A Message from the Sea by Charles Dickens

"And a mighty sing'lar and pretty place it is, as ever I saw in all the
days of my life!" said Captain Jorgan, looking up at it.

Captain Jorgan had to look high to look at it, for the village was built
sheer up the face of a steep and lofty cliff. There was no road in it,
there was no wheeled vehicle in it, there was not a level yard in it.
From the sea-beach to the cliff-top two irregular rows of white houses,
placed opposite to one another, and twisting here and there, and there
and here, rose, like the sides of a long succession of stages of crooked
ladders, and you climbed up the village or climbed down the village by
the staves between, some six feet wide or so, and made of sharp irregular
stones. The old pack-saddle, long laid aside in most parts of England as
one of the appendages of its infancy, flourished here intact. Strings of
pack-horses and pack-donkeys toiled slowly up the staves of the ladders,
bearing fish, and coal, and such other cargo as was unshipping at the
pier from the dancing fleet of village boats, and from two or three
little coasting traders. As the beasts of burden ascended laden, or
descended light, they got so lost at intervals in the floating clouds of
village smoke, that they seemed to dive down some of the village
chimneys, and come to the surface again far off, high above others. No
two houses in the village were alike, in chimney, size, shape, door,
window, gable, roof-tree, anything. The sides of the ladders were
musical with water, running clear and bright. The staves were musical
with the clattering feet of the pack-horses and pack-donkeys, and the
voices of the fishermen urging them up, mingled with the voices of the
fishermen's wives and their many children. The pier was musical with the
wash of the sea, the creaking of capstans and windlasses, and the airy
fluttering of little vanes and sails. The rough, sea-bleached boulders
of which the pier was made, and the whiter boulders of the shore, were
brown with drying nets. The red-brown cliffs, richly wooded to their
extremest verge, had their softened and beautiful forms reflected in the
bluest water, under the clear North Devonshire sky of a November day
without a cloud. The village itself was so steeped in autumnal foliage,
from the houses lying on the pier to the topmost round of the topmost
ladder, that one might have fancied it was out a bird's-nesting, and was
(as indeed it was) a wonderful climber. And mentioning birds, the place
was not without some music from them too; for the rook was very busy on
the higher levels, and the gull with his flapping wings was fishing in
the bay, and the lusty little robin was hopping among the great stone
blocks and iron rings of the breakwater, fearless in the faith of his
ancestors, and the Children in the Wood.

Thus it came to pass that Captain Jorgan, sitting balancing himself on
the pier-wall, struck his leg with his open hand, as some men do when
they are pleased--and as he always did when he was pleased--and said,--

"A mighty sing'lar and pretty place it is, as ever I saw in all the days
of my life!"

Captain Jorgan had not been through the village, but had come down to the
pier by a winding side-road, to have a preliminary look at it from the
level of his own natural element. He had seen many things and places,
and had stowed them all away in a shrewd intellect and a vigorous memory.
He was an American born, was Captain Jorgan,--a New-Englander,--but he
was a citizen of the world, and a combination of most of the best
qualities of most of its best countries.

For Captain Jorgan to sit anywhere in his long-skirted blue coat and blue
trousers, without holding converse with everybody within speaking
distance, was a sheer impossibility. So the captain fell to talking with
the fishermen, and to asking them knowing questions about the fishery,
and the tides, and the currents, and the race of water off that point
yonder, and what you kept in your eye, and got into a line with what else
when you ran into the little harbour; and other nautical profundities.
Among the men who exchanged ideas with the captain was a young fellow,
who exactly hit his fancy,--a young fisherman of two or three and twenty,
in the rough sea-dress of his craft, with a brown face, dark curling
hair, and bright, modest eyes under his Sou'wester hat, and with a frank,
but simple and retiring manner, which the captain found uncommonly
taking. "I'd bet a thousand dollars," said the captain to himself, "that
your father was an honest man!"

