The Quoddy Hermit
THE mysterious charm of ancestry and yellow parchment, of petitions to the admiralty and royal grants of land, of wild scenery and feudal loyalty, of rough living and knightly etiquette, has long clustered round a little island off the coast of Maine, called on the old charts Passamaquoddy Outer Island. Moose roamed over the swamps and looked down from the bold headlands; Indians crossed from the mainland and shot them ; straggling Frenchmen, dressing in skins, built huts along the northern and southern shores, till civilization dawned through the squatter sovereignty of two men, Hunt and Flagg. They planted the apple-trees whose gnarled branches still remain to tell of the winter storms that howled across the plains, and converted the moose-yards into a field of oats; for the wary, frightened animals vacated their hereditary land in favor of these later usurpers. Their mercantile skill taught them how to use, for purposes of trade rather than for private consumption, the shoals of fish which it was firmly believed Providence sent into the bay.
While the Passamaquoddians who ate fish were living in huts, and those who sold it were dwelling in houses, on the distant waters of India was a man, William Owen by name, whose destinies were to be linked with this little English island in America. As naval officer, he had been “ in all service and enterprise where ships, boats, and seamen were employed ; ” had labored at Bengal in the reestablishment of the affairs of the East India Company; and had fought under Clive. At the blockade of Pondicherry he lost his right arm, and the Sunderland, to which he belonged, having foundered, he was ordered to England. There, in 1761, he petitioned the Lords of the Admiralty “ for Gratuity, Pension, or Preferment,” as their lordships might deem him to deserve. He did receive special thanks and promise of promotion, and at last, through the intercession of his friend, Sir William Campbell, Governor-General of Nova Scotia, he obtained possession of the island which Hunt and Flagg had civilized.
As it embraced more land than could then be granted to one person, Owen induced others to join him in asking for the grant, that the whole island might eventually be under the control of the Owen family. Consequently, in 1767 the island was deeded to William Owen and his cousins, Arthur Davies, David, and William Owen, Jr., who, in grateful compliment to Campbell, changed its name from Passamaquoddy Outer Island to Campobello.
William Owen immediately brought over from the mother country a colony of seventy persons ; stationed his ship at Havre de Lute, a Franco-Indian corruption of Harbor of the Otter ; and, having settled his people according to his liking, returned to England, but soon left it again on public service, and died with the rank of Admiral.
David Owen acted as agent for the grantees, and was a veritable lord of the isle. His house had even more roof than the usual sloping, barnlike home of former days. He built a rude church, read the service, and preached. What matter if a sermon was oft repeated, or now and then was original ! Could not he, though a layman, best tell the needs of his congregation ? He played the fiddle at dances, married the people, scolded them as self-constituted judge, kept a journal of island events in microscopic chirography, wrote for the Eastport Sentinel, was interested in protecting the fisheries, and died, leaving his share of the island to William Owen, Jr. This younger Owen sold Campobello, which now had come into his sole possession, to William Fitz-William, who as the natural son of the Owen of Pondicherry fame could obtain possession only through purchase of his father’s original grant.
A curiously pathetic life was that of William Fitz-William, from the time when, a boy of five years old, an inmate of the artillery barracks, he replied, on being asked his last name, “ I don’t know ; mother can tell you,” to his old age, when, dressed in admiral’s uniform, he paeed back and forth on a plank walk, built out into the bay, over the high cliffs of the shore, in memory of the quarter-deck of his beloved ship. Conceited and religious, authoritative and generous, humorous and ceremonious, disputatious and frank, a lover of women more than of wine, his fame still lingers in many a name and tradition.
When very young, a friend of his father’s took him away from the barracks and from his mother, of whom he never again heard. He was boarded and punished in various homes in North Wales, but as recompense wore a cocked hat and a suit of scarlet made from an old coat of his father’s. He learnt the catechism and collects, repeated the Lord’s Prayer on his knees, and thought of raising the devil by saying it backwards ; though in after-life he regretted that, as a boy, he “ had no other distinct idea of our Lord Jesus Christ than that he was a good man.” His belief in the direct interposition of the Creator on his behalf frequently solaced him in these youthful days of loneliness and misdemeanor. The literal and instant fulfillment of two dreams on special and unthought-of subjects were convincing proof, to quote his own words, that “ they were sent by God Almighty himself, as a simple way of assuring me that as I was under his eye he would himself take care of me.”
