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Sarah Orne Jewett

     What a delightful place the beach is! There's always something for one to do. It is as pleasant in fine weather as any place can be, and when it rains, there are all one's shells and stones to look over and get ready for packing. I always thought it so strange, and I dare say you do, that the fishermen's children never seemed any happier than the small persons like myself who were doomed to live inland.

     This day was very bright and sunny, and the time was just after breakfast. The people from the hotel were walking on the sands, for it was dead low water. The ladies walked slowly back and forth talking to each other, or some of their gentlemen friends, and Jack's father and mother and Kitty's father and mother had gone out in a sail boat.

     Jack and Kitty were the only children at the hotel just then, except three or four small babies, whom they looked back upon, from the advanced ages of eight and seven years, with great contempt. To be sure, Jack would have preferred a boy to play with, and Kitty a girl, but they only had each other; and though on some points they didn't sympathize, - especially on the doll question, - they made the best of each other, and got along very well. This morning they were not particularly happy, for they had hoped to go out sailing; but the first thing they knew, there was the boat full of people quite far out from the land, and they were away down the beach, so shouting would do no good.

     "Dear me," said Jack; "now, if we'd only been going the other way we should have seen them." Kitty gave a great sigh.

     "What shall we do while they're gone?" said she; "let's go in wading in the little ponds, and see who will dare to go in deepest."

     Jack said that wouldn't do, for he had on his very best trousers, the last of his play-clothes having been wofully soaked and torn the day before. "You see," said he, "all my other clothes are spoilt and being washed, and if I get these wet, Bridget will put me to bed, and it's so pleasant to-day: but, I say! we'll go to the biggest pond and sit on the rocks, and sail boats."

     Kitty said "Yes," and they started off in different directions for chips. But they had all gone sailing by themselves, I think, for all that could be found was one old shingle. That was just the thing; and the next part of the business was to make a sail, and to load the vessel.

     Nothing could be thought of for the sailcloth but Jack's handkerchief, and that was fastened to the masts, which were two dead sticks of some plant which Kitty brought from the edge of the marshes. I am sorry to say that the way they were fastened in was by being stuck through the corners.

     It's astonishing how children will abuse their handkerchiefs, but what could they do without them? Think of a small girl at housekeeping under the lilac-bushes, with a large and troublesome family of dolls, and think of the assistance that little square of linen can be to her. It cleans the bits of crockery, and is the table-cloth, and wipes the dishes after the mud dinner is disposed of. It covers as much as it can of the children, while they take their afternoon nap on the cunning grass bed with the lilac-leaf pillow. It makes a carpet whereon Miss Susan Anna Mary, the best doll, sits in state, to receive calls in her burdock-burr chair. If the little mistress falls down and hurts herself, the handkerchief wipes her eyes; if you call her to the window to give her candy or gingerbread for her part of the dinner-party she is giving, it is the little handkerchief that she holds up by the corners.

     Well, the ship was ready and the wind was fair, and then the question was, what the freight should be to the foreign country, where Kitty would soon run to wait for it.

     "Kitty," said Jack, "got anything in your pocket? This is such a good boat, and it's no fun to send stones; they're so heavy too. There's nothing in my pockets, or I'd put a cargo on; you see, this is wide, and things can't lose off."

     Do you wish me to tell you why Jack had nothing in his pockets? They were all sewed up except one for his handkerchief, because Bridget had found his trousers pockets full of crabs one day not long before. These crabs were broken to pieces and the trousers were ruined; it was a most unpleasant handful that she took out when she was getting his clothes ready to be washed.

     Kitty, always obliging, sat down on the rock by him, and began investigations. One shiny mussel shell; a piece of a biscuit that she had saved from lunch the day before; a smooth bit of bone she had picked up that morning; and last of all some buttons.

     "Oh," said Jack, "what a nice girl you are, Kitty! Let's take the buttons, and we'll say which will be sailors and which be captain. There! this button may be captain of the ship; isn't he a beauty?"

     "Oh," said Kitty, "but I don't like to put that one on. I know you make splendid boats, Jacky, and they hardly ever tip over; but that belonged to my best white suit, and if I should lose it, I know mamma would be angry. I took it out of Ann's basket this morning. The others Ann gave me herself for dolls' dresses, and they're all homely except the blue one, and I wouldn't mind if they were lost."

     "Oh my!" said Jack; "if you aren't just like all the girls: they're so afraid of everything."

