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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!







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Online LibraryCharles Dudley WarnerBacklog Studies → online text (page 12 of 12)