The Cornish Fishermen's Watch Night
The old year was drawing to a close, indeed, it had not many hours to run, for the thirty-first of December had dawned upon the lonely Cornish village of Penwhinnock. It was a pouring wet day, and the wind was blowing so fiercely that the billows rolled and tossed as if some evil spirit, which could not rest, had taken possession of them. Penwhinnock overlooked the sea, being built upon a rocky promontory which commanded a splendid view of the Channel, and of any craft which might be nearing that part of the coast. The fishermen of the village were hardy, brave, stout, and strong; but whispers went abroad that they loved wrecking. It was said that battered and shipwrecked vessels had small chance if caught in the fearful gales which sometimes rose off that coast, and tempted the mariners to run for shelter to the bay, which proved after all a deceitful haven; and ugly tales were told of dead sailors, and of drowning men hurled back into the waters, on the principle that "dead men tell no tales," forgetting that, in the judgment to come, these would rise in swift witness against their murderers. Ostensibly the villagers of Penwhinnock gained their livelihood by fishing; but many a home contained valuables and wealth which had been obtained by this same practice of wrecking. Tourists and visitors looked askance at the Penwhinnock folk, and avoided their houses as if they had contained the plague, so that few strangers ever came among them or conversed with them.
There was one, however, who did not avoid them覧would not, in fact. This person was the young minister, lately come into the neighbourhood, and as full of zeal and courage and self-sacrifice in his great Master's work as he was of health, hardy energy, and fearless pluck. Mr. Ernest Boyce was the very man to deal with those rough, semi-civilized, Cornish fishermen. Were they valiant, powerful, frank, and fearless? So was he; only in the service of a better Master. He was tall, well-built, and had eyes and ears as keen as they; but he was gentle, loving, forbearing, and considerate. A true gentleman and a true Christian, Mr. Boyce presented to those rough Cornish fishermen a pattern of true manliness. Their manliness consisted, for the most part, in being bold to commit sin; his, on the other hand, in being brave to serve God. They had talked once or twice of "frightening him off;" but his brave, loving, outspoken, disinterested Christian honesty of purpose had disarmed them, and caused their hostility to slumber, though it had not yet died away. Penwhinnock was situated some eight miles or so from his residence, but very regularly every week Mr. Boyce rode over there to hold the appointed service. This service was always held in the evening, and Mr. Boyce noticed with a sharp, quick intelligence, that while he had a fair audience on fine, warm, mild, or quiet evenings, he had scarcely anybody to hear him if the evening turned out stormy, rough, or dark; and being a gentleman of quick perceptions, he lost no time in solving this problem. As to the solution at which he arrived he said but little, but ever after that he ordered his dealings with the fisher-folk accordingly,覧that is to say, if the afternoon betokened "big guns," he would ride over to Penwhinnock early, and visit freely at the fishermen's cottages, inviting, persuading, entreating, and almost "compelling them to come in" to the meeting. And now that the last day of the old year had dawned, amid storm, wind, rain, and roaring of billows, there seemed but little doubt that he would be over as usual, visiting among the villagers, and charging them to attend the "Watch-night service." For there was a watch-night service to be held in the accustomed meeting-place, which was a large empty cottage adjoining a farmhouse, and Mr. Boyce was to preside.
This was what the Penwhinnock men were discussing as they stood around some of the largest fishing-boats, dragged up on the beach for safety, and watched the gathering storm. The wind was blowing "big guns" then, and the rain was pelting fiercely down upon the bare, rugged rocks, and the mean, small cottages which formed the dwellings of the fishermen, and lined each side of the long straggling village street. It would have appeared to most landsmen as if the weather could not be much worse; but to the experienced eyes of the fishermen the night promised worse things覧worse things to many an ill-fated mariner覧but in the judgment of those hardy, cruel men it might bring to them "a good catch." This meant a brave ship being wrecked, flung hopelessly and helplessly upon the dreadful rocks, decoyed there by false lights, and lured into the jaws of death; it meant, too, robbery, pillage, cruelty, and, not seldom, murder!
"What do you think of the night?" inquired Bob Trevannion of Will Lowry.
"Think! Why, many a good ship will go down before another year dawns. That's what I think. And parson thinks so, too, I guess, for see, here he is!"
Turning their faces towards the place indicated by the speaker, the group saw Mr. Boyce coming through the rain quietly, on his stout, sure-footed pony.
"Eh!" said Hugh Hoskyns, a brawny six-footer. "I guess we'll have to attend the cottage to-night."
"So we shall, man," replied Will Lowry; "but we shall leave in time to do a good night's work, if all be well. The Fleur-de-lis is due up about this part toward morning, and our mates will be ready about on the hills in good time. But we must needs go to parson's 'Watch-night,' or he'll be poking his nose into our fun, and spoiling it."
"Seems to me you've laid your plans well but I shouldn't wonder if parson isn't as deep," slily retorted Bob Trevannion. "He's up to all of it most as much as the wreckers themselves."
