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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Carpenter

By William Douglas O’Connor (1832–1889)

[From “The Carpenter: A Christmas Story.”—Putnam’s Magazine. 1868.]

FOR a little while there was complete silence in the hollied room, only broken by the murmur of distant voices and laughter from the other apartments.

“Grandpa,” at length said little Lilian, in her plaintive voice, “I want to hear my ’Olian harp very, very much indeed.”

The old man smiled.

“Do you, darling? And so you shall, if the wind wills,” he answered. “Let’s see. Where shall we put it, so that you won’t get the draught? Here, I reckon.”

He had risen as he spoke, and, taking from a shelf near by the Æolian harp, he opened the window on the left-hand side of the fire-place a little way, and set the instrument in the aperture; then resumed his seat and attitude beside the child.

For a minute all was still. But presently stole up on the silence, holy and solitary as the breaking dawn, the long, low strain of remote and thrilling sweetness, wild, delicate, and lonely, and hung hovering for a moment in the charmed air, then failed away in a dim, mysterious cadence, which, ended, yet seemed to linger, like the spirit of bright things departed, of tender summers gone.

Little Lilian listened with a face of breathless ecstasy. The wind-harp was again still, remaining soundless in the minutes that followed, and the child finally resigned herself with a little sigh.

“Grandpa,” she said presently, “what was Jesus Christ?”

The old man glanced at her smilingly, with his never-failing surprise at the oddity of her abrupt questions.

“A mechanic, my dear,” he presently answered. “What our fine Southern gentlemen call a common mud-sill,” he added, sardonically. “A carpenter—God bless him!”

Lilian quietly sat, cogitating his reply, while the old man wagged his sturdy head, grimly chuckling over the significance of his response with an enjoyment beyond words.

“Grandpa,” the silver elfin-voice began again, “will Jesus Christ come here this evening?”

Elkanah stared at her in blank wonderment, then burst into a bellow of laughter.

“Well, you are a young one!” he said, wagging his old head with hearty amusement. “If I ever heard the like of that! Now, what put that into your noddle, Lilykin?”

“I put it in my own self,” she answered with intense positiveness. “But will he, grandpa?”

“Well, I don’t know. He might,” replied Elkanah, jocosely.

“Because he’s alive, grandpa,” earnestly pursued the child. “Old uncle Peter always said he was alive, and going ’round doing good. Only that he’d grown old and gray walking in the world so many hundred years—just as old loafer Tomeny painted his picture in there on the fire-place. And that’s all true, grandpa; ain’t it?”

“Of course,” replied the waggish Elkanah, tickled to his very midriff.

“Well, then, I guess he might come,” continued the little prattler, with a satisfied air. “And I wish he would, for I want to see him very, very much.”

Elkanah laid back his head, and roared and shook with merriment. Finally, subsiding, mellowed to the core with mirth, he relapsed into his former position, his hands between his knees, his head bent forward, gazing at the elk-horned flames, and tittering secretly. The little girl sat sedately, taking it all with perfect seriousness.

“Now, supposing he was to come here this evening,” she resumed, “and we was sitting here, and talking, and he should knock at the door—and then, you know, we wouldn’t hear him, grandpa.”

The flames suddenly died down, involved in light-blue smoke, and the hearth gave forth a strange and lovely amber light upon the darkening room. At the same moment there was a faint, sweet chord of mysterious, trembling music from the harp.

“Well,” said Elkanah, “what then?”

“Then,” continued the child, “he would say, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’”

The fire became so strangely low, and cast so weird a light, that the old man felt a sort of wonder creeping over him, and, without replying, or moving from his crouching attitude, turned his face slowly around, with the singular glow and cross-bars of shade upon his features, and scanned the shadowed room, embowered in holy foliage, and hallowed by that dusky, amber radiance. The distant voices had ceased, and the house was still. The unusual light, the breathless hush that lay upon all, surprised him, and he slowly turned his head back again, with a secret thrill.

At that moment there was a gentle knock at the door.

Elkanah did not move, but only revolved his great eyes and stared in blank astonishment at the little girl. She sat very placidly, looking at the fire. There was a moment’s pause.

“Come in,” he boomed, in a stentorian tone.

