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It is one of the prime joys of the long road that no two days are ever remotely alike—no two hours even; and sometimes a day that begins calmly will end with the most stirring events.

It was thus, indeed, with that perfect spring Sunday, when I left my friends, the Vedders, and turned my face again to the open country. It began as quietly as any Sabbath morning of my life, but what an end it had! I would have travelled a thousand miles for the adventures which a bounteous road that day spilled carelessly into my willing hands.

I can give no adequate reason why it should be so, but there are Sunday mornings in the spring—at least in our country— which seem to put on, like a Sabbath garment, an atmosphere of divine quietude. Warm, soft, clear, but, above all, immeasurably serene.

Such was that Sunday morning; and I was no sooner well afoot than I yielded to the ingratiating mood of the day. Usually I am an active walker, loving the sense of quick motion and the stir it imparts to both body and mind, but that morning I found myself loitering, looking widely about me, and enjoying the lesser and quieter aspects of nature. It was a fine wooded country in which I found myself, and I soon struck off the beaten road and took to the forest and the fields. In places the ground was almost covered with meadow-rue, like green shadows on the hillsides, not yet in seed, but richly umbrageous. In the long green grass of the meadows shone the yellow star-flowers, and the sweet-flags were blooming along the marshy edges of the ponds. The violets had disappeared, but they were succeeded by wild geraniums and rank-growing vetches.

I remember that I kept thinking from time to time, all the forenoon, as my mind went back swiftly and warmly to the two fine friends from whom I had so recently parted:

How the Vedders would enjoy this! Or, I must tell the Vedders that. And two or three times I found myself in animated conversations with them in which I generously supplied all three parts. It may be true for some natures, as Leonardo said, that “if you are alone you belong wholly to yourself; if you have a companion, you belong only half to yourself; but it is certainly not so with me. With me friendship never divides: it multiplies. A friend always makes me more than I am, better than I am, bigger than I am. We two make four, or fifteen, or forty.

Well, I loitered through the fields and woods for a long time that Sunday forenoon, not knowing in the least that Chance held me close by the hand and was leading me onward to great events. I knew, of course,that I had yet to find a place for the night, and that this might be difficult on Sunday, and yet I spent that forenoon as a man spends his immortal youth—with a glorious disregard for the future.

Some time after noon—for the sun was high and the day was growing much warmer —I turned from the road, climbed an inviting little hill, and chose a spot in an old meadow in the shade of an apple tree and there I lay down on the grass, and looked up into the dusky shadows of the branches above me. I could feel the soft airs on my face; I could hear the buzzing of bees in the meadow flowers, and by turning my head just a little I could see the slow fleecy clouds, high up, drifting across the perfect blue of the sky. And the scent of the fields in spring!—he who has known it, even once, may indeed die happy.

Men worship God in various ways: it seemed to me that Sabbath morning, as I lay quietly there in the warm silence of midday, that I was truly worshipping God. That Sunday morning everything about me seemed somehow to be a miracle—a miracle gratefully accepted and explainable only by the presence of God. There was another strange, deep feeling which I had that morning, which I have had a few other times in my life at the rare heights of experience—I hesitate always when I try to put down the deep, deep things of the human heart—a feeling immeasurably real, that if I should turn my head quickly I should indeed SEE that Immanent Presence. . . .

One of the few birds I know that sings through the long midday is the vireo. The vireo sings when otherwise the woods are still. You do not see him; you cannot find him; but you know he is there. And his singing is wild, and shy, and mystical. Often it haunts you like the memory of some former happiness. That day I heard the vireo singing. . . .

I don’t know how long I lay there under the tree in the meadow, but presently I heard, from no great distance, the sound of a church-bell. It was ringing for the afternoon service which among the farmers of this part of the country often takes the place, in summer, of both morning and evening services.

“I believe I’ll go,” I said, thinking first of all, I confess, of the interesting people I might meet there.

