While visiting Nantucket some four weeks ago, I made the acquaintance of a gentleman from New Bedford, a lawyer, who gave me considerable information upon several matters concerning which I was curious. -- One night we were talking, I think, of the great patience, & endurance, & resignedness of the women of the island in submitting so uncomplainingly to the long, long abscences of their sailor husbands, when, by way of anecdote, this lawyer gave me a leaf from his professional experience. Altho' his memory was a little confused with regard to some of the items of the story, yet he told me enough to awaken the most lively interest in me; and I begged him to be sure and send me a more full account so soon as he arrived home -- he having previously told me that at the time of the affair he had made a record in his books. -- I heard nothing more, till a few days after arriving here at Pittsfield I received thro' the Post Office the enclosed document. -- You will perceive by the gentleman's note to me that he assumed that I purposed making literary use of the story; but I had not hinted anything of the kind to him, & my first spontaneous interest in it arose from very different considerations. I confess, however, that since then I have a little turned the subject over in my mind with a view to a regular story to be founded on these striking incidents. But, thinking again, it has occurred to me that this thing lies very much in a vein, with which you are peculiarly familiar. To be plump, I think that in this matter you would make a better hand at it than I would. Besides the thing seems naturally to gravitate towards you (to spea[k] ... [half a line torn] should of right belong to you. I cou[ld] ... [half a line torn] the Steward to deliver it to you. --
The very great interest I felt in this story while narrating to me, was heightened by the emotion of the gentleman who told it, who evinced the most unaffected sympathy in it, tho' now a matter of his past. -- But perhaps this great interest of mine may have been largely helped by some accidental circumstance or other; so that, possibly, to you the story may not seem to possess so much of pathos, & so much of depth. But you will see how it is. --
In estimating the character of Robinson Charity should be allowed a liberal play. I take exception to that passage from the Diary which says that "he must have received a portion of his punishment in this life"-- thus hinting of a future supplemental castigation.-- I do not at all suppose that his desertion of his wife was a premeditated thing. If it had been so, he would have changed his name, probably, after quitting her.-- No: he was a weak man, & his temptations (tho' we know little of them) were strong. The whole sin stole upon him insensibly-- so that it would perhaps have been hard for him to settle upon the exact day when he could say to himself, "Now I have deserted my wife["]; unless, indeed upon the day he wedded the Alexandran lady.-- And here I am reminded of your London husband; tho' the cases so rudely contrast.-- Many more things might be mentioned; but I forbear; you will find out the suggestiveness for yourself; & all the better perhaps, for my not intermeddling.--
If you should be sufficiently interested, to engage upon a regular story founded on this narration; then I consider you but fairly entitled to the following tributary items, collected by me, by chance, during my strolls thro the islands; & which-- as you will perceive-- seem legitimately to belong to the story, in its rounded & beautified & thoroughly developed state;-- but of all this you must of course be your own judge-- I but submit matter to you-- I dont decide.
Supposing the story to open with the wreck then there must be a storm; & it were well if some faint shadow of the preceding calm were thrown forth to lead the whole.-- Now imagine a high cliff overhanging the sea & crowned with a pasture for sheep; a little way off-- higher up,-- a light-house, where resides the father of the future Mrs Robinson the First. The afternoon is mild & warm. The sea with an air of solemn deliberation, with an elaborate deliberation, ceremoniously rolls upon the beach. The air is suppressedly charged with the sound of long lines of surf. There is no land over against this cliff short of Europe & the West Indies. Young Agatha (but you must give her some other name) comes wandering along the cliff. She marks how the continual assaults of the sea have undermined it; so that the fences fall over, & have need of many shiftings inland. The sea has encroached also upon that part where their dwelling-house stands near the light-house.-- Filled with meditations, she reclines along the edge of the cliff & gazes out seaward. She marks a handful of cloud on the horizon, presaging a storm tho' all this quietude. (Of a maratime family & always dwelling on the coast, she is learned in these matters) This again gives food for thought. Suddenly she catches the long shadow of the cliff cast upon the beach 100 feet beneath her; and now she notes a shadow moving along the shadow. It is cast by a sheep from the pasture. It has advanced to the very edge of the cliff, & is sending a mild innocent glance far out upon the water. Here, in strange & beautiful contrast, we have the innocence of the land placidly eyeing the malignity of the sea. (All this having poetic reference to Agatha & her sea-lover, who is coming in the storm: the storm carries her lover to her; she catches a dim distant glimpse of his ship ere quitting the cliff)--