So he grew up to be presumptuous, adventurous, resolute, and strong. In 1788 he embarked as midshipman of a line-of-battle ship, and “ from that time for forty-three continuous years served under every naval man of renown, and was honored by the friendship of Nelson.” At forty-four he married a Welsh lady, and wrote, “ I thought myself a tolerably religious man, but knew myself to be as Reuben, unstable as water ; at fifty-seven my worldly ambition was barred by corruption in high places; at sixty-one I became the Hermit.”
Years before he had adopted the pseudonym of Quoddy Hermit, he had cruised in the Bay of Fundy, engaged in its survey. The man-of-war which was stationed for three years at the Campobello headland of that name must have belonged to his fleet. The crew spent much of their time ashore, tending a little garden, brilliant with dahlias and marigolds, which they presented in the season, in overweighted bouquets, to the few island belles, who, in return for such unexpected courtesies, consented in winter to dance on the ship’s deck, regardless of their frozen ear-tips. Two of the midshipmen were as dauntless in pedestrianism as in love, and for a wager started on a perilous walk around icy cliffs, which threw them headlong. Their comrades buried them under the gay flowers, and sailed away from the henceforth ill-omened garden.
In course of time, William Fitz-William returned with the rank of Admiral. He brought with him the frame of a house, taken from another island, building materials, silver, and glass. He erected his habitations, and planted the sun-dial of his vessel in the grove fronting his home, He widened the narrow roads along the bay, which David had broken out, and in his heavy, lumbering coach of state went through mud and snow from one tenant to another. The coach is still to be seen, and the tenant’s grandchildren bear the Owen surname as the universal Christian cognomen.
Now began the daily routine, which seldom varied. The day commenced and ended with prayers, which all the household servants attended ; the “ maids,” as the admiral called them, —“ for we are all servants of God,” — bringing their work, and sewing throughout the service, except when the prayer itself was said. If some one occasionally was disinclined to such steady improvement of the devotional hour, the admiral, with a benevolent smile, inquired, “ My dear, do you feel lazy to-night?” Breakfast was served at nine. After that, the Lady Owen, clad in an enormous apron, entered the kitchen, and taught the mysteries of salads and jellies. There were constant offerings from the people, who esteemed it an honor to give or to sell the creatures which they had raised for their own use, and which had fed on the wild grass and young hemlock, till never was fowl or lamb more succulent. At the first cold storm of winter, the notable housekeepers of the island put down in big barrels, amid layers of snow, their chickens, turkey, and geese, their lamb and their pork, and educated their hens to lay eggs through all seasons. But if none of these tasks needed Lady Owen’s supervision, she fitted, in the work-room, the dresses of her domestics, or taught the children of the neighborhood to sew.
The admiral would often stroll down to Whale-Boat Cove, — so called from a large kind of row-boat used in the herring fisheries, — which he persuaded the men to call Welsh Pool. Many a little maiden counted her pennies by the admiral’s kisses, and many a poor fisherman blessed him for allowing the house rent to run on from year to year, though the admiral invariably insisted on the rental from the weirs; he well knew which was the more profitable. On other days he stayed at home and amused himself with his books. At four o’clock the husband and wife dined with the family and the frequent guests. The dinner of four courses was served in silver and gold lined dishes, with wines from Jersey and game from the provinces. Silver candelabras shone upon the table. Damask and India muslin curtains shaded the many-paned windows ; heavy mahogany and rosewood chairs, sofas, and tables furnished the apartments ; great logs on tall andirons burned in monster fireplaces; sacred maps hung around the evening parlor; and the dining-room carpet was said to have been a gift from the King of Prussia.
Lady Owen was a handsome woman, with silver hair and a pink and white complexion, who, like her daughters, wore velvet trains and low corsages. Sometimes the mother wrapped herself in a certain gold and black scarf with such a courtly grace that its remembrance has never faded. Great was the jubilee among the domestics when a box arrived from England, with fabulous dresses, ready made.
