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A short story by R. M. Ballantyne

Forgive And Forget: A Lifeboat Story

Title:     Forgive And Forget: A Lifeboat Story
Author: R. M. Ballantyne [More Titles by Ballantyne]

Old Captain Bolter said he would never forgive Jo Grain--never. And what Captain Bolter said he meant: for he was a strong and self-willed man.

There can be no doubt that the Captain had some ground of complaint against Grain: for he had been insulted by him grossly--at least so he thought. It happened thus:--

Joseph Grain was a young fisherman, and the handsomest, tallest, strongest, and most active among the youths of the little seaport town in which he dwelt. He was also one of the lifeboat's crew, and many a time had his strong hand been extended in the midst of surging sea and shrieking tempest to save the perishing. Moreover, he was of a frank, generous disposition; was loved by most of his comrades; envied by a few; hated by none.

But with all his fine qualities young Grain had a great and serious fault--he was rather fond of strong drink. It must not, however, be supposed that he was a drunkard, in the ordinary sense at least of that term. No, he was never seen to stagger homeward, or to look idiotic: but, being gifted with a robust frame and finely-strung nerves, a very small quantity of alcohol sufficed to rouse within him the spirit of combativeness, inducing him sometimes to say and do things which afterwards could not be easily unsaid or undone, however much he might repent.

One afternoon Grain and some of his mates were sauntering towards the little lighthouse that stood at the end of their pier. It was an old-fashioned stone pier, with a dividing wall or parapet down the middle of it. As they walked along, some of the younger men began to question Jo about a rumour that had recently been spread abroad.

"Come, now, Jo," said one, named Blunt, "don't try to deceive us; you can't deny that you're after Cappen Bolter's little gal."

"Well, I _won't_ deny it," replied Jo, with sudden energy and somewhat forced gaiety, while the blood mounted to his bronzed cheeks: "moreover, I don't care who knows it, for there's not a sweeter lass in all the town than Mary Bolter, an' the man that would be ashamed to own his fondness for her don't deserve to have her."

"That's true," said a young fisherman, named Guy, with a nod of approval--"though there may be two opinions as to which is the sweetest lass in all the town!"

"I tell 'ee what, Jo," remarked a stern and rather cross-grained bachelor, named Grime, "you may save yourself the trouble of givin' chase to that little craft, for although old Bolter ain't much to boast of--bein' nothin' more than the skipper of a small coastin' craft--he thinks hisself far too big a man to give his darter to a fisherman."

"Does he?" exclaimed Grain, with vehemence, and then suddenly checked himself.

"Ay, that does he," returned Grime, with something of a sneer in his tone.

It chanced that Jo Grain had been to the public-house that day, and the sneer, which at other times would have been passed over with indifference, stung him--coupled as it was with a slur on his lowly position. He looked fiercely at Grime, and said, in a loud, angry tone: "It's a matter of moonshine to me what Bolter thinks of himself. If the girl's willin' to have me I'll wed her in spite o' the old grampus."

Now, unhappily for Jo Grain, the "old grampus" chanced at that very time to be sunning himself, and enjoying his pipe on the other side of the pier-wall, and heard distinctly what Jo said. Moreover, there was some truth in what Grime had said about the old skipper looking down on the young fisherman's position: so that, although he could not deny that Jo was a first-rate man, and knew that Mary was fond of him, he had hitherto felt a strong disinclination to allow his darling and only child to wed, as he considered it beneath her. When, therefore, the speech above quoted broke harshly on his ears, the matter became finally settled in his mind. He dropped his pipe, set his heel on it, and ground it to powder. He also ground his teeth, and, turning round with a snort, worthy of the creature to which he had been compared, sailed wildly homewards.

Next day Jo Grain chanced to meet him in the street, and held out his hand as usual; but the captain, thrusting both hands deep into his trousers pockets, looked the young man firmly in the face--

"No, Grain," he said sternly. "I've done with _you_!"

"Why so, Captain Bolter?" asked Jo, in great surprise.

"Because," hissed the Captain, as his wrath rose, "an _old grampus_ don't choose to have anything more to do with a _young puppy_!"

Instantly his reckless speech of the day before flashed into Jo's mind.

"Forgive me, Captain Bolter," he said respectfully: "forgive me, and try to forget it--I didn't mean it, believe me--I--I wasn't quite myself, sir, when--"

"No!" interrupted the Captain fiercely; "I'll never forgive you, nor forget it."

With that he turned away and left Jo Grain to meditate on the folly of indulging in a stimulant which robbed him of his self-control. But youth is very hopeful. Jo did not quite believe in the Captain's sincerity. He comforted himself with the thought that time would soften the old man's feelings, and meanwhile he would continue to court Mary when opportunity offered.

The Captain, however, soon proved that he was thoroughly in earnest: for, instead of leaving his daughter under the care of a maiden aunt, as had been his custom previously, during his frequent absences from home, he took her to sea with him, and left Jo with an extra supply of food for meditation.

