Ye Sexes, Give Ear!
A good song, and thank' ee, Sir, for singing it! Time was, you'd never miss hearing it in these parts, whether 'twas feast or harvest-supper or Saturday night at the public. A virtuous good song, too; and the merry fellow that made it won't need to cast about and excuse himself when the graves open and he turns out with his fiddle under his arm. My own mother taught it to me; the more by token that she came from Saltash, and "Ye sexes, give ear" was a terrible favourite with the Saltash females by reason of Sally Hancock and her turn-to with the press-gang. Hey? You don't tell me, after singing the song, that you never heard tell of Sally Hancock? Well, I –! Here, take and fill my mug, somebody!
'Tis an instructive tale, too. . . . This Sally was a Saltash fishwoman, and you must have heard of them, at all events. There was Bess Rablin, too, and Mary Kitty Climo, and Thomasine Oliver, and Long Eliza that married Treleaven the hoveller, and Pengelly's wife Ann; these made up the crew Sally stroked in the great race. And besides these there was Nan Scantlebury – she took Bess Rablin's oar the second year, Bess being a bit too fond of lifting her elbow, which affected her health – and Phemy Sullivan, an Irishwoman, and Long Eliza's half-sister Charlotte Prowse, and Rebecca Tucker, and Susan Trebilcock, that everybody called 'Apern,' and a dozen more maybe: powerful women every one, and proud of it. The town called them Sally Hancock's Gang, she being their leader, though they worked separate, shrimping, cockling, digging for lug and long-lining, bawling fish through Plymouth streets, even a hovelling job at times – nothing came amiss to them, and no weather. For a trip to Plymouth they'd put on sea-boots belike, or grey stockings and clogs: but at home they went bare-legged, and if they wore anything 'pon their heads 'twould be a handkerchief, red or yellow, with a man's hat clapped a-top; coats too, and guernseys like men's, and petticoats a short few inches longer; for I'm telling of that back-along time when we fought Boney and while seafaring men still wore petticoats – in these parts at any rate. Well, that's how Sally and her mates looked on week-a-days, and that's how they behaved: but you must understand that, though rough, they were respectable; the most of them Wesleyan Methodists; and on Sundays they'd put on bonnet and sit in chapel, and drink their tea afterwards and pick their neighbours to pieces just like ordinary Christians. Sal herself was a converted woman, and greatly exercised for years about her husband's condition, that kept a tailor's shop halfway down Fore Street and scoffed at the word of Grace; though he attended public worship, partly to please his customers and partly because his wife wouldn't let him off.
The way the fun started was this. In June month of the year 'five (that's the date my mother always gave) the Wesleyans up at the London Foundry sent a man down to preach a revival through Cornwall, starting with Saltash. He had never crossed the Tamar before, but had lived the most of his life near Wolverhampton – a bustious little man, with a round belly and a bald head and high sense of his own importance. He arrived on a Saturday night, and attended service next morning, but not to take part in it: he "wished to look round," he said. So the morning was spent in impressing everyone with his shiny black suit of West-of-England broadcloth and his beautiful neckcloth and bunch of seals. But in the evening he climbed the pulpit; and there Old Nick himself, that lies in wait for preachers, must have tempted the poor fellow to preach on Womanly Perfection, taking his text from St. Paul.
He talked a brave bit about subjection, and how a woman ought to submit herself to her husband, and keep her head covered in places of public worship. And from that he passed on to say that 'twas to this beautiful submissiveness women owed their amazing power for good, and he, for his part, was going through Cornwall to tackle the womenfolk and teach 'em this beautiful lesson, and he'd warrant he'd leave the whole county a sight nearer righteousness than he found it. With that he broke out into extempory prayer for our dear sisters, as he called them, dusted his knees, and gave out the hymn, all as pleased as Punch.
Sal walked home from service alongside of her husband, very thoughtful. Deep down in the bottom of his heart he was afraid of her, and she knew it, though she made it a rule to treat him kindly. But knowing him for a monkey-spirited little man, and spiteful as well as funny, you could never be sure when he wouldn't break out. To-night he no sooner gets inside his own door than says he with a dry sort of a chuckle: "Powerful fine sermon, this evenin'. A man like that makes you think."
"Ch't!" says Sally, tossing her bonnet on to the easy chair and groping about for the tinder-box.
"Sort of doctrine that's badly needed in Saltash," says he. "But I'd ha' bet 'twould be wasted on you. Well, well, if you can't understand logic, fit and fetch supper, that's a good soul!"
"Ch't!" said Sally again, paying no particular attention, but wondering what the dickens had become of the tinder-box. She couldn't find it on the chimney-piece, so went off to fetch the kitchen one.
When she came back, there was my lord seated in the easy chair – that was hers by custom – and puffing away at his pipe – a thing not allowed until after supper. You see, he had collared the tinder-box when he first came in, and had hidden it from her.
Sal lit the lamp, quiet-like. "I s'pose you know you're sittin' 'pon my best bonnet?" said she.
This took him aback. He jumped up, found the bonnet underneath him sure enough, and tossed it on to the table. "Gew-gaws!" said he, settling himself again and puffing. "Gew-gaws and frippery! That man'll do good in this country; he's badly wanted."
Sal patted the straw of her bonnet into something like shape and smoothed out the ribbons. "If it'll make you feel like a breadwinner," said she, "there's a loaf in the bread-pan. The cold meat and pickles are under lock and key, and we'll talk o' them later." She fitted the bonnet on and began to tie the strings.
"You don't tell me, Sarah, that you mean to go gadding out at this time of the evening?" cries he, a bit chapfallen, for he knew she carried the keys in an under-pocket beneath her skirt.
"And you don't suppose," answers she, "that I can spare the time to watch you play-actin' in my best chair? No, no, my little man! Sit there and amuse yourself: what you do don't make a ha'porth of odds. But there's others to be considered, and I'm going to put an end to this nonsense afore it spreads."
The time of the year, as I've told you, was near about midsummer, when a man can see to read print out-of-doors at nine o'clock. Service over, the preacher had set out for a stroll across the hayfields towards Trematon, to calm himself with a look at the scenery and the war-ships in the Hamoaze and the line of prison-hulks below, where in those days they kept the French prisoners. He was strolling back, with his hands clasped behind him under his coat-tails, when on the knap of the hill, between him and the town, he caught sight of a bevy of women seated among the hay-pooks – staid middle-aged women, all in dark shawls and bonnets, chattering there in the dusk. As he came along they all rose up together and dropped him a curtsy.
