Uncle Abner, Master Of Mysteries

by Melville Davisson Post

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An Act of God

IT WAS THE last day of the County Fair, and I stood beside my Uncle Abner, on the edge of the crowd, watching the performance of a mountebank.

On a raised platform, before a little house on wheels, stood a girl dressed like a gypsy, with her arms extended, while an old man out in the crowd, standing on a chair, was throwing great knives that hemmed her in with a steel hedge. The girl was very young, scarcely more than a child, and the man was old, but he was hale and powerful. He wore wooden shoes, travel-worn purple velvet trousers, a red sash, and a white blouse of a shirt open at the throat.

I was watching the man, whose marvelous skill fascinated me. He seemed to be looking always at the crowd of faces that passed between him and the wagon, and yet the great knife fell to a hair on the target, grazing the body of the girl.

But while the old man with his sheaf of knives held my attention, it was the girl that Abner looked at. He stood studying her face with a strange rapt attention. Sometimes he lifted his head and looked vacantly over the crowd with the eyelids narrowed, like one searching for a memory that eluded him, then he came back to the face in its cluster of dark ringlets, framed in knives that stood quivering in the poplar board.

It was thus that my father found us when he came up.

"Have you noticed Blackford about?" he said; "I want to see him."

"No," replied Abner, "but he should be here, I think; he is at every frolic."

"I sent him the money for his cattle last night," my father went on, "and I wish to know if he got it."

Abner turned upon him at that. "You will always take a chance with that scoundrel, Rufus," he said, "and some day you will be robbed. His lands are covered with a deed of trust."

"Well," replied my father, with his hearty laugh, "I shall not be robbed this time. I have Blackford's request over his signature for the money, with the statement that the letter is to be evidence of its payment."

And he took an envelope out of his pocket and handed it to Abner.

My uncle read the letter to the end, and then his great fingers tightened on the sheet, and he read it carefully again, and yet again, with his eyes narrowed and his jaw protruding. Finally he looked my father in the face.

"Blackford did not write this letter!" he said.

"Not write it!" my father cried. "Why, man, I know the deaf mute's writing like a book. I know every line and slant of his letters, and every crook and twist of his signature."

But my uncle shook his head.

My father was annoyed.

"Nonsense!" he said. "I can call a hundred men on these fair grounds who will swear that Blackford made every stroke of the pen in that letter, even against his denial, and though he bring Moses and the prophets to support him."

Abner looked my father steadily in the face.

"That is true, Rufus," he said; "the thing is perfect. There is no letter or line or stroke or twist of the pen that varies from Blackford's hand, and every grazer in the hills, to a man, will swear upon the Bible that he wrote it. Blackford himself cannot tell this writing from his own, nor can any other living man; and yet the deaf mute did not write it."

"Well," said my father, "yonder is Blackford now; we will ask him."

But they never did.

I saw the tall deaf mute swagger up and enter the crowd before the mountebank's wagon. And then a thing happened. The chair upon which the old man stood broke under him. He fell and the great knife in his hand swerved downward and went through the deaf mute's body, as though it were a cheese. The man was dead when we picked him up; the knife blade stood out between his shoulders, and the haft was jammed against his bloody coat.

We carried him into the Agricultural Hall among the prize apples and the pumpkins, summoned Squire Randolph from the cattle pens, and brought the mountebank before him.

Randolph came in his big blustering manner and sat down as though he were the judge of all the world. He heard the evidence, and upon the word of every witness the tragedy was an accident clean through. But it was an accident that made one shudder. It came swift and deadly and unforeseen, like a vengeance of God in the Book of Kings. One passing among his fellows, in no apprehension, had been smitten out of life. There was terror in the mystery of selection that had thus claimed Blackford in this crowd for death. It brought our voices to a whisper to feel how unprotected a man was in this life, and how little we could see.

And yet the thing had the aspect of design and moved with our stern Scriptural beliefs. In the pulpit this deaf mute had been an example and a warning. His life was profligate and loose. He was a cattle shipper who knew the abominations indexed by the Psalmist. He was an Ishmaelite in more ways than his affliction. He had no wife nor child, nor any next of kin. He had been predestined to an evil end by every good housewife in the hills. He would go swiftly and by violence into hell, the preachers said; and swiftly and by violence he had gone on this autumn morning when the world was like an Eden.

He lay there among the sheaves of corn and the fruits and cereals of the earth, so fully come to the end predestined that those who had cried the prophecy the loudest were the most amazed. With all their vaporings, they could not believe that God would be so expeditious, and they spoke in whispers and crowded about on tiptoe, as though the Angel of the Lord stood at the entrance of this little festal hall, as before the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.

