Fiction

A GREAT BIG SEA

They take their politics seriously in Newfoundland. And once in a while even a whale comes ashore and gets into the argument

ISABEL BRIFFETT July 1 1948
Fiction

A GREAT BIG SEA

They take their politics seriously in Newfoundland. And once in a while even a whale comes ashore and gets into the argument

ISABEL BRIFFETT July 1 1948

A GREAT BIG SEA

Fiction

ISABEL BRIFFETT

KNOCKY WILTSHIRE tied up five pounds of sugar for a customer. Then he went to his shopwindow and gazed glumly out across the harbor. There was a storm brewing, he could see, and what he wanted was a calm. He didn’t suppose that there was much chance of harpooning a pothead whale in any case, but a storm from the nor’west would put it out of the question.

“Humph!” lie said, and his face grew even more morose, “I wonder what that half-baked clam of a Jonas Dick got dreamed up now.” His eyes were speculative as he watched the progress of the white motorboat that was chugging across the harbor from Sandhill Cove, “Cornin’ to complain about that engine again—I know.”

The door opened and shut. “Jonas on the way I see,” growled an old fisherman in sou’wester and blue jersey. You could tell the man had a grievance against Jonas. In this vital matter of confederation Jonas Dick was a fence sitter. On Saturday evenings in Knocky’s shop the pros and cons of the issue were given a good thrashing, but Jonas was so preoccupied with his dreams and scriptural prophecy that the end of the world was all he could talk about.

The door opened and shut again. Knocky paid no attention but went on rearranging the coal-oil lamps in the window, pushing to one side a heap of jiggers and fishhooks as he did so. Behind him in the body of the shop the conversation was already growing heated. All this talk about confederation made his blood boil, especially now that he had this worry over food for his foxes. Two years before

he’d gone in for keeping them on a big scale, and here was meat scarcer than hens’ teeth, fish none too plentiful and what there was high in price,

HE DIDN’T look up until a thin wiry man in a white guernsey stepped over the threshold and stood solemn-faced just inside the door. Jonas Dick always had the air of a conjurer who was about to produce a rabbit from his hat.

Knocky managed to shake off his gloom and become the jovial master of ceremonies again. “Well, Jonas,” he said, rubbing his fat hands together as he moved behind the counter, “got your mind made up as to how you’re goin’ to vote?” “Knocky,” replied Jonas solemnly, “the world is due to be cast off like a dirty shirt and rolled up for washin’. What’s goin’ to matter is not if Newfoundland is about to fall into the arms o’ Canada but whether she won’t end up in the arms o’ Beelzebub.'' There was derisive laughter.

“Aye, laugh,” said Jonas, “I expected no better o’ sich poor dumb sheep. You’ll laugh t’other side o’ your mouths though, brethren, afore ’tis over.” “If I correctly remember,” said Knocky, “you’ve had the Judgment Day hot-footin’ after us and toe close to our rumps for comfort at least a score o: times during these last twenty years. You’re nc nearer hittin’ the bull’s-eye than Daniel or Ezekie. were in their day, Jonas. So cut out prophecy and get down to livin’. You’ve got to vote one way or another. Which way is it goin’ to be?”

“Why did they adopt the secret ballot if a mar. got to tell that to every busybody who asks him If this is a place o’ examination, ’tis no place o confession.” Jonas stalked across the store, movec

They take their politics seriously in Newfoundland. And once in a while even a whale comes ashore and gets into the argument

aside a coil of rope, and seated himself on the top of an apple barrel.

“Well, I’m votin’ for Responsible Government and I don’t care who knows it,” said Knocky heatedly. “Confederation will be the ruination of this island home of ours.”

“Search your heart, Knocky. Look on it like the Almighty does and you’ll find the reason why,” answered Jonas, his Adam’s apple working up and down in his scrawny throat.

“I don’t have to find the reason,” blustered Knocky, and he thrust out his lower lip like an angry horse. “I got the reason and my grandfather had it before me. Dead set against confederation the last time ’twas an issue with us, he was. I can hear him singing now.” Taking a deep breath Knocky began to croon,

Don’t ever join Confederation.

I don’t think that ever you will.

Don’t ever join Confederation,

Your dear little country to sell.

“No more tune than a crow,” remarked Jonas, “but to get a bit personal, Knocky . . . any dunderhead amongst us can tell why you’re against joinin’ Canada. It’s goin’ to be no benefit to you, but t’other way round. You’re holdin’ the thought o’ extry taxes so close to your eyes that you can’t see the sun as is goin’ to shine on your neighbors.”

