Pilot Matthey’s Christmas by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

Pilot Matthey came down to the little fishing-quay at five p.m. or thereabouts. He is an elderly man, tall and sizable, with a grizzled beard and eyes innocent-tender as a child’s, but set in deep crow’s-feet at the corners, as all seamen’s eyes are. It comes of facing the wind.

Pilot Matthey spent the fore-half of his life at the fishing. Thence he won his way to be a Trinity pilot, and wears such portions of an old uniform as he remembers to don. He has six sons and four daughters, all brought up in the fear of the Lord, and is very much of a prophet in our Israel. One of the sons works with him as apprentice, the other five follow the fishing.

He came down to the quay soon after tea-time, about half an hour before the luggers were due to put out. Some twenty-five or thirty men were already gathered, dandering to and fro with hands in pockets, or seated on the bench under the sea wall, waiting for the tide to serve. About an equal number were below in the boats, getting things ready.

There was nothing unusual about Matthey, save that, although it was a warm evening in August, he wore a thick pea-jacket, and had turned the collar up about his ears. Nor (if you know Cornish fishermen) was there anything very unusual in what he did, albeit a stranger might well have thought it frantic.

For some time he walked to and fro, threading his way in and out of the groups of men, walking much faster than they–at the best they were strolling–muttering the while with his head sunk low in his jacket collar, turning sharply when he reached the edge of the quay, or pausing a moment or two, and staring gloomily at the water. The men watched him, yet not very curiously. They knew what was coming.

Of a sudden he halted and began to preach. He preached of Redemption from Sin, of the Blood of the Lamb, of the ineffable bliss of Salvation. His voice rose in an agony on the gentle twilight: it could be heard–entreating, invoking, persuading, wrestling–far across the harbour. The men listened quite attentively until the time came for getting aboard. Then they stole away by twos and threes down the quay steps. Meanwhile, and all the while, preparations on the boats had been going forward.

He was left alone at length. Even the children had lost interest in him, and had run off to watch the boats as they crept out on the tide. He ceased abruptly, came across to the bench where I sat smoking my pipe, and dropped exhausted beside me. The fire had died out of him. He eyed me almost shamefacedly at first, by and by more boldly.

“I would give, sir,” said Pilot Matthey, “I would give half my worldly goods to lead you to the Lord.”

“I believe you,” said I. “To my knowledge you have often risked more than that–your life–to save men from drowning. But tell me–you that for twenty minutes have been telling these fellows how Christ feels towards them–how can you know? It is hard enough, surely, to get inside any man’s feelings. How can you pretend to know what Christ feels, or felt–for an instance, in the Judgment Hall, when Peter denied?”

“Once I did, sir,” said Pilot Matthey, smoothing the worn knees of his trousers. “It was just that. I’ll tell you:”

“It happened eighteen or twenty years ago, on the old Early and Late–yes, twenty years come Christmas, for I mind that my eldest daughter was expectin’ her first man-child, just then. You saw him get aboard just now, praise the Lord! But at the time we was all nervous about it–my son-in-law, Daniel, bein’ away with me on the East Coast after the herrings. I’d as good as promised him to be back in time for it–this bein’ my first grandchild, an’ due (so well as we could calculate) any time between Christmas an’ New Year. Well, there was no sacrifice, as it happened, in startin’ for home– the weather up there keepin’ monstrous, an’ the catches not worth the labour. So we turned down Channel, the wind strong an’ dead foul– south at first, then west-sou’-west–headin’ us all the way, and always blowin’ from just where ’twasn’t wanted. This lasted us down to the Wight, and we’d most given up hope to see home before Christmas, when almost without warnin’ it catched in off the land– pretty fresh still, but steady–and bowled us down past the Bill and halfway across to the Start, merry as heart’s delight. Then it fell away again, almost to a flat calm, and Daniel lost his temper. I never allowed cursin’ on board the Early and Late–nor, for that matter, on any other boat of mine; but if Daniel didn’t swear a bit out of hearin’, well then–poor dear fellow, he’s dead and gone these twelve years (yes, sir–drowned)–well then I’m doin’ him an injustice. One couldn’t help pitying him, neither. Didn’t I know well enough what it felt like? And the awe of it, to think it’s happenin’ everywhere, and ever since world began–men fretting for the wife and firstborn, and gettin’ over it, and goin’ down to the grave leavin’ the firstborn to fret over his firstborn! It puts me in mind o’ the old hemn, sir: ’tis in the Wesley books, and I can’t think why church folk leave out the verse–

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“The busy tribes o’ flesh and blood,
With all their cares and fears–“

Ay, ‘cares and fears’; that’s of it–

“Are carried downward by the flood,
And lost in followin’ years.”

