[from Hall Caine The Deemster]

CHAPTER XI

THE HERRING BREAKFAST

IT was between four o'clock and five when the fleet ran into Peeltown harbour after the first night of the herring season, and towards eight the fisher-fellows, to the number of fifty at least, had gathered for their customary first breakfast in the kitchen of the " Three Legs of Man." What sport! What noisy laughter What singing and rollicking cheers! The men stood neither on the order of their coming nor their going, their sitting nor their stand- ing. In they trooped in their woollen caps or their broad sou'westers, their oilskins or their long sea-boots swung across their arms. They wore their caps or not as pleased them, they sang or talked as suited them, they laughed or sneezed, they sulked or snarled, they were noisy or silent, precisely as the whim of the individual prescribed the individual rule of manners. Rather later than the rest Dan Mylrea came swinging m, with a loud laugh and a shout, and something like an oath, too, and the broad homespun on his lips.

"Billy Quilleash-I say, Billy, there-why don't you put up the young mastha for the chair? "

" Aw, lave me alone," answered Billy Quilleash, with a contemptuous toss of the head.

"Uncle Billy's proud uncommon of the' mastha," whispered Davy Fayle, who sat meekly on a form near the door, to the man who sat cross-legged on the form beside him.

"It's a bit free them chaps is making," said old Billy, in a confidential undertone to Dan, who was stretching himself out on the settle. Then rising to his feet with gravity, " Gen'l'men," said Quilleash, "what d'ye say now to Mistha Dan'l Mylrea for the elber-cheer pander?"

At that there was the response of loud raps on the table with the heels of the long boots swung over various arms, and with several clay pipes that lost their heads in the en- counter. Old Billy resumed his seat with a lofty glance of patronage at the men about him, which said as plainly as words them- selves, " I tould ye to lave it all to me."

" Proud, d'ye say? Look at him," muttered the fisherman sitting by Davy Fayle.

Dan staggered up, and shouldered his way to the elbow-chair at the head of the table. He had no sooner taken his seat than he shouted for the breakfast, and without more ado the breakfast was lifted direct on to the table from the pans and boilers that simmered on the hearth.

First came the broth, well loaded with barley and cabbage; then suet puddings; and last of all the frying-pan was taken down from the wall, and four or five dozen of fresh herrings were made to grizzle and crackle and sputter over the fire.

Dan ate ravenously, and laughed noisily, and talked incessantly as he ate. The men at first caught the contagion of his boisterous manners, bnt after a time they shook their tousled heads and laid them together in gravity, and began to repeat in whispers, " What's agate of the young mastha, at all at all?"

Away went the dishes, away went the cloth, an oil lamp with its open mouth-a relic of some monkish sanctuary of the Middle Ages-was lifted from the mantelshelf -.and put on the table for the receipt of custom ; a brass censer, choked with spills, was placed beside it; pipes emerged from waistcoat pockets, and pots of liquor, with glasses and bottles, came in from the outer bar.

" Is it heavy on the liquor you're going to be, Billy?" said Ned, the mate; and old Billy replied with a superior smile and the lifting up of a whisky bottle, from which he had just drawn the cork.

Then came the toasts. The chairman arose amid hip, hip, hooraa! and gave "Life to man and death to fish !" and Quilleash gave " Death to the head that never wore hair !"

Then came more noise and more liquor, and a good deal of both in the vicinity of the chair. Dan struck up a song. He sang "Drink to me only," and the noisy company were at first hushed to silence and then melted to audible sobs.

" Aw, man, the voice he has, anyway! " "And the loud it is, and the tender, too, and the way he slidders up and down, and no squeaks and jumps."

"No, no; nothin' like squeezin' a tune out of, an ould sow by pulling the tail at her."

Old Billy listened to this dialogue among the fisher-fellows about him, and smiled loftily. "It's nothin'," he said condescend- ingly, "that's nothin'. You should hear him out in the boat, when we're lying at anchor, and me and him together, and the stars just makin' a peep, and the moon, and the mar- fire, and all to that, and me and him lying aft and smookin', and having a glass maybe, but nothin' to do no harm-that's the when you should hear him. Aw, man alive, him and me's same as brothers."

"More liquor there," shouted Dan, climbing with difficulty to his feet.

