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Chapter 20

CHAPTER XX

NANTUCKET ENTERTAINS THE GOVERNOR

 

When my friend was not telling sea stories, I was curled up in his library, poring over a mass of scrap books, log books, old letters, etc., of which be had great store. In one of these scrap books, I unearthed the following account of Governor Lincolnís visit to Nantucket before the day of steamboats, written by one of the members of his staff ó no less a personage indeed than Josiah Quincy himself.

My friend regarded the time-stained pages with interest. "Yes," he said, "that was in September, 18f25. The party comprised the Governor, Hezekiah Barnard, Treasurer of State; Aaron Hill, Postmaster of. Boston; Colonel Davis, he who was later the Hon. Josiah Quincy, but was then a young man just out of college, and acting as private secretary to the Governor; Miss Abby Hedge, and three other sprightly and charming young ladies whose names are not given. The party proceeded by stage to Falmouth, on Cape Cod, where they found the Nantucket packet ready to sail, and also a head wind which prevented her doing anything of the sort. ĎOh! those head winds,í exclaims

 

Nantucket Entertains the Governor 

the narrator; Ďwhat plagues they were to those who were in a hurry to leave our harbors, and how steam has lengthened the lives of travelers by sparing them those dreary waits. We had risen at a most uncomfortable hour to post on to Falmouth; and here we might remain a week, unless the wind condescended to blow from some quarter that would allow our vessel to get out of the bay. We accepted this fact with such philosophy as was available, listening the while to the prognostications of the skippers, and frequently gazing at the heavens for such hope or consolation as they might supply. But we were not on this occasion to be tried beyond our strength, for as the sun went down the wind hauled several points, and we were off.

"Concerning the passage, I will only observe that the Nantucket packet, although it carried the ruler of a sovereign State, could by no means transform itself into a royal yacht. We were stowed in narrow bunks in an indiscriminate and vulgar manner, and took such repose as we might till two oíclock in the morning, when a sudden thud, followed by an unpleasant swashing sound about the vesselís sides, brought us to our feet to inquire what had happened. "All right," said the skipper. "Just you lie still till morning; weíre aground on Nantucket Bar. Thatís all." Thus adjured, we thought it best to remain below, till a faint suspicion of dawn struggled into the cabin, and gave us an excuse for coming upon deck. Several whaling-

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ships, anchored outside the harbor, loomed to gigantic proportions in the gray morning. "There is Yankee perseverance for you," exclaimed the Governor. "Would they believe in Europe that a port which annually sends eighty of these whalers to the Pacific has a harbor which a sloop drawing eight feet of water cannot enter?"

"Soon after sunrise the tide lighted us over the bar, and it was not long before two whale-boats were seen pulling sturdily for the packet. In the stern of one sat Mr. Barker Burnell, and in the other Mr. Macy, both leading men to whom the islanders had delegated the duties of reception. And full of modest cordiality was our meeting by the occupants of the boats, and by the crowd of citizens who had assembled upon the shore to see the Governor land. There was no pushing or vulgar staring; indeed, there was a certain pervading air of diffidence, by no means characteristic of street assemblies upon the continent; but the heartiest goodwill beamed from sober faces, when the long spell was broken and the Executive fairly stood upon Nantucket sands.

"As there was no house sufficiently capacious to accommodate our party, it was divided among the hospitable inhabitants, the Governor and Colonel Davis being entertained by Mr. Macy, Treasurer Barnard by Mr. Hill, and the youngest aide-de-camp by Mr. Burnell. And then came visits to the whale-ships and the spermaceti works, dinners and evening receptions, the latter

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being graced by the presence of very pretty young women. Then on Saturday morning carriages were ordered to take us to Siasconset, that is, it will sound better to call them carriages, but they were in fact springless tip-carts very like those used at the present day for the carting of gravel. The ancient Romans, when enjoying a triumph, appear to have ridden in two-wheeled vehicles, bearing considerable resemblance to that in which our Massachusetts chieftain passed through the admiring streets of Nantucket. But none of these old heroes balanced himself more deftly in his chariot, took its jolts with more equanimity, or bowed more graciously to the populace, than did good Governor Lincoln when undergoing his transportation by tip-cart. There are some personalities which seem to supply their own pageantry. Mr. Pickwick is not extinguished even when trundled in a wheelbarrow. The escort, however, rather wilted before they reached Siasconset, and found the noble chowder there prepared for their commander-in-chief very acceptable.

