He had risen as he spoke, and, taking from a shelf near by the Æolian harp, he opened the window on the left-hand side of the fire-place a little way, and set the instrument in the aperture; then resumed his seat and attitude beside the child.
For a minute all was still. But presently stole up on the silence, holy and solitary as the breaking dawn, the long, low strain of remote and thrilling sweetness, wild, delicate, and lonely, and hung hovering for a moment in the charmed air, then failed away in a dim, mysterious cadence, which, ended, yet seemed to linger, like the spirit of bright things departed, of tender summers gone.
Because hes alive, grandpa, earnestly pursued the child. Old uncle Peter always said he was alive, and going round doing good. Only that hed grown old and gray walking in the world so many hundred yearsjust as old loafer Tomeny painted his picture in there on the fire-place. And thats all true, grandpa; aint it?
Elkanah laid back his head, and roared and shook with merriment. Finally, subsiding, mellowed to the core with mirth, he relapsed into his former position, his hands between his knees, his head bent forward, gazing at the elk-horned flames, and tittering secretly. The little girl sat sedately, taking it all with perfect seriousness.
The flames suddenly died down, involved in light-blue smoke, and the hearth gave forth a strange and lovely amber light upon the darkening room. At the same moment there was a faint, sweet chord of mysterious, trembling music from the harp.
The fire became so strangely low, and cast so weird a light, that the old man felt a sort of wonder creeping over him, and, without replying, or moving from his crouching attitude, turned his face slowly around, with the singular glow and cross-bars of shade upon his features, and scanned the shadowed room, embowered in holy foliage, and hallowed by that dusky, amber radiance. The distant voices had ceased, and the house was still. The unusual light, the breathless hush that lay upon all, surprised him, and he slowly turned his head back again, with a secret thrill.
At that instant a red cinder flew from the hearth, with a loud crack, upon Lilians dress, and in the momentary alarmed diversion of his attention, as he hastened to fillip it back into the fire, the old man heard the opening and shutting of the door. It was with a feeling of vacant amaze, almost rising into fright, that, turning his head, as he did immediately, he saw a large, gray stranger standing in the room.
The old man rose slowly from his seat to his full height, with wondering eyes astare upon the new-comer. The latter stood composedly gazing at him. He was tall and stalwart, with uncovered head; a brow not large, but full, and seamed with kindly wrinkles; a complexion of rosy clearness; heavy-lidded, firm blue eyes, which had a steadfast and draining regard; a short, thick, gray beard almost white, and thinly-flowing dark-gray hair. His countenance expressed a rude sweetness. He was dressed in a long, dark overcoat, much worn, and of such uncertain fashion that it almost seemed a gaberdine. As he stood there in the gracious darkling light, he looked an image of long and loving experience with men, of immovable composure and charity, of serene wisdom, of immortal rosy youth in reverend age. A faint perfume exhaled from his garments. In the lapel of his coat he wore a sprig of holly. His left hand, in which he also held his shapeless hat, carried a carpenters plane.
Elkanah stood, almost quaking inwardly in the presence of this august stranger, in whose aspect were singularly blended the prophet and the child. The child in him inspired love; the prophet, awe. He drew and he repelled.
Why, yes, faltered Elkanah, with a slight start, taking the plane. Toms work, I know. He was shaving away there where the gate shut hard, and, just like the little love-daft noddy, he leaves the tool behind him.
Why, certainly. God bless me! what am I thinking of? abruptly broke forth Elkanah, recovering immediately at the chance of offering hospitality, and beaming into smiles. You are welcome, sir, right welcome. My name is Elkanah Dyzer. Sit ye down, sirsit ye down. Hah! spang! Up goes the merry fire! he cried, laying the plane upon the mantel, and bustling forward his own oak chair for the stranger, as the blaze laughed upward with a flood of light. You are right welcome. Your hand, sir, and, bowing with stately courtesy, he extended his own.
The stranger slowly took the proffered hand, with a pressure so gradual, so cordial, and so strong, that Elkanah felt it down deep into his very heart. As the sublime Scripture phrase has it, his bowels yearned to this new friend, and, despite the reverent distance which the lofty and sweet reserve of the stranger maintained, he felt a sudden intimacy as of many years, born from his quality of manly love. At the same time, his old brain was still in a daze of wondering confusion.
