The Life of Nancy
An illustrated text
Century Magazine Text
ALL MY SAD CAPTAINS.
Sarah Orne Jewett
Mrs. Peter Lunn was a plump little woman who bobbed her head like a pigeon when she walked. Her best dress was a handsome, if not new, black silk which Captain Lunn, her lamented husband, had bought many years before in the port of Bristol. The decline of shipping interests had cost this worthy shipmaster not only the better part of his small fortune, but also his health and spirits; and he had died a poor man at last, after a long and trying illness. Such a lingering disorder, with its hopes and despairs, rarely affords the same poor compensations to a man that it does to a woman; the claims upon public interest and consideration, the dignity of being assailed by any ailment out of the common course -- all these things are to a man but the details of his general ignominy and impatience.
Captain Peter Lunn may have indulged in no sense of his own consequence and uniqueness as an invalid; but his wife bore herself as a woman should who was the heroine in so sad a drama, and she went and came across the provincial stage, knowing that her audience was made up of nearly the whole population of that little seaside town. When the curtain had fallen at last, and the old friends -- seafaring men and others and their wives -- had come home from Captain Lunn's funeral, and had spoken their friendly thoughts, and reviewed his symptoms for what seemed to them to be the last time, everybody was conscious of a real anxiety. The future of the captain's widow was sadly uncertain, for every one was aware that Mrs. Lunn could now depend upon only a scant provision. She was much younger than her husband, having been a second wife, and she was thrifty and ingenious; but her outlook was acknowledged to be anything but cheerful. In truth, the honest grief that she displayed in the early days of her loss was sure to be better understood with the ancient proverb in mind, that a lean sorrow is hardest to bear.
To everybody's surprise, however, this able woman succeeded in keeping the old Lunn house painted to the proper perfection of whiteness; there never were any loose bricks to be seen on the tops of her chimneys. The relics of the days of her prosperity kept an air of comfortable continuance in the days of her adversity. The best black silk held its own nobly, and the shining roundness of its handsome folds aided her in looking prosperous and fit for all social occasions. She lived alone, and was a busy and unprocrastinating housekeeper. She may have made less raspberry jam than in her earlier days, but it was always pound for pound; while her sponge-cake was never degraded in its ingredients from the royal standard of twelve eggs. The honest English and French stuffs that had been used in the furnishing of the captain's house so many years before faded a little as the years passed by, but they never wore out. Yet one cannot keep the same money in one's purse, if one is never so thrifty, and so Mrs. Lunn came at last to feel heavy at heart and deeply troubled. To use the common phrase of her neighbors, it was high time for her to make a change. She had now been living alone for four years, and it must be confessed that all those friends who had admired her self-respect and self-dependence began to take a keener interest than ever in her plans and behavior.
The first indication of Mrs. Lunn's new purpose in life was her mournful allusion to those responsibilities which so severely tax the incompetence of a lone woman. She felt obliged to ask advice of a friend; in fact, she asked the advice of three friends, and each responded with a cordiality delightful to describe. It happened that there were no less than three retired shipmasters in the old seaport town of Longport who felt the justice of our heroine's claims upon society. She was not only an extremely pleasing person, but she had the wisdom to conceal from Captain Asa Shaw that she had taken any one for an intimate counselor but himself; and the same secrecy was observed out of deference to the feelings and pride of Captain Crowe and Captain Witherspoon. The deplored necessity of re-shingling her roof was the great case in which she threw herself upon their advice and assistance.
Now, if it had been the new planking of a deck, or the selection and stepping of a mast, the counsel of two of these captains would have been more likely to avail a helpless lady. They were elderly men, and had spent so much of their lives at sea that they were not very well informed about shingling their own houses, having left this to their wives, or agents, or some other land-fast persons. They recognized the truth that it would not do to let the project be publicly known, for fear of undue advantage being taken over an unprotected woman; but each found his opportunity to acquire information, and to impart it in secret to Mrs. Lunn. It sometimes occurred to the good woman that she had been unwise in setting all her captains upon the same course, especially as she really thought that the old cedar shingles might last, with judicious patching, for two or three years more. But, in spite of this weakness of tactics, she was equal to her small campaign.
It now becomes necessary that the reader should have some closer acquaintance with the captains themselves; and to that end confession must be made of the author's belief in a theory of psychological misfits, or the occasional occupation of large-sized material bodies by small-sized spiritual tenants, and the opposite of this, by which small shapes of clay are sometimes animated in the noblest way by lofty souls. This was the case with Captain Witherspoon, who, not being much above five feet in height, bore himself like a giant, and carried a cane that was far too tall for him. Not so Captain Crowe, who, being considerably over six feet, was small-voiced and easily embarrassed, besides being so unconscious of the strength and size of his great body that he usually bore the mark of a blow on his forehead, to show that he had lately attempted to go through a door that was too low. He accounted for himself only as far as his eyes, and in groping between decks, or under garret or storehouse eaves, the poor man was constantly exposing the superfluous portion of his frame to severe usage. His hats were always more or less damaged. He was altogether unaware of the natural dignity of his appearance, and bore himself with great honesty and simplicity, as became a small and timid person. But little Captain Witherspoon had a heart of fire. He spoke in a loud and hearty voice. He was called "The Captain" by his townsfolk, while other shipmasters, active or retired, were given their full and distinctive names of Captain Crowe, Captain Eli Proudfit, or Captain Asa Shaw, as the case might be.
