When I was a boy of fourteen, there came one day to my father's house an old man of a very remarkable appearance. He was tall and rather thin and shadowy, but his face wore a benevolent expression. He was dressed in a good suit of dark-brown cloth; and when I first saw him, as I opened the door at which he had knocked more than once, I started back astonished at his venerable figure. He asked me, with a mild, soft voice, what my name was, and where my father and mother might be. I showed him into our principal sitting-room, and sent my mother to him.
Their interview was a long one, but what passed at it I never knew. When my mother came from the room, she closed the door carefully, leaving the old man shut up alone. She had been crying, but her face did not express sorrow or pain; nevertheless, as I belong to a rather romantic family I began to imagine all sorts of things. There was a mystery connected with that old man which I determined to unravel. It was my duty, if he was a wicked old man, to detect and expose his wickedness. I loved my mother better than my life, and began to hate that venerable personage, who I thought might be the Prince of Darkness himself in disguise, because he had made her cry. I could not, however, quite make up my mind whether I had better burst open the door, and instantly throw him out of the window, or magnanimously point with my finger to the door, and shout in a voice of thunder, 'Leave the room and the house this moment, sir!'
When my father came home, my mother took him aside, and told him in whispers what she evidently did not wish me to know. He appeared to be very much astonished. It was drawing towards evening, and tea would soon be ready. Instead of going in to see our mysterious visitor at once, my father went to his room and changed his dress. He was a retired merchant, and amused himself by cultivating a large orchard, and five acres of meadowland which lay around our pretty cottage, in one of the most beautiful recesses of the coast of Devonshire. When he thought himself quite ready for presentation, he was conducted, by my now smiling mother, into the presence of the old man, and then the door was again carefully closed.
In a short time my dear mother came out, not weeping this time, and proceeded to get the tea ready. Her face, always beautiful to me, was radiant with mysterious happiness, which I thought, if it depended on the possible residence of that aged party with us, might be short-lived. I asked her who he was, and coaxed her to tell me; but she only replied: 'Oh, you little know, and you could not dream; but you will know in good time. He will tell you himself probably. He is a very wonderful old gentleman, more than ninety years of age. He told me not to tell you who he was.'
When our evening meal was ready, he emerged from the sitting-room, leaning on my father's arm. My sister Bertha had just come in from her rambles, and, having been introduced to him, sat down to the table gazing at the unexpected visitor with the utmost astonishment. He was a total stranger to us both. His face was dark and weather-beaten; his hair and beard were white as snow; his eyes were small, gray, and piercing. While he drank his tea he scarcely noticed my sister or myself, but conversed a little with our parents. I shall not recall their conversation, as it was only desultory and immaterial; but when we drew our chairs closer to the fire, and my father had placed some old journals on the table to be looked over, the old gentleman commenced his explanation in this way:
'Young lady and gentleman, you do not know who I am. You think, perhaps, that I am a visitor from another world, and I certainly bear that about me which might justify you in so thinking. But I am not so, and although I believe I have been in other worlds on short visits, I do not belong to them, having been born into this one, and not far from this very place, exactly ninety-five years ago. Did you ever hear of the great Bumblefuscus, who fought with, and destroyed, the enormous serpent which used to kill and eat five hundred men and women every day for five thousand years?'
My sister and I looked at each other in wonder and dismay, while our father and mother nearly laughed outright. At length I replied: 'No, sir ; but I have books that tell lies about St. George and the Dragon, and about Baron Munchausen, and I have "Gulliver's Travels."'
'Good books, nice books, for innocent boys and girls,' said the old gentleman. 'Well, I am not the great Bumblefuscus, but I am the little Oliver Ubertus, who once fought a battle with the great enemy of mankind—I am your father's grandfather, your great-grandfather. You know me now; come and kiss me, Bertha.'
