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Backlog Studies - Eleventh Study Post by :prospertogether Category :Essays Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :1170

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Backlog Studies - Eleventh Study

It happened, or rather, to tell the truth, it was contrived,--for I have waited too long for things to turn up to have much faith in "happen," that we who have sat by this hearthstone before should all be together on Christmas eve. There was a splendid backlog of hickory just beginning to burn with a glow that promised to grow more fiery till long past midnight, which would have needed no apology in a loggers' camp,--not so much as the religion of which a lady (in a city which shall be nameless) said, "If you must have a religion, this one will do nicely."

There was not much conversation, as is apt to be the case when people come together who have a great deal to say, and are intimate enough to permit the freedom of silence. It was Mandeville who suggested that we read something, and the Young Lady, who was in a mood to enjoy her own thoughts, said, "Do." And finally it came about that the Fire Tender, without more resistance to the urging than was becoming, went to his library, and returned with a manuscript, from which he read the story of


MY UNCLE IN INDIA

Not that it is my uncle, let me explain. It is Polly's uncle, as I very well know, from the many times she has thrown him up to me, and is liable so to do at any moment. Having small expectations myself, and having wedded Polly when they were smaller, I have come to feel the full force, the crushing weight, of her lightest remark about "My Uncle in India." The words as I write them convey no idea of the tone in which they fall upon my ears. I think it is the only fault of that estimable woman, that she has an "uncle in India" and does not let him quietly remain there. I feel quite sure that if I had an uncle in Botany Bay, I should never, never throw him up to Polly in the way mentioned. If there is any jar in our quiet life, he is the cause of it; all along of possible "expectations" on the one side calculated to overawe the other side not having expectations. And yet I know that if her uncle in India were this night to roll a barrel of "India's golden sands," as I feel that he any moment may do, into our sitting-room, at Polly's feet, that charming wife, who is more generous than the month of May, and who has no thought but for my comfort in two worlds, would straightway make it over to me, to have and to hold, if I could lift it, forever and forever. And that makes it more inexplicable that she, being a woman, will continue to mention him in the way she does.

In a large and general way I regard uncles as not out of place in this transitory state of existence. They stand for a great many possible advantages. They are liable to "tip" you at school, they are resources in vacation, they come grandly in play about the holidays, at which season mv heart always did warm towards them with lively expectations, which were often turned into golden solidities; and then there is always the prospect, sad to a sensitive mind, that uncles are mortal, and, in their timely taking off, may prove as generous in the will as they were in the deed. And there is always this redeeming possibility in a niggardly uncle. Still there must be something wrong in the character of the uncle per se, or all history would not agree that nepotism is such a dreadful thing.

But, to return from this unnecessary digression, I am reminded that the charioteer of the patient year has brought round the holiday time. It has been a growing year, as most years are. It is very pleasant to see how the shrubs in our little patch of ground widen and thicken and bloom at the right time, and to know that the great trees have added a laver to their trunks. To be sure, our garden,--which I planted under Polly's directions, with seeds that must have been patented, and I forgot to buy the right of, for they are mostly still waiting the final resurrection,--gave evidence that it shared in the misfortune of the Fall, and was never an Eden from which one would have required to have been driven. It was the easiest garden to keep the neighbor's pigs and hens out of I ever saw. If its increase was small its temptations were smaller, and that is no little recommendation in this world of temptations. But, as a general thing, everything has grown, except our house. That little cottage, over which Polly presides with grace enough to adorn a palace, is still small outside and smaller inside; and if it has an air of comfort and of neatness, and its rooms are cozy and sunny by day and cheerful by night, and it is bursting with books, and not unattractive with modest pictures on the walls, which we think do well enough until my uncle--(but never mind my uncle, now),--and if, in the long winter evenings, when the largest lamp is lit, and the chestnuts glow in embers, and the kid turns on the spit, and the house-plants are green and flowering, and the ivy glistens in the firelight, and Polly sits with that contented, far-away look in her eyes that I like to see, her fingers busy upon one of those cruel mysteries which have delighted the sex since Penelope, and I read in one of my fascinating law-books, or perhaps regale ourselves with a taste of Montaigne,--if all this is true, there are times when the cottage seems small; though I can never find that Polly thinks so, except when she sometimes says that she does not know where she should bestow her uncle in it, if he should suddenly come back from India.