     Kitty didn't say a word, but laid the buttons down on the rock. And a little pearl one rolled into the water directly, as if it thought that it would get there sooner or later, and it felt it might as well have it over with. There were eight when that had gone, and four of these Kitty put carefully back in her pocket, having suddenly recollected (to Jack's great displeasure) that they were Ann's own, and she had only borrowed them to play jackstones with. So there were only four left, - the great shiny pearl one, and a pretty blue one with little gilt flowers painted on it and a gilt rim, a common, old-fashioned bone button, and a white porcelain one. Of course the last two were common sailors, and the pearl button was captain. The blue one was his wife, and they were going for pleasure to a delightful country where oranges grow. Kitty thought it was a great pity the little one had rolled into the water, for it would have made such a nice son for the captain. But Jack said no; he should have been cabin boy, for one must have more sailors than passengers. "But," said he, "we can play that all the rest are down in the cabin."

     Then the ship was carefully launched, and the crew and the captain's wife went on board, and Kitty ran to the great warm dry rock on the other side. The handkerchief made a very good sail; the wind was right, and the ship very steady, so away it went, rather slowly to be sure, across the water.

     But the pond was quite wide, and waiting was hard work. Kitty had just proposed that when it got into port they should go down to the fish-houses, when Jack exclaimed, "Oh see, Kitty! there's the boat coming back for something. Now let's hurry and see what it is; and maybe, if we get it, they will take us in after all."

     "No," said Kitty; "for don't you see how full the boat is?"

     Jack's face lengthened a bit, but he answered, "Never mind; let's go and see them; and this boat won't more than have gone across by the time we come back."

     So off they ran, and when they got down to the landing place they found that a young lady had been dizzy, and they had brought her in. Jack and Kitty said nothing, but their wistful faces showed very plainly what they wished to say; and when one of the fishermen, with whom they were very intimate, suggested that "the children wouldn't take more room than she," Jack's father smiled, and Kitty's nodded, and the fisherman took them in his arms, waded back again, and put them down on the seat. The two little things looked very happy, and the boat went dancing up and down, up and down, over the green waves. Soon they were far out, and the boat had stopped, and Jack actually held the end of a very long fishing-line, and very soon a fat little fish was so kind as to take hold of the other end and be drawn up into the boat. How Jack's eyes danced! and if he had stood up he would have looked an inch taller, I know. Kitty paddled in the water, and snatched at some bits of weed that went floating by, and sang a little. After a while she went to sleep, and flocks of birds went over them, and shoals of fishes under them, and the sail was hoisted again to carry them out among the islands; the morning went very fast, and the sun went far up in the sky.

     And what had become of the other boat with the handkerchief sail and the button crew, which was going so slowly across the tide pool all by itself? I'll tell you.

     The children had gone away down the sands, so the captain said to his wife and the sailors: "Now they shall see! Here comes a wind, and we will be in port before they have turned to come back." The breeze did come, and the ship was almost lost. It nearly turned over; and the captain's wife, who was the roundest, rolled to the very edge. When the gale had passed, the ship was going sideways, rather faster than before. It's a very good ship that will do that!

     They went floating on and on, but the children didn't come, and the voyage grew tedious; but at last came a horrible gale, and they struck the shore, and the wave went back, and the ship with it; but the buttons were all left on the sand. "Now," said the captain to his wife, who was very wet and very frightened, just as you would have been, "we are shipwrecked, my dear." And they all felt very melancholy, and the salt tears in their eyes glistened, but soon dried up.

     "Oh," said the Pearl Captain, "I wish I were back on Kitty's dress, sewed on very tight, and the button-hole round me! One feels very safe, and I have seen a great deal of the world so. Why, I've been to two dancing-schools and a party, and I once spent a week in the country. That's how I happened to be taken off and put here; now they will forget us, and I shall never have a house any more, and never go anywhere again."

     "My dear," said his wife, who, in spite of their short acquaintance, had become very fond of him, though no one knows how tender they might have been all the night before in Kitty's pocket, - "my dear, how could any one forget such a handsome button as you; they will soon be back, and, to make the time shorter, tell me more of your life, and particularly what happened to you that day in the country, after which you had to be taken off; and what became of your house afterwards," - she meant the button-hole, you know. "I have a story about myself to tell."

