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In Mighty Waters

The sea was very still. The weight of fog and darkness seemed to have pressed the life out of it. The eighteen-foot dory sat on the black water almost without movement, like a child’s boat on a pond. She was a yellow-painted thing of pine boards, with a narrow flat bottom and deep sides. Somewhere not far away in the mist were eleven others exactly like her, nested one within another on the deck of the Elmira B. MacCleave. The men in the dory were not alarmed in their loneliness. They had found their lost trawl at sunset on the previous day, and a sudden shutting down of the fog had compelled them to spend the night in the dory. The Schooner could not be far. There had been no stir of wind over the face of the sea since the northerly gale set their trawl adrift and drove the Elmira B. off the Grand Bank with it. There was field ice about, scattered by the storm; they had seen several floes and one or two small bergs in the dusk as they picked up their trawl. The fog was cold–not the edged cold of winter, that cut and thrust in one stroke, but the dank grave-vault cold of a spring night on the Banks. The men were well clad. Under their dripping yellow oilskins were thick sweaters and flannel shirts and frieze trousers and heavy fleece-lined underwear, and within their rubber boots were felt in-soles and two pairs of thick woollen socks. Their hands were warm and dry in heavy white wool mittens. The oars were shipped, the looms tucked inboard under the thwarts, the blades resting between wooden thole-pins. Newfie Sam had whittled these pins himself, from a stick of wire birch cut on the road from Sydney Mines; the bark was still on them, except where the oars had chafed them bare.

“Comin’ light,” observed Newfie Sam, out of a night’s silence. “I can make out d’bark on me t’ole pins.”

“Yeah,” Davis said. “Must be gettin’ on fer five.”

“Where you reckon a’scunner lays?”

“Over there to the westward a bit. Reckon when the fog shet, MacCleave jest took in all sail an’ waited fer mornin’, same as us. Ain’t bin a morsel o’ wind, an’ I don’t reckon we drifted a mite.”

“I could do wid some brekfuss,” Newfie Sam said.

“‘Twas lucky to find our trawl,” murmured Davis. “After gittin’ blowed off o’ the Bank an’ all.”

“Yeah, luck,” said Newfie Sam.

Daylight came slowly. The fog seemed to hold the night, paling reluctantly from black to grey, but they could make out objects now, even to the moisture beads, on their own stubbled faces. Newfie’s face was long and thin, running down to a point at the chin, where a bead of water slowly gathered, hung trembling a moment, dropped on the breast of his oil-skin jacket, and began to grow anew. His eyes were deep-set and shadowed under the brim of a black sou’-wester. Thirty summers and winters in the Bank fishery had seamed his skin like an old boot; there were fans of deep wrinkles from the eye-corners, and two strong folds ran past his mouth from the bridge of his nose, giving his mouth corners a downward droop in the passing. The tale of all his sea-summers and sea-winters was written there.

Davis on the other hand had the round hard head and square jaw of the Nova Scotia-man. His hair was quite grey, and his moustache, and the glistening stubble of beard, but his eye-brows were black as night, and his blue eyes small, and steady under them.

His years were fifty-two; a devout man and pleasant, but a man best not roused. In the Bank fleet they knew him as Bully Dan, an echo of his younger days and not quite fair at fifty-two. Newfoundland Sam–Newfie for short–had no kith or kin. For ten years they had been dory-mates.

“Listen!” demanded Newfie Sam, “I hears music.”

“Ah, music!”

“Yiss! Some o’ dat jazz stuff. ‘Twere dat plain.”

They strained their ears in the fog. With the wet weight of the salvaged trawl, and its kegbuoys and anchors, the dory was down by the stern, and the black sea chuckled a little under the exposed inches of bottom at the bow. But now Davis heard the music too. A long way off.

“Dere!” said Newfie Sam with triumph. Davis nodded.

“Schooner over there somewheres with a radio goin’,” he said positively. “The Dora M. Kenzie an’ that new boat o’ Rigby’s–lots of ’em now–carry radios an’ listen fer weather warnin’s an’ all that, an’ pick up the broadcastin’ from the States atween whiles. Bank-fishin’ ain’t what it used to be.”

