Uncle Abner, Master Of Mysteries

by Melville Davisson Post

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The Riddle

I HAVE NEVER seen the snow fall as it fell on the night of the seventeenth of February. It had been a mild day with a soft, stagnant air. The sky seemed about to descend and enclose the earth, as though it were a thing which it had long pursued and had now got into a corner. All day it seemed thus to hover motionless above its quarry, and the earth to be apprehensive like a thing in fear. Animals were restless, and men, as they stood about and talked together, looked up at the sky.

We were in the county seat on that day. The grand jury was sitting, and Abner had been summoned to appear before it. It was the killing of old Christian Lance that the grand jury was inquiring into. He had been found one morning in his house, bound into a chair. The body sat straining forward, death on it, and terror in its face. There was no one in the house but old Christian, and it was noon before the neighbors found him. The tragedy had brought the grand jury together, and had filled the hills with talk, for it left a mystery unsolved.

This mystery that Christian sealed up in his death was one that no man could get a hint at while he was living-what had the old man done with his money? He grazed a few cattle and got a handsome profit. He spent next to nothing; he gave nothing to any one, and he did not put his money out to interest. It was known that he would take only gold in payment for his cattle. He made no secret of that. The natural inference was that he buried his coin in some spot about his garden, but idle persons had watched his house for whole nights after he had sold his cattle, and had never seen him come out with a spade. And young bloods, more curious, I think, than criminal, had gone into his house when he was absent, and searched it more than once. There was no corner that they had not looked into, and no floor board that they had not lifted, nor any loose stone about the hearth that they had not felt under.

Once, in conference on this mystery, somebody had suggested that the knobs on the andirons and the handles on the old high-boy were gold, having gotten the idea from some tale. And a little later, when the old man returned one evening from the grist-mill, he found that one of these knobs on the andirons had been broken off. But, as the thief never came back for the other, it was pretty certain that this fantastic notion was not the key to Christian's secret.

It was after one of these mischievous searchings that he put up his Delphic notice when he went away-a leaf from a day-book, scrawled in pencil, and pinned to the mantelpiece:

"Why don't you look in the cow?"

The idle gossips puzzled over that. What did it mean? Was the thing a sort of taunt? And did the old man mean that since these persons had looked into every nook and corner of his house, they ought also to have looked into the red mouth of the cow? Or did he mean that his money was invested in cattle and there was the place to look? Or was the thing a cryptic sentence-like that of some ancient oracle-in which the secret to his hoarded gold was hidden?

At any rate it was certain that old Christian was not afraid to go away and leave his door open, and the secret to guard itself. And he was justified in that confidence. The mischievous gave over their inquisitions, and the mystery became a sort of legend.

With the eyes of the curious thus on him, and that mystery for background, it was little wonder that his tragic death fired the country.

I have said there was a horror about the dead man's face as he sat straining in the chair. And the thing was in truth a horror! But that word does not tell the story. The eyes, the muscles of his jaw, the very flesh upon his bones seemed to strain with some deadly resolution, as though the indomitable spirit of the man, by sheer determination, would force the body to do its will, even after death was on it. And here there was a curious thing. It was not about the house, where his treasure might have been concealed, that the dead man strained, but toward the door, as though he would follow after some one who had gone out there.

The neighbors cut him from the chair, straightened out his limbs, and got him buried. But his features, set in that deadly resolution, they could not straighten out. Neither the placidity of death, nor the fingers of those who prepared the man for burial, could relax the muscles or get down his eyelids. He lay in the coffin with that hideous resolution on his face, and he went into the earth with it.

When the man was found, Randolph sent for Abner, and the two of them looked through the house. Nothing had been disturbed. There was a kettle on the crane, and a crock beside the hearth. The ears of seed corn hung from the rafters, trussed up by their shucks; the bean pods together in a cluster; the cakes of tallow sat on a shelf above the mantel; the festoons of dried apples and the bunches of seasoned herbs hung against the chimney. The bed and all the furniture about the house was in its order.

When they had finished with that work they did not know who it was that had killed old Christian. Abner did not talk, but he said that much, and the Justice of the Peace told all he knew to every casual visitor. True, it was nothing more than the county knew already, but his talk annoyed Abner.