"Never mind if he is. He'll not know anything this time, for we've put up the women and children to it; and though he may ride about this afternoon, visiting one and another, he'll not get anything. We shall go to his meeting right enough, then we'll wish him 'good-bye,' and while he's trotting off home and out of the storm, we'll look after our own business. Never fear!"
And the men chuckled again at thinking of their sagacity in outwitting Mr. Boyce. It showed the hold which one determined servant of the Lord could obtain over those wicked, resolute men, by his calm, fearless faith and outspoken fidelity. They could not plan their wrecking expedition as of old, but must consider first how to blind and deceive him. But he was more "'cute" than they dreamed. Mr. Boyce had not lived thirty years in the world without opening both eyes and ears, and he read, by the embarrassed silence of the children and the prevaricating, evasive replies of the women, that some business was on hand, either wrecking or smuggling覧for the Penwhinnock folk were smugglers, too覧of which he was to be kept ignorant. But the fisher folk had reckoned without their host.
Mr. Boyce took a cup of tea here, and a broiled fish there, on his peregrinations through the village that evening, so strengthening himself for his night's vigil. There were sick folk to be seen, inquirers to be instructed, families to be catechized, and sundry other duties appertaining to his office to be performed; and, to do the people justice, they were never stingy or rude to him. Open-handed hospitality was generally the rule towards Mr. Boyce; but, as generally happens, the thing was so overdone, and he was so condoled with in reference to his midnight journey on this particular afternoon, that he felt sure that some mischief was intended. And the women and children unconsciously confirmed all his suspicions. So Mr. Boyce laid his plans.
The service was to begin at ten o'clock that evening. As I said, it was to be held in a large unoccupied cottage adjoining a farmhouse. The thin partition between the two downstair rooms had been removed, so that a pretty fair number could assemble in the place "where prayer was wont to be made." The people came trooping in in great numbers, considering the weather, until nearly all the able-bodied men and lads, together with many women and girls, were present. As usual, the service was opened with singing, in which Will Lowry and Hugh Hoskyns joined with apparent good will. Then Mr. Boyce read and prayed, after which another hymn was given out. Then he preached a sermon on the flight of time, and, not sparing the vices which reigned in Penwhinnock, besought his hearers tenderly and affectionately to remember that another year of their mortal probation was slipping away from them, that each left one less to live, and, though so near its end, they could not know certainly that they would ever see the commencement of the year just about to dawn. He reminded them of their mercies, as numerous as the sands of the sea, and of their sins, if possible, more numerous still. He besought them to examine themselves in the fading hour of that last day of another year, and to humble themselves before God for their manifold offences committed during that year. As he depicted the great meeting around the judgment-seat, there to give account, each one for himself, of the deeds committed during this and every preceding year, his hearers looked grave. There are solemn hours in the life of the most wicked man and woman upon earth, and this hour was a solemn one in the lives of those fishermen. They sat and listened most attentively, while some, I doubt not, half wished that they had never engaged either in wrecking or smuggling.
The sermon was ended, and it being about a quarter to twelve, Mr. Boyce gave out a hymn, thus commencing the short prayer-meeting which he had announced as following the sermon. During the singing of that hymn Mr. Boyce very coolly stepped to the door, locked it, and put the key in his pocket. As the strains of the singing died away, the voices of Hugh Hoskyns and Bob Trevannion were heard in no gentle tones threatening the preacher with violence if he did not give up the key, so as to afford them free egress and ingress. "They were not going to stay there all night, to suit his fancies," they said, and endeavoured to assert their independence of all laws, human and Divine. Two or three minutes passed in this way, and then Mr. Boyce spoke plainly.
"I shall not keep you here all night, friends; but you will not leave this watch-night service yet awhile. I believe that a blessing is coming; I feel sure of it, and the greatest sinners could not find in their hearts to refuse a blessing from heaven. Could you? And you know that you need a blessing! Most of all, you need the blessing of forgiveness!"
"Yes, that may sound all very well for you to preach, as a parson," spoke up Bob Trevannion; "but I don't know as we want so much preaching just now. Here we've been for nearly two mortal hours listening to your service, and I say it's precious hard if you won't let us out now."
"You will not leave yet, Bob Trevannion," coolly replied Mr. Boyce. "And, beside that, we are just entering upon the last five minutes of the dying year. You remember, too, that my announcement for the watch-night service informed you that we should watch in the new year. So, according to that announcement, your time is not up yet. We will spend the last five minutes in prayer, silent prayer, each one for himself and herself. And may the Lord pour you down such a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it."
At this the assembly again grew quiet; they could not for very shame refuse to fulfil the conditions of the service. The men sat still, moody, silent, and jealously afraid of Mr. Boyce; but whether they prayed I cannot say. Some of the women appeared to be in fervent supplication, with one or two of the older men. Perhaps they were beginning to see, although but dimly, that the wild, lawless life of their sons, husbands, and brothers was ill befitting "those who had to give an account of the deeds done in the body," and to whom the knell of every passing year told of added sins, with lessened opportunities for repentance. Mr. Boyce bent his head low in earnest pleading with God on behalf of this rough, sinful assembly; pleading with tears for "a present blessing," even the descent of the Holy Spirit. And through it all the storm howled and roared, and the sea tossed its restless foaming billows, as though hungry for the lives of those who were out that night upon her broad bosom. The rain beat with terrific force against the windows, while even the old trees creaked and bent beneath the power of the wind. So passed the last five minutes of that memorable year.
