English Literature

A Terrible Coward by George Manville Fenn

A Terrible Coward by George Manville Fenn

Chapter One.

The Diver’s Rock.

Boom! with a noise like thunder.

Plash! directly after; but the sounds those two words express, multiplied and squared if you like, till the effect upon the senses is, on the first hearing, one of dread mingled with awe at the mightiness of the power of the sea.

For this is not “how the waters come down at Lodore,” but how they come in at Carn Du, a little fishing town on the Cornish coast.

There’s a black mass of rock standing out like a buttress just to the west of the little harbour, running right into the sea, and going down straight like a wall into the deep clear water at its foot, as if to say to the waves, “Thus far may you come, and no farther.” For hundreds upon hundreds of years the winds and tides have combined to rid themselves of this obstacle to their progress, the winds urging the waves that come rolling in from the vast Atlantic, gathering force as they increase in speed, like one rushing at a leap; and at last leap they do, upon the great black mass of shale, tons upon tons in weight, seeming as if they would sweep it clear away, and rush on in mad ruin to tumble the fishing luggers together and shatter them like eggs as they lie softly rubbing together in the harbour.

But no; it is only another of the countless millions of failures on the part of those Atlantic billows. They leap and fall with a mighty boom upon that rock, but only to break up with a hissing plash into a mass of foam, defeated, churned up with froth that runs hissing back, ready to give way to another wave advancing to the charge.

They have worn the rock smooth, so that it glistens like glass in the morning sun, for, as if aware of the folly of urging on its regiments of well-mounted cavalry to come dashing in upon the wild white-maned sea-horses, or the more sober lines of heavy infantry in uniforms of green and blue, the sea has for countless ages bombarded Carn Du with stone-shot in the shape of great boulders. These have ground and polished off every scrap of seaweed, every barnacle, limpet, and sea-anemone, leaving the rock all smooth and bare, while the boulders lie piled to the east in a heap, where the waves that try to take the rock in flank leap amongst them, and roll them over higher and higher, to come rumbling down as if they were tiny pebbles instead of rounded masses of granite and spar-veined stone a quarter, half, and a hundredweight each.

It was an awful place in a storm—Carn Du. It was there that the great Austrian full-rigged ship came on, during one black and raging night; when one minute from the harbour, and off the cliff, the fishermen in their oilskins could see the lights of a vessel—the next minute, nothing.

There were the remains of a few timbers, though, in the morning—torn, twisted, gnawed, as it were, into fibres and splintering rags. That was all.

It was an awful place in a storm, where the spray, broken up into feathery froth by the battle on the rocks, came flying over the town, and then away landward, like a fine misty rain; but it was a grand place in a calm. It has been said that there was always deep water, even at low tide, at the foot of the Carn, and here for generations had been the training place of the swimmers of Carn Du, who were famous for their prowess all round the coast.

It was too much for the boys, but the performance of the big dive was looked upon as the passing of a lad from boyhood into the manly stage, upon which he entered through the Shangles Gate, and then swam back, coming, as it were, of age amidst the shouts of his companions to swim ashore and land upon the big boulders, where the boys bathed and learned to swim in the calm weather, gazing the while in admiration at their older companions.

For there was something very stirring in the act, and a stranger to the place would hold his breath in dread as he saw Mark Penelly, who was the finest swimmer at the port of Carn Du, climb up the side of the great black rock upon some fine summer evening, then go round along the narrow shelf of shaley stone, till he stood alone there forty feet above the sea, his white figure as he rested against the black rock, every muscle standing out from his well-knit frame, and his arms crossed, looking like some antique statue in its niche.

There were plenty of young men who could perform the feat, but Mark Penelly was acknowledged to be the master.

Dotted about the swelling surface there would be the heads of plenty of swimmers—men and lads—some going smoothly along, mounting the rollers as they came in, and descending softly into the hollows; others again swimming to meet each wave, then rising a little, and with a plunge like a duck or one of the great bronze-black shags, or cormorants, that sat upon the rock-shelves, diving right through the mass of water, to come out fairly on the other side.

