By The Sea by Heman White Chaplin
BY THE SEA
By Heman White Chaplin
On the southeastern coast of Massachusetts is a small village with
which I was once familiarly acquainted. It differs little in its
general aspect from other hamlets scattered along that shore. It has
its one long, straggling street, plain and homelike, from which at two
or three different points a winding lane leads off and ends abruptly in
Fifty years ago the village had a business activity of its own.
There still remain the vestiges of a wharf at a point where once was a
hammering ship-yard. Here and there, in bare fields along the sea, are
the ruins of vats and windmills,picturesque remains of ancient
There is no visible sign left now of the noisy life of the
ship-yards, except a marble stone beneath a willow in the
burying-ground on the hill, which laments the untimely death of a youth
of nineteen, killed in 1830 in the launching of a brig. But traces of
the salt-works everywhere remain, in frequent sheds and small barns
which are wet and dry, as the saying is, all the time, and will not
hold paint. They are built of salt-boards.
There were a good many of the people of the village and its
adjoining country who interested me very greatly. I am going to tell
you a simple event which happened in one of its families, deeply
affecting its little history.
James Parsons was a man perhaps sixty years of age, strongly built,
gray-haired, cleanshaven except for the conventional seaman's fringe of
beard below the chin, and always exquisitely neat. Whether you met him
in his best suit, on Sunday morning, or in his old clothes, going to
his oyster-beds or his cranberry-marsh, it was always the same. He was
usually in his shirt-sleeves in summer. His white cotton shirt, with
its easy collar and wristbands, seemed always to have just come from
the ironing-board. It ain't no trouble at all to keep James clean, I
have heard Mrs. Parsons say, in her funny little way; he picks his way
round for all the world just like a pussycat, and never gets no spots
on him, nowhere.
You saw at once, upon the slightest acquaintance with James, that
while he was of the same general civilization as his neighbors, he was
of a different type. In his narrowness, there was a peculiar breadth
and vigor which characterized him. He had about him the atmosphere of a
His early reminiscences were all of that picturesque and adventurous
life which prevailed along our coasts to within forty years, and his
conversation was suggestive of it He held a silver medal from the
Humane Society for conspicuous bravery in the rescue of the crew of a
ship stranded in winter in a storm of sleet off Post Hill Bar. He had a
war-hatchet, for which he had negotiated face to face with a naked
cannibal in the South Sea. He was familiar with the Hoogly.
His language savored always of the sea. His hens turned in, at
night. He was full of sayings and formulas of a maritime nature; there
was one which always seemed to me to have something of a weird and
mystic character: South moon brings high water on Coast Island Bar.
In describing the transactions of domestic life, he used words more
properly applicable to the movements of large ships. He would speak of
a saucepan as if it weighed a hundred tons. He never tossed or threw
even the slightest object; he hove it. Why, father! said Mrs.
Parsons, surprised at seeing him for a moment untidy; what have you
ben doing? Your boots and trousers-legs is all white! Yes, said Mr.
Parsons, apologetically, looking down upon his dusty garments, I just
took that bucket of ashes and hove 'em into the henhouse.
The word heave, in fact, was always upon his tongue. It applied to
everything. How was this road straightened out? I asked him one day;
did the town vote to do it? No, no, he said quickly; there was n't
never no vote. The se-lec'men just come along one day, and got us all
together, and hove in and hove out; and we altered our fences to suit.
I remember hearing him testify as a witness to a will. It appeared
that the testator was sick in bed when he signed the instrument. He was
suffering greatly, and when he was to sign, it was necessary to lift
him with the ex-tremest care, to turn him to the light-stand. State
what was done next, the lawyer asked of James. Captain Frost was
laying on his left side, said James. Two of us took a holt of him and
rolled him over.
He had probably not the least suspicion that his language had a
maritime flavor. I asked him one night, as we coasted along toward
home, What do seafaring men call the track of light that the moon
makes on the water? They must have some name for it No, no, he said,
they don't have no name for it; they just call it 'the wake of the
James's learning had been chiefly gained from the outside world and
not from books. I have heard him lay it down as a fact that the word
Bible had its etymology from the word by-bill (hand-bill). It was
writ, he said, in small parcels, and they was passed around by them
that writ 'em, like by-bills; and so when they hove it all into one,
they called it the Bible.'
But while James had little learning himself, he appreciated it
highly in others. I had occasion to ask him once why it was that the
son of one of his neighbors, in closing up his father's estate, had not
settled his accounts regularly in the probate court. Oh, I know how
that was, he replied; he settled 'em the other way. You see, he went
to the college at Woonsocket, and he learned there how to settle
accounts the other way: and that's the way he settled 'em. And then he
added, When Alvin left the college, they giv' him a book that tells
how to do all kinds of business, and what you want to do so's to make
money; and Alvin has always followed them rules. The consequence is,
he's made money, and what he 's made, he 's kep' it. I suppose he's
worth not less than sixteen hundred dollars.
Sometimes he would venture a remark of a gallant nature. They don't
generally git the lights in the hall so as to suit me, he once said.
I don't want it too light, because then it hurts my eyes; but I want
it light enough so as 't I can see the women!
James was a large, strong man, but Mrs. Parsons, although she was
little and slight, and was always ailing, constantly assumed the rôle
of her husband's nurse and protector, not only in household matters,
but in other affairs of life. Whenever she had visitors,and she and
James were hospitable in the extreme,she was pretty sure to end up,
sooner or later, if James were present, with some droll criticism of
him, as much to his delight as to hers.
James sometimes liked to affect a certain harshness of demeanor; but
the disguise was a transparent one. How well do I remember the
timeoh, so long ago!when for some reason or other I happened to
have his boat instead of my own, one day, with one of the boys of the
village, to go to Matamet, twelve miles off, to visit certain
lobster-pots which we had set. We were delayed there by breaking our
boom, in jibing. We should have been at home at noon; at seven in the
evening we were not yet in sight. When we got in, rather crestfallen at
our disaster, particularly as the boat was wanted for the next day,
James met us at the pier. We were boys then, and his tongue was free.