"Randolph's a leaky pitcher," he said. And I think it was this comment that inspired the notion that Abner knew something that he had not told the Justice.

At any rate he was a long time before the grand jury on this February day. The grand jury sat behind closed doors. They were stern, silent men, and nothing crept out through the keyhole. But after the witnesses were heard, the impression got about that the grand jury did not know who had killed old Christian, and this conclusion was presently verified when they came in before the judge. They had no indictment to find. And when the judge inquired if they knew of anything that would justify the prosecuting attorney in taking any further action on behalf of the state, the foreman shook his head.

Night was descending when we left the county-seat. Abner sat in his saddle like a man of bronze, his face stern, as it always was when he was silent, and I rode beside him. I wish I could get my Uncle Abner before your eye. He was one of those austere, deeply religious men who might have followed Cromwell, with a big iron frame, a grizzled beard and features forged out by a smith. His god was the god of the Tishbite, who numbered his followers by the companies who drew the sword. The land had need of men like Abner. The government of Virginia was over the Alleghenies, and this great, fertile cattle country, hemmed in by the far-off mountains like a wall of the world, had its own peace to keep. And it was these iron men who kept it. The fathers had got this land in grants from the King of England; they had held it against the savage and finally against the King himself...And the sons were like them.

The horses were nervous; they flung their heads about, and rattled the bit rings and traveled together like men apprehensive of some danger to be overtaken. That deadly stillness of the day remained, but the snow was now beginning to appear. It fell like no other snow that I have ever seen-not a gust of specks or a shower of tiny flakes, but now and then, out of the dirty putty-colored sky, a flake as big as a man's thumb-nail winged down and lighted on the earth like some living creature. And it clung to the thing that it lighted on as though out of the heavens it had selected that thing to destroy. And, while it clung, there came another of these soft white creatures to its aid, and settled beside it, and another and another, until the bare stem of the ragweed, or the brown leaf of the beech tree snapped under the weight of these clinging bodies.

It is a marvel how quickly this snow covered up the world, and how swiftly and silently it descended. The trees and fences were grotesque and misshapen with it. The landscape changed and was blotted out. Night was on us, and always the invading swarm of flakes increased until they seemed to crowd one another in the stagnant air.

Presently Abner stopped and looked up at the sky, but he did not speak and we went on. But now the very road began to be clogged with this wet snow; great limbs broke at the tree trunks under the weight of it; the horses began to flounder, and at last Abner stopped. It seemed to be at a sort of crossroad in a forest, but I was lost. The snow had covered every landmark that I knew. We had been traveling for an hour in a country as unfamiliar as the Tartar Steppes.

Abner turned out of the road into the forest. My horse followed. We came presently into the open, and stopped under the loom of a house. It was a great barn of hewn logs, but unused and empty. The door stood open on its broken hinges. We got down, took the horses in, removed the saddles, and filled the mangers with some old hay from the loft. I had no idea where we were. We could not go on, and I thought we would be forced to pass the night here. But this was not Abner's plan.

"Let us try to find the house, Martin," he said, "and build a fire."

We set out from the stable. Abner broke a trail through the deep snow, and I followed at his heels. He must have had some sense of direction, for we could not see. We seemed an hour laboring in that snow, but it could only have been a few minutes at the furthest. Presently we came upon broad steps, and under the big columns of a portico. And I knew the place for an old abandoned manor house, set in a corner of worn-out fields, in the edge of the forest, where the river bowed in under sheer banks a dozen fathoms down. The estate was grown up with weeds, and the house falling to decay. But now, when we came into the portico, a haze of light was shining through the fan-shaped glass over the door. It was this light that disturbed Abner. He stopped and stood there in the shelter of the columns, like a man in some perplexity.

"Now, who could that be?" he said, not to me, but to himself.

And he remained for some time, watching the blur of light, and listening for a sound. But there was no sound. The house had been abandoned. The windows were nailed up. Finally he went over to the ancient door and knocked. For answer there was the heavy report of a weapon, and a white splinter leaped out of a panel above his head. He sprang aside, and the weapon bellowed again, and I saw another splinter. And then I saw a thing that I had not noticed, that the door and the boards over the windows were riddled with these bullet holes. Abner shouted out his name and called on the man within to stop shooting and open the door.

