Two fishermen | English homework help

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Two Fishermen

by Morley Callaghan

Before you read, think about the most important moral or ethical choice you ever had to make.

As you read, ask yourself what decisions you would make if you were in the story.

Morley Callaghan (1903-1990), born in Toronto, was Canada’s first internationally recognized short-story writer. He began writing seriously in 1923 and produced 15 novels including The Loved and the Lost (1951), which won the Governor General’s Award. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize and was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.

hangman: Canada had a hangman until the death penalty was abolished in 1976. (The last hangings occurred in 1962.)

The only reporter on the town paper, the Examiner, was Michael Foster, a tall, long-legged, eager young fellow, who wanted to go to the city some day and work on an important newspaper.

The morning he went into Bagley’s Hotel, he wasn’t at all sure of himself. He went over to the desk and whispered to the proprietor, Ted Bagley, “Did he come here, Mr. Bagley?”

Bagley said slowly, “Two men came here from this morning’s train. They’re registered.” He put his spatulate forefinger on the open book and said, “Two men. One of them’s a drummer. This one here, T. Woodley. I know because he was through this way last year and just a minute ago he walked across the road to Molson’s hardware store. The other one—here’s his name, K. Smith.”

“Who’s K. Smith?” Michael asked.

“I don’t know. A mild, harmless-looking little guy.”

“Did he look like the hangman, Mr. Bagley?”

“I couldn’t say that, seeing as I never saw one. He was awfully polite and asked where he could get a boat so he could go fishing on the lake this evening, so I said likely down at Smollet’s place by the power-house.”

“Well, thanks. I guess if he was the hangman, he’d go over to the jail first,” Michael said.

He went along the street, past the Baptist church to the old jail with the high brick fence around it. Two tall maple trees, with branches dropping low over the sidewalk, shaded one of the walls from the morning sunlight. Last night, behind those walls, three carpenters, working by lamplight, had nailed the timbers for the scaffold. In the morning, young Thomas Delaney, who had grown up in the town, was being hanged: he had killed old Mathew Rhinehart whom he had caught molesting his wife when she had been berry-picking in the hills behind the town. There had been a struggle and Thomas Delaney had taken a bad beating before he had killed Rhinehart. Last night a crowd had gathered on the sidewalk by the lamp-post, and while moths and smaller insects swarmed around the high blue carbon light, the crowd had thrown sticks and bottles and small stones at the out-of-town workmen in the jail yard. Billy Hilton, the town constable, had stood under the light with his head down, pretending not to notice anything. Thomas Delaney was only three years older than Michael Foster.

Michael went straight to the jail office, where Henry Steadman, the sheriff, a squat, heavy man, was sitting on the desk idly wetting his long moustaches with his tongue. “Hello, Michael, what do you want?” he asked.

“Hello, Mr. Steadman, the Examiner would like to know if the hangman arrived yet.”

“Why ask me?”

“I thought he’d come here to test the gallows. Won’t he?”

“My, you’re a smart young fellow, Michael, thinking of that.”

“Is he in there now, Mr. Steadman?”

“Don’t ask me. I’m saying nothing. Say, Michael, do you think there’s going to be trouble? You ought to know. Does anybody seem sore at me? I can’t do nothing. You can see that.”

“I don’t think anybody blames you, Mr. Steadman. Look here, can’t I see the hangman? Is his name K. Smith?”

“What does it matter to you, Michael? Be a sport, go on away and don’t bother us anymore.”

“All right, Mr. Steadman,” Michael said very competently, “just leave it to me.”

Early that evening, when the sun was setting, Michael Foster walked south of town on the dusty road leading to the power-house and Smollet’s fishing pier. He knew that if Mr. K. Smith wanted to get a boat he would go down to the pier. Fine powdered road dust whitened Michael’s shoes. Ahead of him he saw the power-plant, square and low, and the smooth lake water. Behind him the sun was hanging over the blue hills beyond the town and shining brilliantly on square patches of farm land. The air around the power-house smelt of steam.

