Main Contents & Search
Strangers & Wayfarers
Differences between the two texts
The Taking of Captain Ball
Sarah Orne Jewett
There was a natural disinclination to the cares of housekeeping in the mind of Captain Ball, and he would have left the sea much earlier in life if he had not liked much better to live on board ship. A man was his own master there, and meddlesome neighbors and parsons and tearful women-folks could be made to keep their distance. But as years went on, and the extremes of weather produced much affliction in the shape of rheumatism, this, and the decline of the merchant service, and the degeneracy of common seamen, forced Captain Ball to come ashore for good. He regretted that he could no longer follow the sea, and, in spite of many alleviations, grumbled at his hard fate. He might have been condemned to an inland town, but in reality his house was within sight of tide-water, and he found plenty of companionship in the decayed seaport where he had been born and bred. There were several retired shipmasters who closely approached his own rank and dignity. They all gave other excuses than that of old age and infirmity for being out of business, took a sober satisfaction in their eleven o'clock bitters, and discussed the shipping list of the morning paper with far more interest than the political or general news of the other columns.
While Captain Asaph Ball was away on his long voyages he had left his house in charge of an elder sister, who was joint owner. She was a grim old person, very stern in matters of sectarian opinion, and the captain recognized in his heart of hearts that she alone was his superior officer. He endeavored to placate her with generous offerings of tea and camel's-hair scarfs and East Indian sweetmeats, not to speak of unnecessary and sometimes very beautiful china for the parties that she never gave, and handsome dress patterns with which she scorned to decorate her sinful shape of clay. She pinched herself to the verge of want in order to send large sums of money to the missionaries, but she saved the captain's money for him against the time when his willful lavishness and improvidence might find him a poor man. She was always looking forward to the days when he would be aged and forlorn, that burly seafaring brother of hers. She loved to remind him of his latter end, and in writing her long letters that were to reach him in foreign ports, she told little of the neighborhood news and results of voyages, but bewailed, in page after page, his sad condition of impenitence and the shortness of time. The captain would rather have faced a mutinous crew any day than his sister's solemn statements of this sort, but he loyally read them through with heavy sighs, and worked himself into his best broadcloth suit, at least once while he lay in port, to go to church on Sunday, out of good New England habit and respect to her opinions. It was not his sister's principles but her phrases that the captain failed to comprehend. Sometimes when he returned to his ship he took pains to write a letter to dear sister Ann, and to casually mention the fact of his attendance upon public worship, and even to recall the text and purport of the sermon. He was apt to fall asleep in his humble place at the very back of the church, and his report of the services would have puzzled a far less keen theologian than Miss Ann Ball. In fact these poor makeshifts of religious interest did not deceive her, and the captain had an uneasy consciousness that, to use his own expression, the thicker he laid on the words, the quicker she saw through them. And somehow or other that manly straightforwardness and honesty of his, that freehanded generosity, that true unselfishness which made him stick by his ship when the crew had run away from a poor black cook who was taken down with the yellow-fever, which made him nurse the frightened beggar as tenderly as a woman, and bring him back to life, and send him packing afterward with plenty of money in his pocket -- all these fine traits that made Captain Ball respected in every port where his loud voice and clumsy figure and bronzed face were known, seemed to count for nothing with the stern sister. At least her younger brother thought so. But when, a few years after he came ashore for good, she died and left him alone in the neat old white house, which his instinctive good taste and his father's before him had made a museum of East Indian treasures, he found all his letters stored away with loving care after they had been read and reread into tatters, and among her papers such touching expressions of love and pride and longing for his soul's good, that poor Captain Asaph broke down altogether and cried like a school-boy. She had saved every line of newspaper which even mentioned his ships' names. She had loved him deeply in the repressed New England fashion, that under a gray and forbidding crust of manner, like a chilled lava bed, hides glowing fires of loyalty and devotion.
Sister Ann was a princess among housekeepers, and for some time after her death the captain was a piteous mourner indeed. No growing school-boy could be more shy and miserable in the presence of women than he, though nobody had a readier friendliness or more off-hand sailor ways among men. The few intimate family friends who came to his assistance at the time of his sister's illness and death added untold misery to the gloomy situation. Yet he received the minister with outspoken gratitude in spite of that worthy man's trepidation. Everybody said that poor Captain Ball looked as if his heart was broken. "I tell ye l feel as if I was tied in a bag of fleas," said the distressed mariner, and his pastor turned away to cough, hoping to hide the smile that would come. "Widders an' old maids, they're busier than the divil in a gale o' wind," grumbled the captain. "Poor Ann, she was worth every one of 'em lashed together, and here you find me with a headwind every way I try to steer." The minister was a man at any rate; his very presence was a protection.
Some wretched days went by while Captain Ball tried to keep his lonely house with the assistance of one Silas Jenkins, who had made several voyages with him as cook, but they soon proved that the best of sailors may make the worst of housekeepers. Life looked darker and darker, and when, one morning, Silas inadvertently overheated and warped the new cooking stove, which had been the pride of Miss Ball's heart, the breakfastless captain dismissed him in a fit of blind rage. The captain was first cross and then abject when he went hungry, and in this latter stage was ready to abase himself enough to recall Widow Sparks, his sister's lieutenant, who lived close by in Ropewalk Lane, forgetting that he had driven her into calling him an old hog two days after the funeral. He groaned aloud as he thought of her, but reached for his hat and cane, when there came a gentle feminine rap at the door.