P.S. It were well, if from her knowledge of the deep miseries produced to wives by marrying seafaring men, Agatha should have formed a young determination never to marry a sailor; which resolve in her, however, is afterwards overborne by the omnipotence of Love.-- P.S. No 2. Agatha should be active during the wreck, & should, in some way, be made the saviour of young Robinson. He should be the only survivor. He should be ministered to by Agatha at the house during the illness ensuing upon his injuries from the wreck.-- Now this wrecked ship was driven over the shoals, & driven upon the beach where she goes to pieces, all but her stem-part. This in course of time becomes embedded in the sand-- after the lapse of some years showing nothing but the sturdy stem (or, prow-bone) projecting some two feet at low water. All the rest is filled & packed down with the sand.-- So that after her husband has disappeared the sad Agatha every day sees this melancholy monument, with all its remindings.--
After a sufficient lapse of time-- when Agatha has become alarmed about the protracted abscence of her young husband & is feverishly expecting a letter from him-- then we must introduce the mail-post-- no, that phrase wont' do, but here is the thing.-- Owing to the remoteness of the lighthouse from any settled place no regular mail reaches it. But some mile or so distant there is a road leading between two post-towns. And at the junction of what we shall call the Light-House road with this Post Rode, there stands a post surmounted with a little rude wood box with a lid to it & a leather hinge. Into this box the Post boy drops all letters for the people of the light house & that vicinity of fishermen. To this post they must come for their letters. And, of course, daily young Agatha goes-- for seventeen years she goes thither daily. As her hopes gradually decay in her, so does the post itself & the little box decay. The post rots in the ground at last. Owing to its being little used-- hardly used at all-- grass grows rankly about it. At last a little bird nests in it. At last the post falls.
The father of Agatha must be an old widower-- a man of the sea, but early driven away from it by repeated disasters. Hence, is he subdued & quiet & wise in his life. And now he tends a light house, to warn people from those very perils, from which he himself has suffered.
Some few other items occur to me-- but nothing material-- and I fear to weary you, if not, make you smile at my strange impertinent officiousness.-- And it would be so, were it not that these things do, in my mind, seem legitimately to belong to the story; for they were visably suggested to me by scenes I actually beheld while on the very coast where the story of Agatha occurred.-- I do not therefore, My Dear Hawthorne, at all imagine that you will think that I am so silly as to flatter myself I am giving you anything of my own. I am but restoring to you your own property-- which you would quickly enough have identified for yourself-- had you but been on the spot as I happened to be.
Let me conclude by saying that it seems to me that with your great power in these things, you can construct a story of remarkable interest out of this material furnished by the New Bedford lawyer.-- You have a skeleton of actual reality to build about with fulness & veins & beauty. And if I thought I could do it as well as you, why, I should not let you have it.-- The narrative from the Diary is instinct with significance.-- Consider the mention of the shawls-- & the inference derived from it. Ponder the conduct of this Robinson throughout.-- Mark his trepidation & suspicion when any one called upon him.-- But why prate so-- you will mark it all & mark it deeper than I would, perhaps.
I have written all this in a great hurry; so you must spell it out the best way you may.
P.S. The business was settled in a few weeks afterwards, in a most amicable & honorable manner, by a division of the property. I think Mrs. Robinson & her family refused to claim or recieve anything that really belonged to Mrs. Irwin, or which Robinson had derived through her.--
[Enclosure: the lawyer's story of Agatha]
May 28th 1842 Saturday. I have just returned from a visit to Falmouth with a Mr Janney of Mo on one of the most interesting and romantic cases I ever expect to be engaged in.-- The gentleman from Missouri Mr Janney came to my house last Sunday evening and related to myself and partner that he had married the daughter of a Mrs Irvin formerly of Pittsburgh Pa. and that Mrs Irvin had married a second husband by the name of Robertson. The latter deceased about two years since. He was appointed Admr to his Estate which amounted to $20,000-- about 15 months afterwards Mrs Robertson also died and in the meantime the Admr had been engaged in looking up heirs to the Estate-- He learned that Robertson was an Englishman whose original name was Shinn-- that he resided at Alexandria D.C. where he had two nephews-- He also wrote to England and had ascertained the history and genealogy of the family with much accuracy, when on going to the Post Office one day he found a letter directed to James Robertson the deceased, post marked Falmouth Masstts-- on opening it he found it from a person signing herself Rebecca A. Gifford and addressing him as "Father." The existence of this girl had been known before by Mrs Robertson and her husband had pronounced her to be illegitimate The Admr then addressed a letter to Mrs Gifford informing her of the decease of her father. He was surprized soon after by the appearance in St Louis of a shrewd Quaker from Falmouth named Dillingham with full powers and fortified by letters and affidavits shewing the existence of a wife in Falmouth whom Robertson married in 1807 at Pembroke Mass & the legitimacy of the daughter who had married a Mr Gifford and laying strong claims to the entire property.
