The Widow Ducket lived in a small village about ten miles
from the New Jersey sea-coast. In this village she was born,
here she had married and buried her husband, and here she
expected somebody to bury her; but she was in no hurry for this,
for she had scarcely reached middle age. She was a tall woman
with no apparent fat in her composition, and full of activity,
both muscular and mental.
She rose at six o'clock in the morning, cooked breakfast, set
the table, washed the dishes when the meal was over, milked,
churned, swept, washed, ironed, worked in her little garden,
attended to the flowers in the front yard, and in the afternoon
knitted and quilted and sewed, and after tea she either went to
see her neighbors or had them come to see her. When it was
really dark she lighted the lamp in her parlor and read for an
hour, and if it happened to be one of Miss Mary Wilkins's books
that she read she expressed doubts as to the realism of the
characters therein described.
These doubts she expressed to Dorcas Networthy, who was a
small, plump woman, with a solemn face, who had lived with the
widow for many years and who had become her devoted disciple.
Whatever the widow did, that also did Dorcas--not so well,
for her heart told her she could never expect to do that, but
with a yearning anxiety to do everything as well as she could.
She rose at five minutes past six, and in a subsidiary way she
helped to get the breakfast, to eat it, to wash up the dishes, to
work in the garden, to quilt, to sew, to visit and receive, and
no one could have tried harder than she did to keep awake when
the widow read aloud in the evening.
All these things happened every day in the summertime, but in
the winter the widow and Dorcas cleared the snow from their
little front path instead of attending to the flowers, and in the
evening they lighted a fire as well as a lamp in the parlor.
Sometimes, however, something different happened, but this
was not often, only a few times in the year. One of the
different things occurred when Mrs. Ducket and Dorcas were
sitting on their little front porch one summer afternoon, one on
the little bench on one side of the door, and the other on the
little bench on the other side of the door, each waiting until
she should hear the clock strike five, to prepare tea. But it
was not yet a quarter to five when a one-horse wagon containing
four men came slowly down the street. Dorcas first saw the
wagon, and she instantly stopped knitting.
"Mercy on me!" she exclaimed. "Whoever those people are,
they are strangers here, and they don't know where to stop, for
they first go to one side of the street and then to the other."
The widow looked around sharply. "Humph!" said she. "Those
men are sailormen. You might see that in a twinklin' of an eye.
Sailormen always drive that way, because that is the way they
sail ships. They first tack in one direction and then in
"Mr. Ducket didn't like the sea?" remarked Dorcas, for about
the three hundredth time.
"No, he didn't," answered the widow, for about the two
hundred and fiftieth time, for there had been occasions when she
thought Dorcas put this question inopportunely. "He hated it,
and he was drowned in it through trustin' a sailorman, which I
never did nor shall. Do you really believe those men are comin'
"Upon my word I do!" said Dorcas, and her opinion was
The wagon drew up in front of Mrs. Ducket's little white
house, and the two women sat rigidly, their hands in their laps,
staring at the man who drove.
This was an elderly personage with whitish hair, and under
his chin a thin whitish beard, which waved in the gentle breeze
and gave Dorcas the idea that his head was filled with hair which
was leaking out from below.
"Is this the Widow Ducket's?" inquired this elderly man, in a
strong, penetrating voice.
"That's my name," said the widow, and laying her knitting on
the bench beside her, she went to the gate. Dorcas also laid her
knitting on the bench beside her and went to the gate.
"I was told," said the elderly man, "at a house we touched at
about a quarter of a mile back, that the Widow Ducket's was the
only house in this village where there was any chance of me and
my mates getting a meal. We are four sailors, and we are making
from the bay over to Cuppertown, and that's eight miles ahead
yet, and we are all pretty sharp set for something to eat."
"This is the place," said the widow, "and I do give meals if
there is enough in the house and everything comes handy."
"Does everything come handy to-day?" said he.
"It does," said she, "and you can hitch your horse and come
in; but I haven't got anything for him."
"Oh, that's all right," said the man, "we brought along
stores for him, so we'll just make fast and then come in."
The two women hurried into the house in a state of bustling
preparation, for the furnishing of this meal meant one dollar in
The four mariners, all elderly men, descended from the wagon,
each one scrambling with alacrity over a different wheel.