"Might you be married now?" asked the captain, when he had had some talk
with this new acquaintance.

"Not yet."

"Going to be?" said the captain.

"I hope so."

The captain's keen glance followed the slightest possible turn of the
dark eye, and the slightest possible tilt of the Sou'wester hat. The
captain then slapped both his legs, and said to himself,--

"Never knew such a good thing in all my life! There's his sweetheart
looking over the wall!"

There was a very pretty girl looking over the wall, from a little
platform of cottage, vine, and fuchsia; and she certainly dig not look as
if the presence of this young fisherman in the landscape made it any the
less sunny and hopeful for her.

Captain Jorgan, having doubled himself up to laugh with that hearty good-
nature which is quite exultant in the innocent happiness of other people,
had undoubted himself, and was going to start a new subject, when there
appeared coming down the lower ladders of stones, a man whom he hailed as
"Tom Pettifer, Ho!" Tom Pettifer, Ho, responded with alacrity, and in
speedy course descended on the pier.

"Afraid of a sun-stroke in England in November, Tom, that you wear your
tropical hat, strongly paid outside and paper-lined inside, here?" said
the captain, eyeing it.

"It's as well to be on the safe side, sir," replied Tom.

"Safe side!" repeated the captain, laughing. "You'd guard against a sun-
stroke, with that old hat, in an Ice Pack. Wa'al! What have you made
out at the Post-office?"

"It _is_ the Post-office, sir."

"What's the Post-office?" said the captain.

"The name, sir. The name keeps the Post-office."

"A coincidence!" said the captain. "A lucky bit! Show me where it is.
Good-bye, shipmates, for the present! I shall come and have another look
at you, afore I leave, this afternoon."

This was addressed to all there, but especially the young fisherman; so
all there acknowledged it, but especially the young fisherman. "_He's_ a
sailor!" said one to another, as they looked after the captain moving
away. That he was; and so outspeaking was the sailor in him, that
although his dress had nothing nautical about it, with the single
exception of its colour, but was a suit of a shore-going shape and form,
too long in the sleeves and too short in the legs, and too
unaccommodating everywhere, terminating earthward in a pair of Wellington
boots, and surmounted by a tall, stiff hat, which no mortal could have
worn at sea in any wind under heaven; nevertheless, a glimpse of his
sagacious, weather-beaten face, or his strong, brown hand, would have
established the captain's calling. Whereas Mr. Pettifer--a man of a
certain plump neatness, with a curly whisker, and elaborately nautical in
a jacket, and shoes, and all things correspondent--looked no more like a
seaman, beside Captain Jorgan, than he looked like a sea-serpent.

The two climbed high up the village,--which had the most arbitrary turns
and twists in it, so that the cobbler's house came dead across the
ladder, and to have held a reasonable course, you must have gone through
his house, and through him too, as he sat at his work between two little
windows,--with one eye microscopically on the geological formation of
that part of Devonshire, and the other telescopically on the open
sea,--the two climbed high up the village, and stopped before a quaint
little house, on which was painted, "MRS. RAYBROCK, DRAPER;" and also
"POST-OFFICE." Before it, ran a rill of murmuring water, and access to
it was gained by a little plank-bridge.

"Here's the name," said Captain Jorgan, "sure enough. You can come in if
you like, Tom."

The captain opened the door, and passed into an odd little shop, about
six feet high, with a great variety of beams and bumps in the ceiling,
and, besides the principal window giving on the ladder of stones, a
purblind little window of a single pane of glass, peeping out of an
abutting corner at the sun-lighted ocean, and winking at its brightness.

"How do you do, ma'am?" said the captain. "I am very glad to see you. I
have come a long way to see you."

"_Have_ you, sir? Then I am sure I am very glad to see _you_, though I
don't know you from Adam."