"Let 'em knock!" grumbled the captain, angrily, but after a moment's reflection, he scowled and went and lifted the latch.
There stood upon the doorstep a middle-aged woman, with a pleasant though determined face. The captain scowled again, but involuntarily opened his fore-door a little wider.
"Capt'in Asaph Ball, I presume?"
"The same," answered the captain.
"I've been told, sir, that you need a housekeeper, owing to recent affliction."
There was a squally moment of resistance in the old sailor's breast, but circumstances seemed to be wrecking him on a lee shore. Down came his flag on the run.
"I can't say but what I do, ma'am," and with lofty courtesy, such as an admiral should use to his foe of equal rank, the master of the house signified that his guest might enter. When they were seated opposite each other in the desolate sitting-room he felt himself the weaker human being of the two. Five years earlier, and he would have put to sea before the week's end, if only to gain the poor freedom of a coastwise lime schooner.
"Well, speak up, can't ye?" he said, trying to laugh. "Tell me what's the tax, and how much you can take hold and do, without coming to me for orders every hand's turn o' the day. I've had Silas Jinkins here, one o' my old ship's cooks; he served well at sea, and I thought he had some head; but we've been beat, I tell ye, and you'll find some work to put things ship-shape. He's gitting in years, that's the trouble; I oughtn't to have called on him," said Captain Ball, anxious to maintain even so poorly the dignity of his sex.
"I like your looks; you seem a good steady hand, with no nonsense about ye." He cast a shy glance at his companion, and would not have believed that any woman could have come to the house a stranger, and have given him such an immediate feeling of confidence and relief.
"I'll tell ye what's about the worst of the matter," and the captain pulled a letter out of his deep coat pocket. His feelings had been pent up too long. At the sight of the pretty handwriting and aggravatingly soft-spoken sentences, Asaph Ball was forced to inconsiderate speech. The would-be housekeeper pushed back her rocking-chair as he began, and tucked her feet under, beside settling her bonnet a little, as if she were close-reefed and anchored to ride out the gale.
"I'm in most need of an able person," he roared, "on account of this letter's settin' me adrift about knowing what to do. 'T is from a gal that wants to come and make her home here. Land sakes alive, puts herself right forrard! I don't want her, an' I won't have her. She may be a great-niece; I don't say she ain't; but what should I do with one o' them jiggetin' gals about? In the name o' reason, why should I be set out o' my course? I'm left at the mercy o' you women-folks," and the captain got stiffly to his feet. "If you've had experience, an' think you can do for me, why, stop an' try, an' I'll be much obleeged to ye. You'll find me a good provider, and we'll let one another alone, and get along some way or 'nother."
The captain's voice fairly broke; he had been speaking as if to a brother man; he was tired out and perplexed. His sister Ann had saved him so many petty trials, and now she was gone. The poor man had watched her suffer and seen her die, and he was as tender-hearted and as lonely as a child, however he might bluster. Even such infrequent matters as family letters had been left to his busy sister. It happened that they had inherited a feud with an elder half-brother's family in the West, though the captain was well aware of the existence of this forth-putting great-niece, who had been craftily named for Miss Ann Ball, and so gained a precarious hold on her affections; but to harbor one of the race was to consent to the whole. Captain Ball was not a man to bring down upon himself an army of interferers and plunderers, and he now threw down the poor girl's well-meant letter with an outrageous expression of his feelings. Then he felt a silly weakness, and hastened to wipe his eyes with his pocket-handkerchief.
"I've been beat, I tell ye," he said brokenly.
There was a look of apparent sympathy, mingled with victory, on the housekeeper's face. Perhaps she had known some other old sailor of the same make, for she rose and turned her face aside to look out of the window until the captain's long upper lip had time to draw itself straight and stern again. Plainly she was a woman of experience and discretion.
"I'll take my shawl and bunnit right off, sir," she said, in a considerate little voice. "I see a-plenty to do; there'll be time enough after I get you your dinner to see to havin' my trunk here; but it needn't stay a day longer than you give the word."
"That's clever," said the captain. "I'll step right down street and get us a good fish, an' you can fry it or make us a chowder, just which you see fit. It now wants a little of eleven" -- and an air of pleased anticipation lighted his face -- "I must be on my way."
"If it's all the same to you, I guess we don't want no company till we get to rights a little. You're kind of tired out, sir," said the housekeeper, feelingly. "By-and-by you can have the young girl come an' make you a visit, and either let her go or keep her, 'cordin' as seems fit. I may not turn out to suit."
"What may I call you, ma'am?" inquired Captain Ball. "Mis' French? Not one o' them Fleet Street Frenches?" (suspiciously). "Oh, come from Massachusetts way!" (with relief).
"I was stopping with some friends that had a letter from some o' the minister's folks here, and they told how bad off you was," said Mrs. French, modestly. "I was out of employment, an' I said to myself that I should feel real happy to go and do for that Captain Ball. He knows what he wants, and I know what I want, and no flummery."
