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Uncle William - The Man Who Was Shif'less
by Jennette Lee
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The artist watched him with an amused smile. He never interrupted one of Uncle William's monologues.

"I've spent a good deal o' my life," went on Uncle William, "lookin' round at things."

The gravel crunched outside.

The artist started.

Uncle William turned a little. "Andy, like enough," he said. He rose and went leisurely toward the door.

The figure of a tall man stood in it, surveying the room.

Uncle William's smile broke into radiance. It crinkled his eyes and nose and mouth. "I said 't was you." He held out a big hand, and drew the man into the room, peering behind him. A little look of disappointment came over his face. "You all alone?" he demanded.

"I am at present," said the man, smiling. "I left a friend on the beach below. I wasn't sure how I should find you." His courteous glance took in the young man.

Uncle William turned quickly. "It's Mr. Curie," he said, "the one that bought your picters. And he's left somebody—a friend—down below. Mebbe you wouldn't mind stepping down and fetchin' 'em up."

"Of course." The young man rose, holding out a hand. "I'm glad to meet you, sir. I shall be back in a minute. I'll bring him right up." His step rang quick on the rock outside.

The two old men looked at each other.

Uncle William's face wore its roundest smile. "I wouldn't be s'prised if he stayed quite a spell." He brought a chair and planted it in front of the stranger. "Set down."

The man sat down, looking around the room. "It is good to be here," he said.

Uncle William, with a hand on either knee, surveyed him over his spectacles. "I saw 't was you 'fore you landed."

The man's face fell a little. "We wanted to surprise you—"

"You've s'prised him all right. He hain't no idea what he's runnin' to." He looked toward the door. "I reckon he'll stay an hour."

The man crossed one thin leg over another. "That gives me more time," he said contentedly.

Uncle William gazed politely. "Was you wantin' time?" he asked.

The man smiled. "I wanted to see you."

"You wanted to see me?" Uncle William's face held pleasure, but not very much curiosity.

The man nodded. "I came on purpose."

"You did? I thought you come to bring her?" His thumb indicated the beach.

"I wanted to see you, and she wanted to come, so here we are."

"Here you be," assented Uncle William. "And I'm glad to see ye. He was gettin' middlin' hard to hold."

The other man studied his face. "How much will you take for your place?" he asked.

Uncle William looked up. He shook his head slowly. "I won't take nuthin'."

The man smiled. "I'll give you five thousand for it."

"You will?" Uncle William's glance was mild. A smile crept into it. "I wish 't Andy could hear you say that," he said; "but I can't sell."

"Why not?"

"Where'd I live?"

The stranger appeared to ponder a minute. "You could keep enough to live on," he said at last. "I'd rather have you, in fact."

"I'll give you enough to live on," said Uncle William. "I like your looks. I'd like to have you round."

"That won't do for me," said the man.

"'T won't do for me, either," said Uncle William.

They confronted each other. The stranger's eyes dropped first. "I'll give you ten thousand," he said quietly.

"You will?" Uncle William moistened his lips with his tongue. "I'll hev to go tell Andy that," he said.

"You'll take it?"

"Lord, no, I couldn't take it! Nor twenty thousand; so don't you go offerin' it to me. I should like to tell Andy you was offerin' it, though."

The man laughed out. "I was thinking of it," he said.

Uncle William leaned forward, looking at him. "What are you so set on buyin' my place for? It's a God-forsaken spot—most folks would call it. Andy does."

"I like it," said the man.

"So do I," said Uncle William.

The Frenchman waited a minute. Then he turned a little, looking into Uncle William's face. "Did you ever see be before?" he asked slowly.

Uncle William returned the look in full measure. "You ain't forgot I saw you in New York—'long in the spring?"

"I don't mean that. I mean before—years ago." The man's voice was mellow.

Uncle William studied the thin face and looked over the thin legs. "No, I hain't ever seen ye," he said. "And yet the' 's suthin' about ye,"—the man uncrossed his legs,—"suthin' that keeps kind o' pullin' on me." Uncle William rubbed the back of his head thoughtfully. "You ever seen me?" he demanded.

The man's eyes laughed. "Hundreds of times."

"You hev?" Uncle William sat up. "Where?"

"Right here."

"In this house?"

"Well, around here," said the man, "on these rocks and near by. I lived here once. I dote on these rocks—every one." He waved a hand at the landscape.

Uncle William fixed him with stern eye. "You hain't ever lived here," he said slowly. "You don't mean to lie." His gaze grew kindlier. "You're jest romancin'." He brought it out with unction.

The Frenchman stared. Then he laughed out. "Well done! I can't fight you for that." He leaned forward. "Who lived this side of Gunnion's when you were a boy?" he asked.