For some time there was silence; then, finally the door did open, and a man stood there with a candle in his hand. He was a little old man with a stub of wiry beard, red grizzled hair, keen eyes like a crumb of glass, and a body knotted and tawny like a stunted oak tree. He wore a sort of cap with a broad fur collar fastened with big brass wolf-head clasps. And I knew him. He was the old country doctor, Storm, who had come into the hills, from God knows where. He lived not far away, and as a child, I feared him. I feared the flappings of his cape on some windy ridge, for he walked the country in his practice, and only rode when the distances were great. No one knew his history, and about him the Negroes had conjured up every sort of fancy. These notions took a sort of form. Storm was a rival of the Devil and jousted with him for the lives of men and beasts. He would work on a horse, snapping his jaws and muttering his strange oaths, as long and as patiently as upon the body of a man. And surely, if one stood and watched him, one would presently believe that Storm contended with something for its prey. I can see him now, standing in the door with the candle held high up so he could peer into the darkness.

He cried out when he saw Abner.

"Come in," he said, "by the Eternal, you are welcome!"

"Storm!" said Abner, "you in this house!"

"And why not?" replied the man. "I walk and am overtaken by a snow; and you ride and do not escape it."

He laughed, showing his twisted, yellow teeth, and turned about in the doorway, and we followed him into the house. There was a fire burning on the hearth and another candle guttering on the table. It was a hall that the door led into-the conventional hall of the great old Southern manor house, wide mahogany doors on either side stood closed in their white frames, a white stairway going up to a broad landing, and a huge fireplace with brass andirons. The place was warm, but musty. It had long been stripped and gutted. It was hung with cobwebs and powdered down with dust. There was a small portmanteau on the table, such as one's father used to carry, of black leather with little flaps and buckles. And beside it a blue iron stone jug and a dirty tumbler.

The man set down the candle and indicated the jug and the fireplace with a queer, ironical gesture.

"I offer you the hospitality of the cup and the hearth, Abner,'" he said.

"We will take the hearth, Storm," replied Abner, "if you please."

And we went over to the fireplace, took off our great coats, beat out the wet snow, and sat down on the old mahogany settle by the andirons.

"Every man to the desire of his heart and the custom of his life," said Storm.

He took up the jug, turned it on end, and drained its contents into the glass. There was only a little of the liquor left. It was brewed from apples, raw and fiery, and the odor of it filled the place. Then he held up the glass, watching the firelight play in the white-blue liquor.

"You fill the mind with phantoms," he said, turning the glass about as though it held some curious drug. "We swallow you and see things that are not, and dead men from their graves."

He toyed with the glass, put it on the table, and sat down. "Abner," he said, "I know the body of a man down to the fiber of his bones; but the mind-it is a land of mystery. We dare not trust it." He paused and rapped the table with his callous fingers.

"Against another we may be secure, but against himself what one of us is safe? A man may have no fear of your Hebrew God, Abner, or your Assyrian Devil, and yet, his own mind may turn against him and fill him full of terror....A man may kill his enemy in secret and hide him, and return to his house secure-and find the dead man sitting in his chair with the wet blood on him. And with all his philosophies he cannot eject that phantom from its seat. He will say this thing does not exist. But what avails the word when the thing is there!"

He got on his feet and leaned over the table with his crooked fingers out before him.

I was afraid and I drew closer to my uncle. This strange old man, straining over the table, peering into the shadows, held me with a gripping fascination. His wiry, faded red hair seemed to rise on his scalp, and I looked to see some horror in its grave clothes appear before him.

Abner turned his stern face upon him. It was some time before he spoke.

"Storm," he said, "what do you fear?"

"Fear!" cried the old man, his voice rising in a sharp staccato; and he made a gesture outward with his hand.

"You fear your God, Abner, and I fear myself!"

But there was something in Abner's voice and in this query launched at him that changed the man as by some sorcery. He sat down, fingered the glass of liquor, and looked at Abner closely. He did not speak for some time. He appeared to be turning some problem slowly in his mind. There was a lot of mystery here to clear up. We had discovered him by chance, and surely he had received us in the strangest manner. His explanation could not be true that he had come into the house before us on this night, for the house was warm, and it could not have been heated in that time. What was the creature's secret? Why was he here, and who besieged him. These were things which he must fear to have known, and yet, he was glad to see us, glad to find us there in the snow, instead of another whom he feared to find there. And yet, we disturbed him, and he was uncertain what to do. He sat beyond the table, and I could see his eyes run over us, and wander off about the hall and return and glance at the black portmanteau.

