Youve heard of my Uncle Popworth, though. Why, yes! Youve seen himthe eminently respectable elderly gentleman who came one day last summer just as you were going; book under his arm, you remember; weed on his hat; dry smile on bland countenance; tall, lank individual in very seedy black. With him my tale begins; for if I had never indulged in an Uncle Popworth I should never have sported an Iron-clad.
Quite right, sir; his arrival was a surprise to me. To know how great a surprise, you must understand why I left city, friends, business, and settled down in this quiet village. It was chiefly, sir, to escape the fascinations of that worthy old gentleman that I bought this place and took refuge here with my wife and little ones. Here we had respite, nepenthe from our memories of Uncle Popworth; here we used to sit down in the evenings and talk of the past with grateful and tranquil emotions, as people speak of awful things endured in days that are no more. To us the height of human happiness was raising green corn and strawberries in a retired neighborhood where uncles were unknown. But, sir, when that Phantom, that Vampire, that Fate, loomed before my vision that day, if you had said, Trover, Ill give ye sixpence for this neat little box of yours, I should have said, Done! with the trifling proviso that you should take my uncle in the bargain.
The matter with him? What, indeed, could invest human flesh with such terrorswhat but this? he washe islet me shriek it in your eara borea BORE! of the most malignant type; an intolerable, terrible, unmitigated BORE!
That book under his arm was a volume of his own sermonsnine hundred and ninety-nine octavo pages, Oh Heavens! It wasnt enough for him to preach and repreach those appalling discourses, but then the ruthless man must go and print em! When I consider what booksellersworthy men, no doubt, many of them, deserving well of their kindhe must have talked nearly into a state of syncope before ever he found one to give way, in a moment of weakness, of utter exhaustion and despair, and consent to publish him; and when I reflect what numbers of inoffensive persons, in the quiet walks of life, have been made to suffer the infliction of that Bores Own Book, I pause, I stand aghast at the inscrutability of Divine Providence.
Dont think me profane, and dont for a moment imagine I underrate the function of the preacher. Theres nothing better than a good sermonone that puts new life into you. But what of a sermon that takes life out of you, instead of a spiritual fountain, a spiritual sponge that absorbs your powers of body and soul, so that the longer you listen the more you are impoverished? A merely poor sermon isnt so bad; you will find, if you are the right kind of a hearer, that it will suggest something better than itself; a good hen will lay to a bit of earthen. But the discourse of your ministerial vampire, fastening by some mystical process upon the hearer who has life of his ownthough not every one has thatsucks and sucks and sucks; and he is exhausted while the preacher is refreshed. So it happens that your born bore is never weary of his own boring; he thrives upon it; while he seems to be giving, he is mysteriously taking inhe is drinking your blood.
But you say nobody is obliged to read a sermon. Oh my unsophisticated friend! if a man will put his thoughtsor his words, if thoughts are lackingbetween coversspread his banquet, and respectfully invite Public Taste to partake of it, Public Taste being free to decline, then your observation is sound. If an author quietly buries himself in his bookvery good! hic jacet: peace to his ashes!
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end; but now they rise again,
as Macbeth observes, with some confusion of syntax, excusable in a person of his circumstances. Now, suppose theyor hethe man whose brains are outgoes about with his coffin under his arm, like my worthy uncle, and suppose he blandly, politely, relentlessly insists upon reading to you, out of that octavo sarcophagus, passages which in his opinion prove that he is not only not dead, but immortal? If such a man be a stranger, snub him; if a casual acquaintance, met in an evil hour, there is still hopedoors have locks, and there are two sides to a street, and near-sightedness is a blessing, and (as a last resort) buttons may be sacrificed (you remember Lambs story of Coleridge) and left in the clutch of the fatal fingers. But one of your own kindred, and very respectable, adding the claim of misfortune to his other claims upon youpachydermatous to slights, smilingly persuasive, gently persistentas imperturbable as a ships wooden figurehead through all the ups and downs of the voyage of life, and as insensible to cold waterin short, an uncle like my uncle, whom there was no getting rid ofwhat the deuce would you do?
Exactly; run away as I did. There was nothing else to be done, unless, indeed, I had throttled the old gentleman; in which case I am confident that one of our modern model juries would have brought in the popular verdict of justifiable insanity. But, being a peaceable man, I was averse to extreme measures. So I did the next best thingconsulted my wife, and retired to this village.
Then consider the shock to my feelings when I looked up that day and saw the enemy of our peace stalking into our little Paradise with his book under his arm and his carpetbag in his hand!coming with his sermons and shirts, prepared to stay a weekthat is to say a yearthat is to say forever, if we would suffer himand how was he to be hindered by any desperate measures short of burning the house down?