"Good evenin', preacher dear," says Sally, acting spokeswoman; "and a very fine night for the time of year."
I reckon that for a moment the preacher took a scare. Monstrous fine women they were to be sure, looming up over him in the dimmety light, and two or three of them tall as Grenadiers. But hearing himself forespoken so pleasantly, he came to a stand and peered at them through his gold-rimmed glasses.
"Ah, good evening, ladies!" says he. "You are, I presoom, members of the society that I've just had the privilege of addressin'?" And thereupon they dropped him another curtsy all together. "Like me, I dare say you find the scent of the new-mown hay refreshingly grateful. And what a scene! What a beautiful porch, so to speak, to the beauties of Cornwall! – beauties of which I have often heard tell."
"Yes, Sir," answers Sal demurely. "Did you ever hear tell, too, why Old Nick never came into Cornwall?"
"H'm – ha – some proverbial saying, no doubt? But – you will excuse me – I think we should avoid speaking lightly of the great Enemy of Mankind."
"He was afraid," pursued Sal, "of being put into a pie." She paused at that, giving her words time to sink in. The preacher didn't notice yet awhile that Long Eliza Treleaven and Thomasine Oliver had crept round a bit and planted themselves in the footpath behind him.
After a bit Sal let herself go in a comfortable smile, and says she, in a pretty, coaxing voice, "Sit yourself down, preacher, that's a dear: sit yourself down, nice and close, and have a talk!"
The poor fellow fetched a start at this. He didn't know, of course, that everyone's 'my dear' in Cornwall, and I'm bound to say I've seen foreigners taken aback by it – folks like commercial travellers, not given to shyness as a rule. "You'll excuse me, Madam."
"No, I won't: not if you don't come and sit down quiet. Bless the man, I'm not going to eat 'ee – wouldn't harm a hair of your dear little head, if you had any! What? You refuse?"
"How dare you, Madam!" The preacher drew himself up, mighty dignified. "How dare you address me in this fashion!"
"I'm addressin' you for your good," answered Sally. "We've been talkin' over your sermon, me and my friends here – all very respectable women – and we've made up our minds that it won't do. We can't have it 'pon our conscience to let a gentleman with your views go kicking up Jack's delight through the West. We owe something more to our sex. 'Wrestlin' with 'em – that was one of your expressions – 'wrestlin' with our dear Cornish sisters'!"
"In the spirit – a figure of speech," explained the poor man, snappy-like.
Sal shook her head. "They know all about wrestlin' down yonder. I tell you, 'twon't do. You're a well-meaning man, no doubt; but you're terribly wrong on some points. You'd do an amazing amount of mischief if we let you run loose. But we couldn't take no such responsibility – indeed we couldn't: and the long and short of it is, you've got to go." She spoke these last words very firmly.
The preacher flung a glance round and saw he was in a trap. "Such shameless behaviour –" he began.
"You've got to go back," repeated Sally, nodding her head at him. "Take my advice and go quiet."
"I can only suppose you to be intoxicated," said he, and swung round upon the path where Thomasine Oliver stood guard. "Allow me to pass, Madam, if you please!"
But here the mischief put it into Long Eliza to give his hat a flip by the brim. It dropped over his nose and rolled away in the grass. "Oh, what a dear little bald head!" cried Long Eliza; "I declare I must kiss it or die!" She caught up a handful of hay as he stooped, and – well, well, Sir! Scandalous, as you say! Not a word beyond this would any of them tell: but I do believe the whole gang rolled the poor man in the hay and took a kiss off him –'making sweet hay,' as 'tis called. 'Twas only known that he paid the bill for his lodging a little after dawn next morning, took up his bag, and passed down Fore Street towards the Quay. Maybe a boat was waiting for him there: at all events, he was never seen again – not on this side of Tamar.
Sal went back, composed as you please, and let herself in by the front door. In the parlour she found her man still seated in the easy chair and smoking, but sulky-like, and with most of his monkey-temper leaked out of him.
"What have you been doin', pray?" asks he.
Sal looked at him with a twinkle. "Kissin'," says she, untying her bonnet: and with that down she dropped on a chair and laughed till her sides ached.
Her husband ate humble pie that night before ever he set fork in the cold meat: and for some days after, though she kept a close eye on him, he showed no further sign of wanting to be lord of creation. "Nothing like promptness," thought Sally to herself. "If I hadn't taken that nonsense in hand straight off, there's no telling where it wouldn't have spread." By the end of the week following she had put all uneasiness out of her mind.
Next Saturday – as her custom was on Saturdays – she traded in Plymouth, and didn't reach home until an hour or more past nightfall, having waited on the Barbican for the evening fish-auction, to see how prices were ruling. 'Twas near upon ten o'clock before she'd moored her boat, and as she went up the street past the 'Fish and Anchor' she heard something that fetched her to a standstill.
She stood for a minute, listening; then walked in without more ado, set down her baskets in the passage, and pushed open the door of the bar-room. There was a whole crowd of men gathered inside, and the place thick with tobacco-smoke. And in the middle of this crew, with his back to the door, sat her husband piping out a song:
"Ye sexes, give ear to my fancy;
In the praise of good women I sing;
It is not of Doll, Kate, or Nancy,
The mate of a clown nor a King –
With my fol-de-rol, tooral-i-lay!
Old Adam, when he was creyated,
Was lord of the Universe round;
Yet his happiness was not complated
Until that a helpmate he'd found.
With my fol-de-rol, tooral-i-lay!
He had all things for food that was wanting,
Which give us content in this life;
He had horses and foxes for hunting,
Which many love more than a wife, –"
He had sung so far and was waving his pipe-stem for the chorus when the company looked up and saw Sal straddling in the doorway with her fists on her hips. The sight daunted them for a moment: but she held up a finger, signing them to keep the news to themselves, and leaned her shoulder against the doorpost with her eyes steady on the back of her husband's scrag neck. His fate was upon him, poor varmint, and on he went, as gleeful as a bird in a bath:
"He'd a garden so planted by natur'
As man can't produce in this life;
But yet the all-wise great Creaytor
Perceived that he wanted a wife. –
With his fol-de-rol, tooral-i-lay!