The Admr and heirs having strong doubts arising from the declarations of Robertson during his lifetime & the peculiar expressions contained in the letters exhibited, as to the validity of the marriage & the claim based upon it, determined to resist and legal proceedings were at once commenced. The object of the visit of Mr Janney was to attend the taking of depositions, upon a notice from the claimants-- The Minister Town Clerk and Witnesses present at the ceremony established the fact of a legal marriage and the birth of a child in wedlock, beyond all cavil or controversy all of the witnesses were of the highest respectability and the widow and daughter interested me very much.
It appeared that Robertson was wrecked on the coast of Pembroke where this girl, then Miss Agatha Hatch was living-- that he was hospitably entertained and cared for, and that within a year after, he married her, in due form of law-- that he went two short voyages to sea. About two years after the marriage, leaving his wife enciente he started off in search of employment and from that time until Seventeen years afterwards she never heard from him in any way whatsoever, directly or indirectly, not even a word. Being poor she went out nursing for her daily bread and yet contrived out of her small earnings to give her daughter a first rate education. Having become connected with the Society of Friends she sent her to their most celebrated boarding school and when I saw her I found she had profited by all her advantages beyond most females. In the meantime Robertson had gone to Alexandria D.C. where he had entered into a successful and profitable business and married a second wife. At the expiration of this long period of 17 years which for the poor forsaken wife, had glided wearily away, while she was engaged away from home, her Father rode up in a gig and informed her that her husband had returned and wished to see her and her child-- but if she would not see him, to see her child at all events-- They all returned together and encountered him on the way coming to meet them about half a mile from her father's house. This meeting was described to me by the mother and daughter-- Every incident seemed branded upon the memories of both. He excused himself as well as he could for his long absence and silence, appeard very affectionate refused to tell where he was living and persuaded them not to make any inquiries, gave them a handsome sum of money, promised to return for good and left the next day-- He appeared again in about a year, just on the eve of his daughter's marriage & gave her a bridal present. It was not long after this that his wife in Alexandria died-- He then wrote to his son-in-law to come there-- He did so-- remained 2 days and brought back a gold watch and three handsome shawls which had been previously worn by some person-- They all admitted that they had suspicions then & from this circumstance that he had been a second time married.
Soon after this he visited Falmouth again & as it proved for the last time-- He announced his intention of removing to Missouri & urged the whole family to go with him, promising money land and other assistance to his son-in-law. The offer was not accepted He shed tears when he bade them farewell-- From the time of his return to Missouri till the time of his death a constant correspondence was kept up money was remitted by him annually and he announced to them his marriage with Mrs Irvin-- He had no children by either of his last two wives.
Mr Janney was entirely disappointed in the character of the evidence and the character of the claimants. He considered them, when he first came, as parties to the imposition practised upon Mrs Irvin & her children. But I was satisfied and I think he was, that their motives in keeping silence were high and pure, creditable in every way to the true Mrs Robertson. She stated the causes with a simplicity & pathos which carried that conviction irresistibly to my mind. The only good(?) it could have done to expose him would have been to drive Robertson away and forever disgrace him & it would certainly have made Mrs Irvin & her children wretched for the rest of their days-- "I had no wish" said the wife "to make either of them unhappy, notwithstanding all I had suffered on his account"-- It was to me a most striking instance of long continued & uncomplaining submission to wrong and anguish on the part of a wife, wch made her in my eyes a heroine.
Janney informed me that R. and his last wife did not live very happily together and particularly that he seemed to be a very jealous suspicious man-- that when a person called at his house he would never enter the room till he knew who it was & "all about him.["] He must have recieved a portion of his punishment in this life. The fact came out in the course of examination that they had agreed to give Dillingham one half of what he might obtain deducting the expenses from his half-- After the strength of the evidence became known Mr Janney commenced the making of serious efforts to effect a compromise of the claim. What the result will be time will shew-- This is, I suspect, the end of my connexion with the case--
Return to Melville's letters to Hawthorne
Return to Melville Home Page
Please address all correspondence on this Site to email@example.com
The Life and Works of Herman Melville is brought to you by Multiverse.