Story type: Literature
The lonely center of their social life,
The low, square school-house, stands
Upon the wind-swept plain,
Hacked by thoughtless boyish hands,
And gray, and worn, and warped with strife
Of sleet and autumn rain.
ELDER PILL, PREACHER.
Old man Bacon was pinching forked barbs on a wire fence one rainy day in July, when his neighbor Jennings came along the road on his way to town. Jennings never went to town except when it rained too hard to work outdoors, his neighbors said; and of old man Bacon it was said he never rested nights nor Sundays.
Jennings pulled up. “Good morning, neighbor Bacon.”
“Mornin’,” rumbled the old man without looking up.
“Taking it easy, as usual, I see. Think it’s going to clear up?”
“May, an’ may not. Don’t make much differunce t’ me,” growled Bacon, discouragingly.
“Heard about the plan for a church?”
“Well, we’re goin’ to hire Elder Pill from Douglass to come over and preach every Sunday afternoon at the school-house, an’ we want help t’ pay him–the laborer is worthy of his hire.”
“Sometimes he is an’ then agin he ain’t. Y’ needn’t look t’ me f’r a dollar. I ain’t got no intrust in y’r church.”
“Oh, yes, you have–besides, y’r wife “—-
“She ain’t got no more time ‘n I have t’ go t’ church. We’re obleeged to do ’bout all we c’n stand t’ pay our debts, let alone tryun’ to support a preacher.” And the old man shut the pinchers up on a barb with a vicious grip.
Easy-going Mr. Jennings laughed in his silent way. “I guess you’ll help when the time comes,” he said, and, clucking to his team, drove off.
“I guess I won’t,” muttered the grizzled old giant as he went on with his work. Bacon was what is called land-poor in the West, that is, he had more land than money; still he was able to give if he felt disposed. It remains to say that he was not disposed, being a sceptic and a scoffer. It angered him to have Jennings predict so confidently that he would help.
The sun was striking redly through a rift in the clouds, about three o’clock in the afternoon, when he saw a man coming up the lane, walking on the grass at the side of the road, and whistling merrily. The old man looked at him from under his huge eyebrows with some curiosity. As he drew near, the pedestrian ceased to whistle, and, just as the farmer expected him to pass, he stopped and said, in a free and easy style:
“How de do? Give me a chaw t’baccer. I’m Pill, the new minister. I take fine-cut when I can get it,” he said, as Bacon put his hand into his pocket. “Much obliged. How goes it?”
“Tollable, tollable,” said the astounded farmer, looking hard at Pill as he flung a handful of tobacco into his mouth.
“Yes, I’m the new minister sent around here to keep you fellows in the traces and out of hell-fire. Have y’ fled from the wrath?” he asked, in a perfunctory way.
“You are, eh?” said Bacon, referring back to his profession.
“I am just! How do you like that style of barb fence? Ain’t the twisted wire better?”
“I s’pose they be, but they cost more.”
“Yes, costs more to go to heaven than to hell. You’ll think so after I board with you a week. Narrow the road that leads to light, and broad the way that leads–how’s your soul anyway, brother?”
“Soul’s all right. I find more trouble to keep m’ body go’n’.”
“Give us your hand; so do I. All the same we must prepare for the next world. We’re gettin’ old; lay not up your treasures where moth and rust corrupt and thieves break through and steal.”
Bacon was thoroughly interested in the preacher, and was studying him carefully. He was tall, straight, and superbly proportioned; broad-shouldered, wide-lunged, and thewed like a Greek racer. His rather small steel-blue eyes twinkled, and his shrewd face and small head, set well back, completed a remarkable figure. He wore his reddish beard in the usual way of Western clergymen, with mustache chopped close.
Bacon spoke slowly:
“You look like a good, husky man to pitch in the barnyard; you’ve too much muscle f’r preachun’.”
“Come and hear me next Sunday, and if you say so then, I’ll quit,” replied Mr. Pill, quietly. “I give ye my word for it. I believe in preachers havin’ a little of the flesh and the devil; they can sympathize better with the rest of ye.” The sarcasm was lost on Bacon, who continued to look at him. Suddenly he said, as if with an involuntary determination:
“Where ye go’n’ to stay t’night?”
“I don’ know; do you?” was the quick reply.
“I reckon ye can hang out with me, ‘f ye feel like ut. We ain’t very purty, ol’ woman an’ me, but we eat. You go along down the road and tell ‘er I sent yeh. Y’ll find an’ ol’ dusty Bible round some’rs–I s’pose ye spend y’r spare time read’n about Joshua an’ Dan’l”—-
“I spend more time reading men. Well, I’m off! I’m hungrier ‘n a gray wolf in a bear-trap.”
And off he went as he came. But he did not whistle; he chewed.
Bacon felt as if he had made too much of a concession, and had a strong inclination to shout after him, and retract his invitation; but he did not, only worked on, with an occasional bear-like grin. There was something captivating in this fellow’s free and easy way.
When he came up to the house an hour or two later, in singular good humor for him, he found the Elder in the creamery, with “the old woman” and Marietta. Marietta was not more won by him than was Jane Bacon, he was so genial and put on so few religious frills.