Captain Asa Shaw was another aspirant for the hand of Mrs. Maria Lunn. He had a great deal more money than his rivals, and was the owner of a tugboat, which brought a good addition to his income, since Longport was at the mouth of a river on which there was still considerable traffic. He lacked the dignity and elegance of leisure which belonged to Captains Crowe and Witherspoon, but the fact was patent that he was a younger man than they by half a dozen years. He was not a member of one of the old Longport families, and belonged to a less eminent social level. His straightforwardness of behavior and excellent business position were his chief claims, besides the fact that he was not only rich, but growing richer every day. His drawbacks were the carping relatives of his late wife, and his four unruly children. Captain Crowe felt himself assured of success in his suit, because he was by no means a poor man, and because he owned the best house in town, over which any woman might be proud to reign as mistress; but he had the defect of owing a home to two maiden sisters who were envious and uneasy at the very suggestion of his marrying again. They constantly deplored the loss of their sister-in-law, and paid assiduous and open respect to her memory in every possible way. It seemed certain that as long as they could continue the captain's habit of visiting her grave, in their company, on pleasant Sundays, he was in little danger of providing a successor to reign over them. They had been very critical and hard-hearted to the meek little woman while she was alive, and their later conduct may possibly have been moved by repentance.
As for the third admirer of Mrs. Lunn, Captain Witherspoon, he was an unencumbered bachelor who had always dreamed of marrying, but had never wished to marry any one in particular until Maria Lunn had engaged his late-blossoming affections. He had only a slender estate, but was sure that if they had been able to get along apart, they could get on all the better together. His lonely habitation was with a deaf, widowed cousin; his hopes were great that he was near to having that happy home of his own of which he had dreamed on land and sea ever since he was a boy. He was young at heart, and an ardent lover, this red-faced little old captain, who walked in the Longport streets as if he were another Lord Nelson, afraid of nobody, and equal to his fortunes.
To him, who had long admired her in secret, Maria Lunn's confidence in regard to the renewing of her cedar shingles had been a golden joy. He could hardly help singing as he walked, at this proof of her confidence and esteem, and the mellowing effect of an eleven o'clock glass of refreshment put his willing tongue in daily danger of telling his hopes to a mixed but assuredly interested company. As he walked by the Lunn house, on his way to and from the harbor side, he looked at it with a feeling of relationship and love; he admired the clean white curtains at the windows, he envied the plump tortoise-shell cat on the side doorstep; if he saw the composed and pleasant face of Maria glancing up from her sewing, he swept his hat through the air with as gallant as bow as Longport had ever seen, and blushed with joy and pride. Maria Lunn owned to herself that she liked him best, as far as he himself was concerned; while she invariably settled it with her judicious affections that she must never think of encouraging the captain, who, like herself, was too poor already. Put to the final test, he was found wanting; he was no man of business, and had lost both his own patrimony and early savings in disastrous shipping enterprises, and still liked to throw down his money to any one who was willing to pick it up. But sometimes, when she saw him pass with a little troop of children at his heels, on their happy way to the candy-shop at the corner, she could not forbear a sigh, or to say to herself, with a smile, that the little man was good-hearted, or that there was nobody who made himself better company; perhaps he would stop in for a minute as he came up the street again at noon. Her sewing was not making but mending, in these days; and the more she had to mend, the more she sat by one of her front windows, where the light was good.
One evening toward the end of summer there came a loud rap at the knocker of Mrs. Lunn's front door. It was the summons of Captain Asa Shaw, who sought a quiet haven from the discomforts of the society of his sisters-in-law and his notoriously ill-bred children. Captain Shaw was prosperous, if not happy; he had been figuring up accounts that rainy afternoon, and found himself in good case. He looked burly and commonplace and insistent as he stood on the front doorstep, and thought Mrs. Lunn was long in coming. At the same moment when she had just made her appearance with a set smile, and a little extra color in her cheeks, from having hastily taken off her apron and tossed it into the sitting-room closet, and smoothed her satin-like black hair on the way, there was another loud rap on the smaller side-door knocker.
"There must be somebody wanting to speak with me on an errand," she prettily apologized, as she offered Captain Shaw the best rocking-chair. The side door opened into a tiny entry-way at the other end of the room, and she unfastened the bolt impatiently. "Oh, walk right in, Cap'n Crowe!" she was presently heard to exclaim; but there was a note of embarrassment in her tone, and a look of provocation on her face, as the big shipmaster lumbered after her into the sitting-room. Captain Shaw had taken the large chair, and the newcomer was but poorly accommodated on a smaller one with a cane seat. The walls of the old Lunn house were low, and his head seemed in danger of knocking itself; he was clumsier and bigger than ever in this moment of dismay. His sisters had worn his patience past endurance, and he had it in mind to come to a distinct understanding with Mrs. Lunn that very night.
Captain Shaw was in his every-day clothes, which lost him a point in Mrs. Lunn's observant eyes; but Captain Crowe had paid her the honor of putting on his best coat for this evening visit. She thought at first that he had even changed his shirt, but upon reflection remembered that this could not be taken as a special recognition of her charms, it being Wednesday night. On the wharves, or in a down-town office, the two men were by way of being good friends, but at this moment great Captain Crowe openly despised his social inferior, and after a formal recognition of his unwelcome presence ignored him with unusual bravery, and addressed Mrs. Lunn with grave politeness. He was dimly conscious of the younger and lesser man's being for some unexplainable reason a formidable rival, and tried blunderingly to show the degree of intimacy which existed between himself and the lady.
"I just looked in to report about our little matter of business. I've got the estimates with me, but 't will do just as well another time," said the big mariner in his disapproving, soft voice.
