Uncle Abner, Master Of Mysteries

by Melville Davisson Post

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The Wrong Hand

ABNER NEVER WOULD have taken me into that house if he could have helped it. He was on a desperate mission and a child was the last company he wished; but he had to do it. It was an evening of early winter-raw and cold. A chilling rain was beginning to fall; night was descending and I could not go on. I had been into the upcountry and had taken this short cut through the hills that lay here against the mountains. I would have been home by now, but a broken shoe had delayed me.

I did not see Abner's horse until I approached the crossroads, but I think he had seen me from a distance. His great chestnut stood in the grassplot between the roads, and Abner sat upon him like a man of stone. He had made his decision when I got to him.

The very aspect of the land was sinister. The house stood on a hill; round its base, through the sodded meadows, the river ran-dark, swift and silent; stretching westward was a forest and for background the great mountains stood into the sky. The house was very old. The high windows were of little panes of glass and on the ancient white door the paint was seamed and cracked with age.

The name of the man who lived here was a byword in the hills. He was a hunchback, who sat his great roan as though he were a spider in the saddle. He had been married more than once; but one wife had gone mad, and my Uncle Abner's drovers had found the other on a summer morning swinging to the limb of a great elm that stood before the door, a bridle-rein knotted around her throat and her bare feet scattering the yellow pollen of the ragweed. That elm was to us a duletree. One could not ride beneath it for the swinging of this ghost.

The estate, undivided, belonged to Gaul and his brother. This brother lived beyond the mountains. He never came until he came that last time. Gaul rendered some accounting and they managed in that way. It was said the brother believed himself defrauded and had come finally to divide the lands; but this was gossip. Gaul said his brother came upon a visit and out of love for him.

One did not know where the truth lay between these stories. Why he came we could not be certain; but why he remained was beyond a doubt.

One morning Gaul came to my Uncle Abner, clinging to the pommel of his saddle while his great horse galloped, to say that he had found his brother dead, and asking Abner to go with some others and look upon the man before one touched his body-and then to get him buried.

The hunchback sniveled and cried out that his nerves were gone with grief and the terror of finding his brother's throat cut open and the blood upon him as he lay ghastly in his bed. He did not know a detail. He had looked in at the door-and fled. His brother had not got up and he had gone to call him. Why his brother had done this thing he could not imagine-he was in perfect health and he slept beneath his roof in love. The hunchback had blinked his red-lidded eyes and twisted his big, hairy hands, and presented the aspect of grief. It looked grotesque and loathsome; but-how else could a toad look in his extremity?

Abner had gone with my father and Elnathan Stone. They had found the man as Gaul said-the razor by his hand and the marks of his fingers and his struggle on him and about the bed. And the country had gone to see him buried. The hills had been afire with talk, but Abner and my father and Elnathan Stone were silent. They came silent from Gaul's house; they stood silent before the body when it was laid out for burial; and, bareheaded, they were silent when the earth received it.

A little later, however, when Gaul brought forth a will, leaving the brother's share of the estate to the hunchback, with certain loving words, and a mean allowance to the man's children, the three had met together and Abner had walked about all night.

As we turned in toward the house Abner asked me if I had got my supper. I told him "Yes"; and at the ford he stopped and sat a moment in the saddle.

"Martin," he said, "get down and drink. It is God's river and the water clean in it."

Then he extended his great arm toward the shadowy house.

"We shall go in," he said; "but we shall not eat nor drink there, for we do not come in peace."

I do not know much about that house, for I saw only one room in it; that was empty, cluttered with dust and rubbish, and preempted by the spider. Long double windows of little panes of glass looked out over the dark, silent river slipping past without a sound, and the rain driving into the forest and the loom of the mountains. There was a fire-the trunk of an apple tree burning, with one end in the fireplace. There were some old chairs with black hair-cloth seats, and a sofa-all very old. These the hunchback did not sit on, for the dust appeared when they were touched. He had a chair beside the hearth, and he sat in that-a high-backed chair, made like a settee and padded-the arms padded too; but there the padding was worn out and ragged, where his hands had plucked it.

