163 Uncle Christopher (1852) By Alice Cary
The night was intensely cold, but not dismal, for all the hills and meadows, all the steep roofs of the farm-houses, and the black roofs of the barns, were white as snow could make them. The haystacks looked like high, smooth heaps of snow, and the fences, in their zigzag course across the fields, seemed made of snow too, and half the trees had their limbs encrusted with the pure white.
Through the middle of the road, and between banks out of which it seemed to have been cut, ran a path, hard and blue and icy, and so narrow that only two horses could move in it abreast; and almost all the while I could hear the merry music of bells, or the clear and joyous voices of sleigh riders, exultant in the frosty and sparkling air.
“With his head pushed under the curtain of the window next the road, so that his face touched the glass, stood my father, watching with as much interest, the things without, as I the pictures in the fire. His hands were thrust deep in his pockets; both his vest and coat hung loosely open ; and so for a half hour he had stood, dividing my musings with joyous exclamations as the gay riders went by, singly, or in companies. Now it was a sled running over with children that he told me of; now an old man and woman wrapt in a coverlid and driving one poor horse; and now a bright sleigh with fine horses, jingling bells, and a troop of merry young folks. Then again he called out, “There goes a spider-legged thing that I wouldn’t ride in,” and this remark I knew referred to one of those contrivances which are gotten up on the spur of a moment, and generally after the snow begins to fall, consisting of two limber saplings on which a seat is fixed, and which serve for runners, fills, and all.
It was not often we had such a deep snow as this, and it carried the thoughts of my father away back to his boyhood, for he had lived among the mountains then, and been used to the hardy winters which keep their empire nearly half the year. Turning from the window, he remarked, at length, “This is a nice time to go to Uncle Christopher’s, or some where.”
“Yes,” I said, “it would be a nice time;” but I did not think so, all the while, for the snow and I were never good friends. I knew, however, that my father would like above all things to visit Uncle Christopher, and that, better still, though he did not like to own it, he would enjoy the sleighing.
“I want to see Uncle Christopher directly,” he continued, “about getting some spring wheat to sow.”
“It is very cold,” I said, “is n’t it ?” I really could n’t help the question.
“Just comfortably so,” he answered, moving back from the fire.
Two or three times I tried to say, “Suppose we go,” but the words were difficult, and not till he had said, “Nobody ever wants to go with me to Uncle Christopher’s, nor anywhere,” did I respond, heartily, “Oh, yes, father, I want to go.”
In a minute afterwards, I heard him giving directions about the sleigh and horses.
“I am afraid, sir, you ’ll find it pretty cold,” replied Billy, as he rose to obey.
“I don’t care about going myself,” continued my father, apologetically, “but my daughter has taken a fancy to a ride, and so 1 must oblige her.”
A few minutes, and a pair of handsome, well-kept horses were champing the bit, and pawing the snow at the door, while shawls, mittens, &c., were warmed at the fire. It was hard to see the bright coals smothered under the ashes, and the chairs set away ; but I forced a smile to my lips, and as my father said “Ready ?” I answered “Ready,” and the door closed on the genial atmosphere—the horses stepped forward and backward, flung their heads up and down, curved their necks to the tightening rein, and we were off. The fates be praised, it is not to do again. All the shawls and muffs in Christendom could not avail against such a night—so still, clear, and intensely cold. The very stars seemed sharpened against the ice, and the white moonbeams slanted earthward, and pierced our faces like thorns—I think they had substance that night, and were stiff; and the thickest veil, doubled twice or thrice, was less than gossamer, and yet the wind did not blow, even so much as to stir one flake of snow from the bent boughs.
At first we talked with some attempts at mirth, but sobered presently and said little, as we glided almost noiselessly along the hard and smooth road. We had gone, perhaps, five miles to the northward, when we turned from the paved and level way into a narrow lane, or neighborhood road, as it was called, seeming to me hilly and winding and wild, for I had never been there before. The track was not so well worn, but my father pronounced it better than that we had left, and among the stumps and logs, and between hills and over hills, now through thick woods, and now through openings, we went crushing along. We passed a few cabins and old-fashioned houses, but not many, and the distances between them grew greater and greater, and there were many fields and many dark patches of woods between the lights. Every successive habitation I hoped would terminate our journey—our pleasure, 1 should have said—yet still we went on, and on.
“Is it much farther” I asked, at length.
“Oh, no—only four or five miles,” replied my father ; and he added, “Why, are you getting cold ?”
“Not much,” I said, putting my hand to my face to ascertain that it was not frozen.
At last we turned into a lane, narrower, darker, and more lonesome still—edged with woods on either side, and leading up and up and up farther than I could see. No path had been previously broken, and the horses sunk knee deep at every step, their harness tightening as they strained forward, and their steamy breath drifting back, and freezing stiff my veil. At the summit the way was interrupted by a cross fence, and a gate was to be opened—a heavy thing, painted red, and fastened with a chain. It had been well secured, for after half an hour’s attempts to open it, we found ourselves defied.
“I guess we’ll have to leave the horses and walk to the house,” said my father; “it’s only a little step.”
I felt terrible misgivings; the gate opened into an orchard; I could see no house, and the deep snow lay all unbroken ; but there was no help; I must go forward as best I could, or remain and freeze. It was difficult to choose, but I decided to go on. In some places the snow was blown aside, and we walked a few steps on ground almost bare, but in the end high drifts met us, through which we could scarcely press our way. In a little while we began to descend, and soon, abruptly, in a nook sheltered by trees, and higher hills, I saw a curious combination of houses—brick, wood, and stone—and a great gray barn, looking desolate enough in the moonlight, though about it stood half a dozen of inferior size. But another and a more cheerful indication of humanity attracted me. On the brink of the hill stood two persons with a small hand-sled between them, which they seemed to have just drawn up; in the imperfect light, they appeared to be mere youths, the youngest not more than ten or twelve years of age. Their laughter rang on the cold air, and our approach, instead of checking, seemed to increase their mirth.