"You know somethin' o' life, I do declare," and the captain fairly beamed. "I never was called a hard man at sea, but I like to give my orders, and have folks foller 'em. If it was women-folks that wrote, they may have set me forth more 'n ordinary. I had every widder and single woman in town here while Ann lay dead, and my natural feelin's were all worked up. I see 'em dressed up and smirkin' and settin' their nets to ketch me when I was in an extremity. I wouldn't give a kentle o' sp'iled fish for the whole on 'em. I ain't a marryin' man, there's once for all for ye," and the old sailor stepped toward the door with some temper.
"Ef you'll write to the young woman, sir, just to put off comin' for a couple or three weeks," suggested Mrs. French.
"This afternoon, ma'am," said the captain, as if it were the ay, ay, sir, of an able seaman who sprang to his duty of reefing the main-topsail.
Captain Ball walked down to the fish shop with stately steps and measured taps of his heavy cane. He stopped on the way, a little belated, and assured two or three retired ship-masters that he had manned the old brig complete at last; he even gave a handsome wink of his left eye over the edge of a glass, and pronounced his morning grog to be A No. 1, prime.
Mrs. French picked up her gown at each side with thumb and finger, and swept the captain a low courtesy behind his back as he went away; then she turned up the aforesaid gown and sought for one of the lamented Miss Ann Ball's calico aprons, and if ever a New England woman did a morning's work in an hour, it was this same Mrs. French.
"'T ain't every one knows how to make what I call a chowder," said the captain, pleased and replete, as he leaned back in his chair after dinner. "Mis' French, you shall have everything to do with, an' I ain't no kitchen colonel myself to bother ye."
There was a new subject for gossip in that seaport town. More than one woman had felt herself to be a fitting helpmate for the captain, and was confident that if time had been allowed, she could have made sure of even such wary game as he. When a stranger stepped in and occupied the ground at once, it gave nobody a fair chance, and Mrs. French was recognized as a presuming adventuress by all disappointed aspirants for the captain's hand. The captain was afraid at times that Mrs. French carried almost too many guns, but she made him so comfortable that she kept the upper hand, and at last he was conscious of little objection to whatever this able housekeeper proposed. Her only intimate friends were the minister and his wife, and the captain himself was so won over to familiarity by the kindness of his pastor in the time of affliction, that when after some weeks Mrs. French invited the good people to tea, Captain Ball sat manfully at the foot of his table, and listened with no small pleasure to the delighted exclamations of the parson's wife over his store of china and glass. There was a little feeling of guilt when he remembered how many times in his sister's day he had evaded such pleasant social occasions by complaint of inward malady, or by staying boldly among the wharves until long past supper-time, and forcing good Miss Ann to as many anxious excuses as if her brother's cranky ways were not as well known to the guests as to herself.
Mrs. Captain Topliff and Miss Miranda Hull were sitting together one late summer afternoon in Mrs. Topliff's south chamber. They were at work upon a black dress which was to be made over, and each sat by a front window with the blinds carefully set ajar.
"This is a real handy room to sew in," said Miranda, who had come early after dinner for a good long afternoon. "You git the light as long as there is any; and I do like a straw carpet; I don't feel 's if I made so much work scatterin' pieces."
"Don't you have no concern about pieces," answered Mrs. Topliff, amiably. "I was precious glad to get you right on the sudden so. You see, I counted on my other dress lasting me till winter, and sort of put this by to do at a leisure time. I knew 't wa'n't fit to wear as 't was. Anyway, I've done dealin' with Stover; he told me, lookin' me right in the eye, that it was as good a wearin' piece o' goods as he had in the store. 'T was a real cheat; you can put your finger right through it."
"You've got some wear out of it," ventured Miranda, meekly, bending over her work. "I made it up quite a spell ago, I know. Six or seven years, ain't it, Mis' Topliff?"
"Yes, to be sure," replied Mrs. Topliff, with suppressed indignation; "but this we're to work on I had before the Centennial. I know I wouldn't take it to Philadelphy because 't was too good. An' the first two or three years of a dress don't count. You know how 't is; you just wear 'em to meetin' a pleasant Sunday, or to a funeral, p'r'aps, an' keep 'em in a safe cluset meanwhiles."
"Goods don't wear as 't used to," agreed Miranda; "but 't is all the better for my trade. Land! there's some dresses in this town I'm sick o' bein' called on to make good 's new. Now I call you reasonable about such things, but there's some I could name" -- Miss Hull at this point put several pins into her mouth, as if to guard a secret.
Mrs. Topliff looked up with interest. "I always thought Ann Ball was the meanest woman about such expense. She always looked respectable too, and I s'pose she'd said the heathen was gittin' the good o' what she saved. She must have given away hundreds o' dollars in that direction."
"She left plenty too, and I s'pose Cap'n Asaph's Mis' French will get the good of it now," said Miranda through the pins. "Seems to me he's gittin' caught in spite of himself. Old vain creatur', he seemed to think all the women-folks in town was in love with him."
"Some was," answered Mrs. Topliff. "I think any woman that needed a home would naturally think 't was a good chance." She thought that Miranda had indulged high hopes, but wished to ignore them now.
"Some that had a home seemed inclined to bestow their affections, I observed," retorted the dressmaker, who had lost her little property by unfortunate investment, but would not be called homeless by Mrs. Topliff. Everybody knew that the widow had set herself down valiantly to besiege the enemy; but after this passage at arms between the friends they went on amiably with their conversation.
