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A short story by James Runciman

Hob's Tommy

Title:     Hob's Tommy
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

The moor was blazing in the sun. Bright gorse flamed above the pale green grass, and little pools flashed white rays up to the sky. Hob's Tommy stepped out of doors, and took a long look round. He was not impressed by the riot of colour that spread around him; he looked over the pulsing floor of the sea, and thought, "It will be a fine night for the trouting."

Tommy was a large man, who seemed to shake the ground as he trod. His face was devoid of speculation, and his dull blue eyes looked from under heavy and unamiable brows. His hair was matted, and his mode of dressing his big limbs showed that he was careless of opinion. He was called Hob's Tommy because the villagers had a fancy for regarding sons as the personal property of the father, and thus a man called Thomas, who happened to be the son of a man called John, never received his surname during his whole life, excepting on the occasions of his baptism and marriage. He was known as Jack's Tom. If he, in his turn, happened to have a son whom he chose to name Henry, the youth was known as Jack's Tom's Harry. Our friend Tommy's father had been called Hob, and hence the name of the ill-tempered lout who was gazing on the unsullied sea. Tommy watched the green water breaking over the brown sand, and far out at sea he saw the thick haze still brooding low. He knew the evening would be fine, and he knew that he would have a good basket for next day's market. He put his hands in his pockets, and strolled away from the unsavoury neighbourhood of the Fishers' Row on to the glistening moor. His eyes were fixed on the ground, and into his mind entered no thought saving calculations about money and drink. Any stranger who had met him walking over the thyme, with his fierce face bent downward, would have gained a bad notion of the local population. A sudden jangle of bells filled the air, and the ringers went to work gaily. Quaint farmers went along dressed in creased suits of clothing; quiet country women nodded as they passed, but Tommy heeded none of his neighbours. He was a brutal man, whose presence seemed an insult to the holy morning. He walked mechanically on over the moor, and let the sound of church bells die away in his ear. Presently he came to a beautiful slope, which was starred with pink geraniums. The sun shone warmly upon it, and a lark flashed from amid the flowers with a sound of joy, and carried his rejoicing up into the sky. Tommy thought, "This is a nice warm place to lie down on. I'll light my pipe." And he stretched himself amid the tender flowers. The glow and the colour of the life around him, and the sparkle of the sea, seemed at last to make some dim suggestion to his mind. He said, half aloud, "Wonder what I'm here for. I don't know. I only wish it was seven o'clock and the sun droppin';--he was a lazy man that invented Sunday;--another day I'll away to the fishin' i' the mornin', and the folks can say just what they like. I'm not goin' to waste my time and my baccy lyin' on sand hills." So he smoked on until the sun reached its greatest height, and the afternoon shadows lay like dark pansies in the hollows.

Now it happened that in the neighbouring village it was usual to hold an afternoon service and an evening service in the Wesleyan chapel. The services followed close on each other, and there was great competition among the villagers as to who should give the preacher his tea in the interval. Tommy presently found himself looking sleepily at a man who was bent over the moor to attend the chapel. If you had met the new-comer you would have been compelled to look back at him. He was tall and spare. His shoulders were very broad, and he walked with a kind of military tread. His face was good to see; the calm and joy of the bright day seemed to have entered his soul, and his eyes looked as though he were thinking of things too deep for words. His mouth was sternly closed, and yet despite its tension the delicate lines at the corners seemed to speak of humour and tenderness. His hat was thrown back a little, and showed a large forehead marked by slight lines, which spoke not so much of temper as of placid musing. He was murmuring to himself as he walked, and he seemed to be in communion with a multitude of exquisite thoughts. When he reached the bank where the geraniums grew, his placidity quickened into alertness as he saw the figure of Tom stretched upon the grass. He stepped up to the lounger and said, in a low cheery tone--

"Well, Thomas, my man, and what takes you out at this time of day? I suppose you are having a bit of a rest after yesterday?"

Thomas answered in the following terms:--

"I don't know what business it is of yours what I am doing. If you want to know what I am here for, I'll tell you. I am thinking how I can cheat the Conservancy men to-night. I wish you good-day."

