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On The French Shore

( Originally Published 1905 )

DOCTOR GRENFELL appears to have a peculiar affection for the outporters of what is locally known as the " French Shore "—that stretch of coast lying between Cape John and the northernmost point of Newfoundland : it is one section of the shore upon which the French have fishing rights. This is the real Newfoundland ; to the writer there is no Newfoundland apart from that long strip of rock against which the sea forever breaks : none that is not of punt, of wave, of fish, of low sky and of a stalwart, briny folk. Indeed, though he has joyously lived weeks of blue weather in the outports, with the sea all a-ripple and flashing and the breeze blowing warm, in retrospect land and people resolve themselves into a rocky harbour and a sturdy little lad with a question—the harbour, gray and dripping wet, a cluster of whitewashed cottages perched on the rocks, towards which a tiny, red-sailed punt is beating from the frothy open, with the white of breakers on either hand, while a raw wind lifts the fog from the black inland hills, upon which ragged patches of snow lie melting ; the lad, stout, frank-eyed, tow-headed, browned by the wind, bending over the splitting-table with a knife in his toil-worn young hand and the blood of cod dripping from his fingers, and looking wistfully up, at last, to ask a question or two concerning certain old, disquieting mysteries.

" Where do the tide go, zur, when 'e runs out ? " he plainted. " Where do 'e go, zur ? Sure, zur, you is able t' tell me that, isn't you ? "

So, in such a land—where, on some bleak stretches of coast, the potatoes are grown in imported English soil, where most gardens, and some graveyards, are made of earth scraped from the hollows of the hills, where four hundred and nineteen bushels of lean wheat are grown in a single year, and the production of beef-cattle is insignificant as compared with the production of babies—in such a land there is nothing for the young man to do but choose his rock, build his little cottage and his flake and his stage, marry a maid of the harbour when the spring winds stir his blood, gather his potato patch, get a pig And a goat, and go fishing in his punt. And they do fish, have always fished since many generations ago the island was first settled by adventurous Devon men, and must continue to fish to the end of time. Out of a total male population of one hundred thousand, which includes the city-folk of St. Johns and an amazing proportion of babies and tender lads, about fifty-five thou-sand men and grown boys catch fish for a living.

" Still an' all, they's no country in the world like this ! " said the old skipper. " Sure, a man's set up in life when he haves a pig an' a punt an' a potato patch."

"But have you ever seen anther?" I asked.

" I've been so far as Saint Johns, zur, an' once t' the waterside o' Boston," was the surprising reply, " an' I'm thinkin' I knows what the world's like."

So it is with most Newfoundlanders : they love their land with an intolerant prejudice ; and most are content with the life they lead. " The Newfoundlander comes back," is a significant proverb of the outports ; and, " White Bay's good enough for me," said a fishwife to me once, when I asked her why she still remained in a place so bleak and barren, " for I've heered tell 'tis wonderful smoky an' n'isy 't Saint Johns." The life they live, and strangely love, is exceeding toilsome. Toil began for a gray-haired, bony-handed old woman whom I know when she was so young that she had to stand on a tub to reach the splitting-table ; when, too, to keep her awake and busy, late o' nights, her father would make believe to throw a bloody cod's head at her. It began for that woman's son when, at five or six years old, he was just able to spread the fish to dry on the flake, and continued in earnest, a year or two later, when first he was strong enough to keep the head of his father's punt up to the wind. But they seem not to know that fishing is a hard or dangerous employment : for instance, a mild-eyed, crooked old fellow—he was a cheerful Methodist, too, and subject to "glory-fits "--who had fished from one harbour for sixty years, computed for me that he had put out to sea in his punt at least twenty thousand times, that he had been frozen to the seat of his punt many times, that he had been swept to sea with the ice-packs, six times, that he had weathered six hundred gales, great and small, and that he had been wrecked more times than he could " just mind" at the moment; yet he was the only old man ever I met who seemed honestly to wish that he might live his life over again !

The hook-and-line man has a lonely time of it. From earliest dawn, while the night yet lies thick on the sea, until in storm or calm or favouring breeze he makes harbour in the dusk, he lies off shore, fishing—tossing in the lop of the grounds, with the waves to balk and the wind to watch warily, while he tends his lines. There is no jolly companionship of the forecastle and turf hut for him—no new scene, no hilarious adventure ; nor has he the expectation of a proud return to lighten his toil. In the little punt he has made with his own hands he is forever riding an infinite expanse, which, in " fish weather," is melancholy, or threatening, or deeply solemn, as it may chance—all the while and all alone confronting the mystery and terrible immensity of the sea. It may be that he gives himself over to aim-less musing, or, even less happily, to pondering certain dark mysteries of the soul; and so it comes about that the "mad-house 't Saint Johns " is inadequate to accommodate the poor fellows whom lonely toil has bereft of their senses—melancholiacs, idiots and maniacs "along o' religion."

Notwithstanding all, optimism persists everywhere on the coast. One old fisherman counted himself favoured above most men because he had for years been able to afford the luxury of cream of tartar ; and another, a brawny giant, confessed to having a disposition so pertinaciously happy that he had come to regard a merry heart as his besetting sin. Sometimes an off-shore gale puts an end to all the fishing; some-times it is a sudden gust, sometimes a big wave, sometimes a confusing mist, more often long exposure to spray and shipped water and soggy winds. It was a sleety off-shore gale, coming at the end of a sunny, windless day, that froze or drowned thirty men off Trinity Bay in a single night ; and it was a mere puff on a "civil" evening—but a swift, wicked little puff, sweeping round Breakheart Head — that made a widow of Elizabeth Rideout o' Duck Cove and took her young son away. Often, how-ever, the hook-and-line man fishes his eighty years of life, and dies in his bed as cheer-fully as he has lived and as poor as he was born.

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