But when I sat up and looked about me the desire faded, and rummaging in my bag I came across my tin whistle. Immediately I began practising a tune called “Sweet Afton,” which I had learned when a boy; and, as I played, my mood changed swiftly, and I began to smile at myself as a tragically serious person, and to think of pat phrases with which to characterize the execrableness of my attempts upon the tin whistle. I should have liked some one near to joke with.

Long ago I made a motto about boys: Look for a boy anywhere. Never be surprised when you shake a cherry tree if a boy drops out of it; never be disturbed when you think yourself in complete solitude if you discover a boy peering out at you from a fence corner.

I had not been playing long before I saw two boys looking at me from out of a thicket by the roadside; and a moment later two others appeared.

Instantly I switched into “Marching Through Georgia,” and began to nod my head and tap my toe in the liveliest fashion. Presently one boy climbed up on the fence, then another, then a third. I continued to play. The fourth boy, a little chap, ventured to climb up on the fence.

They were bright-faced, tow-headed lads, all in Sunday clothes.

“It’s hard luck,” said I, taking my whistle from my lips, “to have to wear shoes and stockings on a warm Sunday like this.”

“You bet it is!” said the bold leader.

“In that case,” said I, “I will play ‘Yankee Doodle.’”

I played. All the boys, including the little chap, came up around me, and two of them sat down quite familiarly on the grass. I never had a more devoted audience. I don’t know what interesting event might have happened next, for the bold leader, who stood nearest, was becoming dangerously inflated with questions—I don’t know what might have happened had we not been interrupted by the appearance of a Spectre in Black. It appeared before us there in the broad daylight in the middle of a sunny afternoon while we were playing “Yankee Doodle.” First I saw the top of a black hat rising over the rim of the hill. This was followed quickly by a black tie, a long black coat, black trousers, and, finally, black shoes. I admit I was shaken, but being a person of iron nerve in facing such phenomena, I continued to play “Yankee Doodle.” In spite of this counter-attraction, toward which all four boys turned uneasy glances, I held my audience. The Black Spectre, with a black book under its arm, drew nearer. Still I continued to play and nod my head and tap my toe. I felt like some modern Pied Piper piping away the children of these modern hills—piping them away from older people who could not understand them.

I could see an accusing look on the Spectre’s face. I don’t know what put it into my head, and I had no sooner said it than I was sorry for my levity, but the figure with the sad garments there in the matchless and triumphant spring day affected me with a curious, sharp impatience. Had any one the right to look out so dolefully upon such a day and such a scene of simple happiness as this? So I took my whistle from my lips and asked:

“Is God dead?”

I shall never forget the indescribable look of horror and astonishment that swept over the young man’s face.

“What do you mean, sir?” he asked with an air of stern authority which surprised me. His calling for the moment lifted him above himself: it was the Church which spoke.

I was on my feet in an instant, regretting the pain I had given him; and yet it seemed worth while now, having made my inadvertent remark, to show him frankly what lay in my mind. Such things sometimes help men.

“I meant no offence, sir,” I said, “and I apologize for my flummery, but when I saw you coming up the hill, looking so gloomy and disconsolate on this bright day, as though you disapproved of God’s world, the question slipped out before I knew it.”

My words evidently struck deep down into some disturbed inner consciousness, for he asked—and his words seemed to slip out before he thought:

“Is THAT the way I impressed you?”

I found my heart going out strongly toward him. “Here,” I thought to myself, “is a man in trouble.”

I took a good long look at him. He still a young man, though worn-looking—and sad as I now saw it, rather than gloomy—with the sensitive lips and the unworldly look one sees sometimes in the faces of saints. His black coat was immaculately neat, but the worn button-covers and the shiny lapels told their own eloquent story. Oh, it seemed to me I knew him as well as if every incident of his life were written plainly upon his high, pale forehead! I have lived long in a country neighbourhood, and I knew him—poor flagellant of the rural church—I knew how he groaned under the sins of a Community too comfortably willing to cast all its burdens on the Lord, or on the Lord’s accredited local representative. I inferred also the usual large family and the low salary (scandalously unpaid) and the frequent moves from place to place.

