The Packet Boat by Sarah Orne Jewett
“The Packet Boat” is the second chapter of Betty Leicester: A Story for Girls, 1890. This text is presented with the assistance of Terry Heller of Coe College. His annotated text, with original illustrations, can be read at the Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project website. Also incorporated into this text are illustrations by Beatrice Stevens, done for the 1929 Houghton Mifflin reprinting of Betty Leicester. These illustrations are available courtesy of the Iowa State University Library. Beatrice Stevens (1876-1947) was a painter and popular illustrator. The University of Connecticut Library Newsletter for November/December 2000 offers this information about her. She lived most of her life in Pomfret, Connecticut. "There she built a house and studio that quickly became a center of intellectual and artistic activity in this small but vigorous cultural community. She was an unforgettable character around town, often dressing in Grecian-style gowns while feeding the birds. She was a popular illustrator of books and, for 34 years, produced the annual Pomfret nativity play."
This chapter opens in the town of Riverport, based on Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Only 15 years old and traveling alone, Betty Leicester must make her way to her relatives in Tideshead, modeled after Jewett’s hometown of South Berwick, Maine, ten miles up the Piscataqua-Salmon Falls River. The packet boat, a regular conveyance for cargo and passengers, appears to be the region’s indigenous river craft also known as a gundalow.
The day was one of the best days in June, with warm sunshine and a cool breeze from the east, for when Betty Leicester stepped from a hot car to the station platform in Riverport the air had a delicious sea-flavor. She wondered for a moment what this flavor was like, and then thought of a salt oyster. She was hungry and tired, the journey had been longer than she expected, and, as she made her way slowly through the crowded station and was pushed about by people who were hurrying out of or into the train, she felt unusually disturbed and lonely. Betty had traveled far and wide for a girl of fifteen, but she had seldom been alone, and was used to taking care of other people. Papa himself was very apt to forget important minor details, and she had learned out of her loving young heart to remember them, and was not without high ambitions to make their journeys as comfortable as possible. Still, she and her father had almost always been together, and Betty wondered if it had not after all been foolish to make a certain decision which involved not seeing him again until a great many weeks had gone by.
The cars moved away and the young traveler went to the ticket-office to ask about the Tideshead train. The ticket-agent looked at her with a smile.
"Train's gone half an hour ago!" he said, as if he were telling Betty some good news. "There'll be another one at eight o'clock to-morrow morning, and the express goes, same as to-day, at half past one. I suppose you want to go to Tideshead town; this road only goes to the junction and then there's a stage, you know." He looked at Betty doubtfully and as if he expected an instant decision on her part as to what she meant to do next.
"I knew that there was a stage," she answered, feeling a little alarmed, but hoping that she did not show it. "The time-table said there was a train to meet this"
"Oh, that train is an express now and doesn't stop. Everything's got to be sacrificed to speed."
The ticket-agent had turned his back and was looking over some papers and grumbling to himself, so that Betty could no longer hear what he was pleased to say. As she left the window an elderly man, whose face was very familiar, was standing in the doorway.
"Well, ma'am, you an' I 'pear to have got left. Tideshead, you said, if I rightly understood?"
"Perhaps there is somebody who would drive us there," said Betty. She never had been called ma'am before, and it was most surprising. "It isn't a great many miles, is it?"
"No, no!" said the new acquaintance. "I was in considerable of a hurry to get home, but 't isn't so bad as you think. We can go right up on the packet, up river, you know; get there by supper-time; the wind's hauling round into the east a little. I understood you to speak about getting to Tideshead?"
"Yes," said Betty, gratefully.
"Got a trunk, I expect. Well, I'll go out and look round for Asa Chick and his han'cart, and we'll make for the wharf as quick as we can. You may step this way."
Betty "stepped" gladly, and Asa Chick and the handcart soon led the way riverward through the pleasant old-fashioned streets of Riverport. Her new friend pointed out one or two landmarks as they hurried along, for, strange to say, although a sea-captain, he was not sure whether the tide turned at half past two or half past three. When they came to the river-side, however, the packet-boat was still made fast to the pier, and nothing showed signs of her immediate departure.
"It is always a good thing to be in time," said the captain, who found himself much too warm and nearly out of breath. "Now, we've got a good hour to wait. Like to go right aboard, my dear?"
Betty paid Asa Chick, and then turned to see the packet. It was a queer, heavy-looking craft, with a short, thick mast and high, pointed lateen-sail, half unfurled and dropping in heavy pocket-like loops. There was a dark low cabin and a long deck; a very old man and a fat, yellow dog seemed to be the whole ship's company. The old man was smoking a pipe and took no notice of anything, but the dog rose slowly to his feet and came wagging his tail and looking up at the new passenger.
"I do' know but I'll coast round up into the town a little," said the captain. "'Tain't no use asking old Mr. Plunkett there any questions, he's deef as a ha'dick."