There it is, again. I sometimes think that my wife believes her uncle in India to be as large as two ordinary men; and if her ideas of him are any gauge of the reality, there is no place in the town large enough for him except the Town Hall. She probably expects him to come with his bungalow, and his sedan, and his palanquin, and his elephants, and his retinue of servants, and his principalities, and his powers, and his ha--(no, not that), and his chowchow, and his--I scarcely know what besides.

Christmas eve was a shiny cold night, a creaking cold night, a placid, calm, swingeing cold night.

Out-doors had gone into a general state of crystallization. The snow-fields were like the vast Arctic ice-fields that Kane looked on, and lay sparkling under the moonlight, crisp and Christmasy, and all the crystals on the trees and bushes hung glistening, as if ready, at a breath of air, to break out into metallic ringing, like a million silver joy-bells. I mentioned the conceit to Polly, as we stood at the window, and she said it reminded her of Jean Paul. She is a woman of most remarkable discernment.

Christmas is a great festival at our house in a small way. Among the many delightful customs we did not inherit from our Pilgrim Fathers, there is none so pleasant as that of giving presents at this season. It is the most exciting time of the year. No one is too rich to receive something, and no one too poor to give a trifle. And in the act of giving and receiving these tokens of regard, all the world is kin for once, and brighter for this transient glow of generosity. Delightful custom! Hard is the lot of childhood that knows nothing of the visits of Kriss Kringle, or the stockings hung by the chimney at night; and cheerless is any age that is not brightened by some Christmas gift, however humble. What a mystery of preparation there is in the preceding days, what planning and plottings of surprises! Polly and I keep up the custom in our simple way, and great is the perplexity to express the greatest amount of affection with a limited outlay. For the excellence of a gift lies in its appropriateness rather than in its value. As we stood by the window that night, we wondered what we should receive this year, and indulged in I know not what little hypocrisies and deceptions.

I wish, said Polly, "that my uncle in India would send me a camel's-hair shawl, or a string of pearls, each as big as the end of my thumb."

"Or a white cow, which would give golden milk, that would make butter worth seventy-five cents a pound," I added, as we drew the curtains, and turned to our chairs before the open fire.

It is our custom on every Christmas eve--as I believe I have somewhere said, or if I have not, I say it again, as the member from Erin might remark--to read one of Dickens's Christmas stories. And this night, after punching the fire until it sent showers of sparks up the chimney, I read the opening chapter of "Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings," in my best manner, and handed the book to Polly to continue; for I do not so much relish reading aloud the succeeding stories of Mr. Dickens's annual budget, since he wrote them, as men go to war in these days, by substitute. And Polly read on, in her melodious voice, which is almost as pleasant to me as the Wasser-fluth of Schubert, which she often plays at twilight; and I looked into the fire, unconsciously constructing stories of my own out of the embers. And her voice still went on, in a sort of running accompaniment to my airy or fiery fancies.

"Sleep?" said Polly, stopping, with what seemed to me a sort of crash, in which all the castles tumbled into ashes.

"Not in the least," I answered brightly, "never heard anything more agreeable." And the reading flowed on and on and on, and I looked steadily into the fire, the fire, fire, fi....

Suddenly the door opened, and into our cozy parlor walked the most venerable personage I ever laid eyes on, who saluted me with great dignity. Summer seemed to have burst into the room, and I was conscious of a puff of Oriental airs, and a delightful, languid tranquillity. I was not surprised that the figure before me was clad in full turban, baggy drawers, and a long loose robe, girt about the middle with a rich shawl. Followed him a swart attendant, who hastened to spread a rug upon which my visitor sat down, with great gravity, as I am informed they do in farthest Ind. The slave then filled the bowl of a long-stemmed chibouk, and, handing it to his master, retired behind him and began to fan him with the most prodigious palm-leaf I ever saw. Soon the fumes of the delicate tobacco of Persia pervaded the room, like some costly aroma which you cannot buy, now the entertainment of the Arabian Nights is discontinued.

