Half a league to the north of bold Flamborough Head the billows have carved for themselves a little cove among cliffs which are rugged, but not very high. This opening is something like the grain shoot of a mill, or a screen for riddling gravel, so steep is the pitch of the ground, and so narrow the shingly ledge at the bottom. And truly in bad weather and at high tides there is no shingle ledge at all, but the crest of the wave volleys up the incline, and the surf rushes on to the top of it. For the cove, though sheltered from other quarters, receives the full brunt of northeasterly gales, and offers no safe anchorage. But the hardy fishermen make the most of its scant convenience, and gratefully call it “North Landing,” albeit both wind and tide must be in good humor, or the only thing sure of any landing is the sea. The long desolation of the sea rolls in with a sound of melancholy, the gray fog droops its fold of drizzle in the leaden-tinted troughs, the pent cliffs overhang the flapping of the sail, and a few yards of pebble and of weed are all that a boat may come home upon harmlessly. Yet here in the old time landed men who carved the shape of England; and here even in these lesser days, are landed uncommonly fine cod.
The difficulties of the feat are these: to get ashore soundly, and then to make it good; and after that to clinch the exploit by getting on land, which is yet a harder step. Because the steep of the ground, like a staircase void of stairs, stands facing you, and the cliff upon either side juts up close, to forbid any flanking movement, and the scanty scarp denies fair start for a rush at the power of the hill front. Yet here must the heavy boats beach themselves, and wallow and yaw in the shingly roar, while their cargo and crew get out of them, their gunwales swinging from side to side, in the manner of a porpoise rolling, and their stem and stern going up and down like a pair of lads at seesaw.
But after these heavy boats have endured all that, they have not found their rest yet without a crowning effort. Up that gravelly and gliddery ascent, which changes every groove and run at every sudden shower, but never grows any the softer — up that the heavy boats must make clamber somehow, or not a single timber of their precious frames is safe. A big rope from the capstan at the summit is made fast as soon as the tails of the jackasses (laden with three cwt. of fish apiece) have wagged their last flick at the brow of the steep; and then with “yo-heave-ho” above and below, through the cliffs echoing over the dull sea, the groaning and grinding of the stubborn tug begins. Each boat has her own special course to travel up, and her own special berth of safety, and she knows every jag that will gore her on the road, and every flint from which she will strike fire. By dint of sheer sturdiness of arms, legs, and lungs, keeping true time with the pant and the shout, steadily goes it with hoist and haul, and cheerily undulates the melody of call that rallies them all with a strong will together, until the steep bluff and the burden of the bulk by masculine labor are conquered, and a long row of powerful pinnaces displayed, as a mounted battery, against the fishful sea. With a view to this clambering ruggedness of life, all of these boats receive from their cradle a certain limber rake and accommodating curve, instead of a straight pertinacity of keel, so that they may ride over all the scandals of this arduous world. And happen what may to them, when they are at home, and gallantly balanced on the brow line of the steep, they make a bright show upon the dreariness of coast-land, hanging as they do above the gullet of the deep. Painted outside with the brightest of scarlet, and inside with the purest white, at a little way off they resemble gay butterflies, preening their wings for a flight into the depth.
Here it must have been, and in the middle of all these, that the very famous Robin Lyth — prophetically treating him, but free as yet of fame or name, and simply unable to tell himself — shone in the doubt of the early daylight (as a tidy-sized cod, if forgotten, might have shone) upon the morning of St. Swithin, A.D. 1782.
The day and the date were remembered long by all the good people of Flamborough, from the coming of the turn of a long bad luck and a bitter time of starving. For the weather of the summer had been worse than usual — which is no little thing to say — and the fish had expressed their opinion of it by the eloquent silence of absence. Therefore, as the whole place lives on fish, whether in the fishy or the fiscal form, goodly apparel was becoming very rare, even upon high Sundays; and stomachs that might have looked well beneath it, sank into unobtrusive grief. But it is a long lane that has no turning; and turns are the essence of one very vital part.
Suddenly over the village had flown the news of a noble arrival of fish. From the cross-roads, and the public-house, and the licensed head-quarters of pepper and snuff, and the loop-hole where a sheep had been known to hang, in times of better trade, but never could dream of hanging now; also from the window of the man who had had a hundred heads (superior to his own) shaken at him because he set up for making breeches in opposition to the women, and showed a few patterns of what he could do if any man of legs would trade with him — from all these head-centres of intelligence, and others not so prominent but equally potent, into the very smallest hole it went (like the thrill in a troublesome tooth) that here was a chance come of feeding, a chance at last of feeding. For the man on the cliff, the despairing watchman, weary of fastening his eyes upon the sea, through constant fog and drizzle, at length had discovered the well-known flicker, the glassy flaw, and the hovering of gulls, and had run along Weighing Lane so fast, to tell his good news in the village, that down he fell and broke his leg, exactly opposite the tailor’s shop. And this was on St. Swithin’s Eve.