"Will my trunk be safe?" asked Betty; to which the captain answered that he would put it right aboard for her. It was not a very heavy trunk, but the captain managed it beautifully, and put Betty's hand-bag and wrap into the dark cabin. Old Plunkett nodded as he saw this done, and the captain said again that Betty might feel perfectly safe about everything; but, for all that, she refused to take a walk in order to see what was going in the town, as she was kindly invited to do. She went a short distance by herself, however, and came first to a bakery, where she bought some buns, not so good as the English ones, but still very good buns indeed, and two apples, which the baker's wife told her had grown in her own garden. You could see the tree out of the back window, by which the hospitable woman had left her sewing, and they were, indeed, well-kept and delicious apples for that late season of the year. Betty lingered for some minutes in the pleasant shop. She was very hungry, and the buns were all the better for that. She looked through a door and saw the oven, but the baking was all done for the day. The baker himself was out in his cart; he had just gone up to Tideshead. Here was another way in which one might have gone to Tideshead by land; it would have been good fun to go on the baker's cart and stop in the farm-house yards and see everybody; but on the whole there was more adventure in going by the water. Papa had always told Betty that the river was beautiful. She did not remember much about it herself, but this would be a fine way of getting a first look at so large a part of the great stream.
It was slack water now, and the wharf seemed high, and the landing-stage altogether too steep and slippery. When Betty reached the packet's deck, old Mr. Plunkett was sound asleep; but while she was eating her buns the dog came most good-naturedly and stood before her, cocking his head sideways, and putting on a most engaging expression, so that they lunched together, and Betty left off nearly as hungry as she began. The old dog knew an apple when he saw it, and was disappointed after the last one was brought out from Betty's pocket, and lay down at her feet and went to sleep again. Betty got into the shade of the wharf and sat there looking down at the flounders and sculpins in the clear water, and at the dripping green sea-weeds on the piles of the wharf. She was almost startled when a heavy wagon was driven on the planks above, and a man shouted suddenly to the horses. Presently some barrels for flour were rolled down and put on deck - twelve of them in all - by a man and boy who gave her, the young stranger, a careful glance every time they turned to go back. Then a mowing-machine arrived, and was carefully put on board with a great deal of bustle and loud talking. There was somebody on deck, now, whom Betty believed to be the packet's skipper, and after a while the old captain returned. He seated himself by Mr. Plunkett and shook hands with him warmly, and asked him for the news; but there did not seem to be any.
The dog came most good-naturedly and stood before her.
"I've been up to see my wife's cousin Jake Hallet's folks," he explained, "and I thought sure I'd get left," and old Plunkett nodded soberly. They did not sail for at least half an hour after this, and Betty sat discreetly on the low cabin roof next the wharf all the time. When they were out in the stream at last she could get a pretty view of the town. There was some shipping farther down the shore, and some tall steeples and beautiful trees and quaintly built warehouses; it was very pleasant, looking back at it from the water.
A little past the middle of the afternoon they moved steadily up the river. The men all sat together in a group at the stern, and appeared to find a great deal to talk about. Old Mr. Plunkett may have thought that Betty looked lonely, for after he waked for the second time he came over to where she sat and nodded to her; so Betty nodded back, and then the old man reached for her umbrella, which was very pretty, with a round piece of agate in the handle, and looked at it and rubbed it with his thumb, and gave it back to her. "Present to ye?" he asked, and Betty nodded assent. Then old Plunkett went away again, but she felt a sense of his kind companionship. She wondered whom she must pay for her passage and how much it would be, but it was no use to ask so deaf a fellow-passenger. He had put on a great pair of spectacles and was walking round her trunk, apparently much puzzled by the battered labels of foreign hotels and railway stations.
Betty thought that she had seldom seen half so pleasant a place as this New England river. She kept longing that her father could see it, too. As they went up from the town the shores grew greener and greener, and there were some belated apple-trees still in bloom, and the farm-houses were so old and stood so pleasantly toward the southern sunshine that they looked as if they might have grown like the apple-trees and willows and elms. There were great white clouds in the blue sky; the air was delicious. Betty could make out at last that old Mr. Plunkett was the skipper's father, that Captain Beck was an old shipmaster and a former acquaintance of her own, and that the flour and some heavy boxes belonged to one store-keeping passenger with a long sandy beard, and the mowing-machine to the other, who was called Jim Foss, and that he was a farmer. He was a great joker and kept making everybody laugh. Old Mr. Plunkett laughed too, now that he was wide awake, but it was only through sympathy; he seemed to be a very kind old man. One by one all the men came and looked at the trunk labels, and they all asked whether Betty hadn't been considerable of a traveler, or some question very much like it. At last the captain came with Captain Beck to collect the passage money, which proved to be thirty-seven cents.
"Where did you say you was goin' to stop in Tideshead?" asked Captain Beck.
"I'm going to Miss Leicester's. Don't you remember me? Aren't you Mary Beck's grandfather? I'm Betty Leicester."
"Toe be sure, toe be sure," said the old gentleman, much pleased. "I wonder that I had not thought of you at first, but you have grown as much as little Mary has. You're getting to be quite a young woman. Command me," said the shipmaster, making a handsome bow. "I am glad that I fell in with you. I see your father's looks, now. The ladies had a hard fight some years ago to keep him from running off to sea with me. He's been a great traveler since then, hasn't he?" to which Betty responded heartily, again feeling as if she were among friends. The storekeeper offered to take her trunk right up the hill in his wagon, when they got to the Tideshead landing, and on the whole it was delightful that the trains had been changed just in time for her to take this pleasant voyage.