Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
An Afternoon in Nantucket
By Jane Goodwin Austin (18311894)
[Born in Worcester, Mass., 1831. Died in Boston, Mass., 1894. Nantucket Scraps. 1883.]
THE DROWSY hours of early afternoon were devoted to the museum, collected and exhibited by the public-spirited widow of a sea-captain named McCleve. An upper room of her comfortable house is devoted to the curios, although, like attar of roses, or some penetrating oils, they seem to have saturated the entire mansion,the good-natured proprietress occasionally haling a favored guest away from the rest to look at some quaint picture, piece of china, or bit of furniture in her own private apartments. The party of twelve or fourteen collected on this especial afternoon were taken to the upper room and seated around a small table, as if for a spiritual séance, the hostess arranging precedence and proximity with an autocratic good humor to which everybody yielded except the señor, who, standing looking in at the door, was presently accosted with
No, I wont, Aunty McCleve, for youd be sure to contradict me if I did, replied the señor, coolly; whereupon Aunty shook him affectionately by the hand, assuring him he was the same sarcy boy he used to be, and dragged him most reluctantly to a seat in the magical circle.
At what period of the entertainment do we pay? inquired one of the persons one meets everywhere, and who may be called the whitleather of society. Mrs. McCleve looked at him with an appreciative eye for a moment, and then quietly replied:
Well, it isnt often people bring it out quite so plain as that, but I guess youd better pay now before you forget it. Whitleather does not suffer from sarcasm, and the practical man, producing a quarter of a dollar, held it tight while asking
No, brother; but you can keep your quarter till I have, replied Aunty, with the quiet gleam still in her eye, and the business was soon adjusted. This over, she placed upon the table a tray containing some really exquisite carvings in whales-tooth ivory, comprising a set of napkin-rings, thread-winders, spoons of various sizes, knife-handles, and several specimens of a utensil peculiar to Nantucket, called a jagging-knife, used for carving ornamental patterns in pastry,a species of embroidery for which Nantucket housewives were once famous, although, pity tis tis true, they have now largely emancipated themselves from such arts.
As the guests examined these really wonderful products of talent almost unaided by implements or training, one of the ladies naturally inquired: Who did these? The hostess assumed a sibylline attitude and tone: Perhaps, my dear, you can tell us that; and if so, youll be the first one I ever met that could. This obscure intimation of course awakened an interest far deeper than the carvings, in every mind; and in reply to a shower of questioning the sibyl gave a long and intricate narration, beginning with the presence on board of her husbands whale-ship of a mystic youth with the manners and bearing of Porphyrogenitus, and the rating of a common sailor; the delicate suggestion of a disguised lady was also dimly introduced. What succeeds is yet more wonderful, as Scheherezade always said when obliged to cut short the story that the Sultan might get up and say his prayers; but we will not invade Mrs. McCleves copyright by telling it, simply advising every one to go and listen to it.
Two, four, six, eight, teneleven! counted she at the end, picking up the napkin rings; I dont seem to see that twelfth ring! and she looked hard at the unfortunate who had acquired her dislike in the first of the interview by an unfeeling allusion to money.
Now, look at here, Sammy, youre too old for such tricks, expostulated the dame, in precisely the tone one admonishes a naughty child; and then turning to the company generally she added confidentially:
I aint one of them thats given to suspicion, and it aint a Nantucket failing; but last summer there was a boy, one of those half-grown critters, you know, neither beef nor veal, and I just saw him pocketwell, it was that very knife-handle. I always kept an eye on it since, thinking it might be off yet. So I waited till I saw he actooally meant it, and was fixing to go off with it, and then says I:
Well, sonny, going to unload before you start out on a new vyge? So thats all about the carvings; and these are sharks teeth,none of your Wauwinet sand-sharks that would run away from a puppy-dog no bigger than that, but a reglar man-eater off the West Indies; and these very teeth took a mans leg off.
