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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Frances Lee Pratt

Captain Ben’s Choice

AN OLD red house on a rocky shore, with a fisherman’s blue boat rocking on the bay, and two white sails glistening far away over the water. Above, the blue, shining sky; and below, the blue, shining sea.

“It seems clever to have a pleasant day,” said Mrs. Davids, sighing.

Mrs. Davids said everything with a sigh, and now she wiped her eyes also on her calico apron. She was a woman with a complexion like faded seaweed, who seemed always pitying herself.

“I tell them,” said she, “I have had real hard luck. My husband is buried off in California, and my son died in the army and is buried down South. Neither one of them is buried together.”

Then she sighed again. Twice, this time.

“And so,” she continued, taking out a pinch of bayberry snuff, “I am left alone in the world. Alone, I say! Why, I’ve got a daughter, but she is away out West. She is married to an engineer-man. And I’ve got two grandchildren.”

Mrs. Davids took the pinch of bayberry and shook her head, looking as though that was the “hardest luck” of all.

“Well, everybody has to have their pesters, and you’ll have to take yours,” rejoined Miss Persis Tame, taking a pinch of snuff—the real maccaboy—twice as large, with twice as fierce an action. “I don’t know what it is to bury children, nor to lose a husband; I s’pose I don’t; but I know what it is to be jammed round the world and not have a ruff to stick my head under. I wish I had all the money I ever spent traveling—and that’s twelve dollars,” she continued regretfully.

“Why in the world don’t you marry and have a home of your own?” sighed Mrs. Davids.

“Well, I don’t expect to marry. I don’t know as I do, at my time of life,” responded the spinster. “I rather guess my day for chances is gone by.”

“You ain’t such a dreadful sight older than I am, though,” replied Mrs. Davids reflectively.

“Not so old by two full years,” returned Miss Tame, taking another smart pinch of snuff, as though it touched the empty spot in her heart and did it good. “But you ain’t looking out for opportunities yet, I suppose.”

Mrs. Davids sighed evasively. “We can’t tell what is before us. There is more than one man in want of a wife.”

As though to point her words, Captain Ben Lundy came in sight on the beach, his head a long way forward, and his shambling feet trying in vain to keep up.

“Thirteen months and a half since Lyddy was buried,” continued Mrs. Davids, accepting this application to her words, “and there is Captain Ben taking up with just what housekeeper he can get, and no housekeeper at all. It would be an excellent home for you, Persis. Captain Ben always had the name of making a kind husband.”

She sighed again, whether from regret for the bereaved man or for the multitude of women bereft of such a husband.

By this time Captain Ben’s head was at the door.

“Morning!” said he, while his feet were coming up. “Quite an accident down here below the lighthouse last night. Schooner ran ashore in the blow and broke all up into kindling-wood in less than no time. Captain Tisdale’s been out looking for dead bodies ever since daylight.”

“I knowed it,” sighed Mrs. Davids. “I heard a rushing sound some time about the break of day that waked me out of a sound sleep, and I knowed then there was a spirit leaving its body. I heard it the night Davids went, or I expect I did. It must have been very nearly at that time.”

“Well, I guess it wasn’t a spirit last night,” said Captain Ben; “for, as I was going on to say, after searching back and forth, Captain Tisdale came upon the folks, a man and a boy, rolled up in their wet blankets asleep behind the lifeboat house. He said he felt like he could shake them for staying out in the wet. Wrecks always make for the lighthouse, so he s’posed those ones were drowned to death, sure enough.”

“Oh, then it couldn’t have been them I was warned of!” returned Mrs. Davids, looking as though she regretted it. “It was right over my head, and I waked up just as the thing was rushing past. You haven’t heard, have you,” she continued, “whether or no there was any other damage done by the gale?”

“I don’t know whether you would call it damage exactly,” returned Captain Ben, “but Loizah Mullers got so scared she left me and went home. She said she couldn’t stay and run the chance of another of our coast blows, and off she trapsed.”

Mrs. Davids sighed like November. “So you have some hard luck as well as myself. I don’t suppose you can get a housekeeper to keep her long,” said she dismally.

“Abel Grimes tells me it is enough sight easier getting wives than housekeepers, and I’m some of a mind to try that tack,” replied Captain Ben, smiling grimly.

Mrs. Davids put up her hand to feel of her hair, and smoothed down her apron; while Miss Persis Tame blushed like a withered rose and turned her eyes modestly out of the window.

“I am so. But the difficulty is, who will it be? There are so many to select from, it is fairly bothersome,” continued Captain Ben, winking fast and looking as though he was made of dry corn-cobs and hay.