     "Certainly," said the Pearl Button. "I'll be most happy to tell my story, but it shall be short; so you can tell us all that has ever happened to you, which must be a great deal; you are very beautiful. I came from over seas, from England; and a dozen like me cost a great deal. I was bought for a piqué suit of Kitty's, and it was one of her best dresses, and very nicely trimmed. It used to go around the city more than any other dress she had, for a time; but dirt sticks to everything, and we had to be washed, and then were only second best. One day, the first of this summer, Kitty's mamma was invited to spend a week in the country; Kitty was taken and so was I, and the morning after we got there I was put on; and Kitty found another horrid little child, and what should they do but go out in the fields and tumble into some soft, black mud. So the beautiful white piqué was ruined, and I and the rest of the buttons, and the trimming and hooks and eyes, were cut off. Since then I have been doing nothing in Ann's work-basket, waiting for the new dress to be finished, until yesterday. Now I won't tell any more, though some very interesting things have happened to me, until I have heard the story you have to tell.["]

     And the Blue and Gold Captain's Wife said: -

     "I am a French button of very distinguished family. I know I was made for the best ball dress of some grand lady" - blue button, there's a fib to start on! you know you're only thirty cents a dozen! - "but how different a life I have had. I never was even put on a card; I fell into a box of very common buttons through the carelessness of a boy; and when I got to America a clerk saw me, and had no more sense than to suppose I was an odd one in the cheap box, and not a bit better than they; so he threw me on the floor. How little he knew whom he was treating so! Nobody saw me until the next morning, when the shop was swept, and then a woman picked me up from the dirt thrown out on the sidewalk, and all that day I stayed in her horrid dark pocket, and it was worse than the common buttons. There was an old purse there, so flat I know there was nothing in it, and a handkerchief with a great darn in the side next me. All day the woman was doing some kind of work at a table, only at noon she stopped and ate some dinner; but there must have been very little, for she was only a minute or two. At night, she went a long way through the streets home; and when she got there, first I heard her kiss some one, and then she took me out of her pocket. It was so dark at first I couldn't see, and when I got used to it, my dear captain, I was so miserable! It was a little bit of a room, and opened into another where there was a bed. It was not a grand place at all, such as I wished to be in, and I was in a little girl's lap on such a cheap dress. There was a doll in the lap too, - a common rag-baby.

     "The woman said, 'Wait, Jenny, till I light the lamp, and you shall see what it is. I thought you might like it to put with your others. It's a very handsome button, I think. Have you been very lonely, and are you much tired, dear?'

     "The child said 'No,' rather quietly, as if she didn't mean it, but hardly liked to say anything else; and the mother said, 'I'm sorry, Jenny. I'm not to be away all day again, though.' They both had very pleasant voices, and then the lamp burned brightly, and the kitten got down off the window-ledge and rubbed herself against the woman, mewing.

     "'Yes, pussy," said she; and soon one could hear the little cat purring over a saucer in the corner.

     "'Well,' said I to myself, 'if these people are so kind to her, they may have good taste too, and see how beautiful I am;' and I wasn't disappointed. The mother brought the lamp, and the child said as much as heart could wish; so I was quite happy. Then the mother put the lamp on the supper-table, and came again to Jenny and took her in her arms. I could see that she was a little cripple, and her limbs were useless. But you never would have thought it, if you only saw the bright little face, though it was rather pale and thin. I don't wonder at that, if they never had any more to eat than I saw that night.

     "I was laid on the table at the side of her plate, and when she had finished, she said, 'Now the blue button must go to sleep.' So I was put on the window-ledge, near her bed, and the wind that came in all night was frightful. I was nearly blown down, and I know it would have cracked me.

     "The little girl took me from there the first thing in the morning; and when she was sitting again in her chair in the other room, and her mother had gone away until noon, and the doll was in her lap, she took me out of her pocket, where I was very tired of staying, and laid me on the window-sill, where the kitten was sitting in the sun. Then she put a handful of buttons by me, and arranged them side by side half across the window, and I must say I have been in better company, though some were not so very bad looking, and, poor things, they were made homely, and it was not their fault. And the sun shone in so pleasantly, and I glistened, and felt very good-natured. The little girl said, 'Ah, my pretty blue button is the queen of them all!' then I was prouder than ever. I said to myself, 'I would like to live with her always, for perhaps the fashion doesn't change with her, and I should never be thrown away.' Well, Pearl Captain, my dear, if I had had my wish granted I never should have met you!

     "Jenny played with us an hour or so, and we walked round the window-sill, first one at a time, taking very long steps, and then she placed us two and two; I first, with a silvery one. Then she made a necklace of us, and then counted us, and tried to play jack-stones; but some ill-natured old things rolled away from her, and as she couldn't get them again, she gave that up, and made a pin of me for her doll's collar. She played with me every way she could think of, and said once, 'You dear button, you're so very good to play with; but I wish you had little feet, and could get me a drink of water.'

