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Some Outport Folk

( Originally Published 1905 )



IT had been a race against the peril of fog and the discomfort of a wet night all the way from Hooping Harbour. We escaped the scowl of the northeast, the gray, bitter wind and the sea it was fast fretting to a fury, when the boat rounded Canada Head and ran into the shelter of the bluffs at Englee—into the damp shadows sombrely gathered there. When the punt was moored to the stage-head, the fog had thickened the dusk into deep night, and the rain had soaked us to the skin. There was a light, a warm, yellow light, shining from a window, up along shore and to the west. We stumbled over an erratic footpath, which the folk of the place call " the roaad "—feeling for direction, chancing the steps, splashing through pools of water, tripping over sharp rocks. The whitewashed cottages of the village, set on the hills, were like the ghosts of houses. They started into sight, hung suspended in the night, vanished as we trudged on. The folk were all abed—all save Elisha Duckworthy, that pious giant, who had been late beating in from the fishing grounds off the Head. It was Elisha who opened the door to our knock, and sent a growling, bristling dog back to his place with a gentle word.

" Will you not "

" Sure, sir," said Elisha, a smile spreading from his eyes to the very tip of his great beard, "'twould be a hard man an' a bad Christian that would turn strangers away. Come in, sir ! 'Tis a full belly you'll have when you leaves the table, an' 'tis a warm bed you'll sleep in, this night."

After family prayers, in which we, the strangers he had taken in, were commended to the care and mercy of God in such simple, feeling phrases as proved the fine quality of this man's hospitality and touched our hearts in their innermost parts, Elisha invited us to sit by the kitchen fire with him "for a spell." While the dogs snored in chorus with a young kid and a pig by the roaring stove, and the chickens rustled and clucked in their coop under the bare spruce sofa which Elisha had made, and the wind flung the rain against the window-panes, we three talked of weather and fish and toil and peril and death. It may be that a cruel coast and a sea quick to wrath engender a certain dread curiosity concerning the " taking off " in a man who fights day by day to survive the enmity of both. Elisha talked for a long time of death and heaven and hell. Then, solemnly, his voice fallen to a whisper, he told of his father, Skipper George, a man of weakling faith, who had been reduced to idiocy by wondering what came after death —by wondering, wondering, wondering, in sunlight and mist and night, off shore in the punt, labouring at the splitting-table, at work on the flake, everywhere, wondering all the time where souls took their flight.

"'Twere wonderin' whether hell do be underground or not," said Elisha, " that turned un over at last. Sure, sir," with a sigh, "'twere doubt, you sees. 'Tis faith us must have."

Elisha stroked the nearest dog with a gentle hand—a mighty hand, toil-worn and misshapen, like the man himself.

"Do your besettin' sin get the best o' you, sir ? " he said, looking up. It may be that he craved to hear a confession of failure that he might afterwards sustain him-self with the thought that no man is invulnerable. "Sure, we've all besettin' sins. When we do be snatched from the burnin' brands, b'y, a little spark burns on, an' on, an' on ; an' he do be wonderful hard t' douse out. 'Tis like the eye us must pluck out by command o' the Lard. With some men 'tis a taste- for baccy. With some 'tis a scarcity o' salt in the fish. With some 'tis too much water in the lobster cans. With some 'tis a cravin' for sweetness. With me 'tis worse nor all. Sure, sir," he went on, "I've knowed some men so fond, so wonderful fond, o' baccy that um smoked the shoes off their children's feet. 'Tis their besettin' sin, sir—'tis their besettin' sin. But 'tis not baccy that worries me. The taste fell away when I were took from sin. 'Tis not that. 'Tis worse. Sure, with me, sir," he said, brushing his hand over his forehead in a weary, despairing way, 'tis laughin'. 'Tis the sin of jokin' that puts my soul in danger o' hein' hove over-board into the burnin' lake. I were a wonderful joker when I were a sinful man. 'T was all I lived for—not t' praise God an' prepare my soul for death. When I gets up in the marnin', now, sir, I feels like jokin' like what I used t' do, particular if it do be a fine day. Ah, sir," with a long sigh, "'tis a great temptation, I tells you—'tis a wonderful temptation. But 'tis not set down in the Book that Jesus Christ smiled an' laughed, an' with the Lard's help I'll beat the devil yet. I'll beat un," he cried, as if inspired to some supreme struggle. " I'll beat un," he repeated, clinching his great hands. " I will ! "

Elisha bade us good-night with a solemn face. A little smile—a poor, frightened little smile of tender feeling for us—flickered in his eyes for the space of a breath. But he snuffed it out relentlessly, expressed his triumph with a flash of his eye, and went away to bed. In the morning, when the sun called us up, he had come back from the early morning's fishing, and was singing a most doleful hymn of death and judgment over the splitting-table in the stage. The sunlight was streaming into the room, and the motes were all dancing merrily in the beam. The breeze was rust-ling the leaves of a sickly bush under the window—coaxing them to hopeful whisperings. I fancied that the sea was all blue and rippling, and that the birds were flitting through the sunlight, chirping their sympathy with the smiling clay. But Elisha, his brave heart steeled against the whole earth's frivolous mood, continued heroically to pour forth his dismal song.