Some would swim out to the little buoys, rest by them for a time, and swim back. Others would make for one of the cinnamon-sailed luggers lying at anchor, to go round and back, or would get into one of the boats; while some, more venturesome, or really more confident in their powers over the water, would go boldly out, perhaps a mile, to meet some lugger coming in from the fishing-ground, sure of being taken aboard and riding back abreast of the boulders where they had left their clothes.

To be a good swimmer was everything at Carn Du. They looked upon it as a business—as part of their education—for no boy or man was counted fit to go out in a boat who could not leap overboard and swim alongside, or, during a capsize, keep himself afloat, and help to turn the boat and bale her out.

But from the meanest to the best swimmer there, every one paused to watch Mark Penelly standing statue-like up against the black rock, waiting till a great ninth wave came majestically rolling in, sweeping over the outer rocks—the Shangles—and then with a boom leaping at Carn Du, running up it, as it were, in a mighty column of water, some twenty feet even on a calm day.

Now was the time, calculated by practised eyes to the moment.

As the wave struck, Mark could be seen to grow suddenly less statuesque. His arms would drop to his side, and then as it rushed up towards where he stood, like some mighty sea-monster seeking to make him its prey, Mark’s hands joined above his head, he bent forward slightly, and then with one tremendous leap seemed to leave the rocky ledge, and plunge down head foremost into the wave.

The effect was electric, but its daring seemed to savour of madness. There one moment stood the statuesque figure, white as a cameo cut in the black rock, the next moment there was a gleam of something flashing through the air, and passing into the deep blue wave, which, as if by the contact of the figure, broke into silvery foam, rushing back like a vast cascade towards the Shangles.

Where all before was smooth heaving water all was now rushing foam, as the broken wave raced back, as if to pass between two narrow jagged pieces of rock rising up like a gateway some fifty yards away before the next wave came in.

The breath of the person who saw it for the first time was held as he looked in vain for the brave diver, or wondered whether the act he had seen was not some mad effort to destroy life. There was the foaming water, there the black rocks, that were swept over by the roaring wave, but now showing plainly amidst a sheet of white surf, with beyond them a comparatively smooth surface, through which a current seems to run.

But there was no diver to be seen, nothing but the racing, hissing foam.

Yes: there he was—that was his head, rising out of the foam thirty or forty yards away, and being carried to inevitable destruction against those terrible jagged rocks.

No man could swim against the furious, racing torrent which was now passing between them. No one could get out of such a current when once in. It was horrible to look at, for the helpless swimmer seemed as if he would be dashed against the crags and then float, stunned, wounded, and helpless, out to sea.

That seemed to be Mark Penelly’s fate; but no—as he neared the gate in the Shangles he could be seen to turn over upon his back, keeping his head well out of the water, paddling with his hands, and feet foremost, showing from time to time amongst the foam, literally shooting like a canoe right between the rocks, to float directly after in smooth water, and calmly swim round towards the shore.

The feat had been seen hundreds of times; every swimmer who had attained manhood could do it; and at times it was hard work to keep back the venturesome boys. But no matter when it was done there was always a cheer for the brave young fellow who took the leap, and who was now seen to alter his mind, and make for a fishing lugger a quarter of a mile away—one which was just coming in from the fishing-ground miles away.

“Huh, Harry Paul,” said one of a group of dark, weather-tanned fishermen, to a fair-haired, clear-skinned young fellow of two or three and twenty; who had just thrown his straw-hat upon the rocks, showing his crisp, short, yellowish hair, and broad, white forehead. “Going to have a swim?”

“Yes,” said the young man quietly, as he proceeded to divest himself of his neckerchief and let loose his thick white throat; “nice night for it.”

“Where are you going, lad?” said another, for somehow they took a great interest in his proceedings.

“Oh, I thought of swimming out to James’s boat and back, or else coming back in her. She seems to have plenty of fish.”

