The Pathway to Uncle Joab and a New Santa Claus
N O fresh snow fell through the night, and when David slipped his feet into the skee straps at the lodge door next morning he was rejoiced to find that the snow had packed and crusted a little since the day before, which meant better going. Again he made for the crest of the hill beyond the first clump of evergreens and again he stood at the pinnacle of the ways and wondered which he would take. "I might count," he laughed aloud—"I might count them out." And with that he fell into the school-boy doggerel, nearly as old as boyhood itself: "Eeny—meeny—miny—mo. Catch—a nigger—by the—"
He came to a sudden stop. In the direction of the lumber-camp, where the evergreens marked the beginning of the road, he had caught a glimpse of a gray squirrel. Was it a real squirrel this time, or was it the locked-out fairy again? There was not a minute to be lost. He must find out.
Over the unbroken snow he slid, balancing himself carefully when he came to the hummocks made by the wind or fallen trees, his eyes coming back constantly to the little gray figure before him. It was sitting erect now, under a green bough, apparently busy investigating the contents of a pine cone. But just as David had made up his mind that this time it was a real squirrel, up went the furry paw to an ear in unmistakable salute, just as the locked-out fairy had done when he hopped from the window-ledge of the lodge. Then, with ears set back and tail out straight behind, the squirrel flew down the hill. Away went David after him, the tassel of his toboggan-cap out as straight as the squirrel's tail.
Never was there such a race. They dodged trees and fallen branches; they leaped drifts; they spun like tops around the curves. Sometimes David was so close upon the fairy's heels that he could almost have touched him with the end of his steering-cane, but the next moment he generally lost his balance and slipped a skee, and head over heels he would go in the crusty snow. When he righted himself the fairy was always yards ahead, sitting with his shoulders all hunched up as if he were laughing silently at David's tumble. So exciting was the whole race that David entirely forgot his destination until he suddenly found himself almost bumping a corner of one of the lumber cabins, and the fairy nowhere in sight.
He stopped a minute for breath and to wonder what he would do, when he heard the soft, silvery notes of a violin. The music was coming from inside that very cabin, and a voice was humming softly as well. David moved round to one of the windows, hoping he might be tall enough to look in, but the snow had drifted away from that side and he missed the ledge by several inches. It occurred to him, however, that if the snow had drifted from this end it had probably drifted toward the other. He would try it, at any rate. Round the cabin he went, and, sure enough, there the snow had piled up half-way to the window and David found he could look in comfortably.
There was a great fire blazing inside, and by it sat an old negro with the whitest hair and beard David had ever seen. A fiddle was tucked under his chin and slowly and lovingly he was bowing the melody from it, while one foot patted the time on the floor and a plaintive, mellow voice put words to the music. David listened for the words and caught them:
The bowing suddenly stopped and David was conscious of a pair of very white eyeballs looking at him through the glass. For the space of a breath or more David was not at all sure that he wanted to get any nearer that strange, bent old figure. He was almost sure that he did not want to go inside. Not that he was afraid. Oh no, indeed! He was not in the least bit afraid; there was nothing to be afraid of. Even Johanna had not said anything harmful about the old cook at the lumber-camp. Nevertheless, there was something mysterious, something not altogether inviting about that inky-black face with the white hair and rolling eyeballs.
David was speedily withdrawing himself, having decided that there was great virtue in distance, when he heard the creak of the cabin door. In a trice the old negro, fiddle in hand, appeared around the corner.
"Wha you goin', honey?" There was unmistakable regret over David's retreating figure.
"Why—why, I'm just going back where I came from."
"Wha you come from?"
David pointed upward and the old darky nodded comprehendingly.
" 'Pears to me dat am a long way fer a li'l' boy to come an' den turn 'bout an' go right home. Come in, honey, an' Uncle Joab 'll play you somethin' lively on de ole fiddle."
David hesitated, but only for an instant. There was something too lonely and appealing about the man to be denied. David was still not at all sure that he wanted to go, even while he was following the lumber cook round to the door.