Sit ye down, sirsit ye down, he chirruped, stepping backward with a wave of both hands; while the stranger, slow in all his motions, paused standing beside the chair. And if I might not be thought over-bold, sir, he went on, confusedly engaged with the odd coincidence of the strangers advent and personal aspect with the childs words, what might I call your naoccupationthe name of your occupationnoyesO dear me, dear me!
Ah, yes; excuse me, said Elkanah, unaware that he was interrupting, in the haste of his flurried belief that he had got the information he meant to ask for. Carpenter. A name I like wellas I do you, sir, if youll excuse an old mans frankness. Sit ye down, Mr. Carpenter. You are right welcome.
The stranger bent his grand and gentle head with a slow smile, like one amused at the new name accidently conferred upon him, yet well content to let it be so; and, tossing his shapeless hat upon a footstool in the angle behind the fire-place, took the oaken chair.
Little Lilian, who had been intently looking at him with an air of breathless satisfaction, and had not uttered one word, now rose, deposited dolly carefully upon his hat, limped back between his knees, and stood a-tiptoe with her small arms upreached to him. He took her up instantly on his breast, and kissed her with a long kiss upon the mouth.
The stranger made no answer. She snuggled close upon his bosom, and into his beard, for a minute or so, in perfect quietude; then suddenly clambered down, and resumed her seat in the little chair, with an air of confidential and solemn gratification.
I declare, said Elkanah, softly laughing, and rubbing his hands as he sat down before the fire near the stranger, its the queerest thing I ever knew. Do you know, Mr. Carpenter, you quite gave me a turn when you came in? Ive got the nerves of an ox, anyway, but I tell you I felt queerish for about the first time in my life. Well, now, it was the oddest thing! And by Gee and Dee, odd it is still!
Ill tell you how it was, he continued, after a pause, before the slow-speaking carpenter could reply. Little magpie there was twittering a lot of stuff we have over here a good deal in the family. Of course, you never heard of my old uncle, Peter Dyzer:
Old miser Dyzer, skin a fly, sir,
Sell the skin, and turn the money in.
as the boys used to rhyme it about him. I inherited this fine old place from him. Well, of all the queer, odd, eccentric, funny old chaps that ever weremy, my! But he wasnt loony on a bargain, sirno, indeed; and hed plenty of hard horse-sense, and took good care of his property, you can rely: but he had notions, sir, on some subjects, that would make you think him mad as any March hare you ever knew.
You ought to have seen him, he resumed. Tall, big-boned, dry as a chip in all his speech and ways. And plumed himself on a kind of resemblance he had to President Washington. On Sundays, sirhe never went to churchread Tom Paine, Volney, Diderot, Voltaire, and all the French fellows of those days, and hated clergymen (priests as he called em) worse than pisonswore by Tom Jefferson, too, in politics, and in everything else, except his knuckling under to slaveryand there Im with him, sir, there Im with him:well, sir, as I was saying, on Sundays hed rig himself out like President Washington, claret-colored, square-tailed coat, long satin vest, ruffles, knee-breeches, black-silk stockings, buckled shoes, cocked hat, and so forthand take a walk all over the place, flourishing a gold-headed cane, peert as a lizard, sirpeert as any lizard you ever saw. With a train of his darkeys behind him (hed buy em, take out their manumission papers, and keep em on wages; Lesson for bloody aristocrats, hed say)with a train of em behind him, in even line, the women firstmothers before men, hed say; then the male adults; then the little girls; then the boys, ranged in their order down to the smallest walking piccaninnyBrothers in Adam, sisters in Eve, hed say. He at the head, flourishing his gold-headed stick, every now and then turning, and halting them to see if they were in exact line. Keep the straight line! hed bawl; every real trouble in life comes from not keeping the straight line! And if he saw one of em out of line, hed march down, pull ears if it was a girl; rap pates if it was a boy; punch her in the ribs with the gold head of his cane if it was a woman; and if it was a man, by George! hed pull him out, and thrash him like a sack, sir!
