ONE morning early in the summer of 1826, I brushed the sweat from my forehead and the flour from my clothes, unrolled my shirt-sleeves to my wrists, donned my coat, and, with never a suspicion that that day was to be unlike any other, calmly walked out into the slanting sunshine. Rain had fallen in the night, and the air was still fresh and cool. Although the clock had but just struck six, I had been at work an hour, and now that my uncle, Seth Upham, had come down to take charge of the store, I was glad that some business discussed the evening before gave me an excuse to go on an errand to the other end of the village.
Uncle Seth looked up from his ledger as I passed. "You are prompt to go," said he. "I've scarce got my hat on the peg. Well, the sooner the better, I suppose. Young Mackay's last shipment of oil was of poor quality and color. The rascal needs a good wigging, but the best you can do is tell the old man my opinion of his son's goods. If he gets a notion that we're likely to go down to nine cents a gallon on the next lot, he'll bring the boy to taw, I'll warrant you. Well, be gone. The sooner you go, the sooner you'll come, and we're like to have a busy day."
I nodded and went down the steps, but turned again and looked back. As Uncle Seth sat at his desk just inside the door, his bald head showing above the ledgers, he made me think of a pigeon-holed document concerned with matters of trade — weights and measures, and dollars and cents. He was a brisk, abrupt little man, with keen eyes and a thin mouth, and lines that cut at sharp angles into his forehead and drew testy curves around his chin; and in his way he was prominent in the village. Though ours was a community of Yankees, he had the reputation, in which he took great pride, of being an uncommonly sharp hand at a bargain. That it could be a doubtful compliment, he never suspected.
He owned property in three towns besides our own village of Topham; he kept a very considerable balance in a Boston bank; he loaned money at interest from one end of the county to the other, and he held shares in two school ers and a bark — not to mention the bustling general store that was the keystone of his prosperity.
If anyone had presumed so far as to suggest that a close bargain could be aught but creditable, Uncle Seth would have shot a testy glance at him, -with some such comment as, "Pooh! He's drunk or crazy!" And he would then have atoned for any little trickery by his generosity, come Sunday, when the offering was taken at church.
There were, to be sure, those who said, by allusion or implication, that he would beat the devil at his own game, for all his pains to appear so downright honest. But they were ne'er-do-weels and village scoundrels, whom Uncle Seth, although he was said to have known them well enough in early youth, passed without deigning to give them so much as a nod; and of course no one believed the word of such as they.
For my own part, I had only friendly feelings toward him, for he was always a decent man, and since my mother died, his odd bursts of generosity had touched me not a little. Grumpy old Uncle Seth! Others might call him "nigh," but for all his abrupt manner, he was kind to me after a queer, short fashion, and many a banknote had whisked from his pocket to mine at moments when a stranger would have thought him in furious temper.
Turning on my heel, I left him busy at his desk amid his barrels and cans and kegs and boxes, and unwittingly set forth to meet the beginning of the wildest, maddest adventure that I ever heard of outside the pages of fiction.
As I went down past the church, the parsonage, and the smithy, the little group of buildings that, together with our general store, formed the hub on which the life of the country for many miles thereabouts revolved, — I was surprised to see no one astir. Few country people then were — or now are — so shameless as to lie in bed at six o'clock of a summer morning.
By rights I should have heard the clank of metal, the hum of voices, men calling to their horses, saws whining through wood, and hammers driving nails. But there was no sound of speech or labor; the nail-kegs on which our village worthies habitually reposed during long intervals of the working day were unoccupied; the fire in the blacksmith's forge, for want of blowing, had died down to a dull deep red. Three horses were tugging at their halters inside the smithy, and a well-fed team was waiting outside by a heavy cart; yet no one was anywhere to be seen.
Perceiving all this from a distance, I was frankly puzzled; and as I approached, I cast about with lively curiosity to see what could cause so strange a state of affairs. It was only when I had gone past the smithy, that I saw the smith and his customers and his habitual guests gathered on the other side of the building, where I had not been able to see them before. They were staring at the old village tavern, which stood some distance away on a gentle rise of land.
