OTHER MAIN-TRAVELLED ROADS
HAMLIN GARLAND SUNSET EDITION
HARPER & BROTHERS NEW YORK AND LONDON
COPYRIGHT, 1892, 1899, 1910, BY HAMLIN GARLAND
They rise to mastery of wind and snow; They go like soldiers grimly into strife, To colonize the plain; they plough and sow, And fertilize the sod with their own life As did the Indian and the buffalo.
Above them soars a dazzling sky, In winter blue and clear as steel, In summer like an arctic sea Wherein vast icebergs drift and reel And melt like sudden sorcery.
Beneath them plains stretch far and fair, Rich with sunlight and with rain; Vast harvests ripen with their care And fill with overplus of grain Their square, great bins.
Yet still they strive! I see them rise At dawn-light, going forth to toil: The same salt sweat has filled my eyes, My feet have trod the self-same soil Behind the snarling plough.
Nearly all the stories in this volume were written at the same time and under the same impulse as those which compose its companion volume, Main-Travelled Roads—and the entire series was the result of a summer-vacation visit to my old home in Iowa, to my father's farm in Dakota, and, last of all, to my birthplace in Wisconsin. This happened in 1887. I was living at the time in Boston, and had not seen the West for several years, and my return to the scenes of my boyhood started me upon a series of stories delineative of farm and village life as I knew it and had lived it. I wrote busily during the two years that followed, and in this revised definitive edition of Main-Travelled Roads and its companion volume, Other Main-Travelled Roads (compiled from other volumes which now go out of print), the reader will find all of the short stories which came from my pen between 1887 and 1889.
It remains to say that, though conditions have changed somewhat since that time, yet for the hired man and the renter farm life in the West is still a stern round of drudgery. My pages present it—not as the summer boarder or the young lady novelist sees it—but as the working farmer endures it.
Not all the scenes of Other Main-Travelled Roads are of farm life, though rural subjects predominate; and the village life touched upon will be found less forbidding in color. In this I am persuaded my view is sound; for, no matter how hard the villager works, he is not lonely. He suffers in company with his fellows. So much may be called a gain. Then, too, I admit youth and love are able to transform a bleak prairie town into a poem, and to make of a barbed-wire lane a highway of romance.
Introductory Verse v Preface vii William Bacon's Man 3 Elder Pill, Preacher 29 A Day of Grace 65 Lucretia Burns 81 Daddy Deering 119 A Stop-Over at Tyre 143 A Division in the Coolly 203 A Fair Exile 245 An Alien in the Pines 263 Before the Low Green Door 293 A Preacher's Love Story 305 An Afterword: of Winds, Snows, and The Stars 350
WILLIAM BACON'S MAN
The yellow March sun lay powerfully on the bare Iowa prairie, where the ploughed fields were already turning warm and brown, and only here and there in a corner or on the north side of the fence did the sullen drifts remain, and they were so dark and low that they hardly appeared to break the mellow brown of the fields.
There passed also an occasional flock of geese, cheerful harbingers of spring, and the prairie-chickens had set up their morning symphony, wide-swelling, wonderful with its prophecy of the new birth of grass and grain and the springing life of all breathing things. The crow passed now and then, uttering his resonant croak, but the crane had not yet sent forth his bugle note.
Lyman Gilman rested on his axe-helve at the woodpile of Farmer Bacon to listen to the music around him. In a vague way he was powerfully moved by it. He heard the hens singing their weird, raucous, monotonous song, and saw them burrowing in the dry chip-dust near him. He saw the young colts and cattle frisking in the sunny space around the straw-stacks, absorbed through his bare arms and uncovered head the heat of the sun, and felt the soft wooing of the air so deeply that he broke into an unwonted exclamation:—
"Glory! we'll be seeding by Friday, sure."
This short and disappointing soliloquy was, after all, an expression of deep emotion. To the Western farmer the very word "seeding" is a poem. And these few words, coming from Lyman Gilman, meant more and expressed more than many a large and ambitious springtime song.
