Fisher of Men
Piety wasn't enough; Parson Gil had to prove his manhood too
KENNETH PAYSON KEMPTON
GIL EASTON worked three hours Saturday morning, and about eleven o’clock got up and stuffed all his sheets of sermon paper into the stove. They roared up for a minute, then died to silence, as his voice would have done if he had said those words in church tomorrow. That’s all he was good for, he told himself; a small, hot, windy sound and then silence. He could get the ladies; whatever he said, the ladies would tell him afterward how stimulating or how comforting he was. They would say so again on his parish calls, at Ladies’ Aid, Minorca Society, Wednesday Prayer Meeting, Bible Class, Pastor’s Reception, and Friday Sociable. The men knew better. Those few present, in church or elsewhere, would look down their noses and mention the weather, or sneak out without speaking at all.
At twenty-five, your first job only three months old, this hurts. It wasn’t praise he wanted, Gil told himself. If he could only get them out of the habit of treating him as if he were some new kind of poison, lie wouldn’t care how much they cursed or kidded him; at least he would feel he was giving them something to think about.
He had been standing there by the stove, looking down on the waterfront where Sewall Spurr and his boys were unloading fish. A truck was backed down on the wharf, and two or three local men were packing the herring in ice and rolling the barrels onto the truck. Old Janus Ellison sat on his box in the sun, whittling and looking on. Ten men in all. Gil wished he could work like that once in a while. He got his hat, told Mrs. Albee he’d be back for dinner, and went down there.
“ ’Morning,” he said, walking along the stringer.
They had been talking, but were silent now. Some nodded, others only spat. Gambrelli, who owned the truck and lived out of town, spoke up and said it was a fine day. Sewall Spurr scowled at his dip net.
Gil found another box and set it beside old Janus Ellison's. After a while the talk started up again. “Yes, sir,” Janus said. “He wa’n’t in that pound five minutes, but when they got him out one side of his face and both hands was chawed to the bone, and he bled to death before they could get the doctor to him.” Gil was filling his pipe. “What did it?” he asked. He thought maybe this gory tale was for his benefit.
“Dogfish,” Ellison told him. “Like a small shark, only meaner. Meanest thing alive, eat anything but rock. They school round here just to spoil the fishing; get in where they ain’t wanted and raise hell.”
“It’s all nonsense,” Sewrall Spurr growled from his dory. “Dogs won’t do that.” "They did, I tell you. My Uncle Zenas was there.”
“Your Uncle Zenas was the worst liar this town ever saw, and that’s going some.”
The laugh was on Janus, and he shut up. He sat there pursing his mouth and throwing sinister looks at Spurr.
GIL smoked, watching the work go forward without haste or delay. He knew Sewall Spurr and his boys had been up most of the night, cleaning out their pocket under Thumbcap and towing laden dories in here to the wharf. He admired the easy way they took twelve hours of hard work, and he liked being here with them.
Suddenly Janus spoke up. “Reverend,” he said to Gil, but in the loud voice that calls on others to listen, “you have heard it said my Uncle Zenas was a liar.
Let it pass. But I want to tell you here and now, they’s a man alive in this town who for general all-round wickedness could give my Uncle Zenas cards and spades, and beat him without trying. Now you’re a fisher of men, like the Bible says. Reverend, why’n’t you fish him out of sin?”
“Who is it?” Gil asked, laughing.
“Mr. Sewall Spurr,” Janus said gravely.
Gil didn’t know what to say. He looked again at Spurr, six foot three or so and thick as a drum, his hide burned fire red, scales all over his boots and oilskins. “Why,” he stammered, “he doesn’t look very wicked.”
“Doesn’t look . . Oh, my. You just foller him wherever he goes tonight when he
gets through work, that’s all.”
Everybody was waiting. Gil didn’t know whether they were kidding him or not. But he had to do something. He got up and walked over to the cap-log, close to Sewall. “Mr. Spurr.” he said in a low voice, “never mind him. But what’s the harm in coming to church once in a while?”
He could sec it was a spot for the man to he in. tired and hungry as he was. and his boys doubled over with half-concealed mirth at their old man getting talked to. He couldn t blame Sewall if he got mad.
‘‘Oh. fudge.” Sewall growled. ‘‘I ain't got time.”