"Seems to me the minister an' Mis' Calvinn are dreadful intimate at the Cap'n's. I wonder if the Cap'n's goin' to give as much to the heathen as his sister did?" said Mrs. Topliff, presently.
"I understood he told the minister that none o' the heathen was wuth it that ever he see," replied Miranda in a pinless voice at last. "Mr. Calvinn only laughed; he knows the Cap'n's ways. But I shouldn't thought Asaph Ball would have let his hired help set out and ask company to tea just four weeks from the day his only sister was laid away. 'T wa'n't feelin'."
"That Mis' French wanted to get the minister's folks to back her up, don't you understand?" was Mrs. Topliff's comment. "I should think the Calvinns wouldn't want to be so free and easy with a woman from nobody knows where. She runs in and out o' the parsonage any time o' day, as Ann Ball never took it upon her to do. Ann liked Mis' Calvinn, but she always had to go through with just so much, and be formal with everybody."
"I'll tell you something that exasperated me," confided the disappointed Miranda. "That night they was there to tea, Mis' Calvinn was praising up a handsome flowered china bowl that was on the table, with some new kind of a fancy jelly in it, and the Cap'n told her to take it along when she went home, if she wanted to, speakin' right out thoughtless, as men do; and that Mis' French chirped up, 'Yes, I'm glad; you ought to have somethin' to remember the cap'n's sister by,' says she. Can't you hear just how up an' comin' it was?"
"I can so," said Mrs. Topliff. "I see that bowl myself on Miss Calvinn's card-table, when I was makin' a call there day before yesterday. I wondered how she come by it. 'T is an elegant bowl. Ann must have set the world by it, poor thing. Wonder if he ain't goin' to give remembrances to those that knew his sister ever since they can remember? Mirandy Hull, that Mis' French is a fox!"
"'T was Widow Sparks gave me the particulars," continued Mrs. Topliff. "She declared at first that never would she step foot inside his doors again, but I always thought the cap'n put up with a good deal. Her husband's havin' been killed in one o' his ships by a fall when he was full o' liquor, and her bein' there so much to help Ann, and their havin' provided for her all these years one way an' another, didn't give her the right to undertake the housekeepin' and direction o' everything soon as Ann died. She dressed up as if 't was for meetin', and 'tended the front door, and saw the folks that came. You'd thought she was ma'am of everything; and to hear her talk up to the cap'n! I thought I should die o' laughing when he blowed out at her. You know how he gives them great whoos when he's put about. 'Go below, can't ye, till your watch's called,' says he, same 's 't was aboard ship; but there! everybody knew he was all broke down, and everything tried him. But to see her flounce out o' that back door!"
"'T was the evenin' after the funeral," Miranda said, presently. "I was there, too, you may rec'lect, seeing what I could do. The cap'n thought I was the proper one to look after her things, and guard against moths. He said there wa'n't no haste, but I knew better, an' told him I'd brought some camphire right with me. Well, did you git anything further out o' Mis' Sparks?"
"That French woman made all up with her, and Mis' Sparks swallowed her resentment. She's a good-feelin', ignorant kind o' woman, an' she needed the money bad," answered Mrs. Topliff. "If you'll never repeat, I'll tell you somethin' that'll make your eyes stick out, Miranda."
Miranda promised, and filled her mouth with pins preparatory to proper silence.
"You know the Balls had a half-brother that went off out West somewhere in New York State years ago. I don't remember him, but he brought up a family, and some of 'em came here an' made visits. Ann used to get letters from 'em sometimes, she's told me, and I dare say used to do for 'em. Well, Mis' Sparks says that there was a smart young Miss Ball, niece, or great-niece o' the cap'n, wrote on and wanted to come an' live with him for the sake o' the home -- his own blood and kin, you see, and very needy -- and Mis' Sparks heard 'em talk about her, and that wicked, low, offscourin' has got round Asaph Ball till he's consented to put the pore girl off. You see, she wants to contrive time to make him marry her, and then she'll do as she pleases about his folks. Now ain't it a shame? When I see her parade up the broad aisle, I want to stick out my tongue at her -- I do so, right in meetin'. If the cap'n's goin' to have a shock within a year, I could wish it might be soon, to disappoint such a woman. Who is she, anyway? She makes me think o' some carr'on bird pouncin' down on us right out o' the air." Mrs. Topliff sniffed and jerked about in her chair, having worked herself into a fine fit of temper.
"There ain't no up nor down to this material, is there?" inquired Miranda, meekly. She was thinking that if she were as well off as Mrs. Topliff, and toward seventy years of age, she would never show a matrimonial disappointment in this open way. It was ridiculous for a woman who had any respect for herself and for the opinion of society. Miranda had much more dignity, and tried to cool off Mrs. Topliff's warmth by discussion of the black gown.
"'T ain't pleasant to have such a character among us. Do you think it is, Mirandy?" asked Mrs. Topliff, after a few minutes of silence. "She's a good-looking person, but with something sly about her. I don't mean to call on her again until she accounts for herself. Livin' nearer than any of Ann's friends, I thought there would be a good many ways I could oblige the cap'n if he'd grant the opportunity, but 't ain't so to be. Now Mr. Topliff was such an easy-goin', pleasant-tempered man, that I take time to remember others is made different."
