News & Tall Tales. 1800s.
January 2, 1880, Daily Alta California, San Francisco
THE CAPTAIN'S WIFE
A Faithful Narrative From the Life of Mr. Doldrum
What the Good Woman Did for Ben and the Crew and
How Ben Tried to Requite Her.
From the Boston Courier
No, sir, it ain't no uncommon thing," said Mr. Doldrum, "for a whaling skipper to take his wife off on four or five years' voyage; and some of them right whalers, who poke their figure heads as near the North pole as they can without touching it, stay away as long as seven years.
"Just think of it, I knew a skipper once who got married two weeks before he got orders to sail, and his wife couldn't go, because she was so frightened of salt water. I tell you there was weeping and wailing on board the old Oxprey before she cast off; and when she got back, four years after, that skipper retired to private life."
"His wife must have suffered a great deal during his absence," replied I.
"Of course, she did, but then she was true blue and full of grit, in fact she was born a within toss of a biscuit from Howland's wharf in New Bedford, and she learned the smell of oil when she was a baby."
"But that ain't the woman 1 was going to tell you about, heaven rest her soul, she's dead now though if ever there was an angel in petticoats, she I was one. I always remember poor Joe in Bleakhouse, when I think of her. She was mighty good to me, she was."
I should really like to hear about her, Mr. Doldrum."
"That's her picture," said he, taking out a photograph well worn by constant carrying in his pocket. "It's all I've got to remember her by, except the memory of her which goes out only when I shuffle off my coil and douse the glim.
You see I had s just signed the ship's articles as second mate for four years on the barque George and Susan, made two voyages before with the same skipper. As I was leaving the owner's office I met the captain coming up the gangway with a woman holding on to his arm.
"Mr. Doldrum, let me introduce you to my wife. You will be shipmates together and might as well know other before hand.
"I doffed my head gear when she held out her hand and gave me a regular sailor's grip. I kinder saw that she took a liking to me, and that made me feel easy, for it won't do to have a woman down on you board a ship, and that woman the skipper's wife.
"She asked me lots of questions; how many voyages I had made, and if I had saved up any money? I finally hauled off and luffed up till I reached an outfitter's shop, where I overhauled their slop chest and picked out what duds I needed for the voyage, stowed 'm away in my donkey, or chest, as you landsmen call it, and had it sent down to the vessel.
"We raised a school one morning, and after a hard's day's work, caught three which stowed down ninety eight barrels. They were all cow-whales and did not try out only a little more than thirty barrels each.
But it was good to start on, and would make ballast, doubling the Cape.
"Off the horn we had a lively time of it; got into a fog and nearly run ashore on a sheer coast before we knew what was the matter.
"The skipper's wife was on deck most of the time, and though that was her first voyage, her quick ear caught the sound of breakers on our lee some ten minutes ere we heard 'em
"I tell you, we had to tack and tack to get away from those rocks; a little longer and we would have all gone to Davy Jones in 600 fathoms of water.We kinder locked up to the skipper's wife after that, for if had not been for her I would not be telling you about her. After we rounded the Cape, the Old Man squared away for the Marquesas Islands, where we had a run ashore, and brought off two or three boat loads of oranges, bananas and cocoanuts, to keep away the scurvy. Somehow or other the atmosphere did not agree with me, and before I knew it, I was down in my bunk with a scorching fever. The captain got out his big book, eked the medicine chest, and was going to prescribe a big dose of Epsom salts they always give 'em board of ship. If a man falls from the mast, it's salts. If he has the toothache, same medicine. But the skipper's wife took me in tow and stopped that nonsense pretty quick. Her father was a land doctor and she had picked up something better for fever than salts.
"She dived into the medicine chest and brought out number seven, that's the only name I knew it by; gave me some of seven; opened a can of mustard, got a tub of salt water from the cook's gallery, and made me take a mustard bath, until you could wring water enough out of the sheets I had around me to float a whale-boat.