Out on the jutting, tumbledown pier of rock and logs, Michael saw a little fellow without a hat, sitting down with his knees hunched up to his chin, a very small man with little grey baby curls on the back of his neck, who stared steadily far out over the water. In his hand he was holding a stick with a heavy fishing-line twined around it and a gleaming copper spoon bait, the hooks brightened with bits of feathers such as they used in the neighbourhood when trolling for lake trout. Apprehensively Michael walked out over the rocks toward the stranger and called, “Were you thinking of going fishing, mister?” Standing up, the man smiled. He had a large head, tapering down to a small chin, a birdlike neck and a very wistful smile. Puckering his mouth up, he said shyly to Michael, “Did you intend to go fishing?”

“That’s what I came down here for. I was going to get a boat back at the boat-house there. How would you like if we went together?”

“I’d like it first rate,” the shy little man said eagerly. “We could take turns rowing. Does that appeal to you?”

“Fine. Fine. You wait here and I’ll go back to Smollet’s place and ask for a row-boat and I’ll row around here and get you.”

“Thanks. Thanks very much,” the mild little man said as he began to untie his line. He seemed very enthusiastic.

When Michael brought the boat around to the end of the old pier and invited the stranger to make himself comfortable so he could handle the line, the stranger protested comically that he ought to be allowed to row.

Pulling strong at the oars, Michael was soon out in the deep water and the little man was letting his line out slowly. In one furtive glance, he had noticed that the man’s hair, grey at the temples, was inclined to curl to his ears. The line was out full length. It was twisted around the little man’s forefinger, which he let drag in the water. And then Michael looked full at him and smiled because he thought he seemed so meek and quizzical. “He’s a nice little guy,” Michael assured himself and he said, “I work on the town paper, the Examiner.”

“Is it a good paper? Do you like the work?”

“Yes, but it’s nothing like a first-class city paper and I don’t expect to be working on it long. I want to get a reporter’s job on a city paper. My name’s Michael Foster.”

“Mine’s Smith. Just call me Smitty.”

“I was wondering if you’d been over to the jail yet.”

Up to this time the little man had been smiling with the charming ease of a small boy who finds himself free, but now he became furtive and disappointed. Hesitating, he said, “Yes, I was over there first thing this morning.” 

“Oh, I just knew you’d go there,” Michael said. They were a bit afraid of each other. By this time they were far out on the water which had a mill-pond smoothness. The town seemed to get smaller, with white houses in rows and streets forming geometric patterns, just as the blue hills behind the town seemed to get larger at sundown.

Finally Michael said, “Do you know this Thomas Delaney that’s dying in the morning?” He knew his voice was slow and resentful.

“No, I don’t know anything about him. I never read about them.”

“Aren’t there any fish at all in this old lake? I’d like to catch some fish,” he said rapidly. “I told my wife I’d bring her home some fish.” Glancing at Michael, he was appealing, without speaking, that they should do nothing to spoil an evening’s fishing.

The little man began to talk eagerly about fishing as he pulled out a small flask from his hip pocket. “Scotch,” he said, chuckling with delight. “Here, take a swig,” Michael drank from the flask and passed it back. Tilting his head back and saying, “Here’s to you, Michael,” the little man took a long pull at the flask. “The only time I take a drink,” he said still chuckling, “is when I go on a fishing trip by myself. I usually go by myself,” he added apologetically as if he wanted the young fellow to see how much he appreciated his company.

They had gone far out on the water but they had caught nothing. It began to get dark. “No fish tonight, I guess, Smitty,” Michael said.

“It’s a crying shame,” Smitty said. “I looked forward to coming up here when I found out the place was on the lake. I wanted to get some fishing in. I promised my wife I’d bring her back some fish. She’d often like to go fishing with me, but of course, she can’t because she can’t travel around from place to place like I do. Whenever I get a call to go some place, I always look at the map to see if it’s by a lake or on a river, then I take my lines and hooks along.”

“If you took another job, you and your wife could probably go fishing together,” Michael suggested.

“I don’t know about that. We sometimes go fishing together anyway.” He looked away, waiting for Michael to be repelled and insist that he ought to give up the job. And he wasn’t ashamed as he looked down at the water, but he knew that Michael thought he ought to be ashamed. “Somebody’s got to do my job. There’s got to be a hangman,” he said.

“I just meant that if it was such disagreeable work, Smitty.”

The little man did not answer for a long time. Michael rowed steadily with sweeping, tireless strokes. Huddled at the end of the boat, Smitty suddenly looked up with a kind of melancholy hopelessness and said mildly, “The job hasn’t been so disagreeable.”