"The Governorís visit may be said to have reached its crisis in a solemn reception at the insurance office, whither repaired all the leading citizens to be presented to their guest. Many of them were old whalers, simple and intelligent, yet with that air of authority which the habit of command exercised in difficult situations is sure to give. Their ruddy health, strong nerves, and abundant energy made one suspect that

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there were some of the finest human qualities which are not to be tested by the examinations of Harvard College. I was introduced to several of these men who had never been on the continent of North America, though they had visited South America and the Pacific islands. I have noted also talking with one Quaker gentleman of sixty, who had seen no other horizon than that which bounds Nantucket. The Friends, being the oldest and most respectable body of Christians, gave their somber color to the town and their thrifty ways to those holding its purse-strings. For instance, when it was complained that Nantucket, the greatest depot of spermaceti and whale oil in the whole world, was likewise its darkest corner in the evening, it was replied that it would be culpably extravagant to consume at home in street lanterns oil that bad been procured for exportation. Moreover, the reckless innovator was invited to impale himself upon one of the horns of this little dilemma: Oil was either high or low. Now, if it was low, the citizens could not afford to pay the tax; but if it was high, the town could not afford to purchase it.

"After the reception we all went to the barber-shop, not to be shaved, but to inspect the collection of South Sea curiosities of which this functionary was the custodian. And here we lingered until it was time to prepare for the grand party in honor of the Governor, which would furnish a brilliant conclusion to his visit.

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This party was given by Mr. Aaron Mitchell, and was said to be the finest in all its appointments that the island had yet known. There was, of course, no dancing, but the number of beautiful and lively young women impressed me as exceeding anything that could be looked for in a similar gathering upon the mainland, and filled me with regrets that we were to sail at daybreak the next morning. My journal relates how I was expressing my feelings in this particular to a bright bevy of these girls when Hezekiah Barnard suddenly joined our group and put in this remark: "Friend, if thou really wishest to tarry on our island, thou hast only to persuade one of these young women to put a black cat under a tub, and surely there will be a head wind to-morrow." This sailorís superstition, of which I had never heard, was the cause of much pleasantry. The ladies united in declaring that there was not a black cat in all Nantucket, they having been smothered under tubs to retain husbands and brothers who were bound for the southern seas. At last Miss Baxter (the prettiest girl in the room, says my record) confessed to the possession of a black kitten. "But then would this do Surely, a very heavy and mature pussy, perhaps even two of them, would be required to keep a Governor against his will." "Yes, but then an aide de-camp would certainly be kept by a kitten, even if it were not weaned, and Miss Baxter had only to dismiss the Governor from her thoughts and concentrate

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them upon his humble attendant, and the charm would work." I do not know whether young people talk in this way now, or whether they are as glad as Miss Baxter and I were to find some topic other than the weather to ring our simple changes on; but I should refrain from personal episodes in this historical epic, which deals with the august movements of the Governor. It is well for us chroniclers to remember that the ego et rex meus way of telling things once got poor Cardinal Wolsey into a good deal of difficulty.

"Wind dead ahead," were the words with which Mr. Burnell called me the next morning. "The Governor must spend Sunday on the island and we will show him a Quaker meeting and Micajah Coffin." An account of both these objects of interest finds its place in my journal. At the Friendsí Society we sat for nearly an hour in absolute silence, and this seemed to me very favorable to reflection and devotional feeling. There was something in the absence of any human expression in the awful presence of the Maker which struck me as a more fitting homage than any words or ceremony could convey. It was only when two women felt themselves moved by the spirit to address the assembly that my feelings underwent a quick revulsion, and I acknowledged that for the majority of Christians, at least, a trained and learned clergy would long be indispensable.