Twilight was filling the kitchen with strange shadows. We had disposed of Aunt Ruth's watered fish and soaked hard-bread with hunger for a relish. Uncle Simon's glance was mournfully intent upon the bare platter.

"But," said Aunt Ruth, with obstinate emphasis, "I knows they be. 'Tis not what we hears we believe, sir. No, 'tis not what we hears. 'Tis what we sees. An' I've seed un."

"'Tis true, sir," said Uncle Simon, looking up. " They be nar a doubt about it."

"But where," said I, "did she get her looking-glass ? "

" They be many a trader wrecked on this coast, sir," said Uncle Simon.

"'Twere not a mermaid I seed," said Aunt Ruth. "'Twere a merman."

" Sure," said Uncle Simon, mysteriously, "they do be in the sea the shape o' all that's on the land—shape for shape, sir. They be sea-horses an' sea-cows an' sea-dogs. Why not the shape o' humans ? "

"Well," said Aunt Ruth, "twas when I were a little maid. An"t was in a gale o' wind. I goes down t' Billy Cove t' watch me father bring the punt in, an' I couldn't see un anywhere. So I thought he were drownded. 'Twere handy t' dark when I seed the merman rise from the water. He were big an' black—so black as the stove. I could see the eyes of un so plain as I can see yours. He were not good lookin'—no, I'll say that much—he were not good lookin'. He waved his arms, an' beckoned an' beckoned an' beckoned. But, sure, sir, I wouldn't go, for I were feared. "Tis the soul o' me father,' thinks I. ' Sure, the sea's cotched un.' So I runs home an' tells me mother; an' she says 'twere a merman. I knows they be mermans an' mermaids, 'cause I'se seed un. 'Tis what we sees we believes."

"'Tis said," said Uncle Simon, " that if you finds un on the rocks an' puts un in the water they gives you three wishes ; an' all you has t' do is wish, an'___"

'Tis said," said Aunt Ruth, with a prodigious frown across the table, " that the mermaids trick the fishermen t' the edge o' the sea an' steals un away. Uncle Simon Ride," she went on, severely, " if ever you___ "

Uncle Simon looked sheepish. " Sure, woman," said he, the evidences of guilt plain on his face, " they be no danger t' me. 'T would take a clever mermaid t____' "

" Uncle Simon Ride," said Aunt Ruth, " nar another word. An' if you don't put my spinnin' wheel t' rights this night I'll give you your tea in a mug' t'-morrow—an' mind that, sir, mind that ! "

After we had left the table Uncle Simon took me aside. " She do be a wonderful woman," said he, meaning Aunt Ruth. Then, earnestly, " She've no cause t' be jealous o' the mermaids. No, sir—sure, no."

It is difficult to convey an adequate conception of the barrenness of this coast. If you were to ask a fisherman of some remote outport what his flour was made of he would stare at you and be mute. " Wheat " would be a new, meaningless word to many a man of those places. It may be that the words of the Old Skipper of Black Harbour will help the reader to an understanding of the high value set upon the soil and all it produces.

"Come with me," said the Old Skipper, "an' I'll show you so fine a garden as ever you seed."

The garden was on an island two miles off the mainland. Like many another patch of ground it had to be cultivated from a distant place. It was an acre, or there-abouts, which had been " won from the wilderness " by the labour of several generations ; and it was owned by eleven families. This was not a garden made by gathering soil and dumping it in a hollow, as most gardens are ; it was a real " meadow."

"Look at them potatoes, sir," said the skipper. He radiated pride in the soil's achievement as he waited for my outburst of congratulation.

The potatoes, owing to painstaking fer tilization with small fish, had attained admirable size—in tops. But the hay !

"'Tis fine grass," said the skipper. "Fine as ever you seed ! "

It was thin, and nearer gray than yellow ; and every stalk was weak in the knees. I do it more than justice when I write that it rose above my shoe tops.

"'Tis sizable hay," said the skipper. "'Tis time I had un cut."