“Good God, man, you don’t mean you like it?”

“Oh, no,” he said, to be obliging, as if he knew what Michael expected him to say. “I mean you get used to it, that’s all.” But he looked down again at the water, knowing he ought to be ashamed of himself.

“Have you got any children?”

“I sure have. Five. The oldest boy is fourteen. It’s funny, but they’re all a lot bigger and taller than I am. Isn’t that funny?”

They started a conversation about fishing rivers that ran into the lake farther north. They felt friendly again. The little man, who had an extraordinary gift for storytelling, made many quaint faces, puckered up his lips, screwed up his eyes and moved around restlessly as if he wanted to get up in the boat and stride around for the sake of more expression. Again he brought out the whiskey flask and Michael stopped rowing. Grinning, they toasted each other and said together, “Happy days.” The boat remained motionless on the placid water. Far out, the sun’s last rays gleamed on the waterline. And then it got dark and they could only see the town lights. It was time to turn around and pull for the shore. The little man tried to take the oars from Michael, who shook his head resolutely and insisted that he would prefer to have his friend catch a fish on the way back to the shore.

“It’s too late now, and we may have scared all the fish away,” Smitty laughed happily. “But we’re having a grand time, aren’t we?”

When they reached the old pier by the power-house, it was full night and they hadn’t caught a single fish. As the boat bumped against the rocks Michael said, “You can get out here. I’ll take the boat around to Smollet’s.”

“Won’t you be coming my way?”

“Not just now. I’ll probably talk with Smollet a while.”

The little man got out of the boat and stood on the pier looking down at Michael. “I was thinking dawn would be the best time to catch some fish,” he said. “At about five o’clock. I’ll have an hour and a half to spare anyway. How would you like that?” He was speaking with so much eagerness that Michael found himself saying, “I could try. But if I’m not here at dawn, you go on without me.”

“All right. I’ll walk back to the hotel now.”

“Good night, Smitty.”

“Good night, Michael. We had a fine neighbourly time, didn’t we?”

As Michael rowed the boat around to the boat-house, he hoped that Smitty wouldn’t realize he didn’t want to be seen walking back to town with him. And later, when he was going slowly along the dusty road in the dark and hearing all the crickets chirping in the ditches, he couldn’t figure out why he felt so ashamed of himself.

At seven o’clock next morning Thomas Delaney was hanged in the town jail yard. There was hardly a breeze on that leaden grey morning and there were no small white-caps out over the lake. It would have been a fine morning for fishing. Michael went down to the jail, for he thought it his duty as a newspaperman to have all the facts, but he was afraid he might get sick. He hardly spoke to all the men and women who were crowded under the maple trees by the jail wall. Everybody he knew was staring at the wall and muttering angrily. Two of Thomas Delaney’s brothers, big, strapping fellows with bearded faces, were there on the sidewalk. Three automobiles were at the front of the jail.

Michael, the town newspaperman, was admitted into the courtyard by old Willie Mathews, one of the guards, who said that two newspapermen from the city were at the gallows on the other side of the building. “I guess you can go around there, too, if you want to,” Mathews said, as he sat down slowly on the step. White-faced, and afraid, Michael sat down on the step with Mathews and they waited and said nothing.

At last the old fellow said, “Those people outside there are pretty sore, ain’t they?”

“They’re pretty sullen, all right. I saw two of Delaney’s brothers there.”

“I wish they’d go,” Mathews said. “I don’t want to see anything. I didn’t even look at Delaney. I don’t want to hear anything. I’m sick.” He put his head back against the wall and closed his eyes.

The old fellow and Michael sat close together till a small procession came around the comer from the other side of the yard. First came Mr. Steadman, the sheriff, with his head down as though he were crying, then Dr. Parker, the physician, then two hard-looking young newspapermen from the city, walking with their hats on the backs of their heads, and behind them came the little hangman, erect, stepping out with military precision and carrying himself with a strange cocky dignity. He was dressed in a long black cut-away coat with grey striped trousers, a gates-ajar collar and a narrow red tie, as if he alone felt the formal importance of the occasion. He walked with brusque precision till he saw Michael, who was standing up, staring at him with his mouth open.

The little hangman grinned and as soon as the procession reached the doorstep, he shook hands with Michael. They were all looking at Michael. As though his work were over now, the hangman said eagerly to Michael, “I thought I’d see you here. You didn’t get down to the pier at dawn?”

