"Captains Courageous": A Story of the Grand Banks
To the end of his days, Harvey will never forget that sight. The sun was just clear of the horizon they had not seen for nearly a week, and his low red light struck into the riding-sails of three fleets of anchored schooners--one to the north, one to the westward, and one to the south. There must have been nearly a hundred of them, of every possible make and build, with, far away, a square-rigged Frenchman, all bowing and courtesying one to the other. From every boat dories were dropping away like bees from a crowded hive; and the clamour of voices, the rattling of ropes and blocks, and the splash of the oars carried for miles across the heaving water. The sails turned all colours, black, pearly-grey, and white, as the sun mounted; and more boats swung up through the mists to the southward.
The dories gathered in clusters, separated, reformed, and broke again, all heading one way; while men hailed and whistled and cat-called and sang, and the water was speckled with rubbish thrown overboard.
“It’s a town,” said Harvey. “Disko was right. It is a town!”
“I’ve seen smaller,” said Disko. “There’s about a thousand men here; an’ yonder’s the Virgin.” He pointed to a vacant space of greenish sea, where there were no dories.
The “We’re Here” skirted round the northern squadron, Disko waving his hand to friend after friend, and anchored as neatly as a racing yacht at the end of the season. The Bank fleet pass good seamanship in silence; but a bungler is jeered all along the line.
“Jest in time fer the caplin,” cried the Mary Chilton.
“‘Salt ‘most wet?” asked the King Philip.
“Hey, Tom Platt! Come t’ supper to-night?” said the Henry Clay; and so questions and answers flew back and forth. Men had met one another before, dory-fishing in the fog, and there is no place for gossip like the Bank fleet. They all seemed to know about Harvey’s rescue, and asked if he were worth his salt yet. The young bloods jested with Dan, who had a lively tongue of his own, and inquired after their health by the town--nicknames they least liked. Manuel’s countrymen jabbered at him in their own language; and even the silent cook was seen riding the jib-boom and shouting Gaelic to a friend as black as himself. After they had buoyed the cable--all around the Virgin is rocky bottom, and carelessness means chafed ground-tackle and danger from drifting--after they had buoyed the cable, their dories went forth to join the mob of boats anchored about a mile away. The schooners rocked and dipped at a safe distance, like mother ducks watching their brood, while the dories behaved like mannerless ducklings.
As they drove into the confusion, boat banging boat, Harvey’s ears tingled at the comments on his rowing. Every dialect from Labrador to Long Island, with Portuguese, Neapolitan, Lingua Franca, French, and Gaelic, with songs and shoutings and new oaths, rattled round him, and he seemed to be the butt of it all. For the first time in his life he felt shy--perhaps that came from living so long with only the “We’re Heres”--among the scores of wild faces that rose and fell with the reeling small craft. A gentle, breathing swell, three furlongs from trough to barrel, would quietly shoulder up a string of variously painted dories. They hung for an instant, a wonderful frieze against the sky-line, and their men pointed and hailed, Next moment the open mouths, waving arms, and bare chests disappeared, while on another swell came up an entirely new line of characters like paper figures in a toy theatre. So Harvey stared. “Watch out!” said Dan, flourishing a dip-net. “When I tell you dip, you dip. The caplin’ll school any time from naow on. Where’ll we lay, Tom Platt?”
Pushing, shoving, and hauling, greeting old friends here and warning old enemies there, Commodore Tom Platt led his little fleet well to leeward of the general crowd, and immediately three or four men began to haul on their anchors with intent to lee-bow the “We’re Heres”. But a yell of laughter went up as a dory shot from her station with exceeding speed, its occupant pulling madly on the roding.
“Give her slack!” roared twenty voices. “Let him shake it out.”
“What’s the matter?” said Harvey, as the boat flashed away to the southward. “He’s anchored, isn’t he?”
“Anchored, sure enough, but his graound-tackle’s kinder shifty,” said Dan, laughing. “Whale’s fouled it ... Dip, Harve! Here they come!”
The sea round them clouded and darkened, and then frizzed up in showers of tiny silver fish, and over a space of five or six acres the cod began to leap like trout in May; while behind the cod three or four broad grey-black backs broke the water into boils.