You chaps might be a bit heartier with the chorus," he put in. "A man would almost think you was afraid of your wives overhearin':
Old Adam was laid in a slumber,
And there he lost part of his side;
And when he awoke in great wonder
He beyeld his beyeautiful bride.
With my fol-de-rol, tooral –
Why, whatever's wrong with 'ee all? You're as melancholy as a passel of gib-cats." And with that he caught the eye of a man seated opposite, and slewed slowly round to the door.
I tell you that even Sal was forced to smile, and the rest, as you may suppose, rolled to and fro and laughed till they cried. But when the landlord called for order and they hushed themselves to hear more, the woman had put on a face that made her husband quake.
"Go ahead, Hancock!" cried one or two. "'With transport he gazed –' Sing away, man."
"I will not," said the tailor, very sulky. "This here's no fit place for women: and a man has his feelin's. I'm astonished at you, Sarah – I reely am. The wife of a respectable tradesman!" But he couldn't look her straight in the face.
"Why, what's wrong with the company?" she asks, looking around. "Old, young, and middle-aged, I seem to know them all for Saltash men: faults, too, they have to my knowledge: but it passes me what I need to be afeared of. And only a minute since you was singing that your happiness wouldn't be completed until that a helpmate you'd found. Well, you've found her: so sing ahead and be happy."
"I will not," says he, still stubborn.
"Oh, yes you will, my little man," says she in a queer voice, which made him look up and sink his eyes again.
"Well," says he, making the best of it, "to please the missus, naybours, we'll sing the whole randigal through. And after that, Sarah" – here he pretended to look at her like one in command – "you'll walk home with me straight."
"You may lay to that," Sal promised him: and so, but in no very firm voice, he pitched to the song again:
"With transport he gazed upon her,
His happiness then was complate;
And he blessed the celestial donor
That on him bestowed such a mate –
I reckon, friends, we'll leave out the chorus!"
They wouldn't hear of this, but ri-tooralled away with a will, Sal watching them the while from the doorway with her eyebrows drawn down, like one lost in thought.
"She was not took out of his head,
To reign or to triumph o'er man;
She was not took out of his feet,
By man to be tramped upon:
With my fol-de-rol, tooral-i-lay!
But she was took out of his side,
His equal and partner to be:
Though they be yunited in one,
Still the man is the top of the tree!
With my fol-de-rol, tooral-i-lay!
Well, and what's wrong wi' that?" Hancock wound up, feeling for his courage again.
"Get along with 'ee, you ninth-part-of-a-man! Me took out of your side!"
"Be that as it may, the 'Fish and Anchor' is no place for discussing of it," the man answered, very dignified. "Enough said, my dear! We'll be getting along home." He stood up and knocked the ashes out of his pipe.
But Sally was not to be budged. "I knew how 'twould be," she spoke up, facing the company. "I took that preacher-fellow 'pon the ground hop, as I thought, and stopped his nonsense; but something whispered to me that 'twas a false hope. Evil communications corrupt good manners, and now the mischief's done. There's no peace for Saltash till you men learn your place again, and I'm resolved to teach it to 'ee. You want to know how? Well, to start with, by means of a board and a piece o' chalk, same as they teach at school nowadays."
She stepped a pace farther into the room, shut home the door behind her, and cast her eye over the ale-scores on the back of it. There were a dozen marks, maybe, set down against her own man's name; but for the moment she offered no remark on this.
"Mr. Oke," says she, turning to the landlord, "I reckon you never go without a piece o' chalk in your pocket. Step this way, if you please, and draw a line for me round what these lords of creation owe ye for drink. Thank'ee. And now be good enough to fetch a chair and stand 'pon it; I want you to reach so high as you can – Ready? Now take your chalk and write, beginning near the top o' the door: 'I, Sarah Hancock –'"
Landlord Oke gave a flourish with his chalk and wrote, Sally dictating, – "'I, Sarah Hancock – do hereby challenge all the men in Saltash Borough – that me and five other females of the said Borough – will row any six of them any distance from one to six statute miles – and will beat their heads off – pulling either single oars or double paddles or in ran-dam – the stakes to be six pound a side. And I do further promise, if beaten, to discharge all scores below.' Now the date, please – and hand me the chalk."
She reached up and signed her name bold and free, being a fair scholar. "And now, my little fellow," says she, turning to her husband, "put down that pipe and come'st along home. The man's at the top of the tree, is he? You'll wish you were, if I catch you at any more tricks!"
Well, at first the mankind at the 'Fish and Anchor' allowed that Sal couldn't be in earnest; this challenge of hers was all braggadoshy; and one or two went so far as to say 'twould serve her right if she was taken at her word. In fact, no one treated it seriously until four days later, at high-water, when the folks that happened to be idling 'pon the Quay heard a splash off Runnell's boat-building yard, and, behold! off Runnell's slip there floated a six-oared gig, bright as a pin with fresh paint. 'Twas an old condemned gig, that had lain in his shed ever since he bought it for a song off the Indefatigable man-o'-war, though now she looked almost too smart to be the same boat. Sally had paid him to put in a couple of new strakes and plane out a brand-new set of oars in place of the old ashen ones, and had painted a new name beneath the old one on the sternboard, so that now she was the Indefatigable Woman for all the world to see. And that very evening Sally and five of her mates paddled her past the Quay on a trial spin, under the eyes of the whole town.
There was a deal of laughing up at the 'Fish and Anchor' that night, the most of the customers still treating the affair as a joke. But Landlord Oke took a more serious view. "'Tis all very well for you fellows to grin," says he, "but I've been trying to make up in my mind the crew that's going to beat these females, and, by George! I don't find it so easy. There's the boat, too."
"French-built, and leaks like a five-barred gate," said somebody. "The Admiralty condemned her five year' ago."
"A leak can be patched, and the Admiralty's condemning goes for nothing in a case like this. I tell you that boat has handsome lines – handsome as you'd wish to see. You may lay to it that what Sal Hancock doesn't know about a boat isn't worth knowing."