“No more spirit of enterprise; no more savin’; no more strivin’ to get on,” said Knocky sadly. “A man’s children reared for him . . . Old age provided for . . . the island rotting in sloth and dissipation and the Canadian Government handin’ out bread and circuses like in old Roman times. No more fireside industries . : . all gone the way of our grandmothers’ soap pots. No, ’tis better for us

to paddle our own canoe and work out our own salvation.”

Jonas crossed one lean shank over the other. “We’ve been well nigh swamped more than once since we’ve been paddlin’, Knocky. My way o lookin’ at it, a man on the Banks in a Jarry-sailed punt would be a durned fool not to join the crew o a bankin’ schooner as was well-founded and seaworthy.”

“Aye! aye!” chorused a dozen voices and there was a crescendo of floor-thumping.

“Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Knocky, shouted the old fisherman in the blue jersey.

“The day we join Canada will be as black-hued as the old Nick’s Sunday breeches,” growled Knocky, “You’ll live to rue it, friends.”

Jonas stroked the stubble on his chin. It won t matter a tinker’s cuss one way or (.’other in the long run. The end is at hand !”

“And how do you know that?” asked Knocky with a wink at one of his cronies, “Cot on the inside track of anything new, Jonas'?”

“Take a squint at that sky . . . black as me hat and showin’ yellow bandin’ at the gills. Look at the? way the sea is heavin’ in. Every cod I hooked yesterday had his stomach filled wi ballast and his eyes purdled in his head wi’ fright .

“Well, the barometer’s a flyin’ storm signals,” broke in Knocky, “and you can lay your last American dollar to it. It will be a humdinger, the same kind of a storm that hove up Long Reach when Cranny Snooks she lost her speech, but as lor the end . . .”

“It won’t only be Cranny Snooks as will lose her speech this time,” said Jonas. “I had a vision last night.”

“You don’t say!” exclaimed Knocky. “Out with it, man.” Continued on next ¡juge

Continued from preceding page “It may cause heartburninwarned Jonas, “but I'll tell it the same as I heard it . . . no more and no less.” He cleared his throat, “I thought, as I was »landin’ in the anteroom o’ Heaven watchin’ two men deep in conversation. One o’ them was a thickset man wi’ bull neck and a face as black ... as Aunt Jemima’s over there on the pancake flour. He smelled that strong o’ sulphur ’twas no trouble to recognize him; 1 was in doubt about the other though. ‘Know you Knocky Wiltshire?’ the Unknown was askin’.” Knocky guffawed.

“ ‘Aye,’ laughs Satan, ‘and he’s ready to fall into rny arms like a shot duck outer the sky,’ ” Jonas went on.

“Got your head turned with too much readin’ of Job,” interrupted Knocky. “ ’Twill take more than a screwdriver to tighten up what’s broke loose in your brain, Jonas.”

“The Unknown looked sorrowful for a minute, but he smiled at last and asked ‘Know you Jonas Dick?’ Satan guve a hitch to his Sunday breeches, ‘Well, I know two jawbones and a checked west kit if that’s who you mean,’ he chuckled, and wi’ that he whips a plug o’ tobacey from his pocket and bites off a chew.”

Jonas had to wait until the guffawing had died down, “I’m relatin’ it word for word like a honest man should. I ' don’t mind aayin’ though that right there in my dream I could have choked the old rascal. Well, by this time my eyes were growin’ better accustomed to the place and I could see a keyboard in the corner and the Unknown takin’ his place at it and strummin’ away like nobody's business. ‘A little too much base, Gabe,’ says the Old Nick, and then I knew who the Unknown was He was Gabriel workin’ the keyboard o’ the storms.”

“I thought ’twas a horn his fingers were itchin’ to get at,” said Knocky.

Jonas took no notice of the interruption. “ ‘For the wickedness of the people the land must suffer,’ says Gabriel, and he gave her so much bass that I thought he’d break me eardrums, and (’HASH she goes, just as if every atom in the universe had bust.

1 can tell you that 1 scuttled outer that dream faster than a weasel - chased hen.”

“And what do you think this crash signified?" asked Knocky.

“Why, the end, and that’s why Fin no more concerned about joinin’ Canada or not joinin’ Canada.”

A HEAVY gust of wind struck the corner of the shop. Knocky'» eyes strayed to the window and his spine stiffened. Two pothead whales were blowing right outside his wharf.