The tall man was not by any means surprised by the uncourteous answer. He was used to the homely insolence of the fishermen. So he said--

"Well, Thomas, I was young myself once, and I liked to lounge on the Sunday as well as anybody; but it's God's Sabbath, and after all, you know, my lad, you are not a pig, and I think you might be doing ever so much better things than lying here. I am not a bit of a saint, and I am not going to bother you about religion, but it struck me, as I came across the moor, that I was happy, and you are not. Now I'll tell you what I am going to do, Thomas--you won't throw me over the rock-edge, because I am rather an awkward hand at that sort of thing. I am going to sit down and have a pipe beside you. Will you give me a light?"

Tommy could not condescend to a grin, but he observed--

"Sit down and smoke as many pipes as you like, so long as you leave me alone, Mr. Musgrave."

Musgrave knew his man, and answered smilingly--

"But I am not going to sit down to smoke and keep quiet. I want to have a bit of talk to you; and as soon as I am done I am going to take you with me. What do you think of that, Thomas?" And thereupon the old man lighted his pipe, and sat smiling for a little and moving his long fingers daintily. "When the two queer companions had taken puff by puff together for some time, Musgrave said--

"Thomas, my lad, you are very unhappy. I am happy, and I think a man has no more right to keep happiness to himself than he has to keep money to himself. I am going to share with you. Now, I'm an old fellow that's got near done with the world, and you are a slashing young chap, and the girls look after you. But still, though I am parting with the world, and you have got a long time to stay in it, I am better off than you. The sight of these flowers makes me joyful, but it only seems to make you dour. Now, shall I tell you how it is that I am so happy?"

"I don't want to be happy. What's that got to do with the thing? If you tell me that there's fifty sovereigns buried at the bottom of Lyne Hill there, I'll go and try to dig the hill away and get at them, because the trouble's worth taking; but I don't see the fun of seeking for what you call happiness."

"Well, then, Thomas, how much do you expect to make by trouting to-night?"

"Well, if there's any luck, Jem and me will divide fifteen shillings between us."

"Very good; then I'll give you seven-and-six-pence now. Here are your three half-crowns. Will you come with me?"

The sulky giant smiled sourly and said, "I don't see why I should not. Where are you for?"

"Well, I am going to preach at the chapel, Thomas, and I would like you to hear me and walk home with me, and I think that when I have landed you at your house that you won't be sorry for missing the trouting."

Tommy rose heavily up, shook the fragments of dry grass from his patched garments, and signified that he was ready. Musgrave took his arm, and at once assumed an attitude of companionship and equality. He talked with this churl about all manner of trivialities, flattered him, appealed to his sense of shrewdness, made little jokes suitable to his wit, and finally succeeded in making him feel himself to be rather a clever and entertaining person. The afternoon sun sloped lower and lower as the two strolled over the moor. Musgrave's thoughts were high, although his words ran upon childish things. He had no particular artistic sense, but the joy of colour, the blaze of the sky, the warm and exhilarating air, made him feel as though he must utter praises. After passing some miles of strange moorland, covered with the blaze of gorse, and the multitudinous flash of marshy pools, the two arrived at a curious square building, which stood a little outside the fishing village.

Musgrave said, "Now, Thomas, come in, and I'll find you a pew," and the two entered a low room. The congregation was already collected. There were fierce faces, bronzed by wind and sun. There were quiet faces that bore the marks of thought and the memories of toil. The men were all rudely dressed, and the women wore the primitive clothing which for three hundred years past has served for the simple tastes of the villagers. After a pause of a few minutes, Walter Musgrave's tall figure loomed in the shadowy corner where the pulpit stood. A simple hymn was dictated and sung in strong nasal tones. The old man who led the singing prided himself upon the volume of sound which he could at any instant propel through his nose. Strangers were sometimes a little disconcerted by this feat, for it seemed as if some wholly new description of trumpet had been suddenly invented. This man of the trumpet voice was wont to close his eyes and turn his face towards the ceiling. When once the preliminary blast had been blown from his nostrils, no power on earth could stay the flood of song. He became oblivious of time and space and the congregation. Considerations as to harmony did not enter into his scheme of the universe. If he got flagrantly wrong, he simply coughed and took up the thread of the musical narrative where he left off. The congregation had a great notion of his powers. They considered that the terrific drone with which he opened a hymn could not be equalled in any church or in any chapel for twenty miles round.