"All the same, I'll warrant she never means to row a race in that condemned old tub. She've dragged it out just for practice, and painted it up to make a show. When the time comes – if ever it do – she'll fit and borrow a new boat off one of the war-ships. We can do the same."
"Granted that you can, there's the question of the crew. Sal has her thwarts manned – or womanned, as you choose to put it – and maybe a dozen reserves to pick from in case of accident. She means business, I tell you. There's Regatta not five weeks away, and pretty fools we shall look if she sends round the crier on Regatta Day 'O-yessing' to all the world that Saltash men can't raise a boat's crew to match a passel of females, and two of 'em" – he meant Mary Kitty Climo and Ann Pengelly – "mothers of long families."
They discussed it long and they discussed it close, and this way and that way, until at last Landlord Oke had roughed-out a crew. There was no trouble about a stroke. That thwart went nem. con. to a fellow called Seth Ede, that worked the ferry and had won prizes in his day all up and down the coast: indeed, the very Plymouth men had been afraid of him for two or three seasons before he gave up racing, which was only four years ago. Some doubted that old Roper Retallack, who farmed the ferry that year, would spare Seth on Regatta Day: but Oke undertook to arrange this. Thwart No. 4 went with no more dispute to a whackin' big waterman by the name of Tremenjous Hosken, very useful for his weight, though a trifle thick in the waist. As for strength, he could break a pint mug with one hand, creaming it between his fingers. Then there was Jago the Preventive man, light but wiry, and a very tricky wrestler: "a proper angle-twitch of a man," said one of the company; "stank 'pon both ends of 'en, and he'll rise up in the middle and laugh at 'ee." So they picked Jago for boat-oar. For No. 5, after a little dispute, they settled on Tippet Harry, a boat-builder working in Runnell's yard, by reason that he'd often pulled behind Ede in the double-sculling, and might be trusted to set good time to the bow-side. Nos. 2 and 3 were not so easily settled, and they discussed and put aside half a score before offering one of the places to a long-legged youngster whose name I can't properly give you: he was always called Freckly-Faced Joe, and worked as a saddler's apprentice. In the end he rowed 2; but No. 3 they left vacant for the time, while they looked around for likely candidates.
Landlord Oke made no mistake when he promised that Sally meant business. Two days later she popped her head in at his bar-parlour – 'twas in the slack hours of the afternoon, and he happened to be sitting there all by himself, tipping a sheaf of churchwarden clays with sealing-wax – and says she: "What's the matter with your menkind?"
"Restin'," says Oke with a grin. "I don't own 'em, missus; but, from what I can hear, they're restin' and recoverin' their strength."
"I've brought you the stakes from our side," says Sally, and down she slaps a five-pound note and a sovereign upon the table.
"Take 'em up, missus – take 'em up. I don't feel equal to the responsibility. This here's a public challenge, hey?"
"The publicker the better."
"Then we'll go to the Mayor about it and ask his Worship to hold the stakes." Oke was chuckling to himself all this while, the reason being that he'd managed to bespeak the loan of a six-oared galley belonging to the Water-Guard, and, boat for boat, he made no doubt she could show her heels to the Indefatigable Woman. He unlocked his strong-box, took out and pocketed a bag of money, and reached his hat off its peg. "I suppose 'twouldn't do to offer you my arm?" says he.
"Folks would talk, Mr. Oke – thanking you all the same."
So out they went, and down the street side by side, and knocked at the Mayor's door. The Mayor was taking a nap in his back-parlour with a handkerchief over his face. He had left business soon after burying his wife, who had kept him hard at work at the cheese-mongering, and now he could sleep when he chose. But he woke up very politely to attend to his visitors' business.
"Yes, for sure, I'll hold the stakes," said he: "and I'll see it put in big print on the Regatta-bill. It ought to attract a lot of visitors. But lor' bless you, Mr. Oke! – if you win, it'll do me no good. She" – meaning his wife – "has gone to a land where I'll never be able to crow over her."
"Your Worship makes sure, I see, that we women are going to be beat?" put in Sal.
"Tut-tut!" says the Mayor. "They've booked Seth Ede for stroke." And with that he goes very red in the gills and turns to Landlord Oke. "But perhaps I oughtn't to have mentioned that?" says he.
"Well," says Sal, "you've a-let the cat out of the bag, and I see that all you men in the town are in league. But a challenge is a challenge, and I mustn't go back on it." Indeed, in her secret heart she was cheerful, knowing the worst, and considering it none so bad: and after higgling a bit, just to deceive him, she took pretty well all the conditions of the race as Oke laid 'em down. A tearing long course it was to be, too, and pretty close on five miles: start from near-abouts where the training-ship lays now, down to a mark-boat somewheres off Torpoint, back, and finish off Saltash Quay.
"My dears," she said to her mates later on, "I don't mind telling you I was all of a twitter, first-along, wondering what card that man Oke was holding back – he looked so sly and so sure of hisself. But if he've no better card to play than Seth Ede, we can sleep easy."
"Seth Ede's a powerful strong oar," Bess Rablin objected.
"Was, you mean. He've a-drunk too much beer these four years past to last over a five-mile course; let be that never was his distance. And here's another thing: they've picked Tremenjous Hosken for one th'art."
"And he's as strong as a bullock."
"I dessay: but Seth Ede pulls thirty-eight or thirty-nine to the minute all the time he's racing – never a stroke under. I've watched him a score o' times. If you envy Hosken his inside after two miles o' that, you must be like Pomery's pig – in love with pain. They've hired or borrowed the Preventive boat, I'm told; and it's the best they could do. She's new, and she looks pretty. She'll drag aft if they put their light weights in the bows: still, she's a good boat. I'm not afeared of her, though. From all I can hear, the Woman was known for speed in her time, all through the fleet. You can feel she's fast, and see it, if you've half an eye: and the way she travels between the strokes is a treat. The Mounseers can build boats. But oh, my dears, you'll have to pull and stay the course, or in Saltash the women take second place for ever!"
"Shan't be worse off than other women, even if that happens," said Rebecca Tucker, that was but a year married and more than half in love with her man. Sally had been in two minds about promoting Rebecca to the bow-oar in place of Ann Pengelly, that had been clipping the stroke short in practice: but after that speech she never gave the woman another thought.
