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A short story by James Runciman

The Fisher's Friend

Title:     The Fisher's Friend
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

A square stone house decked with clambering honeysuckle stood in a lonely place about a mile to the northward of the Row. A narrow flower garden lay to the right and left of the front, and in spring-time and summer a delicate little lady used to come out and move gracefully about among the flower beds. She was old, but she carried herself erect, and her cheeks were prettily tinged. Her dress was in the style of the last century, and she made no change in her fashions from year's end to year's end. On Sundays she walked primly to church, wearing a quaint deep bonnet from which her pretty face peeped archly, She reminded you of some demure chapter in an old-world book. After she had finished with her flowers in the mornings she would walk through the kitchen garden and thence into her orchard. Four or five tortoise-shell cats and two sleek spaniels followed her around, and took a dignified interest in her proceedings. When the lady had visited the cows in the paddock she walked through the dairy and got ready to go out. When she came out she bore a little basket on her arm, and she went to visit her old women, and her favourite children. Whenever she stepped into Black Mary's kitchen that aged dame was sure to be smoking, and the little lady would say, "Now Mary, you'll shorten your life if you keep on with that bad habit." Mary would answer, "Well, well, I'm a long way over seventy now, a day or two won't make a great deal of difference." This joke pleased both parties very much, and it was always followed by the production of enough tobacco to last Mary for a day--unless the fisher lads chanced to steal some. After that the cottager's children had to be seen, and those young persons looked at the basket with interest. The dainty visitor would say, "Now Jimmy, I saw you pelting the ducks this morning. How would you like some big cruel man to pelt you? And I saw you, Frank, wading without ever doubling your trousers up; you will catch cold, and your mother and I will have to give you nasty medicine." After this stern reproof some little packets were brought out of the basket and shared with care.

Thus the old lady went about the place like a sort of fairy godmother. The fishermen were fond of her. Big Tom, the giant, used to look kindly down at her from under his great brows, and listened to her sharp, twittering speech as though he were criticising some new species of bird. All the other fishermen treated her with rough politeness, and they called her Miss Anne, without troubling themselves about her second name. She was known to the tramps who travelled the coast road, and the gipsies made much of her in their sly, Eastern way. Whenever a poor man knocked she called off the dogs, and went out to talk with him; she questioned him briskly; asked about his parents, his birthplace, his age, the distance he had travelled, his destination, and all sorts of other matters. She then took him to the great wooden table outside the dairy if she was satisfied, and gave him food and a little money. Sometimes she heard that her guest spent the money in the village tavern, but she did not alter her charitable habits for all that. She would say, "Oh sad, sad man, to spend his money like that." Then she would add, "But, perhaps he hasn't learned any other pleasure."

The gipsies used to send for medicine when any of them were ailing, and they repaid her kindness by leaving her live stock alone. Once she lost some of her silver-pencilled chickens, but they were soon returned, and it was said that the man who stole them had a very bad beating from one of the Lees who had been a prizefighter. A few marks on the lintel on the door let all the regular tramps know that Miss Anne's property must not be touched; and she very rarely locked her doors in winter. The dark nights were weary for young folks, so Miss Anne used often to invite some favourites among the village boys to come and spend an hour or two in her delightful parlour. The wind screamed hoarsely among the elder-bushes, and the wintry sea made strange noises on the sands, but the happy boys in the bright room never much heeded the weather outside. When Miss Anne had made sure that her guests had spotless hands she let them visit her book-shelves, and they could look through the precious volumes of Bewick's Natural History. A great number of stuffed specimens ornamented the walls of the room, and nothing pleased Miss Anne better than to show how the stuffed birds resembled the woodcuts of the wonderful engraver. After a little time the mistress would question the lads about the various animals. She would say, "Now, Ralph, you shall tell me all about the old English mastiff, and if you break down I shall have to ask Jimmy;" but when the invariable distribution of tarts came, no difference was made between the boys who failed and those who did not. At nine o'clock the young people lit their lanterns and went off over the dark moor.

Thus Miss Anne lived her life from week to week in that remote place. Her only excitement came when very bad weather broke on us. If vessels were in danger off our savage rocks, she would stand on the cliffs while the spray lashed up in her face and drenched her with its bitter saltness. If a shipwrecked crew were brought ashore she always liked to take in one or two of the men, and her house was kept in a sad turmoil until her guests had gone away. There are Italians, Norwegians, Swedes, and Frenchmen, besides our own countrymen, who remember the exquisite lady with gratitude. Very few people knew how Miss Anne came to live unmarried, and in solitude; but there is a sorrowful story that explains all. The Fisher's Friend had been the greatest beauty in all the north country, and many men had loved her. One mad young fellow asked her to marry him. She liked him, but she had always said that she never would have him for a husband unless he gave up his wild ways. Again and again they quarrelled, and made friends when he promised to be better. At last she said something very bitter to him, and ordered him out of her sight. He tramped in his own woods all night, and in the morning he galloped his big brown horse down to the sea. He met Miss Anne and straightened his horse across her path. She spoke sharply to him again, as he dashed the spurs in, and went away. Next morning Miss Anne heard that he had hung himself in the barn, and that he had left a note upbraiding her. She turned very white, and went to her room, where she stayed praying all day. The young Squire's death really ended her life.

After she had grown old, she failed one morning to rise early, and the servants, who had been used to hear the quick sound of her feet whenever the dawn came, grew alarmed. They sent for Big Tom, and Tom broke open Miss Anne's bedroom door about noon. She was lying dead, and on her breast they found a miniature portrait of a handsome and dark-looking young man. She had worn her sweetheart's likeness for fifty years.

[The end]
James Runciman's short story: Fisher's Friend