Wrecks and Fishermen

Peter Denvit September 1 1911

Wrecks and Fishermen

Peter Denvit September 1 1911

Wrecks and Fishermen

Peter Denvit

I REMEMBER now that I was tired that night and slept heavily. I had been out with the dories and we had just come home in the morning from the banks, so that, being a city-bred man from inland, and unaccustomed to the ways of the fishing fleets, I went into my room in Jack Loubet’s house early after supper, and, blowing out my lamp, went asleep.

Had I been in the city, with electric light in the room, or even gas, I might have done differently, but as it was, even in the times that I did wake and hear the sounds outside, I was too indifferent, too oppressed with sleep, to fumble for the matches, lift the glass and find the wick of the lamp. So it was morning before I/knew what happened.

Martha, the evening before, had remarked to me that the glass was falling. Jack, her husband, had bought one of the most costly barometers that ever rode out of London. He had saved money toward that end for years, in order that he, and his wife when he was away, might have the most accurate information possible concerning the weather. So Martha, as she rubbed the heavy white china plate before setting it before me, made the observation and added that she was glad the fleet had just returned, instead of just preparing for the banks again.

The windows of Loubet’s house were square-paned. On all sides but one they contained rows of blooming geraniums; but on that one side, the side facing down across the stones and boulders of the shore to the harbor, there were no plants, nor even curtains. Martha would have nothing to obstruct her view of the bay when

the fleet was coming in. As I looked out and across the bay I observed the sky— common enough in the eyes of a landsman, but ill-omened to the fisher folk.

There were squalls beating about the eaves as I turned the wick of the lamp down. Before I slept I noted that the surf was running high and pounding on the shore with a sickening sound. Twice I waked. Once it was the scream of the wind that had penetrated my dreams, and as I lay, trying to identify the room— for in my sleep I thought I was back in a certain city—I thought I heard the boom of a gun. But the clamor of the wind and the whining of a loosened shingle disturbed my certainty and I slept again.

The second time I woke, a light was gleaming through a crack in the door which opened from my ground-floor bedroom into the general living room, dining room and parlor. I heard Martha run across the floor and open the outside door. I heard Jack Loubet call something back to her from outside, and then his footsteps retreating—I slept again.

In the morning everything was over. The wind still shouted and the surf still cast itself madly down on the rocks on the shore. But looking out over the bay I beheld the wreck of a. great ship, and betwixt the wreck and the shore a small boat rose and fell upon the green seas, now high in sight, now hidden in the hollow behind a sweeping crest.

Martha hurried up the path as I opened the door. Her face was covered with salt, spray. Her hair hung in lank locks around her face. The salt was encrusted. Her eyes were hollow and her lips blue.

“They’re all off but him,” she sa:d, in a tired, heavy voice. “Jack and the preacher’s gone for him now.”

“Who’s left?”

“Captain. He was asleep below in his cabin. It was the mate’s fault, but that don’t help the captain any. They’ve gone tc try and take him off.”

Turning in the path she pointed for a moment toward the small boat which by this time was nearer the wreck.

“How many’d you get ashore?” I asked. “’Bout two hundred.”

“What boat?”

“God knows. We haven’t her name— she’s a big tramp—everybody’s too done out to say. The mate mistook his light. It’s all done now,” and she added, glancing down the path as she entered the doorway. “Here they come.”

Then I saw them, or rather, forty-three of them that were allotted to Martha’s house.

There was only one hero in the crowd, the others were abject. The hero one could pick out at a glance by the way he carried himself. The forty-two others looked as though they had seen the sickle of Death poised, ready to descend upon them. One expected that their faces

would be haggard, their eyes hollow, their bps blue. One could see nothing to laugh at in the blankets and shawls in which the crowd were clothed. Their teeth were chattering. Some staggered. Men were trying, feebly, to assist women up the path. In one case a woman was assisting a man. And in the rear of the dreary procession came the hero—the fat man.

Martha and I settled some of them in the kitchen and in the living room. The women, Martha put to bed as best she could. The men crouched around the roaring wood stove or stretched on the floor in their scant covering, and slept.

But the fat man was attending to the children. He removed their garments and substituted those that the neighbors had by this time brought to the house. He lifted some of the little ones and carried them to various places where they could rest. Finally, everything having been attended to, he sat down on the floor and the heavy face relaxed into lines of weariness.

“Have a drink?” I whispered, as he nodded toward the stove. “Take a nip and I’ll find you a place to lie down.”

“Thanks,” he said, “God, but that’s good!”

He was a real estate man from Alberta and had been in England selling certain townsites. His venture was probably of a doubtful character; that is to say, he, no doubt, painted prettier pictures of these townsites than Truth himself would have painted, and it was probable that the investors in these particular sites were tying up their money for years to come. On the vessel, so I heard afterward, he had been rated as a “bounder” by the saloon passengers, the reason for this being the fact that he ate with evident pleasure, talked noisily, and wore coats, waistcoats, trousers, neckties and overcoats that “shouted,” so gay were they. But when, in the gale, the ship struck, and when fear-ridden men and women rushed to the decks and threatened to overcome the discipline of the ship—the fat man loomed up like a policeman in the fog, took charge of whole groups of hysterical passengers, controlled them, comforted them and directed his end of the rescue work. The two hundred had been taken off in boats. He had been, next to the captain, the last to leave.

In a day or two the last traces of the ill-starred passengers were gone. The steamship company had sent a special

train and special officers to attend to them. The last two figures we saw, Jack Loubet, Martha and I, were those of the Fat Man and one other—the master of the ship. Loubet and the preacher had taken him off the bridge of the breaking-up liner by force. When he reached the shore he was a crumpled-up figure—a ruined man.