Looking through the window I saw, if I saw anything, a palanquin at our door, and attendant on it four dusky, half-naked bearers, who did not seem to fancy the splendor of the night, for they jumped about on the snow crust, and I could see them shiver and shake in the keen air. Oho! thought! this, then, is my uncle from India!

"Yes, it is," now spoke my visitor extraordinary, in a gruff, harsh voice.

"I think I have heard Polly speak of you," I rejoined, in an attempt to be civil, for I did n't like his face any better than I did his voice,--a red, fiery, irascible kind of face.

"Yes I've come over to O Lord,--quick, Jamsetzee, lift up that foot,--take care. There, Mr. Trimings, if that's your name, get me a glass of brandy, stiff."

I got him our little apothecary-labeled bottle and poured out enough to preserve a whole can of peaches. My uncle took it down without a wink, as if it had been water, and seemed relieved. It was a very pleasant uncle to have at our fireside on Christmas eve, I felt.

At a motion from my uncle, Jamsetzee handed me a parcel which I saw was directed to Polly, which I untied, and lo! the most wonderful camel's-hair shawl that ever was, so fine that I immediately drew it through my finger-ring, and so large that I saw it would entirely cover our little room if I spread it out; a dingy red color, but splendid in appearance from the little white hieroglyphic worked in one corner, which is always worn outside, to show that it cost nobody knows how many thousands of dollars.

"A Christmas trifle for Polly. I have come home--as I was saying when that confounded twinge took me--to settle down; and I intend to make Polly my heir, and live at my ease and enjoy life. Move that leg a little, Jamsetzee."

I meekly replied that I had no doubt Polly would be delighted to see her dear uncle, and as for inheriting, if it came to that, I did n't know any one with a greater capacity for that than she.

"That depends," said the gruff old smoker, "how I like ye. A fortune, scraped up in forty years in Ingy, ain't to be thrown away in a minute. But what a house this is to live in!"; the uncomfortable old relative went on, throwing a contemptuous glance round the humble cottage. "Is this all of it?"

"In the winter it is all of it," I said, flushing up; "but in the summer, when the doors and windows are open, it is as large as anybody's house. And," I went on, with some warmth, "it was large enough just before you came in, and pleasant enough. And besides," I said, rising into indignation, "you can not get anything much better in this city short of eight hundred dollars a year, payable first days of January, April, July, and October, in advance, and my salary...."

"Hang your salary, and confound your impudence and your seven-by-nine hovel! Do you think you have anything to say about the use of my money, scraped up in forty years in Ingy? THINGS HAVE GOT TO BE CHANGED!" he burst out, in a voice that rattled the glasses on the sideboard.

I should think they were. Even as I looked into the little fireplace it enlarged, and there was an enormous grate, level with the floor, glowing with seacoal; and a magnificent mantel carved in oak, old and brown; and over it hung a landscape, wide, deep, summer in the foreground with all the gorgeous coloring of the tropics, and beyond hills of blue and far mountains lying in rosy light. I held my breath as I looked down the marvelous perspective. Looking round for a second, I caught a glimpse of a Hindoo at each window, who vanished as if they had been whisked off by enchantment; and the close walls that shut us in fled away. Had cohesion and gravitation given out? Was it the "Great Consummation" of the year 18-? It was all like the swift transformation of a dream, and I pinched my arm to make sure that I was not the subject of some diablerie.