Captain Shaw instinctively scuffed his feet at the sound, and even felt for his account-book in an inside pocket to reassure himself of his financial standing. "I could buy him an' sell him twice over," he muttered angrily, as loud as he dared.
Mrs. Lunn rose to a command of the occasion at once; there was no sense in men of their age behaving like schoolboys. "Oh, my, yes!" she hastened to say, as she rose with a simpering smile. "'T ain't as if 't was any kind o' consequence, you know; not but what I'm just as much obliged."
Captain Crowe scowled now; this was still the affair of the shingles, and it had been of enough consequence two days before to protract a conversation through two long hours. He had wished ever since that he had thought then to tell Mrs. Lunn that if she would just say the word, she never need think of those shingles again, nor of the cost of them. It would have been a pretty way to convey the state of his feelings toward her; but he had lost the opportunity, it might be forever. To use his own expression, he now put about and steered a new course.
"I come by your house just now," he said to Captain Shaw, who still glowered from the rocking-chair. "Your young folks seemed to be havin' a great time. Well, I like to see young folks happy. They generally be," he chuckled maliciously; "'t is we old ones have the worst of it, soon as they begin to want to have everything their way."
"I don't allow no trouble for'ard when I'm on deck," said Shipmaster Shaw more cheerfully; he hardly recognized the covert allusion to his drawbacks as a suitor. "I like to give 'em their liberty. To-night they were bound on some sort of a racket -- they got some other young folks in; but gen'ally they do pretty well. I'm goin' to take my oldest boy right into the office, first o' January -- put him right to business. I need more help; I've got too much now for me an' Decket to handle, though Decket's a good accountant."
"Well, I'm glad I'm out of it," said Captain Crowe. "I don't want the bother o' business. I don't need to slave."
"No; you shouldn't have too much to carry at your time o' life," rejoined his friend, in a tone that was anything but soothing; and at this moment Maria Lunn returned with her best lamp in full brilliancy. She had listened eagerly to their exchange of compliments, and thought it would be wise to change the subject.
"What's been goin' on down street to-day?" she asked. "I haven't had occasion to go out, and I don't have anybody to bring me the news, as I used to."
"Here's Cap'n Shaw makin' me out to be old enough to be his grandfather," insisted Captain Crowe, laughing gently, as if he had taken it as a joke. "Now, everybody knows I ain't but five years the oldest. Shaw, you mustn't be settin' up for a young dandy. I've had a good deal more sea service than you. I believe you never went out on a long voyage round the Cape or the like o' that; those long voyages count a man two years to one, if they're hard passages."
"No; I only made some few trips; the rest you might call coastin'," said Captain Shaw handsomely. The two men felt more at ease and reasonable with this familiar subject of experience and discussion. "I come to the conclusion I'd better stop ashore. If I could ever have found me a smart, dependable crew, I might have followed the sea longer than I did."
It was in the big captain's heart to say, "Poor master, poor crew;" but he refrained. It had been well known that in spite of Shaw's ability as a money-maker on shore, he was no seaman, and never had been. Mrs. Lunn was sure to have heard his defects commented on, but she sat by the table, smiling, and gave no sign, though Captain Crowe looked at her eagerly for a glance of understanding and contempt.
There was a moment of silence, and nobody seemed to know what to say next. Mrs. Maria Lunn was not a great talker in company, although so delightful in confidence and consultation. She wished now, from the bottom of her heart, that one of her admirers would go away; but at this instant there was a loud tapping at a back door in the farther end of the house.
"I thought I heard somebody knocking a few minutes ago." Captain Crowe rose like a buoy against the ceiling. "Here, now, I'm goin' to the door for you, Mis' Lunn; there may be a tramp or somethin'."
"Oh, no," said the little woman, anxiously bustling past him, and lifting the hand-lamp as she went. "I guess it's only somebody to speak about the washing. Mrs. Dimmett's been sick" -- The last words were nearly lost in the distance, and in the draught a door closed after her, and the two captains were left alone. Some minutes went by before they suddenly heard the sound of a familiar voice.
"I don't know but what I will, after all, step in an' set down for just a minute," said the hearty voice of little Captain Witherspoon. "I'll just wash my hands here at the sink, if you'll let me, same 's I did the other day. I shouldn't have bothered you so late about a mere fish, but they was such prime mackerel, an' I thought like 's not one of 'em would make you a breakfast."
"You're always very considerate," answered Mrs. Lunn, in spite of what she felt to be a real emergency. She was very fond of mackerel, and these were the first of the season. "Walk right in, Cap'n Witherspoon, when you get ready. You'll find some o' your friends. 'T is 'The Cap'n,' gentlemen," she added, in a pleased tone, as she rejoined her earlier guests.
If Captain Witherspoon had also indulged a hope of finding his love alone, he made no sign; it would be beneath so valiant and gallant a man to show defeat. He shook hands with both his friends as if he had not seen them for a fortnight, and then drew one of the Windsor chairs forward, forcing the two companions into something like a social circle.
"What's the news?" he demanded. "Anything heard from the new minister yet, Crowe? I suppose, though, the ladies are likely to hear of those matters first."
Mrs. Lunn was grateful to this promoter of friendly intercourse. "Yes, sir," she answered quickly; "I was told, just before tea, that he had written to Deacon Torby that he felt moved to accept the call."