Miss Persis Tame turned about abruptly. “The land alive!” she ejaculated with such sudden emphasis that the dishes shook on their shelves and Captain Ben in his chair. “It makes me mad as a March hare to hear men go on as though all they’d got to do was to throw down their handkerchers to a woman, and, no matter who, she’d spring and run to pick it up. It is always ‘Who will I marry?’ and not ‘Who will marry me?’”

“Why, there is twice the number of widders that there is of widderers here at the P’int. That was what was in my mind,” said Captain Ben, in a tone of meek apology. “There is the Widow Keens, she that was Azubah Muchmore. I don’t know but what she would do. Lyddy used to think everything of her, and she is a first rate of a housekeeper.”

“Perhaps so,” assented Mrs. Davids dubiously. “But she is troubled a sight with the head complaint. I suppose you know she is. That is against her.”

“Yes,” assented Miss Tame. “The Muchmores all have weak heads. And, too, the Widow Keens, she’s had a fall lately. She was up in a chair cleaning her top buttery shelf, and somehow one of the chair legs give way—it was loose, or something, I expect—and down she went her whole heft. She keeps about, but she goes with two staves.”

“I want to know if that is so,” said Captain Ben, his honest soul warming with sudden sympathy. “The widder has seen a sight of trouble.”

“Yes, she has lived through a good deal, that woman has. I couldn’t live through so much, ’pears to me. But we don’t know what we can live through,” rejoined Miss Tame.

Captain Ben did not reply, but his ready feet began to move to and fro restlessly; for his heart, more ready yet, had already gone out toward the unfortunate widow.

“It is so bad for a woman to be alone,” said he to himself, shambling along the shingly beach a moment after. “Nobody to mend her chairs or split up her kindlings, or do a chore for her; and she lame into the bargain. It is too bad.”

“He has steered straight for the Widow Keens’s as sure as A is apple-dumpling,” remarked Miss Persis, peering after him from the window.

“Well, I must admit I wouldn’t have thought of Captain Ben’s being en-a-mored after such a sickly piece of business. But men never know what they want. Won’t you just hand me that gum-cam-phyer bottle, now you are up? It is on that chest of drawers behind you.”

“No more they don’t,” returned Miss Tame, with a plaintive cadence, taking a sniff from the camphor bottle on the way. “However, I don’t begrutch him to her—I don’t know as I do. It will make her a good hum, though, if she concludes to make arrangements.”

Meantime, Captain Ben Lundy’s head was well-nigh to Mrs. Keens’s door, for it was situated only around the first sand-hill. She lived in a little bit of a house that looked as though it had been knocked together for a crockery-crate, in the first place, with two windows and a rude door thrown in as afterthoughts. In the rear of this house was another tiny building something like a grown-up hen-coop; and this was where Mrs. Keens carried on the business bequeathed to her by her deceased husband, along with five small children and one not so small, but, worse than that, one who was “not altogether there,” as the English say.

She was about this business now, dressed in a primitive sort of bloomer, with a wash-tub and clothes-wringer before her, and an army of bathing-suits of every kind and color flapping wildly in the fresh sea air at one side.

From a little farther on, mingling with the sound of the beating surf, came the merry voices of bathers—boarders at the great hotels on the hill.

“Here you be! Hard at it!” said Captain Ben, puffing around the corner like a portable west wind. “I’ve understood you’ve had a hurt. Is that so?”

“Oh, no! Nothing to mention,” returned Mrs. Keens, turning about a face bright and cheerful as the full moon; and throwing, as by accident, a red bathing-suit, over the two broomsticks that leaned against her tub.

Unlike Mrs. Davids, Mrs. Keens neither pitied herself nor would allow anybody else to do so.

“Sho!” remarked Captain Ben, feeling defrauded. He had counted on sacrificing himself to his sympathies, but he didn’t give up yet. “You must see some pretty tough times, ’pears to me, with such a parcel of little ones, and only yourself to look to,” said he, proceeding awkwardly enough to hang the pile of wrung-out clothes upon an empty line.

“I don’t complain,” returned the widow bravely. “My children are not teusome; and Jack, why, you would be surprised to see how many things Jack can do, for all he isn’t quite right.”

As she spoke thus with affectionate pride, Jack came up from the beach wheeling a roughly made cart filled with wet bathing-clothes. He looked up at sound of his mother’s voice with something of the dumb tenderness of an intelligent dog. “Jack helps; Jack good boy,” said he, nodding with a happy smile.

