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A short story by James Runciman

An Ugly Contrast

Title:     An Ugly Contrast
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

The steam-tug "Alice," laden with excursionists from several Tyneside towns, struck in the autumn of 1882 on the Bondicar Rocks, sixteen miles north of Blyth. The boat was not much damaged, and could easily have been run into the Coquet River within a very few minutes if the passengers had only kept steady. But the modern English spirit came upon the men, and a rush was made for the boat. Women and children were hustled aside; and the captain of the tug had to threaten certain persons of his own sex with violence before he could keep the crowd back. Some twenty-seven people clambered into the boat, and then a man of genius cut away the head-rope, and flung the helpless screaming company into the sea. Twenty-five of them were drowned. It will be a relief if time reveals any ground of hope that the men of our manufacturing towns will lose no more of the virtues which we used to think a part of the English character--coolness and steadiness and unselfishness in times of danger, for example. The Englishmen who live in quiet places have not become cowardly, so far as is ascertained; nor are they liable to womanish panic. In the dales and in the fishing-villages along our north-east coast may still be found plenty of brave men. Where such disgraceful scenes as that rush to the "Alice's" boat are witnessed, or selfishness like that of the men who got away in the boats of the "Northfleet," there we generally find that the civilization of towns has proved fatal to coolness and courage.

Curiously enough, it happens that within six miles of the rock where the "Alice" struck, a splendidly brave thing was done, which serves in itself to illustrate the difference that is growing up between the race that lives by the factory and the men who earn their bread out-of-doors. Passing southward from the Bondicar Rocks you come to a shallow stream that sprawls over the sand and ripples into the sea. You wade this stream, and walk still southward by the side of rolling sand hills. The wind hurls through the hollows, and the bents shine like grey armour on the bluffs of the low heights. You are not likely to meet any one on your way, not even a tramp. Presently the hills open, and you come to the prettiest village on the whole coast. The green common slopes down to the sea, and great woods rustle and look glad all round the margin of the luxuriant grass-land. Along the cliff straggle a few stone houses, and the square tower with its sinister arrow-holes dominates the row. There is smooth water inshore; but half a mile or so out eastward there runs a low range of rocks. One night a terrible storm broke on the coast. The sea rose, and beat so furiously on the shore that the spray flew over the Fisher Row, and yellow sea foam was blown in patches over the fields. The waters beyond the shore were all in a white turmoil, save where, far off, the grey clouds laid their shoulders to the sea and threw down leaden shadows. Most of the ships had gone south about; but one little brig got stuck hard-and-fast on the ledge of rocks that runs below the village. She had eight men aboard of her, and these had to take to the rigging; where the people on shore heard them shouting. It is a fearful kind of noise, the crying of men in a wrecked ship. Morning broke, and the weather was wilder than ever. There was no lifeboat in the place, and it was plain that the vessel could not stand the rage of the breakers much longer. It was hard to see the ship at all, the spray came in so thickly. The women were crying and wringing their hands on the bank; but that was of small avail. However, one little trouting-boat lay handy, and her owner determined to go off in her to the brig. He was a fine fellow to look at--quite a remarkable specimen of a man, indeed. Without any flurry, without a sign of emotion on his face, he said, "Who's coming?" His two sons stepped out, and the boat was moved towards the water's edge.

Just then a carter came down to look at the wreck. The carter's mare was terror-stricken by the wrath of the sea, and galloped down the beach. In passing the coble the mare plunged, and the axle-tree of the cart staved in the head of the boat below the water-line. This was very bad; but the leader of the forlorn hope did not give himself time to waver. Taking off his coat, he stuffed it into the hole; and then, calling in another volunteer, he said, "Sit against that." The men took their places very coolly, and the little boat was thrust out amid the broken water. Amidst all this the face of one woman who stood looking at the men arrested my attention. It was very white, and her eyes had a look in them that I cannot describe, though I have seen it since in my sleep. The men in the boat were her husband and her sons. She said nothing, but kept her hands tightly clasped; and her lips parted every time the boat rose on the crown of a wave. We could not see those good fellows half the time: all we could tell was that the man who was sitting against the jacket had to bale very hard. Presently the deep bow of the boat rose over a travelling sea, and she ground on the sand. She was heavily laden with the brig's crew of limp and shivering Danish seamen. And it was not a moment too soon for her to be ashore: the brig parted almost directly, and the wreckage was strewn all along the beach.

The men who did this action never had any reward. And it did not matter; for they took a very moderate view of their own merits. They knew, of course, that they had done a good morning's work; but it never occurred to them that they ought to have a paragraph in the newspapers and be called brave. The sort of courage they exhibited they would have described, if their attention had been called to it, as "only natural." The old hero who went through a heavy sea with a staved-in boat is still living. His name is Big Tom, and his home is at Cresswell, in the county of Northumberland. He does not know that he is at all heroic; but it is pleasant to think of him after reading about those wretched excursionists who drowned each other in sheer fright within sight of his home. He has often saved life since then. But when he puts out to sea now he does not need to use a stove-in coble: he is captain of the smart lifeboat; and his proudest possession is a photograph which shows his noble figure standing at the bow.

[The end]
James Runciman's short story: Ugly Contrast