“Look.” Gil said. “I’ll do as he says go round with you tonight if you’ll come to church tomorrow.” >f
Sewall looked him up and down, his patience gone. “You get the hell out of here, he said.
There was nothing heard but Ellison's giggle for maybe half a minute. Gil stared at the man in the dory, and Sewall stared back.
“And keep away from my house too,” Sewall sent up as an afterthought. “See?”
After a while Gil turned and went along the wharf. He heard Ellison say, “It’s a shame, a fine big boy like that with nothing to do. Why, he’d ought to be—”
“Get goin’.” he heard Sewall Spurr yell at his crew. “Get to work here, so’s we can eat.”
They had put it right up to him, Gil thought. He didn’t know where this would lead, but it was better than burning sermons.
HE FOUND his way upriver and knocked on the Spurr back door about five o’clock. Janus Ellison had said “tonight.” Gil wasn’t sure how early they called it night in this jiart of the country, but he knew deviltry could set in anywhere by sundown. He had been busy round his place all afternoon, banking the cellar windows against winter as Mrs. Albee advised, and he had told her if he didn't arrive home by six. to get her own supper and go on over to the pictures, leave his beans warm for him.
Nobody came to the door, so he rapped again, louder. He looked down to the shore and saw Spurr’s big white fisherman on her mooring, the dories tailed out astern and the seines salted down and piled on the landing. The whole place seemed pretty quiet for “hell-raising.”
Then he heard somebody inside coming downstairs. He turned back to the door just as it opened. Dusk was falling, but he could see a girl there.
“I must have been asleep,” she said. Then she saw who he w'as and made a small startled sound.
Gil was taken aback himself. “Too bad to bother you. Is your father here?” He hadn’t heard anything about a daughter. The old man was a widower; his boys were married and had their own places.
“Sewall? He hasn’t been home since dinner.” She waved a pretty hand toward the town. “He went off with the boys,” she said as if excusing him.
“Oh.” Gil understood now. He had heard of the old man losing a son, his oldest; this would be the widow, keeping house for him. “Could I wait?” he asked.
“We-ell, I don’t know. He might be back any minute.” She seemed to be afraid of that; Gil saw' her look past him up the lane. “Yes, come in,” she said quickly, flushing.
So he stepped into the kitchen, and she set a chair for him. There was a baby asleep over on the couch. The room was neat and clean, self-respecting.
"You know how a parson has to start in.” He laughed uncomfortably. "I’ve been here since July, but I don’t remember seeing you.”
“I came once,” she said. She had gone over to cover up the baby, and she turned and smiled at him. “I’d like to come again. The thing is, fishing all hours, Sewall wants his meals when he gets in. Sunday's just another day.” "If I could get him there too?”
She looked as if she thought Gil was joking, but when she saw he wasn’t her face sobered. “Oh. I don’t believe.” Presently she came over and sat across from him at the table. She glanced down, her head tipped as she listened up the road. "He wouldn’t want me to go, even,” she said, low. “He’s dead set against all that.”
Gil had taken to looking at her and hardly heard. “I gathered lie doesn’t think much of me.”
"It’s not you, it’s the whole business. He’s had a hard time, losing Sade and then ...” She looked out the window. "And Manley. It’s made him hard, turned him against -well, religion.”
There was nothing said for a little while. Gil looked down at his hands. The challenge of this first job. his helplessness to meet it, crowded down on him. “I wish I could get him.” he said. He looked up at her and found her blue eyes on him, steady and serene. “I’d give almost anything “Shhh,” she said, getting up. She seemed tall; Gil could feel her strength and patience. She put out a hand, rough with work, and touched his clenched on the table. “You go easy with him, Mr. Easton.”
r i HERE WAS the rattle of a little old car coming down * the lane, and somebody singing.
The machine stopped in a cloud of dust just outside the house, and Gil saw Sewall Spurr getting out backward.
He stumbled a little,
“Tha’s no way, Leland,” he yelled back. “Whoever heard oí a man goin’ home Sat’day night? You pull them pants off her. put ’em on yourself.”
The boys in the car were laughing at him. The car roared and chattered, turning, and went up out of sight.
Sewall stared after it a minute, mumbling. and then headed for the door.
The girl had hurried over to let him in. "Mr. Easton’s here to see you,
"Never heard of—huh?” There was a dead pause. "Let’s have some light here,” he said in a different voice.
