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Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 134.djvu/70

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64
NORTH-COUNTRY FISHERMEN.

ion. Nothing can well be more ludicrous than these groups of sturdy men, with figures that seem half as broad as they are long, stepping the quarterdeck under the lee of some shed that allows them about a couple of strides either way. Now and again one of them who constitutes himself the look-out will show his head cautiously round the corner and take a circular observation seaward, drawing back the moment the duty is discharged. To be sure, there is nothing in the world to note. The odds are, with the wind in that quarter, that it may go on blowing great guns for days; and when the wind has fallen it must be many hours more before the waves follow its example. That stolid resignation to the inevitable is a triumph of patience, and savors in some degree of Mohammedan fatalism. For all the time the bread-winning is in suspense, and no one has a better notion of the worth of a day's wage than these unemotional victims of uncontrollable circumstances. But, thanks to strong tobacco and short pipes, they tide over the interval in seeming contentment; and even when the long-looked-for time comes at last they are not flurried out of their constitutional deliberation. The wind, that had been whistling through the chimney-pots more fitfully, sank fairly down with the sun; and the whole of the village is afoot at daybreak, with everything carefully prepared beforehand. The lines are knotted and coiled, the supplies of bait laid in, and the boats all ready for launching. One after another they are hoisted upon wheels, and run down the shelving beach by dozens of willing arms. The crews tumble in, three or four men and a boy. The heavy oars are out, and away they labor through the winding channel among the half-submerged rocks. It is no easy navigation even now, for the groundswell is chafing in the passage which confines it, and were the weather-worn planks dashed against the jagged points the broad-bottomed boat would shiver like a walnut-shell. But strength and skill run the gauntlet safely, and one by one they are tossing in the offing. It is a pretty sight to any one looking down from the bluffs, the scattering of the little fishing fleet. The sun has been getting the better of the breaking mist; he is shining brilliantly on the white-crested waves, and gilding the brown patches of seaweed. The damp on the dark rocks, with their fluttering fringes of weed, makes them glisten like polished ebony. The flocks of white-breasted seagulls are stooping and screaming overhead, or gathering clamorously on the spits of sand in search of materials for a voracious breakfast. The broad black boats are dancing and disappearing like so many corks, in a way that would be terribly trying to unseasoned diaphragms. But a day like that, supposing the take to be successful, is one of the white-letter days in the fisherman's calendar. He strips his tarpaulin coat and over-jersey, and he goes about his work luxuriously in the pleasant warmth.

That is literally the sunny side of his life; but then comes the reverse. We do not speak of habitual exposure to wet and cold, for to that he is comparatively insensible, or he endures it in the way of his business. But there is always the chance of a surprise which maybe fatal, or which, at all events, may cost him his nets or lines. Though tolerably well read in the signs of the weather, he is very far from infallible. Besides, he cannot always be shirking the risks he apprehends, and it is not his way to sin on the side of over-caution. The wind shifts round suddenly, or a storm blows up from the land. Then his return is cut off as effectually as if the beach were sealed by a shoal of torpedoes. Many of the fishing hamlets, like the one we have described, are only to be approached through such a labyrinth of reefs as we have noticed. In a gale off the shore, the passage is impracticable, for even steering in after dark in favorable weather you must take the bearings by the lights that are run up to landmarks. If the worst come to the worst, there is nothing for it but to run, keeping the boat before the wind and trusting in Providence. The men must do their best to give a berth to the dangerous shore where their wives and families are anxiously expecting them; and if they can keep the boat afloat by skilful steering and indefatigable baling, and if they can support sinking nature on their scanty stores, they drive past harbors that offer them no refuge, till they are drifted at last on the dunes of the Dutch coast or to an anchorage in one of the northern estuaries.