Her eyes shone with pleasure at having this piece of news. She had been thinking a great deal about it just before the two captains came in, but their mutual dismay had been such an infliction that for once she had been in danger of forgetting her best resources. Now, with the interest of these parishioners in their new minister, the propriety, not to say the enjoyment, of the rest of the evening was secure. Captain Witherspoon went away earliest, as cheerfully as he had come; and Captain Shaw rose and followed him for the sake of having company along the street. Captain Crowe lingered a few moments, so obtrusively that he seemed to fill the whole sitting-room, while he talked about unimportant matters; and at last Mrs. Lunn knocked a large flat book off the end of the sofa for no other reason than to tell him that it was one of Captain Witherspoon's old log-books which she had taken great pleasure in reading. She did not explain that it was asked for because of other records; her late husband had also been in command -- one voyage -- of the ship Mary Susan.
Captain Crowe went grumbling away down the street. "I've seen his plaguy logs; and what she can find, I don't see. There ain't nothin' to a page but his figures, and what men were sick, and how the seas run, an' `So ends the day.'" It was a terrible indication of rivalry that the captain felt at liberty to bring his confounded fish to any door he chose; and his very willingness to depart early and leave the field might prove him to possess a happy certainty, Captain Crowe was so jealous that he almost forgot to play his rôle of lover.
As for Mrs. Lunn herself, she blew out the best lamp at once, so that it would burn another night, and sat and pondered over her future. "'T was real awkward to have 'em all call together; but I guess I passed it off pretty well," she consoled herself, casting an absent-minded glance at her little blurred mirror with the gilded wheat-sheaf at the top.
"Everybody's after her; I've got to look sharp," said Captain Asa Shaw to himself that night. "I guess I'd better give her to understand what I'm worth."
"Both o' them old sea-dogs is steerin' for the same port as I be. I'll cut 'em out, if only for the name of it -- see if I don't!" Captain Crowe muttered, as he smoked his evening pipe, puffing away with a great draught that made the tobacco glow and almost flare.
"I care a world more about poor Maria than anybody else does," said warm-hearted little Captain Witherspoon, making himself as tall as he could as he walked his bedroom deck to and fro.
Down behind the old Witherspoon warehouse, built by the captain's father when the shipping interests of Longport were at their height of prosperity, there was a pleasant spot where one might sometimes sit in the cool of the afternoon. There were some decaying sticks of huge oak timber, stout and short, which served well for benches; the gray, rain-gnawed wall of the old warehouse, with its overhanging second story, was at the back; and in front was the wharf, still well graveled except where tenacious, wiry weeds and thin grass had sprouted, and been sunburned into sparse hay. There were some places, alas! where the planking had rotted away, and one could look down through and see the clear, green water underneath, and the black, sea-worn piles with their fringes of barnacles and seaweed. Captain Crowe gave a deep sigh as he sat heavily down on a stick of timber; then he heard a noise above, and looked up, to see at first only the rusty windlass under the high gable, with its end of frayed rope flying loose; then one of the wooden shutters was suddenly flung open, and swung to again, and fastened. Captain Crowe was sure now that he should gain a companion. Captain Witherspoon was in the habit of airing the empty warehouse once a week -- Wednesdays, if pleasant; it was nearly all the active business he had left; and this was Thursday, but Wednesday had been rainy.
Presently the Captain appeared at the basement doorway, just behind where his friend was sitting. The door was seldom opened, but the owner of the property professed himself forgetful about letting in as much fresh air there as he did above, and announced that he should leave it open for half an hour. The two men moved a little way along the oak stick to be out of the cool draught which blew from the cellar-like place, empty save for the storage of some old fragments of vessels or warehouse gear. There was a musty odor of the innumerable drops of molasses which must have leaked into the hard earth there for half a century; there was still a fragrance of damp Liverpool salt, a reminder of even the dyestuffs and pepper and rich spices that had been stowed away. The two elderly men were carried back to the past by these familiar, ancient odors; they turned and sniffed once or twice with satisfaction, but neither spoke. Before them the great, empty harbor spread its lovely, shining levels in the low afternoon light. There were a few ephemeral pleasure-boats, but no merchantmen riding at anchor, no lines of masts along the wharves, with great wrappings of furled sails on the yards; there were no sounds of mallets on the ships' sides, or of the voices of men, busy with unlading, or moving the landed cargoes. The old warehouses were all shuttered and padlocked, as far as the two men could see.
"Looks lonesomer than ever, don't it?" said Captain Crowe, pensively. "I vow it's a shame to see such a harbor as this, an' think o' all the back country, an' how things were goin' on here in our young days."
"'T is sad, sir, sad," growled brave little Captain Witherspoon. "They've taken the wrong course for the country's good -- some o' those folks in Washington. When the worst of 'em have stuffed their own pockets as full as they can get, p'r'aps they'll see what else can be done, and all catch hold together and shore up the shipping int'rists. I see every night, when I go after my paper, the whole sidewalk full o' louts that ought to be pushed off to sea with a good smart master; they're going to the devil ashore, sir. Every way you can look at it, shippin' 's a loss to us."
At this moment the shrill whistle of a locomotive sounded back of the town, but the captains took no notice of it. Two idle boys suddenly came scrambling up the broken landing-steps from the water, one of them clutching a distressed puppy. Then another, who had stopped to fasten the invisible boat underneath, joined them in haste, and all three fled round the corner. The elderly seamen had watched them severely.
"It used to cost but a ninepence to get a bar'l from Boston by sea," said Captain Crowe, in a melancholy tone; "and now it costs twenty-five cents by the railroad, sir."
In reply Captain Witherspoon shook his head gloomily.