She pulled on the overhead, and there he was in the doorway, his legs braced, scowling.
Gil stood up and said: “ 'Evening, l.Ir. Spurr.”
“You want some supper. Sew?” the girl asked him. She had gone over to the stove and was stirring something. “Maybe Mr. Easton will—”
But Sewall Spurr never stopped looking at Gil from under his bushy eyebrows. “No. I’m goin’out to the weir. Mack’rel running. Where’s my boots?”
“W'hy, you probably left them down by the shore. If you’re going out, Sew, why don’t you call the boys; why’d you let them ”
“They ain’t neither down by the shore,” he yelled at her. “They’re in the shed. Here, I’ll get ’em myself. Boys, boys—wha’d’ I want with them lollipops?” He mimicked a child whining: “Gotta go home to ma-ma ...” On his w'ay through to the shed door he stopped and turned on Gil, sw'ung back his arm as if he meant to cuff him. “Didn’t I tell you keep away from here?”
Gil looked at him. “Yes, sir.”
“I’d like to talk to you. It doesn’t have to be here. Would you let me go out fishing with you?”
"So we could talk.”
“I don’t want none of your talk.”
"Well, I might be able to help.”
"You?” Sewall took a step toward him. “You help me fish?”
“Let him go for the ride, Sew,” the girl’s quiet voice moved in. "It’ll be company.”
Sewall turned part way toward her, and his face relaxed. “Company!” he sneered. But he said to Gil: “You want to see some fish?”
“Wait’ll I get my boots.” He lurched out.
Gil stepped close to the girl. There was only a minute, and he spoke low: “Look, what’s your name?”
“June,” she said. “Will you come again?”
“I don’t know. Soon.”
She smiled in a way she had, her eyes suddenly shining. “Please be careful. He doesn’t care for anybody or any—” The boots thumped outside. Sewall Spurr marched through the kitchen w ithout a look either way. “If you’re all through visiting,” he sent over his shoulder.
As Gil followed, he heard the baby start to whimper. He heard her soothing it. He pictured her there.
HAVE a drink.” Sewall said.
“Scared of it, huh?” Sewall took one himself, said “Ha!” and rammed the bottle back on his hip.
“No. I just don’t drink. But even if I did, I’d want to keep my job.”
“So that’s it.” He seemed pleased, as if he had found something. “Let you smoke?”
Gil filled his pipe. “Some parishes don’t. They’re broad-minded here.”
At the wheel of the motorboat, Sewall looked at him sideways without turning. “What a life!” he summed up.
Gil puffed doggedly. “Once in a while you can help people. It’s worth it.” He wrondered, though.
"In a pig’s eye.”
They were well outside by now, the river mouth opening dark and wide under a big white moon; cool, dear, with a light westerly. The boat towed one dory, so short her bow seemed to hang over the counter. Sew'all had opened his motor w'ide for the first mile or two, then cut her down to run quiet; every so often he w'ould grumble at something, not satisfied. Gil could see the black of Thumbcap ahead, and once in a while a ghost-jump of surf off the ledges by the western shore. There was still no sea where they were.
“Swim?” Sewall asked suddenly.
“Well! That’s more’n I can,” Sewall bragged. Gil thought there was something behind the old man’s laugh. “Bom to hang, anyway. Now I told those kids they better
learn to swim before they come along of me.” He was quiet for a minute. “They don’t give a fig what you say, they know all the answers.”
Gil didn’t speak, but he thought of that boy who had died. Drowned, maybe.
“I might make a fisherman of you yet,” Sewall said, and shut up.
Gil had never known anything like it. The man had a breath you could light, but he talked straight; he seemed soberer than when he got out of the car. Gil thought he might be kidding. “Thanks,” he said. “But I’ve got a trade.”
“Okay,” Sewall said. “You wanted to talk business with me. Okay, talk.”
IF IT had been anybody else. If things hadn’t happened just as they did. Certainly there was plenty to say. Gil couldn’t remember ever being stumped before. But every time he looked for words to begin with, all he saw was a girl who stood straight and smiled at him, her eyes suddenly shining. Gil didn’t say anything.
The old man was laughing.