After the dinner of an hour came tea at seven and a family rubber till nine, then Scripture - reading and worship, when the ladies and servants retired, leaving the admiral and his gentleman friends, fortified with cigars, whisky, and water, to relate naval stories and discuss religious themes till two or three o’clock in the morning. Owen’s three chosen intimates were designated as Academicus, Rusticus, and Theophilus. His library, which they frequently consulted, was a sad medley of dictionaries and the theology of Oxford divines. Methodism and Romanism were alike hateful to the hermit admiral, who, in quoting from holy writ, always rendered “the wiles” as “ the methodisms ” of the devil. Every week he read to his neighbors two lectures “ from unexceptionable sources, yet so modified as to contain all that was expedient to explain of his peculiar opinions.”
Once a year the maids and men of the great house had a ball, the ladies playing for them even all night. Twice in the twelve months occurred housecleaning, when a dress was given to each busy worker. The servants were often reminded to take no more than was necessary on their plates; for economy, though not parsimony, was the rule of the house. Guests came from the mainland and from every vessel of war. Admiral Owen and his house were the fashion for many long years.
The population of the island increased, and the old man married the boys and girls at church or at home, slowly or hastily, as his humor bade him, always claiming the first kiss of the bride. A certain sailor, who had wooed a Campobello maiden, was determined that this privilege should not be granted by her, and therefore saluted his bride before the service was ended.
“ You are not married yet. Back ! ” shouted the admiral. Frightened, the sailor groom turned his face and his feet towards the minister-magistrate, who more and more slowly repeated the words of the service, as he approached nearer to the lady, till, with the last word, he snatched the first kiss.
Now and then there was a roof-raising? — a roof that, from its size, hardly demanded much neighborly assistance, but it served as pretext for merriment. At such times, the man who owned three generations of Bay-Shells-Ore cats was considered lucky; for the presence of the double - footed species, with seven claws, was surety for happiness in a new abode.
The admiral’s life was embittered by the obstinacy with which some of the people refused to pay him allegiance. They were the descendants of one Wilson, who, in David’s time, had squatted at Plead Harbor, and had built across his end of the island a brush fence, which was considered to give the sanctity of a written deed to Wilson’s claim. David Owen contested the validity of custom, and a lawsuit followed, which was decided in favor of the squatter. This decision was very embarrassing to David, who feared that through its effect he might lose possession of another neck of land. So he hastened home from the court, outstripping his rival, and told a squatter who lived on a second point of the island that, as the verdict in the Head Harbor case had been rendered in the Owen favor, he had better sell out at once, or else the law would make him do so. This reasoning, though illogical, was convincing, and the terrified fisherman is reported to have made lawful deed of his possessions to David for a round of pork, an old gun, and two or three other articles. When Wilson arrived, belated by wind and tide, the fraud, or joke, was discovered, but as no remedy was found for it the Owens ruled all the island except Head Harbor. There Wilson and his followers established a thriving settlement, whose prosperity was a constant grievance to the admiral when he came to live at Campobello. Neither flattery nor bribery could induce them to become his vassals.
Nowhere on the coast of Maine has there been a more curious mingling of rank, with its investiture of ceremony and of simple folk-life, of loyalty to the Queen and her representatives, and of the American spirit of personal independence. All the people were familiar with the great family, while the better part of them were bidden to theatrical performances, for which the admiral composed songs. In his diary there is a record that “ three large, eleven middle, and fourteen small masts were hoisted on board a vessel, and sent as tribute to England.” Such occasional homage must have been justification for a merry-making.