Mrs. Bacon never put on frills of any kind. She was a most frightful toiler, only excelled (if excelled at all) by her husband. She was still muscular in her age and shapelessness. Unlovely at her best, when about her work in her faded calico gown and flat shoes, hair wisped into a slovenly knot, she was depressing. But she was a good woman, of sterling integrity, and ambitious for her girl.
Marietta was as attractive as her mother was depressing. She was very young at this time and had the physical perfection–at least as regards body–that her parents must have had in youth. She was above the average height of woman, with strong swell of bosom and glorious, erect carriage of head. Her features were coarse, but regular and pleasing, and her manner boyish.
Elder Pill was on the best of terms with them as he watched the milk being skimmed out of the “submerged cans” ready for the “caaves and hawgs,” as Mrs. Bacon called them.
“Dad told you t’ come here ‘nd stay t’ supper, did he? What’s come over him?” said the girl, with a sort of audacious humor.
“Dad has an awful grutch agin preachers,” said Mrs. Bacon, as she wiped her hands on her apron. “I declare, I don’t see how “—-
“Some preachers, not all preachers,” laughed Pill, in his mellow nasal. “There are preachers, and then again preachers. I’m one o’ the t’other kind.”
“I sh’d think y’ was,” laughed the girl.
“Now, Merry Etty, you run right t’ the pig-pen with that milk, whilst I go in an’ set the tea on.”
Mr. Pill seized the can of milk, saying, with a twang: “Show me the way that I may walk therein,” and, accompanied by the laughing girl, made rapid way to the pig-pen just as the old man set up a ferocious shout to call the hired hand out of the cornfield.
“How’d y’ come to send him here?” asked Mrs. Bacon, nodding toward Pill.
“Damfino! I kind o’ liked him–no nonsense about him,” answered Bacon, going into temporary eclipse behind his hands as he washed his face at the cistern.
At the supper table Pill was “easy as an old shoe,” ate with his knife, talked on fatting hogs, suggested a few points on raising clover, told of pioneer experiences in Michigan, and soon won them–hired man and all–to a most favorable opinion of himself. But he did not trench on religious matters at all.
The hired man in his shirt-sleeves, and smelling frightfully of tobacco and sweat (as did Bacon), sat with open month, at times forgetting to eat, in his absorbing interest in the minister’s yarns.
“Yes, I’ve got a family, too much of a family, in fact–that is, I think so sometimes when I’m pinched. Our Western people are so indigent–in plain terms, poor–they can’t do any better than they do. But we pull through–we pull through! John, you look like a stout fellow, but I’ll bet a hat I can down you three out of five.”
“I bet you can’t,” grinned the hired man. It was the climax of all, that bet.
“I’ll take y’ in hand an’ flop y’ both,” roared Bacon from his lion-like throat, his eyes glistening with rare good-nature from the shadow of his gray brows. But he admired the minister’s broad shoulders at the same time. If this fellow panned out as he promised, he was a rare specimen.
After supper the Elder played a masterly game of croquet with Marietta, beating her with ease; then he wandered out to the barn and talked horses with the hired man, and finished by stripping off his coat and putting on one of Mrs. Bacon’s aprons to help milk the cows.
* * * * *
But at breakfast the next morning, when the family were about pitching into their food as usual without ceremony, “Wait!” said the visitor, in an imperious tone and with lifted hand. “Let us look to the Lord for His blessing.”
They waited till the grace was said, but it threw a depressing atmosphere over the meal; evidently they considered the trouble begun. At the end of the meal the minister asked:
“Have you a Bible in the house?”
“I reckon there’s one in the house somewhere. Merry, go ‘n see ‘f y’ can’t raise one,” said Mrs. Bacon, indifferently.
“Have you any objection to family devotion?” asked Pill, as the book was placed in his hands by the girl.
“No; have all you want,” said Bacon, as he rose from the table and passed out the door.
“I guess I’ll see the thing through,” said the hand. “It ain’t just square to leave the women folks to bear the brunt of it.”
It was shortly after breakfast that the Elder concluded he’d walk up to Brother Jennings’ and see about church matters.
“I shall expect you, Brother Bacon, to be at the service at 2:30.”
“All right, go ahead expectun’,” responded Bacon, with an inscrutable sidewise glance.
“You promised, you remember?”
“The–devil–I did!” the old man snarled.
The Elder looked back with a smile, and went off whistling in the warm, bright morning.
The school-house down on the creek was known as “Hell’s Corners” all through the county, because of the frequent rows that took place therein at “corkuses” and the like, and also because of the number of teachers that had been “ousted” by the boys. In fact, it was one of those places still to be found occasionally in the West, far from railroads and schools, where the primitive ignorance and ferocity of men still prowl, like the panthers which are also found sometimes in the deeps of the Iowa timber lands.
The most of this ignorance and ferocity, however, was centered in the family of Dixons, a dark-skinned, unsavory group of Missourians. It consisted of old man Dixon and wife, and six sons, all man-grown, great, gaunt, sinewy fellows, with no education, but superstitious as savages. If anything went wrong in ‘Hell’s Corners’ everybody knew that the Dixons were “on the rampage again.” The school-teachers were warned against the Dixons, and the preachers were besought to convert the Dixons.