“Laugh, Mark, laugh,” said the taller of the two, as we drew near, “so they will see our path—they ’re going right through the deep snow.”
But in stead, the little fellow stepped manfully forward, and directed us into the track broken by their sleds. At the foot of the hill we came upon the medley of buildings, so incongruous that they might have been blown together by chance. Light appeared in the windows of that portion which was built of stone, but we heard no sound, and the snow about the door had not been disturbed since its fall. “And this,” said I, “is where Uncle Christopher Wright lives’?”
A black dog, with yellow spots under his eyes, stood suddenly before us, and growled so forbiddingly that we drew back.
“He will not bite,” said the little boy; for the merry makers had landed on their sled at the foot of the hill, and followed us to the door ; and in a moment the larger youth dashed past us, seized the dog by the fore paws, and dragged him violently aside, snarling and whimpering all the time.
“Haven’t you got no more sense,” he exclaimed, “than to bark so at a gentleman and ladies ?”
In answer to our quick rap, the door opened at once, and the circle about the great blazing log fire was broken by a general rising. The group consisted of eight persons—one man and seven women; the women so closely resembling each other, that one could not tell them apart; not even the mother from the daughters—for she appeared as young as the oldest of them— except by her cap and spectacles. All the seven were very slender, very straight, and very tall; all had dark complexions, black eyes, low foreheads, straight noses, and projecting teeth; and all were dressed precisely alike, in gowns of brown flannel, and coarse leather boots, with blue woollen stockings, and small capes, of red and yellow calico. The six daughters were all marriageable; at least the youngest of them was. They had staid, almost severe, expressions of countenances, and scarcely spoke during the evening. By one corner of the great fireplace they huddled together, each busy with knitting, and all occupied with long blue stockings, advanced in nearly similar degrees toward completion. Now and then they said “ Yes, ma’m,” or “ No main,” when I spoke to them, but never or very rarely any thing more. As I said, Mrs. Wright differed from her daughters in appearance, only in that she wore a cap and spectacles; but she was neither silent nor ill at ease as they were; on the contrary, she industriously filled up all the little spaces unoccupied by her good man in the conversation; she set off his excellencies, as a frame does a picture; and before we were even seated, she expressed her delight that we had come when “ Christopher” was at home, as, owing to his gift, he was much abroad.
Uncle Christopher was a tall muscular man of sixty or thereabouts, dressed in what might be termed stylish homespun coat, trowsers and waistcoat, of snuff-colored cloth. His cravat was of red-and-white-checked gingham, but it was quite hidden under his long grizzly beard, which he wore in full, this .peculiarity being a part of his religion. His hair was of the same color, combed straight from his forehead, and turned over in one even curl on the back of the neck. Heavy gray eyebrows met over a hooked nose, and deep in his head twinkled two little blue eyes, which seemed to say, “I am delighted with myself, and, of course, you are with me.” Between his knees he held a stout hickory stick, on which, occasionally, when he had settled something beyond the shadow of doubt, he rested his chin for a moment, and enjoyed the triumph. He rose on our entrance, for he had been seated beside a small table, where he monopolized a good portion of the light, and all the warmth, and having shaken hands with my father and welcomed him in a long and pompous speech, during which the good wife bowed her head, and listened as to an oracle, he greeted me in the same way, saying, “This, I suppose, is the virgin who abideth still in the house with you. She is not given, I hope, to gadding overmuch, nor to vain and foolish decorations of her person with ear-rings and finger-rings, and crisping-pins: for such are unprofitable, yea, abominable. My daughter, consider it well, and look upon it, and receive instruction.” I was about replying, I don’t know what, when he checked me by saying, “Much speech in a woman is as the crackling of thorns under a pot. Open rebuke,” he continued, “is better than secret love.” Then pointing with his cane in the direction of the six girls, he said, “Rise, maidens, and salute your kinswoman;” and as they stood up, pointing to each with his stick, he called their names, beginning with Abagail, eldest of the daughters of Rachael Wright and Christopher Wright, and ending with Lucinda, youngest born of Rachael Wright and Christopher Wright. Each, as she was referred to, made a quick ungraceful curtsy, and resumed her seat and her knitting.
A half hour afterward, seeing that we remained silent, the father said, by way of a gracious permission of conversation, I suppose, “A little talk of flax and wool, and of household diligence, would not ill become the daughters of our house.” Upon hearing this, Lucinda, who, her mother remarked, had the “ liveliest turn” of any of the girls, asked me if I liked to knit; to which I answered, “Yes,” and added, “Is it a favorite occupation with you?” she replied, “Yes ma’m,” and after a long silence, inquired how many cows we milked, and at the end of another pause, whether we had colored our flannel brown or blue; if we had gathered many hickory nuts ; if our apples were keeping well, etc.
The room in which we sat was large, with a low ceiling, and bare floor, and so open about the windows and doors, that the slightest movement of the air without would keep the candle flame in motion, and chill those who were not sitting nearest the fire, which blazed and crackled and roared in the chimney. Uncle Christopher, as my father had always called him (though he was uncle so many degrees removed that I never exactly knew the relationship), laid aside the old volume from which he had been reading, removed the two pairs of spectacles he had previously worn, and hung them, by leather strings connecting their bows, on a nail in the stone jamb by which he sat, and talked, and talked ; and talked, and I soon discovered by his conversation, aided by the occasional explanatory whispers of his wife, that he was one of those infatuated men who fancy themselves “called ” to be teachers of religion, though he had neither talents, education, nor anything else to warrant such a notion, except a faculty for joining pompous and half scriptural phrases, from January to December.