Musgrave suffered a good deal under the storm of harmony, but he always bore it bravely, and, when possible, lent the aid of his own high, sweet tenor, to the nasal clamour. After the hymn came a short prayer, delivered as though the speaker really believed that his God was at hand, and would instantly listen to any petition humbly proffered by frail creatures. At the end of a short pause, Walter Musgrave stood up to speak. He broadened his chest and straightened himself, unconsciously hinting at his physical power. He then read his text in a low voice: _"Why is life given to a man whose way is hid, and whom God hath hedged in?"_ Musgrave was an uneducated man, with strong logical instincts. Perhaps, had he been educated thoroughly, the poetic vein, which gave the chief charm to his mind and conversation, would have been destroyed. As it was, he invariably confined himself to logic so long as his emotions remained untouched; but there were moments when his blood seemed to catch fire, and he broke away from the calm reasoning which serves for placid men. He then spoke with poetry, and with an accent which affected the nerves of all who heard him. On this afternoon he began with a little sketch of the history of Job, and he then detailed his notion that the Arab, who wrote the most wonderful book in the world, was really the type of the modern man, and lived hundreds of generations before his time. He pointed out that all around us in Britain were men of deep thoughts, and wise thoughts, who had grown discontented with the world, and had set up their own intelligence in an endeavour to grasp the purpose of an intelligence infinitely higher. The existence of evil, the existence of pain, the existence of all the things that make men's pilgrimage, from dark to dark, mysterious and awful, can never be probed to any purpose by one creature created by the great Power who also created the mystery of pain and the problem of evil. Dwelling in the desert, and seeing day by day the movements of the world, and the strange progress of the stars, Job had grown to cherish the pride of intellect. So long as his prosperity was unbroken, he was contented, and busied himself day after day in relieving the wants of the poor and in succouring the oppressed. But when the blast of affliction blew upon him, his kindly disposition forsook him for a little, and he only thought of his own bitterness; he only thought of the puzzles that have faced every man who has a heart to feel since first our race appeared in this wondrous place. Musgrave thought that every man who has faith, every man whose heart has been torn by the wrenches of chance, must sympathize with the yearning of Job; but at the last every man, like Job, comes to see that there are things beyond our minds. Each of us learns that there are things before which our intelligence must be abashed, and that the only safe rule of life is to fall into the attitude of trust, and question no more. He felt it necessary to touch his homely hearers, and he said: "Only last week the wind woke from the sky, and the storm swept over the moor, and swept over this little place where two or three are now gathered together to worship. Many of our friends put forth in the morning in the joy of strength, in the pride of manhood, and no one of them fancied the sea that now fawns upon the shore would wake up into fury, and would dash its claws into cliff and sand, and rend the works of man into nothingness. We stood together on these cliffs--wives whose husbands were wrestling with the storm, mothers who were yearning for the sons they had borne. We saw the boats fight nearer and nearer through the mad spray and the tearing blasts. One after another we saw them crushed and sunken by the hand of the wind. Many of us went to our homes with bitterness at heart. We could not tell why those innocent men should have been snatched out of life; we could not tell why the innocent sufferers who remain should bear their sorrow through all the years until the release of death comes. Our thoughts were the thoughts that Job cherished in the black depths of his agony. But let me counsel you; let me ask you to remember that although death is here and pain is here--although every moment of our lives brings some new mystery--yet in the end there shall be peace. Our little sufferings count as nothing in the sum of the universe. The ills that we cry out against are only but as the troubles of children, and over all watches the Father who cared for Job in the desert, and who took to His own breast the souls of those who went down in the storm that crushed so many hopes of so many men and women in this our little village. I ask you only to trust. I give you no arguments. I only beg you to feel. Crush your questionings. Force yourself to believe in your own insignificance; force yourself to think that suffering has a wise end, and that even our pains, which are so great to us, are part of the scheme of a Master who is moulding the universe to His own plans. When once you have attained this central attitude of calm and trust, then for the rest of your life you will know nothing but joy. The thought of death will be no more like to the horror of a nightmare, but you will meet the great change even as you meet the deep black sleep of tired men. You will know, while thought remains, that you have not lived in vain, and you have not died in vain, for somewhere in God's providence there shall be rest for you, and immortal peace."

