The Harps of God
a tragedy in three acts for fifteen men
by Kent Stetson
“Le corps humain cache notre réalité, le réalité c’est l’âme.” – Victor Hugo
March 31, 1914: Forty miles off the north coast of Newfoundland, on shifting sea ice, in a storm…
George Tuff emerges from behind a pinnacle of ice. He has led 130 sealers across six miles of sea ice from the ice-jammed SS Newfoundland to the SS Stephano in unstable, early spring weather. Exhausted, hungry and in foul temper, they board.
Captain Abram Kean, commodore of the fleet, orders Tuff and his men back on the ice after a fifteen minute ‛mug-up’ of weak tea and hard tack. Despite thickening weather, Tuff, nor any of the four master watches, nor a single common sealer questions Captain Abram Kean. Everyone is afraid of the Old Man, with good reason. The merchant class and their sealing captains rule with absolute authority.
The money earned on the ice is precious to the fishermen’s bare subsistence way of life, and berths aboard sealing ships are few. The seal fishery is a long standing rite of passage in Newfoundland. The seal hunt offers fishermen a modicum of self-reliance in a system where he is born and dies indebted to the merchant class.
Tuff leads his men over the starboard side of the SS Stephano. They watch her disappear quickly in heavy snow. In the course of the next 51 hours, the men are soaked by torrential rain, weighed down by wet, clumping snow, which turns to ice when the wind shifts. On the ice fields forty five miles off the north coast of Newfoundland, there is no shelter from the perishing wind of a Labrador Gale. Constant, measured movement is the only hope. If you lay down, you die. Delirious for home, warmth and family some wander into frigid water. Sane men misjudge a step in the dark and know their fate is sealed. Others simply come to a halt and die.
On the second night — stillness; silence; the fading breath of the killing wind. Under northern lights, brilliant stars and a full moon of transcendent beauty, George Tuff and Art Mouland struggle to live as the dead awake and return to walk among them. In their delirium, the full-moon beast with two horns blazing comes to claim the souls of the men and the spirits of the seals.
Ice-blind George Tuff finally feels the pale heat of dawn. Scattered on the ice behind him — hard as marble statuary in the brilliant sunshine of a bitter day — are the frozen bodies of 79 Newfoundland’s bravest fishermen: some on their knees where they died in prayer; some seated, calm, expectant; some caught mid-stride or huddled in the shelter of a pinnacle. Levi Templeman and his teenage sons Andrew and Simon died where they stood. They were found frozen solid, bound together, Levi with an arm around each son.
In 1914, from March 31 to April 2, death travelled the North Atlantic with many companions — madness, silence, fear, deceit and despair. But survival, as engineered by George Tuff and emerging hero Arthur Mouland, is powered by obsession and compassion. When Tuff fails as the horrors mount, Mouland lends his strength. Survival means constant measured movement, and the constant kindling and re-kindling of hope.
Among the survivors, courage and selflessness — the finest of human qualities — prevail.
Arising from transcripts of survivor’s testimony before two commissions of enquiry, The Harps of God develops themes of human survival in the face of profound personal devastation. The tale is set entirely on the ice where death stalks the strong and the weak; where hope sustains the fit and the weary; where life is wrung by the tenacious from unexpected reserves of faith, determination and desire.
Act Two, Scene one
Nineteen year old Jessop Templeman, after a violent split with his father and brothers has left the family group and his only real chance of survival. Forty three year old Arthur Mouland has, at great risk, crossed pans of heaving ice, vaulting from pan to pan with his long handled gaff under intermittent moonlight, to find Jessop and bring him back to safety.
Arthur finds Jessop holding the body of a fallen friend.
JESSOP: Henry? Name of God. Henry? [Lowers body to the ice] Is anyone there? [Hunched against the cold] Someone. Help! [gust of wind] Run. No. Just wait. For what? Run like the wind and don’t stop ‘till ye gets… Where? Anywhere. Henry… Henry!
(Art Mouland enters. Several feet of weater separates the pans of ice)
MOULAND: Jessop? Who’s that?
JESSOP: Henry Dowden.
MOULAND: Leave the dead lie in peace, b’y.
JESSOP: Him and me was boys together. Not a day went by we never seen each other. He was more brother to me then me own two brothers. Never done a tap ‘a harm to no one. Henry was my friend. Why poor Henry? Why not me?
MOULAND: There’s no answer to that question. None that will satisfy. Where’s Jones and Bungay?
JESSOP: Them and their crowd forced us onto this little pan. They took our haul ropes to burn. Then our gaff handles. They’re like a pack of hungry wolves. Or somethin’ up out of the grave; Losin’ their minds. Turnin’ on each other. Me and Henry was gettin’ far from this cursed rock as we could. Wine women and song, b’ys. Halifax. Montreal. The Boston States.
MOULAND: I had the same notions once. Turns out everything I needed to know, I learned at home.
JESSOP: I knows all I needs to know about Newfoundland.
MOULAND: Oh? One night in St John’s town. A poor fool went drinkin’ wit’ the devil. Seemed a nice enough fella. Only the devil had a knife. The fool found myself face down in an alley.
JESSOP: The fool in the alley was ye.
MOULAND: People took one look and passed me by. A young woman from back home recognized me. Layin’ there moanin’ in me own blood and vomit. She looked into my eyes; she said my name. Death hightailed it in the opposite direction. I hates to see another human bein’ suffer so.
