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–