The thin frame of the speaker quivered as he spoke, and his long fingers writhed with a motion that gave emphasis to his ringing tones. Hob's Tommy had never heard anything like this before. He sat stupefied, and felt as though some music not heard of hitherto were playing and giving him gladness. The congregation broke up, and old William Dent said to one of his cronies, "Watty was grand this afternoon. Ay, they may talk about the fine preachers with the Greek and the Latin, but I want to hear a man like that." Musgrave and Hob's Tommy walked back over the moor in the twilight after the second service, and the giant spoke not a word all the way until they reached the bridge that crossed the little river. The dying twilight made the sluggish water like silver, and the trees were just beginning to moan with the evening wind. Tommy stood in the middle of the bridge, and looked--looked into the dark depths of the water, and then let his eye trace the silver path of the river where it vanished in the soft purple tints of the wood. He said, "If I was to drop over here now, Mr. Musgrave, do you think God would take me?" And Musgrave said--

"Don't talk nonsense, Thomas; come along with me. When God wants to take you, He will take you; but you must not be trying to put your opinions in place of God's. Turn back, my man, and look at the Point there where the Cobbler's Stone stands. Now forget that you are looking at the calm stream, and think what you would feel like one dark night, with a northerly gale, if you had to fight your way round the Cobbler, and expected the sea to double over your boat every minute. You are not in danger now, and your business is to worship. Try to think, my lad, what you would feel if you expected that every sea would be the last one. Now come away, and talk no more nonsense to-night."

So Hob's Tommy did not go trouting on that Sunday evening.

The next day, when he woke up, he had a sense of strangeness, and it suddenly flashed upon him that he ought to pray. He did not exactly know how to begin, but he managed to produce a curious imitation of the prayer he had heard Musgrave deliver the day before. He then put on his sea-boots and sou'-wester, and strolled into the kitchen. When his mother heard his foot in the passage, she trembled a little, because Tom was not over civil as a rule. To her utter astonishment, the ruffian whom she loved said, "Good morning, mother. Is the coffee ready?" He then stepped up to her, and placed his arm round her shoulders. He had never kissed anybody in his life; so that form of endearment did not occur to him; but he bent his bearded face, and laid his cheek clumsily against his mother's. The draggled woman was so startled that she was unable to form any idea as to the possible cause of this transformation. She only said, "Sit down, my bonny man, and your bacon will be ready for you in two minutes. I have never seen you look so well in my life. Will I be sending to the town for some bottled beer for you by the time you get back?"

"No, mother; I am going to try and do without the drink for a bit. I hit you last Saturday night, didn't I?"

"Well, don't speak about that, my bonny man."

"Show us the mark, mother."

She bared her arm to the shoulder, and there, sure enough, was a black bruise.

He ate his breakfast and went out, leaving his mother in a condition of exaltation which she had not known for many years. All the day, while the lines were over the side, Tommy sat with his face in his hands. His two mates joked with him, swore at him, tried all kinds of clumsy inducements to make him revert to his ordinary saturnine and entertaining mode of conversation; but he would not be tempted from his silence. Towards evening a chill blast struck off from the shore, and Mary's Jem, who was Tommy's mate, said--

"My man, we'll have the white horses in half a minute!"

A short, jumping sea sprang up as if by magic; the men hauled in their lines, took three reefs in the coble's mainsail before hoisting, and then laid the boat's head for the land. Minute by minute the blast grew heavier; quick gusts shook the bents on the sandy hills, and screamed away over the moaning floor of the sea. The boat had to beat very near the wind, and, as she ducked and plunged to the short rollers, clouds of spray came aboard, varied by plunges of green water. Sailing within three and a half points of the wind, and with her three reefs in the lug, she made at least four knots, and the water roared under her rudder. Jemmy lit his pipe, and said--

"We'll have to run north, my man."