JESSOP: Who says I’m sufferin’?
MOULAND: Look at ye… pacin’ forward and back like a caged animal. Come back wit’ me, Jessop.
JESSOP: Good Saint Art, is it? Ye’ll save yer own pelt.
MOULAND: I will. And as many else I can. My ‘pelt’ don’t belong to me alone now; my Belle tended me wounds and saved me life. She’s waitin’ ashore. The most precious thing on earth growin’ in her belly.
JESSOP: Another simpleton born to work his guts out, to keep some miserable old son of a bitch merchant in the fat.
MOULAND: You got a mind of yer own and yer old man hates ye for it. A m I right? Mine drowned himself in fish guts and misery. Then set about pullin’ me under wit’ him. Yes, b’y. Hard hearted fathers. Ungrateful sons… Long as I was a boy, things was dandy. My best friend in the world, my old man. ‘Till I come into me own manhood. He’s dead these fifteen years. I’m terrified of him yet. I spent half the time angry at meself for bein’ afraid. The other half afraid of me own anger. P’isoned wit’ guilt. And so damn sad. I got away alright. Then set about creatin’ me own misery, far worse than any the old brute ever handed out. On the run, goin’ nowhere. Whorin’, brawlin’— The promise of me young manhood streeled out behind me in a string of empty bottles. My so-called friends liked me better drunk than sober. They was the bars of a cage of me own makin’. My Belle rattled the door, said, “You kept it up some nice me son, but whoever threw ye in here is long gone. Look at this. They left the door wide open. Come out my son. Have a look around.” Well, sir. I did. I seen that lovely woman… my Belle. The sea washin’ through her. Full ‘a tides and currents. Her heart awash with yearnin’; mine like foam on the sea… Love’s the antidote, me son.
JESSOP: All the love on earth can’t keep a cold man from dyin’.
MOULAND: Can’t it? I got the chance to start over. Nothin’ says you won’t too.
JESSOP: Along comes friggin’ Simon. Then Andrew. The old man casts me aside and worships them. ‘Specially friggin’ Simon. Miniature copy of himself. All I heard from then on was, “Look out for yer brother.” “Ye’ve had more than yer share.” “Grow up, for God’s sake.” “Act like a man.” Act like him, he was sayin’. Well, I’m not him. I’m meself. Save yer talk of love for yer poor sap of a child, Mouland. I heard it all before.
MOULAND: There’s not much life in yer little fire, Jessop.
JESSOP: Who am I he hates me so?
MOULAND: Join up wit’ us.
JESSOP: I’d rather die here by myself then come up against Jones and Bungay and that crowd again. Or that old bugger. ‘Tis all the same to me.
MOULAND: Things is orderly back at my gaze; every fella lookin’ out for the other. I haven’t lost a single man, and that’s how I intends to keep it. Come wit’ me. Ye’ll be taken care of.
JESSOP: Is that a promise?
MOULAND: It is.
JESSOP: What odds? No future here.
(Mouland throws his gaff across to Jessop. Jessop sets to vault from the opposite side of his pan into darkness)
MOULAND: Are ye determined to die by yerself, in the black of night in a blizzard?
JESSOP: No Skipper. That’s what I am not. I got a gaff now. What more do I need, besides sunrise?
MOULAND: You haven’t got a gaff. Ye’ve got my gaff. If ye gets back to the Newfoundland, what’ll ye say about the men ye left behind?
JESSOP: What I tells you. I’ll tell them me father sent me.
MOULAND: You steal me gaff, ye leave forty men wit’ a crippled leader.
JESSOP: Me own father kicked me arse out of it. Me brother cracked me nose. Thirty men left me and Henry to die. Fair’s fair.
MOULAND: Fair has nothin’ to do wit’ what ye intend. It’s easy, picking bad over good. Yerself over others.
JESSOP: You got an opinion on everyt’ing, ain’t ye?
MOULAND: It’s the sum total of a man’s choices that make his life, Jessop. We all do harm… For every soul we hinder or hurt ten wait in the hope of the touch of a human hand. You’ve got a choice, here and now. No less a choice than evil or good. I answered yer call for help. Please. Help me to help my men —
JESSOP: I seen somethin’… Somethin’ terrible.
JESSOP: Henry. I stood there, talkin’ to him. I seen him… He just slipped away.
MOULAND: ‘Tis hard to watch a man die; ‘tis far worse to feel yerself slippin’ away. If the devil’d finished me off that night in St. John’s town, I believe I’d ‘a come back from the dead and thanked him.
JESSOP: For what?
MOULAND: For ending my misery. The best life had to offer, stole out from under me. I’d ‘a thanked him! Ye mustn’t live yer life believin’ yer stuck. That things don’t change. They do my son. For better more often than worse. I needs that gaff, Jessop b’y. I’m their leader. They depends on me.
JESSOP: That’s where we differs. I was taught to depend on no one but meself. [At Henry’s body] Shag ya. Ye’re not totally useless. Ye won’t be needin’ this. [Takes Henry’s food bag]
(Jessop exits. The fire dies)
MOULAND: Jessop! Jessop!! [in the darkness] God help us.
(The wind rises to great fury, diminishes, blows a steady gale)
Authors Rights & Copyright Note
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