And while he hung there between his plans, Abner spoke.

"Storm," he said, "what does all this mean?"

The old man looked about him swiftly, furtively, I thought; then he spoke in a voice so low that we could hardly hear him.

"Let me put it this way, Abner," he said: "One comes here, as you come; he is met as you are met; well, what happens from all this?...A suspicion enters the visitor's mind. There is peril to the host in that, and he is put to an alternative. He must explain or he must shoot the guest...Well, he chooses to make his explanation first, and if that fail, there is the other!"

"'And,' he says, 'you have done me a service to come in; I am glad to see you.' And you say, 'What do you fear?' He answers, 'Robbers.' You say, 'What have you in this house to lose?' And he tells you this:

"Michael Dale owned this house. He was rich. When he was dying he sat here by this hearth, tapping the bricks with his cane, and peering at his worthless son. You remember that son, Abner; he looked like the Jupiter of Elis before the Devil got him. 'Wellington,' he said, 'I am leaving you a treasure here.' He had been speaking of this estate, and one thought he meant the lands, and so gave the thing no notice. But later one remembered that expression and began to think it over. One recalled where it was that Michael Dale sat and the tapping of his stick. Well, when one is going down, any straw is worth the clutching. One slips into this house and looks." He indicated the brick hearth with a gesture. "No, it is not there now. The gold is in that portmanteau." He arose, opened the bag, and fumbled in it. Then he came to us with some pieces in his hand.

Abner took the gold and examined it carefully by the firelight. They were old pieces, and he rubbed them between his fingers and scraped something from their faces with his thumbnail. Then he handed them back, and Storm cast them into the portmanteau and buckled it together. Then he sat down and drew the stone jug over beside him.

"Now, Abner," he said, "there is this evil about a treasure. It fills one full of fear. You must stand guard over it, and the thing gets on your nerves. The wind in the chimney is a voice, and every noise a footstep. At first one goes about with the weapon in his hand, and then, when he can bear it no more, he shoots at every sound."

Abner did not move, and I listened to the man as to a tale of Bagdad. Every mystery was now cleared up-his presence in this house, his fear, the bullet holes, and why he was glad to see us, and yet disturbed that we had come. And I saw what he had been turning in his mind-whether he should trust us with the truth or leave us to our own conclusions. I understood and verified in myself every detail of this story. I should have acted as he did at every step, and I could realize this fear, and how, as the thing possessed him, one might come at last to shoot up the shadows. I looked at the man with a sort of wonder.

Abner had been stroking his bronze face with his great sinewy hand, and now he spoke.

"Storm," he said, "Michael Dale's riddle is not the only one that has been read." And he told of Christian Lance's death, and the Delphic sentence that had doubtless caused it. "You knew old Christian, Storm, and his curious life?"

"I did," replied Storm, "and I knew the man who carried off the knob of the andiron. But how do you say that any man read his riddle, Abner, and how do you know that there was any riddle in it? I took the thing to be an idle taunt."

"And so did Randolph," said Abner, "but you were both wrong. The secret was in that scrawled sentence, and some one guessed it."

"How do you know that, Abner?" said Storm.

Abner did not reply directly to the point.

"Old Christian loved money," he went on. "He would have died before he told where it was hidden. And his straining toward the door, as though in death he would follow one who had gone out there, meant that his secret had been divined, and that his gold had gone that way."

"You ride to a conclusion on straws, Abner," said Storm, "if that is all the proof you have."

"Well," replied Abner, "I have also a theory."

"And what is your theory?" said Storm.

"It is this," continued Abner; "when old Christian wrote, 'Why don't you look in the cow,' he meant a certain thing. There was a row of tallow cakes on a shelf. My theory is that each year when he got the gold from his cattle, he molded it into one of these tallow cakes, turned it out of the crock, and put it on the shelf. And there, in the heart of these tallow cakes, was the old man's treasure!"

