Mackereling Out in the Gulf by Lucy Maud Montgomery
The mackerel boats were all at anchor on the fishing grounds; the sea was glassy calm--a pallid blue, save for a chance streak of deeper azure where some stray sea breeze ruffled it.
It was about the middle of the afternoon, and intensely warm and breathless. The headlands and coves were blurred by a purple heat haze. The long sweep of the sandshore was so glaringly brilliant that the pained eye sought relief among the rough rocks, where shadows were cast by the big red sandstone boulders. The little cluster of fishing houses nearby were bleached to a silvery grey by long exposure to wind and rain. Far off were several "Yankee" fishing schooners, their sails dimly visible against the white horizon.
Two boats were hauled upon the "skids" that ran from the rocks out into the water. A couple of dories floated below them. Now and then a white gull, flashing silver where its plumage caught the sun, soared landward.
A young man was standing by the skids, watching the fishing boats through a spyglass. He was tall, with a straight, muscular figure clad in a rough fishing suit. His face was deeply browned by the gulf breezes and was attractive rather than handsome, while his eyes, as blue and clear as the gulf waters, were peculiarly honest and frank.
Two wiry, dark-faced French-Canadian boys were perched on one of the boats, watching the fishing fleet with lazy interest in their inky-black eyes, and wondering if the "Yanks" had seined many mackerel that day.
Presently three people came down the steep path from the fish-houses. One of them, a girl, ran lightly forward and touched Benjamin Selby's arm. He lowered his glass with a start and looked around. A flash of undisguised delight transfigured his face.
"Why, Mary Stella! I didn't expect you'd be down this hot day. You haven't been much at the shore lately," he added reproachfully.
"I really haven't had time, Benjamin," she answered carelessly, as she took the glass from his hand and tried to focus it on the fishing fleet. Benjamin steadied it for her; the flush of pleasure was still glowing on his bronzed cheek, "Are the mackerel biting now?"
"Not just now. Who is that stranger with your father, Mary Stella?"
"That is a cousin of ours--a Mr. Braithwaite. Are you very busy, Benjamin?"
"Not busy at all--idle as you see me. Why?"
"Will you take me out for a little row in the dory? I haven't been out for so long."
"Of course. Come--here's the dory--your namesake, you know. I had her fresh painted last week. She's as clean as an eggshell."
The girl stepped daintily off the rocks into the little cream-coloured skiff, and Benjamin untied the rope and pushed off.
"Where would you like to go, Mary Stella?"
"Oh, just upshore a little way--not far. And don't go out into very deep water, please, it makes me feel frightened and dizzy."
Benjamin smiled and promised. He was rowing along with the easy grace of one used to the oar. He had been born and brought up in sound of the gulf's waves; its never-ceasing murmur had been his first lullaby. He knew it and loved it in every mood, in every varying tint and smile, in every change of wind and tide. There was no better skipper alongshore than Benjamin Selby.
Mary Stella waved her hand gaily to the two men on the rocks. Benjamin looked back darkly.
"Who is that young fellow?" he asked again. "Where does he belong?"
"He is the son of Father's sister--his favourite sister, although he has never seen her since she married an American years ago and went to live in the States. She made Frank come down here this summer and hunt us up. He is splendid, I think. He is a New York lawyer and very clever."
Benjamin made no response. He pulled in his oars and let the dory float amid the ripples. The bottom of white sand, patterned over with coloured pebbles, was clear and distinct through the dark-green water. Mary Stella leaned over to watch the distorted reflection of her face by the dory's side.
"Have you had pretty good luck this week, Benjamin? Father couldn't go out much--he has been so busy with his hay, and Leon is such a poor fisherman."
"We've had some of the best hauls of the summer this week. Some of the Rustler boats caught six hundred to a line yesterday. We had four hundred to the line in our boat."
Mary Stella began absently to dabble her slender brown hand in the water. A silence fell between them, with which Benjamin was well content, since it gave him a chance to feast his eyes on the beautiful face before him.