"You an' I never expected to see Longport harbor look like this," resumed Captain Crowe, giving the barren waters a long gaze, and then leaning forward and pushing the pebbles about with his cane. "I don't know 's I ever saw things look so poor along these wharves as they do to-day. I've seen six or seven large vessels at a time waitin' out in the stream there until they could get up to the wharves. You could stand ashore an' hear their masters rippin' an' swearin' aboard, an' fur 's you could see from here, either way, the masts and riggin' looked like the woods in winter-time. There used to be somethin' doin' in this place when we was young men, Cap'n Witherspoon."
"I feel it as much as anybody," acknowledged the captain. "Looks to me very much as if there was a vessel comin' up, down there over Dimmett's P'int; she may only be runnin' in closer 'n usual on this light sou'easterly breeze; yes, I s'pose that's all. What do you make her out to be, sir?"
The old shipmasters bent their keen, farsighted gaze seaward for a moment. "She ain't comin' in; she's only one o' them great schooners runnin' west'ard. I'd as soon put to sea under a Monday's clothes-line, for my part," said Captain Crowe.
"Yes; give me a brig, sir, a good able brig," said Witherspoon eagerly. "I don't care if she's a little chunky, neither. I'd make more money out of her than out o' any o' these gre't new-fangled things. I'd as soon try to sail a whole lumber-yard to good advantage. Gi' me an old-fashioned house an' an old-style vessel; there was some plan an' reason to 'em. Now that new house of Asa Shaw's he's put so much money in -- looks as if a nor'west wind took an' hove it together. Shaw's just the man to call for one o' them schooners we just spoke of."
The mention of this rival's name caused deep feelings in their manly breasts. The captains felt an instant resentment of Asa Shaw's wealth and pretensions. Neither noticed that the subject was abruptly changed without apparent reason, when Captain Crowe asked if there was any truth in the story that the new minister was going to take board with the Widow Lunn.
"No, sir," exclaimed Captain Witherspoon, growing red in the face, and speaking angrily; "I don't put any confidence in the story at all."
"It might be of mutual advantage," his companion urged a little maliciously. Captain Crowe had fancied that Mrs. Lunn had shown him special favor that afternoon, and ventured to think himself secure.
"The new minister's a dozen years younger than she; must be all o' that," said the Captain, collecting himself. "I called him quite a young-lookin' man when he preached for us as a candidate. Sing'lar he shouldn't be a married man. Generally they be."
"You ain't the right one to make reflections," joked Captain Crowe, mindful that Maria Lunn had gone so far that very day as to compliment him on owning the handsomest old place in town. "I used to think you was a great beau among the ladies, Witherspoon."
"I never expected to die a single man," said his companion, with dignity.
"You're gettin' along in years," urged Captain Crowe. "You're gettin' to where it's dangerous; a good-hearted elderly man's liable to be snapped up by somebody he don't want. They say an old man ought to be married, but he shouldn't get married. I don't know but it's so."
"I've put away my thoughts o' youth long since," said the little captain nobly. "Though I ain't so old, sir, but what I've got some years before me yet, unless I meet with accident; an' I'm so situated that I never yet had to take anybody that I didn't want. But I do often feel that there's somethin' to be said for the affections, an' I get to feelin' lonesome winter nights, thinkin' that age is before me, an' if I should get hove on to a sick an' dyin' bed" --
The captain's hearty voice failed for once; then the pleasant face and sprightly figure of the lady of his choice seemed to interpose, and to comfort him. "Come, come!" he said, "ain't we gettin' into the doldrums, Crowe? I'll just step in an' close up the warehouse; it must be time to make for supper."
Captain Crowe walked slowly round by the warehouse lane into the street, waiting at the door while his friend went through the old building, carefully putting up the bars and locking the street door upon its emptiness with a ponderous key; then the two captains walked away together, the tall one and the short one, clicking their canes on the flagstones. They turned up Barbadoes Street, where Mrs. Lunn lived, and bowed to her finely as they passed.
One Sunday morning in September the second bell was just beginning to toll, and Mrs. Lunn locked her front door, tried the great brass latch, put the heavy key into her best silk dress pocket, and stepped forth discreetly on her way to church. She had been away from Longport for several weeks, having been sent for to companion the last days of a cousin much older than herself; and her reappearance was now greeted with much friendliness. The siege of her heart had necessarily been in abeyance. She walked to her seat in the broad aisle with great dignity. It was a season of considerable interest in Longport, for the new minister had that week been installed, and that day he was to preach his first sermon. All the red East Indian scarfs and best raiment of every sort suitable for early autumn wear had been brought out of the camphor-chests, and there was an air of solemn festival.
Mrs. Lunn's gravity of expression was hardly borne out by her gayety of apparel, yet there was something cheerful about her look, in spite of her recent bereavement. The cousin who had just died had in times past visited Longport, so that Mrs. Lunn's friends were the more ready to express their regret. When one has passed the borders of middle life, such losses are sadly met; they break the long trusted bonds of old association, and remove a part of one's own life and belongings. Old friends grow dearer as they grow fewer; those who remember us as long as we remember ourselves become a part of ourselves at last, and leave us much the poorer when they are taken away. Everybody felt sorry for Mrs. Lunn, especially as it was known that this cousin had always been as generous as her income would allow; but she was chiefly dependent upon an annuity, and was thought to have but little to leave behind her.
Mrs. Lunn had reached home only the evening before, and, the day of her return having been uncertain, she was welcomed by no one, and had slipped in at her own door unnoticed in the dusk. There was a little stir in the congregation as she passed to her pew, but, being in affliction, she took no notice of friendly glances, and responded with great gravity only to her neighbor in the next pew, with whom she usually exchanged confidential whispers as late as the second sentence of the opening prayer.
