By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, September 16, 1944
“What is it,” asked Jimmie Frise, “that makes us Canadians so desperately respectful of authority?”
“I don’t imagine,” I replied, “that we’re any more respectful of authority than other people. The English, for instance, or the Germans.”
“Ah,” argued Jimmie, “yes, but the Germans have to be respectful or have their fingers jammed in doors in internment camps. And as for the English, it’s only put on. Did you ever try to pull a little authority over an Englishman?”
“If I had the authority, I think the English would recognize it as readily as anybody else,” I informed him.
“If you were an Englishman and had the authority,” corrected Jim. “They have a sort of agreement among themselves, a working agreement. But you take Canada. Somebody up top says what’s what and we all submit. There are no outbreaks. It isn’t as if these authorities had any tough gendarmes or black shirt police to back them up. I’m beginning to think Canadians are the most docile people on earth.”
“Remember the Chinese,” I protested. “Or the Eskimos.”
“All I’m thinking of,” said Jim, “is that cop back there at that fork in the highway. The way he ran up alongside of us and arrogantly turned us into the side of the road with a flick of his head.”
“He was perfectly right,” I said, “you didn’t slow down at that fork. There was a sign distinctly saying ‘slow to 15 miles’.”
“I’ve passed that fork a hundred times,” said Jim, “and there never was a cop there before.”
“That isn’t the point,” I assured him. “The law is the law whether there are any cops looking or not.”
“I don’t mind how many laws we’ve got,” said Jim, “so long as I am not humiliated in the enforcement of them.”
“You’re not mad at the cop,” I jeered. “You’re only mad at yourself for being so humble.”
“I wasn’t humble,” stated Jim. “I was only sensible.”
“You squawk about Canadians being docile,” I laughed, “and if ever I saw a docile Canadian, it was you when that cop nodded you haughtily to the side of the road and then bawled the daylight out of you.”
“I stared him straight in the eye,” cried Jim.
“Yes,” I said, “with your eyes wide and alarmed and full of an expression of deepest respect and humility.”
“We’ll Have to Be Smart”
“Oh, I did not,” protested Jim heatedly. “I did nothing of the kind. And anyway, how could you see me when you were cringing down in your seat as if God had suddenly appeared at the car window.”
“You were servile,” I declared. “You even called him sir.”
“An old habit,” said Jim, “I contracted in the last war. It was his khaki uniform.”
“Well,” I agreed, “it does seem absurd to me the way we kowtow to a cop. The way they bawl us out, the tone they take, you would think they were magistrates instead of cops. I don’t think we should put up with it.”
“The next cop,” said Jim, “I’m going to put in his place, if he so much as uses a tone I don’t like. He’s an employee.”
“Now you’re talking,” I said, sitting up hopefully to watch for cops.
“There must be some guilty conscience in us, or something,” mused Jim. “We Canadians must be descendants of people who came to this country fleeing from the law. All servility is based on fear. We must have some inherited fear of cops.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” I said guardedly (because after all what do we really know about our great-great-grandfathers?).
“I wish,” sighed Jim, “I had inherited something else from my ancestors than a guilty conscience. Craftiness, for example. I had a great-uncle Zebulon who was the craftiest man in seven townships. If I was crafty, I’d know what luck we were going to have tonight in finding the best place to go fishing.”
“It won’t be hard to find out,” I said. “A few discreet inquiries around the village.”
“Listen,” said Jim, “there are only nine houses, one general store and a gasoline pump in this village. Every man in the place is a musky fisherman. Dyed in the wool. The muskies at this time of year have left the weed beds and the deeps and have come in shore, along by the rocks and boulders. They are easier to catch and fight harder than at any other time of year. It is the peak, the glorious climax of the fishing season. These villagers look upon this season of the year as their share of the fishing. All summer long even in wartime they have been working madly for the benefit of vacationists who were getting all the fishing. Now the vacationists are gone, and it’s the villagers turn. They will resent us even arriving.”
