Published originally in Our Young Folks, 1865.
WHO of my young friends have read the sorrowful story of “Enoch Arden,” so sweetly and simply told by the great English poet? It is the story of a man who went to sea, leaving behind a sweet young wife and little daughter. He was cast away on a desert island, where he remained several years, when he was discovered and taken off by a passing vessel. Coming back to his native town, he found his wife married to an old playmate, a good man, rich and honored, and with whom she was living happily. The poor man, unwilling to cause her pain and perplexity, resolved not to make himself known to her, and lived and died alone. The poem has reminded me of a very similar story of my own New England neighborhood, which I have often heard, and which I will try to tell, not in poetry, like Alfred Tennyson’s, but in my own poor prose. I can assure my readers that in its main particulars it is a true tale.
One bright summer morning, not more than fourscore years ago, David Matson, with his young wife and his two healthy, barefooted boys, stood on the bank of the river near their dwelling. They were waiting for Pelatiah Curtis to come round the point with his wherry, and take the husband and father to the port, a few miles below. The Lively Turtle was about to sail on a voyage to Spain, and David was to go in her as mate. They stood there in the level morning sunshine talking cheerfully; but had you been near enough, you could have seen tears in Anna Matson’s blue eyes, for she loved her husband and knew there was always danger on the sea. And David’s bluff, cheery voice trembled a little now and then, for the honest sailor loved his snug home on the Merrimac, with the dear wife and her pretty boys. But presently the wherry came alongside, and David was just stepping into it, when he turned back to kiss his wife and children once more.
“In with you, man,” said Pelatiah Curtis. “There is no time for kissing and such fooleries when the tide serves.”
And so they parted. Anna and the boys went back to their home, and David to the Port, whence he sailed off in the Lively Turtle. And months passed, autumn followed summer, and winter the autumn, and then spring came, and anon it was summer on the river-side, and he did not come back. And another year passed, and then the old sailors and fishermen shook their heads solemnly, and, said that the Lively Turtle was a lost ship, and would never come back to port. And poor Anna had her bombazine gown dyed black, and her straw bonnet trimmed in mourning ribbons, and thenceforth she was known only as the Widow Matson.
And how was it all this time with David himself?
Now you must know that the Mohammedan people of Algiers and Tripoli, and Mogadore and Sallee, on the Barbary coast, had been for a long time in the habit of fitting out galleys and armed boats to seize upon the merchant vessels of Christian nations, and make slaves of their crews and passengers, just as men calling themselves Christians in America were sending vessels to Africa to catch black slaves for their plantations. The Lively Turtle fell into the hands of one of these sea- robbers, and the crew were taken to Algiers, and sold in the market place as slaves, poor David Matson among the rest.
When a boy he had learned the trade of ship-carpenter with his father on the Merrimac; and now he was set to work in the dock-yards. His master, who was naturally a kind man, did not overwork him. He had daily his three loaves of bread, and when his clothing was worn out, its place was supplied by the coarse cloth of wool and camel’s hair woven by the Berber women. Three hours before sunset he was released from work, and Friday, which is the Mohammedan Sabhath, was a day of entire rest. Once a year, at the season called Ramadan, he was left at leisure for a whole week. So time went on,–days, weeks, months, and years. His dark hair became gray. He still dreamed of his old home on the Merrimac, and of his good Anna and the boys. He wondered whether they yet lived, what they thought of him, and what they were doing. The hope of ever seeing them again grew fainter and fainter, and at last nearly died out; and he resigned himself to his fate as a slave for life.