Then everybody shouted and tried to haul up his anchor to get among the school, and fouled his neighbour’s line and said what was in his heart, and dipped furiously with his dip-net, and shrieked cautions and advice to his companions, while the deep fizzed like freshly opened soda-water, and cod, men, and whales together flung in upon the luckless bait. Harvey was nearly knocked overboard by the handle of Dan’s net. But in all the wild tumult he noticed, and never forgot, the wicked, set little eye--something like a circus elephant’s eye--of a whale that drove along almost level with the water, and, so he said, winked at him. Three boats found their rodings fouled by these reckless mid-sea hunters, and were towed half a mile ere their horses shook the line free.
Then the caplin moved off and five minutes later there was no sound except the splash of the sinkers overside, the flapping of the cod, and the whack of the muckles as the men stunned them. It was wonderful fishing. Harvey could see the glimmering cod below, swimming slowly in droves, biting as steadily as they swam. Bank law strictly forbids more than one hook on one line when the dories are on the Virgin or the Eastern Shoals; but so close lay the boats that even single hooks snarled, and Harvey found himself in hot argument with a gentle, hairy Newfoundlander on one side and a howling Portuguese on the other.
Worse than any tangle of fishing-lines was the confusion of the dory-rodings below water. Each man had anchored where it seemed good to him, drifting and rowing round his fixed point. As the fish struck on less quickly, each man wanted to haul up and get to better ground; but every third man found himself intimately connected with some four or five neighbours. To cut another’s roding is crime unspeakable on the Banks; yet it was done, and done without detection, three or four times that day. Tom Platt caught a Maine man in the black act and knocked him over the gunwale with an oar, and Manuel served a fellow-countryman in the same way. But Harvey’s anchor-line was cut, and so was Penn’s, and they were turned into relief-boats to carry fish to the “We’re Here” as the dories filled. The caplin schooled once more at twilight, when the mad clamour was repeated; and at dusk they rowed back to dress down by the light of kerosene-lamps on the edge of the pen.
It was a huge pile, and they went to sleep while they were dressing. Next day several boats fished right above the cap of the Virgin; and Harvey, with them, looked down on the very weed of that lonely rock, which rises to within twenty feet of the surface. The cod were there in legions, marching solemnly over the leathery kelp. When they bit, they bit all together; and so when they stopped. There was a slack time at noon, and the dories began to search for amusement. It was Dan who sighted the Hope of Prague just coming up, and as her boats joined the company they were greeted with the question: “Who’s the meanest man in the Fleet?”
Three hundred voices answered cheerily:
“Nick Bra-ady.” It sounded an organ chant.
“Who stole the lamp-wicks?” That was Dan’s contribution.
“Nick Bra-ady,” sang the boats.
“Who biled the salt bait fer soup?” This was an unknown backbiter a quarter of a mile away.
Again the joyful chorus. Now, Brady was not especially mean, but he had that reputation, and the Fleet made the most of it. Then they discovered a man from a Truro boat who, six years before, had been convicted of using a tackle with five or six hooks--a “scrowger,” they call it--on the Shoals. Naturally, he had been christened “Scrowger Jim”; and though he had hidden himself on the Georges ever since, he found his honours waiting for him full blown. They took it up in a sort of fire-cracker chorus: “Jim! O Jim! Jim! O Jim! Sssscrowger Jim!” That pleased everybody. And when a poetical Beverly man--he had been making it up all day, and talked about it for weeks--sang, “The Carrie Pitman’s anchor doesn’t hold her for a cent!” the dories felt that they were indeed fortunate. Then they had to ask that Beverly man how he was off for beans, because even poets must not have things all their own way. Every schooner and nearly every man got it in turn. Was there a careless or dirty cook anywhere? The dories sang about him and his food. Was a schooner badly found? The Fleet was told at full length. Had a man hooked tobacco from a messmate? He was named in meeting; the name tossed from roller to roller. Disko’s infallible judgments, Long Jack’s market-boat that he had sold years ago, Dan’s sweetheart (oh, but Dan was an angry boy!), Penn’s bad luck with dory-anchors, Salters’s views on manure, Manuel’s little slips from virtue ashore, and Harvey’s ladylike handling of the oar--all were laid before the public; and as the fog fell around them in silvery sheets beneath the sun, the voices sounded like a bench of invisible judges pronouncing sentence.
