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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 high up the
chimney, and send a shower of sparks into the outer darkness. Toss
on an armful of those dry oak chips, the last relics 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 fire light, 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. O, I should be loath 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 drift-wood, there a row of boat-
houses, and beyond them a two-story dwelling, of dark and weather-
beaten aspect, the whole intermixed with one or two snug cottages,
painted white, a sufficiency of pigsties, and a shoemaker's shop. Two
grocery-stores stand 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, hardheads, 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 were the tarpauling, the baize shirt,
the oil-cloth 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 sea-gulls 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
whitebellied ones of deep water; haddock, bearing the black marks of
St. Peter's fingers near the gills; the longbearded 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 trolled 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 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 weather-worn, 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
merchant-men, fishing-schooners and chebacco-boats, the old salt had
become master of a handcart, 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 liagden, 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 spoil, 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 farup country, listening with eyes wide open to narratives
that might startle Sindbad 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, sugar-plums, 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 loomy 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 forever 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 mantel-piece,
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 peddler or wandering subscription-man,
to some one in the village, and read through its owner's nose to a
slumberous 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 school-
house, 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 forever 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
gunwale 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 deepwater cod swain close in shore, and the dogfish,
with his poisonous horn, had not learned 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 cod-lines, 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 Marblehead 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 have not been seen till now, since the first
warmth of the year. But with me, the verdure and the flowers are not
frostbitten 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 hand kerchiefs 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 life-like 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

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 belong 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.

All! one feels a chillness, 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 revery. 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! O, 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.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Short Stories