They were close in under the island now, and you could see the tops of the weir stakes running out straight to the round of the pocket. Sew'all asked him to take the wheel. “When I say so, slow' her down like this and kick her into neutral, and reverse that way. See that buoy by the weir pocket door? Now we’ll see what you can do at a real job.”
He jumped onto the cabin trunk and moved forward to its harpoon stand with a gaff he had picked up on the way.
“Now,” he said pretty soon.
Gil bungled it, racing his engine and overshooting, but finally they got the mooring. Sewall’s silence was sharper than words. He took the buoy on deck, made the tail line fast, and came aft to cut the motor. Suddenly it was very still except for a small wash of undertow on the beach; and the big boat rocked gently. Sewall tipped his bottle straight up, then let it drop over the side. He sat down and began to fill his pipe.
“There ain’t a fish in this river,” he said.
They sat in the cockpit a long time, while the moon climbed overhead and started westing. The breeze fell, and it was so quiet you could hear the hiss of surf a mile away.
The tide ebbed; Gil could see the weir stakes grow, and a little rip like a fish’s tail sucking past each one. Soon the brush and twine began to appear.
“No place for fishing gear anyway,” Sewall said. He smoked hard, pipe after pipe. '
Along toward midnight the sky began to cloud over; first a wisp across the clear moon, then it shone through haze and was only a blur. The air changed; it grew warm and damp; the darkness felt sticky.
“Plenty of time for you to talk,” Sewall suggested. “If you was minded.”
Gil took a long breath. “All right. I’m no good at it, I admit it. But if you think you’re so smart at your job, where are those fish?”
Sewall spat and was quiet.
Gil could feel the old man’s eyes on him in the dark, lie felt sunk. He ought to give it up, he told himself; he was nothing but a hypocrite who got fine words out of books, but when it came to doing anything, he couldn’t even pick up a mooring. He was a phonograph record. Telling everybody to keep their eyes on God, while he laid his on the first pretty girl to come his way.
“All anybody asks in this dod-ram world,” Sewall Spurr was saying, “is a break. But see what you get. Bad weather ten months in twelve. Low-price fish, high-price gas. Losing gear -whurp! — faster'n you can replace it. And those tormented kids . .
Suddenly he stood up. He seemed to be sniffing. “Look, boy ! Look, look, look,” he said under his breath.
IL couldn’t see a thing.
“Run to a thousand bushel or I’m a cockeyed liar. Coming too fast; must be something after ’em to come like that.”
“Stay where you be.” Sewall was out of the boat and into the dory, casting off, picking up an oar without a sound. “Dogs feeding on their tail. You'll see something now.”
Gil saw a snaky shimmer on the water, a long thick whiplash of phosphorescence gliding toward the shore end of the weir. It moved quick but with caution, like a single live thing. The far end looked frayed, and he heard splashing there, as if the stragglers were at play. “Dogs?” he said.
“We’ll fix ’em.” In a moment Sewall was sculling the
dory across to the weir pocket door. “Hold her stern while I . . . ” He laid down his oar and stepped forward. Gil caught the high sternboard of the dory and held it. Sewall’s voice came grunting as he lay out in her bow. “Can’t -come over—me.” He was working with his hands. “There,” he said, and walked aft in the dory with a line. “Tail onto that, easy.” Gil hauled till the big boat's counter was in the brush, and they made her fast with another line. He saw the boat lay like a barrier, to turn the fish in the open weir door.
"I’ll go nurse ’em,” Sewall said, “and cut off those misters. Pass me this line as I come by on their heels; it’s to shut the door. I’ll be inside, see? The door goes hard, tide and all. Take your gaff, and when I say, you shove like the devil on the door frame. Le’see what you can do now.”
He moved away toward the school, sculling without noise. “When the leaders make alongside,” his voice came back, “you hit the butt of your gaff on her rail, like this.” A light double knock with his oar.
“Okay, Sewall.” Gil held the line and the gaff. He was shaking a little, lie had seen the fish pause at that small thumping, then come on again. Sewall had been talking to him as he would talk to anybody he had hired. Gil gripped the gaff and the line, scowling into the darkness.
THE HEAD of the column reached the shore end of the weir, turned and lined straight out. They came toward him, feeling along the stakes for an opening. He heard Sewall mumbling, once in a while thumping softly that way. It wasn’t time yet for Gil to do anything, but it seemed as if he couldn’t wait. Coming straight at him, the crinkly shine on the water moved so slow he thought they had stopped.