“Poor Daniel–poor boy!”

Pilot Matthey sat silent for a while, staring out over the water in the wake of the boats that already had begun to melt into the shadow of darkness.

“‘Twas beautiful sunshiny weather, too, as I mind,” he resumed. “One o’ those calm spells that happen, as often as not, just about Christmas. I remember drawin’ your attention to it, sir, one Christmas when I passed you the compliments of the season; and you put it down to kingfishers, which I thought strange at the time.”

“Kingfishers?” echoed I, mystified for the moment. “Oh, yes”–as light broke on me–“Halcyon days, of course!”

“That’s right,” Pilot Matthey nodded. “That’s what you called ’em. . . . It took us a whole day to work past the tides of the Start. Then, about sunset, a light draught off the land helped us to Bolt Tail, and after that we mostly drifted all night, with here and there a cat’s-paw, down across Bigbury Bay. By five in the morning we were inside the Eddystone, with Plymouth Sound open, and by twelve noon we was just in the very same place. It was Christmas Eve, sir.

“I looked at Daniel’s face, and then a notion struck me. It was foolish I hadn’t thought of it before.

“‘See here, boys,’ I says. (There was three. My second son, Sam, Daniel, and Daniel’s brother, Dick, a youngster of sixteen or so.) ‘Get out the boat,’ I says,’ and we’ll tow her into Plymouth. If you’re smart we may pluck her into Cattewater in time for Daniel to catch a train home. Sam can go home, too, if he has a mind, and the youngster can stay and help me look after things. I’ve seen a many Christmasses,’ said I, ‘and I’d as lief spend this one at Plymouth as anywhere else. You can give ’em all my love, and turn up again the day after Boxin’ Day–and mind you ask for excursion tickets,’ I said.

“They tumbled the boat out fast enough, you may be sure. Leastways the two men were smart enough. But the boy seemed ready to cry, so that my heart smote me. ‘There!’ said I, ‘and Dicky can go too, if he’ll pull for it. I shan’t mind bein’ left to myself. A redeemed man’s never lonely–least of all at Christmas time.’

“Well, sir, they nipped into the boat, leavin’ me aboard to steer; and they pulled–pulled–like as if they’d pull their hearts out. But it happened a strongish tide was settin’ out o’ the Sound, and long before we fetched past the breakwater I saw there was no chance to make Cattewater before nightfall, let alone their gettin’ to the railway station. I blamed myself that I hadn’t thought of it earlier, and so, steppin’ forward, I called out to them to ease up– we wouldn’t struggle on for Cattewater, but drop hook in Jennycliff Bay, somewhere inside of the Merchant Shipping anchorage. As things were, this would save a good hour–more likely two hours. ‘And,’ said I, ‘you can take the boat, all three, and leave her at Barbican steps. Tell the harbour-master where she belongs, and where I’m laying. He’ll see she don’t take no harm, and you needn’t fear but I’ll get put ashore to her somehow. There’s always somebody passin’ hereabouts.’

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“‘But look ‘ee here, father,’ said the boys–good boys they were, too–‘What’s to happen if it comes on to blow from south or sou’-west, same as it blew at the beginning of the week?’

“”Tisn’t goin’ to do any such thing,’ said I, for I’d been studyin’ the weather. ‘And, even if it should happen, I’ve signals aboard. ‘Tisn’t the first time, sonnies, I’ve sat out a week-end on board a boat, alone wi’ the Redeemer.’

“That settled it, sir. It relieved ’em a bit, too, when they spied another lugger already lyin’ inside the anchorage, and made her out for a Porthleven boat, the Maid in Two Minds, that had been after the herrings with the rest of us up to a fortni’t ago, or maybe three weeks: since when we hadn’t seen her. As I told you, the weather had been cruel, and the catches next to nothing; and belike she’d given it up earlier than we and pushed for home. At any rate, here she was. We knowed her owners, as fishermen do; but we’d never passed word with her, nor with any of her crew. I’d heard somewhere–but where I couldn’t recollect–that the skipper was a blasphemous man, given to the drink, and passed by the name of Dog Mitchell; but ’twas hearsay only. All I noted, or had a mind to note, as we dropped anchor less than a cable length from her, was that she had no boat astern or on deck (by which I concluded the crew were ashore), and that Dog Mitchell himself was on deck. I reckernised him through the glass. He made no hail at all, but stood leanin’ by the mizen and smokin’, watchin’ what we did. By then the dark was comin’ down.

