A story of rivalry in love and trial by peril at sea
THEODORE GOODRIDGE ROBERTS
CORNELIUS FITZGERALD was the only native son of Pothook Cove who sailed blue water and foreign voyages. The others were content with the bay fishing, and a trip to “the ice” now and again in the spring of the year. And, come to think of it, Corney Fitzgerald was not what you might properly term a native son of Pothook Cove, for his father had been a Chancy Tickle man, and Corney himself had been born at Chancy Tickle and fetched north along into Pothook Cove when five years of age, by his widowed mother, who was a daughter of Andy Sprowl of the Cove.
Corney would never have been one of your ordinary out-harbor noddies even if he had stuck to Pothook Cove and the bay fishing, for there was a mixture of wild blood in him from the Fitzgerald side; and from the mother’s family—well, hadn’t the first tilt in Pothook Cove been built by a runaway gunner’s mate from a ten-gun brig, and hadn’t that daring man marked all that coast with his name? Tom Sprowl’s Cave, Tom’s Head and Gunner’s Head, Sprowl’s Drook, Gunner’s Barren.
When Corney was fifteen years old he worked his way around into Bonavista Bay and from there sailed on his first voyage, and he did not show his nose in Pothook Cove till four years later; and he was an able seaman then. He was soon off again, and after two more years of seafaring came home a boatswain. His mother was a proud woman. As for his grandfather, Andy Sprowl, he could not talk of anything but the grand naval family of Sprowl, and guns, and boatswains’ pipes, and admirals—but his voice being weak from age and bawling for his dinner, nobody had to listen to him who didn’t want to.
When Corney ■ Fitzgerald came home the third time, he was Mister Fitzgerald, a navigator and second mate of a bark—with the papers to prove it right in his pocket.
The bark was laid up in Harbor Grace for extensive repairs, and Corney enjoyed a prospect of six idle weeks. He came home in style from Harbor Grace to Rum Island Harbor in a fore-andafter, and the rest of the way in a hired “bully”—a chunky craft with a half-deck, handy and capacious. He arrived in February. He crossed the shore ice and the icy landwash with gloved but empty hands and his feet in goloshes and his head in a bowler hat and a cigar sticking from his jaw; and behind him came two lads from Rum Island Harbor with his sea-chest and nunny-bag and a lumpish object done up in a bit of red blanket.
The great man was Corney, sure enough, with a green parrot in a brass cage, a silver bracelet and a jar of guava jelly for his mother, and five pounds of tobacco for old Andy Sprowl. The widow was a proud woman, but old Andy was dead.
The folk of the Cove crowded into the widow Fitzgerald’s tilt until the four walls bulged and the little windows threatened to fall out; so eager were they to see and hear the grand navigator at close quarters and maybe, try his goloshes and bowler hat on their own curious extremities. Among them were Mary Walsh and Willy Arkwright who were planning a wedding for next summer, weather and fish and luck permitting.
Boatswain Fitzgerald had not noticed Mary Walsh five years ago, for she had not been especially noticeable as a scarecrow girl of fourteen, but Mister Fitzgerald noticed her now. Being a blue-water man, he did not conceal the fact that he saw her and liked what he saw; and he grabbed back the silver bracelet from his mother—for hadn’t she the parrot and the guava jelly?—and slipped it on to Mary’s round left wrist. Then he gave the tobacco, that was now of no use to his grandfather, to Mary’s father. Corney was a fast worker.
Willy Arkwright, the poor bay noddy, was distressed and angered by Corney’s attentions to his girl; and the girl’s reciprocal attentions affected him like a cold knife through his heart and hot ashes down the neck of his shirt. But being dull and ignorant and poor, what could he do about it but look like a fool? He was humbleminded, God knows! Who and what was he alongside the second mate of the bark Good Luck? What did he know of blue water and the great world of “up-along” who had never been farther from Pothook Cove than Fogo to the southward and Tilt Cove to the northward—never out of Notre Dame Bay? He had long entertained a sneaking fear, deep in his heart, that Mary Walsh was entirely too beautiful and desirable to be held for ever by either himself or Pothook Cove. For a year now he had been half expecting some trader to put in with a smart fore-and-after and take her away from him; and here was Mister Cornelius Fitzgerald instead, in goloshes and a hard hat, with rings on his fingers and conquest in his eye and his talk full of Pernambuco and Oporto and Liverpool, flying fishes and waterspouts and hurricanes, and owners and captains crooking their elbows ashore to the tune of “Down the hatch, Mister Fitzgerald !”—if hearing is believing? And Willy believed every word of it.
rT"'HREE weeks went by, very agreeably for Corney Fitzgerald and in a confusing glitter for Mary Walsh, and with the torments of the damned for poor Willy Arkwright. Willy tried to hide his suffering but was not successful. He possessed no art of manner, no trick of expression or conduct. As his temper was naturally mild, he was able to refrain from violence; but beyond that, the best he could do was to maintain a sulky silence. He sulked; and no one loves a suiker. One may pity a suiker—but even that for only a little while. Mary, instead of feeling ashamed of herself, soon felt ashamed of Willy— of the fact that she had been on friendly termswith the sulky fellow. His own father and mother soon tired of his sulks and lost their just sympathy for his sufferings. As for Corney Fitzgerald he despised the sulking, spiritless noddy.
