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A short story by James Runciman

The Giants

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

In passing along the shores of the bay, on evenings when the water was smooth, you could hear a succession of dull thuds like the sound of distant guns. Looking to eastward you saw a dark semicircular streak on the water, and inside this streak a coble glided slowly hither and thither. One man rowed gently, letting his oars drop into the water with a slight splash, that could be heard nevertheless a long way off. The sweeps were so long that the rower could not scull in the ordinary way, but crossed his arms and held the handle of the right sweep in his left hand, and _vice versa_. In the stern of the boat stood a man of gigantic size. At intervals he heaved up a great tiller into the air and brought it down with all his strength; he then gathered himself for another effort while the split end of the tiller floated on the water; then came another strong muscular effort, and then another resounding splash. If the boat drew near the brown rocks the blows of the tiller would startle a piper or a curlew; a long note of warning would pierce the stillness, and a wailing answer came from the next point; then a shrill clamour passed all round the bay, and the birds skimmed towards the island like flights of dark arrows.

The black streak on the water was made by the cork floaters of a net, for the men in the coble were engaged in catching sea-trout. When the tide has flowed for some time, there is a general stir among the fish. First the dainty gobies come forward as vanguard; then come the pretty fish that the men call sea-minnows; then the dark shadows of the flounders fly swiftly over the sandy floor, and the dogcrabs sidle along in a very lively manner. As the foam creeps further and further in the larger fishes come from the deep water. Great congers with their ugly manes and villanous eyes wind in and out the rocky channels, committing assaults on smaller fishes as they come. The red rock cod leaves his stony hollows and swims over the sandy places, looking for soft crabs, or for his favourite food, the luscious crass. Last of all comes the beautiful sea-trout, skirmishing forward with short rushes, and sometimes making a swirl near the surface of the water. The fishermen wait until they think the trout have had time to reach the inner rocks, and then softly paddle the coble away from the shore. The net is dexterously shot, and a good man can manage to do this without making a splash. The long curtain is about four feet deep, and lead sinkers make it hang true. Not a word is spoken until the great bladder which marks the end of the net falls into the sea. Then the boat is taken toward the shore, and the fishermen rest quiet for awhile, until it is time to begin splashing. The big pole is dashed into the water in order to frighten the trout towards the net, and very great judgment is required in the rower, for if he happens to take the wrong track he may easily put the fish in the way of escape.

The gigantic man who used to ply the tiller, and the old rower, were both very clever at this kind of fishing. The older of the two was called "Big Harry," and the younger was called "Little Harry." There was humour in this mode of naming, for Little Harry stood six feet four, while Big Harry only measured about six feet three. Big Harry had four sons altogether, and the average height of the family was about six feet four. All the lads were extremely good-looking, but the old man liked Little Harry best, and always took him for partner. The other sons handled the second of the family cobles, and the five men made an excellent living. It was a fine sight to see the fellows go away in the afternoon. They wore great boots that came up to the thigh, blue woollen caps, or sou-westers, and thick dark Guernseys. All of them were dark-haired and dark-eyed, and with their earrings, they looked strange and foreign. The three younger lads, who were much bigger than their father, went partners in one boat, and the two gaudy craft took their several ways. The men never said good-bye or good-night, nor did they use any other form of politeness, because by the fishermen any demonstration of friendliness, even among relations, is counted as showing softness. The mother of the lads was a handsome, broad-shouldered woman who had been a beauty in her day. She mostly used to spare time for seeing her tall fellows off, but she never waved to them. In spite of this reticence, it must not be supposed that the family were unkindly: more gentle and helpful men never lived, and there was not one of them who had not done some brave thing. It may be worth while to tell a story illustrative of their disposition.

One brisk morning, when the sea was running high, a little boy was sailing a fine model yacht in one of the great pools on the shore. The tide was running in, and presently the advancing water rushed into the pool. The yacht was just in the centre when the whirl of the sea took her. She swung round; the westerly wind caught her, and in a moment she was over the barrier and away into deep water. The little thing was well leaded, and she went off like a dolphin. The youthful owner saw her now and again as she topped the waves, and he lamented exceedingly. At last it struck him to run north to the village. Just as he reached the cove, Big Harry's younger sons were coming in after a night at sea. The men were wet and sleepy enough, but when the little boy told them his story they lifted him into the bow of the coble and shoved off again. With three reefs in the sail they dodged out among the jumping seas, and ran over the bay after the truant yacht. The swift coble soon overhauled the runaway, and the men came back well drenched by their second trip. The whole thing was done with perfect simplicity; and the fishermen would not accept even a glass of ale from the boy's father. They said "they were glad to see the bairn so pleased," and they tease the said "bairn" about his skill in navigation even to this day. When we see kindness like this we may be content to do without words or other minor demonstrations.

During all the long nights Big Harry and Little Harry used to sit together very silently. Sometimes when the corks at one part of the net went under water suddenly, one of the men would say, "There's a troot fast," but conversation did not extend beyond elementary observations like this. The dark came down over the bay, and the last gleam died away from the distant hills. The water purred softly with little treble sounds against the sides of the boat; the trees made hoarse noises, and sometimes the long whistle of an otter (who is also a trout fisher) would come from the shaggy sides of the brown stream. The men sat on amid the mystery of the night, but they had no care for the picturesque. By-and-by the time for a haul would come, and the muscular fish were pitched "flopping" into the basket. Then the nets were shot again, and the resonant splashing begun. If the tide suited, the boat stayed on till dawn. As soon as the cushats began to fly from the woods to the fields, and the hillsides were streaked with grey motes of light, Big Harry and his son rowed into the cove, and then Little Harry went to catch the old mare on the moor. A boy drove the night's fish to the station, and Big Harry slept heavily in the dark box bed.

Father and sons led this life for many years. Their only change came when the herring shoals moved southward, and then the five strong men used to make a great deal of money. They saved too, and were much better off than some people who live in finer houses. Indeed, they had much need to earn a great deal, for those great frames were not easily kept up. Big Adam once ate five eggs after his return from a night's fishing. He then inquired "When will breakfast be ready?". So it will be seen that his appetite was healthy.

It seemed that nothing but gradual decay could ever sap the strength of any one of these fine athletes, yet a miserable mischance made a break in the family, and changed Big Harry into a sorrowful man. He came ashore one rainy morning, and he and his son had sore work in hauling the coble up. There was no one to drive the fish to the station, so Little Harry volunteered. It was a long drive for such a bad day, and when the young man came home he was chilled. He shivered a good deal and could not sleep, but no one dreamed of bringing a doctor for a man with a forty-seven inch chest. Within a very short while Little Harry was taken by rapid consumption, and succumbed like a weakling from the town. On the day of the funeral the father would not follow the coffin over the moor. He lay with his face pressed on the pillow, and the bed shook with his sobbing. He never would take another son for mate, because he thought he might distress the lad if he showed signs of comparing him with the dead. He preferred a stranger. He liked carrying Little Harry's son about, and he used to be pleased when the clergyman said to the child, "Well, and how is your big pony?"--the pony being the grandfather. When the lad grew big enough to handle the small-sized plasher the old man took him as partner, and he boasts about the little fellow's cleverness.

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