It was surprisingly cozy and cheerful inside, perhaps because of the open fire, the strips of pine cones, husked corn, and bunches of colored berries that decorated the walls and rafters. Uncle Joab caught David's wondering, curious gaze, and he chuckled.
"Yas, dat's pop-corn, honey. An' I reckon Uncle Joab 'll have some a-poppin' for you over dese yeah coals in a jiffy.
He mounted stiffly the hewn, polished stump that did service for a stool and pulled down two of the ears. From the corner of the fireplace he brought a corn-popper and, sitting down, he commenced to shell the corn by rubbing the ears together. David drew up a chair near by and watched him with growing interest. When the corn was shelled Uncle Joab raked away the unburned wood from the fire, leaving a bed of the red coals. Over this he held the corn, shaking the popper gently from side to side. In less time than it takes for the telling sounded the snap-snap-snap of the bursting kernels, and in a moment more Uncle Joab had turned the snowy contents into an earthen bowl and laid it on David's knee with a small dish of salt and the invitation to "Go ahead." Then he took up his fiddle again and played the promised music.
It was a jig, such a rollicking, care-free jig that before it was finished David found himself wondering how in the world he ever hesitated about coming in. Why, here was nothing but another boy like himself, a boy grown old before he had grown up.
"Like dat corn, honey? Wall, you come along yeah 'round Chris'mus an' Uncle Joab 'll make you some m'lasses balls."
A sigh escaped with the promise.
"Lordy—Chris'mus—yeah! Doan't seem like I done hab any Chris'mus sence I left ole Virginy. Seems like it done froze stiff 'fo' ever it got to dese yeah parts."
David laughed at the old man's humor. It had seemed just that way to him a few days ago.
"Couldn't we thaw it out?" he asked.
" 'Twould take a monstrous lot o' warm feelin's, honey, an' kind folks, I reckon. An' you'd not find 'em a-hangin' 'round loose yeah in de wintah. Why, dere's no more 'n a han'ful of us, all measured an' mixted; an' as fur as I know dere's not one a-speakin' to another."
David shook his head solemnly.
"That's not much like Christmas, is it, Uncle Joab? Not much 'good-will' when you don't know your neighbors."
The old darky grunted, then he chuckled.
" 'Pears to me it's de critters dat get on yeah more folksy den de real folks—an' dat put me in mind of a story my mammy used to tell me when I was your size."
"Will you tell it, Uncle Joab?"
"Co'se I'll tell it, honey." And putting the fiddle down beside his chair he began:
"I reckon you think dat de jolly ole saint wif de red nose an' de dimple somewhas 'twixt his mouf an' his ears only 'members de chillun at Chris'mus. An' dat's not de trouf. Dere was one Chris'mus long time ago, after Pharoe's daughter found Moses in de bull-grass an' 'fo' Christoper Columbus went a-sailin' 'round to find dis yeah country, dat ole man Santy gib a Chris'mus to de critters. An' dis was de way of it.
"In dose days dere warn't de chilluns dere is now. Dey wasn't so plentiful an' dey wasn't so perticular; an' each one wasn't lookin' fer a whole shed full o' toys jest fer hisself. No, sir, honey! He was bustin' wif tickle if he got one gif' an' some barley sugar. An' what's more, dey wasn't so pernicity 'bout what dey got. De dolls didn't have to walk an' talk an' act like real folks an' de trains didn't have to go by demselves. An' everything bein' so comf'able an' easy, ole Santy could tote de pack o' toys 'round hisself on his back an' be home a good two hour 'fo' daylight, wif nothin' to do de rest o' de day but set 'round an' think.
"Wall, in dose days, honey, de folks doan't pester de critters wif workin' dem all de time. No, sir! Dey work dem when dey need dem, an' de balance o' de time de critters trope 'round free an' easy-like. Folks wasn't cotchin' de cur'ous ones to put in de menageries an' de circuses, nor de furry ones to trim up de ladies wif. Times was pleasant an' comf'able fer every one.