“No. I couldn’t make it.”

“That was tough, Michael. I looked for you,” he said. “But never mind. I’ve got something for you.” As they all went into the jail, Dr. Parker glanced angrily at Michael, then turned his back on him. In the office, where the doctor prepared to sign a certificate, Smitty was bending down over his fishing-basket which was in the corner. Then he pulled out two good-sized salmon-bellied trout, folded in a newspaper, and said, “I was saving these for you, Michael. I got four in an hour’s fishing.” Then he said, “I’ll talk about that later, if you’ll wait. We’ll be busy here, and I’ve got to change my clothes.”

Michael went out to the street with Dr. Parker and the two city newspapermen. Under his arm he was carrying the fish, folded in the newspaper. Outside, at the jail door, Michael thought that the doctor and the two newspapermen were standing a little apart from him. Then the small crowd, with their clothes all dust-soiled from the road, surged forward, and the doctor said to them, “You might as well go home, boys. It’s all over.”

Where’s old Steadman?” somebody demanded.

“We’ll wait for the hangman,” somebody else shouted.

The doctor walked away by himself. For a while Michael stood beside the two city newspapermen, and tried to look as nonchalant as they were looking, but he lost confidence in them when he smelled whiskey. They only talked to each other. Then they mingled with the crowd, and Michael stood alone. At last he could stand there no longer looking at all those people he knew so well, so he, too, moved out and joined the crowd.

When the sheriff came out with the hangman and two of the guards, they got half-way down to one of the automobiles before someone threw an old boot. Steadman ducked into one of the cars, as the boot hit him on the shoulder, and the two guards followed him. The hangman, dismayed, stood alone on the sidewalk. Those in the car must have thought at first that the hangman was with them for the car suddenly shot forward, leaving him alone on the sidewalk. The crowd threw small rocks and sticks, hooting at him as the automobile backed up slowly towards him. One small stone hit him on the head. Blood trickled from the side of his head as he looked around helplessly at all the angry people. He had the same expression on his face, Michael thought, as he had had last night when he had seemed ashamed and had looked down steadily at the water. Only now, he looked around wildly, looking for someone to help him as the crowd kept pelting him. Farther and farther Michael backed into the crowd and all the time he felt dreadfully ashamed as though he were betraying Smitty, who last night had had such a good neighbourly time with him. “It’s different now, it’s different,” he kept thinking, as he held the fish in the newspaper tight under his arm. Smitty started to run toward the automobile, but James Mortimer, a big fisherman, shot out his foot and tripped him and sent him sprawling on his face.

Mortimer, the big fisherman, looking for something to throw, said to Michael, “Sock him, sock him.”

Michael shook his head and felt sick.

“What’s the matter with you, Michael?”

“Nothing. I got nothing against him.”

The big fisherman started pounding his fists up and down in the air. “He just doesn’t mean anything to me at all,” Michael said quickly. The fisherman, bending down, kicked a small rock loose from the road bed and heaved it at the hangman. Then he said, “What are you holding there, Michael, what’s under your arm? Fish. Pitch them at him. Here, give them to me.” Still in a fury, he snatched the fish, and threw them one at a time at the little man just as he was getting up from the road. The fish fell in the thick dust in front of him, sending up a little cloud. Smitty seemed to stare at the fish with his mouth hanging open, then he didn’t even look at the crowd. That expression on Smitty’s face as he saw the fish on the road made Michael hot with shame and he tried to get out of the crowd.

Smitty had his hands over his head, to shield his face as the crowd pelted him, yelling “Sock the little rat. Throw the runt in the lake.” The sheriff pulled him into the automobile. The car shot forward in a cloud of dust.

Words 3373; FRE 82.2; FKL 5.1


Question and Answer Sheet for 4C-F05-05 – Two Fishermen

1. Understand the Story   In a paragraph describe the instances of betrayal that occur in the story. Identify which of these you think is the central one.


2. Compare Characters In a paragraph, describe how Michael and K. Smith (Smitty) are similar.


3. Examine the End of the Story Explain why the mob turns against Smitty at the end of the story. What is Michael’s decision regarding the mob’s behaviour? What is the irony of this situation? (You can use three short paragraphs to answer this question.)


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