Poor Jo struggled hard under this his first severe trial, but struggled in his own strength and failed. Instead of casting away the glass which had already done him so much damage, he madly took to it as a solace to his secret grief. Yet Jo took good care that his comrades should see no outward trace of that grief.

He was not, however, suffered to remain long under the baleful influence of drink. Soon after the departure of Captain Bolter, a missionary visited the little seaport to preach salvation from sin through Jesus Christ, and, being a man of prayer and faith, his mission was very successful. Among the many sins against which he warned the people, he laid particular stress on that of drunkenness.

This was long before the days of the Blue Ribbon movement: but the spirit of that movement was there, though the particular title had not yet arisen. The missionary preached Christ the Saviour of sinners, and Temperance as one of the fruits of salvation. Many of the rough fishermen were converted--bowed their heads and wills, and ceased to resist God. Among them was Joseph Grain.

There was not, indeed, a remarkably great outward change in Jo after this: for he had always been an amiable, hearty, sweet-tempered fellow: but there was, nevertheless, a radical change; for whereas in time past he had acted to please himself, he now acted to please his Lord. To natural enthusiasm, which had previously made him the hero of the town, was now superadded the enthusiasm of a soldier of the Cross: and when lifeboat duty called him, as in days gone by, to hold out his hand to the perishing, even while in the act of saving their bodies he prayed that the result might be salvation to their souls.

You may be sure that Jo did not forget Mary: but his thoughts about her were wonderfully changed: for in this affair of the heart despair had given place to trust and submission.

Time passed by, and one night in the dreary month of November the storm-fiend was let loose on the shores of England. All round the coast the crews of our lifeboats assembled at pier-heads and other points of vantage to watch the enemy and prepare for action. Among others Jo Grain and his comrades assembled at their post of duty.

It was an awful night--such as, happily, does not often visit our shores. Thick darkness seemed to brood over land and sea. Only the robust and hardy dared to show face to the keen, withering blast, which was laden with sleet. Sometimes a gleam of lightning would dart through the raging elements; occasionally the murky clouds rolled off the sky for a short time, allowing the moon to render darkness hideously visible. Tormented foam came in from the sea in riven masses, and the hoarse roaring of the breakers played a bass accompaniment to the yelling blast, which dashed gravel and sand, as well as sleet, in the faces of those who had courage enough to brave it.

"There--wasn't that a light?" cried the coxswain of the lifeboat, as he cowered under the shelter of the pier-wall and gazed seaward with difficulty.

"Ay," responded Blunt, who was bowman of the boat; "there it goes again."

"And a rocket!" shouted Jo Grain, starting up.

"No mistake now," cried the coxswain. "Look alive, lads!"

He ran as he spoke to the spot where the lifeboat lay ready under the shelter of the pier, but Jo was on board before him. Almost simultaneously did a dozen strong and fearless men leap into the noble craft and don their cork life-belts. A few seconds sufficed. Every man knew well his place and his duty. The short, powerful oars were shipped.

"Give way!" cried the coxswain.

There was no cheer--no onlooker to encourage. Silently the strong backs were bent, and the lively boat shot away towards the entrance of the harbour like a "thing of life."

No description can adequately convey to landsmen the work to be done and the conditions under which it was performed. On passing the shelter of the pier-head the boat and her crew were met not only by the tumultuous surging of cross seas, but by a blast which caught the somewhat high bow and almost whirled them into the air; while in its now unbroken force the cold blast seemed to wither up the powers of the men. Then, in the dark distance, an unusually huge billow was seen rushing down on them. To meet it straight as an arrow and with all possible speed was essential. Failure here--and the boat, turning side on, would have been rolled over and swept back into the harbour, if not wrecked against the breakwater.

The coxswain strained at the steering oar as a man strains for life. The billow was fairly met. The men also strained till the stout oars were ready to snap; for they knew that the billow must be cut through if they were to reach the open sea; but it was so high that the bow of the boat was lifted up, and for one instant it seemed as if she were to be hurled backward right over the stern. The impulse given, however, was sufficient. The crest of the wave was cut, and next moment the bow fell forward, plunging deep into the trough of the sea. At the same time a cross-wave leaped right over the boat and filled it to the gunwales.

This initial danger past, it was little the men cared for their drenching. As little did the boat mind the water, which she instantly expelled through the discharging tubes in her floor. But the toil now began. In the teeth of tide and tempest they had to pull with might and main; advancing foot by foot, sometimes only inch by inch. No rest; no breathing time; nothing but continuous tearing at the oars, if progress was to be made, while the spray enveloped them perpetually, and at frequent intervals the "solid" water, plunging inboard, almost swept the heroes from their seats.

But if the raging sea through which the lifeboat struggled was dreadful, much more terrible was the turmoil on the outlying sands where the wreck was being gradually dashed to pieces. There the mad billows held high revelry. Rushing in from all sides, twisted and turned in their courses by the battered shoals, they met not far from, the wreck with the shock of opposing armies, and clouds of foam sprang upward in dire, indescribable confusion.

