A Day Of Grace by Hamlin Garland

Story type: Literature

Sunday is the day for courtship on the prairie. It has also the piety of cleanliness. It allows the young man to get back to a self-respecting sweetness of person, and enables the girls to look as nature intended, dainty and sweet as posies.

The change from everyday clothing on the part of young workmen like Ben Griswold was more than change; it approached transformation. It took more than courage to go through the change,–it required love.

Ben arose a little later on Sunday morning than on weekdays, but there were the chores to do as usual. The horses must be watered, fed, and curried, and the cows were to milk, but after breakfast Ben threw off the cares of the hired hand. When he came down from the little garret into which the hot August sun streamed redly, he was a changed creature. Clean from tip to toe, newly shaven, wearing a crackling white shirt, a linen collar and a new suit of store clothes, he felt himself a man again, fit to meet maidens.

His partner, being a married man, was slouching around in his tattered and greasy brown denim overalls. He looked at Ben and grinned.

“Got a tag on y’rself?”

“No, why?”

“Nobod’y know ye, if anything happened on the road. There’s thirty dollars gone to the dogs.” He sighed. “Oh, well, you’ll get over that, just as I did.”

“I hope I won’t get over liking to be clean,” Ben said a little sourly. “I won’t be back to milk.”

“Didn’t expect ye. That’s the very time o’ day the girls are purtiest,–just about sundown. Better take Rock. I may want the old team myself.”

Ben hitched up and drove off in the warm bright morning, with wonderful elation, clean and self-respecting once more. His freshly shaven face felt cool, and his new suit fitted him well. His heart took on a great resolution, which was to call upon Grace.

The thought of her made his brown hands shake, and he remembered how many times he had sworn to visit her, but had failed of courage, though it seemed she had invited him by word and look to do so.

He overtook Milton Jennings on his way along the poplar-lined lane.

“Hello, Milt, where you bound?”

Milton glanced up with a curious look in his laughing eyes. From the pockets of his long linen duster he drew a handful of beautiful scarlet and yellow Siberian crab-apples.

“See them crabs?”

“Yes, I see ’em.”

Milton drew a similar handful out of his left pocket. “See those?”

“What y’ going to do with ’em?”

“Take ’em home again.”

Something in Milton’s voice led him to ask soberly:–

“What did you intend doing with ’em?”

“Present ’em to Miss Cole.”

“Well, why didn’t y’ do it?”

Milton showed his white teeth in a smile that was frankly derisive of himself.

“Well, when I got over there I found young Conley’s sorrel hitched to one post and Walt Brown’s gray hitched to the other. I went in, but I didn’t stay long; in fact, I didn’t sit down. I was afraid those infernal apples would roll out o’ my pockets. I was afraid they’d find out I brought ’em over there for Miss Cole, like the darn fool I was.”

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They both laughed heartily. Milton was always as severe upon himself as upon any one else.

“That’s tough,” said Ben, “but climb in, and let’s go to Sunday-school.”

Milton got in, and they ate the apples as they rode along.

The Grove schoolhouse was the largest in the township, and was the only one with a touch of redeeming grace. It was in a lovely spot; great oaks stood all about, and back of it the woods grew thick, and a clear creek gurgled over its limestone bed not far away.

To Ben and Milton there was a wondrous charm about the Grove schoolhouse. It was the one place where the boys and girls met in garments disassociated from toil. Sundays in summer, and on winter nights at lyceums or protracted meetings, the boys came to see the girls in their bright dresses, with their clear and (so it seemed) scornful bright eyes.

All through the service Ben sat where he could see Grace by turning his head, but he had not the courage to do so. Once or twice he caught a glimpse of the curve of her cheek and the delicate lines of her ear, and a suffocating throb came into his throat.

He wanted to ask her to go with him down to Cedarville to the Methodist camp-meeting, but he knew it was impossible. He could not even say “good day” when she took pains to pass near him after church. He nodded like a great idiot, all ease and dignity lost, his throat too dry and hot to utter a sound.

He cursed his shyness as he went out after his horse. He saw her picking her dainty way up the road with Conrad Sieger walking by her side. What made it worse for Ben was a dim feeling that she liked him, and would go with him if he had the courage to ask her.

“Well, Ben,” said Milton, “it’s settled, we go to Rock River to-night to the camp-meeting. Did you ask Grace?”

“No, she’s going with Con. It’s just my blasted luck.”

“That’s too bad. Well, come with us. Take Maud.”

As he rode away Ben passed Grace on the road.

“Going to the camp-meeting, Con?” asked Milton, in merry voice.

“I guess so,” said Conrad, a handsome, but slow-witted German.

As they went on Ben could have wept. His keener perception told him there was a look of appeal in Grace’s upturned eyes.

He made a poor companion at dinner, and poor plain Maud knew his mind was elsewhere. She was used to that and accepted it with a pathetic attempt to color it differently.

They got away about five o’clock.

Ben drove the team, driving took his mind off his weakness and failure; while Milton in the seclusion of the back seat of the carryall was happy with Amelia Turner.