“Listen, Dan. Dere’s a hymn dey’re playin’ now–jist as plain!”
“Right. Tum Tum tum-tum tum-tum. They sing that toon sometimes in the church down home.”
“What dey doin’ hereabouts, Dan?”

“Blowed off the Bank, same as the Elmira B., s’likely.”

“Let’s go over dere, eh?”

Davis considered a moment. “Naw. Awful deceivin’, sounds is, thick-o’-fog and half night like this, Newfie. We ain’t stirred a stroke sence the fog shet down last night, an’ I ain’t gonna stir a stroke now. Got a hunch the fog’ll lift a bit when it comes full light–a stir o’ wind wi’ the sun, mebbe–like as not we’ll see the ol’ Elmira B. Right where we left her. Music! I tell you, Newfie, the on’y music I wanta hear s’mornin’ is the ol’ schooner’s fog-horn.”

The invisible orchestra took up another hymn, abandoned it abruptly in the middle of a bar. For a time there was nothing but the fog-drip and the chuckle of water under the bow. Then, faintly, another sound felt rather than heard. The two men stared eastward. “Oars!” blurted Newfie Sam. He could always name a sound before anybody else. There was nobody like Newfie Sam with a thick night and a schooner running blind for home with a full fare, add a bell-buoy to be picked up somewhere in the windy dark under the very smell of the land. The oars had a ragged beat, as if the rowers were tired, or unskilled, but they drew nearer, and there were voices. “Women!” Newfie Sam whispered. Davis looked at him in scorn. But in a minute Davis heard a woman too. Newfie Sam was never wrong. It was uncanny to have ears like that. And now the sound took form and substance, a rather fragile substance, for in the half-light and the wet drift all things seemed out of focus, but they recognised in part and then in whole a ship’s life-boat, beamy and unhandy to their fishermen’s eyes and deeply laden, moving painfully under three oars rowed all-anyhow. A man stood at the stern, clasping the rudder lines, an officer of some sort; they could see his brass buttons and the braid on his sleeve. He had no cap, and he was either very blond or very grey, and might have been any age short of sixty. He looked care-worn but infinitely calm, as if a weight of long anxiety had smoothed his mind as the fog seemed to smooth the sea.

A woman sat with her back against his knees, a Polack woman, by the look of her. She had a heavy-boned passive face and long black hair hanging in damp strings. She clutched a child against the breast of her flannel night-dress, with a ship’s blanket draped about both, and a black shawl arranged in a loose cowl over her head, the sort of thing immigrant women wore. Upon a thwart facing her sat a man of forty or so looking very odd in an evening jacket and a large white life-belt and a small grey cloth cap. He had a brown walrus moustache and a prominent nose, and a stump of dead cigar was clutched firmly between, his right back teeth. He plied one of the three oars, though his hands were apparently sore and bound with strips of handkerchief. On the next thwart, also facing aft, was a young woman with a blanket drawn in a hood about head and shoulders. The woman beside her was much older, a fleshy person in dress covered with sequins with a collar of jewels at her throat; an expensive-looking fur coat was draped about her shoulders and over all she wore a white life-belt. She looked enormous. A black leather satchel of some sort was tucked under her arm. The sole occupant of the next thwart was a bare-headed man of twenty or thirty in a soiled white jacket, a steward’s jacket, with an oar in his hands. He had a small shrewd cockney face, and the fog-beads clinging to every stiff hair of his close-cropped head gave it the appearance of a steel casque and the third, final oar was pulled by a man in the bow, naked to the waist except for the white bulk of a life-belt soiled with his finger-marks. His eye-sockets and ears were little sooty caverns, and the fog-drip had made little clean runnels in the grime of his shoulders and hairy chest. There was a sweat-rag knotted about his throat. He was bald, with a fringe of wet black curls above his ears.

In all the boat’s company these seemed the only ones awake. Davis guessed twenty or thirty others huddled in the boat’s bottom, as if for warmth, a vague human mass. The frosty breath of the sea drifted about in thin wisps, and the life-boat seemed to suck light out of it, a blurred halo in which the seven figures on the thwarts were curiously distinct. The officer gave an order in a hushed voice, and the three rowers backed water clumsily, in a dull automatic way, as if their hands alone received the word of command. There was no emotion in their faces. They seemed absorbed in thoughts that had nothing to do with oars or boats. The boat lost what little way it had and lay rocking gently three fathoms’-length from the staring men in the dory.