The new minister was better known to her than to any other member of the parish; for he had been the pastor of the church to which her lately deceased cousin belonged, and Mrs. Lunn had seen him oftener and more intimately than ever in this last sad visit. He was a fine-looking man, no longer young, -- in fact, he looked quite as old as our heroine, -- and though at first the three captains alone may have regarded him with suspicion, by the time church was over and the Rev. Mr. Farley had passed quickly by some prominent parishioners who stood expectant at the doors of their pews, in order to speak to Mrs. Lunn, and lingered a few moments holding her affectionately by the hand -- by this time gossip was fairly kindled. Moreover, the minister had declined Deacon Torby's invitation to dinner, and it was supposed, through wrongly, that he had accepted Mrs. Lunn's, as they walked away together.
Now Mrs. Lunn was a great favorite in the social circles of Longport -- none greater; but there were other single ladies in the First Parish, and it was something to be deeply considered whether she had the right, with so little delay, to appropriate the only marriageable minister who had been settled over that church and society during a hundred and eighteen years. There was a loud buzzing of talk that Sunday afternoon. It was impossible to gainsay the fact that if there was a prospective engagement, Mrs. Lunn had shown her usual discretion. The new minister had a proper income, but no house and home; while she had a good house and home, but no income. She was called hard names, which would have deeply wounded her, by many of her intimate friends; but there were others who more generously took her part, though they vigorously stated their belief that a young married pastor with a growing family had his advantages. The worst thing seemed to be that the Rev. Mr. Farley was beginning his pastorate under a cloud.
While all this tempest blew, and all eyes were turned her way, friends and foes alike behaved as if not only themselves but the world were concerned with Mrs. Maria Lunn's behavior, and as if the fate of empires hung upon her choice of a consort. She was maligned by Captain Crowe's two sisters for having extended encouragement to their brother, while the near relatives of Captain Shaw told tales of her open efforts to secure his kind attention; but in spite of all these things, and the antagonism that was in the very air, Mrs. Lunn went serenely on her way. She even, after a few days' seclusion, arrayed herself in her best, and set forth to make some calls with a pleasant, unmindful manner which puzzled her neighbors a good deal. She had, or professed to have, some excuse for visiting each house: of one friend she asked instructions about her duties as newly elected officer of the sewing society, the first meeting of which had been held in her absence; and another neighbor was kindly requested to give the latest news from an invalid son at a distance. Mrs. Lunn did not make such a breach of good manners as to go out making calls with no reason so soon after her cousin's death. She appeared rather in her most friendly and neighborly character; and furthermore gave much interesting information in regard to the new minister, telling many pleasant things about him and his relations to, and degree of success in, his late charge. There may or may not have been an air of proprietorship in her manner; she was frank and free of speech, at any rate; and so the flame of interest was fanned ever to a brighter blaze.
The reader can hardly be expected to sympathize with the great excitement in Longport society when it was known that the new minister had engaged board with Mrs. Lunn for an indefinite time. There was something very puzzling in this new development. If there was an understanding between them, then the minister and Mrs. Lunn were certainly somewhat indiscreet. Nobody could discredit the belief that they had a warm interest in each other; yet those persons who felt themselves most nearly concerned in the lady's behavior began to indulge themselves in seeing a ray of hope.
Captain Asa Shaw had been absent for some time in New York on business, and Captain Crowe was confined to his handsome house with a lame ankle; but it happened that they both reappeared on the chief business street of Longport the very same day. One might have fancied that each wore an expression of anxiety; the truth was, they had made vows to themselves that another twenty-four hours should not pass over their heads before they made a bold push for the coveted prize. They were more afraid of the minister's rivalry than they knew; but not the least of each other's. There were angry lines down the middle of Captain Asa Shaw's forehead as he assured himself that he would soon put an end to the minister business, and Captain Crowe thumped his cane emphatically as he walked along the street. Captain John Witherspoon looked thin and eager, but a hopeful light shone in his eyes: his choice was not from his judgment, but from his heart.
It was strange that it should be so difficult -- nay, impossible -- for anybody to find an opportunity to speak with Mrs. Lunn upon this most private and sacred of personal affairs, and that day after day went by while the poor captains fretted and grew more and more impatient. They had it in mind to speak at once when the time came; neither Captain Crowe nor Captain Shaw felt that he could do himself or his feelings any justice in a letter.
On a rainy autumn afternoon, Mrs. Lunn sat down by her front window, and drew her wicker work-basket into her lap from the end of the narrow table before her. She was tired, and glad to rest. She had been busy all the morning, putting in order the rooms that were to be set apart for the minister's sleeping-room and study. Her thoughts were evidently pleasant as she looked out into the street for a few minutes, and then crossed her plump hands over the work-basket. Presently, as a large, familiar green umbrella passed her window, she caught up a bit of sewing, and seemed to be busy with it, as some one opened her front door and came into the little square entry without knocking.
"May I take the liberty? I saw you settin' by the window this wet day," said Captain Shaw.
"Walk right in, sir; do!" Mrs. Lunn fluttered a little on her perch at the sight of him, and then settled herself quietly, as trig and demure as ever.
"I'm glad, ma'am, to find you alone. I have long had it in mind to speak with you on a matter of interest to us both." The captain felt more embarrassed than he had expected, but Mrs. Lunn remained tranquil, and glanced up at him inquiringly.