But the glory of all the slumbrous landscape, the stately beauty of the sky with its masses of fleecy vapor, were swept away by the sound of a girl's voice humming, "Come to the Saviour," while she bustled about the kitchen near by. The windows were open. Ah! what suggestion to these dwellers in a rigorous climate was in the first unsealing of the windows! How sweet it was to the pale and weary women after their long imprisonment!
As Lyman sat down on his maple log to hear better, a plump face appeared at the window, and a clear, girl-voice said:—
"Smell anything, Lime?"
He snuffed the air. "Cookies, by the great horn spoons!" he yelled, leaping up. "Bring me some, an' see me eat; it'll do ye good."
"Come an' get 'm," laughed the face at the window.
"Oh, it's nicer out here, Merry Etty. What's the rush? Bring me out some, an' set down on this log."
With a nod Marietta disappeared, and soon came out with a plate of cookies in one hand and a cup of milk in the other.
"Poor little man, he's all tired out, ain't he?"
Lime, taking the cue, collapsed in a heap, and said feebly, "Bread, bread!"
"Won't milk an' cookies do as well?"
He brushed off the log and motioned her to sit down beside him, but she hesitated a little and colored a little.
"Oh, Lime, s'pose somebody should see us?"
"Let 'em. What in thunder do we care? Sit down an' gimme a holt o' them cakes. I'm just about done up. I couldn't 'a' stood it another minute."
She sat down beside him with a laugh and a pretty blush. She was in her apron, and the sleeves of her dress were rolled to her elbows, displaying the strong, round arms. Wholesome and sweet she looked and smelled, the scent of the cooking round her. Lyman munched a couple of the cookies and gulped a pint of milk before he spoke.
"Whadda we care who sees us sittin' side b' side? Ain't we goin' t' be married soon?"
"Oh, them cookies in the oven!" she shrieked, leaping up and running to the house. She looked back as she reached the kitchen door, however, and smiled with a flushed face. Lime slapped his knee and roared with laughter at his bold stroke.
"Ho! ho!" he laughed. "Didn't I do it slick? Ain't nothin' green in my eye, I guess." In an intense and pleasurable abstraction he finished the cookies and the milk. Then he yelled:—
"Hey! Merry—Merry Etty!"
"Whadda ye want?" sang the girl from the window, her face still rosy with confusion.
"Come out here and git these things."
The girl shook her head, with a laugh.
"Come out an' git 'm, 'r, by jingo, I'll throw 'em at ye! Come on, now!"
The girl looked at the huge, handsome fellow, the sun falling on his golden hair and beard, and came slowly out to him—came creeping along with her hand outstretched for the plate which Lime, with a laugh in his sunny blue eyes, extended at the full length of his bare arm. The girl made a snatch at it, but his left hand caught her by the wrist, and away went cup and plate as he drew her to him and kissed her in spite of her struggles.
"My! ain't you strong!" she said, half ruefully and half admiringly, as she shrugged her shoulders. "If you'd use a little more o' that choppin' wood, Dad wouldn't 'a' lost s' much money by yeh."
Lime grew grave.
"There's the hog in the fence, Merry; what's yer dad goin' t' say—"
"About our gitt'n married this spring."
"I guess you'd better find out what I'm a-goin' t' say, Lime Gilman, 'fore you pitch into Dad."
"I know what you're a-goin' t' say."
"No, y' don't."
"Yes, but I do, though."
"Well, ask me, and see, if you think you're so smart. Jest as like 's not, you'll slip up."
"All right; here goes. Marietty Bacon, ain't you an' Lime Gilman goin' t' be married?"
"No, sir, we ain't," laughed the girl, snatching up the plate and darting away to the house, where she struck up "Weevily Wheat," and went busily on about her cooking. Lime threw a kiss at her, and fell to work on his log with startling energy.
Lyman looked forward to his interview with the old man with as much trepidation as he had ever known, though commonly he had little fear of anything—but a girl.
Marietta was not only the old man's only child, but his housekeeper, his wife having at last succumbed to the ferocious toil of the farm. It was reasonable to suppose, therefore, that he would surrender his claim on the girl reluctantly. Rough as he was, he loved Marietta strongly, and would find it exceedingly hard to get along without her.