Unconsciously heaving a sigh the young man turned partly aside and said to me in a low, gentle voice:

“You are detaining my boys from church.”

“I am very sorry,” I said, “and I will detain them no longer,” and with that I put aside my whistle, took up my bag and moved down the hill with them.

“The fact is,” I said, “when I heard your bell I thought of going to church myself.”

“Did you?” he asked eagerly. “Did you?”

I could see that my proposal of going to church had instantly affected his spirits. Then he hesitated abruptly with a sidelong glance at my bag and rusty clothing. I could see exactly what was passing in his mind.

“No,” I said, smiling, as though answering a spoken question, “I am not exactly what you would call a tramp.”

He flushed.

“I didn’t mean—I WANT you to come. That’s what a church is for. If I thought—”

But he did not tell me what he thought; and, though he walked quietly at my side, he was evidently deeply disturbed. Something of his discouragement I sensed even then, and I don’t think I was ever sorrier for a man in my life than I was for him at that moment. Talk about the suffering sinners! I wonder if they are to be compared with the trials of the saints?

So we approached the little white church, and caused, I am certain, a tremendous sensation. Nowhere does the unpredictable, the unusual, excite such confusion as in that settled institution—the church.

I left my bag in the vestibule, where I have no doubt it was the object of much inquiring and suspicious scrutiny, and took my place in a convenient pew. It was a small church with an odd air of domesticity, and the proportion of old ladies and children in the audience was pathetically large. As a ruddy, vigorous, out-of-door person, with the dust of life upon him, I felt distinctly out of place.

I could pick out easily the Deacon, the Old Lady Who Brought Flowers, the President of the Sewing Circle, and, above all, the Chief Pharisee, sitting in his high place. The Chief Pharisee—his name I learned was Nash, Mr. J. H. Nash (I did not know then that I was soon to make his acquaintance)—the Chief Pharisee looked as hard as nails, a middle-aged man with stiff chin-whiskers, small round, sharp eyes, and a pugnacious jaw.

“That man,” said I to myself, “runs this church,” and instantly I found myself looking upon him as a sort of personification of the troubles I had seen in the minister’s eyes.

I shall not attempt to describe the service in detail. There was a discouraging droop and quaver in the singing, and the mournful-looking deacon who passed the collection-plate seemed inured to disappointment. The prayer had in it a note of despairing appeal which fell like a cold hand upon one’s living soul. It gave one the impression that this was indeed a miserable, dark, despairing world, which deserved to be wrathfully destroyed, and that this miserable world was full of equally miserable, broken, sinful, sickly people.

The sermon was a little better, for somewhere hidden within him this pale young man had a spark of the divine fire, but it was so dampened by the atmosphere of the church that it never rose above a pale luminosity.

I found the service indescribably depressing. I had an impulse to rise up and cry out—al-most anything to shock these people into opening their eyes upon real life. Indeed, though I hesitate about setting it down here, I was filled for some time with the liveliest imaginings of the following serio-comic enterprise:

I would step up the aisle, take my place in front of the Chief Pharisee, wag my finger under his nose, and tell him a thing or two about the condition of the church.

“The only live thing here,” I would tell him, “is the spark in that pale minister’s soul; and you’re doing your best to smother that.”

And I fully made up my mind that when he answered back in his chief-pharisaical way I would gently—but firmly remove him from his seat, shake him vigorously two or three times (men’s souls have often been saved with less!), deposit him flat in the aisle, and yes—stand on him while I elucidated the situation to the audience at large. While I confined this amusing and interesting project to the humours of the imagination I am still convinced that something of the sort would have helped enormously in clearing up the religious and moral atmosphere of the place.