The inhabitants themselves were rather enterprising in business; for rum and lumber were exchangeable quantities with the venturesome Campobello captains, who traded with the Southern ports and the West Indies, and carried Nova Scotia grindstones to the States. Bolder, but quieter in action, were the smugglers, who, deep amid the woods, near the only fresh-water pond of the island, alternately came and vanished. Much of their spare time was spent in digging for an iron chest of Spanish doubloons, buried by ancient buccaneers. The admiral and his family often rode through the woods to watch the men in their hopeless work, and to obtain their share of the treasure-trove if ever it were found. One bright morning every digger had fled, leaving a deep excavation in the ground ; but far down on its sides, marked out by the iron rust which had clung to the earth, the outlines of a chest were visible. A cart track and the ruins of four or five huts are all that now remain of the site of this mysterious activity. With the departure of these smugglers disappeared the steady excitement of years, the perpetual topic of conversation ; thereafter, the people could only question each other about the strange wreck whose rotting timbers were old a century before. Its last remnants have now been carved into love tokens.
Saddest were the days when the admiral strode up and down his imaginary quarter-deck, his empire a fishing settlement, where boys’ wages had once been three cents a day. Eastport still owned the islands around it: the people brought in their fish, and sold it for groceries and other articles at stores where it was credited to them. The little vessels crossing the bay made it gay for the admiral’s eyes, but his spirit sank as he fancied that some boat might be drifting round an inlet, with its owner frozen to the mast amid the supplies he was bringing to his family, who were waiting in vain for the father to return ; or as he thought of the burden of this everincreasing debit and credit system, or of the perils of the smugglers. Later, when the duties were taken off by the United States, smuggling disappeared, and Campobello business went down. Could it ever have been said to exist ? A few persons possessed enough ready money to build the picturesque weirs which fringe the island with their stakes, driven three or four feet apart, and ribboned together with small round poles. The dried foliage and the dripping seaweed clinging to them give a ghastly beauty to this living mausoleum of the herring.
But all this was a narrow confine for the social and political ambition of the admiral. An exile because of poverty, that compelled him to accept the royal gift, he felt that he must devote himself to controversial discussion and the erecting of a new Episcopal church. Before his day the people had been Baptists ; now personal loyalty anglicized their religion. The regularly ordained preacher was sent from St. Andrew’s but four or five times a year; on all other appointed days the admiral read his beloved service, even till 1842, when a resident missionary came to live in the island. Thirteen years after, in 1855, the church and burial-ground were consecrated by the bishop of the diocese. Most solemn and tender must have been those first rites, when confirmation was administered to three persons and holy communion to forty others, in that little building surrounded by the dark, balsamic firs, and looking with its cross over the waters towards the New England steeples. English friends sent money to the church, and the Owen family gave memorial offerings. The reredos, with its silver cross, was a memorial to Captain John Robinson, the grandson of the admiral. The block of stone from which the font was carved was taken from the Church of the Knights Templars at Malta, and carried to Florence by the admiral’s sonin-law, there to be wrought into graceful form, and then was borne across the ocean to this tiny, much-loved church. The chancel carpet, worked on canvas in cross-stitch ; the altar vestments ; the stoles ; the chalice veils, green, white, crimson, purple, each bearing the symbol of the cross in varied stitch and design, were all wrought by the delicate, fair hands of the admiral’s daughter, her children, and their friends, as an offering of self-consecration and of devotion to the building up of a higher life among the islanders. These, too, brought their gifts, and replaced with chandeliers the wax candles which had been set in holes in the book-rests; and when the sea called away the men, an old lady, rich in humility and good works, rang the bell for the weekly services.
Two years after this consecration the admiral died. During the last five years of his life he had spent much of his time in St. John, as he had there made a second marriage, leaving his daughter, Mrs. Robinson, and her children in his island home. The boat that bore him back for the last time to his hermitage ran aground ; for the great falling tides bade him wait, even in the pomp of death, until it was their hour to bear him aloft on his oft-trod pier. Men, women, and children seized lantern, candle, or torch, and carried their hermit lord over the rough stones and the narrow ways to the cemetery, where they buried him at eventide, amid the waving trees, and with the sound of falling tears.
His daughter dwelt a little longer amongst his tenants, caring for his church, his school, and his old people; then she too wandered away, and the island passed into other hands. But the memory of the Quoddy Hermit nestles in the hearts of the children who play around the weirs, and who have learnt from their grandsires the tales of his jokes, his oddities, and his kindnesses.
Kate Gannett Wells.