He could not recall the time when he had not loved Mary Stella. It seemed to him that she had always been a part of his inmost life. He loved her with the whole strength and fidelity of a naturally intense nature. He hoped that she loved him, and he had no rival that he feared. In secret he exalted and deified her as something almost too holy for him to aspire to. She was his ideal of all that was beautiful and good; he was jealously careful over all his words and thoughts and actions that not one might make him more unworthy of her. In all the hardship and toil of his life his love was as his guardian angel, turning his feet from every dim and crooked byway; he trod in no path where he would not have the girl he loved to follow. The roughest labour was glorified if it lifted him a step nearer the altar of his worship.
But today he felt faintly disturbed. In some strange, indefinable way it seemed to him that Mary Stella was different from her usual self. The impression was vague and evanescent--gone before he could decide wherein the difference lay. He told himself that he was foolish, yet the vexing, transient feeling continued to come and go.
Presently Mary Stella said it was time to go back. Benjamin was in no hurry, but he never disputed her lightest inclination. He turned the dory about and rowed shoreward.
Back on the rocks, Mosey Louis and Xavier, the French Canadians, were looking through the spyglass by turns and making characteristic comments on the fleet. Mr. Murray and Braithwaite were standing by the skids, watching the dory.
"Who is that young fellow?" asked the latter. "What a splendid physique he has! It's a pleasure to watch him rowing."
"That," said the older man, with a certain proprietary pride in his tone, "is Benjamin Selby--the best mackerel fisherman on the island. He's been high line all along the gulf shore for years. I don't know a finer man every way you take him. Maybe you'll think I'm partial," he continued with a smile. "You see, he and Mary Stella think a good deal of each other. I expect to have Benjamin for a son-in-law some day if all goes well."
Braithwaite's expression changed slightly. He walked over to the dory and helped Mary Stella out of it while Benjamin made the painter fast. When the latter turned, Mary Stella was walking across the rocks with her cousin. Benjamin's blue eyes darkened, and he strode moodily over to the boats.
"You weren't out this morning, Mr. Murray?"
"No, that hay had to be took in. Reckon I missed it--pretty good catch, they tell me. Are they getting any now?"
"No. It's not likely the fish will begin to bite again for another hour."
"I see someone standing up in that off boat, don't I?" said Mr. Murray, reaching for the spyglass.
"No, that's only Rob Leslie's crew trying to fool us. They've tried it before this afternoon. They think it would be a joke to coax us out there to broil like themselves."
"Frank," shouted Mr. Murray, "come here, I want you."
Aside to Benjamin he said, "He's my nephew--a fine young chap. You'll like him, I know."
Braithwaite came over, and Mr. Murray put one hand on his shoulder and one on Benjamin's.
"Boys, I want you to know each other. Benjamin, this is Frank Braithwaite. Frank, this is Benjamin Selby, the high line of the gulf shore, as I told you."
While Mr. Murray was speaking, the two men looked steadily at each other. The few seconds seemed very long; when they had passed, Benjamin knew that the other man was his rival.
Braithwaite was the first to speak. He put out his hand with easy cordiality.
"I am glad to meet you, Mr. Selby," he said heartily, "although I am afraid I should feel very green in the presence of such a veteran fisherman as yourself."
His frank courtesy compelled some return. Benjamin took the proffered hand with restraint.
"I'm sorry there's no mackerel going this afternoon," continued the American. "I wanted to have a chance at them. I never saw mackerel caught before. I suppose I'll be very awkward at first."
"It's not a very hard thing to do," said Benjamin stiffly, speaking for the first time since their meeting. "Most anybody could catch mackerel for a while--it's the sticking to it that counts."
He turned abruptly and went back to his boat. He could not force himself to talk civilly to the stranger, with that newly born demon of distrust gnawing at his heart.
"I think I'll go out," he said. "It's freshening up. I shouldn't wonder if the mackerel schooled soon."
"I'll go, too, then," said Mr. Murray. "Hi, up there! Leon and Pete! Hi, I say!"