“Yes, Jack helps. We don’t complain,” repeated the mother.

“It would come handy, though, to have a man around to see to things and kind o’ provide, wouldn’t it, though?” persisted Captain Ben.

“Some might think so,” replied Mrs. Keens, stopping her wringer to reflect a little. “But I haven’t any wish to change my situation,” she added decidedly, going on again with her work.

“Sure on’t?” persisted the captain.

“Certain,” replied the widow.

Captain Ben sighed. “I thought maybe you was having a hard row to hoe, and I thought like enough——”

What he never said, excepting by a beseeching glance at the cheerful widow, for just then an interruption came from some people after bathing-suits.

So Captain Ben moved off with a dismal countenance. But before he had gone far it suddenly brightened. “It might not be for the best,” quoth he to himself. “Like enough not. I was very careful not to commit myself, and I am very glad I didn’t.” He smiled as he reflected on his judicious wariness. “But, however,” he continued, “I might as well finish up this business now. There is Rachel Doolittle. Who knows but she’d make a likely wife? Lyddy sot a good deal by her. She never had a quilting or a sewing bee but what nothing would do but she must give Rachel Doolittle an invite. Yes; I wonder I never decided on her before. She will be glad of a home, sure enough, for she haves to live around, as it were, upon her brothers.”

Captain Ben’s feet quickened themselves at these thoughts, and had almost overtaken his head, when behold! at a sudden turn in the road there stood Miss Rachel Doolittle, picking barberries from a wayside bush. “My sakes! If she ain’t right here, like Rachel in the Bible!” ejaculated Captain Ben, taking heart at the omen.

Miss Doolittle looked up from under her tied-down brown hat in surprise at such a salutation. But her surprise was increased by Captain Ben’s next remark.

“It just came into my mind,” said he, “that you was the right one to take Lyddy’s place. You two used to be such great knit-ups, that it will seem ’most like having Lyddy back again. No,” he continued, after a little reflection, “I don’t know of anybody I had rather see sitting in Lyddy’s chair and wearing Lyddy’s things than yourself.”

“Dear me, Captain Lundy, I couldn’t think of it. Paul’s folks expect me to stay with them while the boarder season lasts, and I’ve as good as promised Jacob’s wife I’ll spend the winter with her.”

“Ain’t that a hard life you are laying out for yourself? And then bum-by you will get old or sick maybe, and who is going to want you around then? Every woman needs a husband of her own to take care of her.”

“I’m able to take care of myself as yet, thanks to goodness! And I am not afraid my brothers will see me suffer in case of sickness,” returned Miss Doolittle, her cheeks flaming up like a sumach in October.

“But hadn’t you better take a little time to think it over? Maybe it come sudden to you,” pleaded Captain Ben.

“No, I thank you. Some things don’t need thinking over,” answered Miss Doolittle, plucking at the barberries more diligently than ever.

“I wish Lyddy was here. She would convince you you were standing in your own light,” returned Lyddy’s widower in a perplexed tone.

“I don’t need one to come from the dead to show me my own mind,” retorted Miss Doolittle firmly.

“Well, like enough you are right,” said Captain Ben mildly, putting a few stems of barberries in her pail; “maybe it wouldn’t be best. I don’t want to be rash.” And with that he moved off, on the whole congratulating himself he had not decided to marry Miss Doolittle.

“I thought, after she commenced her miserable gift of the gab, that Lyddy used to be free to admit she had a fiery tongue, for all they were such friends. And I’m all for peace myself. I guess, on the whole, maybe she ain’t the one for me, perhaps, and it is as well to look further. Why! What in the world! Well, there! what have I been thinking of? There is Mrs. Davids, as neat as a new cent, and the master hand to save. She is always taking on; and she will be glad enough to have somebody to look out for her. Why, sure enough! And there I was right at her house this very day, and never once thought of her! What an old dunce!”

But, fortunately, this not being a sin of commission, it could be rectified; and directly Captain Ben had turned about and was trotting again toward the red house on the beach.

“Pound for pound of the best white sugar,” he heard Miss Tame say as he neared the door.

“White sugar!” repeated Mrs. Davids, her usual sigh drawn out into a little groan. “White sugar for cramberries! Who ever heard of such a thing? I’ve always considered I did well when I had plenty of brown.”

“Poor creeter!” thought Captain Ben. “How she would enjoy getting into my pantry! Lyddy never complained that she didn’t have enough of everything to do with.”

