Uncle Abner, Master Of Mysteries

by Melville Davisson Post

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

The Treasure Hunter

I REMEMBER VERY WELL when the sailor came to Highfield. It was the return of the prodigal-a belated return. The hospitalities of the parable did not await him. Old Thorndike Madison was dead. And Charlie Madison, in possession as sole heir, was not pleased to see a lost brother land from a river boat after twenty years of silence.

The law presumes death after seven years, and for twenty Dabney Madison had been counted out of life-counted out by old Thorndike when he left his estate to pass by operation of law to the surviving son; and counted out by Charlie when he received the title.

The imagination of every lad in the Hills was fired by the romantic properties of this event. The Negroes carried every detail, and they would have colored it to suit the fancy had not the thing happened in ample color.

The estate had gone to rack with Charlie drunk from dawn until midnight. Old Clayborne and Mariah kept the Negro quarters, half a mile from the house. Clayborne would put Charlie to bed and then go home to his cabin. In the morning Mariah would come to get his coffee. So Charlie lived after old Thorndike, at ninety, had gone to the graveyard.

It was a witch's night when the thing happened-rain and a high wind that wailed and whooped round the pillars and chimneys of the house. The house was set on a high bank above the river, where the swift water, running like a flood, made a sharp bend. It caught the full force of wind and rain. It was old and the timbers creaked.

Charlie was drunk. He cried out when he saw the lost brother and got unsteadily on his legs.

"You are not Dabney!" he said. "You are a picture out of a storybook!" And he laughed in a sort of half terror, like a child before a homemade ghost. "Look at your earrings!"

It was a good comment for a man in liquor; for if ever a character stepped out of the pages of a pirate tale, here it was.

Dabney had lifted the latch and entered without warning. He had the big frame and the hawk nose of his race. He was in sea-stained sailor clothes, his face white as plaster, a red cloth wound tightly round his head, huge half-moon rings in his ears; and he carried a seaman's chest on his shoulder.

Old Clayborne told the story.

Dabney put down his chest carefully, as though it had something precious in it. Then he spoke.

"Are you glad to see me, brother?"

Charlie was holding on to the table with both hands, his eyes bleared, his mouth gaping.

"I don't see you," he quavered. Then he turned his head, with a curious duck of the chin, toward the old Negro. "I don't see anything-do I?"

Dabney came over to the table then; he took up the flask of liquor and a glass.

"Clabe," he said, "is this apple whiskey?"

I have heard the ancient Negro tell the story a thousand times. He gave a great shout of recognition. Those words-those five words-settled it. He used to sing this part in a long, nasal chant when he reached it in his tale: "Marse Dabney! Oh, my Lord! How many times ain't I heard 'im say dem words-jis' lak dat: 'Clabe, is dis apple whisky?' Dem outlandish do's couldn't fool dis nigger! I'd 'a' knowed Marse Dabney after dat if he'd been 'parisoned in de garments ob Israel!"

But the old Negro had Satan's time with Charlie, who held on to the table and cursed.

"You're not Dabney!" he cried. "...I know you! You're old Lafitte, the Pirate, who helped General Jackson thrash the British at New Orleans. Grandfather used to tell about you!"

He began to cry and blame his grandfather for so vividly impressing the figure that it came up now in his liquor to annoy him. Then he would get his courage and shake a trembling fist across the table.

"You can't frighten me, Lafitte-curse you! I've seen worse things than you over there. I've seen the devil, with a spade, digging a grave; and a horsefly, as big as a buzzard, perched on the highboy, looking at me and calling out to the devil: 'Dig it deep! We'll bury old Charlie deep!'"

Clayborne finally got him to realize that Dabney was a figure in life, in spite of the chalk face under the red headcloth.

And then Charlie went into a drunken mania of resentment. Dabney was dead-or if he was not dead he ought to be; and he started to the highboy for a dueling pistol. His fury and his drunken curses filled the house. The place belonged to him! He would not divide it.

It was the devil's night. About daybreak the ancient Negro got Charlie into bed and the sailor installed in old Thorndike's room, with a fire and all the attentions of a guest.