Next evening the men brought out their opposition boat – she was called the Nonpareil – and tried a spin in her. They had found a man for No. 3 oar – another of the Water-Guard, by name Mick Guppy and by nation Irish, which Sal swore to be unfair. She didn't lodge any complaint, however: and when her mates called out that 'twas taking a mean advantage, all she'd say was: "Saltash is Saltash, my dears; and I won't go to maintain that a Saltash crew is anyways improved by a chap from Dundalk."
So no protest was entered. I needn't tell you that, by this time, news of the great race had spread to Plymouth, and north away to Callington and all the country round. Crowds came out every evening to watch the two boats at their practising; and sometimes, as they passed one another, Seth Ede, who had the reputation for a wag, would call out to Sal and offer her the odds by way of chaff. Sal never answered. The woman was in deadly earnest, and moreover, I dare say, a bit timmersome, now that the whole Borough had its eyes on her, and defeat meant disgrace.
She never showed a sign of any doubt, though; and when the great day came, she surpassed herself by the way she dressed. I dare say you've noticed that when women take up a man's job they're inclined to overdo it; and when Sal came down that day with a round tarpaulin-hat stuck on the back of her head, and her hair plaited in a queue like a Jack Tar's, her spiteful little husband fairly danced. "'Tis onwomanly," said he. "Go upstairs and take it off!"
"Ch't," said she, "if you're so much upset by a tarpaulin-hat, you've had a narra escape; for 'tis nothing to the costume I'd a mind to wear – and I'd a mind to make you measure the whole crew for it."
And as it was, I'm told, half the sightseers that poured into Saltash that day in their hundreds couldn't tell the women's crew from the men's by their looks or their dress. And these be the names and weights, more or less:
The Indefatigable Woman: Bow, Ann Pengelly, something under eleven stone; No. 2, Thomasine Oliver, ditto; No. 3, Mary Kitty Climo, eleven and a half; No. 4, Long Eliza, thirteen and over, a woman very heavy in the bone; No. 5, Bess Rablin, twelve stone, most of it in the ribs and shoulders; Stroke, Sarah Hancock, twelve stone four; Coxswain, Ann Pengelly's fourth daughter Wilhelmina, weight about six stone. The Indefatigable Woman carried a small distaff in the bows, and her crew wore blue jerseys and yellow handkerchiefs.
The Nonpareil: Bow, T. Jago, ten stone and a little over; No. 2, Freckly-Faced Joe, twelve stone; No. 3, M. Guppy, twelve stone and a half; No. 4, Tremenjous Hosken, eighteen stone ten; No. 5, Tippet Harry, twelve stone eight; Stroke, Seth Ede, eleven six. And I don't know who the boy was that steered. The Nonpareil carried a red, white, and blue flag, and her crew wore striped jerseys, white and blue.
They were started by pistol; and Seth Ede, jumping off with a stroke of forty to the minute, went ahead at once. In less than twenty strokes he was clear, the Nonpareil lifting forward in great heaves that made the spectators tell each other that though 'twas no race they had seen something for their money. They didn't see how sweetly the other boat held her way between the strokes, nor note that Sally had started at a quiet thirty-four, the whole crew reaching well out and keeping their blades covered to the finish – coming down to the stroke steadily, too, though a stiffish breeze was with them as well as the tide.
I suppose the longest lead held by the Nonpareil during the race was a good forty yards. She must have won this within four minutes of starting, and for half a mile or so she kept it. Having so much in hand, Ede slowed down – for flesh and blood couldn't keep up such a rate of striking over the whole course – and at once he found out his mistake. The big man Hosken, who had been pulling with his arms only, and pulling like a giant, didn't understand swinging out; tried it, and was late on stroke every time. This flurried Ede, who was always inclined to hurry the pace, and he dropped slower yet – dropped to thirty-five, maybe, a rate at which he did himself no justice, bucketting forward fast, and waiting over the beginning till he'd missed it. In discontent with himself he quickened again; but now the oars behind him were like a peal of bells. By sheer strength they forced the boat along somehow, and with the tide under her she travelled. But the Indefatigable Woman by this time was creeping up.
They say that Sally rowed that race at thirty-four from the start to within fifty yards of the finish; rowed it minute after minute without once quickening or once dropping a stroke. Folks along shore timed her with their watches. If that's the truth, 'twas a marvellous feat, and the woman accounted for it afterwards by declaring that all the way she scarcely thought for one second of the other boat, but set her stroke to a kind of tune in her head, saying the same verse over and over:
"But she was took out of his side,
His equal and partner to be:
Though they be yunited in one,
Still the man is the top of the tree!
With my fol-de-rol, tooral-i-lay – We'll see about that!
The Indefatigable Woman turned the mark not more than four lengths astern. They had wind and tide against them now, and with her crew swinging out slow and steady, pulling the stroke clean through with a hard finish, she went up hand-over-fist. The blades of the Nonpareil were knocking up water like a moorhen. Tremenjous Hosken had fallen to groaning between the strokes, and I believe that from the mark-boat homeward he was no better than a passenger – an eighteen-stone passenger, mind you. The only man to keep it lively was little Jago at bow, and Seth Ede – to do him justice – pulled a grand race for pluck. He might have spared himself, though. Another hundred yards settled it: the Indefatigable Woman made her overlap and went by like a snake, and the Irishman pulled in his oar and said: "Well, Heaven bless the leddies, anyway!"
Seth Ede turned round and swore at him vicious-like, and he fell to rowing again: but the whole thing had become a procession. "Eyes in the boat!" commanded Sal, pulling her crew together as they caught sight of their rivals for the first time and, for a stroke or two, let the time get ragged. She couldn't help a lift in her voice, though, any more than she could help winding up with a flourish as they drew level with Saltash town, a good hundred yards ahead, and heard the band playing and the voices cheering. "Look out for the quicken!" – and up went a great roar as the women behind her picked the quicken up and rattled past the Quay and the winning-gun at forty to the minute!
They had just strength enough left to toss oars: and then they leaned forward with their heads between their arms, panting and gasping out, "Well rowed, Sal!" "Oh – oh – well rowed all!" and letting the delight run out of them in little sobs of laughter. The crowd ashore, too, was laughing and shouting itself hoarse. I'm sorry to say a few of them jeered at the Nonpareil as she crawled home: but, on the whole, the men of Saltash took their beating handsome.