"It relates to the future," explained Captain Asa Shaw. "I make no doubt you have seen what my feelin's have been this good while. I can offer you a good home, and I shall want you to have your liberty."
"I enjoy a good home and my liberty now," said Mrs. Lunn stiffly, looking straight before her.
"I mean liberty to use my means, and to have plenty to do with, so as to make you feel comfortable," explained the captain, reddening. "Mis' Lunn, I'm a straightforward business man, and I intend business now. I don't know any of your flowery ways of sayin' things, but there ain't anybody in Longport I'd like better to see at the head of my house. You and I ain't young, but we" --
"Don't say a word, sir," protested Mrs. Lunn. "You can get you just as good housekeepers as I am. I don't feel to change my situation just at present, sir."
"Is that final?" said Captain Shaw, looking crestfallen. "Come now, Maria! I'm a good-hearted man, I'm worth over forty thousand dollars, and I'll make you a good husband, I promise. Here's the minister on your hands, I know. I did feel all ashore when I found you'd promised to take him in. I tried to get a chance to speak with you before you went off, but when I come home from New York 't was the first news I heard. I don't deem it best for you; you can't make nothin' out o' one boarder, anyway. I tried it once myself."
"Excuse me, Mr. Shaw," said Mrs. Lunn coldly; "I know my own business best. You have had my answer, sir." She added in a more amiable tone, "Not but what I feel obliged to you for payin' me the compliment."
There was a sudden loud knocking at the side door, which startled our friends extremely. They looked at each other with apprehension; then Mrs. Lunn slowly rose and answered the summons.
The gentle voice of the giant was heard without. "Oh, Mis' Lunn," said Captain Crowe excitedly, "I saw some elegant mackerel brought ashore, blown up from the south'ard, I expect, though so late in the season; and I recalled that you once found some acceptable. I thought 't would help you out."
"I'm obliged to you, Captain Crowe," said the mistress of the house; "and to think of your bringin' 'em yourself this drenchin' day! I take it very neighborly, sir." Her tone was entirely different from that in which she had conducted so decisive a conversation with the guest in the sitting-room. They heard the front door bang just as Captain Crowe entered with his fish.
"Was that the wind sprung up so quick?" he inquired, alert to any change of weather.
"I expect it was Captain Shaw, just leavin'," said Mrs. Lunn angrily. "He's always full o' business, ain't he? No wonder those children of his are without manners." There was no favor in her tone, and the spirits of Captain Crowe were for once equal to his height.
The daylight was fading fast. The mackerel were deposited in their proper place, and the donor was kindly bidden to come in and sit down. Mrs. Lunn's old-fashioned sitting-room was warm and pleasant, and the big captain felt that his moment had come; the very atmosphere was encouraging. He was sitting in the rocking-chair, and she had taken her place by the window. There was a pause; the captain remembered how he had felt once in the China Seas just before a typhoon struck the ship.
"Maria," he said huskily, his voice sounding as if it came from the next room, -- "Maria, I s'pose you know what I'm thinkin' of?"
"I don't," said Mrs. Lunn with cheerful firmness. "Cap'n Crowe, I know it ain't polite to talk about your goin' when you've just come in; but when you do go, I've got something I want to send over to your sister Eliza."
The captain gasped; there was something in her tone that he could not fathom. He began to speak, but his voice failed him altogether. There she sat, perfectly self-possessed, just as she looked every day.
"What are you payin' now for potatoes, sir?" continued Mrs. Lunn.
"Sixty cents a bushel for the last, ma'am," faltered the captain. "I wish you'd hear to me, Maria," he burst out. "I wish" --
"Now don't, cap'n," urged the pleasant little woman. "I've made other arrangements. At any rate," she added, with her voice growing more business-like than ever, -- "at any rate, I deem it best to wait until the late potatoes come into market; they seem to keep better."
The typhoon had gone past, but the captain waited a moment, still apprehensive. Then he took his hat, and slowly and sadly departed without any words of farewell. In spite of his lame foot he walked some distance beyond his own house, in a fit of absent-mindedness that was born of deep regret. It was impossible to help respecting Mrs. Lunn's character and ability more than ever. "Oh! them ministers, them ministers!" he groaned, turning in at his high white gate between the tall posts with their funeral urns.
Mrs. Lunn heard the door close behind Captain Crowe; then she smoothed down her nice white apron abstractedly, and glanced out of the window to see if he were out of sight, but she could not catch a glimpse of the captain's broad, expressive back, to judge his feelings or the manner in which he was taking his rebuff. She felt unexpectedly sorry for him; it was lonely in his handsome, large house, where his two sisters made so poor a home for him and such a good one for themselves.
It was almost dark now, and the shut windows of the room made the afternoon seem more gloomy; the days were fast growing shorter. After her successful conduct of the affair with her two lovers, she felt a little lonely and uncertain. Although she had learned to dislike Captain Shaw, and had dismissed him with no small pleasure, with Captain Crowe it was different; he was a good, kind-hearted man, and she had made a great effort to save his feelings.
Just then her quick ears caught the sound of a footstep in the street. She listened intently for a moment, and then stood close to the window, looking out. The rain was falling steadily; it streaked the square panes in long lines, so that Mrs. Lunn's heart recognized the approach of a friend more easily than her eyes. But the expected umbrella tipped away on the wind as it passed, so that she could see the large ivory handle. She lifted the sash in an instant. "I wish you'd step in just one minute, sir, if it's perfectly convenient," she said appealingly, and then felt herself grow very red in the face as she crossed the room and opened the door.