He wore a blue coat, made with little capes to hide his hump, and he sat tapping the burning tree with his cane. There was a gold piece set into the head of this black stick. He had it put there, the gossips said, that his fingers might be always on the thing he loved. His gray hair lay along his face and the draft of the chimney moved it.

He wondered why we came, and his eyes declared how the thing disturbed him; they flared up and burned down-now gleaming in his head as he looked us over, and now dull as he considered what he saw.

The man was misshapen and doubled up, but there was strength and vigor in him. He had a great, cavernous mouth, and his voice was a sort of bellow. One has seen an oak tree, dwarfed and stunted into knots, but with the toughness and vigor of a great oak in it. Gaul was a thing like that.

He cried out when he saw Abner. He was taken by surprise; and he wished to know if we came by chance or upon some errand.

"Abner," he said, "come in. It's a devil's night-rain and the driving wind."

"The weather," said Abner, "is in God's hand."

"God!" cried Gaul. "I would shoestrap such a God! The autumn is not half over and here is winter come, and no pasture left and the cattle to be fed."

Then he saw me, with my scared white face-and her was certain that we came by chance. He craned his thick neck and looked.

"Bub," he said, "come in and warm your fingers. I will not hurt you. I did not twist my body up like this to frighten children-it was Abner's God."

We entered and sat down by the fire. The apple tree blazed and crackled; the wind outside increased; the rain turned to a kind of sleet that rattled on the window-glass like shot. The room was lighted by two candles in tall brass candlesticks. They stood at each end of the mantelpiece, smeared with tallow. The wind whooped and spat into the chimney; and now and then a puff of wood-smoke blew out and mounted up along the blackened fireboard.

Abner and the hunchback talked of the price of cattle, of the "blackleg" among yearlings-that fatal disease that we had so much trouble with-and of the "lump-jaw."

Gaul said that if calves were kept in small lots and not all together the "blackleg" was not so apt to strike them; and he thought the "lump-jaw" was a germ. Fatten the bullock with green corn and put it in a car, he said, when the lump begins to come. The Dutch would eat it-and what poison could hurt the Dutch! But Abner said the creature should be shot.

"And lose the purchase money and a summer's grazing?" cried Gaul. "Not I! I ship the beast."

"Then," said Abner, "the inspector in the market ought to have it shot and you fined to boot."

"The inspector in the market!" And Gaul laughed. "Why, I slip him a greenback-thus!"-and he set his thumb against his palm. "And he is glad to see me. 'Gaul, bring in all you can,' said one; 'it means a little something to us both.'" And the hunchback's laugh clucked and chuckled in his throat.

And they talked of renters, and men to harvest the hay and feed the cattle in the winter. And on this topic Gaul did not laugh; he cursed. Labor was a lost art and the breed of men run out. This new set were worthless-they had hours-and his oaths filled all the rafters. Hours! Why, under his father men worked from dawn until dark and cleaned their horses by a lantern...These were decadent times that we were on. In the good days one bought a man for two hundred eagles; but now the creature was a citizen and voted at the polls-and could not be kicked. And if one took his cane and drubbed him he was straightway sued at law, in an action of trespass on the case, for damages...Men had gone mad with these newfangled notions, and the earth was likely to grow up with weeds!

Abner said there was a certain truth in this-and that truth was that men were idler than their fathers. Certain preachers preached that labor was a curse and backed it up with Scripture; but he had read the Scriptures for himself and the curse was idleness. Labor and God's Book would save the world; they were two wings that a man could get his soul to Heaven on.

"They can all go to hell, for me," said Gaul, "and so I have my day's work first."

And he tapped the tree with his great stick and cried out that his workhands robbed him. He had to sit his horse and watch or they hung their scythes up; and he must put sulphur in his cattle's meal or they stole it from him; and they milked his cows to feed their scurvy babies. He would have their hides off if it were not for these tender laws.

Abner said that, while one saw to his day's work done, he must see to something more; that a man was his brother's keeper in spite of Cain's denial-and he must keep him; that the elder had his right to the day's work, but the younger had also his right to the benefits of his brother's guardianship. The fiduciary had One to settle with. It would go hard if he should shirk the trust.