Randolph could do nothing but find the thing an accident, and let the old man go. But he thundered from behind his table on the dangers of such a trade as this. And all the time the mountebank stood stupidly before him like a man dazed, and the little girl wept and clung to the big peasant's hand. Randolph pointed to the girl and told the old man that he would kill her some day, and with the gestures and authority of omnipotence forbade his trade. The old mountebank promised to cast his knives into the river and get at something else. Randolph spoke upon the law of accidents sententiously for some thirty minutes, quoted Lord Blackstone and Mr. Chitty, called the thing an act of God, within a certain definition of the law, and rose.

My Uncle Abner had been standing near the door, looking on with a grave, undecipherable face. He had gone through the crowd to the chair when the old man fell, had drawn the knife out of Blackford's body, but he had not helped to carry him in, and he had remained by the door, his big shoulders towering above the audience. Randolph stopped beside him as he went out, took a pinch of snuff, and trumpeted in his big, many-colored handkerchief.

"Ah, Abner," he said, "do you concur in my decision?"

"You called the thing an act of God," replied Abner, "and I concur in that."

"And so it is," said Randolph, with judicial pomp; "the writers on the law, in their disquisitions upon torts, include within that term those inscrutable injuries that no human intelligence can foresee; for instance, floods, earthquakes and tornadoes."

"Now, that is very stupid in the writers on the law," replied Abner; "I should call such injuries acts of the devil. It would not occur to me to believe that God would use the agency of the elements in order to injure the innocent."

"Well," said Randolph, "the writers upon the law have not been theologians, although Mr. Greenleaf was devout, and Chitty with a proper reverence, and my lords Coke and Blackstone and Sir Matthew Hale in respectable submission to the established church. They have grouped and catalogued injuries with delicate and nice distinctions with respect to their being actionable at law, and they found certain injuries to be acts of God, but I do not read that they found any injury to be an act of the devil. The law does not recognize the sovereignty and dominion of the devil."

"Then," replied Abner, "with great fitness is the law represented blindfold. I have not entered any jurisdiction where his writs have failed to run."

There was a smile about the door that would have broken into laughter but for the dead man inside.

Randolph blustered, consulted his snuffbox, and turned the conversation into a neighboring channel.

"Do you think, Abner," he said, "that this old showman will give up his dangerous practice as he promised me?"

"Yes," replied Abner, "he will give it up, but not because he promised you."

And he walked away to my father, took him by the arm, and led him aside.

"Rufus," he said, "I have learned something. Your receipt is valid."

"Of course it is valid," replied my father; "it is in Blackford's hand."

"Well," said Abner, "he cannot come back to deny it, and I will not be a witness for him."

"What do you mean, Abner?" my father said. "You say that Blackford did not write this letter, and now you say that it is valid."

"I mean," replied Abner, "that when the one entitled to a debt receives it, that is enough."

Then he walked away into the crowd, his head lifted and his fingers locked behind his massive back.

The County Fair closed that evening in much gossip and many idle comments on Blackford's end. The chimney corner lawyers, riding out with the homing crowd, vapored upon Mr. Jefferson's Statute of Descents, and how Blackford's property would escheat to the state since there was no next of kin, and were met with the information that his lands and his cattle would precisely pay his debts, with an eagle or two beyond for a coffin. And, after the manner of lawyers, were not silenced, but laid down what the law would be if only the facts were agreeable to their premise. And the prophets, sitting in their wagons, assembled their witnesses and established the dates at which they had been prophetically delivered.

Evening descended, and the fair grounds were mostly deserted. Those who lived at no great distance had moved their live stock with the crowd and had given up their pens and stalls. But my father, who always brought a drove of prize cattle to these fairs, gave orders that we should remain until the morning. The distance home was too great and the roads were filled. My father's cattle were no less sacred than the bulls of Egypt, and not to be crowded by a wagon wheel or ridden into by a shouting drunkard.

The night fell. There was no moon, but the earth was not in darkness. The sky was clear and sown with stars like a seeded field. I did not go to bed in the cattle stall filled with clover hay under a handwoven blanket, as I was intended to do. A youngster at a certain age is a sort of jackal and loves nothing in this world so much as to prowl over the ground where a crowd of people has encamped. Besides, I wished to know what had become of the old mountebank, and it was a thing I soon discovered.

His wagon stood on the edge of the ground among the trees near the river, with the door closed. His horse, tethered to a wheel, was nosing an armful of hay. The light of the stars filtered through the treetops, filled the wheels with shadows and threw one side of the wagon into the blackness of the pit. I went down to the fringe of trees; there I sat squatted on the earth until I heard a footstep and saw my Uncle Abner coming toward the wagon. He walked as I had seen him walking in the crowd, his hands behind him and his face lifted as though he considered something that perplexed him. He came to the steps, knocked with his clenched hand on the door, and when a voice replied, entered.