“Ahoy!” Davis cried in his hailing voice. The plump woman turned on the thwart, as if seeing him for the first time.

“Not so loud!” she said severely. The younger woman threw back her blanket.

“Sssssh!” she warned the woman, and put a slender finger to her lips. Her shoulders were bare and smooth and very white. There was a little knot of blue silk flowers at the low breast of her dress. A necklace glittered dully. Her hair was the colour of the dory in which Newfie Sam and Davis sat gaping.

“Well” the plump woman complained, “the man was yelling fit to wake the dead–”

“Please!” the girl begged. She turned a pale fair face towards the dory. “You needn’t shout, men,” she said clearly. “We can hear you perfectly. These poor people will feel so terribly cold if they wake. We must let them sleep as long as possible.”

“Sorry ma’am,” Davis murmured, awed. He had never seen a woman so beautiful or so sad.

“What day is this?” the officer said.

“It’s–uh–the sixteenth of April,” Davis said.

“And the time?”

Newfie Sam fumbled under his oil-skins and pulled out his old silver watch. He was very proud of the big key-winder and was always eager to tell people the time. “Jist twenny to five,” he announced.

“Ah!” acknowledged the officer. He turned to his oddly assorted crew. “The ship went down about 2:20 A.M. on the fifteenth. Roughly, we’ve been twenty six hours in the boat.”

“More like twenty six years,” the fat woman said drearily. She pulled the fur coat about her throat again and shivered.

“What happened?” Davis said.

“It all seems so strange,” the fair girl said. “I was sitting in the reading room with my husband”–her voice trembled, but she went on–“and there was a bump, a jar–not enough to throw anybody off their feet, you understand. It couldn’t have been much after eleven. Just that, you know, a dull sound, a little tremble of the ship, as if she’d struck a log or something like that. Then the engines stopped, and my husband said, “We must’ve dropped a propeller. I’ll go on deck and find out.” You’ve no idea how quiet everything was then. The sea was perfectly smooth, not even a ripple–well, just the way it is now–and that enormous ship steady as a rock. A few feet away from me in the reading room a woman sat embroidering. I watched her thread another needle, and she found the eye with the first stab. The ship was as steady–yes, and we all were as steady as that. Then my husband came back, laughing, and said we’d struck something, not very big, a bit of ice probably.”

“Bah!” snapped the steward at the second oar. “It was an ice-berg, lidy, ‘igh as Nelson’s monniment. Bit o’ ice indeed!”

“Blather!” said the fireman at the bow oar.

“Wot d’you know abaht it?” demanded the steward, “you Liverpool-Irish–”

“Hush!” commanded the plump woman.

“Where was ‘e when we ‘it?” grumbled the steward. “Dahn in the stoke-‘old with a slice-bar. Don’t tell me there ain’t ice-bergs big as Nelson’s–”

“It was a small berg–what you fishermen’d call a growler,” the officer said. “It didn’t show up white the way you’d expect; a dark lump, not very high. The ship seemed to barely touch it with the starboard bow.”

“Berg nothing!” exclaimed the man in evening dress suddenly. “I tell you I looked over the side a minute after we struck, and there was nothing but little sheets of ice like that stuff we saw ten minutes ago. I guess I’ve got eyes as good as anybody’s. It was a clear night.”

“Stars,” the fair girl said. “I never saw a night so beautiful.”

“Well, go on with your version my dear,” said the plump woman. “The ship must have had a hull like paper, for she certainly didn’t hit anything very hard; I was walking along to my cabin when it happened and it didn’t even make me stumble. But let’s have no more of this ice business. These men have been arguing half a lifetime about it, or so it seems to me.”

“It was a small berg,” the officer repeated coldly. “The ship was well past it before any of you got on deck. If the look-out couldn’t see the thing till it was right on the starboard bow, how could anybody rushing up from a brightly lighted cabin see it half a cable’s length astern? The ship was doing twenty knots and better. The ice ripped her side plates under water like a tin-opener.”