That inward purity must be manifested by a public washing of the feet, that it was a sin to shave the beard, and an abomination for a man to be hired to preach, were his doctrines, I believe, and much time and some money he spent in their vindication.From neighborhood to neighborhood he traveled, now entering a blacksmith’s shop and delivering a homily, now debating with the boys in the cornfield, and now obtruding into some church, where peaceable worshippers were assembled, with intimations that they had “broken teeth, and feet out of joint,” that they were “like cold and snow in the time of harvest, yea, worse, even as pot-sheds covered with silver dross.” And such exhortations he often concluded by quoting the passage : “Though thou shouldst bray a fool in a mortar among wheat, with a postle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him.”
More than half an hour elapsed before the youths whose sliding down the hill had been interrupted by us, entered the house. Their hands and faces were red and stiffened with the cold, yet they kept shyly away from the fire, and no one noticed or made room for them. Both interested me at once, and partly, perhaps, that they seemed to interest nobody else. The taller was not so young as I at first imagined ; he was ungraceful, shambling, awkward, and possessed one of those clean, pinky complexions which look so youthful; his hair was yellow, his eyes small and blue, with an unquiet expression, and his hands and feet inordinately large ; and when he spoke, it was to the boy who sat on a low 1 stool beside him, in a whisper, which he evidently meant to be inaudible to others, but which was, nevertheless, quite distinct to me. He seemed to exercise a kind of brotherly care over the boy, but he did not speak, nor move, nor look up, nor look down, nor turn aside, nor sit still, without an air of the most wretched embarrassment. I should not have written “sit still,” for he changed his position continually, and each time his face grew crimson, and, to cover his confusion, as it were, he drew from his pocket a large silk handkerchief, rubbed his lips, and replaced it, at the same time moving and screwing and twisting the toe of his boot in every direction.
I felt glad of his attention to the boy, for he seemed silent and thoughtful beyond his years ; perhaps he was lonesome, I thought; certainly he was not happy, for he leaned his chin on his hand, which was cracked and bleeding, and now and then when his companion ceased to speak, the tears gathered to his eyes; but he seemed willing to be pleased, and brushed the tears off his face and smiled, when the young man laid his great hand on his head, and, shaking it roughly, said, “Mark, Mark, Marky!”
“I can’t help thinking about the money,” said the boy, at last, “ and how many new things it would have bought: just think of it, Andrew!”
“How Towser did bark at them people, didn’t he, Mark?” said Andrew, not heeding what had been said to him.
“All new things!” murmured the boy, sorrowfully, glancing at his patched trowsers and ragged shoes.
“In three days it will be New-Year’s ; and then, Mark, won’t we have fun !” and Andrew rubbed his huge hands together, in glee, at the prospect.
“It won’t be no fun as I know of,” replied the boy.
“May be the girls will bake, some cakes,” said Andrew, turning red, and looking sideways at the young women.
Mark laughed, and, looking up, he recognized the interested look with which I regarded him, and from that moment we were friends.
At the sound of laughter, Uncle Christopher struck his cane on the floor, and looking sternly toward the offenders, said, “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back!” leaving to them the application, which they made, I suppose, for they became silent—the younger dropping his chin in his hands again, and the elder twisting the toe of his boot, and using his handkerchief very freely.
I thought we should never go home, for I soon tired of Uncle Christopher’s conversation, and of Aunt Rachael’s continual allusions to his “gift;” he was evidently regarded by her as not only the man of the house, but also as the man of all the-world. The six young women had knitted their six blue stockings from the heel to the toe, and had begun precisely at the same time to taper them off, with six little white balls of yarn.
The clock struck eleven, and I ventured, timidly, to suggest my wish to return home. Mark, who sat drowsily in his chair, looked at me beseechingly, and when Aunt Rachael said, “Tut, tut! you are not going home to-night!” he laughed again, despite the late admonition. All the six young women also said, “You can stay just as well as not;” and I felt as if I were to be imprisoned, and began urging the impossibility of doing so, when Uncle Christopher put an end to remonstrance by exclaiming, “It is better to dwell in the corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman, and in a wide house.” It was soon determined that I should remain, not only for the night, but ’till the weather grew warmer ; and I can feel now something of the pang I experienced when I heard the horses snorting on their homeward way, after the door had closed upon me.
“I am glad you didn’t get to go!” whispered Mark, close to me, favored by a slight confusion induced by the climbing of the six young ladies upon six chairs, to hang over six lines, attached to the rafters, the six stockings.
There was no variableness in the order of things at Uncle Christopher’s, but all went regularly forward without even a casual observation, and to see one day, was to see the entire experience in the family.
“He has a great gift in prayer,” said Aunt Rachael, pulling my sleeve, as the hour for worship arrived.
I did not then, nor can I to this day, agree with her. I would not treat such matters with levity, and will not repeat the formula which this “gifted man” went over morning and evening, but he did not fail on each occasion to make known to the All-Wise the condition in which matters stood, and to assure him, that he himself was doing a great deal for their better management in the future. It was not so much a prayer as an announcement of the latest intelligence, even to “the visit of his kinswoman who was still detained by the severity of the elements.”
It was through the exercise of his wonderful gift, that I first learned the histories of Andrew and Mark ; that the former was a relation from the interior of Indiana, who, for feeding and milking Uncle Christopher’s cows morning and evening, and the general oversight of affairs, when the great man was abroad, enjoyed the privilege of attending the district school in the neighborhood ; and that the latter was the “son of his son,” a “wicked and troublesome boy, for the present subjected to the chastening influences of a righteous discipline.”
