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Nursing a Legacy by Jonathan F. Kelley


Waiting for dead men's shoes is a slow and not very sure business; sometimes it pays and sometimes it don't. I know a genius who lost by it, and his case will bear repeating, for there is both morality and fun in it.

Lev Smith, a native of “the Eastern shore” of Maryland, and a resident of a small town in the lower part of Delaware, began life on a very limited capital, and because of a natural disposition indigenous to the climate and customs of his native place—general apathy and unmitigated patience peculiar to people raised on fish and Johnny-cake, amid the stunted pine swamps and sand-hills of that Lord-forsaken country—Lev never increased it. Lev had an uncle, an old bachelor, without “chick or child,” and was reported to be pretty well off. Old man Gunter was proverbially mean, and as usual, heartily despised by one half of the people who knew him. He had a small estate, had lived long, and by his close-fisted manner of life, it was believed that Gunter had laid by a pretty considerable pile of the root of all evil, for something or somebody; and one day Lev Smith, the nephew, came to the conclusion that as the old man was getting quite shaky and must soon resign his interests in all worldly gear, he would volunteer to console the declining years of his dear old uncle, by his own pleasant company and encouragement, and the old man very gladly accepted the proposals of Lev, to cut wood, dig, scratch and putter around his worn out and dilapidated farm. Uncle Gunter had but two negroes; through starvation and long service he had worn them about out; he had little or no “stock” upon his farm, quite as scant an assortment of utensils, few fences, and in fact, to any actively disposed individual, the general appearance and state of affairs about old Gunter's place would have given the double-breasted blues. But Lev Smith had come to loaf and lounge, and not to display any very active or patriotic evolutions, so he was not so much disheartened by his uncle's dilapidated farm, as he was annoyed by the beggarly way the old man lived, and the assiduous desire he seemed to manifest for Lev to be stirring around, gathering chips, patching fences, cutting brush; from morn till night, he and the two superannuated cuffies; and the old man barely raising enough to keep soul and body of the party together.

At first, the job he had undertaken proved almost too much for Lev Smith's constitution, but the great object in view consoled him, and the more he saw of the old man's meanness, the more and more he took it for granted that his uncle had necessarily hoarded up treasure; but, after three years' drudgery, Lev's courage was on the point of breaking down; the only stay left seemed the fact that now he had served so long a time, so patiently and lovingly, and the old man apparently upon his very last legs—it seemed a ruthless waste of his golden dreams to give out, so he made up his mind to—wait a little longer. Another year rolled on; Uncle Gunter got indeed low, and the lower he got the more assiduous got nephew Smith, and even the neighbors wondered how a young man could stick on, and put up with such a miserly, mean, selfish and penurious old curmudgeon as old Joe Gunter. Gunter himself was apprized of the great indulgence and wonderful patience of his nephew, and not unfrequently said, in a groaning voice:

“Ah, my dear Levi, you're a good boy; I wish to the Lord it was in your poor, miserable, wretched old uncle's distressed power to—”

“Never mind, never mind, Uncle Joe,” Lev would most deceitfully respond; “I ask nothing for myself; what I do, I do willingly!”

“I know, I know you do, poor boy, but your poor, old, miserable, wretched uncle don't deserve it.”

“Don't mind that, dear uncle,” says Lev. “It's my duty, and I'll do it.”

“Good boy, good boy; your poor, old, miserable uncle will be grateful—we'll see.”

“I know that—I feel sure he will, dear Uncle Joe—and that's enough, all I ask.”

“And if he don't—poor, miserable old creature,—if he don't pay you, the Lord will, Levi!”

“And that will be all that's needed, Uncle Joe,” says the humbugging nephew. And so they went, Lev not only waiting on the old man with the tender and faithful care of a good Samaritan, but out of his own slender resources ministering to the old man's especial comfort in many ways and matters which Uncle Joe would have seen him hanged and quartered before he would in a like manner done likewise. But the end came—the old fellow held on toughly; he never died until Lev's patience, hope and slender income were quite threadbare; so he at last went off the handle—Lev buried him and mourned the dispensation in true Kilkenny fashion.