Uncle William paused. He looked again at the face with its lifted eyebrows and pointed beard. He shook his head. A light grew in his face slowly—he started forward. "Not Bodet?" he said eagerly. "Not little Benjy Bodet?" He stared again.

The man laughed musically. "Right." He stood up, holding out his hand. "I thought you would know me."

Uncle William took it slowly. He studied the thin, keen face. "Benjy Bodet," he said. "I'd know you—much as you've changed—I'd know you! Set right down and tell me all about it."

"All?" said the man. He laughed again, looking contentedly about the room. "It will take some time."

"You'll have to stay quite a while," said Uncle William.

The man nodded. "I mean to. I've wanted to come back ever since the day we sailed for France."

"You was twelve year old that summer," said Uncle William. "Your folks come into property, didn't they, over there?"

"Yes—on my mother's side. We took her name. I was sick for months after we got there—homesick, cooped up in rooms."

"You poor little chap!" Uncle William surveyed him. Affection was in his eyes, and memory. "You was al'ays a kind o' peaked little thing," he said reflectively. "You hain't changed much—when you come to look. Take off your whiskers and slick up your hair and fetch down your eyebrows a little—jest about the same."

The man laughed out. He swung his eyeglasses boyishly from their chain. "Well, you're not."

"Me?" Uncle William looked down at his bulk. "More of me—bigger a little, sort o', mebbe."

The man nodded. "But just the same underneath."

"Jest the same," said Uncle William.

The man drew a deep breath. "I've traveled all over the world. There's no place like this anywhere."

"Nowheres," said Uncle William, fervently.

"I shall spend my days here."

"Right here," assented Uncle William.

The man looked at him keenly. "Will you sell?"

Uncle William shook his head. "I'll divide."

The man held out his hand. "It's a bargain."

Uncle William took it and held it fast. His eyes twinkled. "I must go and tell Andy," he said. "He'll be reel pleased."

"Andy?" The man's face lighted. "You don't mean Andy Halloran? Is he here yet?"

"Right on deck; jest slid down the rock here this minute," said Uncle William.

The man's eyes twinkled. "Remember the day he took my lobster-pot?"

"Borrowed it," said Uncle William, dryly.

"Borrowed it," assented the man. He chuckled a little. "He got his pay."

Uncle William nodded. "He al'ays does. Andy's borrowin' lobster-pots now—same Andy—gets his pay every time. He's great on gettin' his pay, Andy is."

"He ought to have made a mean man," said the other, thoughtfully.

"Well, he hain't, not so to speak," said Uncle William, slowly. "There's mean spots—rocks; you hev to steer some, but it's sandy bottom if you know how to make it. I've anchored on him a good many year now and I never knew him to slip anchor. It may drift a little now and then. Any bottom will drift."

The man laughed out. "So it will." He took up his hat. "I must go and look up a place to stay," he said.

Uncle William looked at him sternly. "Not a step. You don't stir a step, Benjy Bodet." He pointed to the red lounge.

The Frenchman paused, irresolute. "I'm going to stay some time, you know." He glanced about the little room. "I shall be in the way."

"You set right down," said Uncle William.

The man looked at him with raised brows. "You want me?"

"Want you? Why shouldn't I want you!" roared Uncle William. "I've been waitin' for you sixty year and odd. Set down!"

The Frenchman sat down on the red lounge and crossed his legs.

A ball of gray fur descended upon them and fluffed itself, purring.

He peered at it uncertainly. He swung the glasses to place upon his nose, surveying it.

"Now, don't that show?" demanded Uncle William. "She don't take to strangers—never. Look at her." She was kneading her paws in the thin knees, delicately, with treading softness.

The Frenchman's eyes lighted. "She's your cat?"

"She is," said Uncle William, "and she knows a lot. If she says you're goin' to stay, you're goin' to. You won't leave here, not till you've built over there on the old cellar place." He waved his hand toward the horizon. "I'll help ye build," he exclaimed. "They ain't nuthin' I like better'n potterin' around and tellin' folks what to do. I can't fish till the Jennie's done and I'll turn to and help. The' 's a girl I can get to do the work. She's a good cook, and she'll come down and do for us—be glad to." He rubbed his hands, beaming upon his guest.

The Frenchman stroked the gray fur with slow touch. "I might take the young man's place," he said thoughtfully.

Uncle William paused. "Lord! I'd clean forgot—I feel about twelve year old," he added apologetically. "But don't you worry. This house'll stretch. We three'll get along all right in it."

"And Sergia?" said the man, with a smile.

Uncle William rubbed his head. "Um—I'd forgot her, too."

The man laughed out. "You don't need to worry. I'm going to lend them my yacht for a trip."

"Both on 'em?" asked Uncle William. His puzzled face gazed at the man.

"Yes."

Uncle William stared. Then the light dawned. "Right off?" he demanded.

"Right off," said the man. "And when they come back, the house will be ready for them."