As he stood there on the shore, bare-headed, hastily summoned from his
house, with his hair blowing in the wind, waving his hands and
addressing first us and then a knot of men who stood smoking by, no
words of censure were too harsh, no comment on our carelessness too
cutting, no laments too keen over the irreparable loss of that
particular boom. The next time I could take my own boat, if I were
going to get cast away. And I remember well how he ended his tirade. I
did n't care nothing about you two, he said. If you want to git
drownded, git drownded; it ain't nothing to me. All I was afraid of was
that you 'd gone and capsized my boat, and would n't never turn up to
tell where you sunk her. But as for you and he laughed a laugh of
But ten minutes later, and right before his face, at his own front
gate, Mrs. Parsons betrayed him. I never see father so worried, she
said, sence the time he heard about Thomas; why, he 's spent the whole
afternoon as nervous as a hawk, going up on the hill with his
spy-glass; and I don't feel so sure but what he was crying. He said he
did n't care nothing about the boat,'What 's that old boat!' says he;
but if you boys was drownded out of her, he would n't never git over
it. At which James, being so unmasked, laughed in a shamefaced way,
and shook us by the shoulders. He had a son who carried on some sort of
half-maritime business on one of the wharves, in the city, and lived
over his shop. When James went at intervals to visit him, he made his
way at once from the railway station to the nearest wharf; then he
followed the line of the water around to the shop. Where jib-booms
project out over the sidewalk, one feels so thoroughly at home! From
the shop he would make short adventurous excursions up Commercial
Street and State Street, sometimes going no farther than the
nautical-instrument store on the corner of Broad Street, sometimes
venturing to Washington Street, or even moving for a short distance up
or down in the current of that gay thoroughfare. He loved to comment
satirically on the city, with a broad humorous sense of his own
strangeness there. The city folks don't seem to have nothing to do,
he said. They seem to be all out, walking up and down the streets.
Come noon, I thought there'd be some let-up for dinner; but they did
n't seem to want nothing to eat; they kep' right on walking.
I must not leave James Parsons without telling you of two whale's
teeth which stand on his parlor mantel-piece; he ornamented them
himself, copying the designs from cheap foreign prints. One of them is
what he calls the meeting-house. It is the high altar of the
Cathedral of Seville. On the other is the wild-beast tamer. A man
with a feeble, wishy-washy expression holds by each hand a fierce, but
subjugated tiger. His legs dangle loosely in the air. There is nothing
to suggest what upholds him in his mighty contest.
Now we must turn from James Parsons to a man of a different type, or
rather of a different variety of the same type; for they descend alike
from original founders of the town, and, like most of their
fellow-townsmen, are both of unqualified Pilgrim stock.
To get to Captain Joseph Pelham's house, you have to drive along a
range of hills for some miles, skirting the sea; then you come,
half-way, to a bright modern village with trees along the main street,
with houses and fences kept painted up, for the most part, but here and
there relieved by an unpainted dwelling of a past generation.
Here you have an option. You may either pursue your road through the
high-lying prosperous street, with peeps of salt water to the right, or
you may turn sharply off at a little store and descend to the lower
road. It is always a struggle to choose.
The road to the beach descends a sharp, gravelly hill, and crosses a
bridge. Then you come out on a waste of salt-marsh, threaded by the
creek, broken by wild, fantastic sand-hills, grown over by beach-grass
which will cut your fingers like a knife. You drive close along the
white, precipitous beach; you pass the long, shaky pier, with
half-decayed fish-houses at the other end, and picturesque heaps of
fish-cars, seines, and barrels. Then the road, following the shore a
little longer, climbs the hill and enters the woods. Two miles more and
you come out to fields with mossy fences, and occasional houses.
The houses begin to be more frequent. All at once you enter the main
street of W.
In a moment you see that you have come into a new atmosphere. There
is a large modern church among the older ones. There are large, fine
houses, some old-fashioned, others new. By some miraculous intervention
Queen Anne has not as yet made her appearance. There are handsome,
well-filled stores, going into no little refinement in stock. There is,
of course, a small brick library, built by the bounty of a New Yorker
who was born here. There is a brick national bank, and a face brick
block occupied above by Freemasons, orders of Red Men, Knights
Templars, and the Pool of Siloam Lodge, I. O. O. F., and below by a
savings bank and a local marine insurance company.
It is here that we shall find Captain Joseph Pelham. If a stranger
has occasion to inquire for the leading men of the place he is always
first referred to him. It is he who heads every list and is the
chairman of every meeting. When a certain public man, commanding but a
small following here, appeared, upon his campaign tour, and found no
one to escort him to the platform and preside, so that he was obliged
to justify his appearance here by the Scripture passage, They that are
whole need not a physician, but they that are sick; at the moment of
entering the hall, closely packed with curious opponents, disposed
perhaps to be derisive when the situation for the visitor was
embarrassing in the extreme,it was Captain Joseph Pelham who, though
the bitterest opponent of them all, rose from his seat, gave the
speaker his arm, escorted him to the platform, presented him with grave
courtesy to the audience, and sat beside him through the entire
While Captain Pelham continued to go to sea, and after that, until
he was made president of the insurance company, he lived a mile or two
out of the town, in a house he had inherited. It is picturesquely
situated, on a bare hill, with a wide view of the inland and the ocean.
As you look down from its south windows, the cluster of houses nestling
together at the shore below stand sharply out against the water. It is
one of those white houses common in our older towns,two-storied, long
on the street, with the front door in the middle. Of the interior it is
enough to say that its owner had sailed for thirty years to Hong-Kong,
Calcutta and Madras. It had a prevailing odor of teak and lacquer. In
the front hall was a vast china cane-holder; a turretted Calcutta hat
hung on the hat-tree; a heavy, varnished Chinese umbrella stood in a
corner; a long and handsome settee from Java stood against the wall. In
the parlors, on either hand, were Chinese tables shutting up like
telescopes, elaborate rattan chairs of different kinds, and numberless
other things of this sort, which had plainly been honestly come by, and
Then, if you met the Captain's favor, he would show you with
becoming pride some family relics, and tell you about them. They came
mostly from his paternal grandfather, who was a shipmaster too, had
commanded a privateer in the Revolution, and made a fortune. There were
a number of pieces of handsome furniture,these you could see for
yourself What would be shown you, with a half-diffident air, would be:
a silver mug; two Revere tablespoons; a few tiny teaspoons marked F.; a
handsome sword and scabbard; a yellow satin waistcoat and
small-clothes; portraits, not artistic, but effective, of his
grandfather, in a velvet coat and knee-breeches, with a long spyglass
in his hand, and of his grandmother, a strong, matter-of-fact looking
woman, handsomely dressed.