A box of broken ship-biscuit was brought out and put on the
ground in front of the horse, who immediately set himself to
eating with great satisfaction.
Tea was a little late that day, because there were six
persons to provide for instead of two, but it was a good meal,
and after the four seamen had washed their hands and faces at the
pump in the back yard and had wiped them on two towels furnished
by Dorcas, they all came in and sat down. Mrs. Ducket seated
herself at the head of the table with the dignity proper to the
mistress of the house, and Dorcas seated herself at the other end
with the dignity proper to the disciple of the mistress. No
service was necessary, for everything that was to be eaten or
drunk was on the table.
When each of the elderly mariners had had as much bread
and butter, quickly baked soda-biscuit, dried beef, cold ham,
cold tongue, and preserved fruit of every variety known, as his
storage capacity would permit, the mariner in command, Captain
Bird, pushed back his chair, whereupon the other mariners pushed
back their chairs.
"Madam," said Captain Bird, "we have all made a good meal,
which didn't need to be no better nor more of it, and we're
satisfied; but that horse out there has not had time to rest
himself enough to go the eight miles that lies ahead of us, so,
if it's all the same to you and this good lady, we'd like to sit
on that front porch awhile and smoke our pipes. I was a-looking
at that porch when I came in, and I bethought to myself what a
rare good place it was to smoke a pipe in."
"There's pipes been smoked there," said the widow, rising,
"and it can be done again. Inside the house I don't allow
tobacco, but on the porch neither of us minds."
So the four captains betook themselves to the porch, two of
them seating themselves on the little bench on one side of the
door, and two of them on the little bench on the other side of
the door, and lighted their pipes.
"Shall we clear off the table and wash up the dishes," said
Dorcas, "or wait until they are gone?"
"We will wait until they are gone," said the widow, "for now
that they are here we might as well have a bit of a chat with
them. When a sailorman lights his pipe he is generally willin'
to talk, but when he is eatin' you can't get a word out of him."
Without thinking it necessary to ask permission, for the
house belonged to her, the Widow Ducket brought a chair and
put it in the hall close to the open front door, and Dorcas
brought another chair and seated herself by the side of the
"Do all you sailormen belong down there at the bay?" asked
Mrs. Ducket; thus the conversation began, and in a few minutes it
had reached a point at which Captain Bird thought it proper to
say that a great many strange things happen to seamen sailing on
the sea which lands-people never dream of.
"Such as anything in particular?" asked the widow, at which
remark Dorcas clasped her hands in expectancy.
At this question each of the mariners took his pipe from his
mouth and gazed upon the floor in thought.
"There's a good many strange things happened to me and my
mates at sea. Would you and that other lady like to hear any of
them?" asked Captain Bird.
"We would like to hear them if they are true," said the
"There's nothing happened to me and my mates that isn't
true," said Captain Bird, "and here is something that once
happened to me: I was on a whaling v'yage when a big sperm-
whale, just as mad as a fiery bull, came at us, head on, and
struck the ship at the stern with such tremendous force that his
head crashed right through her timbers and he went nearly half
his length into her hull. The hold was mostly filled with empty
barrels, for we was just beginning our v'yage, and when he had
made kindling-wood of these there was room enough for him. We
all expected that it wouldn't take five minutes for the vessel to
fill and go to the bottom, and we made ready to take to the
boats; but it turned out we didn't need to take to no boats,
for as fast as the water rushed into the hold of the ship, that
whale drank it and squirted it up through the two blow-holes in
the top of his head, and as there was an open hatchway just over
his head, the water all went into the sea again, and that whale
kept working day and night pumping the water out until we beached
the vessel on the island of Trinidad--the whale helping us
wonderful on our way over by the powerful working of his tail,
which, being outside in the water, acted like a propeller. I
don't believe any thing stranger than that ever happened to a
"No," said the widow, "I don't believe anything ever did."
Captain Bird now looked at Captain Sanderson, and the latter
took his pipe out of his mouth and said that in all his sailing
around the world he had never known anything queerer than what
happened to a big steamship he chanced to be on, which ran into
an island in a fog. Everybody on board thought the ship was
wrecked, but it had twin screws, and was going at such a
tremendous speed that it turned the island entirely upside down
and sailed over it, and he had heard tell that even now people
sailing over the spot could look down into the water and see the
roots of the trees and the cellars of the houses.