Uncle William glowed. "They goin' to live with you?"

"I hope so."

"Well, well!" He rubbed his great knees thoughtfully with either hand. "I wouldn't ever 'a' thought o' that. And the Lord himself couldn't 'a' planned anything better 'n that."

"Thank you," said the man, smiling.

"Jest the right thing," went on Uncle William. "And byme-by there'll be little toddlers—gettin' over the rocks between here and there."

"Yes."

"And settin' by the fire, warmin' their toes and eatin' tarts jest the way we used to."

"Just the same," said the man.

Uncle William mused thoughtfully. The light of flitting memories was in his face.

The man on the lounge watched him through the high-perched glasses. Presently he took off the glasses and rubbed them on his handkerchief. Then he blew his nose.

Uncle William looked up. The smile on his face was beautiful and tender and full of light. "Where be they?" he said.



XXV

They were standing by a great rock at the foot of the cliff. The afternoon had slipped away and the harbor was full of changing light, but the artist's back was turned to it. He was looking into two little round mirrors of light. Perhaps he saw the harbor reflected there. He saw everything else—the whole round world, swinging in space, and life and death. He bent closer to them. "Why didn't you write?" reproachfully.

"Uncle William wouldn't let me."

"Uncle William!"

She nodded. "He told me not to write. He said you would get well faster if you had something to bother you." The demure face was full of glinting lights. "He seemed to think that is what we are made for—mostly. He's an old dear!" she added.

"He is!" He had gained possession of the quick-moving hand. "I shall keep you now that I have you—"

"Yes."

"—for that very purpose!"

She smiled quietly. "I'll try to live up to it. You took the prize, you know."

He caged the other hand. "Bother the prize! There's only one thing I want."

Her lip trembled a little.

He watched it jealously. He bent and touched the trembling line. The world was blotted out—sun and bay and wheeling sky. A new world was born—of two souls and swift desire. The heart of the universe opened to them. When they drew apart, her eyes were lighted with tears. He wiped them away slowly, holding the prisoned hands. "We will not wait," he whispered.

"No," half breathed.

"In a week?" insistently.

"Yes."

"To-morrow?" imperiously.

The laughter had come back to her eyes. "To-day!" She freed her hands. "Come."

He was searching her face. "You mean it?"

"Why not? They will be glad to get rid of us." She lifted a laughing gesture to the cliff.

"They?"

"William and Benjamin." She said the names with slow pleasure, smiling at his puzzled face. "It all came out when I told him that I knew you and that Uncle William lived here. He saw in a flash—everything! We started next day."

He had put an arm about her, guardingly. "We'll go hunt up a priest," he said.

"Now?"

"At once!" decisively. "Uncle William might think I needed more discipline."

"You're looking very well." She was gazing at him with fond eyes.

"I am well." He stretched out his arms. "I could conquer the world."

"We'll sail round it." She nodded to the boat that was anchored off the island. "She is ours—for as long as we want her."

He stared at the boat and raised a glance to the cliff. "And what will he do?"

"M. Curie? He builds for himself a house, for himself—and for us." She half chanted the words in sheer delight.

"A house—here—for himself—and for us!" His glance took in the bare, stern grandeur. "It will be very near heaven."

"Very near. Come, let us go." They climbed the steep path, with many pauses to look back on the gleaming bay and the boat riding at anchor—the boat that was to carry them away to the ends of the earth.

"We will go to St. Petersburg," said Sergia, watching the shining light.

"And Italy."

"And build castles there."

"Castles! And then we will come home at last—"

"Home!" He said the word under his breath. They had come close to the little house. Through the open door they saw the red room,—half in shadow, half in light,—and in the red room the two old men looking at each other.

Uncle William saw them first and got to his feet, his big face filled with welcome. "Come in, my dear." He took the girl's face between his hands, looking down into it with gentle delight. "We're glad you've come," he said slowly. "It was jest about time." He studied the face. "We want you to feel to home," he went on. "'Most everybody does feel to home, that comes here." He bent and kissed the face with rough tenderness.

Juno, from her perch, jumped down and rubbed a sidewise welcome along the gray skirt.

The girl stooped to stroke her. When she looked up, her eyes were filled with tears. She brushed them hastily aside.

Uncle William, from his height, looked down on them benignly. "You needn't mind those, my dear. Good salt water never hurt anybody yet—on sea or land. You do it all you want to."

The girl laughed out. And the music of her laugh filled the room. The twilight was lighted with it. Down below the tide came in slowly, lapping the stones. Across the harbor a single star shone out.

Uncle William glanced across to it. "Time to light up," he said. He took down the lantern from its place and lighted it with clumsy, careful fingers, setting it in the window. Then he surveyed the little room and his guests, a look of affection in his big face. "Must be 'most time for supper," he said.

THE END

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