"She didn't stop there, however, but toasted and tea'd me just like a mother. The captain hadn't a word to say, but just let her have things her own way; and what with doctoring, nursing and watching me 'o nights, she fetched me through until I was entered on the log-book cured but we had to get number seven filled up when we got into Valparaiso.
"The cabin boy he also had a touch of something might have been homesickness much as anything but she took him in tow and in four or five days set him right side up with care.
"We had been out going on nigh to three years, with seven hundred barrels in the hold and five hundred that we had sent home by the Hector, when I noticed that the skipper wore a troubled look. Besides his wife didn't come on deck so often. One evening, just as dog-watch was on, he comes up to me, and says, 'Ben' he always called me Ben when none of the men were around Ben,' says he, my wife's sick.'
"What is the matter with her, captain?" says I."
Why, blame it, man' that's the only cuss word he ever used ' can't you guess what's the matter? And here we are four hundred miles away from main land.'
"Don't get low-spirited, captain,' says I; perhaps we can run in before she needs a doctor.
'No, we can't; and I'm a fool!' says he.
"Whatever you do, don't finger once that big book and medicine chest,' I said for I had Epsom salts in my mind, do you see?
'No I won't Ben; but what is to be done?"
"Well, we'll square away, anyhow, and do the host we can.'
"But it was no use; she grew worse. The George and Susan pitched and rolled so heavily that it made her suffer all the more. We broke two casks of oil and lashed them over the rail, knocked out the hung and let the oil adrift. It smoothed down the water a little, but it did not last long.
"If the skipper thought it would have done any good he would have emptied every cask on board to save his wife The next night, while I was on watch, the old man came bouncing out of his cabin. "Ben, for heaven's sake, come down! Rouse out Mr. Kedge to stand your watch,' he sung out.
"I roused out the third mate and followed the captain. When I reached the cabin I could hear his poor wife crying, and I tell you it went all over me.
"Captain,' says I, my good mother has told me some things that might be of service, and I'll give it to you straight as I can.' So I told him how to proceed, bade him God speed, and he went in, while I stood sentry at the scuttle.
"The crew by this time had got wind that something was up, seeing as Mr, Kedge hid changed places with me, and they mustered aft, anxiously waiting to hear the good or bad news .
"Pretty soon a little low, wailing cry came drifting up the cabin gangway, and then we knew that another hand had been added to our crew.
"The men noiselessly went for'ard whispering among them selves, for they all liked the skipper's wife and remembered the extra socks and tobacco she brought out of the cabin, which were not put down agin 'em in the bill book. But perhaps you don't want to hear any more."
" Oh, yes do go on; let me hear the whole of it. I'm all ears."
"Well, the baby lived and the mother died just one hundred and eighty miles from Valdiva, Chili, by the quadrant. What the mother did for me, I did my best to do for the baby.
"I got out two or three cans of condensed milk, mixed so me in warm water and fed it as carefully as if I were feeding a humming-bird.
"When we ran into Valdiva, the broken-hearted Skipper got a couple of Portuguese doctors to embalm the body of his wife, after which he had it put into a metallic case and placed in his cabin, so he could have her near to him even in death.
"What about the baby?"
"Oh, she got along, and weathered the remainder of the voyage. Took her condensed milk regular and clung to me just as if she was my own."
"I saw her a few weeks ago; but she ain't much of a baby now. I went down to Nantucket where the old man lives he don't go to sea any more; has enough to live on and to spare.
"When I called at the house I saw a young man about your age, who seemed to be paying his attentions around the domicile. But that didn't hinder her from throwing her arms around my neck, if she is sixteen years of age,
"No, sir; if I was a young man myself I think my chances would be as good as the next one, for she don't forget old Ben and the many times he has carried her in his arms. Only a cable's length from the house is her mother's grave, and it looks as fresh, green and blooming all done by her hands as a regular garden. I hope whoever marries the baby, as I took care of, will think as much of her as I do. God bless her for the sake of her mother. '
Mr. Doldrum wiped his sleeve across his eyes as if the sun troubled them, and said he must be moving on. and said he must be moving on