Tommy said, energetically,--

"No, I'll not. The old woman is going to make my supper for me, and I'll not disappoint her, if I'm drowned in trying."

So the boat raced towards the bay, bows under. Nearing the Carr, where a narrow passage opens into smooth water, a strong back-wash came from the jagged rocks. One curling black sea came foaming back, and met the green sea that was plunging on to the reef. A mountain of water rose and fell with a heavy crash over the sail, and the boat turned slowly over. All three men were encumbered with their heavy sea-boots, but they managed to struggle out and fasten themselves on to the high keel. Four or five seas came in quick succession; the boat reached shallow water; the mast snapped with a loud crash, and within a few seconds Tommy said--

"Jump now, men, for it."

Up to their waists in water, the men clambered on to the sand and looked round, only to see the wreck of their coble beating herself to pieces with heavy lunges twenty yards from the shore.

Tommy spat the salt water out of his mouth, and fell upon his knees. He then walked up to the village, changed his clothes, behaved with elephantine tenderness to his mother, and walked out in the darkness to see his friend, the gardener. He sat on the settle in the low kitchen, and smoked solemnly without speaking. The next night he appeared at the same hour, and spent his evening in the same composed manner. For three weeks he never missed a night, and the gardener's family were puzzled to an extraordinary degree by the sombre expression of his face, and by his abstinence from the rude remarks which were wont to characterize his conversation concerning his friends and neighbours. Mrs. Wray, the gardener's wife, said one evening, "I wonder what the lout comes doddering about here for. He sits as if some of the lads had cutten his tongue out." The very next night Tommy solved her obstinate questionings. He said, "Mary, my hinny, I have found God;" and the next afternoon Walter Musgrave was astonished and pleased to see the fierce face of Tommy glaring from the seat opposite the pulpit. This dumb man had no means of expressing the feelings that were taking possession of him. He only knew that he felt kindly towards all living things, and, above all, he felt as though he must manifest a feeling akin to worship when he was in the gentle presence of Musgrave.

Year after year, until his mother died, he never failed in his kindness towards her, and the old dame was wont to express a kind of comic surprise at the womanish demeanour of her son. He caught fish for his living, but a cramped piece of reasoning forced him to the conclusion that it would be wrong for him to shoot any more birds. He said, "The birds was made by God, and God's been good to me, and I am not going to hurt them." Sunday after Sunday in all weathers he strode off to the moor. Wayfarers would meet him at night when the wind was hurling down from the Cheviots and bringing clouds of snow. He had but one salutation for all who met him: "Good night, my man; God bless you till the mornin'."

Sometimes, when the paths were so foul that nothing but wading would take a man over the moor, Tommy was greatly puzzled about finding his way, and one night he and Musgrave walked unsuspectingly over a low cliff, and fell softly upon a great ridge of sand. But these little misadventures did not by any means daunt Tommy. His new religion was that he must be at chapel twice every Sunday, and at prayer-meetings as often through the week as Musgrave chose to take him. To this he held. The Squire's pheasants suffered no longer, and Tommy's big lurcher displayed a tendency towards virtue which earned him the admiration of all the gamekeepers on the estate. Efforts were made to get the big man to pray at the ordinary love-feasts that were held in connection with the chapel, but he always said, "No; my Father and me has all our conversations to ourselves. It is not as if God didn't know; but I don't think a blackguard like me should address Him face to face after the life I have led."

The years went by, and Tommy's shaggy beard showed signs of grizzling. His huge limbs were more deliberate in their movement, and his low forehead had somehow or other acquired a certain spiritual aspect. He wrought at his trade, saved money, and spent some in decorating his mother's grave. One night, when he was smoking his pipe with Musgrave, he said--

"Christ died for all the lot of us, didn't He? That was a rare thing to do. Now, suppose He says, when I meet Him, 'What are you doing here? You have done nothing but go to chapel.' Now, Mr. Musgrave, will you tell me this: what should I say in a case of that sort?"

