Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/"He's not come yet"

“HE’S NOT COME YET.”


When I first came to live in Falmouth, there stood a most broken-down, dilapidated house, the back windows of which overlooked the sea, and which was known by the name of the Fisherman’s Home. In that house, just fifty years ago, there lived two fishermen, who were partners—one pursuing his trade by day, the other fishing by night. Michael Tregillian owned the house, in which Nancolas (his partner) rented a room. Michael was an honest-hearted, even-tempered, good man, frank and open, steady and industrious. With the break of day he set out to fish, generally returning at dusk. For these reasons his opportunities for making friends were scarce, and his hours for relaxation few; and, besides the few old fishermen with whom (when his day’s work was at an end) he smoked his pipe and took his glass, he had neither friends nor acquaintances.

Paul Nancolas (Tregillian’s partner) was a stout, well-built man, who had seen some five-and-forty winters, and after having passed his earlier years in His Majesty’s Service, he had for some reason left the Navy to take to the trade he was then pursuing. He drank hard, smoked, and gambled; and between the little tavern where he drank and his stall in the market where he gossipped, he managed to waste his best hours, and to squander his own earnings as well as those of his hard-working partner. Gloomy and sullen, uncouth and brutal, caring not whom he pleased or offended, as ready for a fight as he was for a glass, Nancolas was sneered at, pitied, and despised.

Repulsed on all sides, and deserted even by those of his own habits, who could no longer endure his ferocity, the partnership that existed between himself and Tregillian must have speedily come to an end, but for a small inmate in Michael’s house who exercised a strange influence in reforming the habits and improving the nature of the brutalised, drunken fisherman. Tregillian had a wife, and one son—the latter a little fellow, who, when Nancolas entered into partnership, was about a twelvemonth old. The man was unwearied in his exertions at his trade, whilst the mother kept a small chandler’s shop and took in needlework. Hour by hour, and day by day, they laboured for the lad: many and many a night, when the little town has been apparently wrapt in darkness, has a small light twinkled through the crevices in the window-shutter, showing too plainly, to those who knew the people, the mother’s unceasing labour for her boy.

I have heard, and believe, that upon more occasions than I care to number, the fisherman and his wife have deprived themselves of the common necessaries of life, that their darling should in the future reap the benefit of their self-denying frugality.

I call to mind sometimes the labour of this couple, as I sit by my window in the sunset, mentally picturing and laying plans for the sunny morrow, which the first dark cloud may dash for ever aside.

This boy had a singular influence on Paul Nancolas; and he alone was the sole and unconscious instrument in working out that man’s partial reformation. The child was not afraid of his father’s rough partner: shy of others, the little fellow had always a laugh for him; he was willing to go to this bold, bad man, and in time Nancolas was, by slow consent, induced to take into his great, rough, weather-beaten arms, this baby-boy; and once, it is said, he was so far forgetful of his nature, as to press the little mouth with his gin-stained lips. By slow degrees, was the drunkard won from his dissolute course. The change was scarcely perceptible at first, but step by step he was weaned from his seat in The Jolly Sailor’s taproom to a corner at Tregillian’s fireside; and though years passed before people believed that Nancolas was a sober man, yet that day came at last, when his old companions laughed at him, and the neighbours pointed him out as a reformed reprobate. To carry out the impression he had made, and in testimony to those who were willing to think well of him, Paul Nancolas in all sincerity one morning pledged himself to taste no more liquor for the next twelve months—a promise that required some nerve to make; but Nancolas made it, and resolved the vow should be kept.

Twelve years had passed, and on each anniversary had Nancolas renewed his vow of temperance. The time that had served to erase the dark spots that stained the fisherman’s former life, had transformed the unconscious cause into a robust and handsome youth; whilst the passing fondness that had arisen in the fisherman’s breast for the child, had grown into a deep-rooted attachment for the boy. That boy (as Nancolas often said) had been the first that had ever cast a thought on him—almost the only soul who had given him a tender look. “God bless the boy!” He had won him unknowingly from the bad, and made him know what it was to hold up his head with the good and true; then snapping his fingers, either in defiance of his past state, or in exultation at his present, he would hug the fair-haired little fellow closer to his big, manly breast, and in his heavy sea-boots go crashing along the beach to his boat wherein to set sail for his evening trip. On these occasions (when the weather was fine and the sky clear) the boy was his companion for half the distance, returning in his father’s boat, which they usually met.

It was about half-past eight o’clock on a Friday evening in August, about thirty years ago, that Paul Nancolas, accompanied by his little charge, prepared to set sail. Hitherto (as I have said) the boy had gone with him but halfway; but, upon this night,—the fishing season being a good one, and Paul deeming he might need the lad’s help—he had wrung from the parents a reluctant consent that the little fellow should be his midnight companion.