Miranda smiled. Her companion had suffered many things from a most trying husband; it was difficult to see why she was willing to risk her peace of mind again.
"Cap'n Asaph looks now as meek as Moses," she suggested, as she pared a newly basted seam with her creaking scissors. "Mis' French, whoever she may be, has got him right under her thumb. I, for one, believe she'll never get him, for all her pains. He's as sharp as she is any day, when it comes to that; but he's made comfortable, and she starches his shirt bosoms so 's you can hear 'em creak 'way across the meeting-house. I was in there the other night -- she wanted to see me about some work - and 't was neat as wax, and an awful good scent o' somethin' they'd had for supper."
"That kind's always smart enough," granted the widow Topliff. "I want to know if she cooks him a hot supper every night? Well, she'll catch him if anybody can. Why don't you get a look into some o' the clusets, if you go there to work? Ann was so formal I never spoke up as I wanted to about seeing her things. They must have an awful sight of china, and as for the linen and so on that the cap'n and his father before him fetched home from sea, you couldn't find no end to it. Ann never made 'way with much. I hope the mice ain't hivin' into it and makin' their nests. Ann was very particular, but I dare say it wore her out tryin' to take care o' such a houseful."
"I'm going there Wednesday," said Miranda. "I'll spy round all I can, but I don't like to carry news from one house to another. I never was one to make trouble; 't would make my business more difficult than 't is a'ready."
"I'd trust you," responded Mrs. Topliff, emphatically. "But there, Mirandy, you know you can trust me too, and anything you say goes no further."
"Yes'm," returned Miranda, somewhat absently. "To cut this the way you want it is going to give the folds a ter'ble skimpy look."
"I thought it would from the first," was Mrs. Topliff's obliging answer.
The captain could not believe that two months had passed since his sister's death, but Mrs. French assured him one evening that it was so. He had troubled himself very little about public opinion, though hints of his housekeeper's suspicious character and abominable intentions had reached his ears through more than one disinterested tale-bearer. Indeed, the minister and his wife were the only persons among the old family friends who kept up any sort of intercourse with Mrs. French. The ladies of the parish themselves had not dared to asperse her character to the gruff captain, but were contented with ignoring her existence and setting their husbands to the fray. "Why don't you tell him what folks think?" was a frequent question; but after a first venture even the most intimate and valiant friends were sure to mind their own business, as the indignant captain bade them. Two of them had been partially won over to Mrs. French's side by a taste of her good cooking. In fact, these were Captain Dunn and Captain Allister, who, at the eleven o'clock rendezvous, reported their wives as absent at the County Conference, and were promptly bidden to a chowder dinner by the independent Captain Ball, who gloried in the fact that neither of his companions would dare to ask a friend home unexpectedly. Our hero promised his guests that what they did not find in eatables they should make up in drinkables, and actually produced a glistening decanter of Madeira that had made several voyages in his father's ships while he himself was a boy. There were several casks and long rows of cobwebby bottles in the cellar, which had been provided against possible use in case of illness, but the captain rarely touched them, though he went regularly every morning for a social glass of what he frankly persisted in calling his grog. The dinner party proved to be a noble occasion, and Mrs. French won the esteem of the three elderly seamen by her discreet behavior, as well as by the flavor of the chowder.
They walked out into the old garden when the feast was over, and continued their somewhat excited discussion of the decline of shipping, on the seats of the ancient latticed summer-house. There Mrs. French surprised them by bringing out a tray of coffee, served in the handsome old cups which the captain's father had brought home from France. She was certainly a good-looking woman, and stepped modestly and soberly along the walk between the mallows and marigolds. Her feminine rivals insisted that she looked both bold and sly, but she minded her work like a steam-tug, as the captain whispered admiringly to his friends.
"Ain't never ascertained where she came from last, have ye?" inquired Captain Allister [Alister], emboldened by the best Madeira and the good-fellowship of the occasion.
"I'm acquainted with all I need to know," answered Captain Ball, shortly; but his face darkened, and when his guests finished their coffee they thought it was high time to go away.
Everybody was sorry that a jarring note had been struck on so delightful an occasion, but it could not be undone. On the whole, the dinner was an uncommon pleasure, and the host walked back into the house to compliment his housekeeper, though the sting of his friend's untimely question expressed itself by a remark that they had made most too much of an every-day matter by having the coffee in those best cups.
Mrs. French laughed. "'T will give 'em something to talk about; 't was excellent good coffee, this last you got, anyway," and Captain Asaph walked away, restored to a pleased and cheerful frame of mind. When he waked up after a solid after-dinner nap, Mrs. French, in her decent afternoon gown, as calm as if there had been no company to dinner, was just coming down the front stairs.
She seated herself by the window, and pretended to look into the street. The captain shook his newspaper at an invading fly. It was early September and flies were cruelly persistent. Somehow his nap had not entirely refreshed him, and he watched his housekeeper with something like disapproval.
"I want to talk with you about something, sir," said Mrs. French.
"She's going to raise her pay," the captain grumbled to himself. "Well, speak out, can't ye ma'am?" he said.