"I do not recognize your trust," said Gaul. "I live here for myself."

"For yourself!" cried Abner. "And would you know what God thinks of you?"

"And would you know what I think of God?" cried Gaul.

"What do you think of Him?" said Abner.

"I think He's a scarecrow," said Gaul. "And I think, Abner, that I am a wiser bird than you are. I have not sat cawing in a tree, afraid of this thing. I have seen its wooden spine under its patched jacket, and the crosspiece peeping from the sleeves, and its dangling legs. And I have gone down into its field and taken what I liked in spite of its flapping coattails...Why, Abner, this thing your God depends on is a thing called fear; and I do not have it."

Abner looked at him hard, but he did not answer. He turned, instead, to me.

"Martin," he said, "you must go to sleep, lad." And he wrapped me in his greatcoat and put me to bed on the sofa-behind him in the corner. I was snug and warm there and I could have slept like Saul, but I was curious to know what Abner came for and I peeped out through a buttonhole of the greatcoat.

Abner sat for a long time, his elbows on his knees, his hands together and his eyes looking into the fire. The hunchback watched him, his big, hairy hands moving on the padded arms of his chair and his sharp eyes twinkling like specks of glass. Finally Abner spoke-I judged he believed me now asleep.

"And so, Gaul," he said, "you think God is a scarecrow?"

"I do," said Gaul.

"And you have taken what you liked?"

"I have," said Gaul.

"Well," said Abner, "I have come to ask you to return what you have taken-and something besides, for usury."

He got a folded paper out of his pocket and handed it across the hearth to Gaul.

The hunchback took it, leaned back in his chair, unfolded it at his leisure and at his leisure read it through.

"A deed in fee," he said, "for all these lands...to my brother's children. The legal terms are right: 'Doth grant, with covenants of general warranty.'...It is well drawn, Abner; but I am not pleased to 'grant.'"

"Gaul," said Abner, "there are certain reasons that may move you."

The hunchback smiled.

"They must be very excellent to move a man to alienate his lands."

"Excellent they are," said Abner. "I shall mention the best one first."

"Do," said Gaul, and his grotesque face was merry.

"It is this," said Abner: "You have no heirs. Your brother's son is now a man; he should marry a wife and rear up children to possess these lands. And, as he is thus called upon to do what you cannot do, Gaul, he should have the things you have, to use."

"That's a very pretty reason, Abner," said the hunchback, "and it does you honor; but I know a better."

"What is it, Gaul?" said Abner.

The hunchback grinned. "Let us say, my pleasure!"

Then he struck his bootleg with his great black stick.

"And now," he cried, "who's back of this tomfoolery?"

"I am," said Abner.

The hunchback's heavy brows shot down. He was not disturbed, but he knew that Abner moved on no fool's errand.

"Abner," he said, "you have some reason for this thing. What is it?"

"I have several reasons for it," replied Abner, "and I gave you the best one first."

"Then the rest are not worth the words to say them in," cried Gaul.

"You are mistaken there," replied Abner; "I said that I would give you the best reason, not the strongest...Think of the reason I have given. We do not have our possessions in fee in this world, Gaul, but upon lease and for a certain term of service. And when we make default in that service the lease abates and a new man can take the title."

Gaul did not understand and he was wary.

"I carry out my brother's will," he said.

"But the dead," replied Abner, "cannot retain dominion over things. There can be no tenure beyond a life estate. These lands and chattels are for the uses of men as they arrive. The needs of the living overrule the devises of the dead."

Gaul was watching Abner closely. He knew that this was some digression, but he met it with equanimity. He put his big, hairy fingers together and spoke with a judicial air.

"Your argument," he said, "is without a leg to stand on. It is the dead who govern. Look you, man, how they work their will upon us! Who have made the laws? The dead! Who have made the customs that we obey and that form and shape our lives? The dead! And the titles to our lands-have not the dead devised them?...If a surveyor runs a line he begins at some corner that the dead set up; and if one goes to law upon a question the judge looks backward through his books until he finds out how the dead have settled it-and he follows that. And all the writers, when they would give weight and authority to their opinions, quote the dead; and the orators and all those who preach and lecture-are not their mouths filled with words that the dead have spoken? Why, man, our lives follow grooves that the dead have run out with their thumbnails!"

