Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
At Uncle Christophers
By Alice Cary (18201871)
[Clovernook, or Recollections of Our Neighborhood in the West. 185153.]
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 personsone man and seven women; the women so closely resembling each other that one could not tell them apart, not even the mother from the daughtersfor she appeared as young as the oldest of themexcept 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 fire-place 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, mam, or No, mam, when I spoke to them, but never or very rarely anything 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 excellences 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, trousers 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 dont 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 Abigail, 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, mam, 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 travelled, now entering a blacksmiths shop and delivering a homily, now debating with the boys in the cornfield, and now obtruding into some church, where peaceable worshipers 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 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!
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 fools back! leaving to them the application, which they made, I suppose, for they became silentthe younger dropping his chin in his hands again, and the elder twisting the toe of his boot, and using his handkerchief very freely .
There was no variableness in the order of things at Uncle Christophers, but all went regularly forward without even a casual observation, and to see one day was to see the entire experience in the family.
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 Christophers 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, I will do so or so, Providence permitting; but he felt competent to do anything and everything on his own account, to the drawing out of the leviathan with an hook, or his tongue with a cordto the putting a hook into his nose, or the boring his jaw through with a thorn.
I believe its 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 showncold, despite the twenty cover-lids heaped over meI 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 trousers. 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 I 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 I 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 ones 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, Blieve its colder, Markshe cant 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 mans chair, and said, Come.
To the coarse fare 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 snowthinking I might make myself useful, and do something to occupy my time and oblige the familyflagged 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!
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 Walkers 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, Blieve 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.
At last Andrew, putting his dictionary in his pocket, saying, I blieve I have my lesson by heart, and a piece of bread and butter in the top of his hat, tucked the ends of his green woollen trousers in his cowhide boots, and, without a word of kindness or encouragement, left the house for the school.
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 hatefullest 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 out 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 horsesand there seemed to be dozens of themstamped, 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 wellhe 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.
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 leetlethats all, Christopher, she said, by way of soothing her lords 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 off the childs stocking. 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.
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.