The dories roved and fished and squabbled till a swell underran the sea. Then they drew more apart to save their sides, and some one called that if the swell continued the Virgin would break. A reckless Galway man with his nephew denied this, hauled up anchor, and rowed over the very rock itself. Many voices called them to come away, while others dared them to hold on. As the smooth-backed rollers passed to the south-ward, they hove the dory high and high into the mist, and dropped her in ugly, sucking, dimpled water, where she spun round her anchor, within a foot or two of the hidden rock. It was playing with death for mere bravado; and the boats looked on in uneasy silence till Long Jack rowed up behind his countrymen and quietly cut their roding.
“Can’t ye hear ut knockin’?” he cried. “Pull for your miserable lives! Pull!”
The men swore and tried to argue as the boat drifted; but the next swell checked a little, like a man tripping on a carpet. There was a deep sob and a gathering roar, and the Virgin flung up a couple of acres of foaming water, white, furious, and ghastly over the shoal sea. Then all the boats greatly applauded Long Jack, and the Galway men held their tongue.
“Ain’t it elegant?” said Dan, bobbing like a young seal at home. “She’ll break about once every ha’af hour now, ‘less the swell piles up good. What’s her reg’lar time when she’s at work, Tom Platt?”
“Once ivry fifteen minutes, to the tick. Harve, you’ve seen the greatest thing on the Banks; an’ but for Long Jack you’d seen some dead men too.”
There came a sound of merriment where the fog lay thicker and the schooners were ringing their bells. A big bark nosed cautiously out of the mist, and was received with shouts and cries of, “Come along, darlin’,” from the Irishry.
“Another Frenchman?” said Harvey.
“Hain’t you eyes? She’s a Baltimore boat; goin’ in fear an’ tremblin’,” said Dan. “We’ll guy the very sticks out of her. ‘Guess it’s the fust time her skipper ever met up with the Fleet this way.”
She was a black, buxom, eight-hundred-ton craft. Her mainsail was looped up, and her topsail flapped undecidedly in what little wind was moving. Now a bark is feminine beyond all other daughters of the sea, and this tall, hesitating creature, with her white and gilt figurehead, looked just like a bewildered woman half lifting her skirts to cross a muddy street under the jeers of bad little boys. That was very much her situation. She knew she was somewhere in the neighbourhood of the Virgin, had caught the roar of it, and was, therefore, asking her way. This is a small part of what she heard from the dancing dories:
“The Virgin? Fwhat are you talk in’ of’? This is Le Have on a Sunday mornin’. Go home an’ sober up.”
“Go home, ye tarrapin! Go home an’ tell ‘em we’re comin’.”
Half a dozen voices together, in a most tuneful chorus, as her stern went down with a roll and a bubble into the troughs: “Thay-aah--she--strikes!”
“Hard up! Hard up fer your life! You’re on top of her now.”
“Daown! Hard daown! Let go everything!”
“All hands to the pumps!”
“Daown jib an’ pole her!”
Here the skipper lost his temper and said things. Instantly fishing was suspended to answer him, and he heard many curious facts about his boat and her next port of call. They asked him if he were insured; and whence he had stolen his anchor, because, they said, it belonged to the Carrie Pitman; they called his boat a mud-scow, and accused him of dumping garbage to frighten the fish; they offered to tow him and charge it to his wife; and one audacious youth slipped almost under the counter, smacked it with his open palm, and yelled: “Gid up, Buck!”
The cook emptied a pan of ashes on him, and he replied with cod-heads. The bark’s crew fired small coal from the galley, and the dories threatened to come aboard and “razee” her. They would have warned her at once had she been in real peril; but, seeing her well clear of the Virgin, they made the most of their chances. The fun was spoilt when the rock spoke again, a half-mile to windward, and the tormented bark set everything that would draw and went her ways; but the dories felt that the honours lay with them.