Curiosity overcame me. I scurried up to the dark side of the wagon. There a piece of fortune awaited me; a gilded panel had cracked with some jolt upon the road, and by perching myself upon the wheel I could see inside. The old man had been seated behind a table made by letting down a board hinged to the wall. His knives were lying on the floor beside him, bound together in a sheaf with a twine string. There were some packets of old letters on the table and a candle. The little girl lay asleep in a sort of bunk at the end of the wagon. The old man stood up when my uncle entered, and his face, that had been dull and stupid before the justice of the peace, was now keen and bright.

"Monsieur does me an honor," he said. The words were an interrogation with no welcome in them.

"No honor," replied my uncle, standing with his hat on; "but possibly a service."

"That would be strange," the mountebank said dryly, "for I have received no service from any man here."

"You have a short memory," replied Abner; "the justice of the peace rendered you a great service on this day. Do you put no value on your life?"

"My life has not been in danger, monsieur," he said.

"I think it has," replied Abner.

'Then monsieur questions the decision?"

"No," said Abner; "I think it was the very wisest decision that Randolph ever made."

"Then why does monsieur say that my life was in danger?"

"Well," replied my uncle, "are not the lives of all men in danger? Is there any day or hour of a day in which they are secure, or any tract or parcel of this earth where danger is not? And can a man say when he awakes at daylight in his bed, on this day I shall go into danger, or I shall not? In the light it is, and in the darkness it is, and where one looks to find it, and where he does not. Did Blackford believe himself in danger today when he passed before you?"

"Ah, monsieur," replied the man, "that was a terrible accident!"

My uncle picked up a stool, placed it by the table and sat down. He took off his hat and set it on his knees, then he spoke, looking at the floor.

"Do you believe in God?"

I saw the old man rub his forehead with his hand and the ball of his first finger make a cross.

"Yes, monsieur," he said, "I do."

"Then," replied Abner, "you can hardly believe that things happen out of chance."

"We call it chance, monsieur," said the man, "when we do not understand it."

"Sometimes we use a better term," replied Abner. "Now, today Randolph did not understand this death of Blackford, and yet he called it an act of God."

"Who knows," said the man; "are not the ways of God past finding out?"

"Not always," replied my uncle.

He gathered his chin into his hand and sat for some time motionless, then he continued:

"I have found out something about this one."

The old mountebank moved to his stool beyond the table and sat down.

"And what is that, monsieur?" he said.

"That you are in danger of your life-for one thing."

"In what danger?"

"Do you come from the south of Europe," replied Abner, "and forget that when a man is killed there are others to threaten his assassin?"

"But this Blackford has no kin to carry a blood feud," said the mountebank.

"And so," cried Abner, "you knew that before you killed him. And yet, in spite of that precaution, there stood a man in the crowd before the justice of the peace who held your life in his hand. He had but to speak."

"And why did he not speak-this man?" said the mountebank, looking at Abner across the table.

"I will tell you that," replied Abner. "He feared that the justice of the law might contravene the justice of God. It is a fabric woven from many threads-this justice of God. I saw three of these threads today stretching into the great loom, and I feared to touch them lest I disturb the weaver at his work. I saw men see a murder and not know it. I saw a child see its father and not know it, and I saw a letter in the handwriting of a man who did not write it."

The face of the old mountebank did not whiten, but instead it grew stern and resolute, and the muscles came out in it so that it seemed a thing of cords under the tanned skin.

"The proofs," he said.

"They are all here," replied Abner.

He stooped, lifted the sheaf of knives, broke the string and spread them on the table. He selected the one from which Blackford's blood had been wiped off.

"Randolph examined this knife," he continued, "but not the others; he assumed that they are all alike. Well, they are not. The others are dull, but this one has the edge of a razor."

And he plucked a piece of paper from the table and sheared it in two. Then he put the knife down on the board and looked toward the far end of the wagon.

"And the child's face," he said-"I was not certain of that until I saw Blackford's ironed out under the hand of death, and then I knew. And the letter--"

But the old man was on his feet straining over the table, his features twitching like a taut rope.

"Hush! Hush!" he said.

There came a little gust of wind that whispered in the dry grass and blew the dead leaves against the wagon and about my face. They fluttered like a presence, these dead leaves, and pecked and clawed at the gilded panel like the nails of some feeble hand. I began to be assailed with fear as I sat there alone in the darkness looking in upon this tragedy.

My Uncle Abner sat down, and the old man remained with the palms of his hands pressed against the table. Finally he spoke.

"Monsieur," he said, "shall a man lead another into hell and escape the pit himself? Yes, she is his daughter, and her mother was mine, and I have killed him. He could not speak, but with those letters he persuaded her."