Twelve o'clock! There were no church bells to ring out the hour, and to welcome with their musical peal the dawning of the new year. But Mr. Boyce arose, and said,覧
"Friends, it is twelve o'clock!... Now it is five minutes past. I wish you all a very happy, a very blessed, new year! The old year is gone into eternity, with all its faults, its sins written down in God's book of remembrance. This new year comes to you full of mercy. Its record is now spread open before you like a fair white page, upon which you may inscribe anything you like. But you will not make any good entries there unless God's grace, helps you. And in order to pray for that grace, let us bend before God's throne a little longer."
"I vote that we've had enough of your praying for one night, Mr. Boyce," spoke up Hoskyns. "We've sat out your watch-night service now, and we want to be going. So I shall go, and my mates too, or we'll know the reason why." He made a move towards the door as he spoke.
"You can't go out of that door," said Mr. Boyce. "It is locked, and I have the key in my pocket."
"Then hand it over, if you please," said Hugh, roughly; "or I shall be at the pains to make you. And it's not worth while, mister."
"You say rightly, it is not worth while," said Mr. Boyce. "God is in this place. He knows the very secret thoughts of your hearts; He is at this moment noting your secret intentions of doing evil. Will you dare to brave God's anger, Hugh?"
"I don't want to be trifled with," rejoined Hugh. "I am not a child, to be frightened. When I say I'll do a thing, I mean it; and I've said I'll leave this meeting."
"Listen, Hugh Hoskyns," said Mr. Boyce, solemnly. "God will not be trifled with. He says, 'He, that being often reproved, hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy.' He says, too, 'Behold, now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation.' Will you spurn all these warnings? Will you say that you do not need a blessing? Will you rush away to sin覧right from the mercy-seat? Think again, I entreat you. I want to do you good, not to harm you. I will not believe that you intend evil towards me, knowing, as you do, that I wish nothing but good to you. As I said before, I simply want to do you good. Else why should I ride over to this place every week, and work among you, were it not for that? Does any one else care enough about you to do that?"
"No, no! that they don't," were the murmured responses. "We're much obliged to you, Mr. Boyce, for your interest in us. But it seems very hard laws to be shut up here against our wills."
"I won't keep you very long, only long enough for the blessing to come, the blessing which I feel sure is coming. And consider what a dreadful thing it is for you to slight that blessing. Why, how do you know what will happen? God's voice is abroad, on the face of the waters, and in nature. Suppose you were going home through this hurricane of wind and rain, and one of those large old trees were to fall before you got clear of the fields, where would your soul be, if the tree fell upon you? Answer me that question覧or, no, answer it to God. And do it honestly to Him." At this they sat still, cowed into silence.
The wind roared and howled still, as Mr. Boyce was speaking; and just at that moment a loud crash was heard. The farmer to whom the cottage belonged went out to see what was the matter; and to his astonishment覧for the rest were too frightened to move覧he found that one of the large old trees standing near had been blown down, and had only by a short distance cleared the pathway leading to the cottage. Singular to say, God had permitted the winds to do His will just at that moment, and confirmed in a most remarkable manner the words of His servant. As the old farmer returned to the cottage and reported what had happened, awe fell upon the people. Even Hugh Hoskyns and Bob Trevannion, as they realized how near they had been to death, sat still and shuddered. Had not Mr. Boyce been firm, they would at that very time have been in the path of the fallen tree; and once under its dreadful trunk, where would their souls have been? They felt that their portion would have been in hell. It was no use to shirk the matter; for, look at it which way they would, they felt that they were not fit for heaven, and, not being fit for heaven, their place would have been found in the lost world.
As I said, awe fell upon the little assembly, and many knees bent in prayer that night which had not so bent for years. No more was said about the watch-night service, or their desire to leave it, but one after another, those rude, rough fishermen prayed, in broken, uncouth petitions, for pardon. The Spirit descended, and strove mightily with the people, until five or six of the roughest, including Bob Trevannion and Hugh Hoskyns, were found crying for mercy; and over many more of them Mr. Boyce could rejoice ere the meeting broke up, because, like Saul of Tarsus, it could be said of each of them, "Behold, he prayeth."
That watch-night service was the commencement of a great revival in the village. A church was built, and the little believing community gathered together in one body. Wrecking almost entirely disappeared; and smuggling, although it took longer time to make it die, vanished gradually before the clearer light of Gospel truth. The Fleur-de-lis escaped her threatened fate, through the fact of being detained on her voyage somewhat longer than was anticipated by the wreckers of Penwhinnock. Hugh Hoskyns, Will Lowry, Bob Trevannion, and all the rest, grew to delight more in things "honest, pure, just, true, lovely, and of good report;" so that those things in which they once delighted became a shame to them. No better friends had Mr. Boyce from that time than those who had threatened him with violence during that ever-memorable watch-night service.