Main Contents & Search
Sarah Orne Jewett
Deephaven seemed more like one of the lazy little English seaside towns than any other. It was not in the least American. There was no excitement about anything; there were no manufactories; nobody seemed in the least hurry. The only foreigners were a few stranded sailors. I do not know when a house or a new building of any kind had been built; the men were farmers, or went outward in boats, or inward in fish-wagons, or sometimes mackerel and halibut fishing in schooners for the city markets. Sometimes a schooner came to one of the wharves to load with hay or firewood; but Deephaven used to be a town of note, rich and busy, as its forsaken warehouses show.
We knew almost all the fisher-people at the shore, even old Dinnett, who lived an apparently desolate life by himself in a hut and was reputed to have been a bloodthirsty pirate in his youth. He was consequently feared by all the children, and for misdemeanors in his latter days avoided generally. Kate talked with him awhile one day on the shore, and made him come up with her for a bandage for his hand which she saw he had hurt badly; and the next morning he brought us a "new" lobster apiece, - fishermen mean that a thing is only not salted when they say it is "fresh." We happened to be in the hall, and received him ourselves, and gave him a great piece of tobacco and (unintentionally) the means of drinking our health. "Bless your pretty hearts!" said he; "may ye be happy, and live long, and get good husbands, and if they ain't good to you may they die from you!"
None of our friends were more interesting than the fishermen. The fish-houses, which might be called the business centre of the town, were at a little distance from the old warehouses, farther down the harbor shore, and were ready to fall down in despair. There were some fishermen who lived near by, but most of them were also farmers in a small way, and lived in the village or farther inland. From our eastern windows we could see the moorings, and we always liked to watch the boats go out or come straying in, one after the other, tipping and skimming under the square little sails; and we often went down to the fish-houses to see what kind of a catch there had been.
I should have imagined that the sea would become very commonplace to men whose business was carried on in boats, and who had spent night after night and day after day from their boyhood on the water; but that is a mistake. They have an awe of the sea and of its mysteries, and of what it hides away from us. They are childish in their wonder at any strange creature which they find. If they have not seen the sea-serpent, they believe, I am sure, that other people have, and when a great shark or black-fish or sword-fish was taken and brought in shore, everybody went to see it, and we talked about it, and how brave its conqueror was, and what a fight there had been, for a long time afterward.
I said that we liked to see the boats go out, but I must not give you the impression that we saw them often, for they weighed anchor at an early hour in the morning. I remember once there was a light fog over the sea, lifting fast, as the sun was coming up, and the brownish sails disappeared in the mist, while voices could still be heard for some minutes after the men were hidden from sight. This gave one a curious feeling, but afterward, when the sun had risen, everything looked much the same as usual; the fog had gone, and the dories and even the larger boats were distant specks on the sparkling sea.
One afternoon we made a new acquaintance in this wise. We went down to the shore to see if we could hire a conveyance to the lighthouse the next morning. We often went out early in one of the fishing-boats, and after we had stayed as long as we pleased, Mr. Kew would bring us home. It was quiet enough that day, for not a single boat had come in, and there were no men to be seen along-shore. There was a solemn company of lobster-coops or cages which had been brought in to be mended. They always amused Kate. She said they seemed to her like droll old women telling each other secrets. These were scattered about in different attitudes, and looked more confidential than usual.
Just as we were going away we happened to see a man at work in one of the sheds. He was the fisherman whom we knew least of all; and odd-looking, silent sort of man, more sunburnt and weather-beaten than any of the others. We had learned to know him by the bright red flannel shirt he always wore, and besides, he was lame; some one told us he had had a bad fall once, on board ship. Kate and I had always wished we could find a chance to talk with him. He looked up at us pleasantly, and when we nodded and smiled, he said "Good day" in a gruff, hearty voice, and went on with his work, cleaning mackerel.
"Do you mind our watching you?" asked Kate.
"No, ma'am!" said the fisherman emphatically. So there we stood.