The sunlight was fading into ten thousand broad red streaks upon the vast expanse of water; and as the sun sank into the bosom of the ocean, the tide bore them steadily to the mouth of the Bay. It was a calm and beautiful evening, and nature looked very lovely in the declining light of day: the sun cast its departing rays upon the grey stone of the old castles, and tinged the tops of the tiny waves: it was still: the breeze bore on it, at intervals, the laughter from the window of the little village alehouse that stood upon the shore; and from the boat a mile ahead of them, the ditty of the fisherman came mingling with the pleasant air, as the light faded gradually; and the moon, with its mild beams, turned into silver what had been the streaks of gold, lighting up the darkening landscape with its soft mellowy beams. All things were so quiet, it seemed as if, in its own calm, nature had lulled herself to sleep.

The twinkling lights that dotted here and there the shore, became each moment paler in the distance; the rustling of the trees was lost in the murmur of the ocean; the land receded further and further from their view, till they appeared alone upon the moonlit sea. Nancolas began now to be alarmed at the protracted absence of Tregillian, whose boat he ought to have met some time before: he was the more uneasy, as the old man had complained before starting of giddiness, and had of late been ailing.

It was about this time that, resting on his oars, looking round, Paul observed that the boat from the owner of which they had heard the ditty proceeding was making towards them; and the fisherman, as he rowed along, was chaunting the burden of an old song, that had been a favourite with Nancolas, long before the birth of little Tregillian.

Heaven knows for what reason, but of all the revellers who jeered at his temperate habits, Nancolas had avoided this man. Tolbody, for that was his name, had staid out later, much later, than was usual for him to do, and was making his way to land with a heavy draught of fish; rowing hard against wind and tide.

As they neared, Tolbody hailed Nancolas, and brought his fishing-boat alongside.

“Why, mate, we see nought of ye now,” began Tolbody; “if thee don’t care about taking a sup, ye needn’t be above a pipe, now and then.”

Nancolas bade him a good-night, and would have rowed on.

“Stop, stop, mate!” roared the other; “what’s the hoorry? Sure the fishes won’t come the sooner to thy nets, for thy speed; I want something to speak to thee about.”

The fisherman stopped irresolutely on his oars. He had been nettled that day, more than once, at the ridicule he had had to endure from his old associates; who invariably made it a point, on each succeeding anniversary of his taking the pledge, to follow Paul to the beach with a derisive cheer. This day was the twelfth anniversary, and he had writhed under the yearly torment thus inflicted. If he passed this man without a greeting,—if he refused to throw him a word, his motive might be misconstrued, and that act set down as one of fear, which would have been done in reality from the wish to avoid an altercation.

“I’m in a hurry, master,” returned Nancolas; “I want to make the best use of wind and tide.”

“Why, mate, you’re not afraid?”

“Afraid—no! What should I be afraid on? You’ve little cause to say so. Master Tolbody.”

Tolbody laughed sneeringly, and winking at Nancolas, lifted his hand to his mouth, raising his little finger in the an*.

“Fourteenth of August!” he added. “This is the day, isn’t it, friend? Why they say you’re ’bliged to swear, or you couldn’t keep your promise.”

Stung with the last retort, and smarting under the jeers of his former friends on shore, Nancolas answered roughly—that it would be well if some minded business of their own, and that for his part he wanted no promise to bind him; he bade the other good-night, and resumed his oars.

“Stay, stay, man alive: we know each other. I don’t believe what they say of you. Too many’s the day we’ve come across each other, for me to be afraid to stake my davy, that if Nancolas says he’ll do a thing, why done that thing will be. I’d trust you with a bottle when there wasn’t a soul looking on, with the devil himself to tempt ye.”

Nancolas released the oar from his hand, and grasped that of Tolbodys.

The shot had struck home. The man whose reformation had been born of a baby’s love, was moved by the kind word from one whose ridicule he feared.

“That’s hearty, master! You’re one of the only mates that’s had a faith in Paul Nancolas, and I honour you for it.”

“Here,” cried the other, feeling in his pocket; “take this as a proof that I mean what I say. I’ll wager the cork won’t be drawn before I set eyes on it agen!

So saying, he flung a corked wicker-bottle into the boat, and bidding Nancolas “God-speed,” made the best of his way towards the shore, to tell the tale to the group of fishermen, who nightly met at the Jolly Sailor, and impatiently to await the return of what he believed would be the drunken fisherman.

The sky had become overcast; large black clouds were fast obscuring the moon; the wind, too, had risen, and by the faint light which occasionally penetrated the darkness, breakers ahead were discernible.