Bertha ran and gave our venerable relative several hearty kisses, and embraced him with unfeigned affection. I also felt his trembling lips pressed to my forehead and cheek. The tears fell from his eyes. Our parents also had recourse to their handkerchiefs. Solemn silence reigned in our house for a considerable time. At length he suffered us to resume our seats, although it was not possible for us to withdraw our eyes from his face. Suddenly thrusting his hand into a capacious pocket, he drew from its recesses a parcel of moderate size, which he proceeded slowly to untie. We were filled with curiosity, not unmingled with an undefined expectation of seeing something wonderful; but when we saw him draw forth first a beautiful gold watch and chain and hold it up, saying, 'This is for a good girl, named Bertha,' and then another, with the words, 'And this is for a good boy, named Willie,' our delight and gratitude knew no bounds.
Our great-grandfather told us, in the course of remarks made almost at random, that he had been a great traveller, but he would not trouble us with his travels at present. He had come, he said, unexpectedly, and without announcing his approach—because his whole life had been a series of extraordinary surprises—to lay his bones beside those of his ancestors. His grandson, our father, had kindly given him permission to spend his last years, or days, as the case might be by his fireside; and our good mother did not object. In all probability he would not trouble us long; but be the time long or short, he would throw himself on the generosity of his young descendants, and ask for their guidance and protection.
He lived with us for about two years in comparatively good health, showing only now and then the bodily weakness incidental to his great age. His mental faculties did not seem to fail him in the least, and his mind was at perfect peace. Occasionally he was overheard talking aloud when he thought himself to be alone, as if holding an animated conversation with an invisible individual, whom he called Dr. Junius or Julius. Either my sister or myself always accompanied him in his frequent strolls along the lovely shore, or into the interior of the county, by some of its charming lanes. On one of these occasions, when, on a calm April evening, we rambled through a delightful valley, on the banks of a gushing stream, out upon the seashore, and had turned to go back home, he sank down upon a grassy bank, sighed deeply, and spoke thus:
'I shall soon be leaving you, Willie; my silver thread of life is nearly run out. God has been good to me, and merciful, although I have been self-exalted and forgetful of my duty to Him. I have often listened to the voice of the tempter, and given way to sinful passion, and I am glad to fee on the verge of release from all possibility of falling into those sins again. You will ask what there can be to tempt a man who is nearly a hundred years old. Nothing, certainly, if we are to judge by what is tangible and visible; but there may be a great deal within the soul; and within mine there has been a constant warfare with a mysterious and powerful being, who was pertinacious in his attacks, and unwearied in his efforts to undermine my allegiance to the great Author of my existence. At first he would insist that there was no God at all; we did not see or hear Him, and therefore He did not exist. Next, this evil being would try to persuade me that the Divinity of Jesus Christ, as the actual Son of God, in whom so many millions of people believe, is a mere delusion—an invention without a shadow of truth or probability in it. But I am weak; I cannot talk much now. . . .
'Every word,' he continued after a long pause, upon which I did not dare to intrude, 'must be to the purpose and well weighed. There are words which, if they could be weighed as we can weigh the bread we eat, would be worth their weight in refined gold. I have found those golden words in my Bible. Yes, blessed be God! I shall go soon, but not to the abyss of darkness where eternal wickedness reigns. Oh, Willie, Willie, what a life mine has been! You will find among my effects, when I shall be removed from this world of trouble, a history of the trials and temptations to which I have been exposed. My great enemy is living still, and as active and determined as ever. Whether he is the king of evil himself, or merely a satrap of his empire, I cannot tell. The work I leave behind me fully describes him, and the conflicts I had with him. It is not a religious work. Many will despise it, doubtless, on account of the strain of merriment which runs through it; others will condemn it, because they will find it difficult to understand its hidden meanings, or to believe in the worth of its moral teaching. I leave it with you, Willie, to publish it, if you can find a publisher. Now let us go home; my mind is at rest; but all my life I have been in terror lest I should fall into the hell of unbelief, and so lose all hope of that glorious heaven on which I had set my heart.'
Some two or three months after this conversation we buried our aged progenitor, not without tears. He left his small estate in Tasmania to my parents, and through them it is destined to become mine. And to my sister he left all his personal property, which proved to be not inconsiderable.
The following is the work of which he had told me, and it is now published with very few alterations. Before its readers venture to condemn it for its 'absurdities,' will they receive the assurance that it was written by the author with a serious purpose, if also in the hope of amusing his fellow-men, whose happiness my great-grandfather always took in promoting?