But the thing which the Captain secretly treasured most, but brought
out last, was his grandmother's Dutch Bible. It is a curious old book;
you can see it still if you wish. It has an elaborate frontispiece.
Sixteen cuts of leading incidents in Scripture history conduct you by
gentle stages, from Eden, through the offering of Isaac, to the close
of the Evangelists, and surround Dr. Martin Luther, who, in a gown,
holds back the curtains of a pillared alcove, to show you, through two
windows, an Old and a New Testament landscape, and a lady sitting
beneath a canopy, with an open volume. The covers are of thick bevelled
board covered with leather. There was once a heavy clasp. The edges are
richly gilded, and figures are pricked in the gilding. It is very
handsomely printed. It was in the possession, in 1760, of a young New
England girl, the Captain's grandmother. There is a story about it,a
story too long to tell here. Suffice it to say that the Captain's
ancestor, who settled early in New England, came from Leyden shortly
after Mr. John Robinson. A hundred years later and more, in the oddest
way, an acquaintance sprang up with certain Dutch connections, and in
the course of it this Bible, then new and elegant, found its way over
the sea as a gift to young Mistress Preston. In New England, and as a
relic of the early ties of our people with Holland, momentarily renewed
after a century had passed away, it is probably unique. It was a last
farewell from Holland to her English children, before she parted
company with them forever.
I have told you about this house, as I recall it, although Captain
Pelham had now ceased to live there, because it was there alone that he
seemed completely at home. Furnished as it was from the four quarters
of the globe, everything seemed to fit in with his ways. He
supplemented the Chinese tables, and they supplemented him. But when he
ceased to go to sea, in late middle life, and settled down at home upon
his competency, and began a little later to become interested in public
matters; when he was at last made president of the insurance company, a
director in the bank, and a trustee in the savings bank, and when
affairs were left more and more to his control, it became convenient
for him to get into town; and his wife and daughter were perhaps
ambitious for the change.
So he had sold his house by the sea, and had bought a large and
somewhat pretentious one on the main street, with a cast-iron summer
arbor, and a bay-window closed in for a conservatory. He had furnished
it from the city with new Brussels carpet, with a parlor set, a
sitting-room set, a dining-room set, and chamber sets; and the antique
things which had given his former home an air of charming
picturesqueness were for the most part tucked away in unnoticed
The Captain never seemed to me to have become quite naturalized in
his new home. He never belonged to the furniture, or the furniture to
him. The place where you saw him best in these later days was in the
office of his insurance company, or in the little business-room of one
of the banks, surrounded by a knot of more substantial townsmen, or
talking patiently with some small farmer or seafaring man seeking for
insurance or a loan. One of the most marked features of his character
was a certain patience and considerateness which made all borrowers
apply by preference to him. He would sit down at his little table with
a plain man whose affairs were in disorder, and listen with close
attention to his application for a loan. Somehow the man would find
himself disclosing all the particulars of his distress. Then Captain
Pelham, in his quiet way, would go over the whole matter with him;
would plan with him on his concerns; would try to see if it were not
possible to postpone a little the payment of debts and to hasten the
collection of claims; to get a part of the money for a short time from
a son in Boston or a married daughter in New Bedford; and so, by
pulling and hauling, to weather the Cape.
I must say a word about his position in town matters. He had been at
sea the greater part of the time from sixteen to fifty-two. During that
time he had had absolutely no concern with political affairs. He had
never voted: for he had never, as it had happened, been ashore at the
time of an election. And yet before he had been at home six years he
was one of the selectmen of the town and overseer of the poor, and had
become familiar with the details of Massachusetts town government,
superficially so simple, in fact so complex. It was a large town, of no
small wealth. Lying as it did along the seaboard, where havoc was
always being made by disasters of the sea, there was not only a larger
number than in an inland town of persons actually quartered in the
poorhouse, but there were many broken families who had to be helped in
their own homes. And it was to me an interesting fact that in dealing
with two score households of this class, Captain Pel-ham, who had spent
most of his time at sea, was able to display the utmost tact and
judgment. He applied to their affairs that same plain kindliness and
sound sense which he showed in the matter of discounts at the bank.
While the friendships of Captain Pelham were chiefly in his own
town, his acquaintance was not confined to it. In his own quiet,
unpretending way he was something of a man of the world. He was known
in the marine insurance offices in the large cities. He had been
familiar all his life with large affairs; he had commanded valuable
ships, loaded with fortunes in teas and silks, in the days when an
India captain was a merchant.
You will ask me why it is that I have been telling you about these
men, and what it is that connects them.
It was now ten years since Captain Pelham's only son, himself at
twenty-two the master of a vessel, had married a daughter of James
Parsons,a tall, impulsive, and warm-hearted girl,one of those girls
to whom children always cling. Both James Parsons's daughters had
proved attractive and had married well. It had been a disappointment in
Captain Pelham's household, perhaps, that this son, their especial
pride, should not have married into one of the wealthy families in his
own village. At first there had been a little visiting to and fro; it
had lasted but a little time, and then the two households had settled
down, as the way is in the country, to follow each its own natural
course of living. George Pelham's wife had always lived in an odd
little house, all doors and windows, near by her father, in her native
It was from Porto Cabello that that message came,yellow fevera
short sicknessa burial in a stranger's grave. George Pelham's wife
had been for two or three years of less than her usual strength. It was
not long after that news came,came so suddenly, with no
warning,that she began to fade away; and after ten months she died.
I remember seeing her a week or two before her death. Her bed had
been set up in her little parlor for the convenience of those who were
attending upon her. She lay on her back, bolstered up. The paleness of
her face was intensified by her coal-black hair, lying back heavy on
the pillow. Her hands were thin and transparent, and I remember well
the straining look in her eyes as she talked with me about the boy whom
she was going to leave.