“Well, it don’t matter very much now,” the fireman said. “Go on, ma’am.”

“It matters a lot!” said the officer fiercely. “There’ll be an investigation of some sort, there always is, and they’ll want the truth; and here we are, forty people or more, and forty different stories.”

The fair girl said patiently, “Well, we struck something, whatever it was, but not very hard, and nobody was alarmed, not even when the officers and stewards began to come through the passageways knocking on doors and telling everybody to dress and put on life-belts. We all thought it rather a joke, especially the cork-belts–everyone looked so fat and queer. There was a fearful din on deck, the steam blowing off, everybody said, you had to scream to be heard–but not much excitement, even when they began to lower the boats. The deck had a tilt towards the front of the ship, not much, you know; but the air was so calm and the sea so smooth, it seemed absurd to get into the boats. The ship looked huge and safe, all the deck lights blazing, and it seemed an awful distance down to the water.”

“Seventy feet when we got the first boat down,” the officer said precisely, as if he were testifying before a board. “As the ship settled it got less. We cut this boat clear, as the ship sank under it. It must have been three hours from first to last.”

“I remember thinking,” the fair girl said with a queer little smile, “we’d probably spend a chilly half-hour in the boats, and then they’d decide the ship was all right and we’d be taken up again, feeling very cold and foolish, and all the men laughing at us. We were all on the top deck at first, where the boats were, but after they started lowering the boats all women were ordered to the deck below–”

“That was B deck,” the officer said. “They could get into the boats easier there.”

“My husband made me go down,” she said, “but when I saw the boats filled with women and children, one boat after another, and the men left behind–I–I–it came to me then what it meant if things really were serious. I couldn’t–wouldn’t–go. My husband begged me, but I wouldn’t. The thought of separation was horrible. So we went back to the top deck.”

“You were a fool, my dear,” the fat woman declared callously. “I’d like to see my self passing up a place in a boat, for any man. I just got on the top deck in time to jump into this one–I’d gone back to get my jewels and money.”

“It was the last boat,” the officer said. “Jammed when they first tried to lower it, so they left it hanging forty feet from the water. After the ship began to plunge we got in and cut the falls clear–a near thing, I tell you.”

“Things happened very quickly at the last,” the fair girl said. “My husband fairly threw me in, and stepped back to help another woman. The ship’s lights went out, and everything was dark. We could see the reflection of the stars in the water, and suddenly the water rose right up to the boat. Yes, it was just like that. The ship went very quietly. I don’t know what time that was–”

“Must have been about half-past one,” the officer said. “She went to a terrific angle and hung for a time on end, with the stern in air.”

“People jumpin’ off the stern,” the fireman said. “Hear ’em splashin’ an’ cryin’ out, you could, all in the dark.”

“Don’t!” the fair girl cried.

“It was hard to see,” the officer said, “but you could make out the stern against the stars. It hung there a long time, half an hour, three-quarters maybe, hard to say. It spun slowly at the last–went under with the deck facing east. We pulled over and picked up as many as the boat could hold–”

“The other boats had all pulled away,” declared the man in dress clothes angrily. “Cowards!”

“Suction,” the steward said. “‘Fraid o’ suction, they was–big ship like that, y’know–you can’t blime ’em, you can’t reely.”

“I don’t think there was much,” the officer said. “Seemed to be more of a splash than anything else. The ship gave three or four big sighs as water closed over her and deck chairs and that sort of thing began popping up everywhere. We pulled clear then.”

“We thought we saw a light,” the fair girl said, “and so the men rowed over that way, hours and hours. But we never saw the other boats again. So we’ve come back. It’s been such a long time.”

“They can’t be far,” the officer said stoutly.

The Polack woman looked at Davis suddenly. She pointed at the dory and then beyond it vaguely. “Milwaukee?” she asked eagerly. “Milwaukee?”

A strange word. Davis and Newfie Sam wondered what she meant.

“We belong to the schooner Elmira B. MacCleave,” Davis explained politely, ‘outta North Sydney, Nova Scotia. Got drove off the Grand Bank in a norther, an’ come by chance on some of our gear down this way. Me an’ Newfie put off a dory an’ picked it up–’twas our trawl, see ?–Number One–it’s painted on the keg-buoy. We got it here in the dory now.”