After that Charlie was strangely quiet. He suffered the intrusion of the sailor with no word. Dabney might have been always in the house for any indication in Charlie's manner. There was peace; but one was impressed that it was a sort of armistice.

Dabney went over the old estate pretty carefully, but he did not interfere with Charlie's possession. He laid no claim that anybody heard of. Charlie seemed to watch him. He kept the drink in hand and he grew silent.

There seemed no overt reason, old Clayborne said, but presently Dabney began to act like a man in fear. He made friends with the dog, a big old bearhound. He got a fowling piece and set it up by the head of his bed, and finally took the dog into the room with him at night. He kept out of the house by day.

One could see him, with a mariner's glass, striding across the high fields above the river, or perched in the fork of a tree. He wore the sailor clothes, and the red cloth wound round his head.

I am sure my uncle Abner saw him more than once. I know of one time. He was riding home from a sitting of the county justices. Dabney was walking through the deep broom sedge in the high field beyond the old house. Abner called and he came down to the road. He had the mariner's glass, the sailor clothes and the headcloth.

He was not pleased to see my uncle. He seemed nervous, like a man under some restraint. While my uncle talked he would take three steps straight ahead and then turn back. Abner marked it, with a query.

"Dabney," he said, "why do you turn about like that?"

The man stopped in his tracks; for a moment he seemed in a sort of frenzied terror. Then he cursed: "Habit-damme, Abner!"

"And where did you get a habit like that?" said my uncle.

"In a ship," replied the man.

"What sort of ship?" said my uncle.

The sailor hesitated for a moment.

"Now, Abner," he cried finally, "what sort of ships are they that sail the Caribbee and rendezvous on the Dry Tortugas?" His voice took a strained, wild note. "Have they spacious cabins, or does one take three steps thus in the narrow pen of their hold?"

My uncle gathered his chin into his big fingers and looked steadily at the man.

"Strange quarters, Dabney," he said, "for a son of Thorndike Madison."

"Well, Abner!" cried the man, "what would you have? It was that or the plank. It's all very nice to be a gentleman and the son of a gentleman under the protection of Virginia; but off the Bermudas, with the muzzle of a musket pressed into your back and the sea boiling below you-what then?"

My uncle watched the man closely and with a strange expression.

"A clean death," he said, "would be better than God's vengeance to follow on one's heels."

The sailor swore a great oath.

"God's vengeance!" And he laughed. "I should not care how that followed on my heels. It's the vengeance of old Jules Le Noir and the damned Britisher, Barrett, following on a man's heels, that puts ice in the blood. God's vengeance! Why, Abner, a preacher could pray that off in a meeting-house; but can he pray the half-breed off? Or the broken-nosed Englishman?"

The man seemed caught in a current of passion that whirled him headlong into indiscretions from which a saner mood would have steered him clear.

"The Spanish Main is not Virginia!" he cried. "One does not live the life of a gentleman on it. Loot and murder are not the pastimes of a gentleman. The Spanish Main is not safe. But is Virginia safe? Is any spot safe? Eh, Abner? Show it to me if you know it!" And he plunged off into the deep broom sedge.

So it came about that an evil Frenchman with a cutlass in his teeth, and a vile old rum-soaked creature with a broken nose and a brace of pistols, got entangled in the common fancy with Dabney's legend.

Everybody in the Hills thought something was going to happen; but the wild thing that did happen came sooner than anybody thought.

One morning at sunrise a Negro house boy ran in, out of breath, to say that old Clayborne had gone by at a gallop on his way to Randolph, the justice of the peace, and shouted for my uncle to come to Highfield.

Randolph had the nearer road; but Abner met him at the Madison door and the two men went into the house together.

Old Charlie was sober; but he was drinking raw liquor and doing his best to get drunk. His face was ghastly, and his hands shook so that he could keep only a few spoonfuls of the white brandy in his big tumbler. My uncle said that if ever the terror of the damned was on a human creature in this world it was on old Charlie.

It was some time before they could get at what had happened. It was of no use to bother with Charlie until the liquor should begin to steady him. His loose underlip jerked and every faculty he could muster was massed on the one labor of getting the brandy to his mouth.

