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When I was a child I used to go to the seaside for the holidays. We stayed in a little town where there was a harbour and fishing boats and fishermen. They sailed away to catch herrings in nets. When the boats came back home again some had only caught a few herrings. Others had caught so many that they could not all be unloaded on to the quay. Then horses and carts were driven into the shallow water at low tide to meet the heavily laden boats. The fish were shovelled over the side of the boat into the carts, and taken to the railway station, where a special train of fish trucks was waiting.
Great was the excitement when the fishing boats returned with a good catch of herrings. Half the people in the town ran down to the quay, including cats.
There was a white cat called Susan who never missed meeting the boats. She belonged to the wife of an old fisherman named Sam. The wife's name was Betsy. She had rheumatics, and she had no family except Susan and five hens. Betsy sat by the fire; her back ached; she said “Ow! Ow!” whenever she had to put coal on, and stir the pot. Susan sat opposite to Betsy. She felt sorry for Betsy; she wished she knew how to put the coal on and stir the pot. All day long they sat by the fire, while Sam was away fishing. They had a cup of tea and some milk.
“Susan,” said Betsy, “I can hardly stand up. Go to the front gate and look out for Master's boat.”
Susan went out and came back. Three or four times she went out into the garden. At last, late in the afternoon, she saw the sails of the fishing fleet, coming in over the sea.
“Go down to the harbour; ask Master for six herrings; I will cook them for supper. Take my basket, Susan.”
Susan took the basket; also she borrowed Betsy's bonnet and little plaid shawl. I saw her hurrying down to the harbour.
Other cats were coming out of the cottages, and running down the steep streets that lead to the sea front. Also ducks. I remember that they were most peculiar ducks with top-knots that looked like Tam-o'-Shanter caps. Everybody was hurrying to meet the boats—nearly everybody. I only met one person, a dog called Stumpy, who was going the opposite way. He was carrying a paper parcel in his mouth.
Some dogs do not care for fish. Stumpy had been to the butcher's to buy mutton chops for himself and Bob and Percy and Miss Rose. Stumpy was a large, serious, well-behaved brown dog with a short tail. He lived with Bob the retriever and Percy the cat and Miss Rose who kept house. Stumpy had belonged to a very rich old gentleman; and when the old gentleman died he left money to Stumpy—ten shillings a week for the rest of Stumpy's life. So that was why Stumpy and Bob and Percy the cat all lived together in a pretty little house.
Susan with her basket met Stumpy at the corner of Broad Street. Susan made a curtsy. She would have stopped to inquire after Percy, only she was in a hurry to meet the boat. Percy was lame; he had hurt his foot. It had been trapped under the wheel of a milk cart.
Stumpy looked at Susan out of the corner of his eye; he wagged his tail, but he did not stop. He could not bow or say “good afternoon” for fear of dropping the parcel of mutton chops. He turned out of Broad Street into Woodbine Lane, where he lived; he pushed open the front door and disappeared into a house. Presently there was a smell of cooking, and I have no doubt that Stumpy and Bob and Miss Rose enjoyed their mutton chops.
Percy could not be found at dinner time. He had slipped out of the window, and, like all the other cats in the town, he had gone to meet the fishing boats.
Susan hurried along Broad Street and took the short cut to the harbour, down a steep flight of steps. The ducks had wisely gone another way, round by the sea front. The steps were too steep and slippery for anyone less sure-footed than a cat. Susan went down quickly and easily. There were forty-three steps, rather dark and slimy, between high backs of houses.
A smell of ropes and pitch and a good deal of noise came up from below. At the bottom of the steps was the quay, or landing-place, beside the inner harbour.
The tide was out; there was no water; the vessels rested on the dirty mud. Several ships were moored beside the quay; others were anchored inside the breakwater.
Near the steps, coal was being unloaded from two grimy colliers called the “Margery Dawe” of Sunderland, and the “Jenny Jones” of Cardiff. Men ran along planks with wheel-barrowfuls of coal; coal scoops were swung ashore by cranes, and emptied with loud thumping and rattling.
Farther along the quay, another ship called the “Pound of Candles” was taking a mixed cargo on board. Bales, casks, packing-cases, barrels—all manner of goods were being stowed into the hold; sailors and stevedores shouted; chains rattled and clanked. Susan waited for an opportunity to slip past the noisy crowd. She watched a cask of cider that bobbed and swung in the air, on its passage from the quay to the deck of the “Pound of Candles.” A yellow cat who sat in the rigging was also watching the cask.
The rope ran through the pulley; the cask went down bobbitty on to the deck, where a sailor man was waiting for it. Said the sailor down below:
“Look out! Mind your head, young sir! Stand out of the way!”
“Wee, wee, wee!” grunted a small pink pig, scampering round the deck of the “Pound of Candles.”
The yellow cat in the rigging watched the small pink pig. The yellow cat in the rigging looked across at Susan on the quay. The yellow cat winked.