It was growing dark as they entered upon the curving road along the river which was a relief from the rectangular and sun-smitten roads of the prairie. They lingered under the great oaks and elms which shaded them. It would have been perfect Ben thought, if Grace had been beside him in Maud’s place.

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He wondered how he should manage to speak to Grace. There was a time when it seemed easier. Now the consciousness of his love made the simplest question seem like the great question of all.

Other teams were on the road, some returning, some going. A camp-meeting had come to be an annual amusement, like a circus, and young people from all over the country drove down on Sundays, as if to some celebration with fireworks.

“There’s the lane,” said Milton. “See that team goin’ in?”

Ben pulled up and they looked at it doubtfully. It looked dangerously miry. It was quite dark now and Ben said:–

“That’s a scaly piece of road.”

“Oh, that’s all right. Hark!”

As they listened they could hear the voice of the exhorter nearly a mile away. It pushed across the cool spaces with a wild and savage sound. The young people thrilled with excitement.

Insects were singing in the grass. Frogs with deepening chorus seemed to announce the coming of night, and above these peaceful sounds came the wild shouts of the far-off preacher, echoing through the cool green arches of the splendid grove.

The girls became silent, as the voice grew louder.

Lights appeared ahead, and the road led up a slight hill to a gate. Ben drove on under a grove of oaks, past dimly lighted tents, whose open flaps showed tumbled beds and tables laden with crockery. Heavy women were moving about inside, their shadows showing against the tent walls like figures in a pantomime.

The young people alighted in curious silence. As they stood a moment, tying the team, the preacher lifted his voice in a brazen, clanging, monotonous reiteration of worn phrases.

“Come to the Lord! Come now! Come to the light! Jesus will give it! Now is the appointed time,–come to the light!”

From a tent near by arose the groaning, gasping, gurgling scream of a woman in mortal agony.

“O my God!”

It was charged with the most piercing distress. It cut to the heart’s palpitating centre like a poniard thrust. It had murder and outrage in it.

The girls clutched Ben and Milton. “Oh, let’s go home!”

“No, let’s go and see what it all is.”

The girls hung close to the arms of the young men and they went down to the tent and looked in.

It was filled with a motley throng of people, most of them seated on circling benches. A fringe of careless or scoffing onlookers stood back against the tent wall. Many of them were strangers to Ben.

Occasionally a Norwegian farm-hand, or a bevy of young people from some near district, lifted the flap and entered with curious or laughing or insolent faces.

The tent was lighted dimly by kerosene lamps, hung in brackets against the poles, and by stable lanterns set here and there upon the benches.

Ben and Milton ushered the girls in and seated them a little way back. The girls smiled, but only faintly. The undertone of women’s cries moved them in spite of their scorn of it all.

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“What cursed foolishness!” said Ben to Milton.

Milton smiled, but did not reply. He only nodded toward the exhorter, a man with a puffy jumble of features and the form of a gladiator, who was uttering wild and explosive phrases.

“Oh, my friends! I bless the Lord for the SHALL in the word. You SHALL get light. You SHALL be saved. Oh, the SHALL in the word! You SHALL be redeemed!”

As he grew more excited, his hoarse voice rose in furious screams, as if he were defying hell’s legions. Foam lay on his lips and flew from his mouth. At every repetition of the word “shall” he struck the desk a resounding blow with his great palm.

“He’s a hard hitter,” said Milton.

At length he leaped, apparently in uncontrollable excitement, upon the mourners’ bench, and ran up and down close to the listening, moaning audience. He walked with a furious rhythmic, stamping action, like a Sioux in the war dance. Wild cries burst from his audience, antiphonal with his own.

“He ‘SHALL’ send light!”

Send Thy arrows, O Lord.”

“O God, come!”

“He ‘SHALL’ keep His word!”

One old negro woman, fat, powerful, and gloomy, suddenly arose and uttered a scream that had the dignity and savagery of a mountain lion’s cry. It rang far out into the night.

The exhorter continued his mad, furious, thumping, barbaric walk.

Behind him a row of other exhorters sat, a relay ready to leap to his aid. They urged on the tumult with wild cries.

“A-men, brother.”

“YES, brother, YES!” clapping their hands in rhythm.

The exhorter redoubled his fury. He was like a jaded actor rising at applause, carried out of his self-command.

Out of the obscure tumult of faces and tossing hands there came at last certain recognizable features. The people were mainly farming folks of the more ignorant sort, rude in dress and bearing, hard and bent with toil. They were recognizably of a class subject to these low forms of religious excitement which were once well-nigh universal.

The outer fringe continued to smile scornfully and to jest, yet they were awed, in a way, by this suddenly revealed deep of barbaric emotion.

The girls were appalled by the increasing clangor. Milton was amused, but Ben grew bitter. Something strong came out in him, too. His lip curled in disgust.

Suddenly, out of the level space of bowed shoulders, tossing hands, and frenzied, upturned faces, a young girl leaped erect. She was strong and handsome, powerful in the waist and shoulders. Her hair was braided like a child’s, and fell down her back in a single strand. Her head was girlish, but her face looked old and drawn and tortured.