Thus a comely elderly woman, short of stature, plump of form, sparkling
and dark of eye, who, perfectly clean and neat herself, stood in the
midst of her perfectly clean and neat arrangements, and surveyed Captain
Jorgan with smiling curiosity. "Ah! but you are a sailor, sir," she
added, almost immediately, and with a slight movement of her hands, that
was not very unlike wringing them; "then you are heartily welcome."

"Thank'ee, ma'am," said the captain, "I don't know what it is, I am sure;
that brings out the salt in me, but everybody seems to see it on the
crown of my hat and the collar of my coat. Yes, ma'am, I am in that way
of life."

"And the other gentleman, too," said Mrs. Raybrock.

"Well now, ma'am," said the captain, glancing shrewdly at the other
gentleman, "you are that nigh right, that he goes to sea,--if that makes
him a sailor. This is my steward, ma'am, Tom Pettifer; he's been a'most
all trades you could name, in the course of his life,--would have bought
all your chairs and tables once, if you had wished to sell 'em,--but now
he's my steward. My name's Jorgan, and I'm a ship-owner, and I sail my
own and my partners' ships, and have done so this five-and-twenty year.
According to custom I am called Captain Jorgan, but I am no more a
captain, bless your heart, than you are."

"Perhaps you'll come into my parlour, sir, and take a chair?" said Mrs.

"Ex-actly what I was going to propose myself, ma'am. After you."

Thus replying, and enjoining Tom to give an eye to the shop, Captain
Jorgan followed Mrs. Raybrock into the little, low back-room,--decorated
with divers plants in pots, tea-trays, old china teapots, and
punch-bowls,--which was at once the private sitting-room of the Raybrock
family and the inner cabinet of the post-office of the village of

"Now, ma'am," said the captain, "it don't signify a cent to you where I
was born, except--" But here the shadow of some one entering fell upon
the captain's figure, and he broke off to double himself up, slap both
his legs, and ejaculate, "Never knew such a thing in all my life! Here
he is again! How are you?"

These words referred to the young fellow who had so taken Captain
Jorgan's fancy down at the pier. To make it all quite complete he came
in accompanied by the sweetheart whom the captain had detected looking
over the wall. A prettier sweetheart the sun could not have shone upon
that shining day. As she stood before the captain, with her rosy lips
just parted in surprise, her brown eyes a little wider open than was
usual from the same cause, and her breathing a little quickened by the
ascent (and possibly by some mysterious hurry and flurry at the parlour
door, in which the captain had observed her face to be for a moment
totally eclipsed by the Sou'wester hat), she looked so charming, that the
captain felt himself under a moral obligation to slap both his legs
again. She was very simply dressed, with no other ornament than an
autumnal flower in her bosom. She wore neither hat nor bonnet, but
merely a scarf or kerchief, folded squarely back over the head, to keep
the sun off,--according to a fashion that may be sometimes seen in the
more genial parts of England as well as of Italy, and which is probably
the first fashion of head-dress that came into the world when grasses and
leaves went out.

"In my country," said the captain, rising to give her his chair, and
dexterously sliding it close to another chair on which the young
fisherman must necessarily establish himself,--"in my country we should
call Devonshire beauty first-rate!"

Whenever a frank manner is offensive, it is because it is strained or
feigned; for there may be quite as much intolerable affectation in
plainness as in mincing nicety. All that the captain said and did was
honestly according to his nature; and his nature was open nature and good
nature; therefore, when he paid this little compliment, and expressed
with a sparkle or two of his knowing eye, "I see how it is, and nothing
could be better," he had established a delicate confidence on that
subject with the family.

"I was saying to your worthy mother," said the captain to the young man,
after again introducing himself by name and occupation,--"I was saying to
your mother (and you're very like her) that it didn't signify where I was
born, except that I was raised on question-asking ground, where the
babies as soon as ever they come into the world, inquire of their
mothers, 'Neow, how old may _you_ be, and wa'at air you a goin' to name
me?'--which is a fact." Here he slapped his leg. "Such being the case,
I may be excused for asking you if your name's Alfred?"