On the way back the skipper caught sight of a skiff-load of hay, which old John Burns was sculling from Duck Island. He was careful to point it out as good evidence of the fertility of that part of the world. By and by we came to a whisp of hay which had fallen from the skiff. It was a mere handful floating on the quiet water.

" The wastefulness of that dunderhead ! " exclaimed the skipper.

He took the boat towards the whisp of hay, puffing his wrath all the while.

" Pass the gaff, b'y," he said.

With the utmost care he hooked the whisp of hay—to the last straw-and drew it over the side.

"'Tis a sin," said he, "t' waste good hay like that."

Broad fields, hay and wheat and corn, all yellow, waving to the breeze—the sun flooding all—were far, far beyond this man's imagination. He did not know that in other lands the earth yields generously to the men who sow seed. How little did the harvest mean to him ! The world is a world of rock and sea—of sea and naked rock. Soil is gathered in buckets. Gardens are made by hand. The return is precious in the sight of men.

Uncle Zeb Gale—Daddy Gale, who had long ago lost count of his grandchildren, they were so many—0l' Zeb tottered up from the sea, gasping and coughing, but broadly smiling in the intervals. He had a great cod in one hand, and his old cloth cap was in the other. His head was bald, and his snowy beard covered his chest. Toil and the weight of years had bowed his back, spun a film over his eyes and cracked his voice. But neither toil nor age nor hunger nor cold had broken his cheery interest in all the things of life. 01' Zeb smiled in a sweetly winning way. He stopped to pass a word with the stranger, who was far away from home, and therefore, no doubt, needed a heartening word or. two.

" Fine even, zur," said he.

"Tis that, Uncle Zeb. How have the fish been today ? "

"Oh, they be a scattered fish off the Mull, zur. But 'tis only a scattered one. They don't run in, zur, like what they used to when I were young, sure."

" How many years ago, sir ?"

"Tis many year, zur," said Uncle Zeb, smiling indulgence with my youth. "They was fish a-plenty when--when—when I were young. 'Tis not what it used t' be —no, no, zur ; not at all. Sure, zur, I been goin' t' the grounds off the Mull since I were seven years old. Since I were seven ! I be eighty-three now, zur. Seventy-six year, zur, I has fished out o' this here harbour."

Uncle Zeb stopped to wheeze a bit. He was out of breath with this long speech. And when he had wheezed a bit, a spasm of hard coughing took him. He was on the verge of the last stage of consumption, was Uncle Zeb.

"'Tis a fine harbour t' fish from, zur," he gasped. " They be none better. Least-ways, so they tells me—them that's cruised about a deal. Sure, I've never seen another. 'Tis t' Conch' I've wanted t' go since I were a young feller. I'll see un yet, zur—sure, an' I will."

" You are eighty-three ? " said I.

" I be the oldest man t' the harbour, zur. I marries the maids an' the young fellers when they's no parson about."

" You have fished out of this harbour for seventy-six years ?" said I, in vain trying to comprehend the deprivation and dull toil of that long life—trying to account for the childlike smile which had continued to the end of it.

"Ay, zur," said Uncle Zeb. "But, sure, they be plenty o' time t' see Conch yet. Me father were ninety when he died. I be only eighty-three."

Uncle Zeb tottered up the hill. Soon the dusk swallowed his old hulk. I never saw him again.

We were seated on the Head, high above the sea, watching the fleet of punts come from the Mad Mull grounds and from the nets along shore, for it was evening. Jack had told me much of the lore of lobster-catching and squid-jigging. Of winds and tides and long breakers he had given me solemn warnings—and especially of that little valley down which the gusts came, no man knew from where. He had imparted certain secrets concerning the whereabouts of gulls' nests and juniper-berry patches, for I had won his confidence. I had been informed that Uncle Tom Bull's punt was in hourly danger of turning over because her spread of canvas was "scandalous" great, that Bill Bludgell kept the "surliest dog t' the harbour," that the "goaats was wonderful hard t' find" in the fog, that a brass bracelet would cure salt-water sores on the wrists, that—I cannot recall it all. He had "mocked" a goat, a squid, a lamb, old George Walker at prayer, and "Uncle" Ruth berating "Aunt" Simon for leaving the splitting-table unclean.

Then he sang this song, in a thin, sweet treble, which was good to hear :

"'Way down on Pigeon Pond Island,
When daddy comes home from swilin','
(Maggoty fish hung up in the air,
Fried in maggoty butter) !
Cakes and tea for breakfast,
Pork and duff for dinner,
Cakes and tea for supper,
When daddy comes home from swilin'."