And in the full ardor of his intended benevolence, he went right in and opened the subject at once. But, to his astonishment, Mrs. Davids refused him. She sighed, but she refused him.

“I’ve seen trouble enough a’ready, without my rushing into more with my eyes wide open,” sighed she.

“Trouble? Why, that is just what I was meaning to save you!” exclaimed the bewildered widower. “Pump right in the house, and stove e’enamost new. And Lyddy never knew what it was to want for a spoonful of sugar or a pound of flour. And such a handy buttery and sink! Lyddy used to say she felt the worst about leaving her buttery of anything.”

“Should thought she would,” answered Mrs. Davids, forgetting to sigh. “However, I can’t say that I feel any hankering after marrying a buttery. I’ve got buttery-room enough here, without the trouble of getting set up in a new place.”

“Just as you say,” returned the rejected. “I ain’t sure as you’d be exactly the one. I was a-thinking of looking for somebody a little younger.”

“Well, here is Persis Tame. Why don’t you bespeak her? She is younger, and she is in need of a good home. I can recommend her, too, as the first rate of a cook,” remarked Mrs. Davids benevolently.

Miss Tame had been sitting a little apart by the open window smiling to herself.

But now she turned about at once. “H’m!” said she, with contempt; “I should rather live under an umbrella tied to a stake than marry for a hum.”

So Captain Ben went home without engaging either wife or housekeeper.

And the first thing he saw was Captain Jacob Doolittle’s old one-eyed horse eating the apples Loizah Mullers had strung and festooned from nails against the house to dry.

The next thing he saw was that, having left a window open, the hens had flown in and gone to housekeeping on their own account. But they were not, like Mrs. Davids, as neat as a new cent, and not, also, such master hands to save.

“Shoo! Shoo! Get out! Go ’long there with you!” cried Captain Ben, waving the dish-cloth and the poker. “I declare for’t! I most hadn’t ought to have left that bread out on the table. They’ve made a pretty mess of it, and it is every speck there is in the house too. Well, I must make a do of potatoes for supper, with a bit of pie and a mouthful of cake.”

Accordingly he went to work building a fire that wouldn’t burn. Then, forgetting the simple matter of dampers, the potatoes wouldn’t bake. The tea-kettle boiled over and cracked the stove, and, after that, boiled dry and cracked itself. Finally the potatoes fell to baking with so much ardor that they overdid it and burned up. And, last of all, the cake-jar and pie-cupboard proved to be entirely empty. Loizah had left on the eve of baking-day.

“The old cat! Well, I’d just as soon live on slapjacks a spell,” said Captain Ben, when he made this discovery.

But even slapjacks palled on his palate, especially when he had them always to cook for himself.

“’Tain’t no way to live, this ain’t,” said he at last. “I’m a good mind to marry as ever I had to eat.”

So he put on his hat and walked out. The first person he met was Miss Persis Tame, who turned her back and fell to picking thoroughwort blossoms as he came up.

“Look a-here,” said he, stopping short, “I’m dreadful put to’t. I can’t get ne’er a wife nor ne’er a housekeeper, and I am e’enamost starved to death. I wish you would consent to marry with me, if you feel as if you could bring your mind to it. I am sure it would have been Lyddy’s wish.”

Miss Tame smelt of the thoroughwort blossoms.

“It comes pretty sudden on me,” she replied. “I hadn’t given the subject any thought. But you are to be pitied in your situation.”

“Yes. And I’m dreadful lonesome. I’ve always been used to having Lyddy to talk over things with, and I miss her a sight. And I don’t know anybody that has her ways more than you have. You are a good deal such a built woman, and you have the same hitch to your shoulders when you walk. You’ve got something the same look to your eyes too; I noticed it last Sunday in meeting-time,” continued the widower anxiously.

“I do feel for you. A man alone is in a deplorable situation,” replied Miss Tame. “I’m sure I’d do anything in my power to help you.”

“Well, marry with me, then. That is what I want. We could be real comfortable together. I’ll go for the license this minute, and we’ll be married right away,” returned the impatient suitor. “You go up to Elder Crane’s, and I’ll meet you there as soon as I can fetch around.”

Then he hurried away, “without giving me a chance to say ‘No,’” said “she that was” Persis Tame, afterward. “So I had to marry with him, as you might say. But I’ve never seen cause to regret it. I’ve got a first rate of a hum, and Captain Ben makes a first rate of a husband. And no hain’t he, I hope, found cause to regret it,” she added, with a touch of wifely pride; “though I do expect he might have had his pick among all the single women at the Point; but out of them all he chose me.”