Fortuna Antiquarii

THE mellow golden glow of a late mid-June afternoon was flooding the wooded Western Pennsylvania hills. Vagrant breezes rippled the pale verdure of the wheat fields and the young corn languidly waved its blades. As I whirred along over the lately finished ‘Pinchot’ road, here and there a red squirrel scurried jerkily along a still-remaining stretch of rail fence, while now and then from thicket edge came the clear ‘Ah-ha hoyt!’ of an unseen quail, and out of mid-meadow the uncertain gurgling tinkle of a lingering bobolink.

For these and all the other early summer glories of the matchless Pennsylvania Junetide I happened to have on that particular afternoon neither seeing eye nor hearing ear. Otherwise the shaded bank of the sunflecked mill stream along which bare-legged urchins were fishing would have had and long held my attentive interest, and I should have stopped for a leisurely chat with miller Will Dale, who leaned on the floury sill of his window high above the foamy water where red and white corncobs floated and swirled. Answering his hearty hail with only a casual nod, I hardly heard the low thunder of tire over yielding plank as I crossed the old wooden bridge below the dam, barely noticed the kingbirdbadgered hen hawk on a blighted chestnut halfway up the hill, and gave but a passing glance to the tan-and-white Guernsey calves at the orchard pasture bars of the old Ferguson place. I was absorbed in the eagerness of a quest and aglow with the ardor of the chase.

Envy me, ye devotees of the cult of the antique! What would not any of you have given to be, as was I, on the point of picking up a definitely assured, albeit somewhat indefinitely described, treasure that must inevitably and gloriously crown a severalsummers-long and more-or-less-successful search for ancient flasks among the ancestral farmsteads of prosperous descendants of the thrifty Scots-Irish and sturdy German pioneer settlers of my native countryside. In rambling shed and weathered gray barn, dank cellar and dusty attic, camphor-scented cupboard and pungent smokehouse, had I hunted, found, and borne away with many a memorable thrill of triumphant elation aquamarine and amber ‘violins,’ a ‘“Jeny” Lind’ or two, ‘Eagles’ of almost every type and provenance, and once, by never-to-be-forgotten favor of collector’s luck, a soul-delighting glorious green ‘Gen. George Washington’! And now this unknown find, in certain and immediate prospect, was to transcend in beauty, in interest, in value, all these examples of the old-time mould maker’s craft and ancient bottle blower’s art! To it the best of them would be ‘as the moonshine is to sunshine, or as water is to wine.’ A flask of all flasks, maybe hitherto undiscovered, unique! It came about thus.

He had hailed me with hearty familiarity in the street thronged with rural Saturdaynight shoppers and sight-seers. ‘Well, well, when’d you get back? Glad to see you here again in old Pennsylvania. How’s California? Won’t find any weather to beat this, I’ll bet, out there. You’re lookin’ good. . . . Say, they tell me you ’re huntin’ up these-here old bottles. Tom Gill was sayin’ you got one out there last summer. Why n’t you ever come down to our place? I ’ll bet you I can show you the granddaddy of them all down there. How’s that? No, sir, I won’t sell ’er; you can just have ’er. Su-u-ure you can. I’ve no use for ’er. Oh, been kickin’ round yonder ’s long ’s I can mind, I reckon. Yessir, she’s an’ old-timer all right. What color? Well, kind o’ blue, or purple — dogged now if I can just rightly tell. Hold maybe a pint. Uh-huh, sort o’ rough an’ flat like. No, I know what you mean. ’T ain’t anything like that. Just an old-time, a real old-time whiskey flask, that’s what she is. You just come down any evenin’ an’ get ’er. More than welcome to ’er.’

So here I was, coming down.

Hot and dusty from a day’s ‘cultivatin’,’ he was standing by the farmyard pump as I drove up, while his team drank from the ancient log trough. ‘Well,’ he began apologetically, pushing his wide-brimmed straw hat forward over his eyes and scratching the back of his head, ‘I reckon you ’re down for that bottle. You know,’ he went on, ‘it’s a funny thing. I was sure I could lay my hand right on it [my heart sank], but when I come to look for it, I just can’t seem to mind where I saw it last. Oh, we ’ll find ’er all right. She’s round here somewhere. How’s that? Oh, you bet! As I told you, round like, and flat — shaped somethin’ like a horseshoe. Kind of a short plain neck. No, no ring around it that I mind. Letters, though, and some kind o’ picture, seems to me, blowed in the glass [could it be a ‘Sailors’ Rights’?], or maybe a man’s face, now that you speak of it. [Dared I hope for a‘Gen. W. H. Harrison-Log Cabin’? It might indeed turn out to be this rarity of many a collector’s dream!] Green, did you say? Well, no, I could n’t say, but if I mind right, more of a blue like, though I would n’t swear to it now. Dad — yes, an’ more than likely Grandpap, for all I know — used to keep blastin’ powder an’ then machine oil in ’er, so it got so you could n’t tell very well what color she was, an’ ’deed if I took that close notice lately. Here, you [to the horses]! Quit that, in there! Soon’s I get them put away we’ll go an’ have a look.’

So we proceeded to have our look. Beneath the stone-walled ‘bank’ barn, amid the cobwebs and chaff we made our way, scaring indignantly squawking hens off their nests, cracking our heads against joists and bumping into posts. In vain. Over the smooth-worn stringers into the empty haymow to scan ‘girts’ and explore brace bases. No bottle.

Then on up into the ‘wagon shade’ loft, over the loose, rickety floor boards at imminent danger to life and limb. But what is risk of life or limb compared to the acquisition of a blue ‘LaFayette’ or a ‘Franklin-Ship’? Through coal shed and henhouse, through cellar and corncrib we searched, and out again to further surmise and conjecture. After all, it might have been only an everyday ‘Clasped HandsUnion’ or commonplace Pittsburgh ‘Pike’s Peak.’ Disappointment is all in the collector’s day’s work!

‘Tell you what, we’ll go an’ ask her. Maybe she’ll know.’ ‘She,’ however, who from the kitchen window had been following our futile explorations, ‘would n’t be surprised if that fellow from Ohio who got the four-posters and the bureau in the fall took it,’ and she ‘would n’t put it past him’ — statements that evoked a concurrent, ‘I swan, he might of, now, at that.’ Yet on further reflection he recalled that he had seen it ‘layin’ somewhere only last week, just a day or so before I seen you in town.’ The elusive prize again assumed its Graillike glamour. Nothing less now could it be than an amethyst ‘G. Washington’ with the vine wreath, or a ‘Farley & TaylorEagle,’ or — why not, indeed, though one must not even dream of it — a cobalt scrolled ‘J. R. & Son.’

At long last came a shout of victory, a pæan of triumph from the tool shed: ‘Just where I’d left ’er! I knowed she wasn’t lost!’ Trembling with excited anticipation and unable to repress an exultant whoop, I rushed to receive from his hand the precious thing.

It was an oval, oil-smeared, clear glass bottle bearing the single word ‘NUJOL’!