As a mere matter of form, Uncle Christopher always said, l will do so or so, “ Providence permitting but he felt competent to do anything and everything on his own account, to 11 the drawing out of the Leviathan with an hook, or his tongue with a cord—to the putting a hook into his nose, or the boring his jaw through with a thorn.”
“I believe it’s getting colder,” said Andrew, as he opened the door of the stairway, darkly winding over the great oven, to a low chamber ; and, chuckling, he disappeared. He was pleased, as a child would be, with the novelty of a visitor, and perhaps half believed it was colder, because he hoped it was so. Mark gave me a smile as he sidled past his grandfather, and disappeared within the smoky avenue. We had scarcely spoken together, but somehow he had recognized the kindly disposition I felt toward him.
As I lay awake, among bags of meal and flour, boxes of hickory nuts and apples, with heaps of seed, wheat, oats, and barley, that filled the chamber into which I had been shown—cold, despite the twenty coverlids heaped over me—I kept thinking of little Mark, and wondering what was the story of the money he had referred to. I could not reconcile myself to the assumption of Uncle Christopher that he was a wicked boy; and, falling asleep at last, I dreamed the hard old man was beating him with his walking-stick, because the child was not big enough to fill his own snuff-colored coat and trowsers. And certainly this would have been little more absurd than his real effort to change the boy into a man.
There was yet no sign of daylight, when the stir of the family awoke me, and, knowing they would think very badly of me should 1 further indulge my disposition for sleep, I began to feel in the darkness for the various articles of my dress. At length, half awake, I made my way through and over the obstructions in the chamber, to the room below, which the blazing logs filled with light. The table was spread, and in the genial warmth sat Uncle Christopher, doing nothing. He turned his blue eyes upon me as 1 entered, and said, “Let a bear robbed of her whelps meet a man, rather than she who crieth, A little more sleep, and a little more slumber.”
“Did he say anything to you?” asked Aunt Rachael, as I entered the kitchen in search of a wash-bowl. “It must have been just to the purpose,” she continued ; “Christopher always says something to the purpose.”
There was no bowl, no accommodations, for one’s toilet: Uncle Christopher did not approve of useless expenditures. I was advised to make an application of snow to my hands and face, and while I was doing so, I saw a light moving about the stables, and heard Andrew say, in a chuckling, pleased tone, “B’lieve it’s colder, Mark—she can’t go home to-day; and if she is only here till New-Years, maybe they will kill the big turkey.” I felt, while melting on my cheeks the snow, that it was no warmer, and, perhaps, a little flattered with the evident liking of the young man and the boy, I resolved to make the best of my detention. I could see nothing to do, for seven women were already moving about by the light of a single tallow candle ; the pork was frying, and the coffee boiling ; the bread and butter were on the table, and there was nothing more, apparently, to be accomplished. I dared not sit down, however, and so remained in the comfortless kitchen, as some atonement for my involuntary idleness. At length the tin-horn was sounded, and shortly after Andrew and Mark came in, and breakfast was announced ; in other words, Aunt Rachael placed her hand on her good man’s chair, and said, “Come.”
To the coarse fire before us we all helped ourselves in silence, except of the bread, and that was placed under the management of Uncle Christopher, and with the same knife he used in eating, slices were cut as they were required. The little courage I summoned while alone in the snow—thinking I might make myself useful, and do something to occupy my time, and oblige the family—flagged and failed during that comfortless meal. My poor attempts at cheerfulness fell like moonbeams on ice, except, indeed, that Andrew and Mark looked grateful.
Several times, before we left the table, I noticed the cry of a kitten, seeming to come from the kitchen, and that when Uncle Christopher turned his ear in that direction, Mark looked at Andrew who rubbed his lips more earnestly than I had seen him before.
When the breakfast, at last, was ended, the old man proceeded to search out the harmless offender, with the instincts of some animal hungry for blood. I knew its doom, when it was discovered, clinging so tightly to the old hat, in which Mark had hidden it, dry and warm, by the kitchen fire; it had been better left in the cold snow, for I saw that the sharp little eyes which looked on it grew hard as stone.
“Mark,” said Uncle Christopher, “into your hands I deliver this unclean beast: there is an old well digged by my father, and which lieth easterly a rod or more from the great barn—uncover the mouth thereof, and when you have borne the creature thither, cast it down!”
Mark looked as if he were suffering torture, and when, with the victim, he had reached the door, he turned, as if constrained by pity, and said, “Can’t it stay in the barn?”
“No,” answered Uncle Christopher, bringing down his great stick on the floor; “but you can stay in the barn, till you learn better than to gainsay my judgment.” Rising, he pointed in the direction of the well, and followed, as I inferred, to see that his order was executed, deigning to offer neither reason nor explanation.
Andrew looked wistfully after, but dared not follow, and, taking from the mantle-shelf Walker’s Dictionary, he began to study a column of definitions, in a whisper sufficiently loud for every one in the house to hear.
I inquired if that were one of his studies at school; but so painful was the embarrassment occasioned by the question, though he simply answered, “B’lieve it is,” that I repented, and perhaps the more, as it failed of its purpose of inducing a somewhat lower whisper, in his mechanical repetitions of the words, which he resumed with the same annoying distinctness.
With the first appearance of daylight the single candle was snuffed out, and it now stood filling the room with smoke from its long limber wick, while the seven women removed the dishes, and I changed from place to place that I might seem to have some employment; and Andrew, his head and face heated in the blaze from the fireplace, studied the Dictionary. In half an hour Uncle Christopher returned, with stern satisfaction depicted in his face: the kitten was in the well, and Mark was in the barn; I felt that, and was miserable.