     "Soon a woman came in and got the water, and gave her an orange beside, talking very kindly all the time. Jenny was so pleased. It was so warm that the lady opened the window; and while the child was eating the orange, the kitten jumped out and ran away down the street. The first Jenny saw of it all was the poor little cat trying hard to get home, with a cross-looking dog running after her. She never could, but for a boy who chased him away. He took the frightened kitten in his arms, and came knocking at the door. Jenny's visitor let him in, and Jenny was half crying with fright, for pussy was her very greatest treasure. 'Dear Joe,' said she, 'you were real good;' and the little thing began to cry so hard. Only think, my friends, of any one being as fond as that of a kitten who knows no better than to roll one about on the floor with her paws! But then the little girl didn't know that cats were not perfectly polite to buttons; and it was so sad for her to sit, day after day, and make the old buttons go in procession back and forth on the window-sill, and want a drink of water, and wish for her mother, and that she were strong, like the other children. The doll was always there, I suppose; but she wouldn't mew, and lick one's face when one hugged her; and it was good to have something alive in the room except the flies.

     "Jenny looked up as soon as she could speak, and said, 'Joe, would you like to have my doll? You've been very good to my kitty.'

     "'No, Jenny, I don't want you to give me anything just for that; and I wouldn't take away your doll for anything. What could I do with it, you know? Boys don't have dolls, and I haven't any sister.'

     "'Then I haven't anything to give you except my pretty new button, and you must take that. It's not because I want to pay you, but I like you. It's only a little thing, but it's all I have that's nice enough. There's one off your shirt now, up by the throat. Mrs. Burt, would you please sew it on for him? There's mother's basket on the shelf.'

     "It was a very homely shirt, and I had half a mind to tumble down into a crack of the floor; but I was afraid it might break me, and then very likely I couldn't be got out again. Jenny saw me go out of the door, and down the street, with a very sad face. It wasn't often she had such a beautiful plaything as I was; and I wonder what that doll did for lack of a pin, and who was queen of the buttons who lived on the window-sill. Do you think! that boy ran down an alley, and helped two others, worse looking than he was, to hang a poor, thin old cat they had caught in the street. That was funny, wasn't it, when he had taken so much pains to take Jenny's kitten away from the dog? I suppose he liked her; I'm sure I did, poor little thing! Pretty soon the shirt was worn out, and I, being sewed on much firmer than there was any need of, had to go with it into a bag of rags, and after a while, to a paper-mill; and there Ann's cousin cut me off, and gave me to her, with a great handful of others; and there I've been ever since. That homely bone button has a very interesting story, my dear, and I don't see the children. Come, Bone Button!"

     "Bother!" said the old sailor. "I'm not going to tell any story. You wouldn't understand it if I did; my eyes are all full of sand, and I'm half-baked to death with this abominable sun."

     "So are we," said the Captain. "My wife's complexion is positively ruined. Can't you do your part to make the time seem a little shorter? See here: if you don't, you shall be hung for mutiny."

     "I'd like to know what you've got to hang me to!" said the Bone Button. "Let me alone!"

     "Porcelain is promoted to be first mate," said the Captain, "and will now tell his story."

     "No, no! don't let him, and I'll never be cross again; but I'm so old, and know so many stories, I can't tell which one is best. I have been a very noted button in my day."

     "Oh," said the Captain's Wife, "tell that splendid one you told yesterday in the basket, about you belonging to a sailor who had been shipwrecked like us, and was with a lot of people in a boat: and the boat was too full; so this good man said, 'Farewell! tell mother how I died!' and jumped right overboard; and the boat was light enough, and went on safely. So, finally they met a ship, and got safe to land. You were on his shirt, weren't you? Tell us all about it."

     "Dear, dear!" said the sailor; "can't you see a hole in a ladder, ma'am? That was a story I heard a boy read out of a story newspaper; and I'll warrant he didn't cry either, as you and the other lady buttons did in Ann's basket. But then you thought it was true, and he didn't. Do you suppose I'd be here now if I had been sewed on a man's shirt who drowned himself, and all that he had on, in the middle of the China Sea? I'm a very old button, as you can see by my looks, and I have really forgotten what happened to me when I was very young, - I've learned so much since. I belonged for twenty years to an old maid, who kept an infant school. I may as well tell the truth, and say we kept it together, for she never could have taught arithmetic without me. But the really valuable people in the world are very apt to be forgotten; and if you were to ask any of those dozens of people who went there, 'Who first taught you to add?' they would never think of the ten old buttons who lived so long in Miss Cram's table-drawer, in the little front room of the dark old house in High Street. Well, you see, I was made for higher duties in the world than keeping two pieces of cloth together, and being choked by a button-hole.