The man paused and turned over the packet of yellow envelopes tied up with faded ribbon.

"And she believed what a woman will always believe. What would you have done, monsieur? Go to the law-your English law that gives the woman a pittance and puts her out of the court-house door for the ribald to laugh at! Diable! Monsieur, that is not the law. I know the law, as my father and my father's father, and your father and your father's father knew it. I would have killed him then, when she died, but for this child. I would have followed him into these hills, day after day, like his shadow behind him, until I got a knife into him and ripped him up like a butchered pig. But I could not go to the hangman and leave this child, and so I waited."

He sat down.

"We can wait, monsieur. That is one thing we have in my country-patience. And when I was ready I killed him."

The old man paused and put out his hand, palm upward, on the table. It was a wonderful hand, like a live thing.

"You have eyes, monsieur, but the others are as blind men. Did they think that hand could have failed me? Cunning men have made machinery so accurate that you marvel at them; but there was never a machine with the accuracy of the human hand when it is trained as we train it. Monsieur, I could scratch a line on the door behind you with a needle, and with my eyes closed set a knife point into every twist and turn of it Why, monsieur, there was a straw clinging to Blackford's coat-a straw that had fallen on him as he passed some horse stall. I marked it as he came up through the crowd, and I split it with the knife.

"And now, monsieur?"

But my uncle stopped him. "Not yet," he said. "I am concerned about the living and not the dead. If I had thought of the dead only, I should have spoken this day; but I have thought also of the living. What have you done for the child?"

There came a great tenderness into the old man's face.

"I have brought it up in love," he said, "and in honor, and I have got its inheritance for it."

He stopped and indicated the pack of letters.

"I was about to burn these when you came in, monsieur, for they have served their purpose. I thought I might need to know Blackford's hand and I set out to learn it. Not in a day, monsieur, nor a week, like your common forger, and with an untried hand-but in a year, and years-with a hand that obeys me, I went over and over every letter of every word until I could write the man's hand, not an imitation of it, monsieur, not that, but the very hand itself-the very hand that Blackford writes with his own fingers. And it was well, for I was able to get the child all that Blackford had, beyond his debts, by a letter that no man could know that Blackford did not write."

"I knew that he did not write it," said Abner.

The old man smiled.

"You jest, monsieur," he said; "Blackford himself could not tell the writing from his own. I could not, nor can any living man."

"That is true," replied Abner; "the letter is in Blackford's hand, as he would have written it with his own fingers. It is no imitation, as you say; it is the very writing of the man, and yet he did not write it, and when I saw it I knew that he did not."

The old man's face was incredulous.

"How could you know that, monsieur?" he said.

My uncle took the letter which my father had received out of his pocket and spread it out on the table.

"I will tell you," he said, "how I knew that Blackford did not write this letter, although it is in his very hand. When my brother Rufus showed me this letter, and I read it, I noticed that there were words misspelled in it. Well, that of itself was nothing for the deaf mute did not always spell correctly. It was the manner in which the words were misspelled. Under the old system, when a deaf mute was taught to write he was taught by the eye; consequently, he writes words as he remembers them to look, and not as he remembers them to sound. His mistakes, then, are mistakes of the eye and not of the ear. And in this he differs from every man who can hear; for the man who can hear, when he is uncertain about the spelling of a word, spells it as it sounds phonetically, using not a letter that looks like the correct one, but a letter that sounds like it-using 's' for 'c' and 'o' for 'u'-a thing no deaf mute would ever do in this world, because he does not know what letters sound like. Consequently, when I saw the words in this letter misspelled by sound-when I saw that the person who had written this letter remembered his word as a sound, and by the arrangement of the letters in it was endeavoring to indicate that sound-I knew he could hear."

The old man did not reply, but he rose and stood before my uncle. He stood straight and fearless, his long white hair thrown back, his bronzed throat exposed, his face lifted, and his eyes calm and level, like some ancient druid among his sacred oak trees.

And I crowded my face against the cracked panel, straining to hear what he would say.

"Monsieur," he said, "I have done an act of justice, not as men do it, but as the providence of God does it. With care and with patience I have accomplished every act, so that to the eyes of men it bore the relation and aspect of God's providence. And all who saw were content but you. You have pried and ferreted behind these things, and now you must bear the obligations of your knowledge."

He spread out his hands toward the sleeping girl.

"Shall this child grow up to honor in ignorance, or in knowledge go down to hell? Shall she know what her mother was, and what her father was, and what I am, and be fouled by the knowledge of it, and shall she be stripped of her inheritance and left not only outlawed, but paupered? And shall I go to the hangman, and she to the street? These are things for you to decide, since you would search out what was hidden and reveal what was covered! I leave it in your hands."

"And I," replied Abner, rising, "leave it in God's."

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.