“Hotheads! potheads! just what the doctor ordered for those foxes of mine . . . come on, boys . . . lay hold of that harpoon in the corner, Jonas.” “What for?” asked Jonas, getting gingerly down from his apple barrel and uncrimping his legs

Knocky blew up like an angry squid. “What for!" he scoffed, “The Almighty’s well-nigh rammin’ a pair of whales down your throat, that’s why.”

“I got no use for whales,” said Jonas mildly.

“Oh, you haven’t! A few dollars won’t come amiss, eh? You don’t want a windfall that will wipe the fifty you owe me off my books?” snarled Knocky. “Let me tell you something, Jonas Dick.”

“You don’t need to tell me anything,” replied Jonas. “I’m in your clutches. When a man’s got a zero on the credit side o’ your ledger and zero on the debits, his uppers is outer water though his hinders ain’t, but when he got zero on the credit side and fifty

dollars on the debits, down he goes like a ballast rock. Sich a storm is brewin’ , as we never had; I’m goin’ home to meet me end wi’ Liza Ann and the youngsters.”

“Better take a cake of soap to wash up with then,” said Knocky. “A prettylooking object you’d be now, Jonas Dick, if Gabriel took it into his head to blow his horn.”

“I’ll wash me face in blubber soap afore I’ll add another cent to me account. The Lord is me judge, Knocky, I didn’t get in debt by fair means.”

“Got too much preoccupied with prophecy and let the flies help cure the salmon you smoked for me,” replied Knocky. “Too much vitamin-enriched for most folks’ palates and that was that.”

“If that secondhand engine that you

sold me for a hothead hadn’t turned out to be a cold foot.” said Jonas solemnly, “I’d have been as clear of your books as I am of the first shirt ever I wore. Open-faced robbery, that’s what it was. If I got dirt on me face 'tis honorable dirt.”

"Balderdash!” spluttered Knocky. “Don’t be a chucklehead. I reckon your boat is just the size for whale-chasin’, and I’ve vet to see an engine that works better than the one I sold you. All hands out.”

Knocky turned the key in his shop door, trotted down to the wharf, untied the white motorboat that swung there and jumped in. 'Twas Jonas Dick’s boat, so there was nothing that he could do but jump in too and start the engine.

There was an ominous quiet about the harbor. The sea rolled in oily and leaden and the sky was heavy and leaden above.

“I don’t like it. Knocky, I don’t like it at all, ’ said Jonas as the boat nosed out from the wharf. “Even the gulls

look perplexed and I don’t doubt but that ’twas confusion o’ mind as drove the potheads into harbor. I’ll thank you for landin’ me on me own premises. I’ll hear the trump on dry land.”

“All in good time, Jonas, all in good time,” spluttered Knocky, and just then a pothead come up to blow. “After him, boys . . . round him up . . . scare the daylights out of him.”

Jonas looked at him reproachfully. “You’re goin’ the wrong way about it, Knocky, if you want whalemeat.” He glanced seaward, “Squalls a’comin’.”

“Tell your grandfather how to jig squids,” blustered Knocky. “Tell AntiCon Wiltshire’s grandson how to corner whales. Why, there hasn’t been a pothead harpooned in the harbor since sixty years ago and who did it then? Anti-Con Wiltshire, that’s who

. . . drove a score of them into Sandhill Cove till they grounded.”

“You’ll never harpoon potheads by harryin’ them,” said Jonas, with an uneasy glance to windward. “I never did see the tide risin’ so fast as ’tis doin’ now . . . runnin’ like a river . . . flowin’ over the bank and floodin’ that low-lyin’ land o’ mine.”

“Stop bleatin’ like a sheep and do something. If you weren’t such an old woman you could get up in the bow there with the harpoon,” Knocky shouted.

Jonas jumped to his feet and snatched up the harpoon.

“Mind the potheads don’t take you for a herring done up in crochet work,” gibed Knocky as Jonas stood up in the bow. Then, with a malicious smile on his face, he seized the tiller and the boat swung broadside to a whitecapped wave.

“What the deuce . . .” bawled Jonas as he tried to keep his footing but he shot like a bolt over the side.

“Shut off the engine, boys, shut

her off,” ordered Knocky. “Now catch up the gaff and hook him by the tail of his guernsey . . . Easy there, easy.” Spluttering and coughing, Jonas was hauled over the side.