     "And then, too, the amount of learning that I have! I've always found that I knew a dozen times as much as any button I ever met with. If I'd always been used to fasten things with, instead of being a noted professor of mathematics, I never should have known whether two and two were four or forty; and I'm sure I should always have thought the world was flat.

     "In the morning, after the first class in reading, I and the nine other lady and gentlemen professors were taken out and laid on the table for the benefit of the first class in arithmetic; and Miss Cram would say, for instance, 'Anna, if you have two books, and I take away one, how many would you have left?'

     "Perhaps Anna might chance to be a child of fine intellect, and, remembering previous lessons, give the right answer.

     "'Ella! take your thumb out of your mouth. Take one from two; how many are left?'

     "In this case, very likely, the thumb would go back again directly; and then how I would have to work!

     "'Ella, do you see these buttons? How many are there?'


     "'Now, I take one away, and how many are left?'


     "'One from two; how many?'

     "And then" - Here interrupts the Captain: -

     "First Mate, no doubt you were a very fine professor of mathematics in one of the best institutions in the country, but can't you be a little more brief, or don't you know anything more entertaining than Miss Cram's infant school?"

     Whereupon the First Mate's angry passions rose, and he said: "I knew you weren't capable of understanding me and yet I was going, foolish button that I am, to tell you all the wonderful story of my life. I might have known better, to be sure; but no one is perfect. Such a charming story as I meant to tell, by and by, of a green glass lady and a black gentleman professor, who fell madly in love with each other, and eloped one night from the table drawer. I heard all their love-making. Let the porcelain fellow tell his stupid story, if you would rather. I dare say you will both enjoy it far better. I shouldn't be a bit surprised if he had spent all his life in a country store, and never been off his card: every one knows he's only five cents a dozen! Halloa! what's that?" screamed the professor, and all the ship's crew; and the captain's wife screamed too. For the tide was coming in, and the edge of a great wave had crept up to the tide-pool.

     "Where are Jack and Kitty, I wonder?" said the frightened Captain. "I'm really afraid, my dear, that handkerchief will be drowned."

     The next wave was a huge one, and it went rushing over them, and never went back until the tide went out again. The boat with the handkerchief went off in the under-tow, and never was heard of more. Strange to say, there was no notice of the terrible shipwreck and loss of four lives, not to mention the rest of the ship's company supposed to be in the cabin. It wasn't in any of the papers. As there was no survivor, after a while it was probably in the list of "missing ships."

     Out on the bright blue sea the fishing-boat, with the children in it, was rocking up and down, and after a long while they came in with ever and ever so many fish, just in time to dress for dinner. After dinner came croquet, and then a ride to the cliff.

     Next day there was a vain search for a missing pearl button while Kitty was out at play, and until she went back to the city there was one gone from the trimming on the left sleeve, for it never could be found.

     Next day to that was Saturday, and at night Bridget said to Jack, "I'm sure I've given ye siven handkerchiefs this week, and I can't find but the two of them. It's well whipped ye ought to be."

     Next day was Sunday, and the children sat on the steps of the piazza after dinner, longing for Monday; and Kitty said, "Jacky, did you ever go back for our boat and my buttons that day we went fishing? I'd forgotten all about it."

     "No," said Jack, looking solemn, "and that's where one of my five handkerchiefs went, anyhow! I suppose the tide came in and covered it, or else some of the little clam-boys stole it. Guess we won't say anything about it, will we?"

     And they didn't.


"The Shipwrecked Buttons" first appeared in Riverside Magazine (4:30-35) in January 1870, under the name of Alice Eliot. It was collected in Play Days, from which this text is taken.  Errors have been corrected and indicated with brackets.  If you find errors or items needed annotation, please contact the site manager.
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jackstones:  any of several children's games that later came to be called "jacks."  Later in the story, the word is hyphenated: jack-stones.
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burdock-burr: Burdock, Arctium lappa, a weed with seed burrs that attach tightly to clothing and hair.
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piqué: a tightly woven cotton fabric with vertical cords.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.

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