I had a wonderful sensation of relief when at last I stepped out again into the clear afternoon sunshine and got a reviving glimpse of the smiling green hills and the quiet fields and the sincere trees—and felt the welcome of the friendly road.

I would have made straight for the hills, but the thought of that pale minister held me back; and I waited quietly there under the trees till he came out. He was plainly looking for me, and asked me to wait and walk along with him, at which his four boys, whose acquaintance I had made under such thrilling circumstances earlier in the day, seemed highly delighted, and waited with me under the tree and told me a hundred important things about a certain calf, a pig, a kite, and other things at home.

Arriving at the minister’s gate, I was invited in with a whole-heartedness that was altogether charming. The minister’s wife, a faded-looking woman who had once possessed a delicate sort of prettiness, was waiting for us on the steps with a fine chubby baby on her arm—number five.

The home was much the sort of place I had imagined—a small house undesirably located (but cheap!), with a few straggling acres of garden and meadow upon which the minister and his boys were trying with inexperienced hands to piece out their inadequate living. At the very first glimpse of the garden I wanted to throw off my coat and go at it.

And yet—and yet—-what a wonderful thing love is! There was, after all, something incalculable, something pervasively beautiful about this poor household. The moment the minister stepped inside his own door he became a different and livelier person. Something boyish crept into his manner, and a new look came into the eyes of his faded wife that made her almost pretty again. And the fat, comfortable baby rolled and gurgled about on the floor as happily as though there had been two nurses and a governess to look after him. As for the four boys, I have never seen healthier or happier ones.

I sat with them at their Sunday-evening luncheon. As the minister bowed his head to say grace I felt him clasp my hand on one side while the oldest boy clasped my hand on the other, and thus, linked together, and accepting the stranger utterly, the family looked up to God.

There was a fine, modest gayety about the meal. In front of Mrs. Minister stood a very large yellow bowl filled with what she called rusk—a preparation unfamiliar to me, made by browning and crushing the crusts of bread and then rolling them down into a coarse meal. A bowl of this, with sweet, rich, yellow milk (for they kept their own cow), made one of the most appetizing dishes that ever I ate. It was downright good: it gave one the unalloyed aroma of the sweet new milk and the satisfying taste of the crisp bread.

Nor have I ever enjoyed a more perfect hospitality. I have been in many a richer home where there was not a hundredth part of the true gentility—the gentility of unapologizing simplicity and kindness.

And after it was over and cleared away—the minister himself donning a long apron and helping his wife—and the chubby baby put to bed, we all sat around the table in the gathering twilight.

I think men perish sometimes from sheer untalked talk. For lack of a creative listener they gradually fill up with unexpressed emotion. Presently this emotion begins to ferment, and finally—bang!—they blow up, burst, disappear in thin air. In all that community I suppose there was no one but the little faded wife to whom the minister dared open his heart, and I think he found me a godsend. All I really did was to look from one to the other and put in here and there an inciting comment or ask an understanding question. After he had told me his situation and the difficulties which confronted him and his small church, he exclaimed suddenly:

“A minister should by rights be a leader, not only inside of his church, but outside it in the community.”

“You are right,” I exclaimed with great earnestness; “you are right.”

And with that I told him of our own Scotch preacher and how he led and moulded our community; and as I talked I could see him actually growing, unfolding, under my eyes.

“Why,” said I, “you not only ought to be the moral leader of this community, but you are!”

“That’s what I tell him,” exclaimed his wife.

“But he persists in thinking, doesn’t he, that he is a poor sinner?”

“He thinks it too much,” she laughed.

“Yes, yes,” he said, as much to himself as to us, “a minister ought to be a fighter!”

It was beautiful, the boyish flush which now came into his face and the light that came into his eyes. I should never have identified him with the Black Spectre of the afternoon.

“Why,” said I, “you ARE a fighter; you’re fighting the greatest battle in the world today— the only real battle—the battle for the spiritual view of life.”