Those fish-houses were curious places, so different from any other kind of workshop. In this there was a seine, or part of one, festooned among the cross-beams overhead, and there were snarled fishing-lines, and barrows to carry fish in, like wheelbarrows without wheels; there were the queer round lobster-nets, and "kits" of salt mackerel, tubs of bait, and piles of clams; and some queer bones, and parts of remarkable fish, and lobster-claws of surprising size fastened on the walls for ornament. There was a pile of rubbish down at the end; I dare say it was all useful, however, - there is such mystery about the business.
Kate and I were never tired of hearing of the fish that come at different times of the year, and go away again, like the birds; or of the actions of the dog-fish, which the 'longshore-men hate so bitterly; and then there are such curious legends and traditions, of which almost all fishermen have a store.
"I think mackerel are the prettiest fish that swim," said I presently.
"So do I, miss," said the man, "not to say but I've seen more fancy-looking fish down in southern waters, bright as any flower you ever see; but a mackerel," holding up one admiringly, "why, they're so clean-built and trig-looking! Put a cod alongside, and he looks as lumbering as an old-fashioned Dutch brig aside a yacht.
"Those are good-looking fish, but they an't made much account of," continued our friend, as he pushed aside the mackerel and took another tub. "They're hake, I s'pose you know. But I forgot, - I can't stop to bother with them now." And he pulled forward a barrow full of small fish, flat and hard, with pointed, bony heads.
"Those are porgies, aren't they?" asked Kate.
"Yes," said the man, "an' I'm going to sliver them for the trawls."
We knew what the trawls were, and supposed that the porgies were to be used for bait; and we soon found out what "slivering" meant, by seeing him take them by the head and cut a slice from first one side and then the other in such a way that the pieces looked not unlike smaller fish.
"It seems to me," said I, "that fishermen always have sharper knives than other people."
"Yes, we do like a sharp knife in our trade; and then we are mostly strong-handed."
He was throwing the porgies' heads and backbones - all that was left of them after slivering - in a heap, and now several cats walked in as if they felt at home, and began a hearty lunch. "What a troop of pussies there is round here," said I; "I wonder what will become of them in the winter, - though, to be sure, the fishing goes on just the same."
"The better part of them don't get through the cold weather," said Danny. "Two or three of the old ones have been here for years, and are as much belonging to Deephaven as the meetin'-house; but the rest of them an't to be depended on. You'll miss the young ones by the dozen, come spring. I don't know myself but they move inland in the fall of the year; they're knowing enough, if that's all!"
Kate and I stood in the wide doorway, arm in arm, looking sometimes at the queer fisherman and the porgies, and sometimes out to sea. It was low tide; the wind had risen a little, and the heavy salt air blew toward us from the wet brown ledges in the rocky harbor. The sea was bright blue, and the sun was shining. Two gulls were swinging lazily to and fro; there was a flock of sand-pipers down by the water's edge, in a great hurry, as usual.
Presently the fisherman spoke again, beginning with an odd laugh: "I was scared last winter! Jack Scudder and me, we were up in the Cap'n Manning storehouse hunting for a half-bar'l of salt the skipper said was there. It was an awful blustering kind of day, with a thin icy rain blowing from all points at once; sea roaring as if it wished it could come ashore and put a stop to everything. Bad days at sea, them are; rigging all froze up. As I was saying, we were hunting for a half-bar'l of salt, and I laid hold of a bar'l that had something heavy in the bottom, and tilted it up, and my eye! there was a stir and a scratch and a squeal, and out went some kind of a creatur', and I jumped back, not looking for anything live, but I see in a minute it was a cat; and perhaps you think it is a big story, but there were eight more in there, hived in together to keep warm. I car'd 'em up some new fish that night; they seemed short of provisions. We hadn't been out fishing as much as common, they hadn't dared to be round the fish-houses much, for a fellow who came in on a coaster had a dog, and he used to chase 'em. Hard chance they had, and lots of 'em died, I guess; but there seem to be some survivin' relatives, an' al'ays just so hungry! I used to feed them some when I was ashore. I think likely you've heard that a cat will fetch you bad luck; but I don't know 's that made much difference to me. I kind of like to keep on the right side of 'em, too; if ever I have a bad dream there's sure to be a cat in it; but I was brought up to be clever to dumb beasts, an' I guess it's my natur'. Except fish," said Danny after a minute's thought; "but then it never seems like they had feelin's like creatur's that live ashore." And we all laughed heartily and felt well acquainted.
