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A short story by James Runciman

An Old-School Pilot

Title:     An Old-School Pilot
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

At the mouth of a north-country river a colony of pilots dwelt. The men and women of this colony looked differently and spoke a dialect different from that used by the country people only half a mile off. The names, too, of the pilot community were different from those of the surrounding population. Tully was the most common surname of all, and the great number of people who bore it were mostly black-eyed and dark-haired, quite unlike our fair and blue-eyed north-country folk. Antiquaries say the Romans must have lived on the spot for at least two hundred years, judging by the coins and the vast quantities of household materials unearthed; and so some persons have no difficulty in accounting for the peculiarities of the pilot colony. Speculations of this sort are, however, somewhat beside the mark. It is only certain that the pilots lived amongst themselves, intermarried, and kept their habits and dialect quite distinct. When a pilot crossed the line a hundred yards west of his house, he met people who knew him by his tongue to be a "foreigner."

My particular friend among the pilots was a very big man, who used, to amuse us much by the childish gravity of his remarks. He was a remnant of a past generation, and the introduction of steam shocked his faculties beyond recovery. He would say: "In the old times, sir, vessels had to turn up here. It was back, fill, and shiver-r-r all the way; but now you might as well have sets of rails laid on the water and run the ships on them. There is no seamanship needed." He never quite forgave the Commissioners for deepening the river. As he said in his trenchant manner: "There used to be some credit in bringing a ship across the bar when you were never quite sure whether she would touch or not; but now you could bring the 'Duke of Wellington' in at low water. These kid-gloved captains come right up to their moorings as safe as if they were driving a coach along the road." He was quite intolerant of railways, too; but then his first experience of the locomotive engine was not pleasant. Somehow he got on to the railway line on a hazy night; and just as the train had slowed down to enter the station the engine struck him and knocked him over. The engine-driver became aware of a brief burst of strong language, and in great alarm called upon two porters to walk along the line to see what had happened. They did so of course, and when they got to the place of the accident the light of their lanterns revealed the pilot perfectly sound and engaged in brushing dirt off his clothes. When he saw the bright buttons of the railway officials the thought of the police came instantly into his mind, and he said, "Here, now, you needn't be taking me up; if I've done any damage to your engine I'll pay for it." At another time he was bringing a ship northwards when he was invited by the captain to run down below and help himself to a nip of brandy. After taking his brandy he proceeded to light his pipe at the stove. Now the captain possessed a large monkey, and the creature was shivering near the fire. The pilot said, "A gurly day, sir;" and the monkey gave a responsive shiver. Tho pilot went on with affable gruffness, "The Soutar light's away on the port bow now, sir;" and still the monkey made no answer. Not to be stalled off, the pilot proceeded, "We'll be over the bar in an hour, sir." But failing to elicit a response even to this pleasant information, he stepped up on deck, and ranging himself alongside of the captain on the bridge, said, "What a quiet chap your father is!"

The first time I saw my poor friend I liked him. We lived in a lonely house that stood on the cliffs at a bleak turn of the coast. One wild morning a coble beat into our cove. It looked as though the sea must double on her every second; but just when the combers shot at her most dangerously the man at the tiller placed the broad square stern at right angles to the path of the travelling wave, and she lunged forward safely. By dexterous jockeying she was brought close in, and the men came through the shallow water in their sea-boots. They were blue with cold, and begged for a little tea or coffee. Hot cakes and coffee happened to be just ready; so the fellows had a hearty breakfast and went away. With prolonged clumsiness the pilot shook the hand of the lady who had entertained him; and in two days after the boat sailed into the cove again amid nasty weather, and the master came ashore with a set of gaudy wooden bowls painted black and red. These he solemnly presented to the lady of the house. He had run thirty miles against a northerly sea to bring them.

When I next saw the pilot he had fallen upon very hard times. The system of keeping "privileged men" had obtained great hold in the north. The privileged pilot does not need to go out and beat about at sea in search of vessels; he can lie comfortably in his bed until he is signalled, and then he steps aboard without any of the trouble of competition. However good this system may be in a general way, it bears very hardly on the poor fellows who have to lie off for two or three days together on the chance of getting a ship. We were passing by Flamborough Head in a large steamer when the mate came down below and said, "There is a pilot-boat from our town astern there, sir." The captain shouted, "Tell them to stop her directly and take the coble in tow." We then blew our whistle, and the pilot-boat drew up alongside. My friend stepped aboard, and the captain said, "Come away down and have some breakfast." The pilot tried to speak, but his voice broke. He said: "No, I can't eat. When you passed us, we baith started to cry; and when you whistled for us, maw heart com' oot on its place, an' it'll gan back ne mair." The poor men had had no food for two days. In spite of his tragic statement, the pilot recovered, and ate a very good breakfast indeed; and his boat towed astern of us till he placed us at our moorings.

He met his end like a brave man in the great October gale which all of us remember. He was down on the pier smoking with his friends in the watch-house and looking out occasionally for distressed vessels. The great seas were hurling themselves over the stone-work and shattering into wild wreaths of foam on the sand. Strong men who showed themselves outside full in the face of the wind were blown down flat as if they had been tottering children. The wind sounded as though it were blown through a huge trumpet, and the sea was running nine feet on the bar. A small vessel fought through, and appeared likely to get into the fairway. She showed her port light for a time, and all seemed going well. Suddenly she opened both her red and her green lights, and it was seen that she was coming dead on for the pier. Presently she struck hard, within thirty yards of the stone-work. There was wild excitement amongst the brigade men, for they saw that she must be smashed into matchwood in five minutes. The rockets were got ready; but before a shot could be fired the ill-fated vessel gave way totally. A great sea rushed along the side of the pier, and the pilot saw something black amongst the travelling water. "There's a man!" he shouted; and without a moment's thought plunged in, calling on the other fellows to pitch him a rope. Had he tied a line around his waist before he jumped he would have been all right. As it was, the Dutchman whom he tried to save was washed clean on to the pier and put safely to bed in the brigade-house. The pilot was not found until two days afterwards.

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James Runciman's short story: Old-School Pilot