She was living, as I have said, close by her father. It was natural
that in the last few days of her illness the child should be taken to
her father's house, and when she died and the funeral was over, it was
there that he returned.
Picture now to yourself a boy toward nine years old, symmetrically
made, firm and hard. His head is round, his features are good, his hair
is fine and lies down close. He is clothed in a neat print jacket, with
a collar and a little handkerchief at the neck, and a pair of short
trousers buttoned on to the jacket. He is barefoot. He is tanned but
not burnt. His complexion is of a rich dark brown. He is always fresh
and clean. But the great charm about him is the expression of infinite
fun and mirth that is always upon his face. Never for a moment while he
is awake is his face still. Always the same, yet always shifting, with
a thousand varying shades of roguish joy. Quick, bright, full of boyish
repartee, full of shouts and laughter. And the same incessant life
which plays upon his face shows itself in every movement of his limbs.
Never for a moment is he still unless he has some work upon his hands.
He has his little routine of tasks, regularly assigned, which he goes
through with the most amusing good-humor and attention. It is his duty
to see that the skiffs are not jammed under the wharf on the rising
tide; to sweep out the Annie when she comes in, and to set her cabin
to rights; to set away the dishes after meals, and to feed the
chickens. Aside from a few such tasks, his time in summer is his own.
The rest of the year he goes to the primary, and serves to keep the
whole room in a state of mirth. He has the happy gift that to put every
one in high spirits he has only to be present. Such an incessant flow
of life you rarely see. His manners are good, and he comes honestly by
There is an amusing union in him of the baby and the man. While the
children of his age at the summer hotel walk about for the most part
with their nurses, he is turned loose upon the shore, and has been,
from his cradle. He can dive and swim and paddle and float and go
steamboat. He can row a boat that is not too heavy, and up to the
limit of his strength he can steer a sail-boat with substantial skill.
He knows the currents, the tides, and the shoals about his shore, and
the nearer landmarks. He knows that to find the threadlike entrance to
the bay you bring the flag-staff over Cart-wright's barn. He has vague
theories of his own as to the annual shifting of the channel. He knows
where to take the city children to look for tinkle-shells and mussels.
He knows what winds bring in the scallops from their beds. He knows
where to dig for clams, and where to tread for quahaugs without
disturbing the oysters. He has a good deal of fragmentary lore of the
Every morning you will hear his cry, a sort of yodel, or bird-call,
peculiar to him, with which he bursts forth upon the world. Then you
will hear, perhaps, loud peals of laughter at something that has
excited his sense of the absurd,contagious laughter, full of innocent
Then he will appear, perhaps, with his wooden dinner-bucket,he is
going off with his grandfather for the day,and will yodel to the old
man as a signal to make haste. Then you will hear him consulting with
some one upon the weather.
All this time he will be going; through various evolutions, swinging
in the hammock, sitting on the fence, opening his bucket to show you
what he has to eat, closing the bucket and sitting down upon the cover,
or turning somersaults upon the grass. Then he will encamp under an
apple-tree to wait until his grandfather appears, enlivening the time
by a score of minute excursions after hens and cats. Then he will go
into the house again, and rock while the old man finishes his coffee,
sure of a greeting, confident in a sense of entire good-fellowship,
until the meal is finished, and James Parsons is ready to take his coat
and a red-bladed oar, and set out. Then the boy is like a setter off
for a walk,all sorts of whimsical expressions in his face, of
absolute delight; every form of extravagance in his bearing. The only
trouble is, one has to laugh too much; but with all this, something so
manly, so companionable.
He is no little of a philosopher in his way. He has been a great
deal with older people, and has caught the habit of discussion of
affairs, or rather, perhaps, of unconsciously reflecting forth
discussions which he has heard. He has an infinite curiosity upon all
matters of human life. He likes, within limits, to discuss character.
In the boat his chief delights are to talk, to eat cookies, and to
steer. When it is not blowing too hard for him to stand at the tiller,
he will steer for an hour together, watching with the most constant
care the trembling of the leach.
It makes no difference to him at what hour he returns,from
oystering or from the cranberry-bog. If it is in the middle of the
afternoon, good and well. Instantly upon landing he will collect a
troop of urchins; in an incredibly short space of time there will be a
heap of little clothes upon the bank; in a moment a procession of small
naked figures will go running down to the wharf, diving, one after the
other. If distance or tide or a calm keeps him out late, so much the
better. In that case there is the romance of coasting along the shore
by night; of counting and distinguishing the lights; of guessing the
nearness to land from the dull roar of the sea breaking on the beach.
Don't you think, he will sometimes say, that we are nearer shore
than we think we are?
It is amusing sometimes, on a distant voyage of fifteen or twenty
miles, after seed oysters, when a landing is made at some little port,
to see him drop the mariner at once and become a child, with a burning
desire to find a shop where he can buy animal-crackers. Finding such a
place,and usually it is not difficult,he will lay in a supply of
lions and tigers, and then go marching about with great delight, with
mockery in his eyes, keenly appreciating the satire involved in eating
the head off a cooky lion, incapable of resistance.
No picture of Joe would be complete which left out his dog. Kit was
a black, fine-haired creature, smaller than a collie, but of much the
same gentle disposition,a present from Captain Pelham. When Kit was
first presented to the boy he domesticated himself at once, and in a
week it was impossible to tell, from his relations with the household,
which was boy and which was dog. They were both boys and they were both
dogs. Kit had an unqualified sense of being at home, and of being
beloved and indispensable. It was long before he became a sailor. When,
at the outset, it was attempted to make a man of him by taking him when
they went out to fish, the failure seemed to be complete. He was a
little sea-sick. Then he was sad, and sighed and groaned as dogs never
do on shore. He would not lie still, but was nervous and feverish. Once
he leaped out of the boat and made for shore, and had to be pursued and
rescued, exhausted and half-drowned. Still, whenever he had to be left
at home, it was a struggle every time to reconcile him and leave him.