"You know I've been sayin' all along that you ought to get your niece" --
"She's my great-niece," blew the captain, "an' I don't know as I want her." The awful certainty came upon him that those hints were well-founded about Mrs. French's determination to marry him, and his stormy nature rose in wild revolt. "Can't you keep your place, ma'am?" and he gave a great whoo! as if he were letting off super-abundant steam. She might prove to carry too many guns for him, and he grew very red in the face. It was a much worse moment than when a vessel comes driving at you amidships out of the fog.
"Why, yes, sir, I should be glad to keep my place," said Mrs. French, taking the less grave meaning of his remark by instinct, if not by preference; "only it seems your duty to let your great-niece come some time or other, and I can go off. Perhaps it is an untimely season to speak about it, but, you see, I have had it in mind, and now I've got through with the preserves, and there's a space between now and house-cleaning, I guess you'd better let the young woman come. Folks have got wind about your refusing her earlier, and think hard of me: my position isn't altogether pleasant," and she changed color a little, and looked him full in the face.
The captain's eyes fell. He did owe her something. He never had been so comfortable in his life, on shore, as she had made him. She had heard some cursed ill-natured speeches, and he very well knew that a more self-respecting woman never lived. But now her moment of self-assertion seemed to have come, and, to use his own words, she had him fast. Stop! there was a way of escape.
"Then I will send for the gal. Perhaps you're right, ma'am. I've slept myself into the doldrums. Whoo! whoo!" he said, loudly -- anything to gain a little time. "Anything you say, ma'am," he protested. "I've got to step down-town on some business," and the captain fled with ponderous footsteps out through the dining-room to the little side entry where he hung his hat; then a moment later he went away, clicking his cane along the narrow sidewalk.
He had escaped that time, and wrote the brief note to his great-niece, Ann Ball -- how familiar the name looked! -- with a sense of victory. He dreaded the next interview with his housekeeper, but she was business-like and self-possessed, and seemed to be giving him plenty of time. Then the captain regretted his letter, and felt as if he were going to be broken up once more in his home comfort. He spoke only when it was absolutely necessary, and simply nodded his head when Mrs. French said that she was ready to start as soon as she showed the young woman about the house. But what favorite dishes were served the captain in those intervening days! and there was one cool evening beside, when the house-keeper had the social assistance of a fire in the Franklin stove. The captain thought that his only safety lay in sleep, and promptly took that means of saving himself from a dangerous conversation. He even went to a panorama on Friday night, a diversion that would usually be quite beneath his dignity. It was difficult to avoid asking Mrs. French to accompany him, she helped him on with his coat so pleasantly, but "she'd git her claws on me comin' home perhaps," mused the self-distrustful mariner, and stoutly went his way to the panorama alone. It was a very dull show indeed, and he bravely confessed it, and then was angry at a twinkle in Mrs. French's eyes. Yet he should miss the good creature, and for the life of him he could not think lightly of her. "She well knows how able she is to do for me. Women-folks is cap'ns ashore," sighed the captain as he went upstairs to bed.
"Women-folks is cap'ns ashore," he repeated, in solemn confidence to one of his intimate friends, as they stood next day on one of the deserted wharves, looking out across the empty harbor roads. There was nothing coming in. How they had watched the deep-laden ships enter between the outer capes and drop their great sails in home waters! How they had ruled those ships, and been the ablest ship-masters of their day, with nobody to question their decisions! There is no such absolute monarchy as a sea-captain's. He is a petty king, indeed, as he sails the high seas from port to port.
There was a fine easterly breeze and a bright sun that day, but Captain Ball came toiling up the cobble-stoned street toward his house as if he were vexed by a headwind. He carried a post-card between his thumb and finger, and grumbled aloud as he stumped along. "Mis' French!" he called, loudly, as he opened the door, and that worthy woman appeared with a floured apron, and a mind divided between her employer's special business and her own affairs of pie-making.
"She's coming this same day," roared the captain. "Might have given some notice, I'm sure. 'Be with you Saturday afternoon,' and signed her name. That's all she's written. Whoo! whoo! 't is a dreadful close day," and the poor old fellow fumbled for his big silk handkerchief. "I don't know what train she'll take. I ain't going to hang round up at the depot; my rheumatism troubles me."
"I wouldn't, if I was you," answered Mrs. French, shortly, and turned from him with a pettish movement to open the oven door.
The captain passed into the sitting-room, and sat down heavily in his large chair. On the wall facing him was a picture of his old ship the Ocean Rover leaving the harbor of Bristol. It was not valuable as a marine painting, but the sea was blue in that picture, and the white canvas all spread to the very sky-scrapers; it was an emblem of that freedom which Captain Asaph Ball had once enjoyed. Dinner that day was a melancholy meal, and after it was cleared away the master of the house forlornly watched Mrs. French gather an armful of her own belongings, and mount the stairs as if she were going to pack her box that very afternoon. It did not seem possible that she meant to leave before Monday, but the captain could not bring himself to ask any questions. He was at the mercy of womankind. "A jiggeting girl. I don't know how to act with her. She sha'n't rule me," he muttered to himself. "She and Mis' French may think they've got things right to their hands, but I'll stand my ground -- I'll stand my ground," and the captain gently slid into the calmer waters of his afternoon nap.
When he waked the house was still, and with sudden consciousness of approaching danger, and a fear lest Mrs. French might have some last words to say if she found him awake, he stole out of his house as softly as possible and went down-town, hiding his secret woes and joining in the long seafaring reminiscences with which he and his friends usually diverted themselves. As he came up the street again toward supper-time, he saw that the blinds were thrown open in the parlor windows, and his heart began to beat loudly. He could hear women's voices, and he went in by a side gate and sought the quiet garden. It had suffered from a touch of frost; so had the captain.