“Ay, lad, plenty,” said another; “they’ve been signalling that they’re ’most full. But when are you going to take the jump, lad, eh?”

“I don’t know,” said Harry quietly, as he went on preparing for his bathe; “perhaps never.”

“I wonder at you, Master Harry,” said another, a grey-headed old fisherman. “Here’s you, son of the biggest owner here in Carn Du, a young chap as can swim like a seal, and yet never had the pluck to take the big leap.”

“Yes,” said the first speaker, “a dive as there’s dozens of boys o’ fifteen and sixteen ready to do if they’d let ’em.”

“Ay,” said the grey-haired old fellow, “that they would. Why, I done it when I was fourteen and a half.”

“Mark. Penelly says as you’re the biggest coward as ever stepped,” said another maliciously.

“Oh! never you mind what Mark Penelly says, Master Harry,” said the grey-haired man. “He’s jealous; that’s about what he is. He’s ’feared you’ll go and do the dive better than him. And it’s my opinion, seeing what a swimmer you are, as you would beat him all to fits.”

“So I think,” said another, who had not yet spoken; and he winked at his companions as he thrust his hands a little farther down into his capacious pockets.

“Go on, and do it to-night, Master Harry,” said the old fellow. “Don’t you be bet. The tide’s just right for it, and if I was you I’d just show Mark Penelly as he knows nothing about it.”

The young man went on calmly divesting himself of his outer clothing while this talk went on, and though there was a slight flush on his cheeks he did not speak a word.

“He’ll do it,” said the man with his hands in his pockets. “He’ll do it; you see if he don’t. Mas’r Harry’s made up his mind. He’s just made up his mind, he have, and he’s going to do it.”

“I’ll lay a ounce o’ baccy he does it better than Mark Penelly. I wish he was here to see him do it.”

“Ay, to be sure,” said the old grey-haired man. “He’s going to do it—now aren’t you, Mas’r Harry? I feel kinder quite glad of it, lad, for I taught you to swim.”

“To be sure you did, Tom Genna,” said the young man, smiling, “and I hope I haven’t disgraced my master.”

“Not you, lad; there is not a finer swimmer nowhere,” said the old man enthusiastically; “and I’m glad you’ve made up your mind at last to take the dive.”

“I’ve not made up my mind,” said the young man coolly.

“Not made up your mind!” cried several.

“No,” replied the bather.

“Why, you said just now as you would do it!” cried the man with his hands in his pockets.

“Ay, so he did,” was chorused.

“Not I,” said Harry quietly; “and if you will all clear off, and let me have my swim in peace, I shall be much obliged.”

“Why, you are a coward, then,” said the man with his hands in his pockets, and to show his disgust he began to sprinkle the boulders about with tobacco-juice.

“I suppose I am,” said Harry Paul, smiling. “I can’t help it. I suppose it is my nature.”

“Bah!” growled the grey-haired man, who, as one of the oldest fishermen, was looked up to as an authority. “You aren’t a coward, Master Harry; it’s only ’cause you want to make a plucky effort, don’t you? Just you make up your mind to do it, and you’d do it like a shot.”

“I daresay I could,” replied the young man; “but why should I?”

“Why should you!” sneered the man with his hands in his pockets; “why, ’cause every one does.”

“Because everyone goes and risks his life just for the sake of gratifying his vanity,” replied Harry Paul, “I don’t see why I should go and do the same.”

“Ah, now you’re beginning to talk fine,” growled the old fisherman, “and a-shoving your book-larning at us. Look here, young ’un; a lad as can’t swim ain’t—’cordin’ to my ideas—hardly worth the snuff of a candle.”

“I don’t go so far as you do, Tom,” said the young man, smiling; “but I do hold that every young fellow should be able to swim well, and so I learned.”

“Yes, but you can’t do the dive,” said the man with his hands in his pockets mockingly.

“Oh, he’s going to do it,” said the old fisherman. “The water’s just right, Master Harry. You go. Take my advice: you go. Just wait till the wave’s coming well up, then fall into her, and out you come, and the current’ll carry you out through the Shangles.”