Once he pursued a boat which he mistook for James's along the shore of
the bay, half down to Benson's Narrows, got involved in the creeks
which the tide was beginning to fill, and had to be brought
ingloriously home by a farmer, made fast on the top of a load of sweet,
He would tease like a child to be allowed to go. He would listen
with an unsatisfied and appealing look while Joe, with an exuberant but
regretful air, explained to him in detail the reasons which made it
impossible for him to go. But in a few months, as the dog grew older,
he prevailed, and although he would generally retire into the shelter
of the cabin, he was nevertheless the boy's almost inseparable
companion on the water as on the shore. The relation between the two
was always touching. It evidently never crossed the dog's mind that he
was not a younger brother.
Now, to complete the picture of James Par-sons's household, add in
this boy; for while it is but just now that he is strictly of it, he
has been for years its mirth and life.
I remember that quiet household before it knew him,cosey,
homelike, with a pervading air even then of genial humor, but with long
hours of silence and repose,geraniums and the click of
knitting-needles in the sitting-room; faint odors of a fragrant pipe
from the shed kitchen; no stir of boisterous fun, except when some
bronzed, solemn joker, with his wife, came in for a formal call, and
solemnity gave way, by a gradual descent, to merriment. Joe had given
no new departure, only an impulse. James used to behave himself quite
well, Mrs. Parsons would say, archly raising her eyebrows, before
Joe's time; but now there 's two boys of 'em together, and the one as
bad as the other, and I can't do nothing with 'em. And then,with a
mock gesture of despair,that dog!
While Joe's mother was lying ill, and after it had become certain
that she would soon leave this world forever, the question had been
freely-discussed as to what her boy's future should be. In Captain
Joseph Pelham's mind there was only-one answer to this question,that
the lad should come to him. He bore the Captain's name; he represented
the Captain's son; he should take a place now in the Captain's home.
It was now about three weeks since Joe's mother had been buried. The
stone had not yet been cut and set over her grave. But the Captain
thought it time to drive over to James Parsons's and take the boy. That
James would make any serious opposition perhaps never entered his mind.
It was a bright, charming afternoon; with his shining horse, in a
bright, well-varnished buggy, the Captain drove over the seven miles of
winding roads through the woods, and along the sea, to the village
where James Parsons lived. He tied his horse to the hitching-post in
front of the broad cottage house, went down the path to the L door,
knocked, and went in.
James was sitting in a large room which served in winter as a
kitchen and in summer as a sort of sitting-room, smoking a pipe and
gazing vacantly into the pine-branches in the open fireplace before
him. He had been out all day on his marsh, but he had been home a
couple of hours. His wifekindly soulreceived Captain Pelham at the
door, wiping her hands upon her apron, and modestly showed him into the
sitting-room; then she retired to her tasks in the shed kitchen. She
moved about mechanically for a moment; then she ran hastily out into
the lean-to wood-shed, shut the door behind her, sat down on the worn
floor where it gives way with a step to the floor of earth by the
wood-pile, hid her face in her apron, and burst into tears.
Joe was at the wharf with his comrades playing at war.
Now, if there ever was a hospitable man,a man who gave a
welcome,a rough but merry welcome to every one who entered his doors,
it was James Parsons. He had a homely, jocose saying that you must
either make yourself at home or go home. But on this occasion he rose
with a somewhat forced and awkward air, laid his pipe down on the
mantel-piece, and nodded to the Captain with an air of embarrassed
inquiry. Then he bethought himself, and asked the Captain to sit down.
The Captain took the nearest chair, beside the table, where Mrs.
Parsons had lately been sitting at her work. James's chair was directly
opposite. The table was between them.
James rose and went to the mantel-piece, scratched a match upon his
boot-heel, and undertook to light his pipe. It did not light; he did
not notice it, but put the pipe in his mouth as if it were lighted.
It occurred to Captain Pelham now, for the first time, absorbed as
he had been with exclusive thoughts of the boy, that he should first
say something to this old man about the daughter whom he had lost: and
he made some expressions of sympathy. The old man nodded, but said
There was silence for two or three minutes.
The subject in order now was inevitably the boy. Captain Pelham
opened his lips to claim him; but, almost to his own surprise, he found
himself making some common remark about the affairs of the
neighborhood. It came in harsh and forced, as if it were a fragment of
conversation floated in by the breeze from the street outside. Then the
Captain waited a moment, looking out of the window.
James took his pipe from his mouth and leaned his elbows on the
table. Why don't you go take him? he suddenly said: he's probably
down to the wharf. Ef you have got the claim to him, why don't you go
take him? You 've got your team here,drive right down there and put
him in and drive off; if you 've got the right to him, why don't you go
take him? But ef you 've come for my consent, you can set there till
the chair rots beneath you.
With this, James rose and took the felt hat which was lying by him
on the table, and saying not another word, went out of the door. He
went down to the shore, and affected to busy himself with his boat.
There was nothing for Captain Pelham to do but to take his hat,
untie his horse, and drive home.
The Captain well knew that nobody in the world had a legal right to
the child until a guardian should be appointed. A plain and simple path
was open before him: it was his only path. James Parsons had proved
wilful and wrong-headed; there was nothing now but to take out letters
as guardian of the boy. Then James would acquiesce without a word.
Immediately after breakfast the Captain went down the street. He
opened his letters and attended to the first routine of business; then
he went across the way and up a flight of stairs to a lawyer's office.
If you had happened to read the county papers at about this time,
you would have seen among the legal notices two petitions, identical in
form,the one by Joseph Pelham, the other by James Parsons,each
applying for guardianship of Joseph Pelham, the younger of that name,
with an order upon each petition for all persons interested to come in
on the first Tuesday of the following month and show cause why the
petitioner's demand should not be granted.
The county court-house was a new brick building, of modest size,
fifteen miles from W, and twenty miles from the village where
James Parsons lived.
There were fifteen or twenty people from different towns in
attendance when the court opened on the important first Tuesday. As one
after another transacted his affairs and went away, others would come
in. Three or four lawyers sat at tables talking with clients, or stood
about the judge's desk. There was a sprinkling of women in new
mourning. Printed papers, filled out with names and dates,petitions
and bonds and executors' accounts,were being handed in to the judge
and receiving his signature of approval.
