Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Uncle Zeb
By James Russell Lowell (1819–1891)
From ‘A Moosehead Journal’: Literary Essays

A STRING of five loons was flying back and forth in long, irregular zigzags, uttering at intervals their wild, tremulous cry, which always seems far away, like the last faint pulse of echo dying among the hills, and which is one of those few sounds that instead of disturbing solitude, only deepen and confirm it. On our inland ponds they are usually seen in pairs, and I asked if it were common to meet five together. My question was answered by a queer-looking old man, chiefly remarkable for a pair of enormous cowhide boots, over which large blue trousers of frocking strove in vain to crowd themselves.  1
  “Wahl, ’tain’t ushil,” said he, “and it’s called a sign o’ rain comin’, that is.”  2
  “Do you think it will rain?”  3
  With the caution of a veteran auspex, he evaded a direct reply. “Wahl, they du say it’s a sign o’ rain comin’,” said he.  4
  I discovered afterward that my interlocutor was Uncle Zeb. Formerly, every New England town had its representative uncle. He was not a pawnbroker, but some elderly man, who, for want of more defined family ties, had gradually assumed this avuncular relation to the community; inhabiting the borderland between respectability and the almshouse, with no regular calling, but ready for odd jobs at haying, wood-sawing, whitewashing, associated with the demise of pigs and the ailments of cattle, and possessing as much patriotism as might be implied in a devoted attachment to “New England”—with a good deal of sugar and very little water in it. Uncle Zeb was a good specimen of this palæozoic class; extinct among us for the most part, or surviving, like the Dodo, in the Botany Bays of society. He was ready to contribute (somewhat muddily) to all general conversation; but his chief topics were his boots and the ’Roostick war. Upon the lowlands and levels of ordinary palaver he would make rapid and unlooked-for incursions; but provision failing, he would retreat to these two fastnesses, whence it was impossible to dislodge him, and to which he knew innumerable passes and short cuts quite beyond the conjecture of common woodcraft. His mind opened naturally to these two subjects, like a book to some favorite passage. As the ear accustoms itself to any sound recurring regularly, such as the ticking of a clock, and without a conscious effort of attention takes no impression from it whatever, so does the mind find a natural safeguard against this pendulum species of discourse, and performs its duties in the parliament by an unconscious reflex action, like the beating of the heart or the movement of the lungs. If talk seemed to be flagging, our Uncle would put the heel of one boot upon the toe of the other, to bring it within point-blank range, and say, “Wahl, I stump the Devil himself to make that ’ere boot hurt my foot,”—leaving us in doubt whether it were the virtue of the foot or its case which set at naught the wiles of the adversary; or looking up suddenly, he would exclaim, “Wahl, we eat some beans to the ’Roostic war, I tell you!” When his poor old clay was wet with gin, his thoughts and words acquired a rank flavor from it, as from too strong a fertilizer. At such times too his fancy commonly reverted to a prehistoric period of his life, when he singly had settled all the surrounding country, subdued the Injuns and other wild animals, and named all the towns.  5
  We talked of the winter camps and the life there. “The best thing is,” said our Uncle, “to hear a log squeal thru the snow. Git a good, col’, frosty mornin’, in Febuary say, an’ take an’ hitch the critters onto a log that’ll scale seven thousan’, an’ it’ll squeal as pooty as an’thin’ you ever hearn, I tell you.”  6
  A pause.  7
  “Lessee,—seen Cal Hutchins lately?”  8
  “No.”  9
  “Seems to me’s though I hedn’t seen Cal sence the ’Roostick war. Wahl,” etc., etc.  10
  Another pause.  11
  “To look at them boots you’d think they was too large; but kind o’ git your foot into ’em, and they’re as easy ’s a glove.” (I observed that he never seemed really to get his foot in,—there was always a qualifying kind o’.) “Wahl, my foot can play in ’em like a young hedgehog.”…  12
  “There’s nothin’ so sweet an’ hulsome as your real spring water,” said Uncle Zeb, “git it pure. But it’s dreffle hard to git it that ain’t got sunthin’ the matter of it. Snow-water ’ll burn a man’s inside out,—I larned that to the ’Roostick war,—and the snow lays terrible long on some o’ thes’ere hills. Me an’ Eb Stiles was up old Ktahdn oncet jest about this time o’ year, an’ we come acrost a kind o’ holler like, as full o’ snow as your stockin’ ’s full o’ your foot. I see it fust, an’ took an’ rammed a settin’-pole—wahl, it was all o’ twenty foot—into ’t, an’ couldn’t fin’ no bottom. I dunno as there’s snow-water enough in this to do no hurt. I don’t somehow seem to think that real spring-water ’s so plenty as it used to be.” And Uncle Zeb, with perhaps a little over-refinement of scrupulosity, applied his lips to the Ethiop ones of a bottle of raw gin, with a kiss that drew out its very soul,—a basia that Secundus might have sung. He must have been a wonderful judge of water; for he analyzed this and detected its latent snow simply by his eye, and without the clumsy process of tasting. I could not help thinking that he had made the desert his dwelling-place chiefly in order to enjoy the ministrations of this one fair spirit unmolested.  13