There was nothing to be done that night, of course, for mackerel must be delicately worked; but long before the sun arose, all Flamborough, able to put leg in front of leg, and some who could not yet do that, gathered together where the land-hold was, above the incline for the launching of the boats. Here was a medley, not of fisher-folk alone, and all their bodily belongings, but also of the thousand things that have no soul, and get kicked about and sworn at much because they can not answer. Rollers, buoys, nets, kegs, swabs, fenders, blocks, buckets, kedges, corks, buckie-pots, oars, poppies, tillers, sprits, gaffs, and every kind of gear (more than Theocritus himself could tell) lay about, and rolled about, and upset their own masters, here and there and everywhere, upon this half acre of slip and stumble, at the top of the boat channel down to the sea, and in the faint rivalry of three vague lights, all making darkness visible.
For very ancient lanterns, with a gentle horny glimmer, and loop-holes of large exaggeration at the top, were casting upon anything quite within their reach a general idea of the crinkled tin that framed them, and a shuffle of inconstant shadows, but refused to shed any light on friend or stranger, or clear up suspicions, more than three yards off. In rivalry with these appeared the pale disk of the moon, just setting over the western highlands, and “drawing straws” through summer haze; while away in the northeast over the sea, a slender irregular wisp of gray, so weak that it seemed as if it were being blown away, betokened the intention of the sun to restore clear ideas of number and of figure by-and-by. But little did anybody heed such things; every one ran against everybody else, and all was eagerness, haste, and bustle for the first great launch of the Flamborough boats, all of which must be taken in order.
But when they laid hold of the boat No. 7, which used to be the Mercy Robin, and were jerking the timber shores out, one of the men stooping under her stern beheld something white and gleaming. He put his hand down to it, and, lo! it was a child, in imminent peril of a deadly crush, as the boat came heeling over. “Hold hard!” cried the man, not in time with his voice, but in time with his sturdy shoulder, to delay the descent of the counter. Then he stooped underneath, while they steadied the boat, and drew forth a child in a white linen dress, heartily asleep and happy.
There was no time to think of any children now, even of a man’s own fine breed, and the boat was beginning much to chafe upon the rope, and thirty or forty fine fellows were all waiting, loath to hurry Captain Robin (because of the many things he had dearly lost), yet straining upon their own hearts to stand still. And the captain could not find his wife, who had slipped aside of the noisy scene, to have her own little cry, because of the dance her children would have made if they had lived to see it.
There were plenty of other women running all about to help, and to talk, and to give the best advice to their husbands and to one another; but most of them naturally had their own babies, and if words came to action, quite enough to do to nurse them. On this account, Cockscroft could do no better, bound as he was to rush forth upon the sea, than lay the child gently aside of the stir, and cover him with an old sail, and leave word with an ancient woman for his wife when found. The little boy slept on calmly still, in spite of all the din and uproar, the song and the shout, the tramp of heavy feet, the creaking of capstans, and the thump of bulky oars, and the crush of ponderous rollers. Away went these upon their errand to the sea, and then came back the grating roar and plashy jerks of launching, the plunging, and the gurgling, and the quiet murmur of cleft waves.
That child slept on, in the warm good luck of having no boat keel launched upon him, nor even a human heel of bulk as likely to prove fatal. And the ancient woman fell asleep beside him, because at her time of life it was unjust that she should be astir so early. And it happened that Mrs. Cockscroft followed her troubled husband down the steep, having something in her pocket for him, which she failed to fetch to hand. So everybody went about its own business (according to the laws of nature), and the old woman slept by the side of the child, without giving him a corner of her scarlet shawl.
But when the day was broad and brave, and the spirit of the air was vigorous, and every cliff had a color of its own, and a character to come out with; and beautiful boats, upon a shining sea, flashed their oars, and went up waves which clearly were the stairs of heaven; and never a woman, come to watch her husband, could be sure how far he had carried his obedience in the matter of keeping his hat and coat on; neither could anybody say what next those very clever fishermen might be after — nobody having a spy-glass — but only this being understood all round, that hunger and salt were the victuals for the day, and the children must chew the mouse-trap baits until their dads came home again; and yet in spite of all this, with lightsome hearts (so hope outstrips the sun, and soars with him behind her) and a strong will, up the hill they went, to do without much breakfast, but prepare for a glorious supper. For mackerel are good fish that do not strive to live forever, but seem glad to support the human race.