At that instant a red cinder flew from the hearth, with a loud crack, upon Lilian’s dress, and in the momentary alarmed diversion of his attention, as he hastened to fillip it back into the fire, the old man heard the opening and shutting of the door. It was with a feeling of vacant amaze, almost rising into fright, that, turning his head, as he did immediately, he saw a large, gray stranger standing in the room.

The old man rose slowly from his seat to his full height, with wondering eyes astare upon the new-comer. The latter stood composedly gazing at him. He was tall and stalwart, with uncovered head; a brow not large, but full, and seamed with kindly wrinkles; a complexion of rosy clearness; heavy-lidded, firm blue eyes, which had a steadfast and draining regard; a short, thick, gray beard almost white, and thinly-flowing dark-gray hair. His countenance expressed a rude sweetness. He was dressed in a long, dark overcoat, much worn, and of such uncertain fashion that it almost seemed a gaberdine. As he stood there in the gracious darkling light, he looked an image of long and loving experience with men, of immovable composure and charity, of serene wisdom, of immortal rosy youth in reverend age. A faint perfume exhaled from his garments. In the lapel of his coat he wore a sprig of holly. His left hand, in which he also held his shapeless hat, carried a carpenter’s plane.

Elkanah stood, almost quaking inwardly in the presence of this august stranger, in whose aspect were singularly blended the prophet and the child. The child in him inspired love; the prophet, awe. He drew and he repelled.

“This must be yours,” said the stranger, in clear, slow accents, sweet and vibrating, extending, as he spoke, the implement in his hand. “I found it at your gate-post on the highway.”

“Why, yes,” faltered Elkanah, with a slight start, taking the plane. “Tom’s work, I know. He was shaving away there where the gate shut hard, and, just like the little love-daft noddy, he leaves the tool behind him.”

“I am a wayfarer,” said the stranger, after a pause, “and would like permission to remain with you a little while.”

“Why, certainly. God bless me! what am I thinking of?” abruptly broke forth Elkanah, recovering immediately at the chance of offering hospitality, and beaming into smiles. “You are welcome, sir, right welcome. My name is Elkanah Dyzer. Sit ye down, sir—sit ye down. Hah! spang! Up goes the merry fire!” he cried, laying the plane upon the mantel, and bustling forward his own oak chair for the stranger, as the blaze laughed upward with a flood of light. “You are right welcome. Your hand, sir,” and, bowing with stately courtesy, he extended his own.

The stranger slowly took the proffered hand, with a pressure so gradual, so cordial, and so strong, that Elkanah felt it down deep into his very heart. As the sublime Scripture phrase has it, his bowels yearned to this new friend, and, despite the reverent distance which the lofty and sweet reserve of the stranger maintained, he felt a sudden intimacy as of many years, born from his quality of manly love. At the same time, his old brain was still in a daze of wondering confusion.

“Sit ye down, sir—sit ye down,” he chirruped, stepping backward with a wave of both hands; while the stranger, slow in all his motions, paused standing beside the chair. “And if I might not be thought over-bold, sir,” he went on, confusedly engaged with the odd coincidence of the stranger’s advent and personal aspect with the child’s words, “what might I call your na—occupation—the name of your occupation—no—yes—O dear me, dear me!”

And Elkanah tweaked his great eagle nose in comical bewilderment, somewhat dubious what he had asked for, but impressed that it was the name, after all, as he intended.

“I am a carpenter,” said the stranger, simply, in a rathers low but distinct voice. “My name—”

“Ah, yes; excuse me,” said Elkanah, unaware that he was interrupting, in the haste of his flurried belief that he had got the information he meant to ask for. “Carpenter. A name I like well—as I do you, sir, if you’ll excuse an old man’s frankness. Sit ye down, Mr. Carpenter. You are right welcome.”

The stranger bent his grand and gentle head with a slow smile, like one amused at the new name accidently conferred upon him, yet well content to let it be so; and, tossing his shapeless hat upon a footstool in the angle behind the fire-place, took the oaken chair.

Little Lilian, who had been intently looking at him with an air of breathless satisfaction, and had not uttered one word, now rose, deposited dolly carefully upon his hat, limped back between his knees, and stood a-tiptoe with her small arms upreached to him. He took her up instantly on his breast, and kissed her with a long kiss upon the mouth.