I asked for something to do, as the old man, resuming his seat, and, folding his hands over his staff, began a homily on the beauty of industry, and was given some patch-work; “There are fifty blocks in the quilt,” said Aunt Rachael, “and each of them contains three hundred pieces.”
I wrought diligently all the day, though I failed to see the use or beauty of the work on which I was engaged.
At last Andrew, putting his Dictionary in his pocket, saying, “I b’lieve I have my lesson by heart,” and, a piece of bread and butter in the top of his hat, tacked the ends of his green woolen trowsers in his cowhide boots, and, without a word of kindness or encouragement, left the house for the school.
By this time the seven women had untwisted seven skeins of blue yarn, which they wound into seven blue balls, and each at the same time began the knitting of seven blue stockings.
That was a very long day to me, and as the hours went by I grew restless, and then wretched. Was little Mark all this time in the cold barn? Scratching the frost from the window pane, I looked in the direction from which I expected him to come, but he was nowhere to be seen.
The quick clicking of the knitting-needles grew hateful, the shut mouths and narrow foreheads of the seven women grew hateful, and hatefulest of all grew the small blue shining eyes of Uncle Christopher, as they bent on the yellow worm-eaten page of the old book he read. He was warm and comfortable, and had forgotten the existence of the little boy he had driven cut into the cold.
I put down my work at last, and cold as it was, ventured out. There were narrow paths leading to the many barns and cribs, and entering one after another, I called to Mark, but in vain. Calves started up, and, placing their fore feet in the troughs from which they usually fed, looked at me, half in wonder and half in fear; the horses—and there seemed to be dozens of them—stamped, and whinnied, and, thrusting their noses through their mangers, pressed them into a thousand wrinkles, snuffing the air instead of expected oats. It was so intensely cold I began to fear the boy was dead, and turned over bundles of hay and straw, half expecting to find his stiffened corpse beneath them, but I did not, and was about leaving the green walls of hay that rose smoothly on each side of me, the great dusty beams and black cobwebs swaying here and there in the wind, when a thought struck me: the well—he might have fallen in! Having gone “a rod or more, easterly from the barn,” directed by great footprints and little footprints, I discovered the place, and to my joy, the boy also. There was no curb about the well, and, with his hands resting on a decayed strip of plank that lay across its mouth, the boy was kneeling beside it, and looking in. He had not heard my approach, and, stooping, I drew him carefully back, showed him how the plank was decayed, and warned him against such fearful hazards.
“But,” he said, half laughing, and half crying, “just see !” and he pulled me toward the well. The opening was small and dark, and seemed very deep, and as I looked more intently my vision gradually penetrated to the bottom; I could see the still pool there, and a little above it, crouching on a loose stone or other projection of the wall, the kitten, turning her shining eyes upward now and then, and mewing piteously.
“Do you think she will get any of it?” said Mark, the tears coming into his eyes; “and if she does, how long will she live there?” The kind-hearted child had been dropping down bits of bread for the prisoner.
He was afraid to go to the house, but when I told him Uncle Christopher might scold me if he scolded any one, and that I would tell him so, he was prevailed upon to accompany me.
The hard man was evidently ashamed when he saw the child hiding behind my skirts for fear, and at first said nothing. But directly Mark began to cry—there was such an aching and stinging in his fingers and toes, he could not help it.
“Boo, hoo, hoo !” said the old man, making three times as much noise as the boy—“what’s the matter now ?”
“I suppose his hands and feet are frozen,” said I, as though I knew it, and would maintain it in spite of him, and I confess I felt a secret satisfaction in showing him his cruelty.
“Oh, I guess not,” Aunt Rachael said, quickly, alarmed for my cool assertion as well as for the child: “only a leetle frosted, I reckon. Whereabouts does it hurt you, my son ?” she continued, stooping over him with a human sympathy and fondness I had not previously seen in any of the family.
“Frosted a leetle—that’s all, Christopher,” she said, by way of soothing her lord’s compunction, and, at the same time, taking in her hands the feet of the boy, which he flung about for pain, crying bitterly. “ Hush, little honey,” she said, kissing him, and afraid the good man would be vexed at the crying; and as she sat there holding his feet, and tenderly soothing him, I at first could not believe she was the same dark and sedate matron who had been knitting the blue stocking.
“Woman, fret not thy gizzard!” said Christopher, slapping his book on the table, and hanging his spectacles on the jamb. The transient beauty all dropt away, the old expression of obsequious servility was back, and she resumed her seat and her knitting.
“There, let me doctor you,” he continued, drawing the child’s stocking off. The feet were covered with blisters, and presented the appearance of having been scalded. “Why, boy alive,” said he, as he saw the blisters, “these are nothing—they will make you grow.” He was forgetting his old pomposity, and, as if aware of it, resumed, “Thou hast been chastised according to thy deserts—go forth in the face of the wind, even the north wind, and, as the ox treadeth the mortar, tread thou the snow.”
“You see, Markey,” interposed Mrs. Wright, whose heart was really kind,—“you see your feet are a leetle frosted, and that will make them well.”
The little fellow wiped his tears with his hand, which was cracked and bleeding from the cold; and, between laughing and crying, ran manfully out into the snow.
It was almost night, and the red clouds about the sunset began to cast their shadows along the hills. The seven women went into the kitchen for the preparation of dinner, (we ate but two meals in the day) and I went to the window to watch Mark as he trod the snow “even as an ox treadeth the mortar.”