My curiosity so prevailed over my sense of duty that I turned from the road through the tall grass, temporarily abandoning my errand, and picked my way among some old wheels and scrap iron to join the men.
Their talk only aggravated my wonder.
Clearing his throat, the smith gruffly muttered, "It does act like him, and yet I can't believe it'll be him."
"Why shouldn't he come back?" one of the farmers asked in a louder voice. "Things done twenty years ago will never be dragged up to face him, and he'd know that,"
The smith grunted. "Where would Neil Gleazen find the money to buy a suit of good clothes and a beaver hat?"
"That's easy answered," a third speaker put in. And they all exchanged significant glances.
In the silence that followed I made bold to put a question for myself. "Of whom are you talking?" I asked.
They looked closely at me and again exchanged glances.
"There's someone up yonder at the inn, Joe," the smith said kindly; "and Ben, here, getting sight of him last night and again this morning, has took a notion that it's a fellow who used to live here years ago and who left town — well, in a hurry. As to that, I can't be sure, but I vum, I'd not be surprised if it was Neil Gleazen after all."
I now discerned in one of the rocking-chairs on the porch the figure of a stranger, well dressed so far as we could see at that distance, who wore a big beaver hat set rakishly a trifle forward. He had thrust his thumbs into the armholes of his waistcoat, and as he leaned back, with his feet raised against one of the columns that supported the porch-roof, he sent clouds of white cigar-smoke eddying up and away.
The others were so intent on their random speculations that, when I asked more about who and what Neil Gleazen was, they ignored my question, and continued to exchange observations in low voices.
I could hear little of their talk without forcing myself into their very midst, and of what little I heard I made still less, for it was full of unfamiliar names and reminiscences that meant nothing to me.
When some one spoke of Seth Upham, my mother's brother, I was all ears on the instant; but I saw the smith glance at me, and probably he nudged the speaker, for, after a moment's pause, they went on about indifferent matters. I then perceived that I was unlikely to learn more, so I returned to the road and continued on my way.
As I passed the tavern I took occasion to see what I could, in courtesy, of the stranger; but he looked so hard at me while I was passing that I could steal only glances at him, unless I gave him stare for stare, which I did not wish to do. So I got only a brief glimpse of tall hat, bold dark eyes under bushy brows, big nose, smooth-shaven chin, and smiling mouth, all of which a heavy stock and voluminous coat seemed to support. I thought that I caught the flash of a jeweled pin in the man's stock and of a ring on his ringer, but of that I was not sure until later. Pushing on, I left him in the old inn chair, as proud as a sultan, puffing clouds of white smoke from a long cigar and surveying the village as grandly as if he owned it, while I went about my uncle's business at the other end of the town.
But when I had gone far on my way, his dark face and arrogant manner were still in my mind. While I was arguing with surly old Dan Mackay about whale-oil and horses and sugar and lumber, I was thinking of those proud, keen eyes and that smiling, scornful mouth; while I was bargaining with Mrs. Mackay for eggs and early peas, I was thinking of the beaver that the man had worn and the big ring on his finger; and while I was walking back over two miles of country road, on which the sun was now pouring down with ever-increasing heat, I was thinking of how my uncle's name had popped out in the conversation beside the smithy — and how it had popped, so to speak, discreetly back again.
I was all eagerness, now, for another and better look at the stranger, and was resolved to stare him out of countenance, if need be, to get it. Imagine, then, my disappointment when, hot and sweaty, I once more came in sight of the tavern and saw the unmistakable figure under the beaver hat walk jauntily down the steps, pause a moment in the road, and, turning hi the opposite direction, go rapidly away from me.
The stranger should not escape me like that, I thought with a grim chuckle; and warm though I was, I lengthened my stride and drew slowly up on him.
As he passed the smithy, he looked to neither right nor left, yet I was by no means sure that he did not see the curious faces that filled the door when he went by. A man can see so much without turning his head!
While I toiled on after him, trying to appear indifferent and yet striving to overtake him before he should go beyond the store, where I must turn in, would I or would I not, he passed the church, the parsonage, and the schoolhouse. He wore his hat tilted forward at just such an angle, and to one side over his right eye; swinging his walking-stick nonchalantly, he clipped the blossoms off the buttercups as he passed them; now he paused to light a fresh cigar from the butt of the one that he was smoking; now he lingered a moment in the shade of an old chestnut tree. All the time I was gaining on him; but now the store was hard by.