“Where’s your vessel?” asked the officer.

Davis jerked a mittened thumb towards the west. “That way a bit. She ain’t far, but we sat here sensible-like, waitin’ fer mornin’. Bob MacCleave’ll start his fog-horn a-goin’–com-pressed air off o’ the engine, see?–soon as it comes broad daylight. You folks better hang alongside us an’ come aboard the Elmira B. Some o’ them ladies must be awful cold.”

“Might be a good idea,” said the officer diffidently. “Still, the Carpathia should be here by this time. And there’s the Frankfurt and the Olympic and the Californian and some others probably. Sparks was in touch with half a dozen. They’d come very slowly, I fancy, on account of the ice field. But they’re here now, for a cent.”

The man in dress clothes said firmly, “We’re not going aboard any fishing schooner! Get that! The other liners’ll be on the look-out for us. We’ll be all right as soon as this everlasting fog lifts.”

“It would be nice to get warm for a minute or two,” the fair girl said wistfully.

“Warm!” The fat woman gave another hitch to her seal coat. “My dear, you’ve stuck it so far like a brave girl, surely you’re not going to weaken now? A nasty smelly fishing-boat? I want a comfortable berth on the Carpathia, a warm bath and a hot breakfast–all that or nothing!”

“I’m thinking of all these poor people in night-clothes,” the girl said, nodding at the vague humanity about her knees.

“There’s other people ter think abaht, lidy,” the steward protested. “Look ‘ere, s’pose we go aboard some bloomin’ little fishin’ ‘coker? They don’t carry food, water–nothink enough fer a crowd like us, considerin’ we’re ‘undreds o’ miles from the nearest port. They’d ‘ave to start fer ‘ome at once–an’ we’d be a week gettin’ anywhere–two weeks, ‘oo knows? I tell yoo, lidy, I got to get ‘ome an’ look up another berth quick as I bloomin’ well can. I got a wife an’ four kids ter think abaht.”

“Hear, hear,” agreed the Liverpool-Irish fireman. His eye whites glistened in the sooty face. “Look at me!” he urged. “It’s half-naked I am, an’ half frozen wid sittin’ here listenin’ to idle conversation. Am I complainin’? Not I! But niver mind the Elmira What’s-her-name–let’s move along the way we were headin’ when we met these fellas. It’s tuggin’ on the oar warms me blood. Ah, for a bunk in the Carpathia’s firemen’s quarters–that an’ a hot plate o’ burgoo–an’ you could have the baths an’ the rest, lady!”

“You better do de same as we, b’ys,” Newfie Sam spoke up, “an’ set quiet till de fawg lifts. ‘Taint no good wanderin’ about in fawg, b’ys. You on’y gits lost worse.”

“Lost!” snapped the officer. “Look here, what sort of ass d’you think I am? I know where we are. The ship went down in 41-46 north latitude, longitude fifty and a few minutes west. We thought we saw a light to the sou’-west and rowed off that way amongst the ice–sou’-west-by-south it was, to be exact–and kept that course for several hours. The fog shut down and we saw no more of the light, and after a bit we turned back–reversed the course–I figure we’re now about where the ship went down.”

“Ain’t seen no wreckage,” the steward said, with some disapproval.

“Of course not,” the officer retorted. “There’s a north-easterly drift hereabouts, even in flat calm like this. I’m reckoning by rowing time and compass. Crude, I admit. Best I could do. The ships’ll come to the position Sparks gave out and look for wreckage later. If only we’d get a slant of wind to take off this hellish fog–”

“There you go,” the plump lady said sharply, “swearing, now! I still think if we’d kept on going the way we were going we’d have caught up with the other boats. There’s land over that way somewhere, too, quite likely.”

“Land?” the officer said. “Ma’am, we are five or six hundred miles southeast of Halifax if we’re an inch.”

“I don’t believe you know what you’re talking about,” the lady said severely. “We’ve been an age rowing up and down in this fog, and it’s all your doing. If you ask me the Carpathia’s been here and gone again, long long ago.”