“Well, sir, I looked at my watch, and there was no time to be choice about position; no time even for the lads to get aboard and pack their bags. I ran forward, heaved anchor, cast off tow-line, an’ just ran below, and came up with an armful o’ duds which I tossed into the boat as she dropped back alongside. I fished the purse out of my pocket, and two sovereigns out o’ the purse. ‘That’ll take ‘ee home and back,’ said I, passin’ the money to Daniel. ‘So long, children! You haven’t no time to spare.’

“Away they pulled, callin’ back, ‘God bless ‘ee, father!’ and the like; words I shan’t forget. . . . Poor Daniel! . . . And there, all of a sudden, was I, left to spend Christmas alone: which didn’t trouble me at all.

“‘Stead o’ which, as you might say, havin’ downed sail and made things pretty well shipshape on deck, I went below and trimmed and lit the riding light. When I came on deck with it the Maid in Two Minds was still in darkness. ‘That’s queer,’ thought I; but maybe the Early and Late’s light reminded Dog Mitchell of his, for a few minutes later he fetched it up and made it fast, takin’ an uncommon long time over the job and mutterin’ to himself all the while. (For I should tell you that, the weather bein’ so still and the distance not a hundred yards, I could hear every word.)

“‘Twas then, I think, it first came into my mind that the man was drunk, and five minutes later I was sure of it: for on his way aft he caught his foot and tripped over something–one o’ the deck-leads maybe–and the words he ripped out ‘twould turn me cold to repeat. His voice was thick, too, and after cursin’ away for half a minute it dropped to a sort of growl, same as you’ll hear a man use when he’s full o’ drink and reckons he has a grudge against somebody or something–he doesn’t quite know which, or what. Thought I, ”Tis a risky game o’ those others to leave a poor chap alone in that state. He might catch the boat afire, for one thing: and, for another, he might fall overboard.’ It crossed my mind, too, that if he fell overboard I hadn’t a boat to pull for him.

“He went below after that, and for a couple of hours no sound came from the Maid in Two Minds. ‘Likely enough,’ thought I, ‘he’s turned in, to sleep it off; and that’s the best could happen to him’; and by and by I put the poor fellow clean out o’ my head. I made myself a dish o’ tea, got out supper, and ate it with a thankful heart, though I missed the boys; but, then again, I no sooner missed them than I praised God they had caught the train. They would be nearin’ home by this time; and I sat for a while picturin’ it: the kitchen, and the women-folk there, that must have made up their minds to spend Christmas without us; particularly Lisbeth Mary–that’s my daughter, Daniel’s wife–with her mother to comfort her, an’ the firelight goin’ dinky-dink round the cups and saucers on the dresser. I pictured the joy of it, too, when Sam or Daniel struck rat-tat and clicked open the latch, or maybe one o’ the gals pricked up an ear at the sound of their boots on the cobbles. I ‘most hoped the lads hadn’t been thoughtful enough to send on a telegram. My mind ran on all this, sir; and then for a moment it ran back to myself, sittin’ there cosy and snug after many perils, many joys; past middle-age, yet hale and strong, wi’ the hand o’ the Lord protectin’ me. ‘The Lord is my shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing. He shall feed me in a green pasture, and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort. He shall convert my soul . . .’

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“I don’t know how it happened, sir, but of a sudden a well o’ warmth ran through me and all over me, just like a spring burstin’. ‘Waters o’ Comfort?’ Ay, maybe . . . maybe. Funny things happen on Christmas Eve, they say. My old mother believed to her last day that every Christmas Eve at midnight the cattle in their challs went down on their knees, throughout the land . . .

“But the feelin’, if you understand me, wasn’t Christmas-like at all. It had started with green pastures: and green pastures ran in my head, with brooks, and birds singin’ away up aloft and bees hummin’ all ’round, and the sunshine o’ the Lord warmin’ everything and warmin’ my heart . . . I felt the walls of the cuddy chokin’ me of a sudden, an’ went on deck.

