The Widow's Cruise by Frank Stockton
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 another."
"Mr. Ducket didn't like the sea?" remarked Dorcas, for about the three
"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' here?"
"Upon my word I do!" said Dorcas, and her opinion was correct.
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
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
"Is this the Widow Ducket's?" inquired this elderly man, in a strong,
"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 cash.
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
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."
o 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 widow.
"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
"We would like to hear them if they are true," said the widow.
"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 whaling
"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 out.
"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
"Surely you sailormen do see strange things," now said the widow, "and
the strangest thing about them is that they are true."
"Yes, indeed," said Dorcas, "that is the most wonderful thing."
"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 nodded.
"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 kerosene.
"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 lamp?
"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 hole again."
"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 entertainment?"
"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 gate.
"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
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
"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 right, too."
"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
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 dishes."
"Yes," said Dorcas, "we're square."