My dear nephew! says he, striding toward me with eager steps, as you perhaps remember, smiling his eternally dry, leathery smileNephew Frederick!and he held out both hands to me, book in one and bag in totherI am rejoiced! One would almost think you had tried to hide away from your old uncle, for Ive been three days hunting you up. And how is Dolly? She ought to be glad to see me, after all the trouble Ive had in finding you! And, Nephew Frederickhm!can you lend me three dollars for the hackman? For I dont happen to have Thank you! I should have been saved this if you had only known I was stopping last night at a public house in the next village, for I know how delighted you would have been to drive over and fetch me!
If you were not already out of hearing, you may have noticed that I made no reply to this affecting speech. The old gentleman has grown quite deaf of late yearsan infirmity which was once a source of untold misery to his friends, to whom he was constantly appealing for their opinions, which they were obliged to shout in his ear. But now, happily, the world has about ceased responding to him, and he has almost ceased to expect responses from the world. He just catches your eye, and when he says, Dont you think so, sir? or What is your opinion, sir? an approving nod does your business.
The hackman paid, my dear uncle accompanied me to the house, unfolding the catalogue of his woes by the way. For he is one of those worthy, unoffending persons whom an ungrateful world jostles and tramples uponwhom unmerciful disaster follows fast and follows faster. In his younger days he was settled over I dont know how many different parishes; but secret enmity pursued him everywhere, poisoning the parochial mind against him, and driving him relentlessly from place to place. Then he relapsed into agencies, and went through a long list of them, each terminating in flat failure, to his ever-recurring surprisethe simple old soul never suspecting, to this day, who his one great tireless, terrible nemesis is!
I got him into the library, and went to talk over this unexpected visitor visitationwith Dolly. She bore up under it more cheerfully than could have been expectedsuppressed a sighand said she would go down and meet him. She received him with a hospitable smile (I verily believe that more of the worlds hypocrisy proceeds from too much good-nature than from too little) and listened patiently to his explanations.
You will observe that I have brought my bag, says he, for I knew you wouldnt let me off for a day or twothough I must positively leave in a weekin two weeks, at the latest. I have brought my volume, too, for I am contemplating a new edition (he is always contemplating a new edition, making that a pretext for lugging the book about with him), and I wish to enjoy the advantages of your and Fredericks criticism. I anticipate some good, comfortable, old-time talks over the old book, Frederick!
We had invited some village friends to come in and eat strawberries and cream with us that afternoon; and the question arose, what should be done with the old gentleman? Harry, who is a lad of a rather lively fancy, coming in while we were taking advantage of his great-uncles deafness to discuss the subject in his presence, proposed a pleasant expedient. Trot him out into the cornfield, introduce him to the scarecrow, and let him talk to that, says he, grinning up into the visitors face, who grinned down at him, no doubt thinking what a wonderfully charming boy he was! If he were as blind as he is deaf, he might have been disposed of very comfortably in some such ingenious waythe scarecrow, or any other lay figure, might have served to engage him in one of his immortal monologues. As it was, the suggestion bore fruit later, as you will see.
While we were consultingkeeping up our scattering fire of small-arms under the old talkers heavy gunsour parish minister calledold Doctor Wortleby, for whom we have a great liking and respect. Of course we had to introduce him to Uncle Popworthfor they met face to face; and of course Uncle Popworth fastened at once upon the brother clergyman. Being my guest, Wortleby could do no less than listen to Popworth, who is my uncle. He listened with interest and sympathy for the first half hour; and then continued listening for another half hour, after his interest and sympathy were exhausted. Then, attempting to go, he got his hat, and sat with it in his hand half an hour longer. Then he stood half an hour on his poor old gouty feet, desperately edging toward the door.
Ah, certainly, says he, with a weary smile, repeatedly endeavoring to break the spell that bound him. I shall be most happy to hear the conclusion of your remarks at some future time (even ministers can lie out of politeness); but just now
We cruelly wished that he might continue to engage my uncle in conversation; but that would have been too much to hope from the sublime endurance of a martyrif ever there was one more patient than he. Seeing the Lintons and the Greggs arrive, he craftily awaited his opportunity, and slipped off, to give them a turn on the gridiron. First Linton was secured; and you should have seen him roll his mute, appealing orbs, as he settled helplessly down under the infliction. Suddenly he made a dash. I am ignorant of these matters, said he; but Gregg understands themGregg will talk with you. But Gregg took refuge behind the ladies. The ladies, receiving a hint from poor distressed Dolly, scattered. But no artifice availed against the dreadful man. Piazza, parlor, gardenhe ranged everywhere, and was sure to seize a victim.