"But you tell me that the cakes were there on this shelf when you found old Christian," said Storm.

"They were," replied Abner.

"Every one of them," said Storm.

"Every one of them," answered Abner.

"Had any one of them been cut or broken?"

"Not one of them; they were smooth and perfect."

"Then your first conclusion goes to pieces, Abner. No man carried Christian's money through the door; it is there on the shelf."

"No," said Abner, "it is not there. The man who killed old Christian Lance got the gold out of those cakes of tallow."

"And, now, Abner," cried the man, "the bottom of your theory falls. How could one get the gold out of these cakes, and leave them perfect?"

"I will tell you that," replied Abner. "There was a kettle on the crane and a crock beside the hearth, and every cake of tallow on the shelf was white...They had been remolded! Randolph did not see that, but I did."

Storm got on his feet.

"Then you do not believe this explanation, Abner-that the gold comes from the hearth?"

"I do not," replied Abner, and his voice was deep and level. "There is tallow on these coins!"

I saw Abner glance at the iron poker and watch Storm's hand.

But the old man did not draw his weapon. He laughed noiselessly, twisting his crooked mouth.

"You are right, Abner," he said, "it is Christian's gold, and this tale a lie. But you are wrong in your conclusion. Lance was not killed by a little man like I am; he was killed by a big man like you!"

He paused and leaned over, resting his hands on the table.

"The man who killed him did not guess that riddle, Abner...Put the evidences together...Lance was tied into his chair before the assassin killed him. Why? That was to threaten him with death unless he told where his gold was hidden...Well, Lance would not tell that, but the assassin found it out by chance. He stooped to put the poker into the fire to heat it, and torture Christian. The cakes of tallow were on a hanging shelf against the white-washed chimney; as the assassin arose, he struck this shelf with his shoulder, and one of the tallow cakes fell and burst on the hearth. Then he killed Christian with a blow of the heated poker. I know that because the hair about the wound was scorched!

"You saw a good deal in that house, Abner, but did you see a crease in the chimney where the shelf smote it, and the mark of a man's shoulder on the whitewash? And that shoulder, Abner," he raised his hand above his head, "it was as high as yours!"

There was silence.

And as the two men looked thus at each other, there was a sound as of something padding about the house outside. For a moment I did not understand these sounds, then I realized that the wind was rising, and clumps of snow falling from the trees. But to another in that house these sounds had no such explanation.

Then a thing happened. One of the mahogany doors entering the hall leaped back, and a man stood there with a pistol in his hand. And in all my life I have never seen a creature like him! There was everything fine and distinguished in his face, but the face was a ruin. It was a loathsome and hideous ruin. Made for the occupancy of a god, the man's body was the dwelling of a devil. I do not mean a clean and vicious devil, but one low and bestial, that wallowed and gorged itself with sins. And there was another thing in that face that to understand, one must have seen it. There was terror, but no fear! It was as though the man advanced against a thing that filled him full of horror, but he advanced with courage. He had a spirit in him that saw and knew the aspect and elements of danger, but it could not be stampeded into flight.

I heard Abner say, "Dale!" like one who pronounces the name of some extraordinary thing. And I heard Storm say, "Mon dieu! With a teaspoonful of laudanum in him, he walks!"

The creature did not see us; he was listening to the sounds outside, and he started for the door.

"You there," he bellowed, "again!...Damn you!...Well, I'll get you this time....I'll hunt you to hell!"...And his drunken voice rumbled off into obscenities and oaths.

He flung the door open and went out. His weapon thundered, and by it and the drunken shouting, we could track him. He seemed to move north, as though lured that way. We stood and listened.

"He goes toward the river," said Abner. "It is God's will." Then far off there was a last report of the weapon and a great bellowing cry that shuddered through the forest.

That night over the fire, Storm told us how he had come in from the snow and found Dale drunk and fighting the ghost of Christian Lance; how he listened to his story, and slipped the drug into his glass, and how he got him hidden, when we came, on the promise to keep his secret; and how he had fenced with Abner, seeing that Abner suspected him. But it was the failure of his drug that vexed him. "It would put a brigadier and his horse to sleep-that much, if it were pure. I shall take ten drops tomorrow night and see."


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