“I still think,” the fair girl said meekly, “we’d better stay with these fishermen and go aboard their vessel when the fog lifts. These poor people from the steerage must be half dead with cold. It’s been ever so long since any of them moved.”

“No, no!” declared the man in dress clothes vigorously. “They’re asleep, and a good thing, too. Don’t wake ’em till we see the Carpathia or one of the others. I’d like the fastest boat bound for New York, myself. I must get to Wall Street as quickly as possible. D’you know what’s going on in Europe? There’s a war brewing. I tell you within a year or two you’re going to see the world turned upside down.”

“Faith,” chuckled the fireman grimly, “we’ve seen somethin’ o’ the sort already, eh, mate?” He nudged the stewards back with the butt of his oar.

“Blimey, yes. Looked like ‘arf the bloomin’ world, didn’t she–tied up at Southampton quay?”

“Besides, my dear,” said the fat lady shrewdly, “it’s likely your husband’s been picked up already, and there he’ll be, aboard one of the steamers, worrying about you.”

The fair girl smiled a little at that, but her smile was strangely sad. “D’you think so? It seems such a long time since I saw him. We were married only last summer, you know,” she said across the water to Davis and Sam–the people in the boat looked bored, as if they had heard all this before–“His father gave us a year’s travel abroad for a wedding present–a twelve-months’ honeymoon, he said. We were married in Baltimore in June, and went right over to see the Coronation.”

“Ah!” said Newfie Sam. “I seen the pitchers o’ that.”

“Beautiful, wasn’t it?” she said eagerly. “King George looked so handsome–and–and steadfast, and the Queen was lovely. It wouldn’t do in the States, of course; but I could understand what it meant to British people. I remember seeing some of your Canadian mounted police in the procession. The London people gave them a special cheer. We went all over the continent after that, and spent the winter in Naples. Ah, how happy we were! And how long ago, it seems.”

“Milwaukee?” said the Polack woman with that anxious smile. “Milwaukee?”

Newfie shook his head. It must be a Polack word. But now the fireman spoke again, urgently.

“Let’s be off, for it’s freezin’ I am!”

The officer hesitated and looked at the fair girl respectfully, as if hers was the sole judgement he could trust in that boat over-laden with people and opinions. She turned reluctantly.

“Very well,” she sighed. The oars dipped and struggled. It took half a dozen ragged strokes to get the boat into motion at all, and to the watching dory-men there was something pitiful about the deep three lone oars so languidly rising and falling. The officer, intent on his steering, never once turned his head. The rowers stared sightlessly at a point over his shoulder, lost once more in their own thoughts. Only the fair girl on the after thwart looked back at the men in the dory. Her mournful eyes seemed to hold them by an invisible thread until the life-boat vanished in the mist. The painful beat of the oars died in the direction of the the morning.

There was a long silence in the dory. Then Newfie Sam said, “Somet’ing queer about dem people. A kind o’ fuzzy look.”

“‘Twas the fog,” Davis said abruptly. “Fog an’ the dawn light. Reckon we looked as queer to them. Yes, man.”

“Voices queer, too,” persisted Newfie Sam. “Like cold winter nights back ‘ome, when you can ‘ear people talkin’ ‘udder side o’ Porposie Cove dat plain–make out every word, y’can–but like voices over a tellyfome.”

“Bah!” Like an echo of the disgusted Davis came a faint “Ah!” from the westward.

“Listen now,” Davis said, fumbling for the boat compass, “an’ we’ll take a bearin’ on it. That’s the ol’ Elmira B., sure as shootin’.” In half a minute they heard it again, the unmistakable blast of the schooner’s fog-horn. Davis put the compassbox between his feet and they began to row confidently, Newfie Sam holding the rusty tin dory-horn between his broken teeth and sounding a calf-blat every minute in answer to the schooner. At last he let it drop.

“You goin’ to tell Cap’n Bob o’ dem people in d’boat?”

“Sure! Why not? He’ll want to shift outa this, I reckon. ‘Taint healthy fer a li’L ol’ fishin’-schooner hereabouts, thick-o’-fog, an’ half a dozen big steamers prowlin’ about lookin’ fer people off a wreck.”