At last tea was ready, and we all went in. The Lintons and Greggs were people of the world, who would hardly have cared to wait for a blessing on such lovely heaps of strawberries, in mugs of cream they saw before them; but, there being two clergymen at the table, the ceremony was evidently expected. We were placidly seated; there was a hush, agreeably filled with the fragrance of the delicious fruit; even my Uncle Popworth, from long habit, turned off his talk at that suggestive moment; when I did what I thought a shrewd thing. I knew too well my relatives long-windedness at his devotions, as at everything else. (I wonder if Heaven itself isnt bored by such fellows!) I had suffered, I had seen my guests suffer, too much from him already to think of deliberately yielding him a fearful advantage over us; so I coolly passed him by, and gave an expressive nod to the old Doctor.
Wortleby began; and I was congratulating myself on my adroit management of a delicate matter, whenconceive my consternation!Popworthnot to speak it profanelyfollowed suit! The reverend egotist couldnt take in the possibility of anybody but himself being invited to say grace at our table, he being presenthe hadnt noticed my nod to the Doctor, and the Doctors low, earnest voice didnt reach himand there, with one blessing going on one side of the table, he, as I said, pitched in on the other! His eyes shut, his hands spread over his plate, his elbows on the board, his head bowed, he took care that grace should abound with us for once! His mill started, I knew there was no stopping it, and I hoped Wortleby would desist. But he didnt know his man. He seemed to feel that he had the stroke-oar, and he pulled away manfully. As Popworth lifted up his loud, nasal voice, the old Doctor raised his voice, in the vain hope, I suppose, of making himself heard by his lusty competitor. If you have never had two blessings running opposition at your table, in the presence of invited guests, you can never imagine how astounding, how killingly ludicrous it was! I felt that both Linton and Gregg were ready to tumble over, each in an apoplexy of suppressed emotions; while I had recourse to my handkerchief to hide my tears. At length, poor Wortleby yielded to fatewithdrew from the unequal contesthauled offfor repairs, and the old seventy-two gun-ship thundered away in triumph.
At last (as there must be an end to everything under the sun) my uncle came to a close; and a moment of awful silence ensued, during which no man durst look at another. But in my weak and jelly-like condition I ventured a glance at him, and noticed that he looked up and around with an air of satisfaction at having performed a solemn duty in a becoming manner, blissfully unconscious of having run a poor brother off the track. Seeing us all with moist eyes and much affectedtwo or three handkerchiefs still goinghe no doubt flattered himself that the pathetic touches in his prayer had told.
This will give you some idea of the kind of man we had on our hands; and I wont risk making myself as great a bore as he is, by attempting a history of his stay with us; for I remember I set out to tell you about my little Iron-clad. Im coming to that.
Suffice it to say, he stayedhe stayedhe STAYED!five mortal weeks; refusing to take hints when they almost became kicks; driving our friends from us, and ourselves almost to distraction; his misfortunes alone protecting him from a prompt and vigorous elimination; when a happy chance helped me to a solution of this awful problem of destiny.
More than once I had recalled Harrys vivacious suggestion of the scarecrowif one could only have been invented that would sit composedly in a chair and nod when spoken to! I was wishing for some such automaton, to bear the brunt of the boring with which we were afflicted, when one day there came a little man into the garden, where I had taken refuge.
He was a short, swarthy, foreign looking, diminutive, stiff, rather comical fellowlittle figure mostly head, little head mostly face, little face mostly nose, which was by no means littlea sort of human vegetable (to my horticultural eye) running marvelously to seed in that organ. The first thing I saw, on looking up at the sound of footsteps, was the said nose coming toward me, among the sweet-corn tassels. Nose of a decidedly Hebraic castthe bearer respectably dressed, though his linen had an unwholesome sallowness, and his cloth a shiny, much-brushed, second-hand appearance.
Without a word he walks up to me, bows solemnly, and pulls from his pocket (I thought he was laying his hand on his heart) the familiar, much-worn weapon of his classthe folded, torn yellow paper, ready to fall to pieces as you open itin short, the respectable beggars certificate of character. With another bow (which gave his nose the aspect of the beak of a bird of prey making a pick at me) he handed me the document. I found that it was dated in Milwaukee, and signed by the mayor of that city, two physicians, three clergymen, and an editor, who bore united testimony to the fact that Jacob MenzelI think that was his namethe bearer, anywaywas a deaf mute, and, considering that fact, a prodigy of learning, being master of no less than five different languages (a pathetic circumstance, considering that he was unable to speak one); moreover, that he was a converted Jew; and, furthermore, a native of Germany, who had come to this country in company with two brothers, both of whom had died of cholera in St. Louis in one day; in consequence of which affliction, and his recent conversion, he was now anxious to return to the Fatherland, where he proposed to devote his life to the conversion of his brethrenthe upshot of all which was that good Christians and charitable souls everywhere were earnestly recommended to aid the said Jacob Menzel in his pious undertaking.
