The King of Folly Island

  Stories by Sarah Orne Jewett, 1888
    annotated and illustrated  
    isbn 1-889678-03-1,   Coe Review Press
    Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project
    100 pages, comb-bound, $11:00
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Contents: The King of Folly Island; The Courting of Sister Wisby; The Landscape Chamber; Law Lane; Miss Peck's Promotion; Miss Tempy's Watchers; A Village Shop; Mère Pochette.

Illustration from the Harper's December 1886 publication of the title story, "The King of Folly Island."

from "The King of Folly Island."


     The September afternoon was nearly spent, and the sun was already veiled in a thin cloud of haze that hinted at coming drought and dustiness rather than rain. Nobody could help feeling sure of just such another golden day on the morrow; this was as good weather as heart could wish. There on the Maine coast, where it was hard to distinguish the islands from the irregular outline of the main-land, where the summer greenness was just beginning to change into all manner of yellow and russet and scarlet tints, the year seemed to have done its work and begun its holidays.

     Along one of the broad highways of the bay, in the John's Island postmaster's boat, came a stranger -- a man of forty-two or forty-three years, not unprosperous but hardly satisfied, and ever on the quest for entertainment, though he called his pleasure by the hard name of work, and liked himself the better for such a wrong translation. Fate had made him a business man of good success and reputation; inclination, at least so he thought, would have led him another way, but his business ventures pleased him more than the best of his holidays. Somehow life was more interesting if one took it by contraries; he persuaded himself that he had been looking forward to this solitary ramble for many months, but the truth remained that he had found it provokingly hard to break away from his city office, his clerks, and his accounts. He had grown much richer in this last twelve-month, and as he leaned back in the stern of the boat with his arm over the rudder, he was pondering with great perplexity the troublesome question what he ought to do with so much money, and why he should have had it put into his careless hands at all. The bulk of it must be only a sort of reservoir for the sake of a later need and ownership. He thought with scorn of some liberal gifts for which he had been aggravatingly thanked and praised, and made such an impatient gesture with his shoulder that the boat gave a surprised flounce out of its straight course, and the old skipper, who was carefully inspecting the meagre contents of the mail-bag, nearly lost his big silver spectacles overboard. It would have been a strange and awesome calamity. There were no new ones to be bought within seven miles.

     "Did a flaw strike her?" asked Jabez Pennell, who looked curiously at the sky and sea and then at his passenger. "I've known of a porpus h'isting a boat, or mought be you kind o' shifted the rudder?"

     Whereupon they both laughed; the passenger with a brilliant smile and indescribably merry sound, and the old postmaster with a mechanical grimace of the face and a rusty chuckle; then he turned to his letters again, and adjusted the rescued spectacles to his weather-beaten nose. He thought the stranger, though a silent young man, was a friendly sort of chap, boiling over with fun, as it were; whereas he was really a little morose -- so much for Jabez's knowledge of human nature. "Feels kind o' strange, 't is likely that's better than one o' your forrard kind," mused Jabez, who took the visitor for one of the rare specimens of commercial travelers who sometimes visited John's Island -- to little purpose it must be confessed. The postmaster cunningly concealed the fact that he kept the only store on John's Island; he might as well get his pay for setting the stranger across the bay, and it was nobody's business to pry into what he wanted when he got there. So Jabez gave another chuckle, and could not help looking again at the canvas-covered gun case with its neat straps, and the well-packed portmanteau that lay alongside it in the bows.

     "I suppose I can find some place to stay in overnight?" asked the stranger, presently.

     "Do' know 's you can, I'm sure," replied Mr. Pennell. "There ain't no reg'lar boarding places onto John's Island. Folks keep to theirselves pretty much."

     "I suppose money is of some object?" gently inquired the passenger.

     "Waal, yes," answered Jabez, without much apparent certainty. "Yes, John's Island folks ain't above nippin' an' squeezin' to get the best of a bargain. They're pretty much like the rest o' the human race, an' want money, whether they've got any use for it or not. Take it in cold weather, when you've got pork enough and potatoes and them things in your sullar, an' it blows an' freezes so 't ain't wuth while to go out, 'most all that money's good for is to set an' look at. Now I need to have more means than most on 'em," continued the speaker, plaintively, as if to excuse himself for any rumor of his grasping ways which might have reached his companion. "Keeping store as I do, I have to handle" -- But here he stopped short, conscious of having taken a wrong step. However, they were more than half across now, and the mail was overdue; he would not be forced into going back when it was ascertained that he refused to even look at any samples.