In fact, John Jennings, as he drove Pill to the school-house next day, said:
“If you can convert the Dixon boys, Elder, I’ll give you the best horse in my barn.”
“I work not for such hire,” said Mr. Pill, with a look of deep solemnity on his face, belied, indeed, by a twinkle in his small, keen eye–a twinkle which made Milton Jennings laugh candidly.
There was considerable curiosity, expressed by a murmur of lips and voices, as the minister’s tall figure entered the door and stood for a moment in a study of the scene before him. It was a characteristically Western scene. The women were rigidly on one side of the school-room, the men as rigidly on the other; the front seats were occupied by squirming boys and girls in their Sunday splendor.
On the back, to the right, were the young men, in their best vests, with paper collars and butterfly neckties, with their coats unbuttoned, their hair plastered down in a fascinating wave on their brown foreheads. Not a few were in their shirt-sleeves. The older men sat immediately between the youths and boys, talking in hoarse whispers across the aisles about the state of the crops and the county ticket, while the women in much the same way conversed about children and raising onions and strawberries. It was their main recreation, this Sunday meeting.
“Brethren!” rang out the imperious voice of the minister, “let us pray.”
The audience thoroughly enjoyed the Elder’s prayer. He was certainly gifted in that direction, and his petition grew genuinely eloquent as his desires embraced the “ends of the earth and the utterm’st parts of the seas thereof.” But in the midst of it a clatter was heard, and five or six strapping fellows filed in with loud thumpings of their brogans.
Shortly after they had settled themselves with elaborate impudence on the back seat, the singing began. Just as they were singing the last verse, every individual voice wavered and all but died out in astonishment to see William Bacon come in–an unheard-of thing! And with a clean shirt, too! Bacon, to tell the truth, was feeling as much out of place as a cat in a bath-tub, and looked uncomfortable, even shamefaced, as he sidled in, his shapeless hat gripped nervously in both hands; coatless and collarless, his shirt open at his massive throat. The girls tittered, of course, and the boys hammered each other’s ribs, moved by the unusual sight. Milton Jennings, sitting beside Marietta, said:
“Well! may I jump straight up and never come down!”
And Shep Watson said: “May I never see the back o’ my neck!” Which pleased Marietta so much that she grew purple with efforts to conceal her laughter; she always enjoyed a joke on her father.
But all things have an end, and at last the room became quiet as Mr. Pill began to read the Scripture, wondering a little at the commotion. He suspected that those dark-skinned, grinning fellows on the back seat were the Dixon boys, and knew they were bent on fun. The physique of the minister being carefully studied, the boys began whispering among themselves, and at last, just as the sermon opened, they began to push the line of young men on the long seat over toward the girls’ side, squeezing Milton against Marietta. This pleasantry encouraged one of them to whack his neighbor over the head with his soft hat, causing great laughter and disturbance. The preacher stopped. His cool, penetrating voice sounded strangely unclerical as he said:
“There are some fellows here to-day to have fun with me. If they don’t keep quiet, they’ll have more fun than they can hold.” At this point a green crab-apple bounded up the aisle. “I’m not to be bulldozed.”
He pulled off his coat and laid it on the table before him, and, amid a wondering silence, took off his cuffs and collar, saying:
“I can preach the word of the Lord just as well without my coat, and I can throw rowdies out the door a little better in my shirt-sleeves.”
Had the Dixon boys been a little shrewder as readers of human character, or if they had known why old William Bacon was there, they would have kept quiet; but it was not long before they began to push again, and at last one of them gave a squeak, and a tussle took place. The preacher was in the midst of a sentence:
“An evil deed, brethren, is like unto a grain of mustard seed. It is small, but it grows steadily, absorbing its like from the earth and air, sending out roots and branches, till at last”—-
There was a scuffle and a snicker. Mr. Pill paused, and gazed intently at Tom Dixon, who was the most impudent and strongest of the gang; then he moved slowly down on the astonished young savage. As he came his eyes seemed to expand like those of an eagle in battle, steady, remorseless, unwavering, at the same time that his brows shut down over them–a glance that hushed every breath. The awed and astounded ruffians sat as if paralyzed by the unuttered yet terribly ferocious determination of the preacher’s eyes. His right hand was raised, the other was clenched at his waist. There was a sort of solemnity in his approach, like a tiger creeping upon a foe.
At last, after what seemed minutes to the silent, motionless congregation, his raised hand came down on the shoulder of the leader with the exact, resistless precision of the tiger’s paw, and the ruffian was snatched from his seat to the floor sprawling. Before he could rise, the steel-like grip of the roused preacher sent him half way to the door, and then out into the dirt of the road.
Turning, Pill came back down the aisle; as he came the half-risen congregation made way for him, curiously. When he came within reach of Dick, the fellow struck savagely out at the preacher, only to have his blow avoided by a lithe, lightning-swift movement of the body above the hips (a trained boxer’s trick), and to find himself also lying bruised and dazed on the floor.
