Strangers & Wayfarers
The Atlantic Text
Main Contents
 
 

By the Morning Boat.

Sarah Orne Jewett

     On the coast of Maine, where many green islands and salt inlets fringe the deep-cut shore line; where balsam firs and bayberry bushes send their fragrance far seaward, and song-sparrows sing all day, and the tide runs plashing in and out among the weedy ledges; where cowbells tinkle on the hills and herons stand in the shady coves, -- on the lonely coast of Maine stood a small gray house facing the morning light. All the weather-beaten houses of that region face the sea apprehensively, like the women who live in them.

     This home of four people was as bleached and gray with wind and rain as one of the pasture rocks close by. There were some cinnamon rose bushes under the window at one side of the door, and a stunted lilac at the other side. It was so early in the cool morning that nobody was astir but some shy birds, that had come in the stillness of dawn to pick and flutter in the short grass.

     They flew away together as some one softly opened the unlocked door and stepped out. This was a bent old man, who shaded his eyes with his hand, and looked at the west and the east and overhead, and then took a few lame and feeble steps farther out to see a wooden vane on the barn. Then he sat down on the doorstep, clasped his hands together between his knees, and looked steadily out to sea, scanning the horizon where some schooners had held on their course all night, with a light westerly breeze. He seemed to be satisfied at sight of the weather, as if he had been anxious, as he lay unassured in his north bedroom, vexed with the sleeplessness of age and excited by thoughts of the coming day. The old seaman dozed as he sat on the doorstep, while dawn came up and the world grew bright; and the little birds returned, fearfully at first, to finish their breakfast, and at last made bold to hop close to his feet.

     After a time some one else came and stood in the open door behind him.

     "Why, father! seems to me you've got an early start; 't ain't but four o'clock. I thought I was foolish to get up so soon, but 't wa'n't so I could sleep."

     "No, darter." The old man smiled as he turned to look at her, wide awake on the instant. "'T ain't so soon as I git out some o' these 'arly mornin's. The birds wake me up singin', and it's plenty light, you know. I wanted to make sure 'Lisha would have a fair day to go."

     "I expect he'd have to go if the weather wa'n't good," said the woman.

     "Yes, yes, but 't is useful to have fair weather, an' a good sign some says it is. This is a great event for the boy, ain't it?"

     "I can't face the thought o' losin' on him, father." The woman came forward a step or two and sat down on the doorstep. She was a hard-worked, anxious creature, whose face had lost all look of youth. She was apt, in the general course of things, to hurry the old man and to spare little time for talking, and he was pleased by this acknowledged unity of their interests. He moved aside a little to give her more room, and glanced at her with a smile, as if to beg her to speak freely. They were both undemonstrative, taciturn New Englanders; their hearts were warm with pent-up feeling, that summer morning, yet it was easier to understand one another through silence than through speech.

     "No, I couldn't git much sleep," repeated the daughter at last. "Some things I thought of that ain't come to mind before for years, -- things I don't relish the feelin' of, all over again."

     "'T was just such a mornin' as this, pore little 'Lisha's father went off on that last v'y'ge o' his," answered the old sailor, with instant comprehension. "Yes, you've had it master hard, pore gal, ain't you? I advised him against goin' off on that old vessel with a crew that wa'n't capable."

     "Such a mornin' as this, when I come out at sun-up, I always seem to see her tops'ils over there beyond the p'int, where she was to anchor. Well, I thank Heaven 'Lisha was averse to goin' to sea," declared the mother.

     "There's dangers ashore, Lucy Ann," said the grandfather, solemnly; but there was no answer, and they sat there in silence until the old man grew drowsy again.

     "Yisterday was the first time it fell onto my heart that 'Lisha was goin' off," the mother began again, after a time had passed. "P'r'aps folks was right about our needing of him. I've been workin' every way I could to further him and git him a real good chance up to Boston, and now that we've got to part with him I don't see how to put up with it."