“We’ll worm it out of them,” I assured him.
“We’ll have to be pretty smart,” said Jim.
“We can watch where they fish,” I reminded him.
“Yes, and waste half the morning trying to locate them,” argued Jim. “They’ll all be out before daybreak.”
“Jim,” I said, “you’ve got a poor opinion of country people. All we need to do is the old trick. Buy a few things at the general store, ask a few questions. Buy some gasoline, ask a few questions. Rent a boat, ask a few questions. Put two and two together, and there we are.”
Full of Great Quietness
We floated deeper into the musky country where civilization and the rocks were coming to grips. The farms grew fewer and more curiously laid out in fields bordered with shoals of primitive rock. We saw the first maples, gone gold and red. The villagers are right. This is the best time of year to go fishing.
The villages began to be farther apart. We left cement for gravel and gravel for sand, and finally entered a lovely narrow road winding amidst rocks and tall hardwood forests which we knew, according to our written directions, was the road that led to our happy destination where, along the rocky shores of a twisted and many-bayed lake, the big muskies, sick of the rotting weed beds, lay in the pure shallow shore water, waiting for something to wiggle past them, such as a well-cast lure.
And towards evening, we came to the village, full of a great quietness amidst all the equipment it had for summer, its park, the brightness, its shuttered outlying cottages. We cruised slowly down its one street, planning our campaign of reconnaissance.
“The general store, first,” I suggested.
And in front of the general store we drew up. It was the regular general store, with its ceiling covered with galvanized pails, bundles of hats, baled socks, boots. One side groceries. Other side, drygoods. Back, hardware.
Three or four men lingered leaning on counters as if expecting nothing to happen anyway.
“Good evening,” we said cheerily, in that easy city fashion. Our entry seemed to break a spell that had been holding the general store in thrall.
Everybody muttered except the storekeeper, an elderly gray moustached man who eyed us over his spectacles and said nothing. He went ahead quietly parcelling something out of sight.
Jim and I wandered slowly down the store, looking at the merchandise to see what we could reasonably buy as an excuse for visiting the store. Something inexpensive but useful.
“I think I’ll get a pair of overalls,” I said quietly, whispering through my nose.
“Nice bandanas,” murmured Jim. “How about a couple of bandanas each? Handy fishing.”
“You get the bandanas,” I muttered, “and I’ll take a hank of that clothes line. Good stuff to have in our kit for an anchor.”
“O.K.,” agreed Jim, “and two or three cans of tomatoes. I don’t like drinking this weedy water; and canned tomatoes are swell.”
“O.K.” I muttered, as we turned and proceeded to the front of the store where everybody was covertly taking us in out of the corners of their eyes.
The storekeeper finally finished whatever he was doing and came and stood facing us, planting both palms on the counter.
“Good-evening,” said Jim, amiably. “How much are those bandanas?”
“Two for a quarter,” said he, handing down a sheaf of them.
We examined them carefully.
“Two of them,” said Jim pleasantly.
“How much is that clothesline?” I inquired with a winning smile.
The storekeeper looked at me expressionlessly and said: “Thirty cents.”
“I’ll love one,” I informed him enthusiastically.
But it seemed very difficult to rouse any response. Jim strolled back eyeing the shelves speculatively, and I followed.
“What did I tell you?” Jim murmured. “We’re suspected.”
“Ask about the fishing anyway,” I whispered.
“Not now,” said Jim shortly. “Hostile.”
Our murmured conversation was not lost upon the silent company in the store. The merchant was tying up our small purchases in paper.
“Three cans of tomatoes,” said Jim. “About a pound of cheese and a box of soda biscuits.”
A Faint, Cold Smile
The storekeeper slowly gathered these items and set them on the counter. He seemed to be waiting. So did all the others. A curious electrical feeling was in the dim air of this store.
“That will be all,” said Jim, reaching into his pocket.
“Here,” I said, “you bought the gasoline. I’ll attend to this.”