“A fine night it was, up there. Very clear with a hint o’ frost–no moon. As I remember, she was in her first quarter and had gone down some while. The tide had turned and was makin’ in steady. I could hear it clap-clappin’ past the Maid in Two Minds–she lay a little outside of us, to seaward, and we had swung so that her ridin’ light come over our starboard how. Out beyond her the lighthouse on the breakwater kept flashin’–it’s red over the anchorage–an’ away beyond that the ‘Stone. Astern was all the half-circle o’ Plymouth lights–like the front of a crown o’ glory. And the stars overhead, sir!–not so much as a wisp o’ cloud to hide ’em.

“‘Where is He that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen His star in the east . . .’I’d always been curious about that star, sir,–whether ’twas an ordinary one or one sent by miracle: and, years before, I’d argued it out that the Lord wouldn’t send one like a flash in the pan, but–bein’ thoughtful in all things–would leave it to come back constant every year and bring assurance, if ye looked for it. After that, I began to look regularly, studying the sky from the first week of December on to Christmas: and ’twasn’t long before I felt certain. ‘Tis a star–they call it Regulus in the books, for I’ve looked it out–that gets up in the south-east in December month: pretty low, and yet full high enough to stand over a cottage; one o’ the brightest too, and easily known, for it carries five other stars set like a reap-hook just above it.

“Well, I looked to the south-east, and there my star stood blazin’, just over the dark o’ the land, with its reap-hook over its forehead. ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light . . .’

“While I stood staring at it, thinkin’ my thoughts, there came a noise all of a sudden from the other lugger, as if someone had kicked over a table down below, and upset half a dozen pots and pans. Then, almost before I had time to wonder, I heard Dog Mitchell scramble forth on deck, find his feet in a scrufflin’ way, and start travisin’ forth and back, forth and back, talkin’ to himself all the while and cursin’. He was fairly chewin’ curses. I guessed what was the matter. He had been down below toppin’ things up with a last soak of neat whisky, and now he had the shakes on him, or the beginnings of ’em.

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“You know the sayin’, ‘A fisherman’s walk–two steps, an’ overboard’? . . . I tell you I was in misery for the man. Any moment he might lurch overboard, or else throw himself over–one as likely as another with a poor chap in that state. Yet how could I help–cut off, without boat or any means to get to him?

“Forth and back he kept goin’, in his heavy sea-boots. I could hear every step he took, and when he kicked against the hatchway-coamin’ (he did this scores o’ times) and when he stood still and spat overboard. Once he tripped over the ship’s mop–got the handle a-foul of his legs, and talked to it like a pers’nal enemy. Terrible language–terrible!

“It struck me after a bit”–here Pilot Matthey turned to me with one of those shy smiles which, as they reveal his childish, simple heart, compel you to love the man. “It struck me after a bit that a hemn-tune mightn’t come amiss to a man in that distress of mind. So I pitched to sing that grand old tune, ‘Partners of a glorious hope,’ a bit low at first, but louder as I picked up confidence. Soon as he heard it he stopped short, and called out to me to shut my head. So, findin’ that hemns only excited him, I sat quiet, while he picked up his tramp again.

“I had allowed to myself that ‘twould be all right soon after eleven, when the publics closed, and his mates would be turnin’ up, to take care of him. But eleven o’clock struck, back in the town; and the quarters, and then twelve; and still no boat came off from shore. Then, soon after twelve, he grew quiet of a sudden. The trampin’ stopped. I reckoned he’d gone below, though I couldn’t be certain. But bein’ by this time pretty cold with watchin’, and dog-tired, I tumbled below and into my bunk. I must have been uneasy though, for I didn’t take off more’n my boots.

“What’s more I couldn’t have slept more than a dog’s sleep. For I woke up sudden to the noise of a splash–it seemed I’d been waitin’ for it–and was up on deck in two shakes.

“Yes, the chap was overboard, fast enough–I heard a sort of gurgle as he came to the surface, and some sort of attempt at a cry. Before he went under again, the tide drifted his head like a little black buoy across the ray of our ridin’ light. So overboard I jumped, and struck out for him.”

At this point–the exciting point–Pilot Matthey’s narrative halted, hesitated, grew meagre and ragged.

“I got a grip on him as he rose. He couldn’t swim better’n a few strokes at the best. (So many of our boys won’t larn to swim–they say it only lengthens things out when your time comes.) . . . The man was drownin’, but he had sproil enough to catch at me and try to pull me under along with him. I knew that trick, though, luckily. . . . I got him round on his back, with my hands under his armpits, and kicked out for the Maid in Two Minds.