Mrs. French heard the gate creak, and presently she came to the garden door at the end of the front entry. "Come in, won't ye, cap'n?" she called, persuasively, and with a mighty sea oath the captain rose and obeyed.
The house was still. He strode along the entry like a brave man: there was nothing of the coward about Asaph Ball when he made up his mind to a thing. There was nobody in the best parlor, and he turned toward the sitting-room, but there sat smiling Mrs. French.
"Where is the gal?" blew the captain.
"Here I be, sir," said Mrs. French, with a flushed and beaming face. "I thought 't was full time to put you out of your misery."
"What's all this mean? Whoo! whoo!"
"Here I be; take me or leave me, uncle," answered the housekeeper: she began to be anxious, the captain looked so bewildered and irate. "Folks seemed to think that you was peculiar, and I was impressed that it would be better to just come first without a word's bein' said, and find out how you an' me got on; then, if we didn't make out, nobody'd be bound. I'm sure, I didn't want to be."
"Who was that I heard talking with ye as I come by?" blew the captain very loud.
"That was Mis' Cap'n Topliff; an' an old cat she is," calmly replied Mrs. French. "She hasn't been near me before this three months, but plenty of stories she's set goin' about us, and plenty of spyin' she's done. I thought I'd tell you who I was within a week after I come, but I found out how things was goin', and I had to spite 'em well before I got through. I expected that something would turn up, an' the whole story get out. But we've been middlin' comfortable, haven't we, sir? an' I thought 't was 'bout time to give you a little surprise. Mis' Calvinn and the minister knows the whole story," she concluded: "I wouldn't have kep' it from them. Mis' Calvinn said all along 't would be a good lesson" --
"Who wrote that card from the post-office?" demanded the captain, apparently but half persuaded.
"I did," said Mrs. French.
"Good Hector, you women-folks!" but Captain Ball ventured to cross the room and establish himself in his chair. Then, being a man of humor, he saw that he had a round turn on those who had spitefully sought to question him.
"You needn't let on, that you haven't known me all along," suggested Mrs. French. "I should be pleased if you would call me by my Christian name, sir. I was married to Mr. French only a short time; he was taken away very sudden. The letter that came after aunt's death was directed to my maiden name, but aunt knew all about me. I've got some means, an' I ain't distressed but what I can earn my living."
"They don't call me such an old Turk, I hope!" exclaimed the excited captain, deprecating the underrated estimate of himself which was suddenly presented. "I ain't a hard man at sea, now I tell ye," and he turned away, much moved at the injustice of society. "I've got no head for genealogy. Ann usually set in to give me the family particulars when I was logy with sleep a Sunday night. I thought you was a French from Massachusetts way."
"I had to say somethin'," responded the housekeeper, promptly.
"Well, well!" and a suppressed laugh shook the captain like an earthquake. He was suddenly set free from his enemies, while an hour before he had been hemmed in on every side.
They had a cheerful supper, and Ann French cut a pie, and said, as she passed him more than a quarter part of it, that she thought she should give up when she was baking that morning, and saw the look on his face as he handed her the post card.
"You're fit to be captain of a privateer," acknowledged Captain Asaph Ball, handsomely. The complications of shore life were very astonishing to this seafaring man of the old school.
Early on Monday morning he had a delightful sense of triumph. Captain Allister, who was the chief gossip of the waterside club, took it upon himself -- a cheap thing to do, as everybody said afterwards -- to ask many questions about those unvalued relatives of the Balls, who had settled long ago in New York State. Were there any children left of the captain's half-brother's family?
"I've got a niece living -- a great-niece she is," answered Captain Ball, with a broad smile -- "makes me feel old. You see, my half-brother was a grown man when I was born. I never saw him scarcely; there was some misunderstandin', an' he always lived with his own mother's folks; and father, he married again, and had me and Ann thirty year after. Why, my half-brother'd been 'most a hundred; I don't know but more."
Captain Ball spoke in a cheerful tone; the audience meditated, and Captain Allister mentioned meekly that time did slip away.
"Ever see any of 'em?" he inquired. In some way public interest was aroused in the niece.
"Ever see any of 'em?" repeated the captain, in a loud tone. "You fool, Allister, who's keepin' my house this minute? Why, Ann French; Ann Ball that was, and a smart, likely woman she is. I ain't a marryin' man: there's been plenty o' fools to try me. I've been picked over well by you and others, and I thought if 't pleased you, you could take your own time."
The honest captain for once lent himself to deception. One would have thought that he had planned the siege himself. He took his stick from where it leaned against a decaying piece of ship-timber and went clicking away. The explanation of his housekeeping arrangements was not long in flying about the town, and Mrs. Captain Topliff made an early call to say that she had always suspected it from the first, from the family likeness. From this time Captain Ball submitted to the rule of Mrs. French, and under her sensible and fearless sway became, as everybody said, more like other people than ever before. As he grew older it was more and more convenient to have a superior officer to save him from petty responsibilities. But now and then, after the first relief at finding that Mrs. French was not seeking his hand in marriage, and that the jiggeting girl was a mere fabrication, Captain Ball was both surprised and a little ashamed to discover that something in his heart had suffered disappointment in the matter of the great-niece. Those who knew him well would have as soon expected to see a flower grow out of a cobble-stone as that Captain Asaph Ball should hide such a sentiment in his honest breast. He had fancied her a pretty girl in a pink dress, who would make some life in the quiet house, and sit and sing at her sewing by the front window, in all her foolish furbelows, as he came up the street.