Two more French Canadians came running down from the Murray fish-house, where they had been enjoying a siesta. They fished in the Murray boat. A good deal of friendly rivalry as to catch went on between the two boats, while Leon and Mosey Louis were bitter enemies on their own personal account.
"Think you'll try it, Frank?" shouted Mr. Murray.
"Well, not this afternoon," was the answer. "It's rather hot. I'll see what it is like tomorrow."
The boats were quickly launched and glided out from the shadow of the cliffs. Benjamin stood at his mast. Mary Stella came down to the water's edge and waved her hand gaily.
"Good luck to you and the best catch of the season," she called out.
Benjamin waved his hat in response. His jealousy was forgotten for the moment and he felt that he had been churlish to Braithwaite.
"You'll wish you'd come," he shouted to him. "It's going to be a great evening for fish."
When the boats reached the fishing grounds, they came to and anchored, their masts coming out in slender silhouette against the sky. A row of dark figures was standing up in every boat; the gulfs shining expanse was darkened by odd black streaks--the mackerel had begun to school.
Frank Braithwaite went out fishing the next day and caught 30 mackerel. He was boyishly proud of it. He visited the shore daily after that and soon became very popular. He developed into quite an expert fisherman; nor, when the boats came in, did he shirk work, but manfully rolled up his trousers and helped carry water and "gib" mackerel as if he enjoyed it. He never put on any "airs," and he stoutly took Leon's part against the aggressive Mosey Louis. Even the French Canadians, those merciless critics, admitted that the "Yankee" was a good fellow. Benjamin Selby alone held stubbornly aloof.
One evening the loaded boats came in at sunset. Benjamin sprang from his as it bumped against the skids, and ran up the path. At the corner of his fish-house he stopped and stood quite still, looking at Braithwaite and Mary Stella, who were standing by the rough picket fence of the pasture land. Braithwaite's back was to Benjamin; he held the girl's hand in his and was talking earnestly. Mary Stella was looking up at him, her delicate face thrown back a little. There was a look in her eyes that Benjamin had never seen there before--but he knew what it meant.
His face grew pale and rigid; he clenched his hands and a whirlpool of agony and bitterness surged up in his heart. All the great blossoms of the hope that had shed beauty and fragrance over his rough life seemed suddenly to shrivel up into black unsightliness.
He turned and went swiftly and noiselessly down the road to his boat. The murmur of the sea sounded very far off. Mosey Louis was busy counting out the mackerel, Xavier was dipping up buckets of water and pouring it over the silvery fish. The sun was setting in a bank of purple cloud, and the long black headland to the west cut the golden seas like a wedge of ebony. It was all real and yet unreal. Benjamin went to work mechanically.
Presently Mary Stella came down to her father's boat. Braithwaite followed slowly, pausing a moment to exchange some banter with saucy Mosey Louis. Benjamin bent lower over his table; now and then he caught the dear tones of Mary Stella's voice or her laughter at some sally of Pete or Leon. He knew when she went up the road with Braithwaite; he caught the last glimpse of her light dress as she passed out of sight on the cliffs above, but he worked steadily on and gave no sign.
It was late when they finished. The tired French Canadians went quickly off to their beds in the fish-house loft. Benjamin stood by the skids until all was quiet, then he walked down the cove to a rocky point that jutted out into the water. He leaned against a huge boulder and laid his head on his arm, looking up into the dark sky. The stars shone calmly down on his misery; the throbbing sea stretched out before him; its low, murmuring moan seemed to be the inarticulate voice of his pain.
The air was close and oppressive; fitful flashes of heat lightning shimmered here and there over the heavy banks of cloud on the horizon; little wavelets sobbed at the base of the rocks.
When Benjamin lifted his head he saw Frank Braithwaite standing between him and the luminous water. He took a step forward, and they came face to face as Braithwaite turned with a start.
Benjamin clenched his hands and fought down a hideous temptation to thrust his rival off the rock.
