Mackereling Out in the Gulf

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.

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