"After meeting, the Governor and his staff paid a visit of ceremony to Micajah Coffin, the oldest and most

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respected citizen of the island. At a time when the rulings of etiquette were far more stringent than at present, it was doubted whether the representative of a sovereign State could properly call upon a private person who had not first waited upon him. Lincolnís decision that this case should be an exception to all general rules was no less creditable to the magistrate than gratifying to the islanders. For good friend Coffin, then past ninety, was at times unable to command his memory, and his friends had not thought it right to subject him to the excitements of the reception at the insurance office. For twenty-two years this venerable man had represented Nantucket in the Massachusetts General Court. In his youth he had worked at carpentering, and gone whaling in a sloop, bringing home on one occasion two hundred barrels of sperm oil, which made its owner a rich man. These latter particulars I learn from Mr. William C. Folger of Nantucket, who remembers Mr. Coffin as a tall old gentleman dressed in the style of a past age. And one thing more Mr. Folger mentions of which the significance will presently appear. Benjamin Coffin, the father of Micajah, was one of Nantucketís best schoolmasters for about half a century. I had been looking in vain through college catalogues to explain a singular circumstance which my journal relates, but the appearance of Benjamin Coffin, the schoolmaster, suggests the true solution of the difficulty. When this

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patriarch of Nantucket was presented to the Governor, it made so little impression upon him that he instantly forgot the presence of the chief Magistrate; and yet a moment afterwards he astonished us with one of those strange feats of memory which show with how tight a grip the mysterious nerve-centers of which we hear so much hold what has been committed to them. For, having a dim consciousness that something out of the common was expected of him, the venerable man turned suddenly upon Postmaster Hill and proceeded to harangue that very modest gentleman in a set Latin speech. It was one of those occurrences which might appear either sad or droll to the bystanders, and I hope it does not reflect upon the good feelings of the party to mention that we found its comic aspect quite irresistible. There was poor Mr. Hill, overcome with mortification at being mistaken for the Governor, and shrinking from fine Latin superlatives which, under this erroneous impression, were discharged at him. And when the Postmaster at the conclusion of the address felt that he was bound in courtesy to make some response (which of course could not be in the vernacular), and could hit upon nothing better than "Oui, Monsieur, je vous remercie," the climax was reached, and even the Governor was forced to give audible expression to his sense of the ridiculous. And thus it was that testimony was given to the good instruction of Master Benjamin Coffin. The father had

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undoubtedly taught his son Latin as a spoken language, as the custom formerly was. The lessons were given in the first half of the eighteenth century, and here am I in the concluding fifth of the nineteenth able to testify to the thoroughness of the teaching.

"Micajah Coffin lived for little more than a year after the visit of Lincoln. "In his old age," says Mr. Folger, "he took an interest in visiting the sick, and aiding them in procuring native plants, suited to cure, or at least to relieve, their various maladies." I learn also that in his rambles about Nantucket, when he met a face that was unknown to him, he was accustomed to stop and give this challenge: "Friend, my name is Micajah Coffin; what is thine?" It was the robust personality of which there was no reason to be ashamed, and testifies to the reasonableness of the high esteem in which his character and services were held.

"Early Monday morning we left Nantucket with a breeze which carried us to New Bedford in six hours. The Governorís reception in that town, the courtesy of the Selectmen, the magnificent hospitalities of the Rotches and Rodmans, my space compels me to omit. One word, however, of the picture presented by the venerable William Rotch, standing between his son and grandson, the elder gentlemen being in their Quaker dresses, and the youngest in the fashionable costume of the day. "You will never see a more ideal representation of extreme age, middle life, and vigorous

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maturity than is given by these three handsome and intelligent men," said Governor Lincoln to me as we left the house. Up to this date at least his prediction has been verified."

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