Thats a sample-lot of old Peter Dyzer, he resumed. Lord, sir! I could sit here all night and tell ye stories about him! Well, as I was going on to say, one of old Peters fancies was pictures. Hed got hold of an old loafer, Tomeny by name, a house-painter, as near as I could ever gather, with the strongest taste for apple-jack you ever knew in your life, and he kept him here to paint pictures for him. The horridest old daubsmy sakes! Id like to show you a lot of em up garret, though theyre pretty well faded out now. But uncle Peter thought Tomeny the prince of painters, an unappreciated genius, and all thatTomeny the Great, he always called him;and when he died, he buried him with a handsome gravestone at his poor old apple-brandy soaked head, and on it just the words, Simon Tomeny, Painter, as if that was enough for all posterity. Now, one of old Peters maddest notions was that Jesus Christ was still alive, and grown old and gray with walking the earth for eighteen hundred years, as well he might, indeed. Hed got hold of the old story of Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, dye see. Thats himthats Christ, says old Peter. But, Mr. Dyzer, one would say, thats the man the story says Christ put a curse on, bidding him walk the world till he came again. All a flam, says rough old Peter; the Good Manhe commonly spoke of Christ as the Good Manthe Good Man never put a curse on any one. Its Christ himself, I tell you. Or, perhaps one might say, Why, Mr. Dyzer, what should Christ be going round the world for? Going round doing good, snaps uncle Peter. Ah, my Lord, my Lord! the mad old fellow! Well, sir, with his own handsfor old Peter was a shifty manhe put a facing of prime old oak on the chimney-place in yonder; and dye know, he got old loafer Tomeny to paint on the right-hand side of itan ugly thing to tell, sir, but its truea portrait of himself as Judas, grasping the bagdid you ever hear the like of that now?and on the other side a figure of Christ, old and gray, as he fancied him. Tomenys master-piece, he called it. Well, little humming-bird there was bringing up all this in my mind, as I said, and you can perhaps fancy the turn it gave me when you came in, with your gray hair and beard, and long coat, and the plane, and all that. And the queerest thing of all isI hope youll excuse me for saying so, for the picture is a wretched piece of imagery, as much as you can see of it for the faded colorsthe queerest thing is, that you do look something like the figure of Christ as old Tomeny has painted it.
And Elkanah again laughed softly, rubbing his hands, with his eyes on the silent-smiling carpenter, who had listened, as the old man vaguely thought, with the air of one to whom the story was not entirely new.
Its a sort of pretty notion, too, that of old Peters, presently resumed Elkanah. And little chattering blue-jay there gave it quite a fairy turn in my mind by asking, just before you came, sir, if Jesus Christ, old and gray, was coming here to-night. Dear me! it made me laugh till I felt juicy all through; but it grew in me afterwards what a pretty thing it was, and for so young a child to say. Such a pretty thing! And how would you think of Christ, sir, as coming here to-night, if such a thing could be?
I think of him always, said the carpenter, slowly, in solemn sweet vibrations, as the all-loving man. Yes, he might come, perhaps as you fancy him in this house, gray and oldcome as cheer-bringer, dispeller of evil, uniter of the estranged, assuager of sorrows, reconciler, consoler. Always the wise friend, the lover true. Something so.
I hope, said the old man, after a moments pause, kindling and flushing a little with a faint misgiving, I hope that you stand by the country, sir. Sir, this is a loyal house. One son only, my boy that once was, Rupertbut we never mention his name here, sir, never, for hes in the ranks of the rebelshe only brings dishonor on the breed of old Elkanah Dyzer. But we strive to atone for it. My boy John served in the Union army, and hes going again. My boy Tom wants to go, and shall. Wait, laddie, I said a year ago, till your bones harden a little more; youll fight the better for it; and the times come for him. My boy Georgehis voice falteredwas lost at Fredericksburgand blown to bloody atoms on the field of battle, or alive rotting in some rebel prison, Im content and proud, for its in the service of his country. And I myself, old as I am, Im going too. The young eyes that saw the bright flag dance so long when everything laughed with promise, shall see it now, now theyre old, flap defiance to the last as all goes down in war. Theres but one flag, one country in the world for me. I stand by them both forever.