“Got to get home now before you come unglued,” said Knocky scathingly. “You remember what Satan said about you in that vision, Jonas? Well, he was dead right . . . We’ll land you before we trouble the potheads again.”

Jonas wiped the water from his face with the back of his hand. “It takes more than gab to harpoon whales, Knocky, and more than guile. If it didn’t, you’d have the right equipment without a doubt.”

“Start up the engine,” said Knocky, “and be quick about it, boys. I came here for whalemeat and by Job I’m goin’ to have it.”

But the engine was in no mood for starting. It coughed and spluttered worse than Jonas had done. No amount of coaxing would persuade it to give more than a few feeble clicks.

It was then that a harassed pothead came up to blow and almost turned the boat turtle with a swipe of its fluked tail.

“Bail, Jonas, bail,” shouted Knocky, “Bail away, man.”

“What for?” asked Jonas, from where he was wringing out his clothes.

“For our lives. Don’t you know that there’s nothing like the smell of bilge water for scaring off whales?” “You can light a match on the inside 0’ any boat as I put outer hands,” replied Jonas, “and as for scarin’ whales ... I thought that you wanted to get close to ’em.”

“Not close enough to share the fate of old Jonah,” grinned Knocky. He was getting back his breath now that the whale had gone to the bottom again. “Much as my gorge rises at the thought of it, I’d rather be swallowed up by Canada than by a pothead.” A squall of wind caught at the top of a wave and flung the torn spume in his face. He began to bluster, “Do something, Jonas, can’t you? Try to get the confounded boat to shore; she’s no more seaworthy than a clamshell.”

“A deuced more seaworthy than you be,” replied Jonas testily. The boat was the apple of his eye. “Why, you’re better suited to chasin’ horse stingers than harpoonin’ potheads. Lay hold 0’ the scullin’ oar if you want to get to shore and stop scandalizin’ the work 0’ another man’s hands.”

KNOCKY opened his mouth to say something biting and then closed it like a clam. The harbor was seething like a boiling pot and the boat was pitching in a whirlpool between wind and tide. He turned his eyes to windward and what he saw there made him gasp. A great wall of water was bearing in from the ocean—the kingwave of the world, and behind it were its retainers.

“Throw the engine out 0’ her, Jonas,” he screamed. “We’ll go down like a rock when that strikes us. “Throw every ounce that’s movable overboard to lighten her.”

“The engine ain’t movable,” said Jonas laconically. “She’s bolted on ” “Haul out the bolt, man. Haul out the bolt! ’Tis a tidal wave!”

“Shut yer gab,” cried Jonas in exasperation, his eye on the black foam-topped mountain. “This here sea’ll take more than your mouth to stop it. If ’tis the end, ’tis ... if not, we’re as safe in this very boat as we’d be in the Almighty’s pocket.”

Knocky groaned and put his hands over his face and then the wave was upon them. “Lord have mercy upon

Continued on page 38

Continued from page 22 us and incline our hearts to keep Thy laws,” he muttered.

“Too late for the last part o’ that.” said .Jonas, as he wrestled with the sculling oar. “Stick to the first half, Knocky.” Down, flown, down went the boat, and there was the king wave above. Up, up, up she reared on a crested summit, and long white teeth tore at her planks, long white arms encircled her and thrust her down into the depths again.

Straight for Sandhill Cove raced the king wave bearing the boat with it. On over the grassy barrier between sea and land it tore to break foaming and gnashing in an alder bed.

Half-stunned though lie was, Jonas bad presence of mind enough to throw the grapnel overboard before the undertow could suck the staved-in boat seaward again. It, caught and held. He blinked the salt water out, of bis eyes and floundered over the bow, struggled grimly with the clutching tide, and got firm footing just in time to haul Knocky from the treacherous backwash of a wave. The others had managed to fend for themselves.

“We’ve escaped, hut by the skin of our teeth,” Jonas said solemnly; he looked to windward. His low-lying land was a sea.

Knocky spat the spume from his mouth and scrambled up on a dry knoll. “A kind of a tidal wave,” he suggested. “The oldest man in the harbor never saw the like before . . . Do you know what flashed into my mind when I was struggling ashore, Jonas? . . , Nothing but that old ditty ‘1 jumped on dry land to me neck in the water and that was no time to sing tra-la-lee.’ ”

Jonas looked at him severely. “You’re altogether too light, a man for the times we’re livin’ in,” he said. “But, we’d best see about gettin’ up to the house fer a shiftin’ o’ dry clothes and a mug o’ hot tea.” With anger seething in his heart he led the way up the hill. Behind him lay his boat with all t he ribs on one side buckled and two planks staved in . . . not to mention the engine that might never click again. But had Knocky regarded the fact? Had he showed any more sympathy than a stone? Why, the boat, might have been a dead shark rotting on the shore for all Knocky noticed.