     "All nateral," insisted the old man. "My mother wept the night through before I was goin' to sail on my first v'y'ge; she was kind of satisfied, though, when I come home next summer, grown a full man, with my savin's in my pocket, an' I had a master pretty little figured shawl I'd bought for her to Bristol."

     "I don't want no shawls. Partin' is partin' to me," said the woman.

     "'T ain't everybody can stand in her foredoor an' see the chimbleys o' three child'n's houses without a glass," he tried eagerly to console her. "All ready an' willin' to do their part for you, so as you could let 'Lisha go off and have his chance."

     "I don't know how it is," she answered, "but none on 'em never give me the rooted home feelin' that 'Lisha has. They was more varyin' and kind o' fast growin' and scatterin'; but 'Lisha was always 'Lisha when he was a babe, and I settled on him for the one to keep with me."

     "Then he's just the kind to send off, one you ain't got to worry about. They're all good child'n," said the man. "We've reason to be thankful none on 'em 's been like some young sprigs, more grief 'n glory to their folks. An' I ain't regrettin' 'Lisha's goin' one mite; I believe you'd rather go on doin' for him an' cossetin'. I think 't was high time to shove him out o' the nest."

     "You ain't his mother," said Lucy Ann.

     "What be you goin' to give him for his breakfast?" asked the stern grandfather, in a softened, less business-like voice.

     "I don't know 's I'd thought about it, special, sir. I did lay aside that piece o' apple pie we had left yisterday from dinner," she confessed.

     "Fry him out a nice little crisp piece o' pork, Lucy Ann, an' 't will relish with his baked potatoes. He'll think o' his breakfast more times 'n you expect. I know a lad's feelin's when home's put behind him."

     The sun was up clear and bright over the broad sea inlet to the eastward, but the shining water struck the eye by its look of vacancy. It was broad daylight, and still so early that no sails came stealing out from the farmhouse landings, or even from the gray groups of battered fish-houses that overhung, here and there, a sheltered cove. Some crows and gulls were busy in the air; it was the time of day when the world belongs more to birds than to men.

     "Poor 'Lisha!" the mother went on compassionately. "I expect it has been a long night to him. He seemed to take it in, as he was goin' to bed, how 't was his last night to home. I heard him thrashin' about kind o' restless, sometimes."

     "Come, Lucy Ann, the boy ought to be stirrin'!" exclaimed the old sailor, without the least show of sympathy. "He's got to be ready when John Sykes comes, an' he ain't so quick as some lads."

     The mother rose with a sigh, and went into the house. After her own sleepless night, she dreaded to face the regretful, sleepless eyes of her son; but as she opened the door of his little bedroom, there lay Elisha sound asleep and comfortable to behold. She stood watching him with gloomy tenderness until he stirred uneasily, his consciousness roused by the intentness of her thought, and the mysterious current that flowed from her wistful, eager eyes.

     But when the lad waked, it was to a joyful sense of manliness and responsibility; for him the change of surroundings was coming through natural processes of growth, not through the uprooting which gave his mother such an aching heart.

     A little later Elisha came out to the breakfast-table, arrayed in his best sandy-brown clothes set off with a bright blue satin cravat, which had been the pride and delight of pleasant Sundays and rare holidays. He already felt unrelated to the familiar scene of things, and was impatient to be gone. For one thing, it was strange to sit down to breakfast in Sunday splendor, while his mother and grandfather and little sister Lydia were in their humble every-day attire. They ate in silence and haste, as they always did, but with a new constraint and awkwardness that forbade their looking at one another. At last the head of the household broke the silence with simple straightforwardness.

     "You've got an excellent good day, 'Lisha. I like to have a fair start myself. 'T ain't goin' to be too hot; the wind's working into the north a little."

     "Yes, sir," responded Elisha.