Illustration for "The Taking of Captain Ball"
C. S. Reinhart
Charles Stanley Reinhart (1844-1896) was a genre painter and illustrator who worked for Harper and Brothers. Born in Pittsburgh, PA, he studied in Paris and Munich. His work appears in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. (Source: Mantle Fielding's Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors, & Engravers). This illustration appeared with the story in Harper's Magazine (80: 141-151) in December 1889.
"There Mrs. French surprised them by bringing out a tray of coffee."
"The Taking of Captain Ball" was first published in Harper's Magazine in December 1889 (80:141-151) and was collected in Strangers and Wayfarers (1890). This text is from Strangers and Wayfarers.
[ Back ]
Yellow-fever: A sometimes fatal mosquito-borne viral disease which occurs in tropical and sub-tropical areas. Symptoms include fever, headache, vomiting, and backache. As the disease progresses, the pulse slows and weakens.
[ Back ]
wrecking him on a lee shore: A lee shore is sheltered from the wind. If a ship went aground there, it would have to be rowed back into waters where wind could fill its sails again.
[ Back ]
Down came his flag on the run: When a naval vessel surrenders in battle, the officer in charge orders the flag to be lowered.
[ Back ]
coastwise lime schooner: A schooner which makes runs along a single coast and stops at various ports, rather than making trans-oceanic voyages. In this case, lime is probably the caustic powder used in making Portland cement.
[ Back ]
close-reefed: A reef is the part of a sail from one row of eyelet-holes to another. Close-reefed means that the reefs have been taken in to reduce the sail.
[ Back ]
jiggetin' girl: Slang term for a girl who makes free with humor and tricks.
[ Back ]
flummery: Something insipid, or not worth having; empty compliment; trash; unsubstantial talk or writing. (Source: ARTFL Project: 1913 Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary)
[ Back ]
kentle: A hundredweight, either 112 or 100 pounds, according to the scale used. More commonly known as a "quintal." (Source: ARTFL Project: 1913 Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary).
[ Back ]
carried almost too many guns: A naval ship's combat power was measured by how many guns it carried.
[ Back ]
the Centennial ... Philadelphy: In Philadelphia in 1876, a great fair was held to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the United States of America, the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Jewett refers to this also in "The Flight of Betsey Lane."
[ Back ]
a shock: A sudden depression of the vital forces of the entire body, or of a part of it, marking some profound impression produced upon the nervous system, as by severe injury, overpowering emotion, or the like. (ARTFL Project: 1913 Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary).
[ Back ]
meek as Moses: When encountering the burning bush, Moses refused to lead the Hebrews to freedom on the basis that he was too soft-spoken. See Exodus 3:1 through 4:17.
[ Back ]
basted seam: In quilting or in other sewing practices where a layer of wool or cotton is placed between fabric, the two enclosing pieces of fabric are stretched and pinned together in order that they be sewn more securely.
[ Back ]
mallows: Any of a genus (Malva of the family Malvaceae, the mallow family) of herbs with palmately lobed or dissected leaves, usually showy flowers, and a disk-shaped fruit.
[ Back ]
Franklin Stove: Type of wood-burning stove, invented by Benjamin Franklin (c. 1740), that was used to warm frontier dwellings, farmhouses, and urban homes for more than 200 years. (Encyclopedia Britannica Online).
[ Back ]
panorama: A picture exhibited a part at a time by being unrolled before the spectator.
[ Back ]
captain's monarchy: For all practical purposes, a captain was essentially a monarch on board his vessel during the course of a voyage. See Charles Darwin's (1809-1882) letter to C. Whitley of 23 July 1834, which appears in Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1887), edited by Darwin's son, Francis.
[ Back ]
Bristol: A British seaport. Bristol's geographic position at the confluence of the Avon and Frome rivers gave it easy access to Atlantic trade. The presence of industry in the city added to its desirability as a merchant port, and many shippers from France, America, and other nations made Bristol a stopping point on their voyages.
[ Back ]
Good Hector: From the Trojan warrior, Hector, the son of Priam. A bully; a blustering, turbulent, insolent, fellow; one who vexes or provokes. (ARTFL Project: 1913 Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary).
[ Back ]
They don't call me such an old Turk:
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
Bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne.
(Alexander Pope, Essay on Man. Epistle i. Line 197)
[ Back ]
logy: Heavy or dull in respect to motion or thought; as, a logy horse. [U.S.] (ARTFL Project: 1913 Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary).
[ Back ]
privateer: An armed private ship licensed to attack enemy shipping. Also: a sailor on such a ship.
[ Back ]
furbelows: A pleated or gathered piece of material; especially: a flounce on women's clothing.
[ Back ]
Edited and annotated by Chris Butler, with assistance from Terry Heller, Coe College.
Main Contents & Search
Strangers & Wayfarers
Differences between the two texts