This don't include Sal's husband, though. Landlord Oke was one of the first to shake her by the hand as she landed, and the Mayor turned over the stakes to her there and then with a neat little speech. But Tailor Hancock went back home with all kinds of ugliness and uncharitableness working in his little heart. He cursed Regatta Day for an interruption to trade, and Saltash for a town given up to idleness and folly. A man's business in this world was to toil for his living in the sweat of his brow; and so, half an hour later, he told his wife.
The crowd had brought her along to her house door: and there she left 'em with a word or two of thanks, and went in very quiet. Her victory had uplifted her, of course; but she knew that her man would be sore in his feelings, and she meant to let him down gently. She'd have done it, too, if he'd met her in the ordinary way: but when, after searching the house, she looked into the little back workshop and spied him seated on the bench there, cross-legged and solemn as an idol, stitching away at a waistcoat, she couldn't hold back a grin. "Why, whatever's the matter with you?" she asked.
"Work," says he, in a hollow voice. "Work is the matter. I can't see a house – and one that used to be a happy home – go to rack and ruin without some effort to prevent it."
"I wouldn't begin on Regatta Day, if I was you," says Sal cheerfully. "Has old Smithers been inquiring again about that waistcoat?"
"He have not."
"Then he's a patient man: for to my knowledge this is the third week you've been putting him off with excuses."
"I thank the Lord," says her husband piously, "that more work gets put on me than I can keep pace with. And well it is, when a man's wife takes to wagering and betting and pulling in low boat-races to the disgrace of her sex. Someone must keep the roof over our heads: but the end may come sooner than you expect," says he, and winds up with a tolerable imitation of a hacking cough.
"I took three pairs of soles and a brill in the trammel this very morning; and if you've put a dozen stitches in that old waistcoat, 'tis as much as ever! I can see in your eye that you know all about the race; and I can tell from the state of your back that you watched it from the Quay, and turned into the 'Sailor's Return' for a drink. Hockaday got taken in over that blue-wash for his walls: it comes off as soon as you rub against it."
"I'll trouble you not to spy upon my actions, Madam," says he.
"Man alive, I don't mind your taking a glass now and then in reason – specially on Regatta Day! And as for the 'Sailor's Return,' 'tis a respectable house. I hope so, anyhow, for we've ordered supper there to-night."
"Supper! You've ordered supper at the 'Sailor's Return'?"
Sal nodded. "Just to celebrate the occasion. We thought, first-along, of the 'Green Dragon': but the 'Dragon's' too grand a place for ease, and Bess allowed 'twould look like showing off. She voted for cosiness: so the 'Sailor's Return' it is, with roast ducks and a boiled leg of mutton and plain gin-and-water."
"Settin' yourselves up to be men, I s'pose?" he sneered.
"Not a bit of it," answered Sal. "There'll be no speeches."
She went off to the kitchen, put on the kettle, and made him a dish of tea. In an ordinary way she'd have paid no heed to his tantrums: but just now she felt very kindly disposed t'wards everybody, and really wished to chat over the race with him – treating it as a joke now that her credit was saved, and never offering to crow over him. But the more she fenced about to be agreeable the more he stitched and sulked.
"Well, I can't miss all the fun," said she at last: and so, having laid supper for him, and put the jug where he could find it and draw his cider, she clapped on her hat and strolled out.
He heard her shut-to the front door, and still he went on stitching. When the dusk began to fall he lit a candle, fetched himself a jugful of cider, and went back to his work. For all the notice Sal was ever likely to take of his perversity, he might just as well have stepped out into the streets and enjoyed himself: but he was wrought up into that mood in which a man will hurt himself for the sake of having a grievance. All the while he stitched he kept thinking, "Look at me here, galling my fingers to the bone, and that careless fly-by-night wife o' mine carousin' and gallivantin' down at the 'Sailor's Return'! Maybe she'll be sorry for it when I'm dead and gone; but at present if there's an injured, misunderstood poor mortal in Saltash Town, I'm that man." So he went on, until by and by, above the noise of the drum and cymbals outside the penny theatre, and the hurdy-gurdies, and the showmen bawling down by the waterside, he heard voices yelling and a rush of folks running down the street past his door. He knew they had been baiting a bull in a field at the head of the town, and, the thought coming into his head that the animal must have broken loose, he hopped off his bench, ran fore to the front door, and peeked his head out cautious-like.
What does he see coming down the street in the dusk but half a dozen sailor-men with an officer in charge! Of course he knew the meaning of it at once. 'Twas a press-gang off one of the ships in Hamoaze or the Sound, that was choosing Regatta Night to raid the streets and had landed at the back of the town and climbed over the hill to take the crowds by surprise. They'd made but a poor fist of this, by reason of the officer letting his gang get out of hand at the start; and by their gait 'twas pretty plain they had collared a plenty of liquor up the street. But while Hancock peeped out, taking stock of them, a nasty monkey-notion crept into his head, and took hold of all his spiteful little nature; and says he, pushing the door a bit wider as the small officer – he was little taller than a midshipman – came swearing by: "Beg your pardon, Sir!"
"You'd best take in your head and close the door upon it," snaps the little officer. "These fools o' mine have got their shirts out, and are liable to make mistakes to-night."
"What, me? – a poor tailor with a hackin' cough!" But to himself: "So much the better," he says, and up he speaks again. "Beggin' your pardon humbly, Commander; but I might put you in the way of the prettiest haul. There's a gang of chaps enjoyin' theirselves down at the 'Sailor's Return,' off the Quay, and not a 'protection' among them. Fine lusty fellows, too! They might give your men a bit of trouble to start with –"
"Why are you telling me this?" the officer interrupts, suspicious-like.
"That's my affair," says Hancock boldly, seeing that he nibbled. "Put it down to love o' my country, if you like; and take my advice or leave it, just as you please. I'm not asking for money, so you won't be any the poorer."
"Off the Quay, did you say? Has the house a Quay-door?"
"It has: but you needn't to trouble about that. They can't escape that way, I promise you, having no boat alongside."
The little officer turned and whispered for a while with two of the soberest of his gang: and presently these whispered to two more, and the four of them marched away up the hill.
"'HANCOCK – TAILOR,'" reads out the officer aloud, stepping back into the roadway and peering up at the shop-front. "Very well, my man, you'll hear from us again –"
"I'm not askin' for any reward, Sir."