     "The great p'int about gittin' on in life is bein' able to cope with your headwinds," continued the old man earnestly, pushing away his plate. "Any fool can run before a fair breeze, but I tell ye a good seaman is one that gits the best out o' his disadvantages. You won't be treated so pretty as you expect in the store, and you'll git plenty o' blows to your pride; but you keep right ahead, and if you can't run before the wind you can always beat. I ain't no hand to preach, but preachin' ain't goin' to sarve ye now. We've gone an' fetched ye up the best we could, your mother an' me, an' you can't never say but you've started amongst honest folks. If a vessel's built out o' sound timber an' has got good lines for sailin', why then she's seaworthy; but if she ain't, she ain't; an' a mess o' preachin' ain't goin' to alter her over. Now you're standin' out to sea, my boy, an' you can bear your home in mind and work your way, same 's plenty of others has done."

     It was a solemn moment; the speaker's voice faltered, and little Lydia dried her tearful blue eyes with her gingham apron. Elisha hung his head, and patted the old spotted cat which came to rub herself against his trowsers-leg. The mother rose hastily, and hurried into the pantry close by. She was always an appealing figure, with her thin shoulders and faded calico gowns; it was difficult to believe that she had once been the prettiest girl in that neighborhood. But her son loved her in his sober, undemonstrative way, and was full of plans for coming home, rich and generous enough to make her proud and happy. He was half pleased and half annoyed because his leave-taking was of such deep concern to the household.

     "Come, Lyddy, don't you take on," he said, with rough kindliness. "Let's go out, and I'll show you how to feed the pig and 'tend to the chickens. You'll have to be chief clerk when I'm gone."

     They went out to the yard, hand in hand. Elisha stopped to stroke the old cat again, as she ran by his side and mewed. "I wish I was off and done with it; this morning does seem awful long," said the boy.

     "Ain't you afraid you'll be homesick an' want to come back?" asked the little sister timidly; but Elisha scorned so poor a thought.

     "You'll have to see if grandpa has 'tended to these things, the pig an' the chickens," he advised her gravely. "He forgets 'em sometimes when I'm away, but he would be cast down if you told him so, and you just keep an eye open, Lyddy. Mother's got enough to do inside the house. But grandsir 'll keep her in kindlin's; he likes to set and chop in the shed rainy days, an' he'll do a sight more if you'll set with him, an' let him get goin' on his old seafarin' times."

     Lydia nodded discreetly.

     "An', Lyddy, don't you loiter comin' home from school, an' don't play out late, an' get 'em fussy, when it comes cold weather. And you tell Susy Draper," -- the boy's voice sounded unconcerned, but Lydia glanced at him quickly, -- "you tell Susy Draper that I was awful sorry she was over to her aunt's, so I couldn't say good-by."

     Lydia's heart was the heart of a woman, and she comprehended. Lydia nodded again, more sagely than before.

     "See here," said the boy suddenly. "I'm goin' to let my old woodchuck out."

     Lydia's face was blank with surprise. "I thought you promised to sell him to big Jim Hooper."

     "I did, but I don't care for big Jim Hooper; you just tell him I let my woodchuck go."

     The brother and sister went to their favorite playground between the ledges, not far from the small old barn. Here was a clumsy box with wire gratings, behind which an untamed little wild beast sat up and chittered at his harmless foes. "He's a whopping old fellow," said Elisha admiringly. "Big Jim Hooper sha'n't have him!" and as he opened the trap, Lydia had hardly time to perch herself high on the ledge, before the woodchuck tumbled and scuttled along the short green turf, and was lost among the clumps of juniper and bayberry just beyond.

     "I feel just like him," said the boy. "I want to get up to Boston just as bad as that. See here, now!" and he flung a gallant cartwheel of himself in the same direction, and then stood on his head and waved his legs furiously in the air. "I feel just like that."

     Lydia, who had been tearful all the morning, looked at him in vague dismay. Only a short time ago she had never been made to feel that her brother was so much older than herself. They had been constant playmates; but now he was like a grown man, and cared no longer for their old pleasures. There was all possible difference between them that there can be between fifteen years and twelve, and Lydia was nothing but a child.

     "Come, come, where be ye?" shouted the old grandfather, and they both started guiltily. Elisha rubbed some dry grass out of his short-cropped hair, and the little sister came down from her ledge. At that moment the real pang of parting shot through her heart; her brother belonged irrevocably to a wider world.