Large drops of rain began now to fall, the sky was every moment growing darker; and the stillness and blackness of the night was broken only by the distant peals of thunder, and the vivid streaks of lightning, which seemed to split the horizon. Nancolas was hardened to such sights; but he was anxious for the boy, who, shivering with cold, had crept into the forepart of the boat. Fortunately the wind was with them, and Nancolas could relinquish his oars for a time, as he threw his oilskin coat around the lad, and patting him on the head bade him keep a good heart. In searching his pocket for the muffler that he usually wore, his hand came in contact with the wicker-bottle.

He took it out, and looked at it, by the sickly light of the lantern which he held; the boy was cold—a drop would warm him—must do him good. He hesitated a moment, then with his teeth he drew the cork.

“Here, Jimmy lad, take a sup o’ that; it’ll keep thee heart up, and sarve to keep out cold.”

The boy—half-wondering, half-unconsciously—took a deep draught, and putting it from him, gasped for breath.

“It’s so strong, I feel ill—where’s father?”

“He’s not come yet,” replied Nancolas, anxious to conceal his own anxiety on the subject, and to calm the boy.

As he spoke his glance rested on the wicker-bottle; it was with a strange feeling of awe that, as he looked, he remembered the last words of the fisherman—“The cork won’t be drawn afore I sees it agen!

He pictured to himself the sneer that would rise to every face as he returned the bottle; he heard the laugh which would greet his account of having given it to the boy. The reputation which was the result of so much self-sacrifice and labour was destroyed; when the story was told he would be mistrusted, as the man who could be sober only when temptation was beyond his reach. “So then” (he muttered) “the work of years destroyed in a moment!”

Enlarging by his imagination the sneer, the laugh, the derisive jest, the loss of the friendship of those whom he most esteemed, calling to mind his desolate life of the past, again his brutal nature struggled hard for mastery, and he became in that short hour a desperate man. The wind had changed, and the fishing-boat was like a toy tossed on the great black waters: blackness was on the sea, blackness in the heavens, so dense he knew not where he was; his hopes were darkened like the night, whose very colour seemed in unison with his heart.

“Laughed at, as drunk!” he murmured, as he endeavoured to reef the sail—“not master of myself—laughed at as a boy that couldn’t command himself—I may as well be bad as be thought so!”

His courage, too, seemed to fail him with his hopes; and after a short pause, to renew his energy, he put the bottle to his lips.

The smell of blood will whet the appetite of the tamest beast; the taste of liquor aroused the worst passions of that man, and in one half-hour his better nature had fled.

But an hour before the peril to which he had exposed the boy, the absence of his partner, the coming storm, and their lonely situation, had filled him with gloomy fears and dark forebodings; but the draughts he imbibed from time to time from his friend’s wicker-bottle made him so forgetful of the past, so callous to the future, that he took little heed of either his own peril or of that in which he had placed the boy; and with an equal disregard for the fury of the elements, his fellow-partner’s return, the comfort or safety of his little charge—who, drenched and shivering, lay half-stupified by the gin he had imbibed in the forepart of the vessel—Nancolas stretched himself at full length, preparing for a heavy sleep.

Meanwhile the heart of the boy beat high as wave after wave tossed the boat as if it were a plaything on the broad ocean; but amidst the roaring of the water, the vivid lightning, the rolling thunder, and the increasing gloom, the child’s only fear was for the safety of his missing father: the darkness and storm were terrible to him, but only as he thought of their gathering around his father’s boat.

Once, and once only, did he hear the husky voice of his drunken guide, and that but indistinctly.

“Jemmy, boy! keep a sharp lookout, and wake me when thee sees feyther coming.”

The voice that answered his was choked and full of sobs.

“My father! He’s not come yet! he’s not come yet!”

“Ho! ho!” laughed the fisherman, as he turned away and applied himself once more to his friend’s wicker-bottle. “Not come yet! A brave night for a fisherman—a jolly storm for a boatman’s son!”

And with the puny boat tossing upon the giant waves, the black water roaring against the blacker night, Nancolas sank into a drunken slumber.

****

“He’s not come yet!”

Nancolas opened his large heavy eyes, and passing his hand across his bushy eyebrows, in the first awakening from his lethargy, looked round. In the east a few grey streaks were lighting up the horizon, and the cold fresh breeze, that passed like a spirit-hand over his features, heralded the approach of day. Not a sound was to be heard; the sea, that had ran so high but a few hours before, was almost as calm as the sands that it covered, and not a vessel dotted the vast horizon.

“He’s not come yet!”

The voice was low and faint; but even Nancolas, half-stupified as he was by drink, recognised it as that of the lad.

“Not come yet,” muttered the fisherman, half raising himself up on one arm, and looking for the first time towards the forepart of the boat. “Not——!”

He sat up and stared for a moment or so in drunken stupidity—then starting up he stood transfixed: his eyes were riveted on an object that made his flesh creep—it was the oilskin coat in which he had wrapped the boy, which was lying partly over the side. The coat was there, but the boy was gone!