By this time the rest of the brothers had recovered from their stupor, and, with wild curses, leaped over the benches toward the fearless Pill.
But now a new voice was heard in the sudden uproar–a new but familiar voice. It was the raucous snarl of William Bacon, known far and wide as a terrible antagonist, a man who had never been whipped. He was like a wild beast excited to primitive savagery by the smell of blood.
“Stand back, you hell-hounds!” he said, leaping between them and the preacher. “You know me. Lay another hand on that man an’, by the livun’ God, you answer t’ me. Back thear!”
Some of the men cheered, most stood irresolute. The women crowded together, the children began to scream with terror, while through it all Pill was dragging his last assailant toward the door.
Bacon made his way down to where the Dixons had halted, undecided what to do. If the preacher had the air and action of the tiger, Bacon looked the grizzly bear–his eyebrows working up and down, his hands clenched into frightful bludgeons, his breath rushing through his hairy nostrils.
“Git out o’ hyare,” he growled. “You’ve run things here jest about long enough. Git out!”
His hands were now on the necks of two of the boys, and he was hustling them toward the door.
“If you want ‘o whip the preacher, meet him in the public road–one at a time; he’ll take care o’ himself. Out with ye,” he ended, kicking them out. “Show your faces here agin, an’ I’ll break ye in two.”
The non-combative farmers now began to see the humor of the whole transaction and began to laugh; but they were cut short by the calm voice of the preacher at his desk:
“But a good deed, brethren, is like unto a grain of wheat planted in good earth, that bringeth forth fruit in due season an hundred fold.”
Mr. Pill, with all his seeming levity, was a powerful hand at revivals, as was developed at the “protracted” meetings held at the Corners during December. Indeed, such was the pitiless intensity of his zeal that a gloom was cast over the whole township; the ordinary festivities stopped or did not begin at all.
The lyceum, which usually began by the first week in December, was put entirely out of the question, as were the spelling-schools and “exhibitions.” The boys, it is true, still drove the girls to meeting in the usual manner; but they all wore a furtive, uneasy air, and their laughter was not quite genuine at its best, and died away altogether when they came near the school-house, and they hardly recovered from the effects of the preaching till a mile or two had been spun behind the shining runners. It took all the magic of the jingle of the bells and the musical creak of the polished steel on the snow to win them back to laughter.
As for Elder Pill, he was as a man transformed. He grew more intense each night, and strode back forth behind his desk and pounded the Bible like an assassin. No more games with the boys, no more poking the girls under the chin! When he asked for a chew of tobacco now it was with an air which said: “I ask it as sustenance that will give me strength for the Lord’s service,” as if the demands of the flesh had weakened the spirit.
Old man Bacon overtook Milton Jennings early one Monday morning, as Milton was marching down toward the Seminary at Rock River. It was intensely cold and still, so cold and still that the ring of the cold steel of the heavy sleigh, the snort of the horses, and the old man’s voice came with astonishing distinctness to the ears of the hurrying youth, and it seemed a very long time before the old man came up.
“Climb on!” he yelled, out of his frosty beard. He was seated on the “hind bob” of a wood-sleigh, on a couple of blankets. Milton clambered on, knowing well he’d freeze to death there.
“Reckon I heerd you prowlun’ around the front door with my girl last night,” Bacon said at length. “The way you both ‘tend out t’ meetun’ ought ‘o sanctify yeh; must ‘a’ stayed to the after-meetun’, didn’t yeh?”
“Nope. The front part was enough for”—-
“Danged if I was any more fooled with a man in m’ life. I b’lieve the whole thing is a little scheme on the bretheren t’ raise a dollar.”
“Waal, y’ see Pill ain’t got much out o’ the app’intment thus fur, and he ain’t likely to, if he don’t shake ’em up a leetle. Borrud ten dollars o’ me t’other day.”
Well, thought Milton, whatever his real motive is, Elder Pill is earning all he gets. Standing for two or three hours in his place night after night, arguing, pleading, but mainly commanding them to be saved.
Milton was describing the scenes of the meeting to Bradley Talcott and Douglas Radbourn the next day, and Radbourn, a young law student said:
“I’d like to see him. He must be a character.”
“Let’s make up a party and go out,” said Milton, eagerly.
“All right; I’ll speak to Lily Graham.”
Accordingly, that evening a party of students, in a large sleigh, drove out toward the school-house, along the drifted lanes and through the beautiful aisles of the snowy woods. A merry party of young people, who had no sense of sin to weigh them down. Even Radbourn and Lily joined in the songs which they sang to the swift clanging of the bells, until the lights of the school-house burned redly through the frosty air.
Not a few of the older people present felt scandalized by the singing and by the dancing of the “town girls,” who could not for the life of them take the thing seriously. The room was so little, and hot, and smoky, and the men looked so queer in their rough coats and hair every-which-way.
But they took their seats demurely on the back seat, and joined in the opening songs, and listened to the halting prayers of the brethren and the sonorous prayers of the Elder, with commendable gravity. Miss Graham was a devout Congregationalist, and hushed the others into gravity when their eyes began to dance dangerously.
