My Uncle Nat
DEATH came to the old man only a few years ago. Too long he had lingered, and the summons was as though a loving mother said chidingly, “Why do you stay out in the cold so long ? Come right in! ” And he went in.
His life had come to be a sort of chronic protest against modern conditions. I cannot say he was childish. Unworthy expression! It shall not be used of my Uncle Nat, who had simply let go.
Often, after a profound reverie or a brown study, or whatever it would be best to call it, he would shake his head solemnly and mutter, “No, no, no, no indeed! no indeed! ” And though not sour or ill-tempered, my Uncle Nat lived towards the last in constant disapproval of a decadent Present. It was away up in Culpeper County, Virginia, that he lived, and there, revisiting my native county at intervals, I saw him. He was very old. I will not say how old, lest I jar the feelings of some of the least young readers of this Club. He lived and died on the farm owned by his ancestors from everlasting to everlasting. His bedroom was literally on the “ground floor,” but it never seemed damp, and he had a blaze in the fireplace even in summer, if a little morning rawness or evening dampness justified it. Living as I have done in Washington City for years, where sanitation-crazy citizens must always sleep upstairs, I have held up Uncle Nat, as well as other aged Virginians, as strong refutation of their theory. Why, my uncle, though you may not believe it, had not, when he died, been up the old stairway for twenty-eight years. The rest of the family and frequent squads of “ company ” slept aloft, but not he.
He would sit for a long time in his splint-bottomed chair, with his feet on the large stones of the hearth, gazing down into the fire. I have seen Uncle Nat in one of these reveries smile a sweet, happy smile, and I knew he was living over again some scene, more than half a century back, in which he was chief actor, happy of heart and lithe of limb. But then apparently would come the thought of a pestiverous Present and times “ out of joint,” and he would mutter his “No, no indeed.” Poor, old, lonely, wifeless man! It was this happy faculty of reverie — of plunging into trance—that gave him surcease of sorrown
At night, not very long “after candle lighting” as he marked the time, he went to bed, in winter covering the fire coals carefully the last thing. True, there was no need of that, for matches were abundant; he loved to tell of the time when they first “came about,” and how he surprised some fellow teamsters in a camp one night when he lighted a lucifer match. But he saved the fire coals, and next morning raked the ashes off and piled on wood and chips and corncobs and thrust a “lightwood” knot under it.
Having done this, he would go out into the “back porch,” take down the “noggin” (ask your archæological friend what a noggin is), and perform his toilet. He clung tenaciously to this primitive form of ablution, and followed it with the violent use of a coarse towel. Then he combed his scant locks, and took a drink, — a drink of pure water in a gourd with a long curved handle. You may have quaffed something very near the elixir of the gods out of a crystal goblet, but you have known no real drink if you have not put to your lips the old gourd (cracked perhaps and the split sewed up) and drunk, long and deeply, water from a spring where a microbe never existed.
Once Uncle Nat had been a politician, but it was “fo’ the waw,” and although a Democrat in the new alignment of 1860, he hated the word, and most often called himself, as of yore, an Old Line Whig. He had not been a Secessionist, but neither had he been a Union man in a definite sense, and he could not get over now the prejudices of 1861. Serious property loss had been his, with the Blue and the Gray armies sweeping alternately over his farm in that unfortunate middle ground unwillingly afforded by old Virginia. The death of a brother—a conscript soldier, who had lingered behind the volunteers partly because the whole neighborhood, denuded of strong men, found him indispensable, the one ever ready to help in sickness and all other trouble — gave him a retrospect of bitterness he could never live down.
He revered the name of Robert E. Lee to the point of worship, and the last time I saw him I was rejoiced that there was one thing I told him about the present time which positively pleased him. It was that Lee was now honored and admired even by those who had most earnestly helped to defeat him. “It is as it should be, sir; as it should be,” he said. I had not before found anything considered by him in this iconoclastic age to be as it should be.
Then I made one more effort to induce him to visit me in Washington. I resolved to steer him over the city with special reference to avoiding the statues of war heroes. He was obdurate. Living two and a half hours’ journey from the national capital, he had not visited it for over forty-five years. He said: “ No sir, I thank you for your invite, but I can’t go. Don’t want to. It seems a right smart while not to see your country’s capital, —nearly half a century, —but I reckon I can get along just as well without going thar. It’s a Babylon, sir; it’s an abominably wicked city! It’s where it all come from in the war. Mr. Lincoln, sir, was a kind-hearted man, but he had wicked advisers and the wickedness come from them. I was to see Jim Buchanan take his seat, though I did n’t vote for him, but I ain’t a ben sence, and I just ain’t a goin’ thar. Spesh’ly I feel so when I remember ’bout John M.” (He always spoke of his brother by his double name, an old Virginia custom.) “Why, sir, that man John M. he voted ’ginst secession and only went when the conscript officer came and he was ’bleeged to go. And then to think, at Petersburg, they, they,—”
He stopped abruptly, poked the fire with the tongs, and went into one of his reveries. I slipped quietly out, but ere I passed through the door, I heard him muttering, “No, no, no, no indeed ! ”