I was fumbling in my pocket for a little change wherewith to dismiss himfor that is usually the easiest way of getting off your premises and your conscience the applicant for aid, who is probably an impostor, yet possibly notwhen my eye caught the words (for I still held the document), would be glad of any employment which may help to pay his way. The idea of finding employment for a man of such a large nose and little body, such extensive knowledge and diminutive legswho had mastered five languages yet could not speak or understand a word of any of themstruck me as rather pleasant, to say the least; yet, after a moments reflectionwasnt he the very thing I wanted, the manikin, the target for my uncle?
Meanwhile he was scribbling rapidly on a small slate he had taken from his pocket. With another bow (as if he had written something wrong and was going to wipe it out with his nose), he handed me the slate, on which I found written in a neat hand half a dozen lines in as many languagesEnglish, Latin, Hebrew, German, French, Greekeach, as far as I could make out, conveying the cheerful information that he could communicate with me in that particular tongue. I tried him in English, French and Latin, and I must acknowledge that he stood the test; he then tried me in Greek and Hebrew, and I as freely confess that I didnt stand the test. He smiled intelligently, nodded, and condescendingly returned to the English tongue, writing quickly, I am a poor exile from Fatherland, and I much need friends.
He answered: I copy the manuscripts, I translate from the one language to others with some perfect exactitude, I arrange the libraries, I make the catalogues, I am capable to be any secretary. And he looked up as if he saw in my eyes a vast vista of catalogues, manuscripts, libraries, and Fatherland at the end of it.
I nodded, adding on the slate, He is perfectly harmless, but he can only be kept quiet by having some person to talk and read to. He will talk and read to you. He must not know you are deaf. He is very deaf himself, and will not expect you to reply. And, for a person wishing a light and easy employment, I recommended the situation.
The gravity with which he entered upon the situation was astonishing. He didnt seem to taste the slightest flavor of a joke in it at all. It was a simple matter of business; he saw in it only money and Fatherland.
Meanwhile I explained my intentions to Dolly, saying in great glee: His deafness is his defense: the old three-decker may bang away at him; he is IRON-CLAD! And that suggested the name we have called him by ever since.
When he was ready for action, I took him in tow, and ran him in to draw the Popworths firein other words, introduced him to my uncle in the library. The meeting of my tall, lank relative and the big-nosed little Jew was a spectacle to cure a hypochondriac! Mr. Jacob Menzelgentleman from Germanytraveling in this country, I yelled in the old fellows ear. He of the diminutive legs and stupendous nose bowed with perfect decorum, and seated himself, still and erect, in the big chair I placed for him. The avuncular countenance lighted up; here were fresh woods and pastures new to that ancient shepherd. As for myself, I was well-nigh strangled by a cough which just then seized me, and obliged to retreatfor I never was much of an actor, and the comedy of that first interview was overpowering.
As I passed the dining-room door, Dolly, who was behind it, gave my arm a fearful pinch that answered, I suppose, in the place of a scream, as a safety-valve for her hysterical emotions. Oh, you cruel manyou miserable humbug! says she; and went off into convulsions of laughter. The door was open, and we could see and hear everything.
You are traveling, hm? says my uncle. The nose nodded duly. Hm! I have traveled, myself, the old gentleman proceeded; my life has been one of vicissitudes, hm! I have journeyed, I have preached, I have publishedperhaps you have heard of my literary ventureand over went the big volume to the little man, who took it, turned the leaves, and nodded and smiled, according to instructions.
You are very kind to say so; thank you! says my uncle, rubbing his husky hands with satisfaction. Rejoiced to meet with you! It is always a gratification to have an intelligent and sympathizing brother to open ones mind to; it is especially refreshing to me, for, as I may say without egotism, my life and labors have not been appreciated.
With other remarks of a like genial nature; while there they sat, the twomy uncle on one side, long, lathy, self-satisfied, gesticulating, earnestly laying his case before a grave jury of one, whom he was bound to convince, if time would allow; my little Jew facing him, upright in his chair, stiff, imperturbable, devoted to business, honorably earning his money, the nose in the air, immovable, except when it played duly up and down at fitting intervals; in which edifying employment I left them and went about my business, a cheerier man.