She moaned pitifully; she clapped her hands with wild gestures, ending in a quivering motion. The action grew to lightning-like quickness. Her head seemed to set in its socket. Her whole body stiffened. Gasping moans came from her clenched teeth as she fell to the ground and rolled under the seats, wallowing in the muddy straw and beating her feet upon the ground like a dying partridge.

The people crowded about her, but the preacher, roared above the tumult:–

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“Si’ down! Never mind that party. She’s all right; she’s in the hands of the Lord!”

The people settled into their seats, and the wild tumult went on again. Ben rose to go over where the girl was and the others followed.

A young man seated by the struggling sinner held her hand and fanned her with his hat, while some girl friends, scared and sobbing, kept the tossing limbs covered. She rolled from side to side restlessly, thrusting forth her tongue as if her throat were dry. She looked like a dying animal.

Maud clung to Milton.

“Oh, can’t something be done?”

“Her soul is burdened for you!” cried a wild old woman to the impassive youth who clung to the frenzied girl’s hand.

A moment later, as the demoniacal chorus of yells, songs, incantations, shrieks, groans, and prayers swelled high, a farmer’s wife on the left uttered a hoarse cry and stiffened and fell backward upon the ground. She rolled her head from side to side. Her eyes turned in; her lips wore a maniac’s laugh, and her troubled brow made her look like the death mask of a tortured murderer, the hell horror frozen on it.

She sank at last into a hideous calm, with her strained and stiffened hands pointing weirdly up. She was like marble. She did not move a hair’s breadth during the next two hours.

Over to the left a young man leaped to his feet with a scream:–

“Jesus, Jesus, JESUS!”

The great negress caught him in her arms as he fell, and laid him down, then leaped up and down, shrieking:–

“O Jesus, come. Come, God’s Lamb!”

Around her a dozen women took up her cry. Most of them had no voices. Their horrifying screams had become hoarse hisses, yet still they strove. Scores of voices were mixed in the pandemonium of prayer.

All order was lost. Three of the preachers now stood shouting before the mourners’ bench, two were in the aisles.

One came down the aisle toward the girl with the braided hair. As he came he prayed. Foam was on his lips, but his eyes were cool and calculating; they betrayed him.

As he came he fixed his gaze upon a woman seated near the prostrate girl, and with a horrible outcry the victim leaped into the air and stiffened as if smitten with epilepsy. She fell against some scared boys, who let her fall, striking her head against the seats. She too rolled down upon the straw and lay beside her sister. Both had round, pretty, but childish faces.

Milton’s party retreated. They smiled no more; they were horror-stricken.

Squads of “workers” now moved down the aisles; in one they surrounded two people, a tall, fair girl and a young man.

“Why, it’s Grace!” exclaimed Maud.

Ben turned quickly, “Where?”

They pointed her out.

“She can’t get away. See! Oh, boys, don’t let them–“

Ben pushed his way toward her, his face set in a fierce frown, bitter, desperate.

Grace stood silently beside one of the elders; a woman exhorter stood before her. Conrad, overawed, had fallen into a trembling stupor; Grace was defenseless.

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The elder’s hand hovered over her head, on her face a deadly pallor had settled, her eyes were cast down, she breathed painfully and trembled from head to foot. She was about to fall, when Ben set his eyes upon her.

“Get out o’ my way,” he shouted, shouldering up the aisle. His words had oaths, his fists were like mauls.

“Grace!” he cried, and she heard. She looked up and saw him coming; the red flamed over her face.

The power of the preacher was gone.

“Let me go,” she cried, trying to wring herself loose.

“You are going to hell. You are lost if you do not–“

“God damn ye. Get out o’ way. I’ll kill ye if you lay a hand on her.”

With one thrust Ben cleared her tormentor from her arm. For one moment the wordless young man looked into her eyes; then she staggered toward him. He faced the preacher.

“I’d smash hell out o’ you for a leather cent,” he said. In the tumult his words were lost, but the look on his face was enough. The exhorter fell away.

Their retreat was unnoted in the tumult. At the door they looked back for an instant at the scene.

At the mourners’ bench were six victims in all stages of induced catalepsy, one man with head flung back, one with his hands pointing, fixed in furious appeal. Another with bowed head was being worked upon by a brother of hypnotic appeal. He struck with downward, positive gestures on either side of the victim’s head.

Over another the negress towered, screaming with panther-like ferocity:–

“Git under de blood! Git under de blood!”

As she screamed she struck down at the mourner with her clenched fist. On her face was the grin of a wildcat.

Out under the cool, lofty oaks, the outcry was more inexpressibly hellish, because overhead the wind rustled the sweet green leaves, crickets were chirping, and the scent of flowering fields of buckwheat was in the air.

Grace grew calmer, but she clung with strange weakness to her lover. She felt he had saved her from something, she did not know what, but it was something terrifying to look back upon.

Conrad was forgotten–set aside. Ben bundled him into the carryall and took his place with Grace. He no longer hesitated, argued, or apologized. He had claimed his own.

On the long ride home, Grace lay within his right arm, and the young man’s tongue was unchained. He talked, and his spirit grew tender and manly and husbandlike, as he told his plans and his hopes. Hell was very far away, and Heaven was very near.

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