Old Morton

— The Middle-Western village produces, or confirms into inveteracy when produced, many a queer type of character. In the same way that isolated valleys in mountainous countries develop and preserve distinct idioms of folk-speech, so do these isolated semi-rustic regions exhibit odd dialectic varieties of human nature. One such queer character, or “ odd stick,” is remembered in our village as “ Old Morton.” Bent at a crooked right angle, weather-stained and storm-beaten, like a sort of land species of ancient mariner, gray, unkempt, and his arid face visibly consoled by perennial founts of tobacco, the old man was wont to hobble through the village street about once a day, usually at mail-time. For he, too, it was clear, like all the denizens of little towns, and especially those without either correspondence or business, had always great expectations in connection with the unknown possibilities of each day’s lean but punctual mail-bag. His only employment and means of support consisted of chance jobs of small joinery in a rickety little shop on the bank of the river, in the loft of which was his lonely and unseen lair. There never was a more inoffensive creature ; he was very gentle with small children and all piteous dumb animals ; but his bent-over face had a splenetic gaze down at mother earth, — say, rather, step-mother pavement, — as he made his way along the street, and his old blue eyes looked up at you with a sort of protesting hostility, as if, in the absence of a visible Providence, he took you for a representative of things in general and accused you of his fate. I was comparatively a new-comer in the town, and had never exchanged greetings with him ; but one day, as I was hurrying across the stone bridge, he met me, and stopped me with the paralyzing exclamation, “ Ain’t ye glad ye ain’t Old Morton! ” I was never more nonplused and put to it for a reply. What I did respond was, “ Who ? — I ? ” But whether this counter-interrogative of mine meant anything or not, I have never known. The particular nuance of my own inner consciousness that prompted my words had, in my astonishment, evaporated with them, as I found upon asking myself what under the moon I had meant, while I hurried on my way. His words I understood well enough, and perhaps mine may have been meant to convey some sudden sense of my small reason for any such self-gratulation. But it is quite as likely my mental breath was so completely taken away that I made the response in entire idiocy.

I learned afterward that it was a habit of his to address this or a similar question to persons of his acquaintance. His constant idea seemed to be that, whatever the apparent hardness of any other mortal’s lot in life, it ought to be a sufficient consolation to him to reflect that, after all, he was not Old Morton.

There was philosophy in the reflection, and I was glad to have imbibed it. In fact, what right had I to grumble and sulk about things, so long as I had not the weak and friendless old man’s bent back, and rheumatism, and shattered nerves, and forlorn abandonment ?

Once I was waiting at the provision store, on some family errand of “ harmless necessary,” soap, or sugar, or other village brieabrac (such as it is the pleasant privilege of the literary man of the household, with his apparent plenitude of leisure, to purvey), when I saw the ancient philosopher sitting on a cracker barrel, and gazing at a pair of urchins whose tow heads barely reached the counter. There was a kind of quizzical and melancholy tenderness in his look. “ There’s one good thing about them boys ! ” he exclaimed with emphasis, as he caught my eye. “ They won’t neither one on ’em never be Old Morton ! ” And he evidently felt that in pronouncing this decisive judgment he was, as it were, a benignant oracle, decreeing them a blessed fate.