Captain Sanderson now put his pipe back into his mouth, and
Captain Burress took out his pipe.
"I was once in an obelisk-ship," said he, "that used to trade
regular between Egypt and New York, carrying obelisks. We had a
big obelisk on board. The way they ship obelisks is to make a
hole in the stern of the ship, and run the obelisk in, p'inted
end foremost; and this obelisk filled up nearly the whole of
that ship from stern to bow. We was about ten days out, and
sailing afore a northeast gale with the engines at full speed,
when suddenly we spied breakers ahead, and our Captain saw we was
about to run on a bank. Now if we hadn't had an obelisk on board
we might have sailed over that bank, but the captain knew that
with an obelisk on board we drew too much water for this, and
that we'd be wrecked in about fifty-five seconds if something
wasn't done quick. So he had to do something quick, and this is
what he did: He ordered all steam on, and drove slam-bang on
that bank. Just as he expected, we stopped so suddint that that
big obelisk bounced for'ard, its p'inted end foremost, and went
clean through the bow and shot out into the sea. The minute it
did that the vessel was so lightened that it rose in the water
and we easily steamed over the bank. There was one man knocked
overboard by the shock when we struck, but as soon as we missed
him we went back after him and we got him all right. You see,
when that obelisk went overboard, its butt-end, which was
heaviest, went down first, and when it touched the bottom it just
stood there, and as it was such a big obelisk there was about
five and a half feet of it stuck out of the water. The man who
was knocked overboard he just swum for that obelisk and he
climbed up the hiryglyphics. It was a mighty fine obelisk, and
the Egyptians had cut their hiryglyphics good and deep, so that
the man could get hand and foot-hold; and when we got to him and
took him off, he was sitting high and dry on the p'inted end of
that obelisk. It was a great pity about the obelisk, for it was
a good obelisk, but as I never heard the company tried to
raise it, I expect it is standing there yet."
Captain Burress now put his pipe back into his mouth and
looked at Captain Jenkinson, who removed his pipe and said:
"The queerest thing that ever happened to me was about a
shark. We was off the Banks, and the time of year was July, and
the ice was coming down, and we got in among a lot of it. Not
far away, off our weather bow, there was a little iceberg which
had such a queerness about it that the captain and three men went
in a boat to look at it. The ice was mighty clear ice, and you
could see almost through it, and right inside of it, not more
than three feet above the waterline, and about two feet, or maybe
twenty inches, inside the ice, was a whopping big shark, about
fourteen feet long,--a regular man-eater,--frozen in there hard
and fast. `Bless my soul,' said the captain, `this is a
wonderful curiosity, and I'm going to git him out.' Just then
one of the men said he saw that shark wink, but the captain
wouldn't believe him, for he said that shark was frozen stiff and
hard and couldn't wink. You see, the captain had his own idees
about things, and he knew that whales was warm-blooded and would
freeze if they was shut up in ice, but he forgot that sharks was
not whales and that they're cold-blooded just like toads. And
there is toads that has been shut up in rocks for thousands of
years, and they stayed alive, no matter how cold the place was,
because they was cold-blooded, and when the rocks was split, out
hopped the frog. But, as I said before, the captain forgot
sharks was cold-blooded, and he determined to git that one
"Now you both know, being housekeepers, that if you take a
needle and drive it into a hunk of ice you can split it. The
captain had a sail-needle with him, and so he drove it into the
iceberg right alongside of the shark and split it. Now the
minute he did it he knew that the man was right when he said he
saw the shark wink, for it flopped out of that iceberg quicker
nor a flash of lightning."
"What a happy fish he must have been!" ejaculated Dorcas,
forgetful of precedent, so great was her emotion.
"Yes," said Captain Jenkinson, "it was a happy fish enough,
but it wasn't a happy captain. You see, that shark hadn't had
anything to eat, perhaps for a thousand years, until the captain
came along with his sail-needle."
