Twice-Told Tales, by Nathanthiel Hawthorne

The Village Uncle.

An Imaginary Retrospect.

Come! another log upon the hearth. True, our little parlor is comfortable, especially here where the old man sits in his old arm-chair; but on Thanksgiving-night the blaze should dance higher up the chimney and send a shower of sparks into the outer darkness. Toss on an armful of those dry oak chips, the last relicts of the Mermaid’s knee-timbers — the bones of your namesake, Susan. Higher yet, and clearer, be the blaze, till our cottage windows glow the ruddiest in the village and the light of our household mirth flash far across the bay to Nahant.

And now come, Susan; come, my children. Draw your chairs round me, all of you. There is a dimness over your figures. You sit quivering indistinctly with each motion of the blaze, which eddies about you like a flood; so that you all have the look of visions or people that dwell only in the firelight, and will vanish from existence as completely as your own shadows when the flame shall sink among the embers.

Hark! let me listen for the swell of the surf; it should be audible a mile inland on a night like this. Yes; there I catch the sound, but only an uncertain murmur, as if a good way down over the beach, though by the almanac it is high tide at eight o’clock, and the billows must now be dashing within thirty yards of our door. Ah! the old man’s ears are failing him, and so is his eyesight, and perhaps his mind, else you would not all be so shadowy in the blaze of his Thanksgiving fire.

How strangely the past is peeping over the shoulders of the present! To judge by my recollections, it is but a few moments since I sat in another room. Yonder model of a vessel was not there, nor the old chest of drawers, nor Susan’s profile and mine in that gilt frame — nothing, in short, except this same fire, which glimmered on books, papers and a picture, and half discovered my solitary figure in a looking-glass. But it was paler than my rugged old self, and younger, too, by almost half a century.

Speak to me, Susan; speak, my beloved ones; for the scene is glimmering on my sight again, and as it brightens you fade away. Oh, I should be loth to lose my treasure of past happiness and become once more what I was then — a hermit in the depths of my own mind, sometimes yawning over drowsy volumes and anon a scribbler of wearier trash than what I read; a man who had wandered out of the real world and got into its shadow, where his troubles, joys and vicissitudes were of such slight stuff that he hardly knew whether he lived or only dreamed of living. Thank Heaven I am an old man now and have done with all such vanities!

Still this dimness of mine eyes! — Come nearer, Susan, and stand before the fullest blaze of the hearth. Now I behold you illuminated from head to foot, in your clean cap and decent gown, with the dear lock of gray hair across your forehead and a quiet smile about your mouth, while the eyes alone are concealed by the red gleam of the fire upon your spectacles. There! you made me tremble again. When the flame quivered, my sweet Susan, you quivered with it and grew indistinct, as if melting into the warm light, that my last glimpse of you might be as visionary as the first was, full many a year since. Do you remember it? You stood on the little bridge over the brook that runs across King’s Beach into the sea. It was twilight, the waves rolling in, the wind sweeping by, the crimson clouds fading in the west and the silver moon brightening above the hill; and on the bridge were you, fluttering in the breeze like a sea-bird that might skim away at your pleasure. You seemed a daughter of the viewless wind, a creature of the ocean-foam and the crimson light, whose merry life was spent in dancing on the crests of the billows that threw up their spray to support your footsteps. As I drew nearer I fancied you akin to the race of mermaids, and thought how pleasant it would be to dwell with you among the quiet coves in the shadow of the cliffs, and to roam along secluded beaches of the purest sand, and, when our Northern shores grew bleak, to haunt the islands, green and lonely, far amid summer seas. And yet it gladdened me, after all this nonsense, to find you nothing but a pretty young girl sadly perplexed with the rude behavior of the wind about your petticoats. Thus I did with Susan as with most other things in my earlier days, dipping her image into my mind and coloring it of a thousand fantastic hues before I could see her as she really was.