Lev Smith now awaited the settlement of Uncle Gunter's affairs in grief and solicitude. Another party also awaited the upshot of the matter, with due solemnity and expectation, and that party was Polly Williams, Lev's “intended,” and her poor and miserly dad and marm, who knew Lev Smith, as they said, was a lazy, lolloping sort of a feller, but sure to get all that his poor, miserable uncle was worth in the world, and therefore, with more craft and diligence, if possible, than Lev practised, the Williamses set Polly's cap for Lev, and who, in turn, was not unmindful of the fact that Williams “had something” too, as well as his two children, Polly and Peter. Things seemed indeed bright and propitious on all sides. The day came; Lev was on hand at Squire Cornelius's, to hear the will read, and the estate of the deceased settled.

As usual in such cases in the country, quite a number of the neighbors were on hand—old Williams, of course.

“He was a queer old mortal,” began the Squire.

“But a good man,” sobbed Lev Smith, drawing out his bandanna, and smothering his sharp nose in it. “A good man, 'Squire.”

“God's his judge,” responded the Squire, and a number of the neighbors shook their head and stroked their beards, as if to say amen.

“Joseph Gunter mout have been a good man and he mout not,” continued the Squire; “some thinks he was not; I only say he was a queer old mortal, and here's his will. Last will and testament of Joseph Gunter, &c., &c.,” continued the Squire.

“Poor, dear old man,” sobbed Lev. “Poor dear old man!”

“Being without wife or children,” continued the 'Squire.

“O, dear! poor, dear old man, how I shall miss him in this world of sorrow and sin,” sobs Lev, while old Williams bit his skinny lips, and the neighbors again stroked their beards.

“To comfort my declining years—”

“Poor, dear old man, he was to be pitied; I did all I could do,” groaned the disconsolate Lev, “but I didn't do half enough.”

“Passing coldly and cheerless through the world—” continued the 'Squire.

“Yes, he did, poor old man; O, dear!” says Lev.

“Cared for by none, hated and shunned by all (Lev looked vacantly over his handkerchief, at the Squire), I have made up my mind (Lev all attention) that no mortal shall benefit by me; I have therefore mortgaged and sold (Lev's eyes spreading) everything I had of a dollar's value in the world, and buried the money in the earth where none but the devil himself can find it!”

There was a general snicker and stare—all eyes on Lev, his face as blank as a sham cartridge, while old Williams's countenance fell into a concatenation of grimaces and wrinkles—language fails to describe!

“But here's a codicil,” says the 'Squire, re-adjusting his glasses. “Knowing my nephew, Levi Smith, expects something (Lev brightens up, old Williams grins!)—he has hung around me for a long time, expecting it (Lev's jaw falls), I do hereby freely forgive him his six years boarding and lodging, and, furthermore, make him a present of my two old negroes, Ben and Dinah.”

“The—the—the—cussed old screw,” bawls old Williams.

“The infernal, double and twisted, mean, contemptible, miserable old scoundrel!” cries poor Lev, foaming with virtuous indignation, and swinging his doubled up fists.

“And you—you—you cussed, do-less, good for nothing, hypocritical skunk, you,” yells old Williams, shaking his bony fingers in poor Lev's face, the neighbors grinning from ear to ear, “to humbug me, my wife, my Polly, in this yer way. Now clear yourself—take them old niggers, don't leave 'em here for the crows to eat—clear yourself!”

Lev Smith sneaks off like a kill-sheep dog, leaving old Ben and Dinah to the tender mercies of a quite miserable and equally wretched neighborhood. Polly Williams didn't “take on” much about the matter, but in the course of a few weeks took another venture in love's lottery, and—was married. Poor Lev Smith returned to the scenes of his childhood, a wiser and a poorer man.


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