However, as Mr. Pill warmed to his work, the girls grew sober enough. He awed them, and frightened them with the savagery of his voice and manner. His small gray eyes were like daggers unsheathed, and his small, round head took on a cat-like ferocity, as he strode to and fro, hurling out his warnings and commands in a hoarse howl that terrified the sinner, and drew ‘amens’ of admiration from the saints.
“Atavism; he has gone back to the era of the medicine man,” Radbourn murmured.
As the speaker went on, foam came upon his thin lips; his lifted hand had prophecy and threatening in it. His eyes reflected flames; his voice had now the tone of the implacable, vindictive judge. He gloated on the pictures that his words called up. By the power of his imagination the walls widened, the floor was no longer felt, the crowded room grew still as death, every eye fixed on the speaker’s face.
“I tell you, you must repent or die. I can see the great judgment angel now!” he said, stopping suddenly and pointing above the stove-pipe. “I can see him as he stands weighing your souls as a man ‘ud weigh wheat and chaff. Wheat goes into the Father’s garner; chaff is blown to hell’s devouring flame! I can see him now! He seizes a poor, damned, struggling soul by the neck, he holds him over the flaming forge of hell till his bones melt like wax; he shrivels like thread in a flame of a candle; he is nothing but a charred husk, and the angel flings him back into outer darkness; life was not in him.”
It was this astonishing figure, powerfully acted, that scared poor Tom Dixon into crying out for mercy. The effect on the rest was awful. To see so great a sinner fall terror-stricken seemed like a providential stroke of confirmatory evidence, and nearly a dozen other young people fell crying. Whereat the old people burst out into amens with unspeakable fervor. But the preacher, the wild light still in his eyes, tore up and down, crying above the tumult:
“The Lord is come with power! His hand is visible here. Shout aloud and spare not. Fall before him as dust to his feet! Hypocrites, vipers, scoffers! the lash o’ the Lord is on ye!”
In the intense pause which followed as he waited with expectant, uplifted face–a pause so deep even the sobbing sinners held their breath–a dry, drawling, utterly matter-of-fact voice broke the tense hush.
“S-a-y, Pill, ain’t you a bearun’ down on the boys a leetle too hard?”
The preacher’s extended arm fell as if life had gone out of it. His face flushed and paled; the people laughed hysterically, some of them the tears of terror still on their cheeks; but Radbourn said, “Bravo, Bacon!”
Pill recovered himself.
“Not hard enough for you, neighbor Bacon.”
Bacon rose, retaining the same dry, prosaic tone:
“I ain’t bitin’ that kind of a hook, an’ I ain’t goin’ to be yanked into heaven when I c’n slide into hell. Waal! I must be goin’; I’ve got a new-milk’s cow that needs tendin’ to.”
The effect of all this was indescribable. From being at the very mouth of the furnace, quivering with fear and captive to morbid imaginings, Bacon’s dry intonation had brought them all back to earth again. They saw a little of the absurdity of the whole situation.
Pill was beaten for the first time in his life. He had been struck below the belt by a good-natured giant. The best he could do, as Bacon shuffled calmly out, was to stammer: “Will some one please sing?” And while they sang, he stood in deep thought. Just as the last verse was quivering into silence, the full, deep tones of Radbourn’s voice rose above the bustle of feet and clatter of seats:
“And all that he preaches in the name of Him who came bringing peace and good-will to men.”
Radbourn’s tone had in it reproach and a noble suggestion. The people looked at him curiously. The deacons nodded their heads together in counsel, and when they turned to the desk Pill was gone!
“Gee whittaker! That was tough,” said Milton to Radbourn; “knocked the wind out o’ him like a cannon-ball. What’ll he do now?
“He can’t do anything but acknowledge his foolishness.”
“You no business t’ come here an’ ‘sturb the Lord’s meetin’,” cried old Daddy Brown to Radbourn. “You’re a sinner and a scoffer.”
“I thought Bacon was the disturbing ele”—-
“You’re just as bad!”
“He’s all right,” said William Councill. “I’ve got sick, m’self, of bein’ scared into religion. I never was so fooled in a man in my life. If I’d tell you what Pill said to me the other day, when we was in Robie’s store, you’d fall in a fit. An’ to hear him talkin’ here t’night, is enough to make a horse laugh.”
“You’re all in league with the devil,” said the old man wildly; and so the battle raged on.
Milton and Radbourn escaped from it, and got out into the clear, cold, untainted night.
“The heat of the furnace don’t reach as far as the horses,” Radbourn moralized, as he aided in unhitching the shivering team. “In the vast, calm spaces of the stars, among the animals, such scenes as we have just seen are impossible.” He lifted his hand in a lofty gesture. The light fell on his pale face and dark eyes.
The girls were a little indignant and disposed to take the preacher’s part. They thought Bacon had no right to speak out that way, and Miss Graham uttered her protest, as they whirled away on the homeward ride with pleasant jangle of bells.