Flamburians speak a rich burr of their own, broadly and handsomely distinct from that of outer Yorkshire. The same sagacious contempt for all hot haste and hurry (which people of impatient fibre are too apt to call “a drawl”) may here be found, as in other Yorkshire, guiding and retarding well that headlong instrument the tongue. Yet even here there is advantage on the side of Flamborough — a longer resonance, a larger breadth, a deeper power of melancholy, and a stronger turn up of the tail of discourse, by some called the end of a sentence. Over and above all these there dwell in “Little Denmark” many words foreign to the real Yorkshireman. But, alas! these merits of their speech can not be embodied in print without sad trouble, and result (if successful) still more saddening. Therefore it is proposed to let them speak in our inferior tongue, and to try to make them be not so very long about it. For when they are left to themselves entirely, they have so much solid matter to express, and they ripen it in their minds and throats with a process so deliberate, that strangers might condemn them briefly, and be off without hearing half of it. Whenever this happens to a Flamborough man, he finishes what he proposed to say, and then says it all over again to the wind.
When the “lavings” of the village (as the weaker part, unfit for sea, and left behind, were politely called, being very old men, women, and small children), full of conversation, came, upon their way back from the tide, to the gravel brow now bare of boats, they could not help discovering there the poor old woman that fell asleep because she ought to have been in bed, and by her side a little boy, who seemed to have no bed at all. The child lay above her in a tump of stubbly grass, where Robin Cockscroft had laid him; he had tossed the old sail off, perhaps in a dream, and he threatened to roll down upon the granny. The contrast between his young, beautiful face, white raiment, and readiness to roll, and the ancient woman’s weary age (which it would be ungracious to describe), and scarlet shawl which she could not spare, and satisfaction to lie still — as the best thing left her now to do — this difference between them was enough to take anybody’s notice, facing the well-established sun.
“Nanny Pegler, get oop wi’ ye!” cried a woman even older, but of tougher constitution. “Shame on ye to lig aboot so. Be ye browt to bed this toime o’ loife?”
“A wonderful foine babby for sich an owd moother,” another proceeded with the elegant joke; “and foine swaddles too, wi’ solid gowd upon ’em!”
“Stan’ ivery one o’ ye oot o’ the way,” cried ancient Nanny, now as wide-awake as ever; “Master Robin Cockscroft gie ma t’ bairn, an’ nawbody sall hev him but Joan Cockscroft.”
Joan Cockscroft, with a heavy heart, was lingering far behind the rest, thinking of the many merry launches, when her smart young Robin would have been in the boat with his father, and her pretty little Mercy clinging to her hand upon the homeward road, and prattling of the fish to be caught that day; and inasmuch as Joan had not been able to get face to face with her husband on the beach, she had not yet heard of the stranger child. But soon the women sent a little boy to fetch her, and she came among them, wondering what it could be. For now a debate of some vigor was arising upon a momentous and exciting point, though not so keen by a hundredth part as it would have been twenty years afterward. For the eldest old woman had pronounced her decision.
“Tell ye wat, ah dean’t think bud wat yon bairn mud he a Frogman.”
This caused some panic and a general retreat; for though the immortal Napoleon had scarcely finished changing his teeth as yet, a chronic uneasiness about Crappos haunted that coast already, and they might have sent this little boy to pave the way, being capable of almost everything.
“Frogman!” cried the old woman next to her by birth, and believed to have higher parts, though not yet ripe. “Na, na; what Frogman here? Frogmen ha’ skinny shanks, and larks’ heels, and holes down their bodies like lamperns. No sign of no frog aboot yon bairn. As fair as a wench, and as clean as a tyke. A’ mought a’most been born to Flaambro’. And what gowd ha’ Crappos got, poor divils?”
This opened the gate for a clamor of discourse; for there surely could be no denial of her words. And yet while her elder was alive and out of bed, the habit of the village was to listen to her say, unless any man of equal age arose to countervail it. But while they were thus divided, Mrs. Cockscroft came, and they stood aside. For she had been kind to everybody when her better chances were; and now in her trouble all were grieved because she took it so to heart. Joan Cockscroft did not say a word, but glanced at the child with some contempt. In spite of white linen and yellow gold, what was he to her own dead Robin?
But suddenly this child, whatever he was, and vastly soever inferior, opened his eyes and sent home their first glance to the very heart of Joan Cockscroft. It was the exact look — or so she always said — of her dead angel, when she denied him something, for the sake of his poor dear stomach. With an outburst of tears, she flew straight to the little one, snatched him in her arms, and tried to cover him with kisses.
The child, however, in a lordly manner, did not seem to like it. He drew away his red lips, and gathered up his nose, and passion flew out of his beautiful eyes, higher passion than that of any Cockscroft. And he tried to say something which no one could make out. And women of high consideration, looking on, were wicked enough to be pleased at this, and say that he must be a young lord, and they had quite foreseen it. But Joan knew what children are, and soothed him down so with delicate hands, and a gentle look, and a subtle way of warming his cold places, that he very soon began to cuddle into her, and smile. Then she turned round to the other people, with both of his arms flung round her neck, and his cheek laid on her shoulder, and she only said, “The Lord hath sent him.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50