THE main reason why Uncle Remus retired from business as a story-teller was because the little boy to whom he had told his tales grew to be a very big boy, and grew and grew till he couldn’t grow any bigger. Meanwhile, his father and mother moved to Atlanta, and lived there for several years. Uncle Remus moved with them, but he soon grew tired of the dubious ways of city life, and one day he told his Miss Sally that if she didn’t mind he was going back to the plantation where he could get a breath of fresh air.
He was overjoyed when the lady told him that they were all going back as soon as the son married. As this event was to occur in the course of a few weeks, Uncle Remus decided to wait for the rest of the family. The wedding came off, and then the father and mother returned to the plantation, and made their home there, much to the delight of the old negro.
In course of time, the man who had been the little boy for ever so long came to have a little boy of his own, and then it happened in the most natural way in the world that the little boy’s little boy fell under the spell of Uncle Remus, who was still hale and hearty in spite of his age.
This latest little boy was frailer and quieter than his father had been; indeed, he was fragile, and had hardly any color in his face. But he was a beautiful child, too beautiful for a boy. He had large, dreamy eyes, and the quaintest little ways that ever were seen; and he was polite and thoughtful of others. He was very choice in the use of words, and talked as if he had picked his language out of a book. He was a source of perpetual wonder to Uncle Remus; indeed, he was the wonder of wonders, and the old negro had a way of watching him curiously. Sometimes, as the result of this investigation, which was continuous, Uncle Remus would shake his head and chuckle; at other times, he would shake his head and sigh.
This little boy was not like the other little boy. He was more like a girl in his refinement; all the boyishness had been taken out of him by that mysterious course of discipline that some mothers know how to apply. He seemed to belong to a different age--to a different time; just how or why, it would be impossible to say. Still, the fact was so plain that any one old enough and wise enough to compare the two little boys--one the father of the other--could not fail to see the difference; and it was a difference not wholly on the surface. Miss Sally, the grandmother, could see it, and Uncle Remus could see it; but for all the rest the tendencies and characteristics of this later little boy were a matter of course.
“Miss Sally,” said Uncle Remus, a few days after the arrival of the little boy and his mother, “what dey gwineter do wid dat chile? What dey gwineter make out ’n ’im?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” she replied. “A grandmother doesn’t count for much these days unless there is illness. She is everything for a few hours, and then she is nothing.” There was no bitterness in the lady’s tone, but there was plenty of feeling--feeling that only a grandmother can appreciate and understand.
“I speck dat’s so,” Uncle Remus remarked; “an’ a ole nigger dat oughter been dead long ago, by good rights, don’t count no time an’ nowhar. But it’s a pity--a mighty pity.”
“What is a pity?” the lady inquired, though she knew full well what was in the old negro’s mind.
“I can’t tell you, ma’am, an’ ’twouldn’t be my place ter tell you ef I could; but dar ’tis, an’ you can’t rub it out. I see it, but I can’t say it; I knows it, but I can’t show you how ter put yo’ finger on it; yit it’s dar ef I’m name Remus.”
The grandmother sat silent so long, and gazed at the old negro so seriously, that he became restive. He placed the weight of his body first on one foot and then on the other, and finally struck blindly at some imaginary object with the end of his walking-cane.
“I hope you ain’t mad wid me, Miss Sally,” he said.
“With you?” she cried. “Why----” She was sitting in an easy-chair on the back porch, where the warmth of the sun could reach her, but she rose suddenly and went into the house. She made a noise with her throat as she went, so that Uncle Remus thought she was laughing, and chuckled in response, though he felt little like chuckling. As a matter of fact, if his Miss Sally had remained on the porch one moment longer she would have burst into tears.
She went in the house, however, and was able to restrain herself. The little boy caught at the skirt of her dress, saying: “Grandmother, you have been sitting in the sun, and your face is red. Mother never allows me to sit in the sun for fear I will freckle. Father says a few freckles would help me, but mother says they would be shocking.”
Uncle Remus received his dinner from the big house that day, and by that token he knew that his Miss Sally was very well pleased with him. The dinner was brought on a waiter by a strapping black girl, with a saucy smile and ivory-white teeth. She was a favorite with Uncle Remus, because she was full of fun. “I dunner how come de white folks treat you better dan dey does de balance un us,” she declared, as she sat the waiter on the small pine table and removed the snowy napkin with which it was covered. “I know it ain’t on ’count er yo’ beauty, kaze yo’ ain’t no purtier dan what I is,” she went on, tossing her head and showing her white teeth.
Uncle Remus looked all around on the floor, pretending to be looking for some weapon that would be immediately available. Finding none, he turned with a terrible make-believe frown, and pointed his forefinger at the girl, who was now as far as the door, her white teeth gleaming as she laughed.