He got on his feet and looked at Abner. "What my brother has written in his will I will obey," he said. "Have you seen that paper, Abner?"

"I have not," said Abner, "but I have read the copy in the county clerk's book. It bequeathed these lands to you."

The hunchback went over to an old secretary standing against the wall. He pulled it open, got out the will and a pack of letters and brought them to the fire. He laid the letters on the table beside Abner's deed and held out the will.

Abner took the testament and read it.

"Do you know my brother's writing?" said Gaul.

"I do," said Abner.

'Then you know he wrote that will."

"He did," said Abner. "It is in Enoch's hand." Then he added: "But the date is a month before your brother came here."

"Yes," said Gaul; "it was not written in this house. My brother sent it to me. See-here is the envelope that it came in, postmarked on that date."

Abner took the envelope and compared the date. "It is the very day," he said, "and the address is in Enoch's hand."

"It is," said Gaul; "when my brother had set his signature to this will he addressed that cover. He told me of it." The hunchback sucked in his cheeks and drew down his eyelids. "Ah, yes," he said, "my brother loved me!"

"He must have loved you greatly," replied Abner, "to thus disinherit his own flesh and blood."

"And am not I of his own flesh and blood too?" cried the hunchback. "The strain of blood in my brother runs pure in me; in these children it is diluted. Shall not one love his own blood first?"

"Love!" echoed Abner. "You speak the word, Gaul-but do you understand it?"

"I do," said Gaul; "for it bound my brother to me."

"And did it bind you to him?" said Abner.

I could see the hunchback's great white eyelids drooping and his lengthened face.

"We were like David and Jonathan," he said. "I would have given my right arm for Enoch and he would have died for me."

"He did!" said Abner.

I saw the hunchback start, and, to conceal the gesture, he stooped and thrust the trunk of the apple tree a little farther into the fireplace. A cloud of sparks sprang up. A gust of wind caught the loose sash in the casement behind us and shook it as one, barred out and angry, shakes a door. When the hunchback rose Abner had gone on.

"If you loved your brother like that," he said, "you will do him this service-you will sign this deed."

"But, Abner," replied Gaul, "such was not my brother's will. By the law, these children will inherit at my death. Can they not wait?"

"Did you wait?" said Abner.

The hunchback flung up his head.

"Abner," he cried, "what do you mean by that?" And he searched my uncle's face for some indicatory sign; but there was no sign there-the face was stern and quiet.

"I mean," said Abner, "that one ought not to have an interest in another's death."

"Why not?" said Gaul.

"Because," replied Abner, "one may be tempted to step in before the providence of God and do its work for it."

Gaul turned the innuendo with a cunning twist.

"You mean," he said, "that these children may come to seek my death?"

I was astonished at Abner's answer.

"Yes," he said; "that is what I mean."

"Man," cried the hunchback, "you make me laugh!"

"Laugh as you like," replied Abner; "but I am sure that these children will not look at this thing as we have looked at it."

"As who have looked at it?" said Gaul.

"As my brother Rufus and Elnathan Stone and I," said Abner.

"And so," said the hunchback, "you gentlemen have considered how to save my life. I am much obliged to you." He made a grotesque, mocking bow. "And how have you meant to save it?"

"By the signing of that deed," said Abner.

"I thank you!" cried the hunchback. "But I am not pleased to save my life that way."

I thought Abner would give some biting answer; but, instead, he spoke slowly and with a certain hesitation.

"There is no other way," he said. "We have believed that the stigma of your death and the odium on the name and all the scandal would in the end wrong these children more than the loss of this estate during the term of your natural life; but it is clear to me that they will not so regard it. And we are bound to lay it before them if you do not sign this deed. It is not for my brother Rufus and Elnathan Stone and me to decide this question."

"To decide what question?" said Gaul. "Whether you are to live or die!" said Abner. The hunchback's face grew stern and resolute. He sat down in his chair, put his stick between his knees and looked my uncle in the eyes.