"Now it transmigrate one day when ole Santy was a-settin' an' rumminatin' dat he fotch up his thoughts on de critters, an' he says to hisself, says he:
""Pears like dey has a right to Chris'mus same as de folks. Dey minds dere bus'ness, an' dey works an' dey plays de same, an' dey had dere share in dat fust Chris'mus when de li'l' Lordie was born—same as de folks. Didn't de donkey carry Mary to Beflehem? Didn't de mully-cow gib her manger for de l'il' Lordie to sleep in? Didn't de cock crow de news to St. Stephen? An' how do yer reckon de Wise Men could ha' toted dere presents 'cross de sand if it hadn't been fer dem cam'ls?'
"Yas, sir, honey! Ole Santy was right. De critters had as much right to Chris'mus as de folks, an' ole Santy poun' his knee an' swear he gwine to gib dem one.
"So de ole saint he begun fer to study an' to study what he gwine to do fer de critters. He can't come down dere chimbleys 'ca'se dey 'ain't got no houses; an' he can't fill dere stockin's 'ca'se dey doan't wear none; an' he can't fotch dem barley candy 'ca'se dey doan't eat it. Wall, he set dere an' study twell his brain 'mos' bustin' an' bime-by he fotch up wif an idea.
" 'I know what I'll do,' says ole Santy, says he. 'Dem critters is sure to be like folks; dere's certain to be a lot dat ain't satisfied wif dere pussonalities. Now I'm gwine to trim up a Chris'mus tree wif a lot o' odd tails, an' ears, an' wings, an' legs, an' sech-like, an' any o' de critters dat ain't satisfied can choose jes' what dey want. Dat's what I'm gwine to do,' says ole Santy.
"Wall, thinkin' was doin'. An' by de time Chris'mus come along dat ole saint had de mos' cur'os, hetromologous collection o' an'mal parts you ever done hear tell about. He sent word by de birds all over de world fer de critters to come to a Chris'mus celebration at de fust fir-tree dis side o' de North Pole. Fo' dey git dere ole Santy had it all trimmed up wif his presents; an' when de critters trope up dey sure was bustin' wif s'prize when dey see all de tails an' wings an' legs hangin' dere.
"An' de an'mals! Bless your heart, honey, you never see such a camp-meetin'! Dere was elephants an' tigers an' lions an' yippopot'musses an' rabbits an' 'possums an' mouses—every livin' kind. An' all de birds dat clip de air an' all de fish dat swum de sea. Dey all come lopin' up wif dere purtiest manners on; an' dey scrape an' dey bow an' ax after ole Missus Santy an' de chilluns. When dey'd axed an' scraped all 'round, ole Santy says, says he:
" 'Now any o' you-all critters dat want fer to change yer pussonalities can jes' step right up an' choose somethin' new,' says he.
"Everybody was mighty bashful at fust. Dey all tried to hide behind dere neighbors an' look like dey was puffectly satisfied wif dere looks an' dere habits. But bime-by a squeaky li'l' voice calls out:
" 'If you please, Ole Man Santy, I'd like a pair o' dem li'l' brown wings, an' thank you mighty much.'
"Santy look down an' see it was one o' de li'l' mouses speakin'; an' he reach up an' take from de tree a cunnin' pair o' li'l' wings an' fastened dem on tight. An' de next minute dat sassy li'l' mouse went flippin' an' floppin' into de air same as if he'd been born wif wings. An' ever since, honey, he an' his chilluns have been flyin' 'stead o' creepin'."
"Did he turn into a bat, Uncle Joab?" David asked.
"Sure. What else you 'spec' he could turn into? Wall, de nex' to walk up was Bre'r Rabbit. He had a lot to say 'bout his ears bein' so short he couldn't hear 'nough, an' his tail bein' so long he couldn't fetch up on it com'fably in de brier patch. He'd be powerful pleased if Santy 'd gib him bigger ears an' take away his tail. Dis made de ole saint chuckle; an' he fetch down de biggest pair he can find an' put dem on, an' den he twist off de rabbit's long, bushy tail. When de other critters see what transmigrate dey like to bu'st dere sides wif laughin'; an' dis scare Bre'r Rabbit so dat he lay back his ears so he can't hear so well, an' he lope off to hide his confusi'n in de brier patch. An' dere you'll find him hidin' to dis yeah day, honey."