“But the secret of it all was,” said Radbourn in answer, “Pill knew he was acting a part. I don’t mean that he meant to deceive, but he got excited, and his audience responded as an audience does to an actor of the first class, and he was for the time in earnest; his imagination did see those horrors,–he was swept away by his own words. But when Bacon spoke, his dry tone and homely words brought everybody, preacher and all, back to the earth with a thump! Every body saw that, after weeping and wailing there for an hour, they’d go home, feed the calves, hang up the lantern, put out the cat, wind the clock, and go to bed. In other words, they all came back out of their barbaric powwow to their natural modern selves.”
This explanation had palpable truth, but Lily had a dim feeling that it had wider application than to the meeting they had just left.
“They’ll be music around this clearing to-morrow,” said Milton, with a sigh; “wish I was at home this week.”
“But what’ll become of Mr. Pill?”
“Oh, he’ll come out all right,” Radbourn assured her, and Milton’s clear tenor rang out as he drew Eileen closer to his side:
“O silver moon, O silver moon,
You set, you set too soon–
The morrow day is far away,
The night is but begun.”
The news, grotesquely exaggerated, flew about the next day, and at night, though it was very cold and windy, the house was jammed to suffocation. On these lonely prairies life is so devoid of anything but work, dramatic entertainments are so few, and appetite so keen, that a temperature of twenty degrees below zero is no bar to a trip of ten miles. The protracted meeting was the only recreation for many of them. The gossip before and after service was a delight not to be lost, and this last sensation was dramatic enough to bring out old men and women who had not dared to go to church in winter for ten years.
Long before seven o’clock, the school-house blazed with light and buzzed with curious speech. Team after team drove up to the door, and as the drivers leaped out to receive the women, they said in low but eager tones to the bystanders:
“Meeting begun yet?”
“What kind of a time y’ havin’ over here, any way?”
“A mighty solumn time,” somebody would reply to a low laugh.
By seven o’clock every inch of space was occupied; the air was frightful. The kerosene lamps gave off gas and smoke, the huge stove roared itself into an angry red on its jack-oak grubs, and still people crowded in at the door.
Discussion waxed hot as the stove; two or three Universalists boldly attacked everybody who came their way. A tall man stood on a bench in the corner, and, thumping his Bible wildly with his fist, exclaimed, at the top of his voice:
“There is no hell at all! The Bible says the wicked perish utterly. They are consumed as ashes when they die. They perish as dogs!”
“What kind o’ docterin’ is that?” asked a short man of Councill.
“I d’know. It’s ol’ Sam Richards. Calls himself a Christian–Christadelphian ‘r some new-fangled name.”
At last people began to inquire, “Well, ain’t he comin’?”
“Most time f’r the Elder to come, ain’t it?”
“Oh, I guess he’s preparin’ a sermon.”
John Jennings pushed anxiously to Daddy Brown.
“Ain’t the Elder comin’?”
“I d’know. He didn’t stay at my house.”
“No. Thought he went home with you.”
“I ain’t see ‘im ‘t all. I’ll ask Councill. Brother Councill, seen anything of the Elder?”
“No. Didn’t he go home with Bensen?”
“I d’n know. I’ll see.”
This was enough to start the news that “Pill had skipped.”
This the deacons denied, saying “he’d come or send word.”
Outside, on the leeward side of the house, the young men who couldn’t get in stood restlessly, now dancing a jig, now kicking their huge boots against the underpinning to warm their toes. They talked spasmodically as they swung their arms about their chests, speaking from behind their huge buffalo-coat collars.
The wind roared through the creaking oaks; the horses stirred complainingly, the bells on their backs crying out querulously; the heads of the fortunates inside were shadowed outside on the snow, and the restless young men amused themselves betting on which head was Bensen and which Councill.
At last some one pounded on the desk inside. The suffocating but lively crowd turned with painful adjustment toward the desk, from whence Deacon Benson’s high, smooth voice sounded:
“Brethren an’ sisters, Elder Pill hain’t come–and, as it’s about eight o’clock, he probably won’t come to-night. After the disturbances last night, it’s–a–a–we’re all the more determined to–the–a–need of reforming grace is more felt than ever. Let us hope nothing has happened to the Elder. I’ll go see to-morrow, and if he is unable to come–I’ll see Brother Wheat, of Cresco. After prayer by Brother Jennings, we will adjourn till to-morrow night. Brother Jennings, will you lead us in prayer?” (Some one snickered.) “I hope the disgraceful–a–scenes of last night will not be repeated.”
“Where’s Pill?” demanded a voice in the back part of the room. “That’s what I want to know.”
“He’s a bad pill,” said another, repeating a pun already old.
“I guess so! He borrowed twenty dollars o’ me last week,” said the first voice.
“He owes me for a pig,” shouted a short man, excitedly. “I believe he’s skipped to get rid o’ his debts.”
“So do I. I allus said he was a mighty queer preacher.”
“He’d bear watchin’ was my idee fust time I ever see him.”
“Careful, brethren–careful. He may come at any minute.”
“I don’t care if he does. I’d bone him f’r pay f’r that shote, preacher ‘r no preacher,” said Bartlett, a little nervously.