“I know who you are,” she whispered eagerly. “And I won’t tell nobody.”

The stranger made no answer. She snuggled close upon his bosom, and into his beard, for a minute or so, in perfect quietude; then suddenly clambered down, and resumed her seat in the little chair, with an air of confidential and solemn gratification.

“I declare,” said Elkanah, softly laughing, and rubbing his hands as he sat down before the fire near the stranger, “it’s the queerest thing I ever knew. Do you know, Mr. Carpenter, you quite gave me a turn when you came in? I’ve got the nerves of an ox, anyway, but I tell you I felt queerish for about the first time in my life. Well, now, it was the oddest thing! And by Gee and Dee, odd it is still!

“I’ll tell you how it was,” he continued, after a pause, before the slow-speaking carpenter could reply. “Little magpie there was twittering a lot of stuff we have over here a good deal in the family. Of course, you never heard of my old uncle, Peter Dyzer:

  • “‘Old miser Dyzer, skin a fly, sir,
  • Sell the skin, and turn the money in.’
  • as the boys used to rhyme it about him. I inherited this fine old place from him. Well, of all the queer, odd, eccentric, funny old chaps that ever were—my, my! But he wasn’t loony on a bargain, sir—no, indeed; and he’d plenty of hard horse-sense, and took good care of his property, you can rely: but he had notions, sir, on some subjects, that would make you think him mad as any March hare you ever knew.”

    The old man paused, shaking with restrained mirth.

    “You ought to have seen him,” he resumed. “Tall, big-boned, dry as a chip in all his speech and ways. And plumed himself on a kind of resemblance he had to President Washington. On Sundays, sir—he never went to church—read Tom Paine, Volney, Diderot, Voltaire, and all the French fellows of those days, and hated clergymen (priests as he called ’em) worse than p’ison—swore by Tom Jefferson, too, in politics, and in everything else, except his knuckling under to slavery—and there I’m with him, sir, there I’m with him:—well, sir, as I was saying, on Sundays he’d rig himself out like President Washington, claret-colored, square-tailed coat, long satin vest, ruffles, knee-breeches, black-silk stockings, buckled shoes, cocked hat, and so forth—and take a walk all over the place, flourishing a gold-headed cane, peert as a lizard, sir—peert as any lizard you ever saw. With a train of his darkeys behind him (he’d buy ’em, take out their manumission papers, and keep ’em on wages; ‘Lesson for bloody aristocrats,’ he’d say)—with a train of ’em behind him, in even line, the women first—‘mothers before men,’ he’d say; then the male adults; then the little girls; then the boys, ranged in their order down to the smallest walking piccaninny—‘Brothers in Adam, sisters in Eve,’ he’d say. He at the head, flourishing his gold-headed stick, every now and then turning, and halting them to see if they were in exact line. ‘Keep the straight line!’ he’d bawl; ‘every real trouble in life comes from not keeping the straight line!’ And if he saw one of ’em out of line, he’d march down, pull ears if it was a girl; rap pates if it was a boy; punch her in the ribs with the gold head of his cane if it was a woman; and if it was a man, by George! he’d pull him out, and thrash him like a sack, sir!”

    And Elkanah drooped his head, shaking with silent inward laughter.