"I saw you today," he said in a low, intense tone. "What do you think of yourself, coming down here to steal the girl I loved from me? Weren't there enough girls where you came from to choose among? I hate you. I'd kill you--"
"Selby, stop! You don't know what you are saying. If I have wronged you, I swear I did it unintentionally. I loved Stella from the first--who could help it? But I thought she was virtually bound to you, and I did not try to win her away. You don't know what it cost me to remain passive. I know that you have always distrusted me, but hitherto you have had no reason to. But today I found that she was free--that she did not care for you! And I found--or thought I found--that there was a chance for me. I took it. I forgot everything else then."
"So she loves you?" said Benjamin dully.
"Yes," said Braithwaite softly.
Benjamin turned on him with sudden passion.
"I hate you--and I am the most miserable wretch alive, but if she is happy, it is no matter about me. You've won easily what I've slaved and toiled all my life for. You won't value it as I'd have done--but if you make her happy, nothing else matters. I've only one favour to ask of you. Don't let her come to the shore after this. I can't stand it."
August throbbed and burned itself out. Affairs along shore continued as usual. Benjamin shut his sorrow up in himself and gave no outward sign of suffering. As if to mock him, the season was one of phenomenal prosperity; it was a "mackerel year" to be dated from. He worked hard and unceasingly, sparing himself in no way.
Braithwaite seldom came to the shore now. Mary Stella never. Mr. Murray had tried to speak of the matter, but Benjamin would not let him.
"It's best that nothing be said," he told him with simple dignity. He was so calm that Mr. Murray thought he did not care greatly, and was glad of it. The older man regretted the turn of affairs. Braithwaite would take his daughter far away from him, as his sister had been taken, and he loved Benjamin as his own son.
One afternoon Benjamin stood by his boat and looked anxiously at sea and sky. The French Canadians were eager to go out, for the other boats were catching.
"I don't know about it," said Benjamin doubtfully. "I don't half like the look of things. I believe we're in for a squall before long. It was just such a day three years ago when that terrible squall came up that Joe Otway got drowned in."
The sky was dun and smoky, the glassy water was copper-hued, the air was heavy and breathless. The sea purred upon the shore, lapping it caressingly like some huge feline creature biding its time to seize and crunch its victim.
"I reckon I'll try it," said Benjamin after a final scrutiny. "If a squall does come up, we'll have to run for the shore mighty quick, that's all."
They launched the boat speedily; as there was no wind, they had to row. As they pulled out, Braithwaite and Leon came down the road and began to launch the Murray boat.
"If dem two gits caught in a squall dey'll hav a tam," grinned Mosey Louis. "Dat Leon, he don't know de fust ting 'bout a boat, no more dan a cat!"
Benjamin came to anchor close in, but Braithwaite and Leon kept on until they were further out than any other boat.
"Reckon dey's after cod," suggested Xavier.
The mackerel bit well, but Benjamin kept a close watch on the sky. Suddenly he saw a dark streak advancing over the water from the northwest. He wheeled around.
"Boys, the squall's coming! Up with the anchor--quick!"
"Dere's plenty tam," grumbled Mosey Louis, who hated to leave the fish. "None of de oder boats is goin' in yit."
The squall struck the boat as he spoke. She lurched and staggered. The water was tossing choppily. There was a sudden commotion all through the fleet and sails went rapidly up. Mosey Louis turned pale and scrambled about without delay. Benjamin was halfway to the shore before the sail went up in the Murray boat.
"Don' know what dey're tinkin' of," growled Mosey Louis. "Dey'll be drown fust ting!"
Benjamin looked back anxiously. Every boat was making for the shore. The gale was steadily increasing. He had his doubts about making a landing himself, and Braithwaite would be twenty minutes later.
"But it isn't my lookout," he muttered.
Benjamin had landed and was hauling up his boat when Mr. Murray came running down the road.
"Frank?" he gasped. "Him and Leon went out, the foolish boys! They neither of them know anything about a time like this."
"I guess they'll be all right," said Benjamin reassuringly. "They were late starting. They may find it rather hard to land."