At noon on the day that followed that sad night that fisherman knelt down in the market-place at Falmouth, and in the midst of a crowd, who gazed with wondering eyes upon him and upon a poor palefaced weeping woman who stood near him, he swore before his Eternal God that from that hour to the day of his death his life should be devoted to the support of that bereaved father, who, having escaped the dangers of the night, had fallen smitten with paralysis at hearing the news of his boy’s death.

Although, week after week, search was made or the body of the unfortunate lad, all efforts for its recovery were vain, and to this day no trace of it has ever been discovered.

By Nancolas’s unwearied exertions, and by his strict sobriety, by the profits of the little chandler’s shop, old Tregillian passed for two years a comparatively calm life. As for his partner, he was an altered man. Beyond the one set purpose of his soul he had no other aim. Fortunately, some money left him by a distant relative enabled him to buy a small—a very small—life annuity for the old man whom his thoughtless folly had deprived of a son.

Two years had passed, when on a fine August morning in the twilight a fisherman (in returning from his night’s work) was passing the mouth of the bay; he was falling into that half-wakeful semi-conscious doze which invariably follows many hours’ watching, and was (so he afterwards said) in that state in which the sights and sounds that are taking place in our world of reality mingle themselves sometimes with our world of dreams. It appeared to him that the wind had freshened, for a cold air fanned his face; it seemed to him also, in his half-drowsy and unconscious state, that some one was beside him in the little skiff. Shaking himself and glancing around, so strong an impression had the feeling made on him, he was half surprised to find he was alone, and that the boat was being borne by the tide on a sea scarcely moved by a ripple.

The old man had filled his pipe, and was about to light it, when a strange sound fell upon his ear: it was at first very indistinct, and appeared to come from the little creek that was opposite.

The fisherman looked round, thinking it might proceed from some distant vessel; but the horizon was as clear as it had been two years before, when Nancolas had viewed it by the breaking light of morning.

The old man stood there with his unlighted pipe in his mouth, listening, when the same cold breeze that had stolen over his slumbering features again played on his face, and with it came the feeling he had experienced in his dream—that of there being with him an image without a form. Once more upon the air came the mysterious sound; this time he heard it more distinctly than he had heard it before, a faint cry dwelling upon the waters,—

“He’s not come yet!”

The sound seemed borne with and dependent on the breeze, for it came as gradually as it faded; the words, too—where had the old fisherman heard them before? He tried but failed to remember: surely they must have been a part of his dream!

Louder and more distinct they came once more upon the breeze,—

He’s not come yet!

No visionary remnant of an overwrought imagination—the tones of the fresh voice of a boy, uttered as clearly as the fisherman had ever heard them in his life—from whom, from whence, had they proceeded?

Not from the land, where not even the curling smoke was darkening the sky; not from any object on the sea, on which nothing was visible but his own solitary boat. All, all was still.

With a white face and trembling hands, and a feeling of indefinable dread, the old man pulled towards Falmouth; as he neared the shore, on looking round, he perceived a boat in which was a solitary figure rowing towards him. As he approached it he descried the form of Paul Nancolas.

He hailed him, and with trembling lips and a broken voice related to him what he had heard.

As he told Nancolas of the words the voice had uttered, the eyes of the other became as it were fixed, and he stared at the old man with a stony gaze.

“The last words uttered by my poor lost boy!”

The look was so full of hopeless misery, yet so resolute in its awful calmness, that, scarcely knowing why, the old fisherman begged of Paul for the love of Heaven to go no farther.

“He was his son—his only son! He saved me when I was a helpless wretch—he saved me from the bad, and when he called to me for help I lay slumbering like a drunken dog!”

At the first words uttered by Nancolas the old man stood panic-stricken and aghast; instinctively he fell upon his knees, and uttered a homely prayer. When he looked up Nancolas in his boat was making for the sea.

To the wondering fishermen, who with gaping eyes crowded round him, did the old man tell his tale; and by sunset the beach was almost lined with men and women, anxiously straining their eyes to catch the first glimpse of the boat of Nancolas.

They watched for him till dark, and then they brought torches and lanterns to sited a faint light upon the calm still bay; with eager hands they assisted to push off the boats, wherein some fishermen had volunteered to search for their missing friend; a faint cheer burst from their lips, and the boats departed out into the dark night on the calm sea.

Many still remember that night, and the cold, creeping shudder that stole over them when the fishermen returned bearing no news of their missing comrade. There are numbers who to this day tell of the panic that was spread in Falmouth when day by day, and week by week passed, and nothing was either seen or heard of the object of their search.

Years have passed, but the missing fisherman is still remembered; and children crowd the closer round the dim firelight as their grey-haired fathers tell the tale, that from that day to this no tidings have been gained of the fisherman or his boat.

The story is a strange one, I confess; but I solemnly declare I believe it for the most part true, and many who still live in Falmouth will stake their lives for its veracity.