"Ay, look here. D'ye hear down yander? Give us a swipe o' them speerits. Right. More liquor for the chair!" said Billy Quil- leash. "And for some one besides?-is that what they're saying, the loblolly boys ? Well, look here, bad cess to it, of coorse, some for me, too. It's terrible good for the narves, and they're telling me it's morthal good for steddyin' the vice. Going to sing? Coorse, coorse. What's that from the elber-cheer Enemy, eh? Confound it, and that's true, though. What's that it's sayin' ? 'Who's fool enough to put the enemy into his mouth to stale away his brains?' Aw, now, it's the good ould Book that's fine at summin' it all up."

Then there was more liquor and yet more, till the mouth of the monastic lamp ran over with chinking coin. Old Billy struck up his song. It was a doleful ditty on the loss of the herring fleet on one St. Matthew's Day not long before.

An hour before day,

Tom Grimshaw, they say,

To ran for the port had resolved ; Himself and John More Were lost in that hour,

And also unfortunate Kinved."

The last three lines of each verse were repeated by the whole company in chorus. Doleful as the ditty might be, the men gave

-it voice with a heartiness that suggested no special sense of sorrow, and loud as were the voices of the fisher-fellows, Dan's voice was yet louder.

"Aw, Dan, man, Dan, man alive, Dan," the men whispered among themselves. "What's agate of Mastha Dan? it's more than's good, man, aw, yes, yes, yes."

Still more liquor and yet more noise, and then, through the dense fumes of tobacco smoke, old Billy Quilleash could be seen struggling to his feet. "Silence!" he shouted; `aisy there 1 " and he lifted up his glass. "Here's to Mistha Dan'1 Mylrea, and if he's not going amongst the parzons, bad cess to them, he's going amongst the Kays, and when he gets to the big house at Castletown, I'm calkerlatin' it'll be all up with the lot o' them parzons, with their tithes and their censures, and their customs and their canons, and their regalashuns agen the countin' of the herrin', and all the rest of their messin'. What d'ye say, men? 'Skulking cowards?' Coorse, and right sarved, too, as I say. And what's that you're grinning and winkin' at, Ned Teare ? It's middlin' free you're gettin' with the mastha anyhow, and if it wasn't for me he wouldn't bemane himself by comin' among the like of you, singin' and makin' aisy. Chaps, fill up your glasses every man of you, d'ye bear? Here's to the best gen'1'- man in the island, bar none-Mistha Dan'l Mylrea, hip, hip, hooraa ! "

The toast was responded to with alacrity, and loud shouts of "Dan'l Mylrea-best gen'1'man -bar none."

But what was going on at the head of the table? Dan had risen from the elbow-chair; it was the moment for him to respond, but he stared wildly around, and stood there in silence, and his tongue seemed to cleave to his mouth. Every eye was now fixed on his face, and that face quivered and turned white. The glass he had held in his hand fell from his nerveless fingers and broke on the table. Laughter died on every lip, and the voices were hushed. At last Dan spoke; his words came slowly, and fell heavily on the ear.

"Men," he said, "you have been drinking my health. You call me a good fellow. That's wrong. I'm the worst man among you. Old Billy says I'm going to the House of Keys. That's wrong, too. Shall I tell you where I am going ? Shall I tell you ? I'm going to the devil," and then, amid breathless silence, he dropped back in his seat, and buried his head in his hands.

No one spoke. The fair head lay on the table among broken pipes and the refuse of spilled liquor. There could be no more drink- ing that morning. Every man rose to his feet, and, picking up his waterproofs or his long sea-boots, one after one went shambling out. The room was dense with smoke; but outside the air was light and free, and the morning sun shone brightly.

" Strange now, wasn't it?" muttered one of the fellows,

   

"Strange uncommon !"

"He's been middlin' heavy on the liquor lately."

"And he'd never no right to strike the young parzon, and him his cousin, too, and terrible fond of him, as they're saying."

"Well, well, it's middlin' wicked any way." And so the croakers went their way. In two minutes more the room was empty, except for the stricken man, who lay there with hidden face, and Davy Fayle, who, with big tears glistening in his eyes, was stroking the tangled curls.


 

back index next

 

any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2003