Sewall knocked louder, or else he was coming nearer too. He began to yell; Gil couldn’t make out what he said. The head of the school was right on him, coming fast. “Is it ti-ime?” Gil called. But Sewall was carrying on so by now, he couldn't have heard. Gil banged the gaff on the rail for all he was worth. And the leaders veered for the ojxn door, the huge lot of them began to ;xur into the jxx'ket.
Gil had never seen anything like it or felt anything like this before. His heart pounded in his throat; he wanted to sing. He thought he was doing all right so far, he hoped he was doing his part. He kept up his thumping, and the fish came and came as if he were calling them, and those inside were filling up one side of the pound and thrashing the top of the water till it boiled. Gil heard Sewall coming with the last of them, yelling and banging away ; and pretty soon you could see his black shape sculling, jerking out his oar to stab the water, sculling again with wide two-handed sweeps —and cursing the dogfish in a steady stream: “Out o’ that, you ornery things! Leave my fish be! Freeze onto somebody else’s share!”
St) the dory came close, swaying and plunging. Gil shouted, "I Iere, Sewall,” and got the line into the old man’s hand as Sewall went by into the (xx ket. And after he had passed, Gil saw his wake agitated by black pointed spines and twisting pale bellies diving in after him.
“Hey, Sewall, they’re getting—”
“Git that gaff, shove her home!” The old man grunted, yanking on his line. The water rolled with the weight of dogfish, like slow boiling. Gil found the weir door-frame with the point of his gaff. I íe shoved, and the dmr started to close, then stuck.
"Now!" Sewall bawled. “Together!”
Gil braced his feet and put everything he had on the pole. The weir dx)r went home with a jerk that almost took him overboard. “There she goes, Sewall. We got her!”
Gil was up on the afterdeck, X*ering into the dark. He couldn’t make out this sudden silence. “Sewall,” he called. “Hey, Sewall Spurr!”
The dory slid softly by his feet, nibbing on the brush. There was nolxxly in it. But just out beyond, he saw the surface stir, and Sewall came up churning and fighting and screaming ... in the midst of flailing tails that whipped the water into froth.
Gil had the gaff in his hands. He Ixxiked it into Sewall’s clothing and pulled him aboard.
IS THERE a starter, Sewall?” Gil asked, bending over him, in the cockpit. He couldn’t make out what Sewall said, and thought he wouldn’t bother him if he could help it. He had covered him with some canvas and oilskins he found in the cuddy. There wasn’t much more he could do for him, and he thought the best thing was to put for home as quickly as he could.
He found a flashlight in the cuddy. There was a crank by the flywheel, and he saw the switch on the bulkhead; the motor was still warm, and, as luck would have it, it started. He cast off his stern line and then the mooring. When the buoy was clear he kicked the gearshift and opened his throttle slowly till it was nearly wide, and headed back the way they had come. He had a vague idea of that and no more; he hadn’t noticed any lights coming out, but he saw a small one now on the black shore and steered for it. Presently it turned out to be the light over the town float, Continued on page 27
Fisher of Men
Continued from page 7—Starts on page 5
just what he wanted. Luck was with him, he thought. It was the halt leading the blind, all right.
He had seen his hand bleeding while he was at the motor, and he thought now to suck at it once in a while. His arms were wet up to the shoulder, but he didn’t feel specially cold. The way home seemed much longer than going out, the boat made more noise and seemed to be throwing water and going like the wind. Once in a while he would hold the wheel steady and lean down and speak to Sewall.
“How’re you doing, Sewall? You hang on, we’re getting there.”
Sewall just bubbled and mumbled, but Gil thought maybe the sound of a voice helped some. Once in a while he put the flash on him to make sure he was covered, and he saw the blood spreading on the cockpit floor. He decided to take Sewall to his own house; it was nearer, and the doctor lived just across the road.
Gil couldn’t make a very good landing; he hit the float a thump, but it saved time. He cut his switch and took the bow line to a ringbolt on the float. “Come on, Sewall,” he said. “End of the line, all change.”