High words followed this, and there was prospect of a fight. The pressure of the crowd, however, was so great it was well-nigh impossible for two belligerents to get at each other. The meeting broke up at last, and the people, chilly, soured, and disappointed at the lack of developments, went home saying Pill was scaly; no preacher who chawed terbacker was to be trusted; and when it was learned that the horse and buggy he drove he owed Jennings and Bensen for, everybody said, “He’s a fraud.”
In the meantime, Andrew Pill was undergoing the most singular and awful mental revolution.
When he leaped blindly into his cutter and gave his horse the rein, he was wild with rage and shame, and a sort of fear. As he sat with bent head, he did not hear the tread of the horse, and did not see the trees glide past. The rabbit leaped away under the shadow of the thick groves of young oaks; the owl, scared from its perch, went fluttering off into the cold, crisp air; but he saw only the contemptuous, quizzical face of old William Bacon–one shaggy eyebrow lifted, a smile showing through his shapeless beard.
He saw the colorless, handsome face of Radbourn, with a look of reproach and a note of suggestion–Radbourn, one of the best thinkers and speakers in Rock River, and the most generally admired young man in Rock County.
When he saw and heard Bacon, his hurt pride flamed up in wrath, but the calm voice of Radbourn, and the look in his stern, accusing eyes, made his head fall in thought. As he rode, things grew clearer. As a matter of fact, his whole system of religious thought was like the side of a shelving sand-bank–in unstable equilibrium–needing only a touch to send it slipping into a shapeless pile at the river’s edge. That touch had been given, and he was now in the midst of the motion of his falling faith. He didn’t know how much would stand when the sloughing ended.
Andrew Pill had been a variety of things, a farmer, a dry-goods merchant, and a traveling salesman, but in a revival quite like this of his own, he had been converted and his life changed. He now desired to help his fellow-men to a better life, and willingly went out among the farmers, where pay was small. It was not true, therefore, that he had gone into it because there was little work and good pay. He was really an able man, and would have been a success in almost anything he undertook; but his reading and thought, his easy intercourse with men like Bacon and Radbourn, had long since undermined any real faith in the current doctrine of retribution, and to-night, as he rode into the night, he was feeling it all and suffering it all, forced to acknowledge at last what had been long moving.
The horse took the wrong road, and plodded along steadily, carrying him away from his home, but he did not know it for a long time. When at last he looked up and saw the road leading out upon the wide plain between the belts of timber, leading away to Rock River, he gave a sigh of relief. He could not meet his wife then; he must have a chance to think.
Over him, the glittering, infinite sky of winter midnight soared, passionless, yet accusing in its calmness, sweetness and majesty. What was he that he could dogmatize on eternal life and the will of the Being who stood behind that veil? And then would come rushing back that scene in the school-house, the smell of the steaming garments, the gases from the lamps, the roar of the stove, the sound of his own voice, strident, dominating, so alien to his present mood, he could only shudder at it.
He was worn out with the thinking when he drove into the stable at the Merchants’ House and roused up the sleeping hostler, who looked at him suspiciously and demanded pay in advance. This seemed right in his present mood. He was not to be trusted.
When he flung himself face downward on his bed, the turmoil in his brain was still going on. He couldn’t hold one thought or feeling long; all seemed slipping like water from his hands.
He had in him great capacity for change, for growth. Circumstances had been against his development thus far, but the time had come when growth seemed to be defeat and failure.
Radbourn was thinking about him, two days after, as he sat in his friend Judge Brown’s law office, poring over a volume of law. He saw that Bacon’s treatment had been heroic; he couldn’t get that pitiful confusion of the preacher’s face out of his mind. But, after all, Bacon’s seizing of just that instant was a stroke of genius.
Some one touched him on the arm.
“Why,–Elder,–Mr. Pill, how de do? Sit down. Draw up a chair.”
There was trouble in the preacher’s face. “Can I see you, Radbourn, alone?”
“Certainly; come right into this room. No one will disturb us there.”
“Now, what can I do for you?” he said, as they sat down.
“I want to talk with you about–about religion,” said Pill, with a little timid pause in his voice.
Radbourn looked grave. “I’m afraid you’ve come to a dangerous man.”
“I want you to tell me what you think. I know you’re a student. I want to talk about my case,” pursued the preacher, with a curious hesitancy. “I want to ask a few questions on things.”
“Very well; sail in. I’ll do the best I can,” said Radbourn.
“I’ve been thinking a good deal since that night. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t believe what I’ve been preaching. I thought I did, but I didn’t. I don’t know what I believe. Seems as if the land had slid from under my feet. What am I to do?”
“Say so,” replied Radbourn, his eyes kindling. “Say so, and get out of it. There’s nothing worse than staying where you are. What have you saved from the general land-slide?”
Pill smiled a little. “I don’t know.”
“Want me to cross-examine you and see, eh? Very well, here goes.” He settled back with a smile. “You believe in square dealing between man and man?”
“You believe in good deeds, candor and steadfastness?”
“You believe in justice, equality of opportunity, and in liberty?”
“Certainly I do.”