Lyman mused on these things as he drove the gleaming axe into the huge maple logs. He was something more than the usual hired man, being a lumberman from the Wisconsin pineries, where he had sold out his interest in a camp not three weeks before the day he began work for Bacon. He had a nice "little wad o' money" when he left the camp and started for La Crosse, but he had been robbed in his hotel the first night in the city, and was left nearly penniless. It was a great blow to him, for, as he said, every cent of that money "stood fer hard knocks an' poor feed. When I smelt of it I could jest see the cold, frosty mornin's and the late nights. I could feel the hot sun on my back like it was when I worked in the harvest-field. By jingo! It kind o' made my toes curl up."
But he went resolutely out to work again, and here he was chopping wood in old man Bacon's yard, thinking busily on the talk which had just passed between Marietta and himself.
"By jingo!" he said all at once, stopping short, with the axe on his shoulder. "If I hadn't 'a' been robbed I wouldn't 'a' come here—I never'd met Merry. Thunder and jimson root! Wasn't that a narrow escape?"
And then he laughed so heartily that the girl looked out of the window again to see what in the world he was doing. He had his hat in his hand and was whacking his thigh with it.
"Lyman Gilman, what in the world ails you to-day? It's perfectly ridiculous the way you yell and talk t' y'rself out there on the chips. You beat the hens, I declare if you don't."
Lime put on his hat and walked up to the window, and, resting his great bare arms on the sill, and his chin on his arms, said:—
"Merry, I'm goin' to tackle 'Dad' this afternoon. He'll be sittin' up the new seeder, and I'm goin' t' climb right on the back of his neck. He's jest got t' give me a chance."
Marietta looked sober in sympathy.
"Well! P'raps it's best to have it over with, Lime, but someway I feel kind o' scary about it."
Lime stood for a long time looking in at the window, watching the light-footed girl as she set the table in the middle of the sun-lighted kitchen floor. The kettle hissed, the meat sizzled, sending up a delicious odor; a hen stood in the open door and sang a sort of cheery half-human song, while to and fro moved the sweet-faced, lithe, and powerful girl, followed by the smiling eyes at the window.
"Merry, you look purty as a picture. You look just like the wife I be'n a-huntin' for all these years, sure's shootin'."
Marietta colored with pleasure.
"Does Dad pay you to stand an' look at me an' say pretty things t' the cook?"
"No, he don't. But I'm willin' t' do it without pay. I could just stand here till kingdom come an' look at you. Hello! I hear a wagon. I guess I better hump into that woodpile."
"I think so too. Dinner's most ready, and Dad 'll be here soon."
Lime was driving away furiously at a tough elm log when Farmer Bacon drove into the yard with a new seeder in his wagon. Lime whacked away busily while Bacon stabled the team, and in a short time Marietta called, in a long-drawn, musical fashion:—
After sozzling their faces at the well the two men went in and sat down at the table. Bacon was not much of a talker at any time, and at meal-time, in seeding, eating was the main business in hand; therefore the meal was a silent one, Marietta and Lime not caring to talk on general topics. The hour was an anxious one for her, and an important one for him.
"Wal, now, Lime, seedun' 's the nex' thing," said Bacon, as he shoved back his chair and glared around from under his bushy eyebrows. "We can't do too much this afternoon. That seeder's got t' be set up an' a lot o' seed-wheat cleaned up. You unload the machine while I feed the pigs."
Lime sat still till the old man was heard outside calling "Oo-ee, poo-ee" to the pigs in the yard; then he smiled at Marietta, but she said:—
"He's got on one of his fits, Lime; I don't b'lieve you'd better tackle him t'-day."
"Don't you worry; I'll fix him. Come, now, give me a kiss."
"Why, you great thing! You—took—"
"I know, but I want you to give 'em to me. Just walk right up to me an' give me a smack t' bind the bargain."
"I ain't made any bargain," laughed the girl. Then, feeling the force of his tender tone, she added: "Will you behave, and go right off to your work?"
"Jest like a little man—hope t' die!"
"Lime!" roared the old man from the barn.