"Abner," he said, "you are talking in some riddle...Say the thing out plain. Do you think I forged that will?"

"I do not," said Abner.

"Nor could any man!" cried the hunchback. "It is in my brother's hand-every word of it; and, besides, there is neither ink nor paper in this house. I figure on a slate; and when I have a thing to say I go and tell it."

"And yet," said Abner, "the day before your brother's death you bought some sheets of foolscap of the postmaster."

"I did," said Gaul-"and for my brother. Enoch wished to make some calculations with his pencil. I have the paper with his figures on it."

He went to his desk and brought back some sheets.

"And yet," said Abner, "this will is written on a page of foolscap."

"And why not?" said Gaul. "Is it not sold in every store to Mexico?"

It was the truth-and Abner drummed on the table.

"And now," said Gaul, "we have laid one suspicion by looking it squarely in the face; let us lay the other. What did you find about my brother's death to moon over?"

"Why," said Abner, "should he take his own life in this house?"

"I do not know that," said Gaul.

"I will tell you," said Abner; "we found a bloody handprint on your brother!"

"Is that all that you found on him?"

"That is all," said Abner.

"Well," cried Gaul, "does that prove that I killed him? Let me look your ugly suspicion in the face. Were not my brother's hands covered with his blood and was not the bed covered with his finger-prints, where he had clutched about it in his death-struggle?"

"Yes," said Abner; "that is all true."

"And was there any mark or sign in that print," said Gaul, "by which you could know that it was made by any certain hand"-and he spread out his fingers-"as, for instance, my hand?"

"No," said Abner.

There was victory in Gaul's face.

He had now learned all that Abner knew and he no longer feared him. There was no evidence against him-even I saw that.

"And now," he cried, "will you get out of my house? I will have no more words with you. Begone!"

Abner did not move. For the last five minutes he had been at work at something, but I could not see what it was, for his back was toward me. Now he turned to the table beside Gaul and I saw what he had been doing. He had been making a pen out of a goosequill! He laid the pen down on the table and beside it a horn of ink. He opened out the deed that he had brought, put his finger on a line, dipped the quill into the ink and held it out to Gaul.

"Sign there!" he said.

The hunchback got on his feet, with an oath.

"Begone with your damned paper!" he cried.

Abner did not move.

"When you have signed," he said.

"Signed!" cried the hunchback. "I will see you and your brother Rufus, and Elnathan Stone, and all the kit and kittle of you in hell!"

"Gaul," said Abner, "you will surely see all who are to be seen in hell!"

By Abner's manner I knew that the end of the business had arrived. He seized the will and the envelope that Gaul had brought from his secretary and held them out before him.

"You tell me," he said, "that these papers were written at one sitting! Look! The hand that wrote that envelope was calm and steady, but the hand that wrote this will shook. See how the letters wave and jerk! I will explain it. You have kept that envelope from some old letter; but this paper was written in this house-in fear! And it was written on the morning that your brother died...Listen! When Elnathan Stone stepped back from your brother's bed he stumbled over a piece of carpet. The under side of that carpet was smeared with ink, where a bottle had been broken. I put my finger on it and it was wet."

The hunchback began to howl and bellow like a beast penned in a corner. I crouched under Abner's coat in terror. The creature's cries filled the great, empty house. They rose a hellish crescendo on the voices of the wind; and for accompaniment the sleet played shrill notes on the windowpanes, and the loose shingles clattered a staccato, and the chimney whistled-like weird instruments under a devil's fingers.

And all the time Abner stood looking down at the man-an implacable, avenging Nemesis-and his voice, deep and level, did not change.

"But, before that, we knew that you had killed your brother! We knew it when we stood before his bed. 'Look there,' said Rufus-'at that bloody handprint!'...We looked...And we knew that Enoch's hand had not made that print. Do you know how we knew that, Gaul?...I will tell you... The bloody print on your brother's right hand was the print of a right hand!"

Gaul signed the deed, and at dawn we rode away, with the hunchback's promise that he would come that afternoon before a notary and acknowledge what he had signed; but he did not come-neither on that day nor on any day after that.

When Abner went to fetch him he found him swinging from his elm tree.

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.