The eastern coast of Canada is one of the worst coasts. There is a constant turmoil there. The sea and the rocks are still in their strife only when the wind is away. The wind is the evil spirit of the coast, who hides in the bays and in the shadows along even the smoothest of beaches. For days he plays but a gentle part, wafting the schooners off the shore, bringing them in with the dawn ; fanning the hot kitchens ashore and making the shadows of the fish-houses wells of luxurious coolness. But in a night and a day he throws off the disguise of peace, drops the soft mantle of the zephyr. He abets the aggression of the sea; urges its fury, strokes it into madness. And on the shore he makes the crannies in the rocks shriek with defiance, so that the quarrel may be the more noisy, and the better to his taste. Were he absent, the coast would live at peace with the sea, but where he is, is

strife. And the ship that, comes between the sea and the land is a ship no longer.

The wrecks of the Nova Scotia coast are too many to be listed. There have been famous collisions, as when the Burgoyne was sunk. There have been great liners wrecked, or even the huge freight carriers plying between Canada and the Old Country. There are the wrecks of which the public of Canada hears ; there are others of which little is said. A fleet sails out of a harbor and is gone for weeks and weeks at a time. Meantime there are gales, and still no word of the fleet, until, of a peaceful morning when the dawn wells up in the sky like a breath of white smoke under a bowl, when the dawn wind, trailing lightly over the breathing sea, makes a black ripple, when the birds stir ashore, and the children sleeping over the fishhouses, begin to stretch their puny limbs —a single sail appears. Nearer it comes with the strengthening wind. One can see the rigging and guess at the color of the hull. And the women come down to the shore or stand as I have seen Martha stand, looking out the windows, their faces hard set, or weakly relaxed in hopelessness, their hands on their hips or their

arms folded, man-like, on their bosoms.

Thus they peer outto sea.

“There’s to’ gallants on that ship,” says one woman finally. She turns and walks slowly, dry-eyed, up the shore. The others standing staring.

“Ah!” with a sigh, “It’s a red mainsail. It’s not Jim’s sail,” says another, and she, too, turns back to her house.

One by one they recognize different points of identification, and realize that it is not the ship they are looking for. The ethers, one or two, or even a dozen— wait.

There is no excitement, no wild joy nor tumultuous grief among the fisherwomen when they know that it is kis ship or not his ship. Only brides weep, or women who are expecting. The others have learned the easiest way of bearing things; they apparently assume, after a certain absence, that the “man” is dead, until he puts in an appearance. Sometime, sooner or later, the man gets caught. It is a question of time, unless he has unusual luck, and in that, case, perhaps he quits the calling and turns store-keeper, or becomes a lobster canner. The old philosophy of the fisherman’s wife remains with her +v>e

very end. Even when “her man” lies ey -ing decently in his bed, she is not sure that she wih not even yet owe her widowhood to tite sea. To weep would lie to honor the sea by a display of one’: impotence. r.l o be glad when the man returns, is b'-aien the sea. They are stolid.

I was in Martha’s house five years after the great wreck. She had had a post card from the Fat Man, for the Fat Man always remembered Jack and his wife.

“There’s your old room still there,” she said, inviting me to spend another season with herself and her husband. “I’m expecting Jack in to-day.”

“How long has he been gone?”

“Two months.”

“Two months!” I said.

Among the neighbors I went. The men were in the village preparing to depart the next day for the banks. They were mending nets and boats.

“Oh Bazil!” I called to a man who was hammering something to the deck of his schooner. “What’s up? What’re y’ doing?”

“Fixin’ a new cleat,” he said. “How are y’?”

“Fine. How long’s Jack Loubet been away?”


“Jack Loubet.”

“Oh, him!” pausing to straighten his back. “He’s been about two months. We got caught in a ‘white’ (squall). He was off in a dory with Pete Lapre. Why?” “Martha is expecting him home today.”

“Is she!” he exclaimed, his expression changing. “Is she!”

He gazed abstractedly out to sea, and whistled softly. Then turning to me: “He’ll be here, then.” He spoke with simple conviction.

“You don’t believe it, do you, Bazil?” “Believe it. O’ course I do. When Martha Loubet says a thing like that— it’s true. She knows”

As I passed from fish-house to fishhouse and boat to boat, I found that the news had suddenly spread. The women whispered of it, from one to the other: “Martha’s man is coming home.” The only authority they had for the belief was that Martha had said so and Martha knew. By this I took it that she had a super-sense.

Apparently she had.

That night, having spent the afternoon in a neighboring harbor, I returned to the village. I met Bazil on the outskirts.

“Jack Loubet’s back.” he said.


“Two hours after you left. Came by the train from Montreal. He got picked up by a tramp. Took him t’ New York. Don’t know the rest.”

Martha was busy over the kitchen stove. She was alone, as quiet and even-voiced as ever.

“Jack’s back,” she said.


“Down by the boat. They’re goin’ out again in the morning.”

It was as she said. He was there, as-

sisting in the equipment of Tom Foster’s two-master. We shook hands solemnly.

The east coast of Canada is full of legends and history, intensely covered with beautiful things, with rivers, hills, bays, crags and beaches. The sea, of a summer night, lies softly in the lap of the land and dreams, with its face to the stars. The rocks stand like sentinels, around them the shadows creep. But the wind, running swiftly down from inland or arriving, panting, from the open sea, disturbs the peace of things, and sets the sea and ihe land quarreling, so that ships, passing, or men in small boats venturing out, are destroyed and go to swell the number of the wrecks of that coast.