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A short story by James Runciman

The Fisherwoman

Title:     The Fisherwoman
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

On bleak mornings you might see the movements of Peggy's stooping figure
among the glistening brown weeds that draped the low rocks; and somehow
you always noticed her most on bleak mornings. When the joy of the
summer was in the air, and the larks were singing high up in the sky, it
seemed rather pleasant than otherwise to paddle about among the quiet
pools and on the cold bladder-wrack. But when the sky was leaden, and
the wind rolled with strange sounds down the chill hollows, it was
rather pitiful to see a barefooted woman tramping in those bitter
places. The sea seemed to wait for every fresh lash of the blast; and
when the grey water sprang into brief spurts of spray you felt how
cruelly Peggy's bare limbs were cut by the wind. But she took it all
kindly, and made no moan about anything. Towards eight o'clock you would
meet her tramping over the sand with her great creel full of bait slung
on her forehead. Her feet gripped at the sand, and her strong leg looked
ruddy and hard. Her hands were always rough, and covered with little
scratches received while she baited the lines; but these were no
miseries to Peggy, and her face always seemed composed and quiet. She
would not pass you without a word, and her voice was pleasant with low
gutturals. If her eyes reminded you of the sea, you put it down to a
natural fancy. They were not at all poetic or sentimental; for Peggy was
a rough woman. But something there was in the gleam of her pale clear
eyes that made you think of the far northern seas, by the borders of
which her forefathers in a remote time were probably born. As I have
said, Peggy could use very rough words when farmers' wives tired her
with too much chaffering; but mostly her face had a hard placidity that
refreshed the mind, just as it is refreshed by considering the
deliberate ways of harmless animals.

Towards eleven in the morning Peggy would be seated in her warm kitchen,
beside a flat basket in which mysterious coils of brown twine wound
round and round. The brown twine had tied to it long lines of horse-hair
snoods with sharp white hooks lashed on by slips of waxed thread. Peggy
baited one after another of these hooks and laid them dexterously so
that the line might be shot overboard without entanglement. You might
sit down in the sanded kitchen to talk to the good woman if you were not
nice about fishy odours. If you led on to such subjects, she would bring
out her store of ghostly stories: how a dead lady walked in the
shrubberies by the tower after the squire's sons murdered her lover; and
how the old clock in the tower had a queer light travelling over its
face on one day of the year. Or she would gossip about the folks in the
place; telling you how poor Jemmy had lost money, and how old Adam had
got a rare stocking, and him meeting the priest every day like a poor
man. You might smoke as much as you liked in Peggy's kitchen; and for
various reasons it was just as well to keep smoking: the sanitary
principles of Dr. Richardson are not known in the villages on the coast.
Peggy herself did not smoke, because it was not considered right for
women to use tobacco until they were past the age of sixty-five. After
that they had their weekly allowance with the groceries. In the evenings
of bright days you saw Peggy at her best. When the dusk fell, and the
level sands shone with a deep smooth gloss, you would see strange
figures bowing with rhythmic motions. These figures were those of women.
All the women of the village turn out on the sand to hunt for sand-eels.
To catch a sand-eel requires long practice. You take two iron hooks, and
work them down deep in the sand when the tide has just gone. With quick
but steady movements, you make a series of deep "criss-crosses;" and
when the fish is disturbed by the hooks you whip him smartly out, and
put him in the basket before his magical wriggle has taken him deep into
the sand again. The women stooping over the shining floor look like
ghostly harvesters reaping invisible crops. They are very silent, and
their steps are feline. Peggy worked out her day, and then she would go
home and cut up the eels for the next day's lines. In the early morning
the men came in, and then Peggy had to turn out and carry the fish to
the cart that drove inland to the coach or the railway station. It was
not a gay life; but still each fresh day brought the lads and their
father home, and Peggy could not have looked at them, and more
especially perhaps at her great sons, without being proud of her
men-folk. While they were sleeping she had to be at work, so that the
home life was restricted, but it was abundantly clear that in a rough
and silent way the whole of the family were fond of each other; and if
Peggy could spare little more than a glance when the brown sail of the
coble came in sight, it is probable that she felt just as much as ladies
who have time for long and yearning looks.

There came a time when Peggy needed no more to look out for the sail.
Her husband went stolidly down to the boat one evening, and her three
sons followed with their weighty tread. The father was a big, rugged man
with a dark face; the lads were yellow-haired, taking after their
mother. Some of the fishermen did not like the look of the evening sky,
but Peggy's husband never much heeded the weather.

Next day the wind came away very strong, and the cobles had to cower
southward under a bare strip of mainsail. The men ashore did not like to
be asked whether they thought the weather would get worse; and the women
stood anxiously at their doors. A little later and they gathered all
together on the rock-edge. One coble, finely handled, was working
steadily up to the bend where the boats ran in for the smooth water, and
Peggy followed every yard that the little craft gained. All the world
for her depended on the chance of weathering that perilous turn. The
sail was hardly to be seen for the drift that was plucked off the crests
of the waves. Too soon Peggy saw a great roller double over and fold
itself heavily into the boat. Then there was the long wallowing lurch,
and the rudder came up, while the mast and the sodden sail went under.
It was bad enough for a woman to read in some cold official list about
the death of her father, her husband, her son; but very much worse it is
for the woman who sees her dearest drowning--standing safe ashore to
watch every hopeless struggle for life. One of the fishers said to
Peggy, "Come thy ways in, my woman; and we'll away and seek them." But
Peggy walked fast across the sand and down to the place where she knew
the set of the tide would carry the dead lads in. The father came first
ashore. She wiped the froth from his lips and closed his eyes, and then
hastened further northward where her eldest son was flung on the beach.
Peggy saw in an instant that his face was bruised, and moaned at the
sight of the bruises; his father looked as though he were sleeping. The
other lads did not come ashore till next day, and Peggy would not go
home all the night through. In the dark she got away from the kind
fellows who stayed by her; and when they sought her she was kneeling in
the hollow of a sand-hill where another of her boys lay--her face
pressed against the grass.

These bold fellows were laid in the ground, and next day Peggy started
silently to work. The grandfather--that is, her husband's father, an old
man, quite broken by the loss of his son--was brought home to his son's
fireside, where the two may be seen to-day: their thoughts divided
between their dead and the business of getting bread for to-morrow.

[The end]
James Runciman's short story: Fisherwoman