There he was, running hither and thither, and up and down, but, to my surprise, not alone. Andrew, who had returned from school, and found his little friend in such a sorry plight, had, for the sake of giving him courage, bared his own feet, and was chasing after him in generously well-feigned enjoyment. Towser, too, had come forth from his kennel of straw, and a gay frolic they made of it, all together.
I need not describe the dinner—it differed only from the breakfast, in that it had potatoes added to the bread and pork. I remember never days so long, before nor since; and that night, as the women resumed their knitting, and Uncle Christopher his old book, I could hardly keep from crying like a child, I was so lonesome and homesick. The wind roared in the neighboring woods, the frozen branches rattled against the stone wall, and sometimes the blaze w’as blown quite out of the fire-place. I could not see to make my patch-work, for Uncle Christopher monopolized the one candle, and no one questioned his right to do so; and, at last, conscious of the displeasure that would follow me, I put by the patches, and joined Mark and Andrew, who were shelling corn in the kitchen. They were not permitted to burn a candle, but the great fire-place was full of blazing logs, and, on seeing me, their faces kindled into smiles, which helped to light the room, I thought. The floor was covered with red and white cobs, and there were sacks of ripe corn, and tubs of shelled corn, about the floor, and, taking a stool, I joined them at their work. At first, Andrew was so much confused, and rubbed his mouth so much with his handkerchief, that he shelled but little ; gradually, however, he overcame his diffidence, and seemed to enjoy the privilege of conversation, which he did not often have, poor fellow. Little Mark made slow progress; his tender hands shrank from contact with the rough ears, and when I took his place, and asked him where he lived, and how old he was, his heart was quite won, and he found delight in communicating to me his little joys and sorrows. He was not pretty, certainly—his eyes were gray and large, his hair red, his expression surly, his voice querulous, and his manner unamiable, except, indeed, when talking with Andrew or myself.
I have been mistaken, I thought; he is really amiable and sweet-tempered ; and, as I observed him very closely, his more habitual expression came to his face, and he said, abruptly, “ I don’t like grandfather !” “ Why ?” I said, smoothing back his hair, for I liked him the better for saying so. “Because,” he replied, “he don’t like me;” and, in a moment, he continued, while his eyes moistened, “nobody likes me—everybody says I’m bad and ugly.”
“Oh, Mark!” exclaimed Andrew, “I like you, but I know somebody I don’t like—somebody that wears speetaclesses, and a long beard—I don’t say it’s Uncle Christopher, and I don’t say it ain’t.” Mark laughed, partly at the peculiar manner in which Andrew’ expressed himself; and when I told him I liked him too, and didn’t think him either bad or ugly, he pulled at the hem of my apron as he remarked, that he should like to live with Andrew and me, always.
I answered that I would very gladly take him with me when I went home, and his face shone with pleasure, as he told me he had never yet ridden in a sleigh. But the pleasure lasted only a moment, and, with an altered and pained expression, he said, “I can’t go—these things are all I have got,” and he pointed to his homely and ill-conditioned clothes.
“ Never mind, I will mend them,” I said ; and, wiping his eyes, he told me that once he had enough money to buy ever so many clothes, that he earned it by doing errands, sawing wood, and other services, for the man who lived next door to his father in the city, and that one Saturday night, when he had done something that pleased his employer, he paid him all he owed, and a little more, for being a good boy. “As I was running home,” said he, “I met two boys that I knew; so I stopped to show them how much money I had, and when they told me to put it on the pavement in three little heaps, so we could see how much it made, I did so, and they, each one of them, seized a heap and ran away, and that,” said Mark, “is just the truth.”
“And what did you do then” I asked.
“I told father,” he answered, “and he said I was a simpleton, and it was good enough for me—that he would send me out here, and grandfather would straighten me.”
“Never mind, Markey,” said Andrew, “it will be New- Year’s, day after to-morrow.”
And so, sitting in the light of the cob-fire, and guessing what they would get in their stockings, I left them for the night.
I did not dampen their expectations of a good time, but I saw little cause to believe any pleasant dreams of their’s would be realized, as I had seen no indications of preparation for the holidays, even to the degree of a plumb cake, or mince-pie.
But I was certain of one thing—whatever Mark was, they would not make him any better. As he said, nobody loved him, nobody spoke to him, from morning till night, unless to correct or order him, in some way; and so, perhaps, he sometimes did things he ought not to do, merely to amuse his idleness. In all ways he was expected to have the wisdom of a man—to rise as early, and sit up as late, endure the heat and cold as well, and perform nearly as much labor. So, to say the truth, he was, for the most part, sulky and sullen, and did reluctantly that which he had to do, and no more, except, indeed, at the suggestion of Andrew, or while I was at the house, because I at my request, and then work seemed only play to him.
The following morning was precisely like the morning that preceded it; the family rose before the daylight, and moved about by the tallow candle, and prepared breakfast, while Uncle Christopher sat in the great arm-chair, and Mark and Andrew fed the cattle by the light of a lantern.
“To-morrow will be New-Year’s,” said Mark, when breakfast was concluded, and Andrew took down the old Dictionary. No one noticed him, and he presently repeated it.
“Well, and what of it ?” replied the old man, giving him a severe look.
“Nothing of it, as I know of,” said the boy ; “only I thought, maybe we would have something nice.”
“Something nice !” echoed the grandfather; “don’t we have something nice every day?”
“Well, but I want to do something,” urged Mark, sure that he wished to have the dull routine broken in some way.
“Boys will be boys,” said Aunt Rachael, in her most conciliatory tone, and addressing nobody in particular ; and presently she asked Mark what had become of the potatoes he gleaned. He replied that they were in a barrel in the cellar.