Newfie Sam rowed a few strokes in silence, regarding the back of Davis’s sou’-wester. “Dat music we heared, Dan–I dunno what de rag-time piece was, but dere was a hymn come next I know right good. ‘Twas ‘Nearer My Gawd To Thee’.”

“Don’t signify nothin’,” Davis said.

“No? Den come anudder hymn–choked off quick in d’middle–”

“Radio!” said Davis. “Someone switched it off.”

“Choked off in d’part dat goes,”
‘Hold me up in mighty waters,’
‘Keep my eyes on t’ings above.’

“Dat’s a hymn called Autumn. I know dem chunes, Davis, man.”

“It don’t signify, I tell you,” Davis said, and his voice was sharp.

“An’ everyt’ing about dat boat was new–notice dat? D’paint on d’strakes, d’rope in dem cut boat-falls still hangin’ from d’forrard eye, d’life-jackets on d’people, yiss–even dat orf’cer’s goold braid an’ buttons–all bran’ new.”

“What of it?”

“D’ fat leddy, she said about ’em bein’ in d’boat half a lifetime.”

“Aw! That’s a silly woman for you! You heard what the off’cer said, didn’t you? Twenny-six hours since their ship went down, he says.”

“Years, d’ woman said.”

“Tell you she was hysterrical! That young gel had her senses about her. Been to the coronation, says she. King George an’ all that. This is nineteen-thirty-eight, ain’t it? Coronation was last year, wasn’t it? Eh? Where’s your brains, Newfie? My God, Newfie, don’t look at me like that!” Newfie said slowly, “You see d’ name on dat life-boat, Dan?”

“No name on it,” Davis said hurriedly, and his voice was frightened.

“I seen it, Dan. Plain. Ain’t got much learnin’ but I can read names when dey’re printed, like. Begun wid a T.”
“Ah!” Davis cried. “Lots o’ names begin with T.”

“An’ there was a I an’ another T, an’ a A, an’ then a N–”

“Ah, stop it! Newfie man! You ain’t got a right to fancy like that.”

“‘Sposin’ I told ye d’ next letter was a I?”

“‘Tell you it don’t signify, none of it don’t signify!”

Newfie Sam rested his oars and turned to look ahead, where they could glimpse the stained sails of the Elmira B. MacCleave flapping slowly in the mist. The trumpet-note of her fog horn rang over the dark water. Davis looked too, and then Newfie Sam swung his sea-haunted eyes full on Davis’ own.

“Know what dat last letter was, Dan?”

“A!” Davis caught at a letter as at a straw. “Likely an A, Newfie,” he said feverishly. “There’s boats called Titania, like that schooner Ronnie McCuish launched last summer. ‘Member? His daughter found the name somewheres, in a mid-summer dream, she said, this Titania bein’ a sort o’ fairy–”

“Fairies?” Newfie Sam murmured absently. “But ’tweren’t an A, Dan. Runs in my mind ’twas–”

“No! Such things can’t be, I tell you! Listen, Newfie. A fishin’ dory’s the lonesomest thing in the world, like a li’l yella coffin o’ pine on the broad face o’ the sea, with fog like this, one day in every three–sky gone, vessel gone, other dories gone–mebbe even your own trawl buoys clean outa sight–nothin’ there but you an’ your mate an’ the pine board under you–an inch o’ pine atween you an’ the sea and all things below a man ain’t meant to look upon–no, nor think about, an’ him right-minded. Keep your thinkin’ on the edge o’ soundin’s, Newfie. There’s things a man’s got to b’lieve an’ hold by, if he’s to make his livin’ on the Banks an’ keep his mind from broachin’-to. You got to fasten your thoughts on somethin’ canny, like the Elmira B., an’ the price o’ fish–things you can get a-hold of an’ see an’ feel. The rest you got to forget. I tell you such things can’t be!”

“‘Twere a C, Dan. I can’t help it. I seen it. Very plain, it were–d’ paint new an’ all. I’m sorry, Dan.”

But Davis–Bully Dan Davis of the Elmira B. MacCleave–had dropped his oars and thrust his face into his mittened hands, weeping like a child.

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In Mighty Waters by Dalhousie University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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