Oh, I knew exactly what was the trouble with his religion—at least the religion which, under the pressure of that church he felt obliged to preach! It was the old, groaning, denying, resisting religion. It was the sort of religion which sets a man apart and assures him that the entire universe in the guise of the Powers of Darkness is leagued against him. What he needed was a reviving draught of the new faith which affirms, accepts, rejoices, which feels the universe triumphantly behind it. And so whenever the minister told me what he ought to be—for he too sensed the new impulse—I merely told him he was just that. He needed only this little encouragement to unfold.

“Yes,” said he again, “I am the real moral leader here.”

At this I saw Mrs. Minister nodding her head vigorously.

“It’s you,” she said, “and not Mr. Nash, who should lead this community.”

How a woman loves concrete applications. She is your only true pragmatist. If a philosophy will not work, says she, why bother with it?

The minister rose quickly from his chair, threw back his head, and strode quickly up and down the room.

“You are right,” said he; “and I WILL lead it. I’ll have my farmers’ meetings as I planned.”

It may have been the effect of the lamplight, but it seemed to me that little Mrs. Minister, as she glanced up at him, looked actually pretty.

The minister continued to stride up and down the room with his chin in the air.

“Mr. Nash,” said she in a low voice to me, “is always trying to hold him down and keep him back. My husband WANTS to do the great things”—wistfully.

“By every right,” the minister was repeating, quite oblivious of our presence, “I should lead these people.”

“He sees the weakness of the church,” she continued, “as well as any one, and he wants to start some vigorous community work—have agricultural meetings and boys’ clubs, and lots of things like that—but Mr. Nash says it is no part of a minister’s work: that it cheapens religion. He says that when a parson—Mr. Nash always calls him parson, and I just LOATHE that name —has preached, and prayed, and visited the sick, that’s enough for HIM.”

At this very moment a step sounded upon the walk, and an instant later a figure appeared in the doorway.

“Why, Mr. Nash,” exclaimed little Mrs. Minister, exhibiting that astonishing gift of swift recovery which is the possession of even the simplest women, “come right in.”

It was some seconds before the minister could come down from the heights and greet Mr. Nash. As for me, I was never more interested in my life.

“Now,” said I to myself, “we shall see Christian meet Apollyon.”

As soon as Mrs. Minister lighted the lamp I was introduced to the great man. He looked at me sharply with his small, round eyes, and said:

“Oh, you are the—the man who was in church this afternoon.”

I admitted it, and he looked around at the minister with an accusing expression. He evidently did not approve of me, nor could I wholly blame him, for I knew well how he, as a rich farmer, must look upon a rusty man of the road like me. I should have liked dearly to cross swords with him myself, but greater events were imminent.

In no time at all the discussion, which had evidently been broken off at some previous meeting, concerning the proposed farmers’ assembly at the church, had taken on a really lively tone. Mr. Nash was evidently in the somewhat irritable mood with which important people may sometimes indulge themselves, for he bit off his words in a way that was calculated to make any but an unusually meek and saintly man exceedingly uncomfortable. But the minister, with the fine, high humility of those whose passion is for great or true things, was quite oblivious to the harsh words. Borne along by an irresistible enthusiasm, he told in glowing terms what his plan would mean to the community, how the people needed a new social and civic spirit—a “neighbourhood religious feeling” he called it. And as he talked his face flushed, and his eyes shone with the pure fire of a great purpose. But I could see that all this enthusiasm impressed the practical Mr. Nash as mere moonshine. He grew more and more uneasy. Finally he brought his hand down with a resounding thwack upon his knee, and said in a high, cutting voice:

“I don’t believe in any such newfangled nonsense. It ain’t none of a parson’s business what the community does. You’re hired, ain’t you, an’ paid to run the church? That’s the end of it. We ain’t goin’ to have any mixin’ of religion an’ farmin’ in THIS neighbourhood.”