"I'm 'most too wet to come into a lady's parlor," apologized Captain Witherspoon gallantly. "Command me, Mrs. Lunn, if there's any way I can serve you. I expect to go down street again this evening."
"Do you think you'd better, sir?" gently inquired Mrs. Lunn. There was something beautiful about the captain's rosy cheeks and his curly gray hair. His kind blue eyes beamed at her like a boy's.
"I have had some business fall to me, you see, Cap'n," she continued, blushing still more; "and I feel as if I'd better ask your advice. My late cousin, Mrs. Hicks, has left me all her property. The amount is very unexpected; I never looked for more than a small remembrance. There will have to be steps taken."
"Command me, madam," said the captain again, to whom it never for one moment occurred that Mrs. Lunn was better skilled in business matters than himself. He instantly assumed the place of protector, which she so unaffectedly offered. For a minute he stood like an admiral ready to do the honors of his ship; then he put out his honest hand.
"Maria," he faltered, and the walls about him seemed to flicker and grow unsteady, -- "Maria, I dare say it's no time to say the word just now, but if you could feel toward me" --
He never finished the sentence; he never needed to finish it. Maria Lunn said no word in answer, but they each took a step forward. They may not have been young, but they knew all the better how to value happiness.
About half an hour afterward, the captain appeared again in the dark street, in all the rain, without his umbrella. As he paraded toward his lodgings, he chanced to meet the Reverend Mr. Farley, whom he saluted proudly. He had demurred a little at the minister's making a third in their household; but in the brief, delightful space of their engagement, Mrs. Lunn had laid before him her sensible plans, and persuaded Captain Witherspoon that the minister -- dear, good man! -- was one who always had his head in a book when he was in the house, and would never give a bit of trouble; and that they might as well have the price of his board and the pleasure of his company as anybody.
Mrs. Lunn sat down to her belated and solitary supper, and made an excellent meal. "'T will be pleasant for me to have company again," she murmured. "I think 't is better for a person." She had a way, as many lonely women have, of talking to herself, just for the sake of hearing the sound of a voice. "I guess Mr. Farley's situation is goin' to please him, too," she added; "I feel as if I'd done it all for the best." Mrs. Lunn rose, and crossed the room with a youthful step, and stood before the little looking-glass, holding her head this way and that, like a girl; then she turned, still blushing a little, and put away the tea-things. "'T is about time now for the Cap'n to go down town after his newspaper," she whispered; and at that moment the Captain opened the door.
One day, the next spring, Captain Crowe, who had always honored the heroine of this tale for saving his self-respect, and allowing him to affirm with solemn asseverations that though she was a prize for any man, he never had really offered himself to Mrs. Lunn -- Captain Crowe and Captain Witherspoon were sitting at the head of Long Wharf together in the sunshine.
"I've been a very fortunate man, sir," said the little captain boldly. "My own property has looked up a good deal since I was married, what with that piece of land I sold for the new hotel, and other things that have come to bear -- this wharf property, for instance. I shall have to lay out considerable for new plank, but I'm able to do it."
"Yes, sir; things have started up in Longport a good deal this spring; but it never is goin' to be what it was once," answered Captain Crowe, who had grown as much older as his friend had grown younger since the autumn, though he always looked best out of doors. "Don't you think, Captain Witherspoon," he said, changing his tone, "that you ought to consider the matter of re-shinglin' your house? You'll have to engage men now, anyway, to do your plankin'. I know of some extra cedar shingles that were landed yesterday from somewheres up river. Or was Mis' Witherspoon a little over-anxious last season?"
"I think, with proper attention, sir," said the Captain sedately, "that the present shingles may last us a number of years yet."
Jewett comments on "All My Sad Captains."
From a letter to Mrs. George D. Howe of 12 February 1893 (Fields, Letters, p. 105).
After listing six recently completed stories including this one, she says, "all bran-fire new except the "Sad Captains," which I had written through before I went away, and have now done ever so much more work upon!"
First published in Century Magazine (50:736-48) in September 1895, this text is from the 1969 Books for Libraries Press reprinting of The Life of Nancy (1895). The artist for the Century publication was Eric Pape (1870-1938). Pape achieved some reputation as a painter, and he illustrated several well-known books. He also did the original illustrations for the magazine publication of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. Click here to see the illustrations.
This title is quoted from William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, Act 3, Scene 13. Antony during the evening before battle says,
Let's have one other gaudy night: call to me
All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more;
Let's mock the midnight bell.
If you find errors in this text or items you believe should be annotated, please contact the site manager.
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the port of Bristol: A major seaport in southwestern England, at the mouth of the river Avon.
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decline of shipping interests: The Embargo Act of 1807, sometimes known as Jefferson's Embargo, devastated the smaller New England ports. Its purpose was to punish England and France for capturing neutral ships and impressing sailors for use in their fiercely contested war, but the embargo was a costly, much resented strategy. New Englanders typically date the continuous decline of their shipping industry in the 19th century from the Embargo.
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round the Cape: For New England sailors, this phrase typically described a journey around Cape Horn to the west coast of the United States, but it could also mean a journey around the Cape of Good Hope to the East Indies.
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Windsor chairs: The windsor chair is a graceful, all-wood arm chair of American design. with a spindle back.
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Deacon Torby that he felt moved to accept the call: A deacon is a leading church member designated to handle various affair of the church (Research, Allison Easton). In some Protestant churches, the minister is chosen in a process that ends with the local congregation issuing a call or invitation to a particular person to fill the post of minister to the church. If that person agrees, he (almost always in the 19th century) "accepts the call."
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College
The Life of Nancy
Century Magazine Text