Why, of course he did, my dear, since thats it, replied the hostess compassionately; and then, with the inborn courtesy peculiar to Nantucket folk, turned aside the laugh that followed by hastily displaying some new marvel. The room was crowded with marine curiosities, many of them brought home by the deceased captain, many of them presented to his relict by his comrades or her own friends; they were mostly such as we have seen many times in many places, but some few were sui generissuch as a marriage contract between a Quaker bachelor and maid in the early days of the island, with the signatures of half the settlers appended as witnesses, mutual consent before others being the only ceremony required by the canon of these Nonsacramentarians. Then there was Phbe Anns comb, a wonderful work of art in tortoise-shell; anent which the possessor, Phbe Anns sister, delivered a short original poem, setting forth how ardently Phbe Ann had desired one of these immense combs, their price being eight dollars each; and how, having engaged it, she set to work to earn it by picking berries for sale; but before the pence had grown to the pounds the big comb was out of fashion, and poor Phbe Anns hair, which had been wonderfully luxuriant, fell off through illness, and what remained was cut short. Nantucket probity would not, however, be off its bargain for such cause as this; and Phbe Ann paid her money and took her monumental comb,more useful in its present connection, perhaps, than it could have been in any other. The crown and glory of Mrs. McCleves museum, however, is a carved wooden vase, twelve or fourteen inches in height, made from the top of one of the red-cedar posts planted a century or two since by this ladys ancestor, to inclose a certain parcel of land belonging to him. Twenty or thirty years ago the fence was to be renewed, and one of her cousins proposed to her to drive out to the place and secure a relic of the original island cedar now extinct. She accepted; and the section of post, sawed off with great exertion by the cousin, was turned and carved into its present shape in Cousin Reuben Macys shop on Orange street.
But all this is set forth in an original poem delivered with much unction by its author, who decisively refuses a copy to any and everybody, and is even chary of letting any one listen to it more than once. It is originalin fact, one may say, intensely originaland quite as well worth listening to as the saga of a royal skald. It begins after this fashion:
This vase, of which we have in contemplation,
Merits, my friends, your careful observation.
* * * * *
Saturday, the busiest day of all,
From Cousin Thomas I received a call.
Some lost couplets record the invitation to drive, and the demur on account of pies then baking in the oven; but this being overruled by masculine persuasiveness
Across the hall I gayly skipped,
And soon was for the cruise equipped.
Then follows the drive, the arrival, and the attempt to cut the stern old cedar trunk with a dull saw,
Cousin Thomas worked with desperation,
Until he was in a profuse perspiration,
and finally secured the trophy here exhibited. But these stray couplets give a very inadequate idea of the poem as delivered by its author; and he who visits Nantucket and does not hear it has for the rest of his life a lost opportunity to lament.
It was true that the culprit, overcome by the heat of the room, the excitement of the narrative, and possibly certain ancient and fish-like odors connected with marine specimens, had fainted a little; but was speedily recovered by the usual remedies, prominent among which in these days is a disinclination to have ones crimps spoiled by the application of water; and the incident was made memorable by the valedictory of the hostess:
Now if any of you want to come in again while you stay on the island you can, without paying anything; and if I dont remember you, just say, I was here the day the woman fainted, and I shall know its all right. And we heard that the experiment was tried and succeeded.
I should say it did, Sammy. They wanted a windmill and didnt know how to make one; and they got an off-islander, name of Wilbur, to make it, and like fools gave him the money beforehand. He went back to the continent for somethingnails maybe, or maybe ideesand carried the money with him; some pirate or other got wind of it, and the first they knew down here, the man was robbed and murdered there on Cape Cod. That didnt put up a windmill though, and the women had got most tired grinding their samp and meal in those old stone mortars, or even a hand-mill; so some of the folks spoke to my grandfather Elisha Macy about it, and he thought it over, and finally went to bed and dreamed just how to build it, and next day got up and built it. Thats the story of that, my dear.
History adds another anecdote of the windmill, worthy to be preserved for its Nantuckety flavor. Eighty-two years from its marvellous inception, the mill had grown so old and infirm that its owners concluded to sell it for lumber if need be. A meeting was called, and Jared Gardner, the man who was supposed to be wisest in mills of any on the island, was invited to attend, and succinctly asked by Sylvanus Macy