A lad named Waddy stole away up thé cliff and on to the barren one March morning at the first blink of dayshine, with his father’s sealing-gun in his hands and a craving for fresh meat in his belly; and he looked abroad to seaward to the westward and northward, and shaded his eyes with a trembling hand, and looked again, and let off the big gun with a roar that awoke the little harbor and a violence that knocked him flat on his back. But he was up again in a second and scrambling down the cliff path, yelling, “SwilelSwile!” at the top of his cracked voice.
The Greenland seals and Greenland ice were on the coast. The seals in their hundreds and thousands had come close inshore to deposit their young on thin ice. The wind was on the shore. The heavy arctic floe crushed along the “whelpingice”—and there, on the thick ice and the thin, rode old hoods and harps, square-flippers and bedlamers and new-born whitecoats. It was a harvest that could not be neglected. Every able-bodied man and woman and youngster of Pothook Cove took part in the garnering. The women and youngsters and stiff-jointed old men worked on the nearer seals, the old men batting the poor innocents over the head w'th their gaffs and depriving them of hides and coats of blubber with their “sculping knives,” and the women and youngsters towing the blubbery hides ashore. The lively men went farther; and the liveliest went farthest of all, killing and killing, on and on, leaving the “sculping” and towing to the less lively and venturous.
Willy Arkwright was a master in every department of that blubbery business. At swinging the gaff, at handling the knife and peeling the white fat off the thin red flesh, and at running broken ice he had not met his match in five years. Now he went through the ranks of the inshore whitecoats like the Angel of Destruction, leaving the sculping and towing of his kill to his followers. He passed beyond, seaward, on to the hummocky Greenland floe, and fell upon big yearlings and square-flippers and the parents of the herds like an avenging god. Here he did his own sculping, and “panned” the heavy skins of blubber and hairy hide on a rocky knob that stuck up clear of the crowding ice a long sea mile off Pothook Cove. He thought he was all alone; and then his nose caught a whiff of burning tobacco, and he looked up and over his shoulder from the job in hand at the moment; and there stood Corney Fitzgerald, grinning at him from under the brim of his hard black hat and smoking a cigar. And that was not all of it. Corney wore his fine gloves and grand black overcoat, like a merchant from Harbor Grace, and those goloshes on his feet. Then Willy Arkwright stood up and turned around, and all his rage and self-pity fumed up from his heart and melted his tongue, and he told the sailor what he thought of him and how he felt about him.
Corney did not say a word till Willy was through, but flipped the grey ash off his cigar and kept on grinning. Then: “Maybe ye didn’t notice the wind’s shifted round an’ blowin’ off shore, Willy b’y,” he remarked.
Willy’s rage went up into his brains at that. He cursed all the winds of heaven, and defied winds and ice and sea to stop him batting and sculping before he was ready to stop; and then he cursed the blue-water sailor all over again; and finally, spurred to the crowning absurdity by his maddening fury, he dared Corney to stay right with him till he was through with the seals.
“I be wid ye, b’y,” accepted Corney cheerfully.
WILLY ARKWRIGHT returned to work. It was not a great while before the tow to the knob of rock became too long to be practical; so Willy began a new cac.ie of skins on the ice itself. Corney went away out of the desperate sealer’s sight among the ice hummocks two or three times in the course of the next two hours, but did not remain away over ten or fifteen minutes at a time. Not once did he raise a hand to help Willy at killing or sculping or towing; and not another word did he say about the wind—not when it took to circling and became white with snowflakes, even.
At last, chilling fear got the better of Willy’s insane anger, and his nerve broke. He flung his wet knife away and screamed at Corney that the floe was adrift, and that they could not be discovered in the blinding “flurry” even if boats put out in search of them, and that they were the same as dead already.
“Ye speak trut’, b’y,” agreed Corney. “If ye be done wid yer foolishness, I’ll take ye ashore. I got a rodney beached on the ice t’other side dat hummock.”
Willy’s relief was so great that he laughed and wept. They rounded the hummock of blue ice. The rodney was not there—nor was the section of flat ice upon which the sailor had berthed it. Under the actions of wind and rising seas, the floe had cracked and parted between the rodney and the two men. Willy collapsed at Corney’s feet. Corney stared to seaward, and through a rift in the twirling flurry glimpsed the detached pan and the little boat not more than thirty yards away to leeward. So he kicked Billy with his grand goloshes and told him to get up and swim. But Willy could not swim. True to the tradition of his kind, Willy Arkwright had never learned to swim.
“Git up an’ git in, anyhow, an’ I’ll float ye acrost,” said Corney. “It bain’t over t’irty yards.”