The vessel in distress was a small brig. She had been lifted like a plaything by the waves, and hurled high on the sand, where, although now unable to lift her up, they rolled her to and fro with extreme violence. Rocket after rocket had been sent up, until the drenching seas had rendered the firing of them impossible. The foremast had already gone by the board, carrying most of the crew with it. On the cross-trees of the mainmast only two remained--a man and a woman, who could barely maintain their hold as the battered craft swayed from side to side.

"The end comes at last, darling Mary," said the man, as he grasped the woman tightly with one arm and the mast with the other.

"No, father--not yet," gasped the woman; "see--the lifeboat! I felt sure that God would send it."

On came the gallant little craft. There was just light enough to enable those on the wreck to see dimly her white and blue sides as she laboured through the foam towards them.

"They have missed us, father; they don't see us!" cried the girl.

The blast blew her long hair about, adding wildness to the look of alarm which she cast on the man while speaking.

"Nay, darling, it's all right. They've only pulled a bit to wind'ard. Keep on praying, Mary."

When well to windward of the wreck the anchor of the lifeboat was let go, and they began to drop down towards the vessel by the cable. Then, for the first time, the men could draw a long breath and relax their efforts at the oars, for wind and waves were now in their favour, though they still dashed and tossed and buffeted them.

Soon they were nearly alongside, and the man on the cross-trees was heard to shout, but his words could not be made out.

What could it be that caused Jo Grain's heart to beat against his strong ribs with the force of a sledge-hammer and his eyes to blaze with excitement, as he turned on his thwart and crouched like a tiger ready to spring?

There was tremendous danger in drawing near: for, at one moment, the boat rushed up on a sea as if about to plunge through the rigging of the vessel, and the next she was down in a seething caldron, with the black hull looming over her. It was observed that the two figures aloft, which could barely be seen against the dark sky, were struggling with some difficulty. They had lashed themselves to the mast, and their benumbed fingers could not undo the fastenings.

"Haul off!" shouted the coxswain, as the boat was hurled with such force towards the vessel's hull that destruction seemed imminent.

"No, hold on!" roared Jo Grain.

The men obeyed their coxswain, but as the boat heaved upwards Jo sprang with all his might, and fell into the rigging of the wreck. A few seconds later and he was on the cross-trees, knife in hand, and the lashings were cut.

At the same moment a rending crash was heard, and again the stentorian voice of the coxswain was heard shouting to the men. The lifeboat was pulled off just in time to escape from the mainmast as it fell, burying its cross-trees and all its tangled gearing in the sea.

The bowman and young Guy leaned over the side, and at the risk of their lives grasped at a drowning man. They caught him, and Captain Bolter was dragged into the boat insensible. A moment later and a hand was seen to rise in the midst of the wreckage. Guy knew it well. He grasped it and held on. A few seconds more and Jo Grain, with blood pouring down his face, from a deep cut in his head, was raised to the gunwale.

"Have a care," he gasped faintly.

His right arm encircled an inanimate form. Both were dragged on board, and then it was seen that the form was that of Mary Bolter, uninjured though insensible.

To haul up to the anchor was a slow process and laborious, but it was done cheerily, for the hearts of the men were aglow with satisfaction. Three lives saved! It was what Blunt styled a grand haul. Not many, indeed: but was not one that of a loved comrade, and was not another that of "the sweetest lass in all the town," in spite of young Guy's difference of opinion?

It was grey dawn when the lifeboat returned to port under sail, with a small flag flying in token of success, and it would have done your heart good, reader, to have seen the faces of the crowds that lined the pier, and heard the ringing cheers that greeted the gallant rescuers as they brought the rescued safe to land.

Six hours after that Captain Bolter sat at the bedside of Jo Grain.

"You've been hard hit, Jo, I fear," he said kindly.

"Yes, rather hard, but the doctor says I'll be all right in a week or two; and it's little I'll care about it, Captain, if you'll only agree to forgive and forget."

The Captain seized Jo's hand and tried to speak, but could not. After an abortive effort he turned away with a grunt and left the room.

Six months after that, Joseph Grain, transformed into a coast-guardsman, led "the sweetest lass in all the town" to the village church, and young Guy, still objecting to the title, was groom's-man.

"Jo," said Captain Bolter that day, at parting, "I've forgiven you long ago, but I _can't_ forget; for you said the truth that time. I _was_ an old grampus, or a fool, if you like, and I'm not much better now. However, good-bye, dear boy, and take care of her, for there's not another like her in all England."

"Except one," murmured young Guy, as he squeezed his friend's hand and quietly attached an old slipper to their cab as they drove away. Thereafter he swaggered off to a certain familiar cottage to talk over the wedding with one whom _he_ considered the sweetest lass in all the town.

[The end]
R. M. Ballantyne's short story: Forgive And Forget: A Lifeboat Story