David Matson by John G. Whittier
ho 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, more than threescore 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 there 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 Merrimack, 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's 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 the 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 for a long time been 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
roving 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 a ship-carpenter with his father
on the Merrimack; and now he was set at 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 Sabbath, 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 Merrimack, 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.
But one day a handsome middle-aged gentleman, in the dress of one of his
own countrymen, attended by a great officer of the Dey, entered the
ship-yard, and called up before him the American captives. The stranger
was none other than Joel Barlow, Commissioner of the United States to procure the liberation of slaves belonging to that government. He took
the men by the hand as they came up, and told them they were free. As
you might expect, the poor fellows were very grateful; some laughed,
some wept for joy, some shouted and sang, and threw up their caps, while
others, with David Matson among them, knelt down on the chips, and
thanked God for the great deliverance.
“This is a very affecting scene,” said the Commissioner, wiping his
eyes. “I must keep the impression of it for my Columbiad”;—and drawing
out his tablet, he proceeded to write on the spot an apostrophe to
Freedom, which afterwards found a place in his great epic.
David Matson had saved a little money during his captivity, by odd jobs
and work on holidays. He got a passage to Malaga, where he bought a nice
shawl for his wife and a watch for each of his boys. He then went to the
quay, where an American ship was lying just ready to sail for Boston.
Almost the first man he saw on board was Pelatiah Curtis, who had rowed
him down to the port seven years before. He found that his old neighbor
did not know him, so changed was he with his long beard and Moorish
dress, whereupon, without telling his name, he began to put questions
about his old home, and finally asked him if he knew a Mrs. Matson.
“I rather think I do,” said Pelatiah; “she's my wife.”
“Your wife!” cried the other. “She is mine before God and man. I am
David Matson, and she is the mother of my children.”
“And mine too!” said Pelatiah. “I left her with a baby in her arms. If
you are David Matson, your right to her is outlawed; at any rate she is
mine, and I am not the man to give her up.”
“God is great!” said poor David Matson, unconsciously repeating the
familiar words of Moslem submission. “His will be done. I loved her, but
I shall never see her again. Give these, with my blessing, to the good
woman and the boys,” and he handed over, with a sigh, the little bundle
containing the gifts for his wife and children.
He shook hands with his rival. “Pelatiah,” he said, looking back as he
left the ship, “be kind to Anna and my boys.”
“Ay, ay, sir!” responded the sailor in a careless tone. He watched the
poor man passing slowly up the narrow street until out of sight. “It's a
hard case for old David,” he said, helping himself to a fresh cud of
tobacco, “but I'm glad I've seen the last of him.”
When Pelatiah Curtis reached home he told Anna the story of her husband
and laid his gifts in her lap. She did not shriek nor faint, for she was
a healthy woman with strong nerves; but she stole away by herself and
wept bitterly. She lived many years after, but could never be persuaded
to wear the pretty shawl which the husband of her youth had sent as his
farewell gift. There is, however, a tradition that, in accordance with
her dying wish, it was wrapped about her poor old shoulders in the
coffin, and buried with her.
The little old bull's-eye watch, which is still in the possession of one
of her grandchildren, is now all that remains to tell of David
Matson,—the lost man.