Now, Susan, for a sober picture of our village. It was a small collection of dwellings that seemed to have been cast up by the sea with the rock-weed and marine plants that it vomits after a storm, or to have come ashore among the pipe-staves and other lumber which had been washed from the deck of an Eastern schooner. There was just space for the narrow and sandy street between the beach in front and a precipitous hill that lifted its rocky forehead in the rear among a waste of juniper-bushes and the wild growth of a broken pasture. The village was picturesque in the variety of its edifices, though all were rude. Here stood a little old hovel, built, perhaps, of driftwood, there a row of boat-houses, and beyond them a two-story dwelling of dark and weatherbeaten aspect, the whole intermixed with one or two snug cottages painted white, a sufficiency of pig-styes and a shoemaker’s shop. Two grocery stores stood opposite each other in the centre of the village. These were the places of resort at their idle hours of a hardy throng of fishermen in red baize shirts, oilcloth trousers and boots of brown leather covering the whole leg — true seven-league boots, but fitter to wade the ocean than walk the earth. The wearers seemed amphibious, as if they did but creep out of salt water to sun themselves; nor would it have been wonderful to see their lower limbs covered with clusters of little shellfish such as cling to rocks and old ship-timber over which the tide ebbs and flows. When their fleet of boats was weather-bound, the butchers raised their price, and the spit was busier than the frying-pan; for this was a place of fish, and known as such to all the country round about. The very air was fishy, being perfumed with dead sculpins, hard-heads and dogfish strewn plentifully on the beach. — You see, children, the village is but little changed since your mother and I were young.

How like a dream it was when I bent over a pool of water one pleasant morning and saw that the ocean had dashed its spray over me and made me a fisherman! There was the tarpaulin, the baize shirt, the oilcloth trousers and seven-league boots, and there my own features, but so reddened with sunburn and sea-breezes that methought I had another face, and on other shoulders too. The seagulls and the loons and I had now all one trade: we skimmed the crested waves and sought our prey beneath them, the man with as keen enjoyment as the birds. Always when the east grew purple I launched my dory, my little flat-bottomed skiff, and rowed cross-handed to Point Ledge, the Middle Ledge, or perhaps beyond Egg Rock; often, too, did I anchor off Dread Ledge — a spot of peril to ships unpiloted — and sometimes spread an adventurous sail and tracked across the bay to South Shore, casting my lines in sight of Scituate. Ere nightfall I hauled my skiff high and dry on the beach, laden with red rock-cod or the white-bellied ones of deep water, haddock bearing the black marks of St. Peter’s fingers near the gills, the long-bearded hake whose liver holds oil enough for a midnight lamp, and now and then a mighty halibut with a back broad as my boat. In the autumn I toled and caught those lovely fish the mackerel. When the wind was high, when the whale-boats anchored off the Point nodded their slender masts at each other and the dories pitched and tossed in the surf, when Nahant Beach was thundering three miles off and the spray broke a hundred feet in the air round the distant base of Egg Rock, when the brimful and boisterous sea threatened to tumble over the street of our village, — then I made a holiday on shore.

Many such a day did I sit snugly in Mr. Bartlett’s store, attentive to the yarns of Uncle Parker — uncle to the whole village by right of seniority, but of Southern blood, with no kindred in New England. His figure is before me now enthroned upon a mackerel-barrel — a lean old man of great height, but bent with years and twisted into an uncouth shape by seven broken limbs; furrowed, also, and weatherworn, as if every gale for the better part of a century had caught him somewhere on the sea. He looked like a harbinger of tempest — a shipmate of the Flying Dutchman. After innumerable voyages aboard men-of-war and merchantmen, fishing-schooners and chebacco-boats, the old salt had become master of a hand-cart, which he daily trundled about the vicinity, and sometimes blew his fish-horn through the streets of Salem. One of Uncle Parker’s eyes had been blown out with gunpowder, and the other did but glimmer in its socket. Turning it upward as he spoke, it was his delight to tell of cruises against the French and battles with his own shipmates, when he and an antagonist used to be seated astride of a sailor’s chest, each fastened down by a spike-nail through his trousers, and there to fight it out. Sometimes he expatiated on the delicious flavor of the hagden, a greasy and goose-like fowl which the sailors catch with hook and line on the Grand Banks. He dwelt with rapture on an interminable winter at the Isle of Sables, where he had gladdened himself amid polar snows with the rum and sugar saved from the wreck of a West India schooner. And wrathfully did he shake his fist as he related how a party of Cape Cod men had robbed him and his companions of their lawful spoils and sailed away with every keg of old Jamaica, leaving him not a drop to drown his sorrow. Villains they were, and of that wicked brotherhood who are said to tie lanterns to horses’ tails to mislead the mariner along the dangerous shores of the Cape.