“And what the better shall I be if I do?” said the young man warmly.

“What the better, my lad!” said the old fellow, looking aghast. “Why, you’ll ha’ made quite a man o’ yourself.”

“But I shall have done no good whatever.”

“Oh, yes, you would; oh, yes, you would,” said the party, sagely shaking their heads and looking at one another.

“I don’t see it,” said Harry Paul. “If it was to do any one good, or to be of any benefit, perhaps I might try it; but I cannot see the common-sense of risking my life just because you people have made it a custom to jump off Carn Du.”

As he spoke he ran down over the boulders, and plunged off a rock into the clear sea, his white figure being traceable against the olive brown sea-wrack waving far below, as he swam for some distance below the surface, and then rose, shook the water from his eyes, and struck out for the lugger lying becalmed in the offing.

The party of fishermen on shore stood growling together, and making unpleasant remarks about Harry Paul, whom they declared to be a terrible coward—all but old Tom Genna, who angrily took his part.

“He’s not a bad ’un at heart, and I believe he’s no coward,” growled the old fellow.

“Then why don’t he show as he ar’n’t?” said the man with his hands in his pockets, places they never seemed to leave.

“Ah, that’s what no one can’t say!” growled old Tom, and sooner than hear his favourite swimming pupil condemned, he walked away, muttering that, “he’d give a half-crown silver piece any day to see Mas’r Harry do that theer dive better than Mark Penelly.”

Meanwhile the latter had swum right out to the fishing lugger, where he was taken on board, and it being one of his father’s boats, he was soon furnished with a blue jersey and a pair of rough flannel trousers, for he did not care about swimming back. Then seating himself on the side, he began talking and chatting to the men, who were shaking mackerel out of their dark-brown nets, where they hung caught by the gills, which acted like the barbs to their arrow-like flight through the sea against the drift-net, and prevented their return.

They were in no hurry to get in, for there was no means of sending their fish off till morning, hence they took matters coolly enough.

“Did you do the dive to-night, Master Mark?” said the master of the boat.

“Yes, to be sure,” said Mark conceitedly. “Bah! it’s mere child’s play.”

“And yet Mas’r Harry Paul never does it,” said another, in the sing-song tone peculiar to the district.

“He! a miserable coward!” cried Penelly, contemptuously. “He hasn’t the spirit of a fly. Such a fellow ought to be hounded out of the place. Why, I could pick out a dozen boys of twelve who would do it.”

“Yes,” said the master of the lugger maliciously, “but he’s a beautiful swimmer.”

“Tchah! I’d swim twice as far,” said Penelly. “He’s a wretched coward, and I hate him.”

“What! because he can swim better than you, sir?” said the master.

“I tell you I’m the better swimmer,” said Penelly sharply.

“Then it must be because he thrashed you for behaving ill to poor old Tom Genna?”

“He thrash me!” cried Penelly contemptuously. “I should like to see him do it.”

“Here’s your chance, then,” said the master maliciously. “He’s swimming straight for the boat.”

Mark Penelly’s face grew a shade more sallow, but he said nothing, only knelt down by a pile of loose net, and watched the young man, whom he looked upon as his rival, till Harry, swimming gracefully and well, came right up and answered the hail of the fishermen with a cheery shout.

“Come aboard, Mas’r Harry; we’re going to have the sweeps out soon, and we’ll take you in.”

“No, thank you,” was the reply. “I am going round you, and then back.”

Mark Penelly had gone over to the other side of the lugger while the conversation was going on, and he did not face the man he looked upon as his rival; while Harry, unnoticed by the busy fishers as he swam round, went on, touching the sides of the lugger as he lightly swam, but only the next moment to find himself entangled in a quantity of the thin mackerel net, which seemed somehow to descend upon him like a cloud, and before he could realise the fact he was under water, hopelessly fettered by the net, and feeling that if he could not extricate himself directly he should be a dead man.

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