“No,” said Jim, “I want this changed.”
And he laid a crisp new $20 bill on the counter.
The storekeeper’s hands paused in the act of spreading a piece of wrapping paper. He stared at the bill. He picked it up gingerly and examined it closely. He held at up to the light. “I can’t change this,” he said.
“Can you get it changed handy?” asked Jim.
The storekeeper looked long and steadily at Jim. Then he shifted his gaze to me. There seemed to be a faint cold smile in his eyes.
“No,” he said.
“Can any of you gentlemen?” said Jim, turning to the others standing back in the store.
They stirred and looked away and shook their heads.
“Here,” I said diving into my pocket. But I had only 17 cents and a $10 bill, the expenses of the fishing trip, plus any sudden emergencies.
“Can you change the ten?” I said, tossing down the nice new Bank of Canada dix.
The storekeeper reached out cautiously and picked it up and examined it closely. He shot a quick look around at the men standing behind us.
“No,” he said. “Sorry.”
“Well, heh, heh,” I said, “I’ve only got 17 cents. How much have you got, Jim?”
“Just a dime,” said Jim.
“You can take two cans of tomatoes,” said the storekeeper, “or the two bandanas. Or the rope and one can of tomatoes. Or…”
“Maybe the gas-pump man can change it,” suggested Jimmie.
“Do You Mean to Insinuate?”
All eyes turned to one of the men standing back of us. He, it seems, was the service-station man.
“Sorry,” he said. “All I got is tens myself.”
In every face, all of a sudden, suspicion. Cold, undisguised suspicion.
“Gentlemen,” I said, “do you mean this money is no good?”
I picked up my 10 and examined it closely.
“It may be all right,” said the garage man, he was a heavy set and sulky type, “but there has been some phoney money spread around this country lately.”
“Do you mean to insinuate,” I demanded of the public at large, “that we are trying to pass bogus money? Are you accusing us at being criminals?”
Nobody replied, but the storekeeper turned his back and began replacing on the shelves the articles we had almost bought.
Jim and I looked anxiously around at the faces. They were mostly averted, and there was no friendliness on any of them.
“Could you tell us,” asked Jim, “If there is a boarding house in the village open or anywhere we can put up for a couple of nights?”
Everybody looked at us.
“We’re here for a couple of days’ fishing,” I put in.
“Fishing?” said the sulky garage man. “Well, my mother takes in a couple now and then.”
“Mrs. Tom is still open, I believe,” said the storekeeper.
His and everybody else’s face had come to life.
“I’ll slip over and see what mother says,” said the garage man, buttoning his windbreaker in a business-like way.
“Muskies you’re after, eh?” said the storekeeper, breaking into a friendly grin.
“Yes,” we said, “but er … ah…”
“Oh, that’s all right,” said the storekeeper. “If you want that stuff I can change your 20 easy enough.”
“How’s this?” demanded Jim. “A minute ago…”
“Sure, sure,” soothed the storekeeper. “But you acted so suspicious when you came in.”
“Suspicious?” I asked.
“Guilty as anything, the both of you,” laughed the storekeeper, starting to hand down the tomatoes and bandanas again “Didn’t they gents?”
Everybody smiled and nodded.
“I couldn’t figure out,” said the storekeeper, whose name proved to be McAndrews, and can he ever catch muskies? – “until you laid down that new 20, and naturally I thought there was something funny about it.”
“Well,” said Jim, “if we looked guilty it was only because our real purpose coming in here was to get some tips on where to go fishing tomorrow, but we were going to buy some odds and ends and ask you casually …”
“Ah,” said Mr. McAndrews, “a guilty conscience always shows.”
“All right,” said Jim, “here’s a straightforward question.”
And we got a straightforward answer, and five muskies, and we know the first name of the whole 14 men in the village and we hope to leave a lot of tens and twenties there in the future.
Editor’s Note: $20 in 1944 would be $301 in 2020, so 10s and 20s were quite valuable back then.