    “That’s a sample-lot of old Peter Dyzer,” he resumed. Lord, sir! I could sit here all night and tell ye stories about him! Well, as I was going on to say, one of old Peter’s fancies was pictures. He’d got hold of an old loafer, Tomeny by name, a house-painter, as near as I could ever gather, with the strongest taste for apple-jack you ever knew in your life, and he kept him here to paint pictures for him. The horridest old daubs—my sakes! I’d like to show you a lot of ’em up garret, though they’re pretty well faded out now. But uncle Peter thought Tomeny the prince of painters, an unappreciated genius, and all that—Tomeny the Great, he always called him;—and when he died, he buried him with a handsome gravestone at his poor old apple-brandy soaked head, and on it just the words, ‘Simon Tomeny, Painter,’ as if that was enough for all posterity. Now, one of old Peter’s maddest notions was that Jesus Christ was still alive, and grown old and gray with walking the earth for eighteen hundred years, as well he might, indeed. He’d got hold of the old story of Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, d’ye see. ‘That’s him—that’s Christ,’ says old Peter. ‘But, Mr. Dyzer,’ one would say, ‘that’s the man the story says Christ put a curse on, bidding him walk the world till he came again.’ ‘All a flam,’ says rough old Peter; ‘the Good Man’—he commonly spoke of Christ as the Good Man—‘the Good Man never put a curse on any one. It’s Christ himself, I tell you.’ Or, perhaps one might say, ‘Why, Mr. Dyzer, what should Christ be going ’round the world for?’ ‘Going ’round doing good,’ snaps uncle Peter. Ah, my Lord, my Lord! the mad old fellow! Well, sir, with his own hands—for old Peter was a shifty man—he put a facing of prime old oak on the chimney-place in yonder; and d’ye know, he got old loafer Tomeny to paint on the right-hand side of it—an ugly thing to tell, sir, but it’s true—a portrait of himself as Judas, grasping the bag—did you ever hear the like of that now?—and on the other side a figure of Christ, old and gray, as he fancied him. Tomeny’s master-piece, he called it. Well, little humming-bird there was bringing up all this in my mind, as I said, and you can perhaps fancy the turn it gave me when you came in, with your gray hair and beard, and long coat, and the plane, and all that. And the queerest thing of all is—I hope you’ll excuse me for saying so, for the picture is a wretched piece of imagery, as much as you can see of it for the faded colors—the queerest thing is, that you do look something like the figure of Christ as old Tomeny has painted it.”

    And Elkanah again laughed softly, rubbing his hands, with his eyes on the silent-smiling carpenter, who had listened, as the old man vaguely thought, with the air of one to whom the story was not entirely new.

    “It’s a sort of pretty notion, too, that of old Peter’s,” presently resumed Elkanah. “And little chattering blue-jay there gave it quite a fairy turn in my mind by asking, just before you came, sir, if Jesus Christ, old and gray, was coming here to-night. Dear me! it made me laugh till I felt juicy all through; but it grew in me afterwards what a pretty thing it was, and for so young a child to say. Such a pretty thing! And how would you think of Christ, sir, as coming here to-night, if such a thing could be?”

    “I think of him always,” said the carpenter, slowly, in solemn sweet vibrations, “as the all-loving man. Yes, he might come, perhaps as you fancy him in this house, gray and old—come as cheer-bringer, dispeller of evil, uniter of the estranged, assuager of sorrows, reconciler, consoler. Always the wise friend, the lover true. Something so.”

    The old man silently cogitated the reply, with eyes poring on the fire.

    “Pardon the liberty,” he said suddenly, “but what might your profession be?”

    “I walk the hospitals,” returned the stranger, quietly.

    “Nursing the Union soldiers?”

    “Union and rebel,” was the answer.

    “I hope,” said the old man, after a moment’s pause, kindling and flushing a little with a faint misgiving, “I hope that you stand by the country, sir. Sir, this is a loyal house. One son only, my boy that once was, Rupert—but we never mention his name here, sir, never, for he’s in the ranks of the rebels—he only brings dishonor on the breed of old Elkanah Dyzer. But we strive to atone for it. My boy John served in the Union army, and he’s going again. My boy Tom wants to go, and shall. ‘Wait, laddie,’ I said a year ago, ‘till your bones harden a little more; you’ll fight the better for it’; and the time’s come for him. My boy George”—his voice faltered—“was lost at Fredericksburg—and blown to bloody atoms on the field of battle, or alive rotting in some rebel prison, I’m content and proud, for it’s in the service of his country. And I myself, old as I am, I’m going too. The young eyes that saw the bright flag dance so long when everything laughed with promise, shall see it now, now they’re old, flap defiance to the last as all goes down in war. There’s but one flag, one country in the world for me. I stand by them both forever.”

    “What you say is well,” answered the stranger. “I like what you say.”

    “Well!” retorted the fiery old man, “is there anything better?”

    “There is nothing better than what you say,” replied the other firmly.

    Elkanah cooled down instantly, a little perplexed with the air the stranger had of cherishing some equal, perhaps more comprehending, truth.