The routine business was transacted first. It was almost noon when
the judge was at last free to attend to contested matters. There was a
small audience by that time,only ten or a dozen people, some of whom
were waiting for train-time, while others, who had come upon their own
affairs, lingered now from curiosity.
The judge was a tall, spare, old-fashioned man; he had held the
office for above thirty years. He was a man of much native force, of
sound learning within the range of his judicial duties, and of strong
common-sense. He was often employed by Captain Pelham in his own
affairs, and more particularly in bank and insurance matters,for the
probate judges are free to practise at the bar in matters not connected
with their judicial duties,and Captain Pelham had always retained him
in important cases as counsel for the town. He had a large practice
throughout the county; he knew its people, their ideas, their
traditions, and their feelings. He understood their social organization
to the core.
Now, said the judge, laying aside some papers upon which he had
been writing, and taking off his glasses, we will take up the two
petitions for guardianship of Joseph Pelham.
Captain Pelham and the lawyer whom he had employed took seats at a
small table before the judge; James Parsons timidly took a seat at
another. His petition had been filled out for him by one of his
neighbors: he had no counsel.
Captain Pelham's lawyer rose; he had been impressed by the Captain
with the importance of the matter, and he was about to make a formal
opening. But the judge interrupted him. I think, he said, that we
may assume that I know in a general way about these two petitioners. I
shall assume, unless something is shown to the contrary, that they are
both men of respectable character, and have proper homes for a boy to
grow up in. And I suppose there is no controversy that Captain Pelham
is a man of some considerable means, and that the other petitioner is a
man of small property.
Now, he went on, leaning forward with his elbow on his desk, and
gently waving his glasses with his right hand, did the father of this
boy ever express any wish as to what should be done with him in case
his mother should die? Nobody answered. It would be of no legal
effect, he said, but it would have weight with me. Now, is there any
evidence as to what his mother wanted? A boy's mother can tell best
about these things, if she is a sensible woman. Mr. Baker, he said to
Captain Pelham's lawyer, have you any evidence as to what his mother
wanted to have done with him?
Mr. Baker conversed for a moment with Captain Pelham and then called
him to the stand.
Captain Pelham testified as to his frequent visits to the boy's
mother, and to her unbroken friendly relations with him. She had never
said in so many words what she wanted to have done for the boy, but he
always understood that she meant to have the child come to him; he
could not say, however, that she had said anything expressly to that
James sat before him not many feet away, in his old-fashioned
broadcloth coat with a velvet collar. He cross-examined Captain Pelham
She did n't never tell you, he said, that she was going to give
you the boy, did she?
No, sir; said Captain Pelham.
How often did your wife come over to see her?
I could n't tell you, sir, said the Captain.
Not very often, did she?
I think not, the Captain admitted.
The boy's mother did n't never talk much about Mis' Captain Pelham,
I don't remember that she did.
She did n't never have her over to talk with her about what she was
going to do with the boy, did she?
I don't know that she did, said the Captain. She is here; you can
You didn't never hear of her leaving no word with Mis' Captain
Pelham about taking care of the boy, did you?
I can't say that I did, said Captain Pelham.
The old man nodded his head with a satisfied air. His
cross-examination was done.
The Captain retired from the witness-stand; his lawyer whispered
with him a moment and then went over and whispered for two or three
minutes with Mrs. Pelham; then he said he had no more evidence to
Mr. Parsons, said the judge, do you wish to testify?
James went to the witness-stand and was sworn.
Did n't your daughter ever talk about what she wanted done with the
Talk about it? said James. Why, she didn't talk about nothing
else. She used to have it all over every time we went in. It was all
about how mother 'n me must do this with him and do that with him,how
he was to go to school, what room he was going to sleep in to our
house, and all that.
Mr. Baker desired to make no cross-examination, and James's wife was
called, and testified in her quaint way to the same effect.
By a keen, homely instinct James had half consciously foreseen what
would be the controlling element of the case; and while he had not
formulated it to himself he had brought with him one of his neighbors,
who had watched with his daughter through the last nights of her life.
She was one of the poorest women of the village. Her husband was
shiftless, and was somewhat given to drink. She had a large family,
with little to bring them up on. Her life had been one long struggle.
She was extremely poorly dressed, and although she was neat, there was
an air of unthrift or discouragement about her dress. She wore an
oversack which evidently had originally been made for some one else; it
lacked one button. She was faded and worn and homely; but the moment
she spoke she impressed you as a woman of conscience. She had talked in
the long watches of the night with the boy's mother, and she confirmed
what James and his wife had said. There could be no question what the
mother had desired.
Mr. Baker ventured out upon the thin ice of cross-examination.
She must have talked about her father-in-law, Captain Pelham? he
Oh, yes, said the woman, often.
She seemed to be attached to him?
Yes, indeed, said the woman, quickly; she was always telling how
good he was to her; I have heard her say there was n't no better man in
She must have talked about what he could do for the boy?
Yes, said the woman. She expected him to do for Joe.
Did n't she ever say, and the lawyer looked round at James,did
n't you ever hear her say that she was worried sometimes for fear her
father would not be careful enough about the boy?
The woman hesitated a moment. Yes, she said, I have heard her say
so, but that 's what every mother says.
What reason did you ever hear her give, the lawyer asked, why she
would rather have him stay over there than to go and be brought up by
his grandfather Pelham?
The woman looked around timidly at the judge. Be I obliged to
answer? she said.
The judge nodded.
The woman looked toward Captain Pelham with an embarrassed air. He
was the best friend she had in the world.
I rather not say nothing about that, she said; it 's no account,
Oh, tell us what she said, said Mr. Baker.
He felt that he had made some progress up to that point with his
Well, it was n't much, said the woman; it was only like this. I
have heard her say that Miss Captain Pelham was a good woman and meant
to do what was right, but she was n't a woman that knew how to mother a
little boy. And here the witness began to cry.
The judge moved slightly in his chair.