“Eaten up by the rats,” added Uncle Christopher.
“No, sir,” said Mark, “ they are as good as ever—may I sell them?”
“It’s a great wonder you did ’t let the rats eat them ; but, I suppose, it’s from no oversight of yours,” Uncle Christopher said.
“Yes, sir, I covered them,” replied the boy; “and now, may I sell them ?—you said I might.”
“Sell them—yes, you may sell them,” replied the grandfather, in a mocking tone; “why don’t you run along and sell them ?”
Of course, the boy did not feel that he could sell his little crop, nor did the grandfather intend to grant any such permission. “ Uncle Christopher,” said Andrew, looking up from his Dictionary, “ do them ere potatoes belong to you, or do they belong to Markey ?”
The old man did not reply directly, but said something about busy bodies and meddlers, which caused Andrew to study very earnestly, while Mark withdrew to the kitchen and cried, alone.
Toward noon, however, his grandfather asked him if he could ride the old sorrel horse to the blacksmith’s, three miles away, and get new shoes set on him, “because,” said he, “if you can, you can carry a bag of the potatoes, and sell them.”
Mark forgot how cold it was, forgot his ragged trowsers, forgot everything, except that the next day was New-Year’s, and that he should have some money ; and, mounting the old horse, with a bag of potatoes for a saddle, he was soon facing the north wind. He had no warm cap to turn against his ears, and no mittens for his hands, but he had something pleasant to think about, and so did not feel the cold so much.
When Andrew came from school, and found that Mark was gone to sell his potatoes, he was greatly pleased, and went out early to feed the cattle, first carrying the bundles of oats over the hill to the sheep—a portion of the work belonging to Mark; and he also made a blazing fire, and watched his coming at the window ; but no one else seemed to think of him—the supper was served and removed, and not even the tea was kept by the fire for him. It was long after dark when he came, cold and hungry—but nobody made room at the hearth, and nobody inquired the result of his speculation, or what he had seen or heard during the day.
“You will find bread and butter in the cupboard,” said Aunt Rachael, after a while, and that was all.
But he had received a dollar for the potatoes; that was fortune enough for one day, and he was careless and thoughtless of their indifference.
There was not light for my patch-work; and Aunt Rachael gave me instead a fine linen sheet to hem. “Isn’t it fine and pretty ?”’ said Mark, coming close to me before he went to bed; “I wish I could have it over me.”
“Thoughtless child,” said the grandfather, “you will have it over you soon enough, and nothing else about you, but your coffin-boards.” And, with this benediction, he was dismissed for the night.
I awoke in the morning early, and heard the laughter of Andrew and Mark—it was New-Year’s—and, in defiance of the gloomy prospect, they were merry; but when I descended the grandson looked grave—he had found nothing in his stockings.
“Put your feet in them,” said Uncle Christopher, “and that will be something.”
Fresh snow had fallen in the night, and the weather was milder than it had been, but within the house, the day began as usual.
“Grandfather,” said Mark, “ shall we not have the fat turkey-hen for dinner, to-day? I could run her down in the snow so easy!”
“So could I run you down in the snow, if I tried,” he responded, with a surly quickness.
“New-Years day,” said Aunt Rachael, “is no better than any other, that I know of; and if you get very hungry, you can eat good bread and milk.”
So, as in other mornings, Andrew whispered over the Dictionary, the old man sat in the corner, and the seven women began to knit.
Toward the noon, a happy thought came into the mind of Uncle Christopher: there would be wine-bibbers and mirth-makers at the village, three miles away—he would ride thither, and discourse to them of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come. Mark was directed to bring his horse to the door, and, having combed his long beard with great care, and slipped over his head a knitted woollen cap, he departed on his errand, but not without having taken from little Mark the dollar he had received for his potatoes. “It may save a soul,” he said, “and shall a wayward boy have his will, and a soul be lost?”
The child, however, was not likely in this way to be infused with religious feeling, whatever Uncle Christopher might think of the subject, and it was easy to see that a sense of the injustice he suffered had induced a change in his heart that no good angel would have joy to see. I tried to appease his anger, but he recounted, with the exactest particularity, all the history of the wrong he had suffered, and would not believe there was the slightest justification possible for robbing him of what was his own, instead of making him, as his grandfather should have done, a handsome present. About the middle of the afternoon Andrew came home from school, having been dismissed at so early an hour because it was a holiday, and to prepare for a spelling match to be held at the school-house in the evening.
The chores were done long before sundown, and Andrew was in high spirits, partly in anticipation of the night’s triumphs, and partly at the prospect of bringing some happiness to the heart of Mark, with whom he several times read over the lesson, impressing on his memory with all the skill he had the harder words which might come to him. Andrew went early, having in charge the school-house fire, and Mark did not accompany him, but I supposed he would follow presently, and so was not uneasy about him.
As the twilight darkened, Uncle Christopher came in, and, recounting his pious labors, with a conceited cant that was now become disgusting to me, he inquired for Mark, that the “ brand ” might hear and rejoice at the good accomplished with the money thus applied for the regeneration of the gentiles ; but Mark was not to be found, and Aunt Rachael meekly hinted that from what she had overheard, she suspected he had gone with Andrew to the spelling match.
“Gone to the spelling match—and without asking me!” said the good man ; “the rod has been spared too long.” And taking from his pocket his knife, he opened it with deliberate satisfaction, and left the house.