"Yes, sir, my name is Alfred," returned the young man.

"I am not a conjurer," pursued the captain, "and don't think me so, or I
shall right soon undeceive you. Likewise don't think, if you please,
though I _do_ come from that country of the babies, that I am asking
questions for question-asking's sake, for I am not. Somebody belonging
to you went to sea?"

"My elder brother, Hugh," returned the young man. He said it in an
altered and lower voice, and glanced at his mother, who raised her hands
hurriedly, and put them together across her black gown, and looked
eagerly at the visitor.

"No! For God's sake, don't think that!" said the captain, in a solemn
way; "I bring no good tidings of him."

There was a silence, and the mother turned her face to the fire and put
her hand between it and her eyes. The young fisherman slightly motioned
toward the window, and the captain, looking in that direction, saw a
young widow, sitting at a neighbouring window across a little garden,
engaged in needlework, with a young child sleeping on her bosom. The
silence continued until the captain asked of Alfred,--

"How long is it since it happened?"

"He shipped for his last voyage better than three years ago."

"Ship struck upon some reef or rock, as I take it," said the captain,
"and all hands lost?"


"Wa'al!" said the captain, after a shorter silence, "Here I sit who may
come to the same end, like enough. He holds the seas in the hollow of
His hand. We must all strike somewhere and go down. Our comfort, then,
for ourselves and one another is to have done our duty. I'd wager your
brother did his!"

"He did!" answered the young fisherman. "If ever man strove faithfully
on all occasions to do his duty, my brother did. My brother was not a
quick man (anything but that), but he was a faithful, true, and just man.
We were the sons of only a small tradesman in this county, sir; yet our
father was as watchful of his good name as if he had been a king."

"A precious sight more so, I hope--bearing in mind the general run of
that class of crittur," said the captain. "But I interrupt."

"My brother considered that our father left the good name to us, to keep
clear and true."

"Your brother considered right," said the captain; "and you couldn't take
care of a better legacy. But again I interrupt."

"No; for I have nothing more to say. We know that Hugh lived well for
the good name, and we feel certain that he died well for the good name.
And now it has come into my keeping. And that's all."

"Well spoken!" cried the captain. "Well spoken, young man! Concerning
the manner of your brother's death,"--by this time the captain had
released the hand he had shaken, and sat with his own broad, brown hands
spread out on his knees, and spoke aside,--"concerning the manner of your
brother's death, it may be that I have some information to give you;
though it may not be, for I am far from sure. Can we have a little talk

The young man rose; but not before the captain's quick eye had noticed
that, on the pretty sweetheart's turning to the window to greet the young
widow with a nod and a wave of the hand, the young widow had held up to
her the needlework on which she was engaged, with a patient and pleasant
smile. So the captain said, being on his legs,--

"What might she be making now?"

"What is Margaret making, Kitty?" asked the young fisherman,--with one of
his arms apparently mislaid somewhere.

As Kitty only blushed in reply, the captain doubled himself up as far as
he could, standing, and said, with a slap of his leg,--

"In my country we should call it wedding-clothes. Fact! We should, I do
assure you."

But it seemed to strike the captain in another light too; for his laugh
was not a long one, and he added, in quite a gentle tone,--

"And it's very pretty, my dear, to see her--poor young thing, with her
fatherless child upon her bosom--giving up her thoughts to your home and
your happiness. It's very pretty, my dear, and it's very good. May your
marriage be more prosperous than hers, and be a comfort to her too. May
the blessed sun see you all happy together, in possession of the good
name, long after I have done ploughing the great salt field that is never

Kitty answered very earnestly, "O! Thank you, sir, with all my heart!"
And, in her loving little way, kissed her hand to him, and possibly by
implication to the young fisherman, too, as the latter held the parlour-
door open for the captain to pass out.
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