     But the passenger took no notice of the news that he was sailing with the chief and only merchant of John's Island, and even turned slowly to look back at the shore they had left, far away now, and fast growing dim on the horizon. John's Island was, on the contrary, growing more distinct, and there were some smaller fragments of land near it; on one he could already distinguish a flock of sheep that moved slowly down a barren slope. It was amazing that they found food enough all summer in that narrow pasture. The suggestion of winter in this remote corner of the world gave Frankfort a feeling of deep pity for the sheep, as well as for all the other inhabitants. Yet it was worth a cheerless year to come occasionally to such weather as this; and he filled his lungs again and again with the delicious air blown to him from the inland country of bayberry and fir balsams across the sparkling salt-water. The fresh northwest wind carried them straight on their course, and the postmaster's passenger could not have told himself why he was going to John's Island, except that when he had apparently come to the end of everything on an outreaching point of the main-land, he had found that there was still a settlement beyond -- John's Island, twelve miles distant, and communication would be that day afforded. "Sheep farmers and fishermen -- a real old-fashioned crowd," he had been told. It was odd to go with the postmaster: perhaps he was addressed by fate to some human being who expected him. Yes, he would find out what could be done for the John's-Islanders; then a wave of defeat seemed to chill his desire. It was better to let them work toward what they needed and wanted; besides, "the gift without the giver were dumb." Though after all it would be a kind of satisfaction to take a poor little neighborhood under one's wing, and make it presents of books and various enlightenments. It wouldn't be a bad thing to send it a Punch and Judy show, or a panorama.

     "May I ask your business?" interrupted Jabez Pennell, to whom the long silence was a little oppressive.

     "I am a sportsman," responded John Frankfort, the partner in a flourishing private bank, and the merchant-postmaster's face drooped with disappointment. No bargains, then, but perhaps a lucrative boarder for a week or two; and Jabez instantly resolved that for not a cent less than a dollar a day should this man share the privileges and advantages of his own food and lodging. Two dollars a week being the current rate among John's-Islanders, it will be easily seen that Mr. Pennell was a man of far-seeing business enterprise.


"The King of Folly Island" first appeared in Harper's Magazine in December 1886 and was collected in The King of Folly Island and Other People in 1888. This text is from the collection. Probable errors have been corrected and so indicated in brackets. If you find errors in the text or see items you believe should be annotated, please communicate with me:
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flaw strike her: A flaw is a sudden burst or gust of wind of short duration.
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porpus: porpoise.
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sullar: cellar.
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bayberry and fir-balsams: Bayberry is a short, thick wild bush which grows along the coast in New England; the wax from its berries is used to make scented candles; represents `instruction' in the nineteenth-century language of flowers (Research, Ted Eden). Fir-balsam is Abies balsamea, sometimes called Balm of Gilead.
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"the gift without the giver were dumb": See James Russell Lowell's The Vision of Sir Launfal (1848), part II, Stanza 8:

     Not what we give, but what we share -
     For the gift without the giver is bare:
     Who gives himself with his alms feeds three -
     Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me.
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Punch and Judy show ... panorama: A panorama according to the 1913 Webster's Dictionary (ARTFL On Line Project) is a picture presenting a view of objects in every direction, as from a central point. Or it may be a "picture representing scenes too extended to be beheld at once, and so exhibited a part at a time, by being unrolled, and made to pass continuously before the spectator." The latter is probably what Frankfort has in mind.
     A Punch and Judy show would be a puppet show. Britannica Online provides the following information: "Punchinello, Italian Pulcinella, hooknosed, humpbacked character, the most popular of marionettes and glove puppets and the chief figure in the Punch-and-Judy puppet show. Brutal, vindictive, and deceitful, he is usually at odds with authority. His character had roots in the Roman clown and the comic country bumpkin.... His influence survives in such common phrases as 'pleased as Punch.'"
     Judy (sometimes Joan) is often Punch's wife in dramas of domestic difficulty.
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Edited July, 1998
Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Terry Heller.
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