“You believe, in short, that a man should do unto others as he’d have others do unto him; think right and live out his thoughts?”
“All that I steadfastly believe.”
“Well, I guess your land-slide was mostly imaginary. The face of the eternal rock is laid bare. You didn’t recognize it at first, that’s all. One question more. You believe in truth?”
“Well, truth is only found from the generalizations of facts. Before calling a thing true, study carefully all accessible facts. Make your religion practical. The matter-of-fact tone of Bacon would have had no force if you had been preaching an earnest morality in place of an antiquated terrorism.”
“I know it; I know it,” sighed Pill, looking down.
“Well, now, go back and tell ’em so. And then, if you can’t keep your place preaching what you do believe, get into something else. For the sake of all morality and manhood, don’t go on cursing yourself with hypocrisy.”
Mr. Pill took a chew of tobacco, rather distractedly, and said:
“I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
“No, not now. You think out your present position yourself. Find out just what you have saved from your land-slide.”
The elder man rose; he hardly seemed the same man who had dominated his people a few days before. He turned with still greater embarrassment.
“I want to ask a favor. I’m going back to my family. I’m going to say something of what you’ve said, to my congregation–but–I’m in debt–and the moment they know I’m a backslider, they’re going to bear down on me pretty heavy. I’d like to be independent.”
“I see. How much do you need?” mused Radbourn.
“I guess two hundred would stave off the worst of them.”
“I guess Brown and I can fix that. Come in again to-night. Or no, I’ll bring it round to you.”
The two men parted with a silent pressure of the hand that meant more than any words.
When Mr. Pill told his wife that he could preach no more, she cried, and gasped, and scolded till she was in danger of losing her breath entirely. “A guinea-hen sort of a woman” Councill called her. “She can talk more an’ say less’n any woman I ever see,” was Bacon’s verdict, after she had been at dinner at his house. She was a perpetual irritant.
Mr. Pill silenced her at last with a note of impatience approaching a threat, and he drove away to the Corners to make his confession without her. It was Saturday night, and Elder Wheat was preaching as he entered the crowded room. A buzz and mumble of surprise stopped the orator for a few moments, and he shook hands with Mr. Pill dubiously, not knowing what to think of it all, but as he was in the midst of a very effective oratorical scene, he went on.
The silent man at his side felt as if he were witnessing a burlesque of himself as he listened to the pitiless and lurid description of torment which Elder Wheat poured forth–the same figures and threats he had used a hundred times. He stirred uneasily in his seat, while the audience paid so little attention that the perspiring little orator finally called for a hymn, saying:
“Elder Pill has returned from his unexpected absence, and will exhort in his proper place.”
When the singing ended, Mr. Pill rose, looking more like himself than since the previous Sunday. A quiet resolution was in his eyes and voice as he said:
“Elder Wheat has more right here than I have. I want ‘o say that I’m going to give up my church in Douglass and”—- A murmur broke out, which he silenced with his raised hand. “I find I don’t believe any longer what I’ve been believing and preaching. Hold on! let me go on. I don’t quite know where I’ll bring up, but I think my religion will simmer down finally to about this: A full half-bushel to the half-bushel and sixteen ounces to the pound.” Here two or three cheered. “Do unto others as you’d have others do unto you.” Applause from several, quickly suppressed as the speaker went on, Elder Wheat listening as if petrified, with his mouth open.
“I’m going out of preaching, at least for the present. After things get into shape with me again, I may set up to teach people how to live, but just now I can’t do it. I’ve got all I can do to instruct myself. Just one thing more. I owe two or three of you here. I’ve got the money for William Bacon, James Bartlett and John Jennings. I turn the mare and cutter over to Jacob Bensen, for the note he holds. I hain’t got much religion left, but I’ve got some morality. That’s all I want to say now.”
When he sat down there was a profound hush; then Bacon arose.
“That’s man’s talk, that is! An’ I jest want ‘o say, Andrew Pill, that you kin jest forgit you owe me anything. An’ if ye want any help come to me. Y’re jest gittun’ ready to preach, ‘n’ I’m ready to give ye my support.”
“That’s the talk,” said Councill. “I’m with ye on that.”
Pill shook his head. The painful silence which followed was broken by the effusive voice of Wheat:
“Let us pray–and remember our lost brother.”
* * * * *
The urgings of the people were of no avail. Mr. Pill settled up his affairs, and moved to Cresco, where he went back into trade with a friend, and for three years attended silently to his customers, lived down their curiosity and studied anew the problem of life. Then he moved away, and no one knew whither.
One day, last year, Bacon met Jennings on the road.
“Heerd anything o’ Pill lately?”
“No; have you?”
“Waal, yes. Brown told me he ran acrost him down in Eelinoy, doun’ well, too.”
“In dry goods?”
“So Brown said. Kind of a free-f’r-all church, I reckon from what Jedge told me. Built a new church, fills it twice a Sunday. I’d like to hear him, but he’s got t’ be too big a gun f’r us. Ben studyun’, they say; went t’ school.”
Jennings drove sadly and thoughtfully on.
“Rather stumps Brother Jennings,” laughed Bacon, in his leonine fashion.