Even now I seem to see the group of fishermen with that old salt in the midst. One fellow sits on the counter, a second bestrides an oil-barrel, a third lolls at his length on a parcel of new cod-lines, and another has planted the tarry seat of his trousers on a heap of salt which will shortly be sprinkled over a lot of fish. They are a likely set of men. Some have voyaged to the East Indies or the Pacific, and most of them have sailed in Marblehead schooners to Newfoundland; a few have been no farther than the Middle Banks, and one or two have always fished along the shore; but, as Uncle Parker used to say, they have all been christened in salt water and know more than men ever learn in the bushes. A curious figure, by way of contrast, is a fish-dealer from far up-country listening with eyes wide open to narratives that might startle Sinbad the Sailor. — Be it well with you, my brethren! Ye are all gone — some to your graves ashore and others to the depths of ocean — but my faith is strong that ye are happy; for whenever I behold your forms, whether in dream or vision, each departed friend is puffing his long nine, and a mug of the right blackstrap goes round from lip to lip.

But where was the mermaid in those delightful times? At a certain window near the centre of the village appeared a pretty display of gingerbread men and horses, picture-books and ballads, small fish-hooks, pins, needles, sugarplums and brass thimbles — articles on which the young fishermen used to expend their money from pure gallantry. What a picture was Susan behind the counter! A slender maiden, though the child of rugged parents, she had the slimmest of all waists, brown hair curling on her neck, and a complexion rather pale except when the sea-breeze flushed it. A few freckles became beauty-spots beneath her eyelids. — How was it, Susan, that you talked and acted so carelessly, yet always for the best, doing whatever was right in your own eyes, and never once doing wrong in mine, nor shocked a taste that had been morbidly sensitive till now? And whence had you that happiest gift of brightening every topic with an unsought gayety, quiet but irresistible, so that even gloomy spirits felt your sunshine and did not shrink from it? Nature wrought the charm. She made you a frank, simple, kind-hearted, sensible and mirthful girl. Obeying Nature, you did free things without indelicacy, displayed a maiden’s thoughts to every eye, and proved yourself as innocent as naked Eve. — It was beautiful to observe how her simple and happy nature mingled itself with mine. She kindled a domestic fire within my heart and took up her dwelling there, even in that chill and lonesome cavern hung round with glittering icicles of fancy. She gave me warmth of feeling, while the influence of my mind made her contemplative. I taught her to love the moonlight hour, when the expanse of the encircled bay was smooth as a great mirror and slept in a transparent shadow, while beyond Nahant the wind rippled the dim ocean into a dreamy brightness which grew faint afar off without becoming gloomier. I held her hand and pointed to the long surf-wave as it rolled calmly on the beach in an unbroken line of silver; we were silent together till its deep and peaceful murmur had swept by us. When the Sabbath sun shone down into the recesses of the cliffs, I led the mermaid thither and told her that those huge gray, shattered rocks, and her native sea that raged for ever like a storm against them, and her own slender beauty in so stern a scene, were all combined into a strain of poetry. But on the Sabbath-eve, when her mother had gone early to bed and her gentle sister had smiled and left us, as we sat alone by the quiet hearth with household things around, it was her turn to make me feel that here was a deeper poetry, and that this was the dearest hour of all. Thus went on our wooing, till I had shot wild-fowl enough to feather our bridal-bed, and the daughter of the sea was mine.

I built a cottage for Susan and myself, and made a gateway in the form of a Gothic arch by setting up a whale’s jaw-bones. We bought a heifer with her first calf, and had a little garden on the hillside to supply us with potatoes and green sauce for our fish. Our parlor, small and neat, was ornamented with our two profiles in one gilt frame, and with shells and pretty pebbles on the mantelpiece, selected from the sea’s treasury of such things on Nahant Beach. On the desk, beneath the looking-glass, lay the Bible, which I had begun to read aloud at the book of Genesis, and the singing-book that Susan used for her evening psalm. Except the almanac, we had no other literature. All that I heard of books was when an Indian history or tale of shipwreck was sold by a pedler or wandering subscription-man to some one in the village, and read through its owner’s nose to a slumbrous auditory.