Old Mariah sat in the kitchen, with her apron over her head, rocking on the four legs of a split-bottomed chair. She was worse than useless.

My uncle and Randolph had got some things out of Clayborne on the way. There had been nothing to indicate the thing that night. Dabney had gone into old Thorndike's room, as usual, with the dog. Old Clayborne had put Charlie to bed drunk, snuffed out the candles and departed to his cabin, half a mile away. That was all old Clayborne could tell of the night before. Perhaps the sailor seemed a little more in fear than usual, and perhaps Charlie was a little more in liquor; but he could not be sure on those questions of degree. The sailor lately seemed to be in constant fear and Charlie had got back at his liquor with an increased and abandoned indulgence.

What happened after that my uncle and Randolph could see for themselves better than Claybome could tell it.

Old Thorndike's room, like the other rooms of the house, had a door that opened on a long covered porch facing the river. This door now stood open. The ancient rusted lock plate, with its screws, was hanging to the frame. There were no marks of violence on the door. The sailor was gone. His pillow and the bedclothes were soaked with blood. All his clothes, including the red headcloth, were lying neatly folded on the arm of a chair.

The sailor's chest stood open and empty. There was a little sprinkling of blood drops from the bed to the door and into the weeds outside, but no blood anywhere else in the room. And from there, directly in a line to the river, the weeds and grass had been trampled. The ground was hard and dry, and no one could say how many persons had gone that way from the house. The dog lay just inside the door of the room, with his throat cut. It was the slash of a knife with the edge of a razor, for the dog's head was nearly severed from the neck.

It was noiseless, swift work-incredibly noiseless and swift. Dabney had not wakened, for the fowling piece stood unmoved at the head of the bed. When the door swung open somebody had caught the dog's muzzle and slipped the knife across his throat...and then the rest.

"It must have happened that way," Randolph said.

At any rate, the unwelcome sailor was gone. He had arrived in an abundance of mystery and he had departed in it, though where he went was clear enough. The great river, swinging round the high point of land, swallowed what it got. A lost swimmer in that deadly water was sometimes found miles below, months later-or, rather, a hideous, unrecognizable human flotsam that the Hills accepted for the dead man.

The means, too, were not without the indication Dabney had given in his wild talk to my uncle. Besides, the Negroes had seen a figure-or more than one-at dusk, about an abandoned tobacco house beyond the great meadow on the landward side of Highfield.

It was a tumbledown old structure in a strip of bush between the line of the meadow and the acres of morass beyond it-called swamps in the South. It was ghost land-haunted, the Negroes said; and so what moved there before the tragedy, behind the great elm at the edge of the meadow, old Clayborne had seen only at a distance, with no wish to spy on it.

Was it the inevitable irony of chance that Dabney scouted the river with his glass while the thing he feared came in through the swamps behind him?

By the time my uncle and Randolph had got these evidences assembled the liquor had steadied Charlie. At first he pretended to know nothing at all about the affair. He had not wakened, and had heard nothing until the cries of old Mariah filled the house with bedlam.

Randolph said he had never seen my uncle so profoundly puzzled; he sat down in old Charlie's room, silent, with his keen, strong-featured face as immovable as wood. But the justice saw light in a crevice of the mystery and he drove directly at it, with no pretension.

"Charlie," he said, "you were not pleased to see Dabney turn up!"

The drunken creature did not lie.

"No; I didn't want to see him."

"Why not?"

"Because I thought he was dead."

"Because you did not wish to divide your father's estate with him-wasn't that it?"

"Well, it was all mine-wasn't it-if Dabney was dead?"

The justice went on:

"You tried to shoot Dabney on the night he arrived!"

"I don't know," said Charlie. "I was drunk. Ask Clabe."

The man was in terror; but he kept his head-that was clear as light.

"Dabney knew he was in danger here, didn't he?"

"Yes; he did," said Charlie.

"And he was in fear?"

"Yes," said Charlie-"damnably in fear!"

"Of you!" cried the justice with a sudden, aggressive menace.

"Me?" Old Charlie looked strangely at the man. "Why, no-not me!"