My eyes were on the pale man of God. I felt as though a human soul were being weighed in the balance. What would he do now? What was he worth REALLY as a man as well as a minister?

He paused a moment with downcast eyes. I saw little Mrs. Minister glance at him—once— wistfully. He rose from his place, drew himself up to his full height—I shall not soon forget the look on his face—and uttered these amazing words:

“Martha, bring the ginger-jar.”

Mrs. Minister, without a word, went to a little cupboard on the farther side of the room and took down a brown earthenware jar, which she brought over and placed on the table, Mr. Nash following her movements with astonished eyes. No one spoke.

The minister took the jar in his hands as he might the communion-cup just before saying the prayer of the sacrament.

“Mr. Nash,” said he in a loud voice, “I’ve decided to hold that farmers’ meeting.”

Before Mr. Nash could reply the minister seated himself and was pouring out the contents of the jar upon the table—a clatter of dimes, nickels, pennies, a few quarters and half dollars, and a very few bills.

“Martha, just how much money is there?”

“Twenty-four dollars and sixteen cents.”

The minister put his hand into his pocket and, after counting out certain coins, said:

“Here’s one dollar and eighty-four cents more. That makes twenty-six dollars. Now, Mr. Nash, you’re the largest contributor to my salary in this neighbourhood. You gave twenty-six dollars last year—fifty cents a week. It is a generous contribution, but I cannot take it any longer. It is fortunate that my wife has saved up this money to buy a sewing-machine, so that we can pay back your contribution in full.”

He paused; no one of us spoke a word.

“Mr. Nash,” he continued, and his face was good to see, “I am the minister here. I am convinced that what the community needs is more of a religious and social spirit, and I am going about getting it in the way the Lord leads me.”

At this I saw Mrs. Minister look up at her husband with such a light in her eyes as any man might well barter his life for—I could not keep my own eyes from pure beauty of it.

I knew too what this defiance meant. It meant that this little family was placing its all upon the altar—even the pitiful coins for which they had skimped and saved for months for a particular purpose. Talk of the heroism of the men who charged with Pickett at Gettysburg! Here was a courage higher and whiter than that; here was a courage that dared to fight alone.

As for Mr. Nash, the face of that Chief Pharisee was a study. Nothing is so paralyzing to a rich man as to find suddenly that his money will no longer command him any advantage. Like all hard-shelled, practical people, Mr. Nash could only dominate in a world which recognized the same material supremacy that he recognized. Any one who insisted upon flying was lost to Mr. Nash.

The minister pushed the little pile of coins toward him.

“Take it, Mr. Nash,” said he.

At that Mr. Nash rose hastily.

“I will not,” he said gruffly.

He paused, and looked at the minister with a strange expression in his small round eyes— was it anger, or was it fear, or could it have been admiration?

“If you want to waste your time on fiddlin’ farmers’ meetings—a man that knows as little of farmin’ as you do—why go ahead for all o’ me. But don’t count me in.”

He turned, reached for his hat, and then went out of the door into the darkness.

For a moment we all sat perfectly silent, then the minister rose, and said solemnly:

“Martha, let’s sing something.”

Martha crossed the room to the cottage organ and seated herself on the stool.

“What shall we sing?” said she.

“Something with fight in it, Martha,” he responded; “something with plenty of fight in it.”

So we sang “Onward, Christian Soldier, Marching as to War,” and followed up with:

Awake, my soul, stretch every nerve

And press with rigour on;

A heavenly race demands thy zeal

And an immortal crown.

When we had finished, and as Martha rose from her seat, the minister impulsively put his hands on her shoulders, and said:

“Martha, this is the greatest night of my life.”

He took a turn up and down the room, and then with an exultant boyish laugh said:

“We’ll go to town to-morrow and pick out that sewing-machine!”

I remained with them that night and part of the following day, taking a hand with them in the garden, but of the events of that day I shall speak in another chapter.


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