All that night the Virgin roared hoarsely and next morning, over an angry, white-headed sea, Harvey saw the Fleet with flickering masts waiting for a lead. Not a dory was hove out till ten o’clock, when the two Jeraulds of the ‘Day’s Eye’, imagining a lull which did not exist, set the example. In a minute half the boats were out and bobbing in the cockly swells, but Troop kept the “We’re Heres” at work dressing-down. He saw no sense in “dares”; and as the storm grew that evening they had the pleasure of receiving wet strangers only too glad to make any refuge in the gale. The boys stood by the dory-tackles with lanterns, the men ready to haul, one eye cocked for the sweeping wave that would make them drop everything and hold on for the dear life. Out of the dark would come a yell of “Dory, dory!” They would hook up and haul in a drenched man and a half-sunk boat, till their decks were littered down with nests of dories and the bunks were full. Five times in their watch did Harvey, with Dan, jump at the foregaff where it lay lashed on the boom, and cling with arms, legs, and teeth to rope and spar and sodden canvas as a big wave filled the decks. One dory was smashed to pieces, and the sea pitched the man head first on to the decks, cutting his forehead open; and about dawn, when the racing seas glimmered white all along their cold edges, another man, blue and ghastly, crawled in with a broken hand, asking news of his brother. Seven extra mouths sat down to breakfast: a Swede; a Chatham skipper; a boy from Hancock, Maine; one Duxbury, and three Provincetown men.
There was a general sorting out among the Fleet next day; and though no one said anything, all ate with better appetites when boat after boat reported full crews aboard. Only a couple of Portuguese and an old man from Gloucester were drowned, but many were cut or bruised; and two schooners had parted their tackle and been blown to the southward, three days’ sail. A man died on a Frenchman--it was the same bark that had traded tobacco with the “We’re Heres”. She slipped away quite quietly one wet, white morning, moved to a patch of deep water, her sails all hanging anyhow, and Harvey saw the funeral through Disko’s spy-glass. It was only an oblong bundle slid overside. They did not seem to have any form of service, but in the night, at anchor, Harvey heard them across the star-powdered black water, singing something that sounded like a hymn. It went to a very slow tune.
Qui va tourner,
Roule et s’incline
Oh, Vierge Marie,
Pour moi priez Dieu!
Tom Platt visited her, because, he said, the dead man was his brother as a Freemason. It came out that a wave had doubled the poor fellow over the heel of the bowsprit and broken his back. The news spread like a flash, for, contrary to general custom, the Frenchman held an auction of the dead man’s kit, --he had no friends at St. Malo or Miquelon, --and everything was spread out on the top of the house, from his red knitted cap to the leather belt with the sheath-knife at the back. Dan and Harvey were out on twenty-fathom water in the Hattie S., and naturally rowed over to join the crowd. It was a long pull, and they stayed some little time while Dan bought the knife, which had a curious brass handle. When they dropped overside and pushed off into a drizzle of rain and a lop of sea, it occurred to them that they might get into trouble for neglecting the lines. “Guess ‘twon’t hurt us any to be warmed up,” said Dan, shivering under his oilskins, and they rowed on into the heart of a white fog, which, as usual, dropped on them without warning.
“There’s too much blame tide hereabouts to trust to your instinks,” he said. “Heave over the anchor, Harve, and we’ll fish a piece till the thing lifts. Bend on your biggest lead. Three pound ain’t any too much in this water. See how she’s tightened on her rodin’ already.”
There was quite a little bubble at the bows, where some irresponsible Bank current held the dory full stretch on her rope; but they could not see a boat’s length in any direction. Harvey turned up his collar and bunched himself over his reel with the air of a wearied navigator. Fog had no special terrors for him now. They fished awhile in silence, and found the cod struck on well. Then Dan drew the sheath-knife and tested the edge of it on the gunwale.
“That’s a daisy,” said Harvey. “How did you get it so cheap?”
“On account o’ their blame Cath’lic superstitions,” said Dan, jabbing with the bright blade. “They don’t fancy takin’ iron frum off of a dead man, so to speak. ‘See them Arichat Frenchmen step back when I bid?”
“But an auction ain’t taking anything off a dead man. It’s business.”
“We know it ain’t, but there’s no goin’ in the teeth o’ superstition. That’s one o’ the advantages o’ livin’ in a progressive country.” And Dan began whistling:
“Oh, Double Thatcher, how are you? Now Eastern Point comes inter view. The girls an’ boys we soon shall see, At anchor off Cape Ann!”
