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   Chapter 6 BAD TIMES.

A Sailor's Lass By Emma Leslie Characters: 14131

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Winter around Bermuda Point was at all times a dreary season, and the only thing its few inhabitants could hope for was that its reign might be as short as possible. A fine, calm autumn was hailed as a special boon from heaven by the fisher-folk all round the coast, and more especially by the lonely dwellers at the Point.

A fine autumn enabled Coomber to go out in his boat until the time for shooting wild fowl began, and the children could play on the sands, or gather samphire, instead of being penned up in the house half the time. But when the weather was wild and wet, and the salt marshes lay under water, that meant little food and much discomfort, frequent quarrels, and much bitterness to the fisherman's family.

This autumn the weather was more than usually boisterous; and long before the usual time the old boat had to be drawn up on to the bank, for fear the waves should dash it to pieces. The fisherman sometimes went to Fellness, on the chance of picking up a stray job, for it was only the state of his boat, and his anxiety to keep it together as long as possible, that prevented him braving the perils of the sea; and so he sometimes got the loan of another boat, or helped another fisherman with his; and then, rough though they might be, these fisher-folk were kind and helpful to each other, and if they could not afford to pay money for a job, they could pay for it in bread or flour, or potatoes, perhaps, and so they would generally find Coomber something to do, that they might help him, without hurting him.

But there was little work that could be done in such bad weather as this, and he knew it, and his proud, independent spirit could not brook to accept even a mouthful of bread that he had not earned; and so there were many weary days spent at home, or sauntering round the coast with his gun, on the look-out for a stray wild fowl. Tiny often went to bed hungry, and woke up feeling faint and sick; and although she never forgot to say her prayers, she could not help thinking sometimes that God must have forgotten her. She read her paper to Dick, and he and Tom had both learned to spell out some of the words, and she read to herself again and again the Divine assurance, "God is good to all: He loves both boys and girls;" but then, as Dick said sometimes, Bermuda Point was such a long way from anywhere, and He might forget there were any boys and girls living there.

When she was very hungry, and more than usually depressed, Tiny thought Dick must be right, but even then she would not admit such a thought to others. When she saw Mrs. Coomber in tears, because she had no food to prepare for her hungry children, she would steal up to her, pass her little arm round the poor woman's neck, and whisper, "God is good; He'll take care of us, mammy; He'll send us some supper, if He can't send us any dinner;" and the child's hopeful words often proved a true prophecy, for sometimes when Coomber had been out all day without finding anything that could be called food, he would, when returning, manage to secure a wild duck, perhaps, or a couple of sea magpies, or a few young gulls. Nothing came amiss to the young Coombers at any time, and just now a tough stringy gull was a dainty morsel.

It threatened to be an unusually hard and long winter, and at last Mrs. Coomber ventured to suggest that Tiny should be taken to the poorhouse, at least until the spring, when she could come back again.

"Look at her poor little white face," said the woman, with her apron to her eyes; "I'm afraid she'll be ill soon, and then what can we do?"

"Time enough to talk about that when she is ill," said Coomber, gruffly, as he took up his gun and went out. They were generally able to keep a good fire of the drift-wood and wreckage that was washed ashore, for unfortunately there was scarcely a week passed but some noble vessel came to grief on the perilous bar sands during the more boisterous weather. Once, when they were at their wits' end for food, and Bob had begged his mother to boil some samphire for supper, Tiny was fortunate enough to discover an unopened cask which the sea had cast up the night before, and left high and dry behind the ridge of sandhills. She was not long fetching Bob and the boys to see her treasure trove; all sorts of wild speculations passing through her mind as to what it could contain as she ran shouting-

"Bob! Bob! Dick! Dick! Come and see what I've found."


The boys were not long in making their appearance, and Bob fetched a hatchet, and soon broke open the cask; and oh! what joy for the starving children-it was full of ship biscuits!

"Oh, Dick, didn't I tell you this morning God hadn't forgotten us?" said Tiny, in a quavering voice, when Bob announced what the cask contained.