The other boats had all got in with more or less difficulty. The Murray boat alone was out. Men came scurrying along the shore in frightened groups of two and three.
The boat came swiftly in before the wind. Mr. Murray was half beside himself.
"It'll be all right, sir," said one of the men. "If they can't land here, they can beach her on the sandshore."
"If they only knew enough to do that," wailed the old man. "But they don't--they'll come right on to the rocks."
"Why don't they lower their sail?" said another. "They will upset if they don't."
"They're lowering it now," said Benjamin.
The boat was now about 300 yards from the shore. The sail did not go all the way down--it seemed to be stuck.
"Good God, what's wrong?" exclaimed Mr. Murray.
As he spoke, the boat capsized. A yell of horror rose I from the beach. Mr. Murray sprang toward Benjamin's boat, but one of the men held him back.
"You can't do it, sir. I don't know that anybody can."
Braithwaite and Leon were clinging to the boat. Benjamin Selby, standing in the background, his lips set, his hands clenched, was fighting the hardest battle of his life. He knew that he alone, out of all the men there, possessed the necessary skill and nerve to reach the boat if she could be reached at all. There was a bare chance and a great risk. This man whom he hated was drowning before his eyes. Let him drown, then! Why should he risk--ay, and perchance lose--his life for his enemy? No one could blame him for refusing--and if Braithwaite were out of the way, Mary Stella might yet be his!
The temptation and victory passed in a few brief seconds. He stepped forward, cool and self-possessed.
"I'm going out. I want one man with me. No one with child or wife. Who'll go?"
"I will," shouted Mosey Louis. "I haf some spat wid dat Leon, but I not lak to see him drown for all dat!"
Benjamin offered no objection. The French Canadian's arm was strong and he possessed skill and experience. Mr. Murray caught Benjamin's arm.
"No, no, Benjamin--not you--I can't see both my boys drowned."
Benjamin gently loosed the old man's hold.
"It's for Mary Stella's sake," he said hoarsely. "If I don't come back, tell her that."
They launched the large dory with difficulty and pulled out into the surf. Benjamin did not lose his nerve. His quick arm, his steady eye did not fail. A dozen times the wild-eyed watchers thought the boat was doomed, but as often she righted triumphantly.
At last the drowning men were reached and somehow or other hauled on board Benjamin's craft. It was easier to come back, for they beached the boat on the sand. With a wild cheer the men on the shore rushed into the surf and helped to carry the half-unconscious Braithwaite and Leon ashore and up to the Murray fish-house. Benjamin went home before anyone knew he had gone. Mosey Louis was left behind to reap the honours; he sat in a circle of admiring lads and gave all the details of the rescue.
"Dat Leon, he not tink he know so much now!" he said.
Braithwaite came to the shore next day somewhat pale and shaky. He went straight to Benjamin and held out his hand.
"Thank you," he said simply.
Benjamin bent lower over his work.
"You needn't thank me," he said gruffly. "I wanted to let you drown. But I went out for Mary Stella's sake. Tell me one thing--I couldn't bring myself to ask it of anyone else. When are you to be--married?"
"The 12th of September."
Benjamin did not wince. He turned away and looked out across the sea for a few moments. The last agony of his great renunciation was upon him. Then he turned and held out his hand.
"For her sake," he said earnestly.
Frank Braithwaite put his slender white hand into the fisherman's hard brown palm. There were tears in both men's eyes. They parted in silence.
On the morning of the 12th of September Benjamin Selby went out to the fishing grounds as usual. The catch was good, although the season was almost over. In the afternoon the French Canadians went to sleep. Benjamin intended to row down the shore for salt. He stood by his dory, ready to start, but he seemed to be waiting for something. At last it came: a faint train whistle blew, a puff of white smoke floated across a distant gap in the sandhills.
Mary Stella was gone at last--gone forever from his life. The honest blue eyes looking out over the sea did not falter; bravely he faced his desolate future.
The white gulls soared over the water, little swishing ripples lapped on the sand, and through all the gentle, dreamy noises of the shore came the soft, unceasing murmur of the gulf.