"So you've said: and I was about to say that, if this turns out to be a trick, you'll hear from us again, and in a way you'll be sorry for. And now, once more, take your ugly head inside. 'Tis my duty to act on information, but I don't love informers."
For the moment the threat made the tailor uncomfortable: but he felt pretty sure the sailors, when they discovered the trick, wouldn't be able to do him much harm. The laugh of the whole town would be against them: and on Regatta Night the press – unpopular enough at the best of times – would gulp down the joke and make the best of it. He went back to his bench; but on second thoughts not to his work. 'Twould be on the safe side, anyway, to be not at home for an hour or two, in case the sailors came back to cry quits. Playing the lonely martyr, too, wasn't much fun with this mischief working inside of him and swelling his lungs like barm. He took a bite of bread and a sup of cider, blew out the candle, let himself forth into the street after a glance to make sure that all was clear, and headed for the 'Fish and Anchor.'
He found the bar-room crowded, but not with the usual Regatta Night throng of all-sorts. The drinkers assembled were either burgesses like himself or waterside men with protection-papers in their pockets: for news of the press-gang had run through the town like wildfire, and the company had given over discussing the race of the day and taken up with this new subject. Among the protected men his eye lit on Treleaven the hoveller, husband to Long Eliza, and Caius Pengelly, husband to Ann, that had pulled bow in the race. He winked to them mighty cunning. The pair of 'em seemed dreadfully cast down, and he knew a word to put them in heart again. "Terrible blow for us, mates, this woman's mutiny!" says he, dropping into a chair careless-like, pulling out a short pipe, and speaking high to draw the company's attention.
"Oh, stow it!" says Caius Pengelly, very sour. "We'd found suthin' else to talk about; and if the women have the laugh of us to-day, who's responsible, after all? Why, you – you, with your darned silly song about Adam and Eve! If you hadn't provoked your wife, this here wouldn't ha' happened."
"Indeed?" says the monkey-fellow, crossing his legs and puffing. "So you've found something better to talk about? What's that, I'd like to know?"
"Why, there's a press-gang out," says Treleaven. "But there! a fellow with your shaped legs don't take no interest in press-gangs, I reckon."
"Ah, to be sure," says the little man – but he winced and uncrossed his legs all the same, feeling sorry he'd made 'em so conspicuous – "ah, to be sure, a press-gang! I met 'em; but, as it happens, that's no change of subject."
"Us don't feel in no mood to stomach your fun to-night, Hancock; and so I warn 'ee," put in Pengelly, who had been drinking more than usual and spoke thick. "If you've a meaning up your sleeve, you'd best shake it out."
Hancock chuckled. "You fellows have no invention," he said; "no resource at all, as I may call it. You stake on this race, and, when the women beat you, you lie down and squeal. Well, you may thank me that I'm built different: I bide my time, but when the clock strikes I strike with it. I never did approve of women dressing man-fashion: but what's the use of making a row in the house? 'The time is bound to come,' said I to myself; and come it has. If you want a good story cut short, I met the press-gang just now and turned 'em on to raid the 'Sailor's Return': and if by to-morrow the women down there have any crow over us, then I'm a Dutchman, that's all!"
"Bejimbers, Hancock," says Treleaven, standing up and looking uneasy, "you carry it far, I must say!"
"Far? A jolly good joke, I should call it," answers Hancock, making bold to cross his legs again.
And with that there comes a voice crying pillaloo in the passage outside; and, without so much as a knock, a woman runs in with a face like a sheet – Sam Hockaday's wife, from the 'Sailor's Return'. "Oh, Mr. Oke – Mr. Oke, whatever is to be done! The press has collared Sally Hancock and all her gang! Some they've kilt, and wounded others, and all they've a-bound and carried off and shipped at the Quay-door. Oh, Mr. Oke, our house is ruined for ever!"
The men gazed at her with their mouths open. Hancock found his legs somehow; but they shook under him, and all of a sudden he felt himself turning white and sick. "You don't mean to tell me –" he began.
But Pengelly rounded on him and took him by the ear so that he squeaked. "Where's my wife, you miserable joker, you?" demanded Pengelly.
"They c-can't be in earnest!"
"You'll find that I am," said Pengelly, feeling in his breeches-pocket, and drawing out a clasp-knife almost a foot long. "What's the name of the ship?"
"I – I don't know! I never inquired! Oh, please let me go, Mr. Pengelly! Han't I got my feelings, same as yourself?"
"There's a score of vessels atween this and Cawsand," put in Treleaven, catching his breath like a man hit in the wind, "and half a dozen of 'em ready to weigh anchor any moment. There's naught for it but to take a boat and give chase."
Someone suggested that Sal's own boat, the Indefatigable Woman, would be lying off Runnell's Yard; and down to the waterside they all ran, Pengelly gripping the tailor by the arm. They found the gig moored there on a frape, dragged her to shore, and tumbled in. Half a dozen men seized and shipped the oars: the tailor pitched forward and driven to take the bow oar. Voices from shore sang out all manner of different advice: but 'twas clear that no one knew which way the press-boat had taken, nor to what ship she belonged.
To Hancock 'twas all like a sick dream. He hated the water; he had on his thinnest clothes; the night began to strike damp and chilly, with a lop of tide running up from Hamoaze and the promise of worse below. Pengelly, who had elected himself captain, swore to hail every ship he came across: and he did – though from the first he met with no encouragement. "Ship, ahoy!" he shouted, coming down with a rush upon the stern-windows of the first and calling to all to hold water. "Ahoy! Ship!"
A marine poked his head over the taffrail. "Ship it is," said he. "And what may be the matter with you?"
"Be you the ship that has walked off with half a dozen women from Saltash?"
The marine went straight off and called the officer of the watch, "Boat-load of drunk chaps under our stern, Sir," says he, saluting. "Want to know if we've carried off half a dozen women from Saltash."
"Empty a bucket of slops on 'em," said the officer of the watch, "and tell 'em, with my compliments, that we haven't."
The marine saluted, hunted up a slop-bucket, and poured it over with the message. "If you want to know more, try the guard-ship," said he.
"That's all very well, but where in thunder be the guard-ship?" said poor Pengelly, scratching his head.