"Oh, yes," said Dick, "so you did;" but he was too hungry to think of anything but the biscuits now-too hungry even to shout his joy, as he would have done at another time. As soon as they could be got at, he handed one to Tiny, and then Tom and Dick helped themselves, filling their pockets and munching them at the same time; but Tiny, though she nibbled her biscuit as she went, ran at once to tell Mrs. Coomber of her wonderful discovery; and she, scarcely daring to believe that such good news could be true, ran out at once to see for herself, and met the boys, who confirmed Tiny's tale. But she must see the cask for herself, and then she ate and filled her apron, and shed tears, and thanked God for this wonderful gift all at the same time. Then she told the boys to come and fetch some baskets at once, to carry them home in, and she would sort them over, for some were soaked with sea-water, but others near the middle were quite dry. Bob took a bagful and went in search of his father along the coast, and everybody was busy carrying or sorting or drying the biscuits, for they had to be secured before the next tide came in, or they might be washed away again.

When Coomber came home, bringing a couple of sea-gulls he had shot, he was fairly overcome at the sight of the biscuits.

"Daddy, it was God that sent 'em," said Tiny, in an earnest, joyful whisper.

The fisherman drew his sleeve across his eyes. "Seems as though it must ha' been, deary," he said; "for how that cask ever came ashore without being broken up well-nigh beats me."

"God didn't let it break, 'cos we wanted the biscuits," said Tiny confidently; "yer see, daddy, He ain't forgot us, though Bermuda Point is a long way from anywhere."

The biscuits lasted them for some time, for as the season advanced Coomber was able to sell some of the wild ducks he shot, and so potatoes, and flour, and bread could be brought at Fellness again. If the fisherman could only have believed that whisky was not as necessary as bread, they might have suffered less privation; but every time he got a little money for his wild fowl, the bottle had to be replenished, even though he took home but half the quantity of bread that wa

s needed; and so Tiny sometimes was heard to wish that God would always send them biscuits in a tub, and then daddy couldn't drink the stuff that made him so cross.

Mrs. Coomber smiled and sighed as she heard Tiny whisper this to Dick. She, too, had often wished something similar-or, at least, that her husband could do without whisky. Now, as the supply of wild fowl steadily increased, he came home more sullen than ever. His return from Fellness grew to be a dread even to Tiny at last; and she and Dick used to creep off to bed just before the time he was expected to return, leaving Bob and Tom to bear the brunt of whatever storm might follow.

He seldom noticed their absence, until one night, when, having drunk rather more than usual, he was very cross on coming in, and evidently on the look-out for something to make a quarrel over.

"Where's Dick and the gal?" he said, as he looked round the little kitchen, after flinging himself into a chair.

"They're gone to bed," said his wife, timidly, not venturing to look up from her work.

"Then tell 'em to get up."

"I-I dunno whether it 'ud be good for Tiny," faltered the poor woman; "she's got a cold now, and-and--"

"Are you going to call 'em up, or shall I go and lug 'em out of bed?" demanded the angry, tipsy man.

"But, Coomber," began his wife.

"There, don't stand staring like that, but do as I tell you," interrupted the fisherman; "I won't have 'em go sneaking off to bed just as I come home. I heard that little 'un say one day she was afraid of me sometimes. Afraid, indeed; I'll teach her to be afraid," he repeated, working himself into a passion over some maudlin recollection of the children's talk in the summer-time.

His wife saw it would be of no use reasoning with him in his present mood, and so went to rouse the children without further parley. They were not asleep, and so were prepared for the summons, as they had overheard what had been said.

"Oh mammy, must I come?" said Tiny, her teeth chattering with fear, as she slipped out of bed.

"Don't be afraid, deary-don't let him see you're frightened," whispered Mrs. Coomber; "slip your clothes on as quick as you can, and come and sing 'Star of Peace' to him; then he'll drop off to sleep, and you can come to bed again."

"I will-I will try," said the child, trying to force back her tears and speak bravely. But in spite of all her efforts to be brave, and not look as though she was frightened, she crept into the kitchen looking cowed and half-bewildered with terror, and before she could utter a word of her song, Coomber pounced upon her.