There was more or less rambling talk about the way the boy was
allowed to run loose on the shore, and some suggestions were made in
the way of conversational argument about his being allowed to go
barefoot, and to go in swimming when he pleased; but the judge seemed
to pay very little attention to that. That 's the way we were all
brought up, he said. It is good for the boy; he 'll learn to take
care of himself, and his mother knew all about it.
It is plain enough, he said at last, that there would be some
advantages to the boy in going to live with Captain Pelham; but there
is one thing that has been overlooked which would probably have been
suggested if the petitioner Parsons had had counsel. It has been
assumed that the boy would be cut loose in future from his grandfather
Pelham unless he was put under his guardianship; but that is n't so.
All his grandparents will look out for him, and when he gets older, and
wants to go into business, here or elsewhere, Captain Pelham will look
after him just the same as if he were his guardian. The other
grandfather has n't got the means to advance him. I am not at all
afraid about that, he said; the only question here is, where he shall
be deposited for the next five or six years. Either place is good
enough. His father had a right to fix it by will if he had chosen to;
but he did n't, and I think we must consider it a matter for the women
to settle: they know best about such things. It is plain that his
mother thought it would be best for him to stay where he is, and she
knew best. He 's wonted there, and wants to stay.
Then he took up his pen and wrote on Captain Pelham's petition an
order of dismissal. On the other he filled out and signed the decree
granting guardianship to James Parsons, and approved the bond. Then he
handed the papers to the register and called the next case.
From this day on, little was seen of Captain Pelham at James's
house. Sometimes he would stop in his buggy and take the boy off with
him for a little stay; but Joe soon wearied of formality, and grew
restless for James, for his grandmother Parsons, for the free life of
the little wharf and the shore. Life always opened fresh to him on his
Once and only once Captain Pelham entered James's door-yard. James
was sitting in an armchair under an apple-tree by the well, smoking and
reading the paper. The Captain began, this time, with no introduction.
Fred Gooding, he said, tells me you are talking of letting Joe go
out with Pitts in his boat You know Pitts is no fit man.
You tell Fred Gooding he don't know what he 's talking about, said
James, as he rose from his chair, holding the paper in his hand. What
I told Pitts was just the contr'y,the boy should n't go along o'
him. Then his anger began to rise. But what right you got, he
demanded, to interfere? 'T ain 't none of your business who I let him
go along of. It's me that's the boy's guardeen.
Very well, said the Captain. Only I tell you fairly,the first
time I get word of anything, I 'll go to the probate court and have you
James followed him down the path with derisive laughter. Why don't
you go to the probate court? he said; you hed great luck before! And
as the Captain drove away, James shouted after him, Go to the probate
court! Go to the probate court!
There is a low, pleasant boat-shop, close on the shore of a little
arm of the sea. The tide ebbs and flows before its wide double doors,
and sometimes rises so high as to flow the sills; then you have to walk
across in front of the shop on a plank, laid upon iron ballast. There
is a little wharf or pier close at hand, the outer end of which is
always going to be repaired. There are two or three other shops near
by, and about them is the pleasant litter of a boat-yard. In the cove
before them lie at their moorings in the late afternoon a fleet of
fifteen or twenty fishing and pleasure boats, all cat-rigged, all of
one general build, wide, shoal, with one broad sail, all painted white,
by the custom of the place, and all or nearly all kept neat and clean:
they are all likely enough to be called upon now and then for
sailing-parties. Often of a bright afternoon in summer the sails will
all be up, as the boats swing at their floats: then you have all the
effect of a regatta in still life.
The shop faces down the bay of which this inlet is the foot, and as
you look out from your seat within, on a wooden stool, the great door
frames in a landscape of peaceful beauty. The opening to the sea is
closed to the view. Simply you can see the two white sand-cliffs
through which it makes. The bay is a mile in length, perhaps, and of
half that width. From its white, sandy shores rise gentle hills, bare
to the sun or covered with a low growth of woods. To the right are
low-lying pastures and marshes, with here and there a grazing cow. At
the head of the bay the valley of a stream can be faintly
distinguished, while in the distance there is a faint suggestion of a
few scattered houses on the upper waters. At one or two points masts of
boats rise from the grass of the inland, and sometimes a sail is seen
threading its slow way amid the trees.
The shop is a favorite resort. You may go there in the early
morning, in the late forenoon, or in the afternoon; whenever you go you
will find there more or less company. There is a sort of social,
hospitable atmosphere about the place which is attractive in the
extreme. Sometimes there is a good deal of conversation; sometimes
there is a comfortable silence of good-fellowship. There is more or
less knitting there and crocheting; often in the afternoon the women
from near by take their work there to enjoy the view, and the fresh air
which draws up there as nowhere else.
There is a good deal of religious discussion there, although the
atmosphere of the shop is not entirely religious, as you may see by
some of the papers lying about, and the cuts pasted up on the walls.
Chief is a picture representing a scene in the life of the prophet
Jonah. Jonah and the seamen are drawing lots to see who shall be cast
over. Jonah has just drawn the ace of spades.
There are various other pictures on the walls,prints of famous
yachts, charts, advertisements of regattas, sailing rules of
yacht-clubs. Nowhere is the science of boat-building and boat-sailing
studied with greater closeness than in that shop. Many a successful
racer has been built there. There are models of boats pinned up against
the wall,models which to the common eye hardly vary at all, but to a
trained perception differ widely. There are oars lying about the shop,
oil-skin suits, a compass, charts, in round tin cases, boat hardware,
and coils of new rope.
The little pier has its periods of activity and life, like the great
world outside. At three or four o'clock, in the gray dawn, fishermen
appear, singly, or two by two; there is often then a failure of wind,
and they have to get out to sea by heavy rowing or by the drift of the
tide. Then there is silence for some hours, and when the world awakes
the cove is nearly deserted. At seven o'clock begins the life of the
shop. Amateur fishermen appear,boarders from New York or visiting
sons from Brockton. Later still, little parties come down,a knot of
young fellows and laughing girls with bright-colored wraps, bound on a
sailing-party to Katameset, with a matron, and with some well-salted
man to steer the boat, perhaps in slippers and a dressing-gown. They go
singing out to sea. Then come a party of bathers,ladies and little
children, with towels and blue suits, and all the paraphernalia of
pails and wooden shovels. Then will come perhaps a couple of girls, to
sketch. They will encamp anywhere upon the shore, call into their
service some small amphibious creature to tip a skiff up on its side to
make an effective scene, and proceed with the wonders of their art.