"Hello!" replied Lime, grinning joyously and winking at the girl, as much as to say, "This would paralyze the old man if he saw it."
He went out to the shed where Bacon was at work, as serene as if he had not a fearful task on hand. He was apprehensive that the father might "gig back" unless rightly approached, and so he awaited a good opportunity.
The right moment seemed to present itself along about the middle of the afternoon. Bacon was down on the ground under the machine, tightening some burrs. This was a good chance for two reasons. In the first place, the keen, almost savage eyes were no longer where they could glare on him, and in spite of his cool exterior Lime had just as soon not have the old man looking at him.
Besides, the old farmer had been telling about his "river eighty," which was without a tenant; the man who had taken it, having lost his wife, had grown disheartened and had given it up.
"It's an almighty good chance for a man with a small family. Good house an' barn, good land. A likely young feller with a team an' a woman could do tiptop on that eighty. If he wanted more, I'd let him have an eighty j'inun'—"
"I'd like t' try that m'self," said Lime, as a feeler. The old fellow said nothing in reply for a moment.
"Ef you had a team an' tools an' a woman, I'd jest as lief you'd have it as anybody."
"Sell me your blacks, and I'll pay half down—the balance in the fall. I can pick up some tools, and as for a woman, Merry Etty an' me have talked that over to-day. She's ready to—ready to marry me whenever you say go."
There was an ominous silence under the seeder, as if the father could not believe his ears.
"What's—what's that!" he stuttered. "Who'd you say? What about Merry Etty?"
"She's agreed to marry me."
"The hell you say!" roared Bacon, as the truth burst upon him. "So that's what you do when I go off to town and leave you to chop wood. So you're goun' to git married, hey?"
He was now where Lime could see him, glaring up into his smiling blue eyes. Lime stood his ground.
"Yes, sir. That's the calculation."
"Well, I guess I'll have somethin' t' say about that," said Bacon, nodding his head violently.
"I rather expected y' would. Blaze away. Your privilege—my bad luck. Sail in ol' man. What's y'r objection to me fer a son-in-law?"
"Don't you worry, young feller. I'll come at it soon enough," went on Bacon, as he turned up another burr in a very awkward corner. In his nervous excitement the wrench slipped, banging his knuckle.
"Ouch! Thunder—m-m-m!" howled and snarled the wounded man.
"What's the matter? Bark y'r knuckle?" queried Lime, feeling a mighty impulse to laugh. But when he saw the old savage straighten up and glare at him he sobered. Bacon was now in a frightful temper. The veins in his great, bare, weather-beaten neck swelled dangerously.
"Jest let me say right here that I've had enough o' you. You can't live on the same acre with my girl another day."
"What makes ye think I can't?" It was now the young man's turn to draw himself up, and as he faced the old man, his arms folded and each vast hand grasping an elbow, he looked like a statue of red granite, and the hands resembled the paws of a crouching lion; but his eyes smiled.
"I don't think, I know ye won't."
"What's the objection to me?"
"Objection? Hell! What's the inducement? My hired man, an' not three shirts to yer back!"
"That's another; I've got four. Say, old man, did you ever work out for a living?"
"That's none o' your business," growled Bacon a little taken down. "I've worked an' scraped, an' got t'gether a little prop'ty here, an' they ain't no sucker like you goun' to come 'long here, an' live off me, an' spend my prop'ty after I'm dead. You can jest bet high on that."
"Who's goin' t' live on ye?"
"You're aimun' to."
"I ain't, neither."
"Yes, y'are. You've loafed on me ever since I hired ye."
"That's a—" Lime checked himself for Marietta's sake, and the enraged father went on:—
"I hired ye t' cut wood, an' you've gone an' fooled my daughter away from me. Now you just figger up what I owe ye, and git out o' here. Ye can't go too soon t' suit me."
Bacon was renowned as the hardest man to handle in Cedar County, and though he was getting old, he was still a terror to his neighbors when roused. He was honest, temperate, and a good neighbor until something carried him off his balance; then he became as cruel as a panther and as savage as a grisly. All this Lime knew, but it did not keep his anger down so much as did the thought of Marietta. His silence infuriated Bacon, who yelled hoarsely:—
"Git out o' this!"