     "Ma'am Stover has sent for ye to come over; she wants to say good-by to ye!" shouted the grandfather, leaning on his two canes at the end of the barn. "Come, step lively, an' remember you ain't got none too much time, an' the boat ain't goin' to wait a minute for nobody."

     "Ma'am Stover?" repeated the boy, with a frown. He and his sister knew only too well the pasture path between the two houses. Ma'am Stover was a bedridden woman, who had seen much trouble, -- a town charge in her old age. Her neighbors gave to her generously out of their own slender stores. Yet with all this poverty and dependence, she held firm sway over the customs and opinions of her acquaintance, from the uneasy bed where she lay year in and year out, watching the far sea line beyond a pasture slope.

     The young people walked fast, sometimes running a little way, light-footed, the boy going ahead, and burst into their neighbor's room out of breath.

     She was calm and critical, and their excitement had a sudden chill.

     "So the great day's come at last, 'Lisha?" she asked; at which 'Lisha was conscious of unnecessary aggravation.

     "I don't know 's it's much of a day -- to anybody but me," he added, discovering a twinkle in her black eyes that was more sympathetic than usual. "I expected to stop an' see you last night; but I had to go round and see all our folks, and when I got back 't was late and the tide was down, an' I knew that grandsir couldn't git the boat up all alone to our lower landin'."

     "Well, I didn't forgit you, but I thought p'r'aps you might forgit me, an' I'm goin' to give ye somethin'. 'T is for your folks' sake; I want ye to tell 'em so. I don't want ye never to part with it, even if it fails to work and you git proud an' want a new one. It's been a sight o' company to me." She reached up, with a flush on her wrinkled cheeks and tears in her eyes, and took a worn old silver watch from its nail, and handed it, with a last look at its white face and large gold hands, to the startled boy.

     "Oh, I can't take it from ye, Ma'am Stover. I'm just as much obliged to you," he faltered.

     "There, go now, dear, go right along," said the old woman, turning quickly away. "Be a good boy for your folks' sake. If so be that I'm here when you come home, you can let me see how well you've kep' it."

     The boy and girl went softly out, leaving the door wide open, as Ma'am Stover liked to have it in summer weather, her windows being small and few. There were neighbors near enough to come and shut it, if a heavy shower blew up. Sometimes the song sparrows and whippoorwills came hopping in about the little bare room.

     "I felt kind of 'shamed to carry off her watch," protested Elisha, with a radiant face that belied his honest words.

     "Put it on," said proud little Lydia, trotting alongside; and he hooked the bright steel chain into his buttonhole, and looked down to see how it shone across his waistcoat. None of his friends had so fine a watch; even his grandfather's was so poor a timekeeper that it was rarely worn except as a decoration on Sundays or at a funeral. They hurried home. Ma'am Stover, lying in her bed, could see the two slight figures nearly all the way on the pasture path; flitting along in their joyful haste.

     It was disappointing that the mother and grandfather had so little to say about the watch. In fact, Elisha's grandfather only said "Pore creatur'" once or twice, and turned away, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. If Ma'am Stover had chosen to give so rich a gift, to know the joy of such generosity, nobody had a right to protest. Yet nobody knew how much the poor wakeful soul would miss the only one of her meagre possessions that seemed alive and companionable in lonely hours. Somebody had said once that there were chairs that went about on wheels, made on purpose for crippled persons like Ma'am Stover; and Elisha's heart was instantly filled with delight at the remembrance. Perhaps before long, if he could save some money and get ahead, he would buy one of those chairs and send it down from Boston; and a new sense of power filled his honest heart. He had dreamed a great many dreams already of what he meant to do with all his money, when he came home rich and a person of consequence, in summer vacations.

     The large leather valise was soon packed, and its owner carried it out to the roadside, and put his last winter's overcoat and a great new umbrella beside it, so as to be ready when John Sykes came with the wagon. He was more and more anxious to be gone, and felt no sense of his old identification with the home interests. His mother said sadly that he would be gone full soon enough, when he joined his grandfather in accusing Mr. Sykes of keeping them waiting forever and making him miss the boat. There were three rough roundabout miles to be traveled to the steamer landing, and the Sykes horses were known to be slow. But at last the team came nodding in sight over a steep hill in the road.