Soon the bathers return. They have been only a little way down the
narrows, and come back to dinner at one. The fishermen come in from
three to four, unless they happen to be becalmed; there is a bustle
then of getting out ice; of slitting and weighing and packing fish, and
loading them into wagons to be carted to the railway. Then there is a
lull until the sailing-parties return, perhaps at five, perhaps at six,
perhaps not until the turn of the tide or the evening breeze brings
All the time the quiet life of the boat-shop goes on,its labor,
its discussions on politics and religion, its criticism of yachts. All
day long small boys play about the pier, race in skiffs or in such
insignificant sailing-craft as may be available, and every half-hour,
at the initiative of some infant leader, all doff their little print
waists and short trousers and go in, regardless of the sketchers on
It was a bright, fresh day. The air was as clear as crystal. Joe had
been gone since dawn with Henry Price. The wind had been blowing hard
from the north for a dozen hours, and, as the saying is, had kicked up
a sea. On the shoal the waves were rolling heavily, and since three
o'clock the tide had been running against the wind, and the seas had
been broken every way. But to Henry Price, and with that boat, rough
seas, from March to November, were only what a rude mountain road would
be to you or me. If his wife, toward afternoon, shading her eyes at the
south door, ever felt anxious about him, it was a woman's foolish fear;
it was only because she thought with concern of thatinternal
neuralgia was it?which her husband brought back from the war; which
seized him at rare intervals and enfeebled him for days. He made light
of it, and never spoke of it out of the house. There was no better
boatman on that shore. Let alone that one possibility of weakness, and
the ocean had a hard man to deal with when it dealt with him.
They had been gone all day. It had been rough, and they would come
in wet. This wind would not die down; they were sure to make a quick
run, and would be in before dark.
It was late in the afternoon. James was sitting in the shop with one
or two companions, engaged in a loud discussion. He had been
discoursing upon all his favorite themes. He had been declaiming upon
the dangers from Catholic supremacy and the subserviency of the Irish
vote to the Church of Rome, and upon the absolute necessity of the
supremacy of the Democratic party; upon the Apocalypse and the seven
seals. He had been maintaining the literal infallibility of the
Scriptures, and the necessity of treating some portions as legendary.
It would be hard to say what inconsistent views he had not set forth
within the space of the past hour; and all this with the utmost
intensity, and yet with the utmost good-humor, always ready to
acknowledge a point against himself,the more readily if entirely
fallacious,with a burst of hearty laughter.
At last there was a pause. Something had called out of doors the two
or three men who were within. There was nothing to disturb the peaceful
beauty of the afternoon. It was blowing hard outside, but this was a
sheltered spot, and the wind was little felt.
As James sat there silent, with no one at hand but the owner of the
shop, who was busy upon the keel of a new boat, a fisherman came in and
took a seat, with an affectation of ease and nonchalance; in a moment
another followed; two or three more came in, then others.
The carpenter stopped his work, and shading his eyes with his hand,
seemed to be looking down the bay.
There was a dead silence for a few moments. Then James spoke. But it
was not the voice of James. It was not that cheery and hearty voice
which had just been filling the shop with mirth. It was a voice harsh,
forced, mechanical,the voice of a man paralyzed with terror.
Why don't you tell me? he said; is it Henry, oris it the boy?
But no one spoke.
You don't need to tell me nothing, he said, in the same strange
tone of paralysis and fear, I knowed it when Bassett first come in. I
knowed it when the rest come in and closed in round me and did n't say
He sat still a moment. Then he rose abruptly and turned to the
landward door. He stumbled over a stool which was in his way, and would
have fallen but that one of the men sprang forward and held him. He
plunged hastily out of the door. Just outside, in the shade of a small
wild cherry-tree, was a bucket of clams which he had dug; across the
bucket was an old hoe worn down to nothing. He stopped and mechanically
took up the pail and hoe. Bassett stood by the door and looked after
him as he went along the foot-path toward his home. There was a
scantling fence close by. He went over it in his old habitual fashion:
first he set over the bucket of clams and the hoe; then one leg went
over and then the other; he sat for an instant on the top slat and then
slid down. He took up his burden and went his way over the fields. In a
moment he was lost to sight behind a bit of rising ground. Then he
reappeared, making his way over the fields at his own heavy gait, until
he was lost to sight behind a clump of trees close to his own door.
They did not find Henry and the boy that night. It was not until the
next day that the bodies were washed ashore. One of the searchers,
walking along the beach in the early dawn, found them both. He came
upon Henry first; he was lying on the sand upon his face. A little
farther on, gently swayed by the rising tide, lay Joe and his dog. Joe
lay on his side, precisely as if asleep; the dog was in his arms.
The boy lies in the burying-ground on the hill, near the stone and
the weeping-willow which mourn the youth who met his untimely death in
1830, in the launching of the brig. There is a rose-bush at the grave,
and few bright days pass in summer that there is not a bunch of homely
flowers laid at its foot. It is the spot to which all Mrs. Parsons's
thoughts now tend, and her perpetual pilgrimage. It is too far for her
to walk both there and back; but often a neighbor is going that way,
with a lug-wagon or an open cart or his family carriage,it makes no
difference which,and it is easy to get a ride. It is a good-humored
village. Everybody stands ready to do a favor, and nobody hesitates to
ask one. Often on a bright afternoon Mrs. Parsons will watch from her
front window the teams that pass, going to the bay. When she sees one
which is likely to go in the right direction on its return from the
bay,everybody knows in which direction she will wish to go,she will
run hastily to the door, and hail it.
Whoa! Sh-h! Whoa! How d'do, Mis' Parsons?
Be you going straight home when you come back? Well, then, if it
won't really be no trouble at all, I 'll be at the gap when you come
by; I won't keep you waiting a minute. It 's such a nice, sunshiny
afternoon, I thought I 'd like to go up and sit awhile, and take some