"Don't be in a rush, ol' man—"
Bacon hurled himself upon Lime, who threw out one hand and stopped him, while he said in a low voice:—
"Stay right where you are, ol' man. I'm dangerous. It's for Merry's sake—"
The infuriated old man struck at him. Lime warded off the blow, and with a sudden wrench and twist threw him to the ground with frightful force. Before Bacon could rise, Marietta, who had witnessed the scene, came flying from the house.
"Lime! Father! What are you doing?"
"I—couldn't help it, Merry. It was him 'r me," said Lime, almost sadly.
"Dad, ain't you got no sense? What 're you thinking of? You jest stop right now. I won't have it."
He rose while she clung to him; he seemed a little dazed. It was the first time he had ever been thrown, and he could not but feel a certain respect for his opponent, but he could not give way.
"Pack up yer duds," he snarled, "an' git off'n my land. I'll have the money fer ye when ye come back. I'll give ye jest five minutes to git clear o' here. Merry, you stay here."
The young man saw it was useless to remain, as it would only excite the old man; and so, with a look of apology, not without humor, at Marietta, he went to the house to get his valise. The girl wept silently while the father raged up and down. His mood frightened her.
"I thought ye had more sense than t' take up with such a dirty houn'."
"He ain't a houn'," she blazed forth, "and he's just as good and clean as you are."
"Shut up! Don't let me hear another word out o' your head. I'm boss here yet, I reckon."
Lime came out with his valise in his hand.
"Good-by, Merry," he said cheerily. She started to go to him, but her father's rough grasp held her.
"Set down, an' stay there."
Lime was going out of the gate.
"Here! Come and get y'r money," yelled the old man, extending some bills. "Here's twenty—"
"Go to thunder with your money," retorted Lime. "I've had my pay for my month's work." As he said that, he thought of the sunny kitchen and the merry girl, and his throat choked. Good-by to the sweet girl whose smile was so much to him, and to the happy noons and nights her eyes had made for him. He waved his hat at her as he stood in the open gate, and the sun lighted his handsome head into a sort of glory in her eyes. Then he turned and walked rapidly off down the road, not looking back.
The girl, when she could no longer see him, dashed away, and, sobbing violently, entered the house.
There was just a suspicion of light in the east, a mere hint of a glow, when Lyman walked cautiously around the corner of the house and tapped at Marietta's window. She was sleeping soundly and did not hear, for she had been restless during the first part of the night. He tapped again, and the girl woke without knowing what woke her.
Lyman put the blade of his pocket-knife under the window and raised it a little, and then placed his lips to the crack, and spoke in a sepulchral tone, half groan, half whisper:—
"Merry! Merry Etty!"
The dazed girl sat up in bed and listened, while her heart almost stood still.
"Merry, it's me—Lime. Come to the winder." The girl hesitated, and Lyman spoke again.
"Come, I hain't got much time. This is your last chance t' see me. It's now 'r never."
The girl slipped out of bed, and, wrapping herself in a shawl, crept to the window.
"Boost on that winder," commanded Lyman. She raised it enough to admit his head, which came just above the sill; then she knelt on the floor by the window.
Her eyes stared wide and dark.
"Lime, what in the world do you mean—"
"I mean business," he replied. "I ain't no last year's chicken; I know when the old man sleeps the soundest." He chuckled pleasantly.
"How 'd y' fool old Rove?"
"Never mind about that now; they's something more important on hand. You've got t' go with me."
She drew back, "Oh, Lime, I can't!"
He thrust a great arm in and caught her by the wrist.
"Yes, y' can. This is y'r last chance. If I go off without ye t'night, I never come back. What makes ye gig back? Are ye 'fraid o' me?"
"But what, Merry Etty?"
"It ain't right to go an' leave Dad all alone. Where y' goin' t' take me, anyhow?"
"Milt Jennings let me have his horse an' buggy; they're down the road a piece, an' we'll go right down to Rock River and be married by sun-up."