Like my brother-fishermen, I grew into the belief that all human erudition was collected in our pedagogue, whose green spectacles and solemn phiz as he passed to his little schoolhouse amid a waste of sand might have gained him a diploma from any college in New England. In truth, I dreaded him. — When our children were old enough to claim his care, you remember, Susan, how I frowned, though you were pleased at this learned man’s encomiums on their proficiency. I feared to trust them even with the alphabet: it was the key to a fatal treasure. But I loved to lead them by their little hands along the beach and point to nature in the vast and the minute — the sky, the sea, the green earth, the pebbles and the shells. Then did I discourse of the mighty works and coextensive goodness of the Deity with the simple wisdom of a man whose mind had profited by lonely days upon the deep and his heart by the strong and pure affections of his evening home. Sometimes my voice lost itself in a tremulous depth, for I felt his eye upon me as I spoke. Once, while my wife and all of us were gazing at ourselves in the mirror left by the tide in a hollow of the sand, I pointed to the pictured heaven below and bade her observe how religion was strewn everywhere in our path, since even a casual pool of water recalled the idea of that home whither we were travelling to rest for ever with our children. Suddenly your image, Susan, and all the little faces made up of yours and mine, seemed to fade away and vanish around me, leaving a pale visage like my own of former days within the frame of a large looking-glass. Strange illusion!

My life glided on, the past appearing to mingle with the present and absorb the future, till the whole lies before me at a glance. My manhood has long been waning with a stanch decay; my earlier contemporaries, after lives of unbroken health, are all at rest without having known the weariness of later age; and now with a wrinkled forehead and thin white hair as badges of my dignity I have become the patriarch — the uncle — of the village. I love that name: it widens the circle of my sympathies; it joins all the youthful to my household in the kindred of affection.

Like Uncle Parker, whose rheumatic bones were dashed against Egg Rock full forty years ago, I am a spinner of long yarns. Seated on the gunnel of a dory or on the sunny side of a boat-house, where the warmth is grateful to my limbs, or by my own hearth when a friend or two are there, I overflow with talk, and yet am never tedious. With a broken voice I give utterance to much wisdom. Such, Heaven be praised! is the vigor of my faculties that many a forgotten usage, and traditions ancient in my youth, and early adventures of myself or others hitherto effaced by things more recent, acquire new distinctness in my memory. I remember the happy days when the haddock were more numerous on all the fishing-grounds than sculpins in the surf — when the deep-water cod swam close inshore, and the dogfish, with his poisonous horn, had not learnt to take the hook. I can number every equinoctial storm in which the sea has overwhelmed the street, flooded the cellars of the village and hissed upon our kitchen hearth. I give the history of the great whale that was landed on Whale Beach, and whose jaws, being now my gateway, will last for ages after my coffin shall have passed beneath them. Thence it is an easy digression to the halibut — scarcely smaller than the whale — which ran out six codlines and hauled my dory to the mouth of Boston harbor before I could touch him with the gaff.

If melancholy accidents be the theme of conversation, I tell how a friend of mine was taken out of his boat by an enormous shark, and the sad, true tale of a young man on the eve of marriage who had been nine days missing, when his drowned body floated into the very pathway on Marble-head Neck that had often led him to the dwelling of his bride, as if the dripping corpse would have come where the mourner was. With such awful fidelity did that lover return to fulfil his vows! Another favorite story is of a crazy maiden who conversed with angels and had the gift of prophecy, and whom all the village loved and pitied, though she went from door to door accusing us of sin, exhorting to repentance and foretelling our destruction by flood or earthquake. If the young men boast their knowledge of the ledges and sunken rocks, I speak of pilots who knew the wind by its scent and the wave by its taste, and could have steered blindfold to any port between Boston and Mount Desert guided only by the rote of the shore — the peculiar sound of the surf on each island, beach and line of rocks along the coast. Thus do I talk, and all my auditors grow wise while they deem it pastime.

I recollect no happier portion of my life than this my calm old age. It is like the sunny and sheltered slope of a valley where late in the autumn the grass is greener than in August, and intermixed with golden dandelions that had not been seen till now since the first warmth of the year. But with me the verdure and the flowers are not frost-bitten in the midst of winter. A playfulness has revisited my mind — a sympathy with the young and gay, an unpainful interest in the business of others, a light and wandering curiosity — arising, perhaps, from the sense that my toil on earth is ended and the brief hour till bedtime may be spent in play. Still, I have fancied that there is a depth of feeling and reflection under this superficial levity peculiar to one who has lived long and is soon to die.