I thought of the words of Mark, “I don’t like my grandfather;” and I felt that he was not to blame. All the long evening the lithe sapling lay over the mantel, while Uncle Christopher kitted his brows, and the seven women knitted their seven stockings. I could not use my needle, nor think of what was being done about me ; all the family practised their monotonous tasks in gloomy silence ; the wind shrieked in the trees, whose branches were flung violently sometimes against the windows ; Towser came scratching and whining at the door, without attracting the notice of any one ; and Uncle Christopher sat in his easy-chair, in the most comfortable corner, seeming almost as if he were in an ecstasy with intense self-satisfaction, or, once in a while, looking joyously grim and stern as his eye rested on the instrument of torture he had prepared for poor Mark, for whose protection I found myself praying silently, as I half dreamed that he was in the hands of a pitiless monster.
The old clock struck eleven, from a distant part of the house, and we all counted the strokes, it was so still; the sheet I had finished lay on the settee beneath the window, where the rose-vine creaked, and the mice peered out of the gnawed holes, and the rats ran through the mouldy cellar. There was a stamping at the door, in the moist snow ; I listened, but could hear no voices ; the door opened, and Andrew came in alone.
“Where is Mark?” asked the stern voice of the disciplinarian.
“I don’t know,” replied Andrew; “isn’t he here ?”
“No,” said Aunt Rachael, throwing down her knitting, “nor hasn’t been these many hours. Mercy on us, where can he be?
“Fallen asleep somewhere about the house, likely,” replied the old man; and taking up the candle, he began the search.
“And he hasn’t been with you, Andrew ?” asked Aunt Rachael again, in the faint hope that he would contradict his previous assertion.
“No ma’m, as true as I live and breathe,” he replied, with childish simplicity and earnestness.
“Mercy on us!” she exclaimed again.
We could hear doors opening and shutting, and floors creaking in distant parts of the house; but nothing more.
“It’s very strange,” said the old man. “Don’t be afraid, girls but he was evidently alarmed, and his hand shook as he lighted the lantern, saying, “he must be in the barn !”
Aunt Rachael would go, and I would go, too—I could not stay away. Andrew climbed along the scaffolds, stooping and reaching the lantern before him, and now and then we called to know if he had found him, as if he would not tell it when he did. So all the places we could think of had been searched, and we had began to call and listen, and call again.
“Hark,” said Andrew, “I heard something.”
We were all so still that it seemed as if we might hear the falling of flakes of snow.
“Only the howl of a dog,” said Uncle Christopher.
“It’s Towser’s,” suggested Andrew, fearfully; and with an anxious look he lowered the lantern to see what indications were in the way. Going toward the well were seen small footprints, and there were none returning. Even Uncle Christopher was evidently disturbed. Seeing the light, the dog began to yelp and whine, looking earnestly at us, and then suddenly down in the well, and when we came to the place every one felt a sinking of the heart, and no one dared to speak. The plank, on which I had seen him resting, was broken, and a part of it had fallen in. Towser whined, and his eyes shone as if he were in agony for words, and trying to throw all his intelligence into each piteous look he gave us.
“Get a rope, and lower the light,” said one of the sisters; but the loose stones of the well were already rattling to the touch of Andrew, who, planting hands and feet on either side, was rapidly but cautiously descending. In a moment he was out of sight, but still we heard him, and soon there was a pause, then the sound of a hand, plashing the water, then a groan, sounding hollow and awful through the damp, dark opening, and a dragging, soughing movement, as if something were drawn up from the water. Presently we heard hands and feet once more against the sides of the well, and then, shining through the blackness into the light, two fiery eyes, and quickly after, as the bent head and shoulders of Andrew came nearer the surface, the kitten leaped from them, and dashed blindly past the old man, who was kneeling and looking down, pale with remorseful fear. Approaching the top, Andrew said, “ I’ve got him !” and the grandfather reached down and lifted the lifeless form of the boy into his arms, where he had never reposed before. He was laid on the settee, by the window; the fine white sheet that I had hemmed, was placed over him; the stern and hard master walked backward and forward in the room, softened and contrite, though silent, except when occasional irrepressible groans disclosed the terrible action of his conscience; and Towser, who had been Mark’s dearest playmate, nearly all the while kept his face, from without, against the window pane.
“Oh, if it were yesterday!” murmured Uncle Christopher, when the morning came; “Andrew,” he said, and his voice faltered, as the young man took from the mantel the long, limber rod, and measured the shrouded form from the head to the feet, “get the coffin as good as you can—I don’t care what it costs—get the best.”
The Dictionary was not opened that day; Andrew was digging through the snow, on a lonesome hill-side, pausing now and then to wipe his eyes on his sleeve. Upright on the grave’s edge, his only companion, sat the black dog.
Poor little Mark!—we dressed him very carefully, more prettily, too, than he had ever been in his life, and as he lay on the white pillow, all who saw him said, “ How beautiful he is !” The day after the funeral, I saw Andrew, previously to his setting out for school, cutting from the sweet-brier such of the limbs as were reddest with berries, and he placed them over the heaped earth, as the best offering he could bring to beautify the last home of his companion. In the afternoon I went home, and have never seen him since, but, ignorant and graceless as he was, he had a heart full of sympathy and love, and Mark had owed to him the happiest hours of his life.
Perhaps, meditating of the injustice he himself was suffering, the unhappy boy, whose terrible death had brought sadness and perhaps repentance to the house of Uncle Christopher, had thought of the victim consigned by the same harsh master to the well, and determined, before starting for the school-house, to go out and drop some food for it over the decayed plank on which I had seen him resting, and by its breaking had been precipitated down its uneven sides to the bottom, and so killed. But whether the result was by such accident, or by voluntary violence, his story is equally instructive to those straight and ungenial natures which see no beauty in childhood, and would drive before its time all childishness from life.
“Clovernook : or, Recollections of Our Neighborhood in the West“, Alice Cary, Public Domain