  We pushed on. Little islands loomed trembling between sky and water, like hanging gardens. Gradually the filmy trees defined themselves, the aerial enchantment lost its potency, and we came up with common prose islands that had so late been magical and poetic. The old story of the attained and unattained. About noon we reached the head of the lake, and took possession of a deserted wongen, in which to cook and eat our dinner. No Jew, I am sure, can have a more thorough dislike of salt pork than I have in a normal state; yet I had already eaten it raw with hard bread, for lunch, and relished it keenly. We soon had our tea-kettle over the fire, and before long the cover was chattering with the escaping steam, which had thus vainly begged of all men to be saddled and bridled, till James Watt one day happened to overhear it. One of our guides shot three Canada grouse; and these were turned slowly between the fire and a bit of salt pork, which dropped fatness upon them as it fried. Although my fingers were certainly not made before knives and forks, yet they served as a convenient substitute for those more ancient inventions. We sat round, Turk fashion, and ate thankfully, while a party of aborigines of the Mosquito tribe, who had camped in the wongen before we arrived, dined upon us. I do not know what the British Protectorate of the Mosquitoes amounts to; but as I squatted there at the mercy of these bloodthirsty savages, I no longer wondered that the classic Everett had been stung into a willingness for war on the question.  14
  “This ’ere ’d be about a complete place for a camp, ef there was on’y a spring o’ sweet water handy. Frizzled pork goes wal, don’t it? Yes, an’ sets wal, too,” said Uncle Zeb, and he again tilted his bottle, which rose nearer and nearer to an angle of forty-five at every gurgle. He then broached a curious dietetic theory:—“The reason we take salt pork along is cos it packs handy: you git the greatest amount o’ board in the smallest compass,—let alone that it’s more nourishin’ than an’thin’ else. It kind o’ don’t disgest so quick, but stays by ye, a-nourishin’ ye all the while. A feller can live wal on frizzled pork an’ good spring water, git it good. To the ’Roostick war we didn’t ask for nothin’ better,—on’y beans.” (Tilt, tilt, gurgle, gurgle.) Then, with an apparent feeling of inconsistency, “But then, come to git used to a particular kind o’ spring water, an’ it makes a feller hard to suit. Most all sorts o’ water taste kind o’ insipid away from home. Now, I’ve gut a spring to my place that’s as sweet—wahl, it’s as sweet as maple sap. A feller acts about water jest as he doos about a pair o’ boots. It’s all on it in gittin’ wonted. Now, them boots,” etc., etc. (Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle, smack!)  15
  All this while he was packing away the remains of the pork and hard bread in two large firkins. This accomplished, we re-embarked, our Uncle on his way to the birch essaying a kind of song in four or five parts, of which the words were hilarious and the tune profoundly melancholy; and which was finished, and the rest of his voice apparently jerked out of him in one sharp falsetto note, by his tripping over the root of a tree. We paddled a short distance up a brook which came into the lake smoothly through a little meadow not far off. We soon reached the Northwest Carry, and our guide, pointing through the woods, said: “That’s the Cannydy road. You can travel that clearn to Kebeck, a hunderd an’ twenty mile,”—a privilege of which I respectfully declined to avail myself. The offer, however, remains open to the public. The Carry is called two miles; but this is the estimate of somebody who had nothing to lug. I had a headache and all my baggage, which, with a traveler’s instinct, I had brought with me. (P. S.—I did not even take the keys out of my pocket, and both my bags were wet through before I came back.) My estimate of the distance is eighteen thousand six hundred and seventy-four miles and three quarters,—the fraction being the part left to be traveled after one of my companions most kindly insisted on relieving me of my heaviest bag. I know very well that the ancient Roman soldiers used to carry sixty pounds’ weight, and all that; but I am not, and never shall be, an ancient Roman soldier,—no, not even in the miraculous Thundering Legion. Uncle Zeb slung the two provender firkins across his shoulder, and trudged along, grumbling that “he never see sech a contrairy pair as them.” He had begun upon a second bottle of his “particular kind o’ spring water”; and at every rest, the gurgle of this peripatetic fountain might be heard, followed by a smack, a fragment of mosaic song, or a confused clatter with the cowhide boots, being an arbitrary symbol intended to represent the festive dance. Christian’s pack gave him not half so much trouble as the firkins gave Uncle Zeb. It grew harder and harder to sling them, and with every fresh gulp of the Batavian elixir they got heavier. Or rather, the truth was that his hat grew heavier, in which he was carrying on an extensive manufacture of bricks without straw. At last affairs reached a crisis; and a particularly favorable pitch offering, with a puddle at the foot of it, even the boots afforded no sufficient ballast, and away went our Uncle, the satellite firkins accompanying faithfully his headlong flight. Did ever exiled monarch or disgraced minister find the cause of his fall in himself? Is there not always a strawberry at the bottom of our cup of life, on which we can lay all the blame of our deviations from the straight path? Till now Uncle Zeb had contrived to give a gloss of volition to smaller stumblings and gyrations, by exaggerating them into an appearance of playful burlesque. But the present case was beyond any such subterfuges. He held a bed of justice where he sat, and then arose slowly, with a stern determination of vengeance stiffening every muscle of his face. But what would he select as the culprit? “It’s that cussed firkin,” he mumbled to himself. “I never knowed a firkin cair on so,—no, not in the ’Roostehicick war. There, go long, will ye? and don’t come back till you’ve larned how to walk with a genelman!” And seizing the unhappy scapegoat by the bail, he hurled it into the forest. It is a curious circumstance, that it was not the firkin containing the bottle which was thus condemned to exile.  16

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