Show me anything that would make an infant smile, and you shall behold a gleam of mirth over the hoary ruin of my visage. I can spend a pleasant hour in the sun watching the sports of the village children on the edge of the surf. Now they chase the retreating wave far down over the wet sand; now it steals softly up to kiss their naked feet; now it comes onward with threatening front, and roars after the laughing crew as they scamper beyond its reach. Why should not an old man be merry too, when the great sea is at play with those little children? I delight, also, to follow in the wake of a pleasure-party of young men and girls strolling along the beach after an early supper at the Point. Here, with handkerchiefs at nose, they bend over a heap of eel-grass entangled in which is a dead skate so oddly accoutred with two legs and a long tail that they mistake him for a drowned animal. A few steps farther the ladies scream, and the gentlemen make ready to protect them against a young shark of the dogfish kind rolling with a lifelike motion in the tide that has thrown him up. Next they are smit with wonder at the black shells of a wagon-load of live lobsters packed in rock-weed for the country-market. And when they reach the fleet of dories just hauled ashore after the day’s fishing, how do I laugh in my sleeve, and sometimes roar outright, at the simplicity of these young folks and the sly humor of the fishermen! In winter, when our village is thrown into a bustle by the arrival of perhaps a score of country dealers bargaining for frozen fish to be transported hundreds of miles and eaten fresh in Vermont or Canada, I am a pleased but idle spectator in the throng. For I launch my boat no more.

When the shore was solitary, I have found a pleasure that seemed even to exalt my mind in observing the sports or contentions of two gulls as they wheeled and hovered about each other with hoarse screams, one moment flapping on the foam of the wave, and then soaring aloft till their white bosoms melted into the upper sunshine. In the calm of the summer sunset I drag my aged limbs with a little ostentation of activity, because I am so old, up to the rocky brow of the hill. There I see the white sails of many a vessel outward bound or homeward from afar, and the black trail of a vapor behind the Eastern steamboat; there, too, is the sun, going down, but not in gloom, and there the illimitable ocean mingling with the sky, to remind me of eternity.

But sweetest of all is the hour of cheerful musing and pleasant talk that comes between the dusk and the lighted candle by my glowing fireside. And never, even on the first Thanksgiving-night, when Susan and I sat alone with our hopes, nor the second, when a stranger had been sent to gladden us and be the visible image of our affection, did I feel such joy as now. All that belongs to me are here: Death has taken none, nor Disease kept them away, nor Strife divided them from their parents or each other; with neither poverty nor riches to disturb them, nor the misery of desires beyond their lot, they have kept New England’s festival round the patriarch’s board. For I am a patriarch. Here I sit among my descendants, in my old arm-chair and immemorial corner, while the firelight throws an appropriate glory round my venerable frame. — Susan! My children! Something whispers me that this happiest hour must be the final one, and that nothing remains but to bless you all and depart with a treasure of recollected joys to heaven. Will you meet me there? Alas! your figures grow indistinct, fading into pictures on the air, and now to fainter outlines, while the fire is glimmering on the walls of a familiar room, and shows the book that I flung down and the sheet that I left half written some fifty years ago. I lift my eyes to the looking-glass, and perceive myself alone, unless those be the mermaid’s features retiring into the depths of the mirror with a tender and melancholy smile.

Ah! One feels a chilliness — not bodily, but about the heart — and, moreover, a foolish dread of looking behind him, after these pastimes. I can imagine precisely how a magician would sit down in gloom and terror after dismissing the shadows that had personated dead or distant people and stripping his cavern of the unreal splendor which had changed it to a palace.

And now for a moral to my reverie. Shall it be that, since fancy can create so bright a dream of happiness, it were better to dream on from youth to age than to awake and strive doubtfully for something real? Oh, the slight tissue of a dream can no more preserve us from the stern reality of misfortune than a robe of cobweb could repel the wintry blast. Be this the moral, then: In chaste and warm affections, humble wishes and honest toil for some useful end there is health for the mind and quiet for the heart, the prospect of a happy life and the fairest hope of heaven.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38