"Of what, then?" said Randolph.

Old Charlie wavered; he got another measure of the brandy in him.

"Well," he said, "it was enough to be afraid of. Look what it did to him!"

Randolph got up, then, and stood over against the man across the table.

"You Madisons are all big men. Now listen to me! It required force to break that door in, and yet there is no mark on the door; that means somebody broke it in with the pressure of his shoulder, softly. And there is another thing, Charlie, that you have got to face: Dabney was killed in his bed while asleep. The dog in the room did not make a sound. Why?"

The face of the drunken man took on a strange, perplexed expression.

"That's so, Randolph," he said; "and it's strange-it's damned strange!"

"Not so very strange," replied the justice.

"Why not?" said Charlie.

"Because the dog knew the man who did that work in your father's room!"

And again, with menace and vigor, Randolph drove at the shaken drunkard:

"Where's the knife Dabney was killed with?"

Then, against all belief, against all expectation in the men, old Charlie fumbled in a drawer beside him and laid a knife on the table.

Randolph gasped at the unbelievable success of his driven query, and my uncle rose and joined him.

They looked closely at the knife. It was the common butcher knife of the countryside, made by a smith from a worn-out file and to be found in any kitchen; but it was ground to the point, and whetted to the hair-shearing edge of a razor.

"Look on the handle!" said Charlie.

They looked. And there, burned in the wood crudely, like the imitative undertaking of a child, was a skull and cross-bones.

"Where did you get this knife?" said my uncle.

"It was sticking here in my table, in my room, beside my bed, when I woke up." He indicated with his finger nail the narrow hole in the mahogany board where the point of the knife had been forced down. "And this was under it."

He stooped again to the drawer and put a sheet of paper on the table before the astonished men. It was a page of foolscap, with words printed in blood by the point of the knife: "Chest empty! Put thousand in gold-elm-meadow. Or the same to you!"

And there was the puncture in the center of the sheet where the point of the knife had gone through. My uncle laid it on the table, over the narrow hole in the mahogany board, and pressed it down with the knife. The point fitted into the paper and the board.

There was blood on the knife; and the gruesome thing, thus reset, very nearly threw old Charlie back into the panic of terror out of which the brandy had helped him. His fingers twitched, and he kept puffing out his loose underlip like a child laboring to hold back his emotions.

He went at the brandy bottle. And the tale he finally got out was the wildest lie anybody ever put forward in his own defense-if it was a lie. That was the point to judge. And this was Randolph's estimate at the time.

Charlie said that, to cap all of Dabney's strange acts, about a week before this night he asked for a thousand dollars. Charlie told him to go to hell. He said Dabney did not resent either the refusal or the harsh words of it. He simply sat still and began to take on an appearance of fear that sent old Charlie, tumbler in hand, straight to his liquor bottle. Dabney kept coming in every day or two to beg for money; so Charlie got drunk to escape the thing.

"Where was I to get a thousand dollars?" he queried in the tale to my uncle and Randolph.

He said the day before the tragedy was the worst. Dabney got at him in terror for the money. He must have it to save his life, he went on desperately, Charlie said. And then he cried!

Charlie spat violently at the recollection. There was something gruesome, helpless and awful in the memory-in the way Dabney quaked; the tears, and the jingle of the earrings; all the appearance of the man so set to a part of brutal courage-and this shattering fear! The flapping of the big half-moon earrings against the man's white quivering jowls was the worst, Charlie said.

Randolph thought old Charlie colored the thing if he was lying about it. If it was the truth the delusions of liquor would account for these overdrawn impressions. At any rate, the justice promptly spoke out what he thought.

"Charlie," he said, "you're trying to stage a sea yarn by the penny writers. It won't do!"

The man reflected, looking Randolph in the face.

"Why, yes," he said; "you're right-that's what it sounds like. But it isn't that. It's the truth." And he turned to my uncle. "You know it's the truth, Abner."

Randolph said that just here, at this point in the affair, all the established landmarks of common sense and sane credibility were suddenly jumbled up.

What my uncle answered was:

"I think it's all true."

Charlie took a big linen handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his face. Then he said simply, quite simply, like a child: "I'm afraid!"