"What do yer look like that for?" he demanded; "what business have you to be frightened of me?"

Tiny turned her white face towards him, and ventured to look up. "I-I--"

"She's going to sing 'Star of Peace,'" interposed Mrs. Coomber; "let her come and sit over here by the fire."

"You let her alone," roared her husband; "she's a-going to do what I tell her. Come here," he called, in a still louder tone. Tiny ventured a step nearer, but did not go close to him.

"Are you coming?" he roared again; then, stretching out his hand, he seized her by the arm, and dragged her towards him, giving her a violent shake as he did so. "There-now sing!" he commanded, placing her against his knee.

The child stared at him with a blank, fascinated gaze. Once he saw her lips move, but no sound came from them; and after waiting a minute he dashed her from him with all the strength of his mad fury.

There was a shriek from Mrs. Coomber, and screams from the boys, but poor little Tiny uttered no sound. They picked her up from where she had fallen, or rather had been thrown, and her face was covered with blood; but she uttered no groan-gave no sign of life.

"Oh, she's dead! she's dead!" wailed Dick, bending over her as she lay in his mother's arms.

The terrible sight had completely sobered Coomber. "Did I do it? Did I do that?" he asked, in a changed voice.

"Why, yer know yer did," growled Bob; "or leastways the whisky in yer did it. I've often thought you'd do for mother, or one of us; but I never thought yer'd lift yer hand agin a poor little 'un like that."

Coomber groaned, but made no reply. "Hold your tongue, Bob," commanded his mother; for she could see that her husband was sorry enough now for what he had done.

"What's to be done, mother?" he asked, in a subdued voice; "surely, surely I haven't killed the child!"

But Mrs. Coomber feared that he had, and it was this that paralysed all her faculties. "I don't know what to do," she said, helplessly, wiping away the blood that kept flowing from a deep gash on Tiny's forehead.

"Couldn't you give her some water?" said Dick, who did not know what else to suggest. Coomber meekly fetched a cupful from the pan outside, and Mrs. Coomber dipped her apron in it, and bathed Tiny's face; and in a minute or two Dick saw, to his great delight, that she drew a faint, fluttering breath. Coomber saw it too, and the relief was so great that he could not keep back his tears. "Please God He'll spare us His little 'un, I'll never touch another drop of whisky," he sobbed, as he leaned over his wife's chair, and watched her bathe the still pallid face.

"Open the door, Dick, and let her have a breath of fresh air; and don't stand too close," said his mother, as Tiny drew another faint breath.

The door was opened, and the boys stood anxiously aside, watching the faint, gasping breath, until at last Tiny was able to swallow a little of the water; and then they would have closed round her again, but their mother kept them off.

"Would a drop o' milk do her good?" whispered Coomber after a time; but she was sensible enough to recognise his voice, and shuddered visibly. He groaned as he saw it; but drew further back, so that she should not see him when she opened her eyes.

"Give me the sticking-plaster, Dick," said his mother, when Tiny had somewhat revived. Mrs. Coomber was used to cuts and wounds, and could strap them up as cleverly as a surgeon. It was not the sight of the ugly cut that had frightened her, but the death-like swoon, which she did not understand.

"How about the milk, mother?" Coomber ventured to ask, after Tiny's forehead was strapped up and bandaged.

Again came that shudder of fear, and the little girl crept closer to the sheltering arms. "Don't be frightened, deary; daddy won't hurt you now."

"Don't let him come," whispered Tiny; but Coomber heard the whisper, and it cut him to the heart, although he kept carefully in the background as he repeated his question.

"Would yer like a little milk, deary?" asked Mrs. Coomber.

"There ain't no money to buy milk," said Tiny, in a feeble, weary tone.

But Coomber crept round the back of the kitchen, so as to keep out of sight, took up the bottle of whisky he had brought home, and went out. He brought a jug of milk when he came back. "You can send for some more to-morrow, and as long as she wants it," he said, as he stood the jug on the table.

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