"I s'pose you misses will laugh if I tell ye I kept a kitty once myself." This was said rather shyly, and there was evidently a story, so we were much interested, and Kate said, "Please tell us about it; was it at sea?"
"Yes, it was at sea; leastways, on a coaster. I got her in a sing'lar kind of way: it was one afternoon we were lying alongside Charlestown Bridge, and I heard a young cat screeching real pitiful; and after I looked all round, I see her in the water clutching on to the pier of the bridge, and some little divils of boys were heaving rocks down at her. I got into the schooner's tag-boat quick, I tell ye, and pushed off for her, 'n' she let go just as I got there, 'n' I guess you never saw a more miser'ble-looking creatur' than I fished out of the water. Cold weather it was. Her leg was hurt, and her eye, and I thought first I'd drop her overboard again, then I didn't, and I took her aboard the schooner and put her by the stove. I thought she might as well die where it was warm. She eat a little mite of chowder before night, but she was very slim; but next morning, when I went to see if she was dead, she fell to licking my finger, and she did purr away like a dolphin. One of her eyes was out, where a stone had took her, and she never got any use of it, but she used to look at you so clever with the other, and she got well of her lame foot after a while. I got to be ter'ble fond of her. She was just the knowingest thing you ever saw, and she used to sleep alongside of me in my bunk, and like as not she would go on deck with me when it was my watch. I was coasting then for a year and eight months, and I kept her all the time. We used to be in harbor consider'ble, and about eight o'clock in the forenoon I used to drop a line and catch her a couple of cunners. Now, it is cur'us that she used to know when I was fishing for her. She could pounce on them fish and carry them off and growl, and she knew when I got a bite, - she'd watch the line; but when we were mackereling she never give us any trouble. She would never lift a paw to touch any of our fish. She didn't have the thieving ways common to most cats. She used to set round on deck in fair weather, and when the wind blew she al'ays kept herself below. Sometimes when we were in port she would go ashore awhile, and fetch back a bird or a mouse, but she wouldn't eat it till she come and showed it to me. She never wanted to stop long ashore, though I never shut her up; I always give her her liberty. I got a good deal of joking about her from the fellows, but she was a sight of company. I don't know as I ever had anything like me as much as she did. Not to say as I ever had much of any trouble with anybody, ashore or afloat. I'm a still kind of fellow, for all I look so rough.
"But then, I han't had a home, what I call a home, since I was going on nine year old."
"How has that happened?" asked Kate.
"Well, mother, she died, and I was bound out to a man in the tanning trade, and I hated him, and I hated the trade; and when I was a little bigger I ran away, and I've followed the sea ever since. I wasn't much use to him, I guess; leastways, he never took the trouble to hunt me up.
"About the best place I ever was in was a hospital. It was in foreign parts. Ye see I'm crippled some? I fell from the topsail yard to the deck, and I struck my shoulder, and broke my leg, and banged myself all up. It was to a nuns' hospital where they took me. All of the nuns were Catholics, and they wore big white things on their heads. I don't suppose you ever saw any. Have you? Well, now, that's queer! When I was first there I was scared of them; they were real ladies, and I wasn't used to being in a house, any way. One of them, that took care of me most of the time, why, she would even set up half the night with me, and I couldn't begin to tell you how good-natured she was, an' she'd look real sorry too. I used to be ugly, I ached so, along in the first of my being there, but I spoke of it when I was coming away, and she said it was all right. She used to feed me, that lady did; and there were some days I couldn't lift my head, and she would rise it on her arm. She give me a little mite of a book, when I come away. I'm not much of a hand at reading, but I always kept it on account of her. She was so pleased when I got so 's to set up in a chair and look out of the window. She wasn't much of a hand to talk English. I did feel bad to come away from there; I 'most wished I could be sick a while longer. I never said much of anything either, and I don't know but she thought it was queer, but I am a dreadful clumsy man to say anything, and I got flustered. I don't know 's I mind telling you; I was 'most a-crying. I used to think I'd lay by some money and ship for there and carry her something real pretty. But I don't rank able-bodied seaman like I used, and it's as much as I can do to get a berth on a coaster; I suppose I might go as cook. I liked to have died with my hurt at that hospital, but when I was getting well it made me think of when I was a mite of a chap to home before mother died, to be laying there in a clean bed with somebody to do for me. Guess you think I'm a good hand to spin long yarns; somehow it comes easy to talk to-day."