Ah, what a relief it was to feel myself free for a season from the attacks of the enemyto know that my plucky little Iron-clad was engaging him! In an hour I passed through the hall again, heard the loud, blatant voice still discoursing it (had got as far as the difficulties with the second parish), and saw the unflinching nasal organ perform its graceful seesaw of assent. An hour later it was the sameexcept that the speaker had arrived at the persecutions which drove him from parish number three. When I went to call them to dinner, the scene had changed a little, for now the old gentleman, pounding the table for a pulpit, was reading aloud passages from a powerful farewell sermon preached to his ungrateful parishioners. I was sorry I couldnt give my man a hint to use his handkerchief at the affecting periods, for the nose can hardly be called a sympathetic feature (unless, indeed, you blow it), and these nods were becoming rather too mechanical, except when the old gentleman switched off on the argumentative track, as he frequently did. What think you of that? he would pause in his reading to inquire. Isnt that logic? Isnt that unanswerable? In responding to which appeals nobody could have done better than my serious, my devoted, my lovely little Jew.
Dinner! I shouted over my uncles dickey. It was almost the only word that had the magic in it to rouse him from the feast of reason which his own conversation was to him. It was always easy to head him toward the dining-roomto steer him into port for necessary supplies. The little Iron-clad followed in his wake. At table the old gentleman resumed the account of his dealings with parish number three, and got on as far as negotiations with number four; occasionally stopping to eat his soup or roast beef very fast; at which time Jacob Menzel, who was very much absorbed in his dinner, but never permitted himself to neglect business for pleasure, paused at the proper intervals, with his spoon or fork half-way in his mouth, and noddedjust as if my uncle had been speakingyielding assent to his last remarks after mature consideration, no doubt the old gentleman thought.
The fun of the thing wore off after awhile, and then we experienced the solid advantages of having an Iron-clad in the house. Afternooneveningthe next daymy little man of business performed his function promptly and assiduously. But in the afternoon of the second day he began to change perceptibly. He wore an aspect of languor and melancholy that alarmed me. The next morning he was pale, and went to his work with an air of sorrowful resignation.
Indeed, it had almost ceased to wave; and I feared that I was about to lose a most valuable servant, whose place it would be impossible to fill. Accordingly, I wrote on a slip of paper, which I sent in to him:
You have done well, and I raise your salary to a dollar and a quarter a day. Your influence over our unfortunate relative is soothing and beneficial. Go on as you have begun and merit the lasting gratitude of an afflicted family.
That seemed to cheer him a littleto wind him up, as Harry said, and set the pendulum swinging again. But it was not long before the listlessness and low spirits returned; Menzel showed a sad tendency to shirk his duty; and before noon there came a crash.
I am not teaf! I am not teaf! I am not teaf! He is one terreeble mon! He vill haf my life! So I goI flyI take my moneys and my shirtI leafe him, I leafe your house! I vould earn honest living, butGott im himmel! Dieu des dieux! All de devils! he shrieked, mixing up several of his languages at once, in his violent mental agitation.
I tell you vat means it all! the vindictive little impostor, tiptoeing up to him, yelled at his cheek. I make not vell my affairs in your country; I vould return to Faderlant; for conwenience I carry dis pappeer. I come here; I am suppose teaf; I accept de position to be your companion, for if a man hear, you kill him tead soon vid your book and your ten, twenty parish! I hear! You kill me! and I go!
And, having obtained his moneys and his shirt, he went. That is the last I ever saw of my little Iron-clad. I remember him with gratitude, for he did me good service, and he had but one fault, namely, that he was not iron-clad!
As for my uncle, for the first time in his life, I think, he said never a word, but stalked into the house. Dolly soon came running out to ask what was the matter; Popworth was actually packing his carpet-bag! I called Andrew, and ordered him to be in readiness with the buggy to take the old gentleman over to the railroad.
He did, however, accept some money which I offered him, and likewise a seat in the buggy. I watched his departure with joy and terrorfor at any moment he might relent and stay; nor was I at ease in my mind until I saw Andrew come riding back alone.
We have never seen the old gentleman since. But last winter I received a letter from him; he wrote in a forgiving tone, to inform me that he had been appointed chaplain in a prison, and to ask for a loan of money to buy a suit of clothes. I sent him fifty dollars and my congratulations. I consider him eminently qualified to fill the new situation. As a hardship, he cant be beat; and what are the rogues sent to prison for but to suffer punishment?
Yes, it would be a joke if my little Iron-clad should end his career of imposture in that public institution, and sit once more under my excellent uncle! But I cant wish him any such misfortune. His mission to us was one of mercy. The place has been Paradise again, ever since his visit.