Old Musgrave wrinkled his wise brows and replied, "Thomas, my man, He knows your heart. I suppose you think you ought to save life, or something of that kind, don't you?"

"Yes, sir, that's just what I do think," said Thomas.

"Well, believe me, your chance will come. Now let's light up our pipes, and walk over the moor home, Thomas, and puzzle yourself no more about these things."

A bad winter came, and the thundering seas broke so continually over the rocks that it was impossible for the men to get bait on their own rocks. All day long the loungers walked the cliff edge, and watched the columns of spray hissing up from the black rocks. Day after day the clouds seemed to mix themselves with the sea as they laid their grey shoulders to the water. Money became scarce in the village, and the men who had savings had to help those who were poorer. When things got almost too bad for bearing, Billy Armstrong said to one of his friends--

"Look here, you and me and Hob's Tommy will run round to the Tyne, and get some mussels, or else the whole place will be starved when the fine weather comes."

A big coble was got out, and ran down to the Tyne with a northerly wind through the shrewd and vicious sea. The men got the cargo of mussels, and at four in the afternoon prepared to beat their way northward. It was then blowing half a gale, but the wind had shifted round from the shore, so that very little tacking was required. As the shades fell lower and lower, the wind rose higher and higher. The blasts galloped down through the hollows, and struck the brown sail of the coble like the sound of musketry. The boat lay hard over, and the water leaped in spurts over her lee gunwale. They reached the point where the Cobbler's Stone stood. Tommy was in a strange state of exaltation. He pointed to the misty shore, then to the black stone round which the water was seething. He said quietly, "Yonder, my lads!"

They rounded the point, and put the boat's head nearer to windward. A harsh ripping sound was heard under the bottom. She lay hard over until a blast came and tore her clear. Billy Armstrong said--

"You have taken her in a bit too near, my son. The bilge chocks is both pulled off; look you, they're gone away astern." And, sure enough, two long planks drifted away behind the boat. They had been torn off by the force with which she rushed upon the outlying rock. Tommy said, "Let's have another reef in, mates." But before the sail could be half lowered, a storming gust swept out of the bay, and struck the boat with a roar. The long rudder smashed; a green sea doubled up behind her, and she turned over exactly as the coble had done when Tommy first prayed.

In the wild waves it was hard for the men to get hold. The bilge chocks were gone, and thus all chance of a hand grip was lost. Half-way down the square stern of the boat a hole had been bored, through which a rope had been passed and knotted at both ends. This rope served the men in hauling the boat down to the sea. Only one could hold on to this short scrap, and Tommy, who was the first to think of it, seized it, and held on with the strength of his despair. The boat lunged and struck the faces of the two men who were holding on to her sides. Billy Armstrong was bleeding from the mouth, and his front teeth were gone--dashed out by one stroke which had met him as he tried to climb and catch hold of the deep iron keel in the fore part of the coble. The other man said suddenly, "I have got a broken arm, Tommy." A few minutes went by, during which the men dared not speak--only Tommy was perfectly safe. The others were slipping and writhing in their efforts to hang on to the smooth planks. The man with the broken arm had the nails of his sound hand torn, and the blood streamed down as he clutched again and again at the slippery seams. At last he said, "I cannot do it any longer. Tell Mary the money is under the bed at the right-hand side next the wall, and ask my grandfather to take little Adam for me and keep him." A thought came into Hob's Tommy's mind. He cried out, "Don't let yourself go down. Edge yourself round here to the stern, and you shall have this rope." The maimed man came slowly round, and took the rope as Tommy let go. For a single minute the bruised giant rested his hands on the lunging stern of the little vessel. He did not look up, and his face had no devotional aspect, but the two men who were saved remembered his words to the end of their lives. He said, "O Lord Jesus, I am even with you now. I am going to die." The stern of the boat flew up into the air as a short sea hit her, and Hob's Tommy lost his grip. He lay back quietly on the water, and the men said that he even smiled. Presently the foam covered him over.

[The end]
James Runciman's short story: Hob's Tommy