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A short story by James Runciman

The Silent Men

Title:     The Silent Men
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

Two very reckless fellows used always to go fishing together, and used also to spend their leisure together. One was known as Roughit; and the other was called Lance. Roughit was big, with heavy limbs and a rather brutal face. He wore his hair and beard very long, and his eyes looked morosely from under thick reddish eyebrows. He scarcely ever spoke to anybody; and some of the superstitious fishermen did not like to meet him in the morning, because they thought he always brought them bad luck. Lance was a handsome man, with small hands and feet. He was not like the shaggy giants of the village--and, indeed, it had been said that some people at the Hall knew more about his parentage than might at first sight be supposed. The two men never talked much, and never exchanged any kind of greeting when they met and parted. Both of them were such expert boatmen that excepting on very dark nights they scarcely needed to communicate except by signs.

On summer afternoons when the herrings were coming southward Roughit would knock at Lance's door and pass on without a word. Presently Lance would come out, with his oilskins over one arm and his water-bottle swung by his side. The coble was lifted on to the launching-wheels and run down to the water; then the two men took their places, and the boat stole away northward over the bay. They never carried their fish to any big port, because their boat was so small that it was not worth their while. They always ran back to their own village and sold their catch to the farmers and labourers in their own neighbourhood. When the boat was beached, Roughit and Lance had their nets driven up to the great green and then spread in the sun for an hour or two. They sat smoking and listening to the larks that sung against one another over the common. About one o'clock they strode home together and went to bed until it was time to go north once more.

The herring season is the pleasantest for fishermen. It is their harvest; and they have little real hardship and a good deal of excitement. On calm nights, after the nets are shot, there are hours of keen expectancy, until the oily flicker on the surface of the water tells that the great shoal is moving to its fate; then there is the wild bustle among the whole fleet while the nets are hauled in; and then comes the pleasant morning lounge after the fish are sold.

Roughit and Lance were always lucky, and made lots of money during the summer and autumn. In winter times were harder for them. They mostly did all their work in the daytime, and sent their fish round to their customers in the afternoons. In the evenings they sat on the bench in the tavern and smoked silently until the time came for expeditions of another sort. The friends were great poachers, and they carried on their operations like a pair of vicious and well-trained lurchers. Roughit had a small lightly built dog, bred between a collie and greyhound; Lance had a big Bedlington terrier; and these two dogs were certain to be the death of any hare they made up their minds to catch. Lance and Roughit would sit down by the fence beside a gate; the lurcher lay quietly down beside the gate-post, while the terrier slipped through the gap in the hedge and sneaked quietly round to the top of the field. When he had reached the furthermost hedge, he began to beat slowly down towards his confederate: there would come a quick thud, thud of feet; then a scraping on the bars of the gate; then a shrill squeak; and the lurcher cantered quietly up with his game to the place where the two fishermen sat. If old Sam, the Squire's gamekeeper, had ever had a chance of putting a charge of shot into either of the dogs he would not have thrown it away. But the brutes usually stayed indoors all day, and never went rummaging the coverts on their own account. Roughit showed no signs of sporting instinct; but Lance really liked the fun, and was willing to run all kinds of risks.

Year after year the friends lived their silent life, dividing their time between fishing, poaching, and drinking. Sometimes a spell of bad weather came, and all day long the spray flew over the cottages and the cold breeze covered the sand with foam. The waters roared drearily, and the nights were bad enough to prevent the most inveterate poacher from turning out. During the daytime Lance and Roughit would lounge on the rock-tops, and look grimly out at the horizon, where the grey clouds laid their shoulders to the sea. Their companionship was much like that of lower animals: it was quite sufficient for one to know that the other was near. They did once separate for a short time, Roughit shipped in a merchant brig that was going round to Plymouth. The vessel made the run in about a week; but Roughit felt very wretched during the whole time, without knowing exactly why. At Plymouth he deserted, leaving his box behind him, and set off on foot northwards.

One evening Lance was sitting sulkily on the ground, when he saw a man crossing the moor. A vague curiosity caused him to walk out to meet the stranger, and presently Roughit came up looking very dirty, and wearing only an old sleeved waistcoat and a ragged pair of canvas trousers. He was barefooted too, and limped a good deal. The two men simply nodded and turned back to the village together. Neither of them asked any questions, but they sat drinking until a late hour, and went home less steadily than might have been wished. The people in the Row took but little notice of this eccentric couple; for, after all, the friends did harm to nothing except the Squire's ground-game.

When the two men were growing grizzled with advancing years the coble which belonged to them had gone away from the fishing-ground one black night, before a strong north-easterly gale: she shot between the Great Farne Island and the Bird's Rock. The tide was going like a millrace, and the solemn roar of the vast stream made very terrible music in the dark. The men might have got into their own haven by an easy passage, despite the gale. But both of them seemed to be always possessed by a gloomy kind of recklessness, and when they made the village lights they determined upon trying an entrance which was desperately difficult. In the centre of a gap which was twenty feet wide stood a rock which was known as "The Tailor's Needle." It stood 400 yards south of "The Cobbler." This rock was clad in sea-weed around its base; but eight feet of the upper part of it was bare of weeds and covered only with tiny shells which tore the hands. On the top of the rock was a very small platform of about one foot square, and in fine weather daring boys would stand upright on this summit and wave to the people ashore. The rock was covered two feet by an ordinary spring tide; but on the night when Roughit and Lance decided to try and pass it, about a foot was above water. There was not a great deal of sea on; indeed, there was hardly more than what the fishermen call a "northerly lipper;" but the tide was running with extraordinary swiftness. Roughit put the helm down and guessed at his bearings. The boat lay hard down and tore in through the gap. There was a long grinding crash; the weather-side lifted clean out of the water; she dropped off the rock, and the two men were pitched overboard. Roughit scrambled to the top, at the expense of torn hands. He hung on as well as he could; but the spray from the combings of the seas cut his face and blinded him. Still, he could easily have held on till dawn, because the tide had no further to rise. He, like too many of the fishermen, could not swim. He got hold of the edge of the rock. There was not room for him on the ledge; so presently he said, "I am going." Roughit answered: "No, don't do that; let me give you a haul up here." As Lance went up on one side Roughit went off on the other. The waves buffeted him away towards the shore, and he cried out "Good-night!" when he had swum a few yards westward.

At dawn Lance was picked off "The Tailor's Needle," but Roughit was found dead on the sand. Lance never forgave himself for having taken his comrade's offer; he disliked the village, he hated the sea; and before long he went away inland to work down in the pits.

[The end]
James Runciman's short story: Silent Men