"Surely you sailormen do see strange things," now said the
widow, "and the strangest thing about them is that they are
"Yes, indeed," said Dorcas, "that is the most wonderful
"You wouldn't suppose," said the Widow Ducket, glancing from
one bench of mariners to the other, "that I have a sea-story to
tell, but I have, and if you like I will tell it to you."
Captain Bird looked up a little surprised.
"We would like to hear it--indeed, we would, madam," said he.
"Ay, ay!" said Captain Burress, and the two other mariners
"It was a good while ago," she said, "when I was living on
the shore near the head of the bay, that my husband was away and
I was left alone in the house. One mornin' my sister-in-law,
who lived on the other side of the bay, sent me word by a boy on
a horse that she hadn't any oil in the house to fill the lamp
that she always put in the window to light her husband home, who
was a fisherman, and if I would send her some by the boy she
would pay me back as soon as they bought oil. The boy said he
would stop on his way home and take the oil to her, but he never
did stop, or perhaps he never went back, and about five o'clock I
began to get dreadfully worried, for I knew if that lamp wasn't
in my sister-in-law's window by dark she might be a widow before
midnight. So I said to myself, `I've got to get that oil to her,
no matter what happens or how it's done.' Of course I couldn't
tell what might happen, but there was only one way it could be
done, and that was for me to get into the boat that was tied to
the post down by the water, and take it to her, for it was too
far for me to walk around by the head of the bay. Now, the
trouble was, I didn't know no more about a boat and the managin'
of it than any one of you sailormen knows about clear starchin'.
But there wasn't no use of thinkin' what I knew and what I didn't
know, for I had to take it to her, and there was no way of doin'
it except in that boat. So I filled a gallon can, for I thought
I might as well take enough while I was about it, and I went down
to the water and I unhitched that boat and I put the oil-can into
her, and then I got in, and off I started, and when I was about a
quarter of a mile from the shore--"
"Madam," interrupted Captain Bird, "did you row or--or was
there a sail to the boat?"
The widow looked at the questioner for a moment. "No,"
said she, "I didn't row. I forgot to bring the oars from the
house; but it didn't matter, for I didn't know how to use them,
and if there had been a sail I couldn't have put it up, for I
didn't know how to use it, either. I used the rudder to make the
boat go. The rudder was the only thing I knew anything about.
I'd held a rudder when I was a little girl, and I knew how to
work it. So I just took hold of the handle of the rudder and
turned it round and round, and that made the boat go ahead, you
"Madam!" exclaimed Captain Bird, and the other elderly
mariners took their pipes from their mouths.
"Yes, that is the way I did it," continued the widow,
briskly. "Big steamships are made to go by a propeller turning
round and round at their back ends, and I made the rudder work in
the same way, and I got along very well, too, until suddenly,
when I was about a quarter of a mile from the shore, a most
terrible and awful storm arose. There must have been a typhoon
or a cyclone out at sea, for the waves came up the bay bigger
than houses, and when they got to the head of the bay they turned
around and tried to get out to sea again. So in this way they
continually met, and made the most awful and roarin' pilin' up of
waves that ever was known.
"My little boat was pitched about as if it had been a feather
in a breeze, and when the front part of it was cleavin' itself
down into the water the hind part was stickin' up until the
rudder whizzed around like a patent churn with no milk in it.
The thunder began to roar and the lightnin' flashed, and three
seagulls, so nearly frightened to death that they began to turn
up the whites of their eyes, flew down and sat on one of the
seats of the boat, forgettin' in that awful moment that man was
their nat'ral enemy. I had a couple of biscuits in my pocket,
because I had thought I might want a bite in crossing, and I
crumbled up one of these and fed the poor creatures. Then I
began to wonder what I was goin' to do, for things were gettin'
awfuller and awfuller every instant, and the little boat was a-
heavin' and a-pitchin' and a-rollin' and h'istin' itself up,
first on one end and then on the other, to such an extent that if
I hadn't kept tight hold of the rudder-handle I'd slipped off the
seat I was sittin' on.
"All of a sudden I remembered that oil in the can; but just
as I was puttin' my fingers on the cork my conscience smote me.
