David Matson by John G. Whittier

 

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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, 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.