“Why didn’t that Eastport man bid, then? He bought his boots. Ain’t Maine progressive?”
“Maine? Pshaw! They don’t know enough, or they hain’t got money enough, to paint their haouses in Maine. I’ve seen ‘em. The Eastport man he told me that the knife had been used--so the French captain told him--used up on the French coast last year.”
“Cut a man? Heave’s the muckle.” Harvey hauled in his fish, rebaited, and threw over.
“Killed him! ‘Course, when I heard that I was keener ‘n ever to get it.”
“Christmas! I didn’t know it,” said Harvey, turning round. “I’ll give you a dollar for it when I--get my wages. Say, I’ll give you two dollars.”
“Honest? D’you like it as much as all that?” said Dan, flushing. “Well, to tell the truth, I kinder got it for you--to give; but I didn’t let on till I saw how you’d take it. It’s yours and welcome, Harve, because we’re dory-mates, and so on and so forth, an’ so followin’. Catch a-holt!”
He held it out, belt and all.
“But look at here. Dan, I don’t see--”
“Take it. ‘Tain’t no use to me. I wish you to hev it.”
The temptation was irresistible. “Dan, you’re a white man,” said Harvey. “I’ll keep it as long as I live.”
“That’s good hearin’,” said Dan, with a pleasant laugh; and then, anxious to change the subject: “Look’s if your line was fast to somethin’.”
“Fouled, I guess,” said Harve, tugging. Before he pulled up he fastened the belt round him, and with deep delight heard the tip of the sheath click on the thwart. “Concern the thing!” he cried. “She acts as though she were on strawberry-bottom. It’s all sand here, ain’t it’?”
Dan reached over and gave a judgmatic tweak. “Holibut’ll act that way ‘f he’s sulky. Thet’s no strawberry-bottom. Yank her once or twice. She gives, sure. ‘Guess we’d better haul up an’ make certain.”
They pulled together, making fast at each turn on the cleats, and the hidden weight rose sluggishly.
“Prize, oh! Haul!” shouted Dan, but the shout ended in a shrill, double shriek of horror, for out of the sea came--the body of the dead Frenchman buried two days before! The hook had caught him under the right armpit, and he swayed, erect and horrible, head and shoulders above water. His arms were tied to his side, and--he had no face. The boys fell over each other in a heap at the bottom of the dory, and there they lay while the thing bobbed alongside, held on the shortened line.
“The tide--the tide brought him!” said Harvey, with quivering lips, as he fumbled at the clasp of the belt.
“Oh, Lord! Oh, Harve!” groaned Dan, “be quick. He’s come for it. Let him have it. Take it off.”
“I don’t want it! I don’t want it!” cried Harvey. “I can’t find the bu-buckle.”
“Quick, Harve! He’s on your line!”
Harvey sat up to unfasten the belt, facing the head that had no face under its streaming hair. “He’s fast still,” he whispered to Dan, who slipped out his knife and cut the line, as Harvey flung the belt far overside. The body shot down with a plop, and Dan cautiously rose to his knees, whiter than the fog.
“He come for it. He come for it. I’ve seen a stale one hauled up on a trawl and I didn’t much care, but he come to us special.”
“I wish--I wish I hadn’t taken the knife. Then he’d have come on your line.”
“Dunno as thet would ha’ made any differ. We’re both scared out o’ ten years’ growth. Oh, Harve, did ye see his head?”
“Did I’? I’ll never forget it. But look at here, Dan; it couldn’t have been meant. It was only the tide.”
“Tide! He come for it, Harve. Why, they sunk him six mile to south’ard o’ the Fleet, an’ we’re two miles from where she’s lyin’ now. They told me he was weighted with a fathom an’ a half o’ chain-cable.”
“Wonder what he did with the knife--up on the French coast?”
“Something bad. ‘Guess he’s bound to take it with him to the Judgment, an’ so--What are you doin’ with the fish?”
“Heaving ‘em overboard,” said Harvey.
“What for? We sha’n’t eat ‘em.”
“I don’t care. I had to look at his face while I was takin’ the belt off. You can keep your catch if you like. I’ve no use for mine.”