“Mark my words,” he said solemnly; “ef I don’t brain you befo’ de week’s out it’ll be bekaze you done been gobbled up by de Unkollopsanall.” The girl stopped laughing instantly, and became serious. The threats of age have a meaning that all the gaiety of youth cannot overcome. The gray hair of Uncle Remus, his impersonation of wrath, his forefinger held up in warning, made his threat so uncanny that the girl shivered in spite of the fact that she thought he was joking. Let age shake a finger at you, and you feel that there is something serious behind the gesture.
Now, Miss Sally had taken advantage of the opportunity to send the grandchild with the girl; she was anxious that he should make the acquaintance of Uncle Remus, and have instilled into his mind the quaint humor that she knew would remain with him all his life, and become a fragrant memory when he grew old. But the later little boy was very shy, and when he saw the terrible frown and the threatening gesture with which Uncle Remus had greeted the girl, he shrank back in a corner, seeing which the old negro began to laugh. It was not a genuine laugh, but it was so well done that it answered every purpose.
“I don’t see nothin’ ter laugh at,” remarked the girl, and with that she flirted out.
Uncle Remus turned to the little boy. “Honey, you look so much like Brer Rabbit dat I bleeze ter laugh. ’Long at fust, I had a notion dat you mought be Mr. Cricket. But youer too big fer dat, an’ den you ain’t got no elbows in yo’ legs. An’ den I know’d ’twuz Brer Rabbit I had in min’. Yasser, dey ain’t no two ways ’bout dat--you look like Brer Rabbit when he tryin’ fer ter make up his min’ whedder ter run er no.”
Then, without waiting to see the effect of this remark, Uncle Remus turned his attention to the waiter and its contents. “Well, suh!” he exclaimed, with apparent surprise, “ef dar ain’t a slishe er tater custard! An’ ef I ain’t done gone stone blin’, dar’s a dish er hom’ny wid ham gravy on it! Yes, an’ bless gracious, dar’s a piece er ham! Dey all look like ol’ ’quaintances which dey been gone a long time an’ des come back; an’ dey look like deyer laughin’ kaze dey er glad ter see me. I wish you’d come here, honey, an’ see ef dey ain’t laughin’; you got better eyes dan what I is.”
The lure was entirely successful. The little boy came forward timidly, and when he was within reach, Uncle Remus placed him gently on his knee. The child glanced curiously at the dishes. He had heard so much of Uncle Remus from his father and his grandmother that he was inclined to believe everything the old man said. “Why, they are not laughing,” he exclaimed. “How could they?”
“I speck my eyes is bad,” replied Uncle Remus. “When anybody gits ter be a himbly an’ hombly-hombly year ol’ dey er liable fer ter see double.”
The child was a very serious child, but he laughed in spite of himself. “Oh, pshaw!” he exclaimed.
“I’m mighty glad you said dat,” remarked Uncle Remus, smacking his lips, “kaze ef you hadn’t ’a’ said it, I’d ’a’ been a bleeze ter say it myse’f.”
“Say what?” inquired the little boy, who was unused to the quips of the old man.
“’Bout dat tater custard. It’s de funniest tater custard dat I ever laid eyes on, dey ain’t no two ways ’bout dat.”
“Grandmother wanted to give me some,” said the little boy longingly, “but mother said it wasn’t good for me.”
“Aha!” exclaimed Uncle Remus in a tone of triumph. “What I tell you? Miss Sally writ on here wid dese dishes dat she want you ter eat dat tater custard. Mo’ dan dat she sont two pieces. Dar’s one, an’ dar de yuther.” There wasn’t anything wrong about this counting, except that Uncle Remus pointed twice at the same piece.
The little boy was sitting on Uncle Remus’s knee, and he turned suddenly and looked into the weather-beaten face that had harbored so many smiles. The child seemed to be searching for something in that venerable countenance, and he must have found it, for he allowed his head to fall against the old negro’s shoulder and held it there. The movement was as familiar to Uncle Remus as the walls of his cabin, for among all the children that he had known well, not one had failed to lay his head where that of the little boy now rested.
“Miss Sally is de onliest somebody in de roun’ worl’ dat know what you an’ me like ter eat,” remarked Uncle Remus, making a great pretense of chewing. “I dunner how she fin’ out, but fin’ out she did, an’ we oughter be mighty much beholden ter ’er. I done et my piece er tater custard,” he went on, “an’ you kin eat yone when you git good an’ ready.”
“I saw only one piece,” remarked the child, without raising his head, “and if you have eaten that there is none left for me.” Uncle Remus closed his eyes, and allowed his head to fall back. This was his favorite attitude when confronted by something that he could not comprehend. This was his predicament now, for there was something in this child that was quite beyond him. Small as the lad was he was old-fashioned; he thought and spoke like a grown person; and this the old negro knew was not according to nature. The trouble with the boy was that he had had no childhood; he had been subdued and weakened by the abnormal training he had received.