`Am I goin' to use this oil,' I said to myself, `and let my
sister-in-law's husband be wrecked for want of it?' And then I
thought that he wouldn't want it all that night, and perhaps they
would buy oil the next day, and so I poured out about a
tumblerful of it on the water, and I can just tell you sailormen
that you never saw anything act as prompt as that did. In three
seconds, or perhaps five, the water all around me, for the
distance of a small front yard, was just as flat as a table and
as smooth as glass, and so invitin' in appearance that the three
gulls jumped out of the boat and began to swim about on it,
primin' their feathers and lookin' at themselves in the
transparent depths, though I must say that one of them made an
awful face as he dipped his bill into the water and tasted
"Now I had time to sit quiet in the midst of the placid space
I had made for myself, and rest from workin' of the rudder.
Truly it was a wonderful and marvellous thing to look at. The
waves was roarin' and leapin' up all around me higher than the
roof of this house, and sometimes their tops would reach over so
that they nearly met and shut out all view of the stormy sky,
which seemed as if it was bein' torn to pieces by blazin'
lightnin', while the thunder pealed so tremendous that it almost
drowned the roar of the waves. Not only above and all around me
was every thing terrific and fearful, but even under me it was
the same, for there was a big crack in the bottom of the boat as
wide as my hand, and through this I could see down into the water
beneath, and there was--"
"Madam!" ejaculated Captain Bird, the hand which had been
holding his pipe a few inches from his mouth now dropping to his
knee; and at this motion the hands which held the pipes of the
three other mariners dropped to their knees.
"Of course it sounds strange," continued the widow, "but I
know that people can see down into clear water, and the water
under me was clear, and the crack was wide enough for me to see
through, and down under me was sharks and swordfishes and other
horrible water creatures, which I had never seen before, all
driven into the bay, I haven't a doubt, by the violence of the
storm out at sea. The thought of my bein' upset and fallin' in
among those monsters made my very blood run cold, and
involuntary-like I began to turn the handle of the rudder, and in
a moment I shot into a wall of ragin' sea-water that was towerin'
around me. For a second I was fairly blinded and stunned, but I
had the cork out of that oil-can in no time, and very soon--you'd
scarcely believe it if I told you how soon--I had another placid
mill-pond surroundin' of me. I sat there a-pantin' and fannin'
with my straw hat, for you'd better believe I was flustered, and
then I began to think how long it would take me to make a line of
mill-ponds clean across the head of the bay, and how much oil it
would need, and whether I had enough. So I sat and calculated
that if a tumblerful of oil would make a smooth place about seven
yards across, which I should say was the width of the one I was
in,--which I calculated by a measure of my eye as to how many
breadths of carpet it would take to cover it,--and if the bay was
two miles across betwixt our house and my sister-in-law's, and,
although I couldn't get the thing down to exact figures, I saw
pretty soon that I wouldn't have oil enough to make a level
cuttin' through all those mountainous billows, and besides, even
if I had enough to take me across, what would be the good of
goin' if there wasn't any oil left to fill my sister-in-law's
"While I was thinkin' and calculatin' a perfectly dreadful
thing happened, which made me think if I didn't get out of this
pretty soon I'd find myself in a mighty risky predicament. The
oil-can, which I had forgotten to put the cork in, toppled over,
and before I could grab it every drop of the oil ran into the
hind part of the boat, where it was soaked up by a lot of dry
dust that was there. No wonder my heart sank when I saw this.
Glancin' wildly around me, as people will do when they are
scared, I saw the smooth place I was in gettin' smaller and
smaller, for the kerosene was evaporatin', as it will do even off
woollen clothes if you give it time enough. The first pond I had
come out of seemed to be covered up, and the great, towerin',
throbbin' precipice of sea-water was a-closin' around me.
"Castin' down my eyes in despair, I happened to look through
the crack in the bottom of the boat, and oh, what a blessed
relief it was! for down there everything was smooth and still,
and I could see the sand on the bottom, as level and hard, no
doubt, as it was on the beach. Suddenly the thought struck me
that that bottom would give me the only chance I had of gettin'
out of the frightful fix I was in. If I could fill that oil-can
with air, and then puttin' it under my arm and takin' a long
breath if I could drop down on that smooth bottom, I might run
along toward shore, as far as I could, and then, when I felt my
breath was givin' out, I could take a pull at the oil-can and
take another run, and then take another pull and another run, and
perhaps the can would hold air enough for me until I got near
enough to shore to wade to dry land. To be sure, the sharks and
other monsters were down there, but then they must have been
awfully frightened, and perhaps they might not remember that man
was their nat'ral enemy. Anyway, I thought it would be better to
try the smooth water passage down there than stay and be
swallowed up by the ragin' waves on top.