He asked me riddles, thence he passed to other questions, for he was a boy who wondered, and wondered, what lay beyond those places which he could see from the highest hill. I described a street and a pavement, told him that the earth was round, defined a team of horses, corrected his impression that a church organ was played with the mouth, and denied the report that the flakes and stages of New York were the largest in the world. The boys of the outports do not play games—there is no time, and at any rate, the old West Country games have not come down to this generation with the dialect, so I told him how to play tag, hide-and-go-seek and blind man's buff, and proved to him that they might be interesting, though I had to admit that they might not be profitable in certain cases.

" Some men," said I, at last, " have never seen the sea."

He looked at me and laughed his unbelief. " Sure," said he, "not a hundred haven't ? " " Many more than that."

"'Us hard t' believe, zur," he said. "Terrible hard."

We were silent while he thought it over. " What's the last harbour in the world ? " he asked.

I hesitated.

" The very last, zur ! They do say 'tis St. Johns. But, sure, zur, they must be some-thing beyond. What do it be ? " After a silence, he continued, speaking wistfully, " What's the last harbour in all the whole world, zur ? Doesn't you know ? "

It had been a raw day—gray and gusty, with the wind breaking over the island from a foggy sea : a sullen day. All day long there had been no rest from the deep harsh growl of the breakers. We were at tea in Aunt Amanda's cottage ; the table was spread with dried caplin, bread and butter, and tea, for Aunt Amanda, the Scotsman who was of the harbour, and me. The harbour water was fretting under the windows as the swift gusts whipped over it; and beyond the narrows, where the sea was tumbling, the dusk was closing over the frothy waves. Out there a punt was reeling in from the Mad Mull fishing grounds ; its brown sail was like a leaf driven by the wind. I saw the boat dart through the narrows to the sheltered water, and I sighed in sympathy with the man who was then furling his wet and fluttering sail, for I, too, had experienced the relief of sweeping from that waste of grasping waves to the sanctuary of the harbour.

"Do you think of the sea as a friend ? " I asked Aunt Amanda.

She was a gray, stern woman, over whose face, however, a tender smile was used to flitting, the light lingered last. in her faded eyes—the daughter, wife, and mother of punt fishermen. So she had dealt hand to hand with the sea since that night, long ago, when, as a wee maid, she first could reach the splitting-table by standing on a bucket. As a child she had tripped up the path to Lookout Head, to watch her father beat in from the grounds ; as a maiden, she had courted when the moonlight was falling upon the ripples of Lower Harbour, and the punt was heaving to the spent swell of the open; as a woman she had kept watch on the moods of the sea, which had possessed itself of her hours of toil and leisure. In the end—may the day be long in coming—she will be taken to the little graveyard under the Lookout in a skiff. Now, at my suggestion, she dropped her eyes to her apron, which she smoothed in an absent way. She seemed to search her life—all the terror, toil, and glory of it—for the answer. She was not of a kind to make light replies, and I knew that the word to come would be of vast significance.

"It do seem to me," she said, turning her eyes to the darkening water, " that the say is hungry for the lives o' men."

" Tut, woman ! " cried the old Scotsman, his eyes all a-sparkle. "'Tis a libel on the sea. Why wull ye speak such trash to a stranger ? Have ye never heard, sir, what the poet says ? "

" Well," I began to stammer.

" Aye, man," said he, "they all babble about it. But have ye never read,

" ` O, who can tell, save he whose heart bath tried, And danced in triumph o'er the waters wide, The exulting sense, the pulse's maddening play, That thrills the wanderer of that trackless way?'"

With that, the sentimental old fellow struck an attitude. His head was thrown back ; his eyes were flashing ; his arm was rigid, and pointing straight through the window to that patch of white, far off in the gathering dark, where the sea lay raging. It ever took a poet to carry that old Scotsman off his feet—to sweep him to some high, cloudy place, where the things of life rearranged and decked themselves out to please his fancy. I confess, too, that his enthusiasm rekindled, for a moment, my third-reader interest in "a wet sheet and a flowing sea" and "a wind that follows fast." We have all loved well the sea of our fancy.

" Grand, woman ! " he exclaimed, turning to Aunt Amanda, and still a-tremble. "Splendid!"

Aunt Amanda fixed him with her gray eye. "I don't know," she said, softly. "But I know that the say took me father from me when I was a wee maid."

The Scotsman bent his head over his plate, lower and lower still. His fervour departed, and his face, when he looked up, was full of sympathy. Of a sudden my ears hearkened again to the growling breakers, and to the wind, as it ran past, leaping from sea to wilderness ; and my spirit felt the coming of the dark.



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