The girl still hesitated, her firm, boyish will unwontedly befogged. Resolute as she was, she could not at once accede to his demand.
"Come, make up your mind soon. The old man 'll fill me with buck-shot if he catches sight o' me." He drew her arm out of the window and laid his bearded cheek to it. "Come, little one, we're made for each other; God knows it. Come! It's him 'r me."
The girl's head dropped, consented.
"That's right! Now a kiss to bind the bargain. There! What, cryin'? No more o' that, little one. Now I'll give you jest five minutes to git on your Sunday-go-t'-meetin' clo'es. Quick, there goes a rooster. It's gittin' white in the east."
The man turned his back to the window and gazed at the western sky with a wealth of unuttered and unutterable exultation in his heart. Far off a rooster gave a long, clear blast—would it be answered in the barn? Yes; some wakeful ear had caught it, and now the answer came faint, muffled, and drowsy. The dog at his feet whined uneasily as if suspecting something wrong. The wind from the south was full of the wonderful odor of springing grass, warm, brown earth, and oozing sap. Overhead, to the west, the stars were shining in the cloudless sky, dimmed a little in brightness by the faint silvery veil of moisture in the air. The man's soul grew very tender as he stood waiting for his bride. He was rough, illiterate, yet there was something fine about him after all, a kind of simplicity and a gigantic, leonine tenderness.
He heard his sweetheart moving about inside, and mused: "The old man won't hold out when he finds we're married. He can't get along without her. If he does, why, I'll rent a farm here, and we'll go to work housekeepin'. I can git the money. She shan't always be poor," he ended, and the thought was a vow.
The window was raised again, and the girl's voice was heard low and tremulous:—
"Lime, I'm ready, but I wish we didn't—"
He put his arm around her waist and helped her out, and did not put her down till they reached the road. She was completely dressed, even to her hat and shoes, but she mourned:—
"My hair is every-which-way; Lime, how can I be married so?"
They were nearing the horse and buggy now, and Lime laughed. "Oh, we'll stop at Jennings's and fix up. Milt knows what's up, and has told his mother by this time. So just laugh as jolly as you can."
Soon they were in the buggy, the impatient horse swung into the road at a rattling pace, and as Marietta leaned back in the seat, thinking of what she had done, she cried lamentably, in spite of all the caresses and pleadings of her lover.
But the sun burst up from the plain, the prairie-chickens took up their mighty chorus on the hills, robins met them on the way, flocks of wild geese, honking cheerily, drove far overhead toward the north, and, with these sounds of a golden spring day in her ears, the bride grew cheerful, and laughed.
At about the time the sun was rising, Farmer Bacon, roused from his sleep by the crowing of the chickens on the dry knolls in the fields as well as by those in the barn-yard, rolled out of bed wearily, wondering why he should feel so drowsy. Then he remembered the row with Lime and his subsequent inability to sleep with thinking over it. There was a dull pain in his breast, which made him uncomfortable.
As was his usual custom, he went out into the kitchen and built the fire for Marietta, filled the tea-kettle with water, and filled the water-bucket in the sink. Then he went to her bedroom door and knocked with his knuckles as he had done for years in precisely the same fashion.
Rap—rap—rap. "Hello, Merry! Time t' git up. Broad daylight, an' birds asingun.'"
Without waiting for an answer he went out to the barn and worked away at his chores. He took such delight in the glorious morning and the turbulent life of the farmyard that his heart grew light and he hummed a tune which sounded like the merry growl of a lion. "Poo-ee, poo-ee," he called to the pigs as they swarmed across the yard.
"Ahrr! you big, fat rascals, them hams o' yourn is clear money. One of ye shall go t' buy Merry a new dress," he said as he glanced at the house and saw the smoke pouring out the stovepipe. "Merry's a good girl; she's stood by her old pap when other girls 'u'd 'a' gone back on 'im."
While currying horses he went all over the ground of the quarrel yesterday, and he began to see it in a different light. He began to see that Lyman was a good man and an able man, and that his own course was a foolish one.
