office he was arrested by one of theclerks laying a hand on his shoulder.

  "Well, Mr Foster," said Bax, a bright smile chasing the frown from hisface, "it seems we're to swim if we can, or sink if we can't thiswinter;--but what want ye with me?"

  "You are to call me Guy, not _Mister_ Foster," said the lad, gaily. "Iwant to know where you are to be found after six this evening."

  "At the `Three Jolly Tars,'" answered Bax, clapping on his glazed hat.

  "All right, I'll look you up. Good-day."

  "Guy Foster," shouted Mr Denham from the inner room.

  "Yes, uncle," and in another moment the youth was standing, pen in hand,in the august presence of his relative, who regarded him with a coldstare of displeasure.

  There could scarcely have been conceived a stronger contrast in naturethan that which existed between the starched, proud, and portly uncle,and the tall, handsome, and hearty young nephew, whose age was scarcelytwenty years.

  "How often am I to tell you, sir," said Mr Denham, "that `yes, uncle,'is much too familiar and unbusinesslike a phrase to be used in thisoffice in the hearing of your fellow-clerks?"

  "I beg pardon, uncle, I'm sure I had no intention of--"

  "There, that will do, I want no apology, I want obedience and attentionto my expressed wishes. I suppose that you expect to get away for a fewdays' holiday?"

  "Well, unc--, sir, I mean, if it is quite convenient I should--"

  "It is _not_ quite convenient," interrupted the uncle. "It cannotpossibly, at any time, be convenient to dispense with the services of aclerk in a house where no supernumeraries are kept to talk slang andread the newspapers. I see no reason whatever in young men in ordinaryhealth expecting as a right, two or three weeks' leave each year withoutdeduction of salary. _I_ never go to the country or to the sea-sidefrom one year's end to the other."

  "You'd be much the better for it if you did, uncle," interposed Guy.

  "That, _sir_," retorted Denham with emphasis, "is _your_ opinion, andyou will allow me to say that it is erroneous, as most of your opinions,I am sorry to find, are. _I_ find that no change is necessary for myhealth. I am in better condition than many who go to Margate everysummer. I thrive on town air, sir, and on city life."

  There was much truth in these observations. The worthy merchant didindeed seem to enjoy robust health, and there could be no question that,as far as physical appearances went, he did thrive on high living, foulair, and coining money. Tallow and tar sent forth delicious odours tohim, and thick smoke was pleasant to his nostrils, for he dealt largelyin coal, and all of these, with many kindred substances, were productiveof the one great end and object of his life--gold.

  "However," pursued Mr Denham, leaning back on the mantle-piece, "as thetyrannical customs of society cannot be altogether set at nought, Isuppose I must let you go."

  "Thank you, unc--sir," said Guy, who, having been chained to the desk inthe office of Redwharf Lane for the last eleven months, felt his youngheart bounding wildly within him at the prospect of visiting, even for abrief period, his mother's cottage on the coast of Kent.

  "You have no occasion to thank _me_," retorted Mr Denham; "you areindebted entirely to the tyrannical customs and expectations of societyfor the permission. Good-bye, you may convey my respects to yourmother."

  "I will, sir."

  "Have you anything further to say?" asked Mr Denham, observing that theyouth stood looking perplexedly at the ground, and twirling hiswatch-key.

  "Yes, uncle, I have," answered Guy, plucking up courage. "The fact is--that, is to say--you know that wrecks are very common off the coast ofKent."

  "Certainly, I do," said Denham with a frown. "I have bitter cause toknow that. The loss occasioned by the wreck of the `Sea-gull' lastwinter was very severe indeed. The subject is not a pleasant one; haveyou any good reason for alluding to it?"

  "I have, uncle; as you say, the loss of the `Sea-gull' was severe, for,besides the loss of a fine vessel and a rich cargo, there was theinfinitely more terrible loss of the lives of twenty-two human beings."

  As Mr Denham had not happened to think of the loss of life thatoccurred on the occasion, and had referred solely to the loss of shipand cargo, which, by a flagrant oversight on the part of one of hisclerks, had not been insured; he made no rejoinder, and Guy, after amoment's pause, went on--

  "The effect of this calamity was so powerful on the minds of the peopleof Deal and Walmer, near which the wreck took place, that a publicmeeting was called, and a proposal made that a lifeboat should beestablished there."

  "Well?" said Mr Denham.

  "Well," continued the youth, "my mother gave a subscription; but beingpoor she could not give much."

  "Well, well," said Mr Denham impatiently.

  "And--and _I_ gave a little, a very little, towards it too," said Guy.

  "Your salary is not large; it was very foolish of you to waste yourmoney in this way."

  "Waste it, uncle!"

  "Come, sir, what does all this tend to?" said Denham, sternly.

  "I thought--I hoped--indeed I felt assured," said Guy earnestly, "that_you_ would give something towards this good object--"

  "Oh, did you?" said the merchant, cutting him short; "then, sir, allowme to say that you were never more mistaken in your life. I never givemoney in charity. I believe it to be a false principle, which tends tothe increase of beggars and criminals. You can go now."

  "But consider, uncle," entreated Guy, "this is no ordinary charity. Alifeboat there might be the means of saving hundreds of lives; and oh!if you could have seen, as I did, the despairing faces of these poorpeople as they clung to the rigging scarcely a stone's-cast from theshore, on which the waves beat so furiously that no boat except alifeboat could have lived for a moment; if you could have heard, as Idid, the wild shriek of despair as the masts went by the board, andplunged every living soul into the raging sea, I am certain that youwould gladly give a hundred pounds or more towards this philanthropicobject."

  "Nephew," said Denham, "I will not give a sixpence. Your inexperienceand enthusiasm lead you astray, sir, in this matter. Lifeboats arecapable of being upset as well as ordinary boats, and there are cases onrecord in which the crews of them have been drowned as well as thepeople whom they recklessly went out to save. My opinion is, thatpersons who devote themselves to a sea-faring life must make up theirminds to the chances and risks attending such a life. Now you have myanswer--good-bye, and give my best regards to your sister. I willexpect you back next Saturday week."

  "I have still another favour to ask, sir," said Guy, after somehesitation.

  "Has it anything to do with what you are pleased to term a philanthropicobject?"

  "It has."

  "Then," said Mr Denham, "save me the trouble of refusing, and yourselfthe pain of a refusal, by holding your tongue,--and retiring."

  Guy coloured, and was about to turn away in disgust, but, repressing hisindignation by a powerful effort, he advanced with a cheerfulcountenance, and held out his hand.

  "Well, good-bye, uncle. If ever you go to the coast, and happen to seea storm and a shipwreck, you'll change your mind, I think, in regard tothis matter."

  Mr Denham did go to the coast, and, did see a storm and a shipwreck,but whether this prediction ever came true is a point that shall not berevealed at this part of our narrative.