“‘Tisn’t easy to climb straight out o’ the water and board a lugger– not at the best of times, when you’ve only yourself to look after; and the Maid in Two Minds had no accommodation-ladder hung out . . . But, as luck would have it, they’d downed sail anyhow and, among other things, left the out-haul of the mizen danglin’ slack and close to the water. I reached for this, shortened up on it till I had it taut, and gave it into his hand to cling by–which he had the sense to do, havin’ fetched back some of his wits. After that I scrambled on to the mizen-boom somehow and hauled him aboard mainly by his collar and seat of his trousers. It was a job, too; and the first thing he did on deck was to reach his head overside and be vi’lently sick.

“He couldn’t have done better. When he’d finished I took charge, hurried him below–my! the mess down there!–and got him into somebody’s dry clothes. All the time he was whimperin’ and shiverin’; and he whimpered and shivered still when I coaxed him into his bunk and tucked him up in every rug I could find. There was a bottle of whisky, pretty near empty, ‘pon the table. Seein’ how wistful the poor chap looked at it, and mindin’ how much whisky and salt water he’d got rid of, I mixed the dregs of it with a little hot water off the stove, and poured it into him. Then I filled up the bottle with hot water, corked it hard, and slipped it down under the blankets, to warm his feet.

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“‘That’s all right, matey,’ said he, his teeth chatterin’ as I snugged him down. ‘But cut along and leave me afore the others come.’

“Well, that was sense in its way, though he didn’t seem to take account that there was only one way back for me–the way I’d come.

“‘You’ll do, all right?’ said I.

“‘I’ll do right enough now,’ said he. ‘You cut along.’

“So I left him. I was that chilled in my drippin’ clothes, the second swim did me more good than harm. When I got to the Early and Late, though, I was pretty dead beat, and it cost me half a dozen tries before I could heave myself on to the accommodation-ladder. Hows’ever, once on board I had a strip and a good rub-down, and tumbled to bed glowin’ like a babby.

“I slept like a top, too, this time. What woke me was a voice close abeam, hailin’ the Early and Late; and there was a brisk, brass-bound young chap alongside in a steam-launch, explainin’ as he’d brought out the boat, and why the harbour-master hadn’t sent her out last night. ‘As requested by your crew, Cap’n.’ ‘That’s very polite o’ them and o’ you, and o’ the harbour-master,’ said I; ‘and I wish you the compliments o’ the season.’ For I liked the looks of him there, smiling up in an obliging way, and Plymouth bells behind him all sounding to Church together for Christmas. ‘Same to you, Cap’n!’ he called out, and sheered off with a wave o’ the hand, having made the boat fast astern.

“I stared after him for a bit, and then I turned my attention to the Maid in Two Minds. Her boat, too, lay astern of her; and one of her crew was already on deck, swabbin’ down. After a bit, another showed up. But Dog Mitchell made no appearance.

“Nat’rally enough my thoughts ran on him durin’ breakfast; and, when ’twas done, I dressed myself and pulled over to inquire. By this time all three of his mates were on deck, and as I pulled close they drew together–much as to ask what I wanted.

“‘I came across,’ says I, ‘to ask after the boss. Is he all right this morning?’

“‘Why not?’ asked one o’ the men, suspicious-like, with a glance at the others. They were all pretty yellow in the gills after their night ashore.

“‘What’s up?’ says Dog Mitchell’s own voice on top o’ this: and the man heaved himself on deck and looked down on me.

“‘It’s the skipper of the Early and Late,’ said one of the fellows grinning; ‘as seems to say he has the pleasure o’ your acquaintance.’

“‘Does he?’ said Dog Mitchell slowly, chewing. The man’s eyes were bleared yet, but the drink had gone out of him with his shock: or the few hours’ sleep had picked him round. He hardened his eyes on me, anyway, and says he–‘Does he? Then he’s a bloody liar!’

“I didn’t make no answer, sir. I saw what he had in mind–that I’d come off on the first opportunity, cadgin’ for some reward. I turned the boat’s head about, and started to pull back for the Early and Late. The men laughed after me, jeering-like. And Dog Mitchell, he laughed, too, in the wake o’ them, with a kind of challenge as he saw my lack o’ pluck. And away back in Plymouth the bells kept on ringing.

“That’s the story. You asked how I could tell what the blessed Lord felt like when Peter denied. I don’t know. But I seemed to feel like it, just that once.”

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