It was a dull evening in November. A drizzling mist had been falling all day about the old farm. Harry Heywood and his two sisters sat in the house-place, expecting a visit from their uncle, Cornelius Heywood. This uncle lived alone, occupying the first floor above a chemist's shop in the town, and had just enough of money over to buy books that nobody seemed ever to have heard of but himself; for he was a student in all those regions of speculation in which anything to be called knowledge is impossible.
'What a dreary night!' said Kate. 'I wish uncle would come and tell us a story.'
'A cheerful wish,' said Harry. 'Uncle Cornie is a lively companion -- isn't he? He cant even blunder through a Joe Miller without tacking a moral to it, and then trying to persuade you that the joke of it depends on the moral.'
'Here he comes!' said Kate, as three distinct blows with the knob of his walking-stick announced the arrival of Uncle Cornelius. She ran to the door to open it.
The air had been very still all day, but as he entered he seemed to have brought the wind with him, for the first moan of it pressed against rather than shook the casement of the low-ceiled room.
Uncle Cornelius was very tall, and very thin, and very pale, with large gray eyes that looked greatly larger because he wore spectacles of the most delicate hair-steel, with the largest pebble-eyes that ever were seen. He gave them a kindly greeting, but too much in earnest even in shaking hands to smile over it. He sat down in the arm-chair by the chimney corner.
I have been particular in my description of him, in order that my reader may give due weight to his words. I am such a believer in words, that I believe everything depends on who says them. Uncle Cornelius Heywood's story told word for word by Uncle Timothy Warren, would not have been the same story at all. Not one of the listeners would have believed a syllable of it from the lips of round-bodied, red-faced, small-eyed, little Uncle Tim; whereas from Uncle Cornie -- disbelieve one of his stories if you could!
One word more concerning him. His interest in everything conjectured or believed relative to the awful borderland of this world and the next, was only equalled by his disgust at the vulgar, unimaginative forms which curiosity about such subjects has assumed in the present day. With a yearning after the unseen like that of a child for the lifting of the curtain of a theatre, he declared that, rather than accept such a spirit-world as the would-be seers of the nineteenth century thought or pretended to reveal, -- the prophets of a pauperised, workhouse immortality, invented by a poverty-stricken soul, and a sense so greedy that it would gorge on carrion, -- he would rejoice to believe that a man had just as much of a soul as the cabbage of Iamblichus, namely, an aerial double of his body.
'I'm so glad you're come, uncle!' said Kate. 'Why wouldn't you come to dinner? We have been so gloomy!'
'Well, Katey, you know I don't admire eating. I never could bear to see a cow tearing up the grass with her long tongue.' As he spoke he looked very much like a cow. He had a way of opening his jaws while he kept his lips closely pressed together, that made his cheeks fall in, and his face look awfully long and dismal. 'I consider eating,' he went on, 'such an animal exercise that it ought always to be performed in private. You never saw me dine, Kate.'
'Never, uncle; but I have seen you drink; -- nothing but water, I must confess.'
'Yes that is another affair. According to one eyewitness that is no more than the disembodied can do. I must confess, however, that, although well attested, the story is to me scarcely credible. Fancy a glass of Bavarian beer lifted into the air without a visible hand, turned upside down, and set empty on the table! -- and no splash on the floor or anywhere else!'
A solitary gleam of humour shone through the great eyes of the spectacles as he spoke.
'Oh, uncle! how can you believe such nonsense!' said Janet.
'I did not say I believed it -- did I? But why not? The story has at least a touch of imagination in it.'
'That is a strange reason for believing a thing, uncle,' said Harry.
'You might have a worse, Harry. I grant it is not sufficient; but it is better than that commonplace aspect which is the ground of most faith. I believe I did say that the story puzzled me.'
'But how can you give it any quarter at all, uncle?'
'It does me no harm. There it is -- between the boards of an old German book. There let it remain.'