"What became of your cat?" asked Kate, after a pause, during which our friend sliced away at the porgies.
"I never rightfully knew; it was in Salem harbor, and a windy night. I was on deck consider'ble, for the schooner pitched lively, and once or twice she dragged her anchor. I never saw the kitty after she eat her supper. I remember I gave her some milk, - I used to buy her a pint once in a while for a treat; I don't know but she might have gone off on a cake of ice, but it did seem as if she had too much sense for that. Most likely she missed her footing, and fell overboard in the dark. She was marked real pretty, black and white, and kep' herself just as clean! She knew as well as could be when foul weather was coming; she would bother round and act queer; but when the sun was out she would sit round on deck as pleased as a queen. There! I feel bad sometimes when I think of her, and I never went into Salem since without hoping that I should see her. I don't know but if I was a-going to begin my life over again, I'd settle down ashore and have a snug little house and farm it. But I guess I shall do better at fishing. Give me a trig-built topsail schooner painted up nice, with a stripe on her, and clean sails, and a fresh wind with the sun a-shining, and I feel first-rate."
"Do you believe that codfish swallow stones before a storm?" asked Kate. I had been thinking about the lonely fisherman in a sentimental way, and so irrelevant a question shocked me. "I saw he felt slightly embarrassed at having talked about his affairs so much," Kate told me afterward, "and I thought we should leave him feeling more at his ease if we talked about fish for a while." And sure enough he did seem relieved, and gave us his opinion about the codfish at once, adding that he never cared much for cod any way; folks up country bought 'em a good deal, he heard. Give him a haddock right out of the water for his dinner!
"I never can remember," said Kate, "whether it is cod or haddock that have a black stripe along their sides - "
"O, those are haddock," said I; "they say that the Devil caught a haddock once, and it slipped through his fingers and got scorched; so all the haddock had the same mark afterward."
"Well, now, how did you know that old story?" said Danny, laughing heartily; "ye mustn't believe all the old stories ye hear, mind ye!"
"O, no," said we.
"Hullo! There's Jim Toggerson's boat close in shore. She sets low in the water, so he's done well. He and Skipper Scudder have been our deep-sea fishing since yesterday."
Our friend pushed the porgies back into a corner, stuck his knife into a beam, and we hurried down to the shore. Kate and I sat on the pebbles, and he went out to the moorings in a dirty dory to help unload the fish.
We afterward saw a great deal of Danny, as all the men called him. But though Kate and I tried our best and used our utmost skill and tact to make him tell us more about himself, he never did. But perhaps there was nothing more to be told.The day we left Deephaven we went down to the shore to say good by to him and to some other friends, and he said, "Goin', are ye? Well, I'm sorry; ye've treated me first-rate; the Lord bless ye!" and then was so much mortified at the way he had said farewell that he turned and fled round the corner of the fish-house.
sand-pipers: A sandpiper is a bird of the snipe family, found along the New England seacoast.
[ Back ]
Charlestown Bridge: In Charlestown, MA, across the Charles river.
[ Back ]
cunners: a cunner, or bergall, is a small, salt-water food fish found along the coast of eastern North America.
[ Back ]
porgies: common name for a variety of species of food fish.
[ Back ]
Salem harbor: In Salem, MA.
[ Back ]
Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, assisted by Tanner Brossart, Coe College.
Main Contents & Search