Everyone knew, but everyone differed by something between a quarter and half a mile. They tried ship after ship, getting laughter from some and abuse from others. And now, to make matters worse, the wind chopped and blew up from the sou'-west, with a squall of rain and a wobble of sea that tried Hancock's stomach sorely. At one time they went so far astray in the dark as to hail one of the prison-hulks, and only sheered off when the sentry challenged and brought his musket down upon the bulwarks with a rattle. A little later, off Torpoint, they fell in with the water-police, who took them for a party rowing home to Plymouth from the Regatta, and threatened 'em with the lock-up if they didn't proceed quiet. Next they fell foul of the guard-ship, and their palaver fetched the Admiral himself out upon the little balcony in his nightshirt. When he'd done talking they were a hundred yards off, and glad of it.
Well, Sir, they tried ship after ship, the blessed night through, till hope was nigh dead in them, and their bodies ached with weariness and hunger. Long before they reached Devil's Point the tumble had upset Hancock's stomach completely. He had lost his oar; somehow it slipped off between the thole-pins, and in his weakness he forgot to cry out that 'twas gone. It drifted away in the dark – the night all round was black as your hat, the squalls hiding the stars – and he dropped off his thwart upon the bottom-boards. "I'm a dying man," he groaned, "and I don't care. I don't care how soon it comes! 'Tis all over with me, and I shall never see my dear Sally no more!"
So they tossed till day broke and showed Drake's Island ahead of them, and the whole Sound running with a tidy send of sea from the south'ard, grey and forlorn. Some were for turning back, but Pengelly wouldn't hear of it. "We must make Cawsand Bay," says he, "if it costs us our lives. Maybe we'll find half a dozen ships anchored there and ready for sea."
So away for Cawsand they pulled, hour after hour, Hancock all the while wanting to die, and wondering at the number of times an empty man could answer up to the call of the sea.
The squalls had eased soon after daybreak, and the sky cleared and let through the sunshine as they opened the bay and spied two sloops-of-war and a frigate riding at anchor there. Pulling near with the little strength left in them, they could see that the frigate was weighing for sea. She had one anchor lifted and the other chain shortened in: her top-sails and topgallant sails were cast off, ready to cant her at the right moment for hauling in. An officer stood ready by the crew manning the capstan, and right aft two more officers were pacing back and forth with their hands clasped under their coat-tails.
"Lord!" groaned Pengelly, "if my poor Ann's aboard of she, we'll never catch her!" He sprang up in the stern sheets and hailed with all his might.
Small enough chance had his voice of reaching her, the wind being dead contrary: and yet for the moment it looked as if the two officers aft had heard; for they both stepped to the ship's side, and one put up a telescope and handed it to the other. And still the crew of the gig, staring over their shoulders while they pulled weakly, could see the men by the capstan standing motionless and waiting for orders.
"Seems a'most as if they were expectin' somebody," says Pengelly with a sudden hopefulness: and with that Treleaven, that was pulling stroke, casts his eyes over his right shoulder and gives a gasp.
"Good Lord, look!" says he. "The tender!"
And sure enough, out of the thick weather rolling up away over Bovisand they spied now a Service cutter bearing across close-hauled, leaning under her big tops'l and knocking up the water like ginger-beer with the stress of it. When first sighted she couldn't have been much more than a mile distant, and, pull as they did with the remains of their strength, she crossed their bows a good half-mile ahead, taking in tops'l as she fetched near the frigate.
"Use your eyes – oh, use your eyes!" called out Pengelly: but no soul could they see on her besides two or three of the crew forward and a little officer standing aft beside the helmsman. Pengelly ran forward, leaping the thwarts, and fetched the tailor a rousing kick. "Sit up!" he ordered, "and tell us if that's the orficer you spoke to last night!"
The poor creature hoisted himself upon his thwart, looking as yellow as a bad egg. "I – I think that's the man," said he, straining his eyes, and dropped his head overside.
"Pull for your lives, boys," shouted Pengelly. And they did pull, to the last man. They pulled so that they reached the frigate just as the tender, having run up in the wind and fallen alongside, began uncovering hatches.
Two officers were leaning overside and watching – and a couple of the tender's crew were reaching down their arms into the hold. They were lifting somebody through the hatchway, and the body they lifted clung for a moment to the hatchway coaming, to steady itself.
"Sally!" screamed a voice from the gig.
The little officer in the stern of the tender cast a glance back at the sound and knew the tailor at once. He must have owned sharp sight, that man. "Oh, you've come for your money, have you?" says he. And, looking up at the two officers overhead, he salutes, saying: "We've made a tidy haul, Sir – thanks to that man."
"I don't want your money. I want my wife!" yelled Hancock.
"And I mine!" yelled Pengelly.
"And I mine!" yelled Treleaven.
By this time the gig had fallen alongside the tender, and the women in the tender's hold were coming up to daylight, one by one. Sal herself stood watching the jail-delivery; and first of all she blinked a bit, after the darkness below, and next she let out a laugh, and then she reached up a hand and began unplaiting her pigtail. "Be you the Captain of this here ship?" asks she, looking up and addressing herself to one of the officers leaning overside.
"Yes, my man; this here's the Ranger frigate, and I'm her Captain. I'm sorry for you – it goes against my grain to impress men in this fashion: but the law's the law, and we're ready for sea, and if you've any complaints to make I hope you'll cut 'em short."
"I don't know," says Sal, "that I've any complaints to make, except that I was born a woman. That I went on to marry that pea-green tailor yonder is my own fault, and we'll say no more about it."
By this time all the women on the tender were following Sal's example and unshredding their back-hair. By this time, too, every man aboard the frigate was gathered at the bulwarks, looking down in wonderment. There beneath 'em stood a joke too terrible to be grasped in one moment.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Rogers," says the Captain in a voice cold as a knife, "but you appear to have made a mistake."
The little officer had turned white as a sheet: but he managed to get in his say before the great laugh came. "I have, Sir, to my sorrow," says he, turning viciously on Hancock; "a mistake to be cast up against me through my career. But I reckon," he adds, "I leave the punishment for it in good hands." He glanced at Sally.
"You may lay to that, young man!" says she heartily. "You may lay to that every night when you says your prayers."
page updated 2016-06-07