Should I keep on until I had passed him and, turning back, could meet him face to face? No, Uncle Seth would surely stop me. In my determination to get a good look at the man, I was about to break into a run, when, to my amazement, he turned to the left toward the very place where I was going.
So close to him had I now come that, when he stood on the threshold, I was setting foot on the lower step. I could see Uncle Seth's clerks, Arnold Lament, a Frenchman, and Simeon Muzzy, busily at work in the back room. I could see, as before, Uncle Seth's bald head shining above the top of his desk. But my eyes were all for the stranger, and I now saw plainly that in the ring on his finger there flashed a great white diamond.
Uncle Seth, hearing our steps, raised his head. "Well?" he said sharply, in the dictatorial way that was so characteristic of him.
"Well!" repeated the stranger in a voice that startled me. It was deep and gruff, and into the monosyllable the man put a solid, heavy emphasis, which made my uncle's sharpness seem as light as a woman's burst of temper.
Uncle Seth, too, was startled, I think, for he raised his head and irritably peered over the steel rims of his spectacles. "Well," he grumpily responded, "what do you want of me?';
"An hour of your time," said the stranger, lowering his voice.
"Time's money," returned my uncle.
"I'm the lad to transmute it into fine gold for you, Seth Upham," said the stranger.
"How do you know my name?"
"That's a foolish question to ask. Everyone in town can tell a stranger the name of the man who keeps the village store."
My uncle grunted irritably, and brushed his chin with the feather of his quill.
"Come," said the stranger, "where's a chair?"
"Them that come to this store to loaf," my uncle cried, "generally sit on cracker-boxes. I'm a busy man."
He was still looking closely at the stranger, but his voice indicated that, after all, it might not be so hard to mollify him.
"Well, I ain't proud," the stranger said with a conciliatory gesture, but without the faintest nicker of a smile. "It won't be the first time I've set on a crackerbox and talked to Seth Upham. I mind a time once when old Parker used to keep the store, and me and you had stole our hats full of crackers, which we ate in the little old camp over by the river."
"Who," cried Uncle Seth, "who in heaven's name are you?"
He was pale to the very summit of his bald head; unconscious of what he was doing, he had thrust his pen down on the open ledger, where it left a great blotch of wet ink.
"Hgh! You've got no great memory for old friends, have you, Seth? You're rich now, I hear. Money-bags full of gold. Well, 'tune's money,' you said. You're going to put in a golden hour with me this day."
Uncle Seth got up and laid a trembling hand on the back of his desk. "Neil Gleazen! Cornelius Gleazen!" he gasped.
The stranger pushed his beaver back on his head, and with the finger on which the diamond sparkled flicked the ash from his cigar. "It's me, Seth," he returned; and for the first time since I had seen him he laughed a deep, hearty laugh.
"Well, what'll you have?" Uncle Seth demanded hotly. "I'm an honest man. I'm a deacon in the church. My business is an honest business. There's nothing here for you, Neil! What do you want?':
In spite of his apparent anger, or because of it, Uncle Seth's voice trembled.
"Well, what do you mean by all this talk of an honest man? Ain't I an honest man?"
"Hgh! You've not got much to say to that, have you?"
"I — why — I don't — know—"
"Of course you don't know. You don't know an honest man when you see one. Don't talk to me like that, Seth Upham. You and me has robbed too many churches together when we was boys to have you talk like that now. You and me—"
"For heaven's sake keep still!" Uncle Seth cried. "Customers are coming."
Neil Gleazen grunted again. Pushing a cracker-box into the corner behind Uncle Seth's desk and placing his beaver on it, he settled back in Uncle Seth's own chair, with a cool impudent wink at me, as if for a long stay, while Uncle Seth, with an eagerness quite unlike his usual abrupt, scornful manner, rushed away from his unwelcome guest and proceeded to make himself surprisingly agreeable to a pah- of country women who wished to barter butter for cotton cloth.