One could doubt everything else, Randolph said; but not this. The man was in fear, beyond question.

"I've got it all figured out," Charlie continued. "They were after Dabney for something they thought he had in the chest. They offered to take a thousand dollars for their share and let him off. That's why he was so crazy to raise the money. When they found the chest empty they thought I had the thing, or knew where Dabney had concealed it; and now they are after me!"

Old Charlie stopped again and wiped his face. "I don't want to die, Abner," he added, "like Dabney-in the bed. What shall I do."

"There is only one thing to do," replied my uncle. "Put the money by the elm in the meadow."

"But, Abner," replied the man, "where would I get a thousand dollars, as I said to Dabney?"

"I will lend it to you," replied my uncle.

"But, Abner," said Charlie, "you haven't got a thousand dollars in gold in your pocket."

"No," replied my uncle; "but if you will give me a lien on the land I will undertake to pay the money. The estate is in ruin, but it's worth double that sum."

And Randolph said that, among the other strange, mad, ridiculous things of that memorable, extraordinary day, he wrote a deed of trust on the Madison lands to secure Charlie's note to my uncle for a thousand dollars.

So great virtue was there in my uncle's word, and such power had he to inspire the faith of men, that he rode away, leaving old Charlie at peace and confident that he had escaped from peril-whether, as Randolph wondered, it was the peril of the pirate assassins in the great swamp or the gibbet of Virginia.

Two hundred yards from the house, where the strip of bush, skirting the meadow, touched the road, my uncle got down from his horse and tied the bridle rein to a sapling.

"What now, Abner?" cried Randolph, like a man swept along in a current of crazy happenings.

"I am going in to arrange about the payment of the money," replied my uncle.

The justice swore a great oath. If my uncle was setting out to interview desperate assassins-as his acts indicated-alone and unarmed, it was the extreme of foolhardy peril. Did he think murderers would parley with him and let him come away to tell it and to lead in a posse? It was a thing beyond all sane belief!

And it is evidence of the blood in Randolph that in this conviction, with the inevitable end of the venture before his face, he got down and went in with my uncle.

The path lay along a sort of dike, thrown up in some ancient time against the swamp. Now along the sides it was grown with great reeds, water beech and the common bush of wet lands.

They came to the old tobacco house noiselessly on the damp path. The tumbledown door had been set in place.

My uncle did not pause for any consideration of finesse or safety. He went straight ahead to the door and flung it open. It was rotten and insecurely set, and it fell with a clatter into the abandoned house.

At the sound a big, gaunt figure, asleep on the floor, sprang up.

In the dim light Randolph looked about for a weapon-a piece of the broken door would do. But my uncle was undisturbed.

"Dabney," he said, "I came to arrange about the money. My agent, Mr. Gray, in Memphis, will hand it to you. There will be nothing to sign."

Randolph said he cried out, because he was astonished: "Dabney Madison, by the living God! I thought you were dead!"

My uncle turned about. "How could you think that, Randolph?" he said. "You yourself pointed out how the dog was killed by somebody who knew him; and you must have seen that there was no blood on the floor where the dog lay-and consequently that the dog was killed in the bed to furnish blood for the pretended murder."

"But the money, Abner!" cried Randolph. "Why do you pay Dabney Madison this money?"

"Because it is his share of his father's estate," replied my uncle.

"So you were after that!" cried Randolph; "the half of your father's estate. Damme, man, you took a lot of hell-turns on the road to that! Why didn't you sue in the courts? Your right was legal."

"Because a suit at law would have brought out his past," replied my uncle.

The man roused thus abruptly out of sleep had got now some measure of control.

"Randolph," he said, "no law of God or man runs on the sea. The trade of the sea south of the Bermudas is no business for a gentleman or to be told in the land of his father's honor. Abner knew where I'd been!"

"Yes," replied my uncle. "When I saw your bleached face; when I saw your cropped head under the pirate cloth; when I saw you take three steps in your nervous walk, and turn-I knew."

"That I had been in the Spanish Main?" said Dabney.

"That you had been in the penitentiary!" said my uncle.

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson