“I MANAGED it all right, Guy,” announced Leslie Ward excitedly. “Old Runswick’s a brick. Says he’ll take us both for a week’s cruise. The Laughing Lassie sails at high water this evening.”
Leslie Ward, the fifteen-year-old son of a distinguished electrical engineer, and his chum, Guy Anderson, were spending a holiday at the small fishing village of Pilgrimswick, situated on a remote part of the Yorkshire coast.
The friendship between the two boys was of only few weeks’ duration, but it was a friendship that was fated to be a life-long one, cemented by peril and adventure.
Both lads were of almost the same age. Leslie Ward was tall, broad-shouldered, and well set-up. He looked older than his actual years. He was apt to be a trifle impulsive, and, possessing an abundance of energy, was always ready to tackle any difficulty that presented itself. His knowledge of mechanics and physics was extensive, and even his father—a cool, calculating man, who never erred upon the side of exaggeration—was forced to admit that Leslie showed great promise of becoming a first-rate consulting engineer.
Guy Anderson was of a different build and disposition. A good three inches shorter than his chum, and slight of build, he lacked the physical strength that Leslie possessed. Nevertheless, he was well-knit and wiry, and capable of withstanding the strain of fatigue. Their parents’ permission to undertake a trip in the Laughing Lassie had been obtained even before the matter had been broached to the gruff yet kind-hearted skipper of the ketch, and now, the latter business having been satisfactorily concluded, it only remained for the two lads to provide themselves with suitable clothing and a generous contribution in the way of eatables to the ship’s stores.
By the time Leslie and Guy arrived at the tidal harbour, the Laughing Lassie was already afloat.
“Evenin’, young gents,” was Skipper Runswick’s curt greeting. Then, eyeing the big hamper that accompanied his guests, he added, with typical Yorkshire candour: “An’ what might you be? Dost tha’ think tha’lt not be fed properly?”
“Oh, no, Captain Runswick,” Leslie hastened to explain. “It’s our contribution to be shared by all hands.”
“Let’s hope that you’ll be ready to do your share o’ things,” rejoined the skipper grimly, as he regarded his two amateurs in their spotless white duck overalls with certain amount of disdain. “Stow the gear over agin’ yon hatchway. Andrew’ll pass it below in a minute. Now clap on yon rope and heave till you crack your ribs.”
The voyage to the fishing grounds had begun in earnest.
Skipper Runswick had sailed the Laughing Lassie for nearly forty years. She was by no means a new boat when he first set foot upon her deck; but, like many another veteran of the North Sea, the ketch was soundly and powerfully built. She was a Weatherly craft, with a fair turn of speed. It wasn’t safe for anyone to say a word against her in the skipper’s presence.
The “old man” was one of an old school. He knew the fishing grounds as well as a Londoner knows the Strand—perhaps better. The use of the sextant was beyond him, yet solely by the aid of compass and lead-line would he find his way across the vast, trackless expanse of the North Sea to his favourite “grounds,” where a cast of the trawl never failed to produce a goodly haul. Putting his trust in Providence, bad weather failed to daunt him.
Their work done for the time being, Leslie and Guy went aft, and, sitting on a coil of rope close to the taffrail, watched the rapidly receding cliffs of the rugged Yorkshire coast, thrown into strong relief by the setting sun.
The watch on deck, consisting of Old Mick and George the cook, commonly referred to as Long Garge—had trimmed and fixed the red and green navigation lamps. The wind had fallen light, and the Laughing Lassie rolled laboriously in the long, sullen swell.
Old Mick was standing at the tiller, with legs stretched wide apart, and his hands in his pockets. His work for the time being consisted in doing nothing, for the ketch barely carried steerage way. Long Garge was for’ard scratching the foremast and whistling blithely in the hope, common to the old-time seamen, that the joint action would result in a breeze.
“Better now than when we’ve got the holds full of fish,” declared the skipper, commenting upon the lack of wind.
Leslie and Guy slept badly that night. The bunks felt uncomfortable, weird noises overhead and strange groanings as the old vessel strained in the long, oily swell, the somewhat close atmosphere ‘tween decks, all combined to disturb the slumbers of the two chums. Glad were they when, at the first blush of dawn, they were able to leave their strange beds and go on deck.
It was a glorious morning. The sun had just risen above a low-lying bank of haze. The surface of the North Sea was ruffled by a gentle breeze. All around the sea and sky met in an unbroken horizon. Not another sail was to be seen.
The only member of the crew already on deck was Peter, the ship’s boy, who was steering with the skill of a born sailorman, keeping the stiff little ketch “full and bye” without shiver in her well-stretched canvas.
“Good-morning, Peter,” said Guy. “It looks as if it’s going to be a jolly fine day.”
“Not for trawling,” replied Peter sagely. “Might do for pleasure folk, but the wind’ll die down when the sun gets up, and more’n likely there’ll be a fog.”
“Where do we wash?” inquired Leslie innocently. Peter grinned.
“There’s a canvas bucket up for’ard,” he informed his questioner. “Just you strip, and get t’ other gent to swill you down. That’s what we do.”
As Peter had prophesied, the wind did fall to a dead calm. Leslie and Guy had a swim over the side, getting on board again by means of a tarry rope.
For the rest of the day the Laughing Lassie drifted idly, until about an hour before sunset, when a smart breeze helped her on her way.
Skipper Runswick declared that the nets would be shot directly the ketch arrived at her favourite fishing ground. It would mean a night’s work, he admitted, but no doubt the young gents would sleep throughout the noise on deck.
“We’d rather remain up, if you don’t mind,” said Leslie, remembering the hard bunk in the little cabin. Besides, it was the novelty of seeing the trawls, laden with glittering fish, being hauled on board, that was one of the objects of his trip.
“All right,” replied Runswick, good-humouredly. “No doubt we can make you properly useful.” Acting upon the skipper’s advice, the two lads turned in for a few hours on the understanding that they would be called directly the nets were ready to be shot.
Contrary to their expectations, they slept like logs until one in the morning, when Peter, knocking loudly at the cabin door, announced that all was in readiness.
Putting on thick sweaters, Leslie and Guy went on deck. It was pitch dark, except for the feeble glimmer of two lanterns hung vertically from the forestay. Not a star was visible. There was hardly any wind, while the sea was calm and strangely phosphorescent.
Slowly Long Garge and Peter, assisted by the two “supernumeraries,” paid out yard after yard of carefully coiled nets, for the speed at which the Laughing Lassie was moving was so slight that any attempt to shoot the nets hurriedly would result in a disastrous tangle.
“All out, Cap’n!” announced Long Garge, as the last of the cork floats disappeared overboard. “But, blow me, if there ain’t thick weather a-comin’ on.”
In a very short space of time the deck of the Laughing Lassie was hidden in a pall of vapour. It was impossible to see the regulation lights from the after-part of the ketch.
“‘Tis thick,” agreed Skipper Runswick. “Peter, you nip below and get out the fog-horn. It’ll keep you busy. Thank goodness we’re out of the regular steamer tracks,” he added under his breath.
Although the night had hitherto been warm and humid, a cold clamminess accompanied the fog. In spite of their thick sweaters, the lads shivered.
“Nothin’ doin’ for a bit,” said the skipper, almost colliding with his guests, as he made his way for’ard. “Go below to the cabin. Unless the fog lifts pretty soon, we’ll not get the nets in afore dawn. If you’re still of a mind to see the job being done, I’ll give you the word.”
“Thanks awfully,” said Leslie, his teeth chattering as he spoke. “We would like to be called if you do haul in the nets.”
Although neither had cared to admit it, both boys were glad to retreat to the snug shelter of the cabin. The lamp lit, they made no attempt to turn in, but talked and read, to the accompaniment of the minute blasts upon the foghorn, which Peter used with vigour.
“It must be nearly daylight,” said Guy at length. “It’s now nearly three o’clock, and the sun rises at half-past four. I’m not in the least bit tired, are you?”
Before Leslie could reply, there was a violent scuffling of feet overhead, and a chorus of shouts from Skipper Runswick and his crew.
The lads looked at each other in wonderment, then, seized by a common impulse, made for the companion ladder.
Before they were clear of the doorway, a terrific crash shook the Laughing Lassie like a rat in the mouth of a terrier; then with a fearful lurch she heeled to starboard.
The swinging lamp, hurled from its gimbals, was smashed into a thousand fragments against the skylight, plunging the little cabin into intense darkness. The two lads, in company with every article that was not securely fixed, rolled to leeward in a confused heap.
Before they could regain their feet, they were dimly aware that water was pouring into the stricken vessel.
The Laughing Lassie was making her last voyage—this time to the bed of the North Sea. Cut half-way through amidships by a lumbering tramp, the skipper of which, with a ruthless disregard for the Rules of the Road at Sea, was driving his craft at full speed ahead, the ketch was doomed.
In a very short space of time, barely sufficient for the crew to clamber on to the bows of the ramming vessel, the tramp had drawn clear, while the Laughing Lassie, with Leslie and Guy still in the cabin, was already on the point of disappearing beneath the waves.