CHRISTMAS BY THE SEA.
There is no such universal peace along the English shore as on the day that the ringers celebrate by the music of the bells. Every tiny fishing-boat comes home, and lies in the harbour or floats beside the quay ; not an oar is dipped from dawn till dark, not a lantern lighted on the boats or a meal cooked in the galleys. The gulls may laugh their loudest, or scream reproaches to the fishermen, their elected partners and allies, that the herrings are within a mile, or the sprat shoals are ready to be caught within a stone's throw of the beach. Not a net will be uncoiled or a cork wetted, and not a keel will grate across the shingle or part the sliding breakers on the shore. Christmas is the only day which the fisher and his boys make certain of spending at home, under a roof, with mothers and sisters, sweethearts and wives. Fish is never mentioned that day, and never seen at the board. Holly in the windows, roast beef and pudding on the table, humming ale, and no rum or other spirits savouring of the sea, are the etiquette of the fisherman's Christmas Day.
When country-bred folk gather for the holiday inland, it is ten to one that the men, whether old or young, go for a walk in the afternoon to the prettiest place the parish has to show, to some park of ancient trees, or fern-grown lane, or by the side of a tumbling stream, or to the crest of an oak and rowan covered crag where they used to walk as boys together. By the sea it is just the same, except that every one goes to the shore, or walks along the margin of the cliffs. Memory can play them no tricks there, nor will Nature mock their desire to see old things anew, yet as they were when first seen. The sea is the same as ever, without change or shadow of turning. The rocks, the sands, the well-remembered outline of the cliffs that wall the bay ; the divers fishing in the quiet pools ; the black cormorants on the buoys with wings outstretched, or flapping low across the weltering tide ; the gulls floating out the declining day after their Christmas dinner of innumerable sprats,—all these change not, and are as familiar to the lad home for his seaside Christmas as is the evening assembly of the squire's rooks inland, or the calling of the pheasants as they fly up to roost in the covers by the road. Bill the man-of-wars- man, and Tom in the " P. and 0.," and Will from the dockyard, and Harry back "from foreign" with a chest of presents that will delight his mother and sisters until his next home- coming, saunter by the cliff edge, and crane over looking for rabbits or samphire, and discussing old feats of cliff-climbing, or the capture of crabs too large to go into a pail, or lobsters of immemorial age and toughness. The local fishermen saunter round likewise, and strangers and home-stayers gather by the stile that tops the step-way down to the base of the broken cliff-face, where the crab and lobster pots are waiting in rows to be taken out to sea after Boxing Day. Join in their talk, or listen, and you will find that your impression of the equilibrium of Nature by the coast is open to criticism. There is no such thing as the status quo even by the margin of the sea. Take the reef which, brown and bronzed with weeds and sea-wrack, stretches its widely embracing arms below you under the heaving surface of the ebb. The lobsters never came in this year, " not what you may call." Even the champion lobster-catcher, who is wont to wade over the reef at low tide, and there, marking down the spot where a lobster has been digging a hole in the soft sea turf to spend the day in, hauls him out writhing and blue with indignation, has not really filled his basket any one of the fine morninzs on which
he quartered the acres of shallow water, floating ribbon-grass, and rubber-like popweed fronds.
In another way the reef has sadly fallen off. From time imme- morial it has pleased Providence to wreck vessels upon it, and though lives were seldom lost, ships were. It was among the small compensations in the balance of mundane things that until late ships were built of wood, largely put together with copper bolts, and "finished" with gun-metal fittings. Copper bolts and gun-metal fittings that have been long in the sea are beautiful, and were "common objects" of the seashore.
When the ' Sultan' was fished up after a prolonged rest at the bottom of the Comino Channel, and was docked at Portsmouth, the whole of the copper left within her looked like samples of Corinthian bronze. Copper bolts and nails always adorned the reef, and any one with a really good eye and knowledge of the ground could generally reckon upon making three shillings a day merely by taking a basket to hold them, and to carry them to where there was a sale. It was all " honest ". copper too, not like some copper found near dock- yards, which is not honest copper, but the proceeds of guile.
But by the deplorable turn for economy in modern ship- building even the coasting craft are now largely built of iron, and rusty nails and forbidding angle-plates and frames of that metal, so singularly worthless when " scrapped," have so far taken the place of copper that it is doubtful whether a week's search on the reef would yield the price of the traditional pint which is the unit of value for longshore industries.
The war in the Far East is naturally a Christmas topic with these sons of the sea, for it has professional bearings where so many sailors and Coastguards and Naval Reserves mingle with the fishers, and marry their sisters and daughters. Two points are agreed upon among them without demur or question, —one, that the "Jappans " are highly educated, and the other that if we fought the Russians, " we should cut 'em into steaks," a direful phrase which it is to be hoped will not be quoted literally by the German Press.
As the flash and reverberation of the evening gun roll across the waters from the distant fortress, and the bugles sound shrill and clear across the silent sea, and the last cor- morants have lurched in and settled on the steplike surface of the chalk precipice, fishers and sailors, young and old, stroll back from the cliffs to the beacon-lights of their cottage lamps and the glowing sea-coal fires. Once more the Christmas bells ring out, and once more the men leave home for the gathering at the service at evening church, which every seaman in the village attends on this evening in the year. Every one wears his pilot jacket over his blue jersey, and in every jacket is a sprig of holly, to mark that even those who go down to the sea in ships do not make their " home upon the deep," but take for their emblem on the most home- like day of the year the most ancient evergreen of the English woods.