The little house was gone; but that I scarcely minded, for I had suddenly come into possession of my wife's castle in Spain. I sat in a spacious, lofty apartment, furnished with a princely magnificence. Rare pictures adorned the walls, statues looked down from deep niches, and over both the dark ivy of England ran and drooped in graceful luxuriance. Upon the heavy tables were costly, illuminated volumes; luxurious chairs and ottomans invited to easy rest; and upon the ceiling Aurora led forth all the flower-strewing daughters of the dawn in brilliant frescoes. Through the open doors my eyes wandered into magnificent apartment after apartment. There to the south, through folding-doors, was the splendid library, with groined roof, colored light streaming in through painted windows, high shelves stowed with books, old armor hanging on the walls, great carved oaken chairs about a solid oaken table, and beyond a conservatory of flowers and plants with a fountain springing in the center, the splashing of whose waters I could hear. Through the open windows I looked upon a lawn, green with close-shaven turf, set with ancient trees, and variegated with parterres of summer plants in bloom. It was the month of June, and the smell of roses was in the air.

I might have thought it only a freak of my fancy, but there by the fireplace sat a stout, red-faced, puffy-looking man, in the ordinary dress of an English gentleman, whom I had no difficulty in recognizing as my uncle from India.

"One wants a fire every day in the year in this confounded climate," remarked that amiable old person, addressing no one in particular.

I had it on my lips to suggest that I trusted the day would come when he would have heat enough to satisfy him, in permanent supply. I wish now that I had.

I think things had changed. For now into this apartment, full of the morning sunshine, came sweeping with the air of a countess born, and a maid of honor bred, and a queen in expectancy, my Polly, stepping with that lofty grace which I always knew she possessed, but which she never had space to exhibit in our little cottage, dressed with that elegance and richness that I should not have deemed possible to the most Dutch duchess that ever lived, and, giving me a complacent nod of recognition, approached her uncle, and said in her smiling, cheery way, "How is the dear uncle this morning?" And, as she spoke, she actually bent down and kissed his horrid old cheek, red-hot with currie and brandy and all the biting pickles I can neither eat nor name, kissed him, and I did not turn into stone.

"Comfortable as the weather will permit, my darling!"--and again I did not turn into stone.

"Wouldn't uncle like to take a drive this charming morning?" Polly asked.

Uncle finally grunted out his willingness, and Polly swept away again to prepare for the drive, taking no more notice of me than if I had been a poor assistant office lawyer on a salary. And soon the carriage was at the door, and my uncle, bundled up like a mummy, and the charming Polly drove gayly away.

How pleasant it is to be married rich, I thought, as I arose and strolled into the library, where everything was elegant and prim and neat, with no scraps of paper and piles of newspapers or evidences of literary slovenness on the table, and no books in attractive disorder, and where I seemed to see the legend staring at me from all the walls, "No smoking." So I uneasily lounged out of the house. And a magnificent house it was, a palace, rather, that seemed to frown upon and bully insignificant me with its splendor, as I walked away from it towards town.

And why town? There was no use of doing anything at the dingy office. Eight hundred dollars a year! It wouldn't keep Polly in gloves, let alone dressing her for one of those fashionable entertainments to which we went night after night. And so, after a weary day with nothing in it, I went home to dinner, to find my uncle quite chirruped up with his drive, and Polly regnant, sublimely engrossed in her new world of splendor, a dazzling object of admiration to me, but attentive and even tender to that hypochondriacal, gouty old subject from India.

Yes, a magnificent dinner, with no end of servants, who seemed to know that I couldn't have paid the wages of one of them, and plate and courses endless. I say, a miserable dinner, on the edge of which seemed to sit by permission of somebody, like an invited poor relation, who wishes he had sent a regret, and longing for some of those nice little dishes that Polly used to set before me with beaming face, in the dear old days.

And after dinner, and proper attention to the comfort for the night of our benefactor, there was the Blibgims's party. No long, confidential interviews, as heretofore, as to what she should wear and what I should wear, and whether it would do to wear it again. And Polly went in one coach, and I in another. No crowding into the hired hack, with all the delightful care about tumbling dresses, and getting there in good order; and no coming home together to our little cozy cottage, in a pleasant, excited state of "flutteration," and sitting down to talk it all over, and "Was n't it nice?" and "Did I look as well as anybody?" and "Of course you did to me," and all that nonsense. We lived in a grand way now, and had our separate establishments and separate plans, and I used to think that a real separation couldn't make matters much different. Not that Polly meant to be any different, or was, at heart; but, you know, she was so much absorbed in her new life of splendor, and perhaps I was a little old-fashioned.