An hour later they came back to the scene. The tide was ebbing and Jonas Dick’s low-lying land was like a junk heap, branches of trees, logs, kelp, uprooted alders all tumbled together. But there was something else, A pothead was aground not fifty yards from the wrecked boat.

“1 got him!” shouted Knocky. “The only man in the harbor who could do it now that Anti-Con is dead and gone.”

“You can’t count your potheads afore they’re sculped,” warned Jonas.

“He'll he high and dry in another twenty minutes,” cried Knocky. He began to sing.

A great big sea hove up Long Harbor.

It hove right into Kehoe’s parlor.

He smacked Jonas on the back. “I’ve got my fox feed.”

“Oh, you have!” said Jonas, “and ; how do you make that out?”

“Make it out!” spluttered Knocky, ! “What do you mean, man? Why he’s ! aground helpless . . just like the score j

that grandfather sculped here in Sandj hill Cove years ago.”

"Whose land is this?" asked Jonas ! belligerently, his eyes on his wrecked ¡ boat, “Above high-water mark in j normal times that pothead is.”

But what do you want with a whale?” blustered Knocky.

“I could sell the carcass to a certain man for fox feed . . . sixty dollars* down . . . zero on the debit side and ten on the credit. That means me| hinders outer water as well as me uppers.”

“You will have your little joke,” Knocky said feebly. “ ’Tis open robbery, Jonas.”

“Not a bit more than sellin’ that balky engine was.”

“I don’t see what you want to be so durned shrewd for,” said Knocky peevishly. “A fat lot of good ten dollars will he to you, or sixty either for that matter, if the end is as near as you say.”

“1 might, have been a bit astray there, ’ said Jonas. He cleared his throat and spat to windward. “Ten dollars won’t go far toward repairin’ that boat.”

“A pity ... a great pity,” said Knocky.

“But just what is your pity worth in pitch, nails and oakum?” asked Jonas fiercely.

“Well,” said Knocky slowly, “I had no hand in raisin’ the sea . . .” “But you can have a hand in raisin’ an extry shelf in the corner o’ your

And what would you be wanting with an extra shelf in my store?”

“I’ll have soap to display.”

“Soap!”

Haven’t you been against shippin’ outer the country raw materials that can he manufactured at home? Didn’t you preach a sermon to us on the decline o’ fireside industries? I’m goin’ to steep lye from wood ashes and boil up a mess o’ homemade soap in me grandmother’s soap pot.” “Whale-oil soap! Why, ’twill be viler smellin than that salmon you smoked. Besides, the oil goes with the carcass . . . Your shirttail is out títere, Jonas, if you think otherwise.” “If you want that fox feed, you’ll get it on my terms and in no other way,” said Jonas firmly. A smile played around his mouth. He had Knocky where he wanted him.

“You can’t sell soap without ’tis a guaranteed make with a name on it,” blustered Knocky.

I 11 have a name on it and a guarantee, grinned Jonas, “I don’t say as you’ll like it though ... A while back you axed me which way I was going to vote . . . Well, seein’ that the end is likely to tarry a bit, I'll take a help in rearin’ me family and a bit extry in old-age pension at the tail end o’ the day.”

Your independence for a mess o’ potage,” said Knocky scathingly.

“It you want that pothead, get out your pen and paper and we’ll sign the agreement right here and now,” said Jonas, “while the said carcass and the said Jonas Dick are in a bargaining position. You’ll promise that the said soap will be displayed in the said store and . . .” The water ebbed away from his boat and by Job she’d weathered the storm better than he had thought. He’d put a few feet of plank and maybe a new rib or two and there she’d be.

Knocky was fishing around in a vest pocket and spluttering angrily.

THERE was a lot of damage done by the sea, hut not to Jonas Dick. He made his soap and there it is right in Knocky’s store with every cake stamped CONFEDERATION as large as life.

“Try a cake o’ me homemade soap,” said Jonas to Knocky’s customers on a Saturday evening. “The guarantee is that you'll find it as good as what ’tis named for.”

And all the while Knocky glowered away in the background. ir