"And were there any more who weren't satisfied?"
"Didn't I tell you de critters were like folks? Bre'r Rabbit hadn't more 'n cleared de Chris'mus tree when de squirrel sings out:
" 'If you please, Mr. Santy, I'd like Brudder Rabbit's tail. I'd like Brudder Rabbit's tail.'
" ' 'Twon't fit you,' says de beaver. 'It's three sizes too big.'
" 'No, it ain't! No, it ain't! No, it ain't!' An' de squirrel carry on so scan'lously dat ole Santy 'bliged to gib him de tail to keep him quiet. But, bless your heart, honey, you know as well as I do dat dat tail am no fit for dat squirrel!
"By dis time de critters was nigh over dere bashfulness, an' dey was clamorin' for what dey wanted. De leopard say his coat too yaller, an' he'd like some nice, stylish black spots to tone it down. Den de zebra say stripes was more stylish dis year den spots, an' he'd 'low he'd like stripes. De elephant say his feet too big to pick up things handy, an' he'd like somethin' extra to pick up things wif.
"Dis set de rest o' de critters to 'sputin' whar de elephant have room on his pussonality fer anythin' extra; an' while dey 'sputin' ole Santy sit still an' study. Bime-by he says, says he:
" 'De only spare room am on de end o' your nose. If you want to have it dere, say so!'
"De elephant he say so. So Santy take one o' dese yeah suckers, left over from a debilfish, an' he stick it squar' in de middle o' de elephant's nose. He stick it so hard, an' he stick it so fast, dat it hasn't come loose dese thousand o' years.
"Wall, dat certainly was a busy Chris'mus fer de ole saint. He was fixin' tails an' legs an' ears an' wings 'most all day. De beaver he gets de sulks 'ca'se de squirrel's got Bre'r Rabbit's tail an' he want it. De rest o' de critters try to coax him to take somethin' else, but 'pears like he crazy fer somethin' behind. He took to moanin' an' wailin' 'ca'se he can't get what he wants twell bime-by he nat'rally gets ole Santy plumb wore out.
" 'Look yeah,' says ole Santy, says he. 'You's so sot on havin' somethin' behind, 'pears like I'd hab to gib you somethin' diff'rent an' distinguishin'.' An' wif dat de ole saint claps on him one o' dem flappers dat he'd made fer de li'l' seals to walk on. An' it's been hangin' to de back o' de beaver ever since.
"At las' all de critters were satisfied 'ceptin' de dog an' de horse an' de reindeer.
" 'What you want?' says ole Santy to de dog.
" 'I want faithfulness,' says de dog; an' Santy gib it to him.
" 'What you want?' he says to de horse.
" 'I want wisdom,' says de horse; an' Santy whisper it into his ear.
" 'Now what you want?' he says last of all to de reindeer.
" 'I want to be your servant an' lib always wif you,' says de reindeer. An' from dat minute to dis de reindeer an' his chilluns have been totin' fer ole Santy.
"An' you listen yeah, honey. If you borrow Bre'r Rabbit's ears to hear wif dis Chris'mus p'raps you'll cotch de tromp o' de reindeer's hoofs an' de jingle o' his bells as he totes ole Santy through de night."
David laughed happily.
"That's a bully story, Uncle Joab, just a bully one!"
The old man chuckled appreciatively.
"Mebbe it's good enough to fotch a li'l' boy back some other day to see dis ole nigger."
Johanna and Barney had to hear the story over twice before David went to bed that night. They seemed to like it as much as David had liked it.
"It must get pretty lonesome for the poor man, stormy days and long winter nights with no company but that old fiddle," mused Johanna at last.
"Faith, I wouldn't be minding a bit o' that same company, myself, some night," laughed Barney. " 'Tis a sorry time since I've heard any good fiddling."
But David did not say anything. He was looking deep into the fire and thinking very hard.