I don't wonder at it now, as I look back. There was an army of dressmakers to see, and a world of shopping to do, and a houseful of servants to manage, and all the afternoon for calls, and her dear, dear friend, with the artless manners and merry heart of a girl, and the dignity and grace of a noble woman, the dear friend who lived in the house of the Seven Gables, to consult about all manner of important things. I could not, upon my honor, see that there was any place for me, and I went my own way, not that there was much comfort in it.

And then I would rather have had charge of a hospital ward than take care of that uncle. Such coddling as he needed, such humoring of whims. And I am bound to say that Polly could n't have been more dutiful to him if he had been a Hindoo idol. She read to him and talked to him, and sat by him with her embroidery, and was patient with his crossness, and wearied herself, that I could see, with her devoted ministrations.

I fancied sometimes she was tired of it, and longed for the old homely simplicity. I was. Nepotism had no charms for me. There was nothing that I could get Polly that she had not. I could surprise her with no little delicacies or trifles, delightedly bought with money saved for the purpose. There was no more coming home weary with office work and being met at the door with that warm, loving welcome which the King of England could not buy. There was no long evening when we read alternately from some favorite book, or laid our deep housekeeping plans, rejoiced in a good bargain or made light of a poor one, and were contented and merry with little. I recalled with longing my little den, where in the midst of the literary disorder I love, I wrote those stories for the "Antarctic" which Polly, if nobody else, liked to read. There was no comfort for me in my magnificent library. We were all rich and in splendor, and our uncle had come from India. I wished, saving his soul, that the ship that brought him over had foundered off Barnegat Light. It would always have been a tender and regretful memory to both of us. And how sacred is the memory of such a loss!

Christmas? What delight could I have in long solicitude and ingenious devices touching a gift for Polly within my means, and hitting the border line between her necessities and her extravagant fancy? A drove of white elephants would n't have been good enough for her now, if each one carried a castle on his back.

"--and so they were married, and in their snug cottage lived happy ever after."--It was Polly's voice, as she closed the book.

"There, I don't believe you have heard a word of it," she said half complainingly.

"Oh, yes, I have," I cried, starting up and giving the fire a jab with the poker; "I heard every word of it, except a few at the close I was thinking"--I stopped, and looked round.

"Why, Polly, where is the camel's-hair shawl?"

"Camel's-hair fiddlestick! Now I know you have been asleep for an hour."

And, sure enough, there was n't any camel's-hair shawl there, nor any uncle, nor were there any Hindoos at our windows.

And then I told Polly all about it; how her uncle came back, and we were rich and lived in a palace and had no end of money, but she didn't seem to have time to love me in it all, and all the comfort of the little house was blown away as by the winter wind. And Polly vowed, half in tears, that she hoped her uncle never would come back, and she wanted nothing that we had not, and she wouldn't exchange our independent comfort and snug house, no, not for anybody's mansion. And then and there we made it all up, in a manner too particular for me to mention; and I never, to this day, heard Polly allude to My Uncle in India.

And then, as the clock struck eleven, we each produced from the place where we had hidden them the modest Christmas gifts we had prepared for each other, and what surprise there was! "Just the thing I needed." And, "It's perfectly lovely." And, "You should n't have done it." And, then, a question I never will answer, "Ten? fifteen? five? twelve?" "My dear, it cost eight hundred dollars, for I have put my whole year into it, and I wish it was a thousand times better."

And so, when the great iron tongue of the city bell swept over the snow the twelve strokes that announced Christmas day, if there was anywhere a happier home than ours, I am glad of it!


(THE END)
Charles Dudley Warner's essays: Backlog Studies

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