"When I git mad," he confessed to himself, "I don't know any thin'. But I won't give her up. She ain't old 'nough t' marry yet—and, besides, I need her."
After finishing his chores, as usual, he went to the well and washed his face and hands, then entered the kitchen—to find the tea-kettle boiling over, and no signs of breakfast anywhere, and no sign of the girl.
"Well, I guess she felt sleepy this mornin'. Poor gal! Mebbe she cried half the night."
"Merry!" he called gently, at the door.
"Merry, m' gal! Pap needs his breakfast."
There was no reply, and the old man's face stiffened into a wild surprise. He knocked heavily again and got no reply, and, with a white face and shaking hand, he flung the door open and gazed at the empty bed. His hand dropped to his side; his head turned slowly from the bed to the open window; he rushed forward and looked out on the ground, where he saw the tracks of a man.
He fell heavily into the chair by the bed, while a deep groan broke from his stiff and twitching lips.
"She's left me! She's left me!"
For a long half-hour the iron-muscled old man sat there motionless, hearing not the songs of the hens or the birds far out in the brilliant sunshine. He had lost sight of his farm, his day's work, and felt no hunger for food. He did not doubt that her going was final. He felt that she was gone from him forever. If she ever came back it would not be as his daughter, but as the wife of Gilman. She had deserted him, fled in the night like a thief; his heart began to harden again, and he rose stiffly. His native stubbornness began to assert itself, the first great shock over, and he went out to the kitchen, and prepared, as best he could, a breakfast, and sat down to it. In some way his appetite failed him, and he fell to thinking over his past life, of the death of his wife, and the early death of his only boy. He was still trying to think what his life would be in the future without his girl, when two carriages drove into the yard. It was about the middle of the forenoon, and the prairie-chickens had ceased to boom and squawk; in fact, that was why he knew, for he had been sitting two hours at the table. Before he could rise he heard swift feet and a merry voice and Marietta burst through the door.
"Hello, Pap! How you makin' out with break—" She saw a look on his face that went to her heart like a knife. She saw a lonely and deserted old man sitting at his cold and cheerless breakfast, and with a remorseful cry she ran across the floor and took him in her arms, kissing him again and again, while Mr. John Jennings and his wife stood in the door.
"Poor ol' Pap! Merry couldn't leave you. She's come back to stay as long as he lives."
The old man remained cold and stern. His deep voice had a relentless note in it as he pushed her away from him, noticing no one else.
"But how do you come back t' me?"
The girl grew rosy, but she stood proudly up.
"I come back the wife of a man, Pap; a wife like my mother, an' this t' hang beside hers;" and she laid down a rolled piece of parchment.
"Take it an' go," growled he; "take yer lazy lubber an' git out o' my sight. I raised ye, took keer o' ye when ye was little, sent ye t' school, bought ye dresses,—done everythin' fer ye I could, 'lowin' t' have ye stand by me when I got old,—but no, ye must go back on yer ol' pap, an' go off in the night with a good-f'r-nothin' houn' that nobuddy knows anything about—a feller that never done a thing fer ye in the world—"
"What did you do for mother that she left her father and mother and went with you? How much did you have when you took her away from her good home an' brought her away out here among the wolves an' Indians? I've heard you an' her say a hundred times that you didn't have a chair in the house. Now, why do you talk so t' me when I want t' git—when Lime comes and asks for me?"
The old man was staggered. He looked at the smiling face of John Jennings and the tearful eyes of Mrs. Jennings, who had returned with Lyman. But his heart hardened again as he caught sight of Lime looking in at him. His absurd pride would not let him relent. Lime saw it, and stepped forward.
"Ol' man, I want t' take a little inning now. I'm a fair, square man. I asked ye fer Merry as a man should. I told you I'd had hard luck, when I first came here. I had five thousand dollars in clean cash stole from me. I hain't got a thing now except credit, but that's good fer enough t' stock a little farm with. Now, I wan' to be fair and square in this thing. You wan' to rent a farm; I need one. Let me have the river eighty, or I'll take the whole business on a share of a third, an' Merry Etty and I to stay here with you jest as if nothin' 'd happened. Come, now, what d' y' say?"
