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|A Virginian in California.
"Hard at it, are you, uncle?"
"No, sah - I's workin' by de day, an' I an't a-hurtin' myself."
This answer was given with a jolly laugh as the old man leaned on his pick and looked at me.
"You looked so much like home-folks that I felt like speaking to you. Where are you from?"
"From Virginny, sah!" (pulling himself up to his full height as he spoke). "Where's you from, Massa?"
"I was brought up partly in Virginia too?"
"Wbar'bouts, in Virginny?"
"Mostly in Lynchburg."
"Lynchburg! dat's whar I was fotched up. I belonged to de Widder Tate, dat lived on de New London Road. Gib me yer han', Massa!"
He rushed up to the buggy, and taking my extended hand in his huge fist he shook it heartily, grinning with delight.
This was Uncle Joe, a perfect specimen of the old Virginia "Uncle," who had found his way to California in the early days. Yes, he was a perfect specimen - black as night, his lower limbs crooked, arms long, hands and feet very large. His mouth was his most striking feature. It was the orator's mouth in size, being larger than that of Henry Clay - in fact, it ran almost literally from ear to ear. When he opened it fully, it was like lifting the lid of a box.
Uncle Joe and I became good friends at once. He honored my ministry with his presence on Sundays. There was a touch of dandyism in him that then and there came out. Clad in a blue broadcloth dress-coat of the olden cut, vest to match, tight-fitting pantaloons, stove-pipe hat, and yellow kid gloves, he was a gorgeous object to behold. He knew it, and there was a pleasant self-consciousness in the way he bore himself in the sanctuary.
Uncle Joe was the heartiest laugher I ever knew. He was always as full of happy life as a frisky colt or a plump pig. When he entered a knot of idlers on the streets, it was the signal or a humorous uproar. His quaint sayings, witty repartee, and contagious laughter, never failed. He was as agile as a monkey, and his dancing was a marvel. For a dime he would "cut the pigeon wing," or give a "double-shuffle" or "breakdown" in a way that made the beholder dizzy.
What was Uncle Joe's age nobody could guess - he had passed the line of probable surmising. His own version of the matter on a certain occasion was curious. We had a colored female servant - an old-fashioned aunty from Mississippi - who, with a bandanna handkerchief on her head, went about the house singing the old Methodist choruses so naturally that it gave us a home-feeling to have her about us. Uncle Joe and Aunt Tishy became good friends, and he got into the habit of dropping in at the parsonage on Sunday evenings to escort her to church. On this particular occasion I was in the little study adjoining the dining-room where Aunt Tishy was engaged in cleaning away the dishes after tea. I was not eavesdropping, but could not help hearing what they said. My name was mentioned.
"O yes," said Uncle Joe; "I knowed Massa Fitchjarals back dar in Virginny. I use ter hear 'im preach dar when I was a boy."
There was a silence. Aunt Tishy couldn't swallow that. Uncle Joe's statement, if true, would have made me more than a hundred years old, or brought him down to less than forty. The latter was his object; he wanted to impress Aunt Tishy with the idea that he was young-enough to be an eligible gallant to any lady. But it failed. That unfortunate remark ruined Uncle Joe's prospects: Aunt Tishy positively refused to go with him to church, and just as soon as he had left she went into the sitting-room in high disgust, saying:
"What made dat nigger tell me a lie like dat? Tut, tut, tut!"
She cut him ever after, saying she would n't keep company with a liar, "even if he was from de Souf." Aunt Tishy was a good woman, and had some old-time notions. As a cook, she was discounted a little by the fact that she used tobacco, and when it got into the gravy it was not improving to its flavor.
Uncle Joe was in his glory at a dinner-party, where he could wait on the guests, give droll answers to the remarks made to call him out, and enliven the feast by his inimitable and "catching" laugh. In a certain circle no occasion of the sort was considered complete without his presence There was no such thing as dullness when he was about. His peculiar wit or his simplicity was brought out at a dinner-party one day at Dr. Bascom's. There was a large gathering of the leading families of San Jose and vicinity, and Uncle Joe was there in his jolliest mood. Mrs. Bascom, whose wit was then the quickest and keenest in all California, presided, and enough good things were said to have made a reputation for Sidney Smith or Douglas Jerrold. Mrs. Bascom, herself a Virginian by extraction, had engaged in a laughing colloquy with Uncle Joe, who stood near the head of the table waving a bunch of peacock's feathers to keep off the flies.
"Missus, who is yer kinfolks back dar in Virginny, any way?"
The names of several were mentioned.
"Why, dem's big folks," said Uncle Joe.
"Yes," said she, laughingly; "I belong to the first families of Virginia."
"I don't know 'bout dat, Missus. I was dar 'fore you was, an' I don't 'long to de fus' families!"
He looked at it from a chronological rather than a genealogical standpoint, and, strange to say, the familiar phrase had never been heard by him before.
Uncle Joe joined the Church. He was sincere in his profession. The proof was found in the fact that he quit dancing. No more "pigeon wings," "double-shuffles," or "breakdowns," for him - he was a "perfessor." He was often tempted by the offer of coin, but he stood firm.
"No, sah; I's done dancin', an' don't want to be discommunicated from de Church," he would say, good-naturedly, as he shied off, taking himself away from temptation.
A very high degree of spirituality could hardly be expected from Uncle Joe at that late day; but he was a Christian after a pattern of his own - kind-hearted, grateful, simple-minded, and full of good humor. His strength gradually declined, and he was taken to the county hospital, where his patience and cheerfulness conciliated and elicited kind treatment from everybody. His memories went back to old Virginia, and his hopes looked up to the heaven of which his notions were as simple as those of a little child. In the simplicity of a child's faith he had come to Jesus, and I doubt not was numbered among his little ones. Among the innumerable company that shall be gathered on Mount Zion from every kindred, tribe, and tongue, I hope to meet my humble friend, Uncle Joe.