     Then the moment of parting had come, the moment toward which all the long late winter and early summer had looked. The boy was leaving his plain little home for the great adventure of his life's fortunes. Until then he had been the charge and anxiety of his elders, and under their rule and advice. Now he was free to choose; his was the power of direction, his the responsibility; for in the world one must be ranked by his own character and ability, and doomed by his own failures. The boy lifted his burden lightly, and turned with an eager smile to say farewell. But the old people and little Lydia were speechless with grief; they could not bear to part with the pride and hope and boyish strength, that were all their slender joy. The worn-out old man, the anxious woman who had been beaten and buffeted by the waves of poverty and sorrow, the little sister with her dreaming heart, stood at the bars and hungrily watched him go away. They feared success for him almost as much as failure. The world was before him now, with its treasures and pleasures, but with those inevitable disappointments and losses which old people know and fear; those sorrows of incapacity and lack of judgment which young hearts go out to meet without foreboding. It was a world of love and favor to which little Lydia's brother had gone; but who would know her fairy prince, in that disguise of a country boy's bashfulness and humble raiment from the cheap counter of a country store? The household stood rapt and silent until the farm wagon had made its last rise on the hilly road and disappeared.

     "Well, he's left us now," said the sorrowful, hopeful old grandfather. "I expect I've got to turn to an' be a boy again myself. I feel to hope 'Lisha'll do as well as we covet for him. I seem to take it in, all my father felt when he let me go off to sea. He stood where I'm standin' now, an' I was just as triflin' as pore 'Lisha, and felt full as big as a man. But Lord! how I give up when it come night, an' I took it in I was gone from home!"

     "There, don't ye, father," said the pale mother gently. She was, after all, the stronger of the two. "'Lisha's good an' honest-hearted. You'll feel real proud a year from now, when he gits back. I'm so glad he's got his watch to carry, -- he did feel so grand. I expect them poor hens is sufferin'; nobody's thought on 'em this livin' mornin'. You'd better step an' feed 'em right away, sir." She could hardly speak for sorrow and excitement, but the old man was diverted at once, and hobbled away with cheerful importance on his two canes. Then she looked round at the poor, stony little farm almost angrily. "He'd no natural turn for the sea, 'Lisha hadn't; but I might have kept him with me if the land was good for anything."
 

     Elisha felt as if he were in a dream, now that his great adventure was begun. He answered John Sykes's questions mechanically, and his head was a little dull and dazed. Then he began to fear that the slow plodding of the farm horses would make him too late for the steamboat, and with sudden satisfaction pulled out the great watch to see if there were still time enough to get to the landing. He was filled with remorse because it was impossible to remember whether he had thanked Ma'am Stover for her gift. It seemed like a thing of life and consciousness as he pushed it back into his tight pocket. John Sykes looked at him curiously. "Why, that's old Ma'am Stover's timepiece, ain't it? Lend it to ye, did she?"

     "Gave it to me," answered Elisha proudly.

     "You be careful of that watch," said the driver soberly; and Elisha nodded.

     "Well, good-day to ye; be a stiddy lad," advised John Sykes, a few minutes afterward. "Don't start in too smart an' scare 'm up to Boston. Pride an' ambition was the downfall o' old Cole's dog. There, sonny, the bo't ain't nowheres in sight, for all your fidgetin'!"

     They both smiled broadly at the humorous warning, and as the old wagon rattled away, Elisha stood a moment looking after it; then he went down to the wharf by winding ways among piles of decayed timber and disused lobster-pots. A small group of travelers and spectators had already assembled, and they stared at him in a way that made him feel separated from his kind, though some of them had come to see him depart. One unenlightened acquaintance inquired if Elisha were expecting friends by that morning's boat; and when he explained that he was going away himself, asked kindly whether it was to be as far as Bath. Elisha mentioned the word "Boston" with scorn and compassion, but he did not feel like discussing his brilliant prospects now, as he had been more than ready to do the week before. Just then a deaf old woman asked for the time of day. She sat next to him on the battered bench.