There was something winning in the sturdy bearing of the man as he stood before the father, who remained silent and grim.
"Or if you don't do that, why, there's nothin' left fer Merry an' me but to go back to La Crosse, where I can have my choice of a dozen farms. Now this is the way things is standin'. I don't want to be underhanded about this thing—"
"That's a fair offer," said Mr. Jennings in the pause which followed. "You'd better do it, neighbor Bacon. Nobuddy need know how things stood; they were married in my house—I thought that would be best. You can't live without your girl," he went on, "any more 'n I could without my boy. You'd better—"
The figure at the table straightened up. Under his tufted eyebrows his keen gray eyes flashed from one to the other. His hands knotted.
"Go slow!" went on the smooth voice of Jennings, known all the country through as a peacemaker. "Take time t' think it over. Stand out, an' you'll live here alone without chick 'r child; give in, and this house 'll bubble over with noise and young ones. Now is short, and forever's a long time to feel sorry in."
The old man at the table knitted his eyebrows, and a distorted, quivering, ghastly smile broke out on his face. His chest heaved; then he burst forth:—
"Gal, yank them gloves off, an' git me something to eat—breakfus 'r dinner, I don't care which. Lime, you infernal idiot, git out there and gear up them horses. What in thunder you foolun' round about hyere in seed'n'? Come, hustle, all o' ye!"
And they all shouted in laughter, while the old man strode unsteadily but resolutely out toward the barn, followed by the bridegroom, who was still laughing—but silently.
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 schoolhouse, 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 sister—"
"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 Chippewa. 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 barn-yard; 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't 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, at our house, but we eat. You go along down the road and tell 'em I sent yeh. Ye'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 his niece Eldora, who was not more won by him than was his sister Jane Buttles, he was so genial and put on so few religious frills.
Mrs. Buttles never put on frills of any kind. She was a most frightful toiler, only excelled (if excelled at all) by her brother. 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. She was very glad of the chance to take charge of her brother's household after Marietta married.
Eldora 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 terms with them as he watched the milk being skimmed out of the "submerged cans" ready for the "caaves and hawgs," as Mrs. Buttles called them.
"Uncle 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.
"Bill has an awful grutch agin preachers," said Mrs. Buttles, 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, Eldory, 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 corn-field.
"How'd y' come to send him here?" asked Mrs. Buttles, 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 about 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 mouth, 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 Eldora, 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. Buttles'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, the visitor spoke in an imperious tone and with lifted hand. "Wait! Let us look to the Lord for His blessing."
They waited till the grace was said, but it threw a depressing atmosphere over the group; 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 around somewhere. Elly, go 'n see 'f y' can't raise one," said Mrs. Buttles, 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's 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 schoolhouse 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 centred 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 schoolhouse 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 sat on one side of the schoolroom, the men 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 the 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 Bettie Moss, 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 Bettie so much that she grew quite 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 Bettie. 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 astonished 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 halfway to the door, and then out into the dirt of the road.
Turning, Pill strode down the aisle once more. 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 lying bruised and dazed on the floor.
By this time the other brothers had recovered from their stupor, and, with wild curses, leaped over the benches toward the fearless preacher.
But now a new voice was heard in the sudden uproar—a new but familiar voice. It was the mighty voice 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 dragged 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 grisly 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 at the Grove 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 schoolhouse, 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 and 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, even 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 schoolhouse, 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 schoolhouse 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 stovepipe. "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 the 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 upon others was painful. 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 of spasmodic fervor, while 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 intense 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 with 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 very great. From being at the very mouth of the furnace, quivering with fear and captive to morbid imaginings, Bacon's dry intonation brought them all back to earth again. They perceived something 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 doesn'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! Everybody 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 perceived 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 schoolhouse 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 with 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 Bensen'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, and his look of reproach and note of suggestion—Radbourn, one of the best thinkers 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 travelling 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 schoolhouse, 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 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 the 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 and he turned.
"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 to 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 getting at 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 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 a good-humored growl.
A DAY OF GRACE
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?"
"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."
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.
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.
"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.
"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:—
"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.