“Tooby sho you ain’t seed um,” Uncle Remus declared, returning to the matter of the potato custard. “Ef yo’ pa had ’a’ been in yo’ place he’d ’a’ seed um, kaze when he wuz long ’bout yo’ age, he had mo’ eyes in his stomach dan what he had his head. But de ol’ nigger wuz a little too quick fer you. I seed de two pieces time de gal snatch de towel off, an’ I ’low ter myse’f dat ef I didn’t snatch one, I’d not git none. Yasser! I wuz a little too quick fer you.”
The child turned his head, and saw that the slice of potato custard was still on the plate. “I’m so sorry that mother thinks it will hurt me,” he said with a sigh.
“Well, whatsomever she say ’bout de yuther piece er custard, I boun’ she ain’t say dat dat piece ’ud hurt you, kaze she ain’t never lay eyes on it. An’ mo’ dan dat,” Uncle Remus went on with a very serious face: “Miss Sally writ wid de dishes dat one er de pieces er tater custard wuz fer you.”
“I don’t see any writing,” the child declared, with a longing look at the potato custard.
“Miss Sally ain’t aim fer you ter see it, kaze ef you could see it, eve’ybody could see it. An’ dat ain’t all de reason why you can’t see it. You been hemmed up dar in a big town, an’ yo’ eyes ain’t good. But dar’s de writin’ des ez plain ez pig-tracks.” Uncle Remus made believe to spell out the writing, pointing at a separate dish every time he pronounced a word. “Le’ me see: she put dis dish fust--‘One piece is fer de chil’.’”
The little boy reflected a moment. “There are only five dishes,” he said very gravely, “and you pointed at one of them twice.”
“Tooby sho I did,” Uncle Remus replied, with well affected solemnity. “Ain’t dat de way you does in books?”
The little lad was too young to be well-grounded in books, but he had his ideas, nevertheless. “I don’t see how it can be done,” he suggested. “A is always A.”
“Ah-yi!” exclaimed Uncle Remus triumphantly. “It’s allers big A er little a. But I wa’n’t callin’ out no letters; I wuz callin’ out de words what yo’ granmammy writ wid de dishes.” The little boy still looked doubtful, and Uncle Remus went on. “Now, spozin’ yo’ pa wuz ter come ’long an’ say, ‘Unk Remus, I wanter gi’ you a cuff.’ An’ den, spozin’ I wuz ter ’low, ‘Yasser, an’ thanky, too, but you better gi’ me a pa’r un um while you ’bout it.’ An’ spozin’ he’d be talkin’ ’bout maulin’ me, whiles I wuz talkin’ ’bout dem contraptions what you got on yo’ shirt-sleeves, an’ you ain’t got no mo’ business wid um dan a rooster is wid britches. Spozin’ all dat wuz ter happen, how you speck I’d feel?”
Something in the argument, or the way Uncle Remus held his head, appealed to the little boy’s sense of humor, and he laughed heartily for the first time since Uncle Remus had known him. It was real laughter, too, so real that the old negro joined in with gusto, and the two laughed and laughed until it seemed unreasonable to laugh any more. To make matters worse, Uncle Remus pretended to become very solemn all of a sudden, and then just as suddenly went back to laughter again. This was more than the little chap could stand. He laughed until he writhed in the old man’s arms; in fact, till laughter became painful.
“Ef we go on dis a-way,” Uncle Remus remarked, “you’ll never eat yo’ tater custard in de worl’.” With that, he seized a biscuit and pretended to place the whole of it in his mouth at once, closing his eyes with a smile of ecstasy on his face. “Don’t, Uncle Remus! please don’t!” cried the little boy who had laughed until he was sore.
At this the old man became serious again. “I hear um say,” he remarked with some gravity, “dat ef you laugh too much you’ll sprain yo’ goozle-um, er maybe git yo’ th’oat-latch outer j’int. Dat de reason you see me lookin’ so sollumcolly all de time. You watch me right close, an’ you’ll see fer yo’se’f.”
The little boy ceased laughing, and regarded Uncle Remus closely. The old negro’s face was as solemn as the countenance of one of the early Puritans. “You were laughing just now,” said the child; “you were laughing when I laughed.”
The old man looked off into space as though he were considering a serious problem. Then he said with a sigh: “I speck I did, honey, but how I gwineter he’p myse’f when I see you winkin’ at dat tater custard? I mought not ’a’ laughed des at dat, but when I see you bek’nin’ at it wid yo’ tongue, I wuz bleeze ter turn loose my hyuh-hyuh-hyuhs!”
This was the beginning of the little boy’s acquaintance with Uncle Remus, of whom he had heard so much. Some of the results of that acquaintance are to be set forth in the pages that follow.