Willy looked at the dark water and said he would sooner die on the ice. Corney begged him to move, explaining that he could not win across to safety with more than his own weight if the distance increased by more than ten yards, and that the channel was widening fast. Willy replied that he would sooner die on the ice than be drowned. Then, without another word, Corney removed his overcoat and goloshes and Willy’s outer coat. Willy protested; and Corney picked up the gaff and batted that stubborn bay noddy over the head as neatly as any seal was ever batted, then heaved the unconscious form into the icy sea and plunged after it.
Corney made the distance, with dumb Willy in tow—but ten yards farther would have been too far. The unconscious noddy wore a knitted scarf around his neck; and that was lucky for him, for without it Corney could not have kept him afloat while he hoisted himself out on to the ice. Corney was a fast worker. He launched the rodney, dragged helpless Willy aboard, and pulled dead in the wind’s eye back to the starting point of his short but chilly swim. There he got into his dry overcoat and goloshes and buttoned Willy’s dry coat about Willy’s heavy shoulders; and from there he struck shoreward across the floe, pushing the rodney before him like a sledge, with Willy in it. He was a strong man, but he needed all his strength then. He was a brave man, but he needed all his courage in that struggle against wind and whirling snow, breaking ice and .rising sea. And he had yet another cause for worry. Had he batted poor Willy a mite too hard, maybe?
The floe was breaking into a score of big pans, into a hundred smaller pans. Corney came to the splashing edge of ice, launched the little rodney again and manned the short oars. The wind was whirling, but he sensed the general drift of it and pulled steadily for the hidden shore until he bumped ice. Again he took to the ice and sledded on his way, and again he launched on to the rising seas, and yet again he mounted the ice.
He reached the lee of the cliff which he could not see because of the twirling veils of the flurry. Here he rested long enough to pluck a flask of red rum from his hip, pour a few ounces of it between Willy’s teeth, and rub a dash of it on to his own ears. Willy let a moan out of him, which lightened Corney’s heart.
’ I 'HE flurry was abating somewhat when Corney reached the widow Fitzgerald’s door with his strong right arm supporting Willy Arkwright. His mother screamed with joy at the sight of him, but she couldn’t get a word about the desperate adventure out of him until he had put Willy to bed in warm blankets and poured a mug of hot tea into him.
“Gulch her down, Willy b’y,” he encouraged. “Ye bain’t dead yet. I’ll sweeten the nex’ wid a snatch o’ rum, b’y.”
His mother told him that he had better be giving a care to herself, all but prostrated with anxiety as she had been, and her widowed heart still flapping with the shock of his return from the clutches of death, instead of nursing Billy Arkwright like his own baby; and the neighbors, who had come crowding at word of the lost sealers’ arrival, agreed with her. Mary Walsh was there, in absolute agreement with Mrs. Fitzgerald.
“Why wouldn’t I be nursin’ him like me own babby?” retorted Corney. “Wouldn’t he be dead now but for me— froze to deat’ on the ice?”
He continued, with words and manner now arrogant and now persuasive, to tell them that Willy Arkwright was a man to be proud of—the bravest man he ever saw, save only for a natural fear of deep, cold water—and the stubbornest. He had often heard tell, he said, of determined persons who would cut off their noses to spite their faces, but he had never believed it possible of human nature until he had seen Willy do it, in a manner of speaking. Had not Willy kept right on batting and sculping to seaward just for spite, knowing all the while the ice was drifting off shore and carrying him to sure death? Aye, he had that! It was different with himself out there, with a rodney beached on the floe to paddle back to shore in—but Willy had been as ignorant of the rodney as any squid.
Most of the listeners were simply bewildered by his talk. Mary Walsh was amazed and shocked. Only Willy, there in the warm bed, approved of it.
Corney talked to Mary alone later that day, in the lee of Dave Walsh’s tilt, holding her tight by a round wrist most of the time.
“Bein’ wed to a blue-water sailor bain’t no life for a sweet, bewitchin’ lass like yerself—but when I see the spite o’ Willy Arkwright out on the floe, willin’ to drift to hell hisself so’s to take me wid him, I took a horror of himself an’ Pothook Cove too; an’ didn’t I square me account wid Willy by savin’ his life an’ maybe his mortal soul—and maybe ’twouldn’t be no worse for a lass to be lonesome ashore i’ Harbor Grace six mont’s togedder.”
He released her wrist then and embraced her slender body with both arms.
They sailed out of Pothook Cove seven days later in Tony Webb’s bully, and were married at Fogo.
WILLY ARKWRIGHT still brags about the brave, stubborn man he is—for did not Corney Fitzgerald give him the name of it?—and he is happy and consequential all day long telling how he traded his girl for his dear life, handing her over to a blue-water sailor in return for being floated across from one pan of ice to another—and himself that tired of the girl he was glad to be rid of her. Which suggests that the stroke of the gaff delivered by Mr. Fitzgerald on that noddy’s skull was even a better and more merciful thing than he had intended at the moment of striking.