     "Be you going up to Bath, dear?" she demanded suddenly; and he said yes. "Guess I'll stick to you, then, fur 's you go; 't is a kind o' blind in them big places." Elisha faintly nodded a meek but grudging assent; then, after a few moments, he boldly rose, tall umbrella in hand, and joined the talkative company of old and young men at the other side of the wharf. They proceeded to make very light of a person's going to Boston to enter upon his business career; but, after all, their thoughts were those of mingled respect and envy. Most of them had seen Boston, but no one save Elisha was going there that day to stay for a whole year. It made him feel like a city man.

     The steamer whistled loud and hoarse before she came in sight, but presently the gay flags showed close by above the pointed spruces. Then she came jarring against the wharf, and the instant bustle and hurry, the strange faces of the passengers, and the loud rattle of freight going on board, were as confusing and exciting as if a small piece of Boston itself had been dropped into that quiet cove.

     The people on the wharf shouted cheerful good-byes, to which the young traveler responded; then he seated himself well astern to enjoy the views, and felt as if he had made a thousand journeys. He bought a newspaper, and began to read it with much pride and a beating heart. The little old woman came and sat beside him, and talked straight on whether he listened or not, until he was afraid of what the other passengers might think, but nobody looked that way, and he could not find anything in the paper that he cared to read. Alone, but unfettered and aflame with courage; to himself he was not the boy who went away, but the proud man who one day would be coming home.

     "Goin' to Boston, be ye?" asked the old lady for the third time; and it was still a pleasure to say yes, when the boat swung round, and there, far away on its gray and green pasture slope, with the dark evergreens standing back, were the low gray house, and the little square barn, and the lines of fence that shut in his home. He strained his eyes to see if any one were watching from the door. He had almost forgotten that they could see him still. He sprang to the boat's side: yes, his mother remembered; there was something white waving from the doorway. The whole landscape faded from his eyes except that far-away gray house; his heart leaped back with love and longing; he gazed and gazed, until a height of green forest came between and shut the picture out. Then the country boy went on alone to make his way in the wide world.


Notes

"By the Morning Boat" first appeared in Atlantic Monthly (65:83-89) in January 1890, and then was collected in Strangers and Wayfarers. This text is from the Garrett Press 1969 reprinting of the 1890 edition. Common contractions have been closed (e.g. that's, didn't) and obvious errors have been corrected, with some indication of this in the text. If you find errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
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balsam firs and bayberry bushes: Balsam fir is Abies balsamea, sometimes called Balm of Gilead. Bayberry is a short, thick wild bush which grows along the coast in New England; the wax from its berries is used to make scented candles; represents `instruction' in the nineteenth-century language of flowers (Research, Ted Eden).
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cinnamon rose bushes: a species of rose (R. cinnamonea). Biographer Francis Matthiessen reports that as a child, Jewett would make a coddle of cinnamon rose petals with cinnamon and brown sugar. See Chapter 1.
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Bristol: A major seaport in southwestern England, at the mouth of the river Avon.
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whippoorwills: this species of nightjar has a distinctive song it sings nocturnally (Research -- Allison Easton). The song sparrow is a common North American song-bird of the genus Melospiza, esp. M. fasciata (or melodia) and cinerea. (Source: Oxford English Dictionary).
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world was before him: John Milton (1608-1674) ends Paradise Lost (1667) with these lines:

     The World was all before them, where to choose
     Their place of rest. . . .
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old Cole's dog: Southey's Common-place Book (1851), by Robert Southey with a preface by John Wood Warter, contains the following snippet:  "THE pride of old Cole's dog, who took the wall of a dungcart, and got his guts squeezed out," p. 428.  Available at http://books.google.com/books?id=UhwlAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA1&dq=southey%27s+common-place.
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Bath: Bath, Maine is a small port about 30 miles northeast of Portland.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.


Strangers & Wayfarers
The Atlantic Text
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