SEWALL raised up, but he couldn’t manage to stand. Gil got the bend of him over his shoulder and lifted. He stood up with him and walked ashore. Across the float and up the steep run, hauling on the rail with his free hand. Over the bridge and up the hill, one step at a time. The church loomed ahead. He made around the corner, and beyond the church yard he saw the light in his front room that Mrs. Albee had left for him. It cheered him; he thought he could make it then. Up the walk, up three steps to the porch. He braced and got the screen door open, pushed the other door in. He squeezed inside and turned to the right toward the lamp. He let Sewall down carefully on the couch, lifted up his feet and eased his head back. “Now you just lie there and rest,” he told him. Sewall didn’t say anything.
The telephone was out in the kitchen. Gil made a light out there. “Try Dr. Crooker, please,” he told the girl at the exchange. He thought the doc would never wake up; better if he had just run over and put a stone through the window.
“Hullo,” a voice said at last.
“Doctor, will you come across the road? Sewall Spurr’s here; he’s hurt pretty bad.” The doc hung up on him. Gil never had heard of such a thing; he started down the hall to go pull the doctor out of bed, and met him at the door. The doc had on his specs, slippers, and his pants over his nightshirt tail. “Well, where is he, boy?” Gil took him into the front room. “Hot water,” the doc said. “A lot of it, quick.”
Gil shook the fire and opened it up. He put on several pans of water; the tea kettle was hot already. When Dr. Crooker got going, Gil stood by to hand him things. He held the ether pad. While the doctor worked he wanted to know how it happened, and Gil told him. “He runs in hard luck,” Crooker said, sewing up Sewall’s face. “Kind of soured him, ever since Sade died.”
“I know,” Gil said. “He told me.”
The little man turned to look at him. “Yeah?” he said.
In an hour the room was a wreck, but
Sewall lay smooth as a smelt. “Not much risk of infection,” the doc said, picking up. “Just the loss of blood. He’ll live to get into a peck of trouble yet.”
After Crooker left, Gil went into the kitchen and made some coffee. It was getting light in the east over the river. He sat down and had a pipe with his coffee, looking out over the water, and dozed there until it was broad daylight. Then he telephoned June and told her.
“Bring him home,” she said at once. “I can take care of him.”
“He’s better here, June.”
“Poor Sew,” she said over and over. “One thing after another. Anyway, I’m glad you were there.”
“So’m I.” He heard Sewall call. “Look, I’ve got to go,” he told her awkwardly.
“Can I come over and see him? I’ll bring some— ”
“Sure. Honest, I’ve got to go.” Gil hung up and sat there with his head in his hand. All she thought of was Sewall, he thought. All right, she wasn’t going to get into his head again.
He got up and went into the front room. “What goes on here?” the old man said out of his bandage.
Gil sat down and talked to him. Everything was all right, he said. Better just take it easy.
Sewall laughed bitterly. “All anybody asks,” he said, “is a break.”
“Oh, quit your bellyaching,” Gil told him. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You’re lucky to be alive. Just because dogfish had never chewed you, you swore they never chewed anybody. Here you’ve got the finest girl in the world keeping house for you, and all you do is talk about your hard luck, and yell at her, and cuss out your boys that work so hard for you. You make me sick. Buck up now and try and make a man of yourself. Maybe some day you’ll come somewhere near deserving the breaks God gives you.” The old man looked at Gil a long time. Only his eyes showed, but you could tell he was amused. Finally he asked, “Do you talk like that in church, parson?”
Gil was startled. “Gosh, no!”
“You’d ought to. I, for one, would come and listen.” He closed his eyes to sleep.
GIL WAS still eating breakfast when the church bell rang. Finishing in a hurry, he saw that Sewall was all right and went out. With the sound of the bell he remembered that he didn’t have any sermon, and he laughed.
It was another handsome fall day. Already people were driving up and going in. Gil stood on the sidewalk in front of the open doors, looking downhill and across the wharf upriver to where June Spurr lived. For a minute he thought of her up there.
Miss Petunia Brill hurried by him, staring. He followed her with his eye into the shady vestibule. Organ chords came out as Miss Greenleaf warmed up.
Gil had no idea what he would tell them. But maybe that part of it didn’t matter so much. One thing sure, there was work to do here. He hoped he was man enough to do it. It would take time.
He went round back and in through the vestry'. The minute he got inside he saw June there, down front, pale and quiet, her hands folded. And she looked up and gave him that quick breaking smile.