"So I blew the can full of air and corked it, and then I tore
up some of the boards from the bottom of the boat so as to make a
hole big enough for me to get through,--and you sailormen needn't
wriggle so when I say that, for you all know a divin'-bell hasn't
any bottom at all and the water never comes in,--and so when I
got the hole big enough I took the oil-can under my arm, and
was just about to slip down through it when I saw an awful turtle
a-walkin' through the sand at the bottom. Now, I might trust
sharks and swordfishes and sea-serpents to be frightened and
forget about their nat'ral enemies, but I never could trust a
gray turtle as big as a cart, with a black neck a yard long, with
yellow bags to its jaws, to forget anything or to remember
anything. I'd as lieve get into a bath-tub with a live crab as
to go down there. It wasn't of no use even so much as thinkin'
of it, so I gave up that plan and didn't once look through that
"And what did you do, madam?" asked Captain Bird, who was
regarding her with a face of stone.
"I used electricity," she said. "Now don't start as if you
had a shock of it. That's what I used. When I was younger than
I was then, and sometimes visited friends in the city, we often
amused ourselves by rubbing our feet on the carpet until we got
ourselves so full of electricity that we could put up our fingers
and light the gas. So I said to myself that if I could get full
of electricity for the purpose of lightin' the gas I could get
full of it for other purposes, and so, without losin' a moment, I
set to work. I stood up on one of the seats, which was dry, and
I rubbed the bottoms of my shoes backward and forward on it with
such violence and swiftness that they pretty soon got warm and I
began fillin' with electricity, and when I was fully charged with
it from my toes to the top of my head, I just sprang into the
water and swam ashore. Of course I couldn't sink, bein' full of
Captain Bird heaved a long sigh and rose to his feet,
whereupon the other mariners rose to their feet "Madam," said
Captain Bird, "what's to pay for the supper and--the rest of the
"The supper is twenty-five cents apiece," said the Widow
Ducket, "and everything else is free, gratis."
Whereupon each mariner put his hand into his trousers pocket,
pulled out a silver quarter, and handed it to the widow. Then,
with four solemn "Good evenin's," they went out to the front
"Cast off, Captain Jenkinson," said Captain Bird, "and you,
Captain Burress, clew him up for'ard. You can stay in the bow,
Captain Sanderson, and take the sheet-lines. I'll go aft."
All being ready, each of the elderly mariners clambered over
a wheel, and having seated themselves, they prepared to lay their
course for Cuppertown.
But just as they were about to start, Captain Jenkinson asked
that they lay to a bit, and clambering down over his wheel, he
reentered the front gate and went up to the door of the house,
where the widow and Dorcas were still standing.
"Madam," said he, "I just came back to ask what became of
your brother-in-law through his wife's not bein' able to put no
light in the window?"
"The storm drove him ashore on our side of the bay," said
she, "and the next mornin' he came up to our house, and I told
him all that had happened to me. And when he took our boat and
went home and told that story to his wife, she just packed up and
went out West, and got divorced from him. And it served him
"Thank you, ma'am," said Captain Jenkinson, and going out
of the gate, he clambered up over the wheel, and the wagon
cleared for Cuppertown.
When the elderly mariners were gone, the Widow Ducket, still
standing in the door, turned to Dorcas.
"Think of it!" she said. "To tell all that to me, in my own
house! And after I had opened my one jar of brandied peaches,
that I'd been keepin' for special company!"
"In your own house!" ejaculated Dorcas. "And not one of them
brandied peaches left!"
The widow jingled the four quarters in her hand before she
slipped them into her pocket.
"Anyway, Dorcas," she remarked, "I think we can now say we
are square with all the world, and so let's go in and wash the
"Yes," said Dorcas, "we're square."