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The New Minister's Great Opportunity - First published in the "Century Magazine"
by Heman White Chaplin
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THE NEW MINISTER'S GREAT OPPORTUNITY.

By Heman White Chaplin

1887

First published in the "Century Magazine."

"The minister's got a job," said Mr. Snell.

Mr. Snell had been driven in by a shower from the painting of a barn, and was now sitting, with one bedaubed overall leg crossed over the other, in Mr. Hamblin's shop.

Half-a-dozen other men, who had likewise found in the rain a call to leisure, looked up at him inquiringly.

"How do you mean?" said Mr. Noyes, who sat beside him, girt with a nail-pocket. "'The minister 's got a job'? How do you mean?" And Mr. Noyes assumed a listener's air, and stroked his thin yellow beard.

Mr. Snell smiled, with half-shut, knowing eyes, but made no answer.

"How do you mean?" repeated Mr. Noyes; "'The minister's got a job'—of course he has—got a stiddy job. We knew that before."

"Very well," said Mr. Snell, with a placid face; "seeing's you know so much about it, enough said. Let it rest right there."

"But," said Mr. Noyes, nervously blowing his nose; "you lay down this proposition: 'The minister's got a job.' Now I ask, what is it?"

Mr. Snell uncrossed his legs, and stooped to pick up a last, which he proceeded to scan with a shrewd, critical eye.

"Narrer foot," he said to Mr. Hamblin.

"Private last—Dr. Hunter's," said Mr. Hamblin, laying down a boot upon which he was stitching an outer-sole, and rising to make a ponderous, elephantine excursion across the quaking shop to the earthen water-pitcher, from which he took a generous draught.

"Well, Brother Snell," said Mr. Noyes,—they were members together of a secret organization, of which Mr. Snell was P. G. W. T. F.,—"ain't you going to tell us? What—is this job? That is to say, what—er—is it?"

Brother Snell set his thumbs firmly in the armholes of his waistcoat, surveyed the smoke-stained pictures pasted on the wall, looked keen, and softly whistled.

At last he condescended to explain.

"Preaching Uncle Capen's funeral sermon."

There was a subdued general laugh. Even Mr. Hamblin's leathern apron shook.

Mr. Noyes, however, painfully looking down upon his beard to draw out a white hair, maintained his serious expression.

"I don't see much 'job' in that," he said; "a minister's supposed to preach a hundred and four sermons in each and every year, and there's plenty more where they come from. What's one sermon more or less, when stock costs nothing? It's like wheeling gravel from the pit."

"O.K.," said Mr. Snell; "if 't aint no trouble, then 't ain't But seeing's you know, suppose you specify the materials for this particular discourse."

Mr. Noyes looked a little disconcerted.

"Well," he said; "of course, I can't set here and compose a funereal discourse, off-hand, without no writing-desk; but there's stock enough to make a sermon of, any time."

"Oh, come," said Mr. Snell, "don't sneak out: particularize."

"Why," said Mr. Noyes, "you 've only to open the leds of your Bible, and choose a text, and then: When did this happen? Why did this happen? To who did this happen? and so forth and so on; and there's your sermon. I 've heard 'em so a hunderd times."

"All right," said Mr. Snell; "I don't doubt you know; but as for me, I for one never happened to hear of anything that Uncle Capen did but whitewash and saw wood. Now what sort of an autobiographical sermon could you make out of sawing wood?"

Whereat Leander Buffum proceeded, by that harsh, guttural noise well known to country boys, to imitate the sound of sawing through a log. His sally was warmly greeted.

"The minister might narrate," said Mr. Blood, "what Uncle Capen said to Issachar, when Issachar told him that he charged high for sawing wood. 'See here,' says Uncle Capen, 's'pos'n I do. My arms are shorter'n other folks's, and it takes me just so much longer to do it.'"

"Well," said Mr. Noyes, "I'm a fair man; always do exactly right is the rule I go by; and I will frankly admit, now and here, that if it's a biographical discourse they want, they 'll have to cut corners."

"Pre-cise-ly" said Mr. Snell; "and that's just what they do want."

"Well, well," said Mr. Hamblin, laboriously rising and putting his spectacles into their silver case,—for it was supper-time,—"joking one side, if Uncle Capen never did set the pond afire, we 'd all rather take his chances to-day, I guess, than those of some smarter men."

At which Mr. Snell turned red; for he was a very smart man and had just failed,—to everybody's surprise, since there was no reason in the world why he should fail,—and had created more merriment for the public than joy among his creditors, by paying a cent and a half on the dollar.

"Come in; sit down," said Dr. Hunter, as the young minister appeared at his office door; and he tipped back in his chair, and put his feet upon a table. "What's the news?"

"Doctor," said Mr. Holt, laughing, as he laid down his hat and took an arm-chair; "you told me to come to you for any information. Now I want materials for a sermon on old Mr. Capen."

The Doctor looked at him with a half-amused expression, and then sending out a curl of blue smoke, he watched it as it rose melting into the general air.

"You don't smoke, I believe?" he said to the minister.

Holt smiled and shook his head.

The Doctor put his cigar back into his mouth, clasped one knee in his hands, and fixed his eyes in meditation on a one-eared Hippocrates looking down with a dirty face from the top of a bookcase. Perhaps the Doctor was thinking of the two or three hundred complimentary visits he had been permitted to make upon Uncle Capen within ten years.

Presently a smile broke over his face.

"I must tell you, before I forget it," he said, "how Uncle Capen nursed one of my patients. Years and years ago, I had John Ellis, our postmaster now, down with a fever. One night Uncle Capen watched—you know he was spry and active till he was ninety. Every hour he was to give Ellis a little ice-water; and when the first time came, he took a table-spoonful—there was only a dim light in the room—and poured the ice-water down Ellis's neck. Well, Ellis jumped, as much as so sick a man could, and then lifted his finger to his lips: 'Here 's my mouth,' said he. 'Why, why,' said Uncle Capen, 'is that your mouth? I took that for a wrinkle in your forehead."

The minister laughed.

"I have heard a score of such stories to-day," he said; "there seem to be enough of them; but I can't find anything adapted to a sermon, and yet they seem to expect a detailed biography."

"Ah, that's just the trouble," said the Doctor. "But let us go into the house; my wife remembers everything that ever happens, and she can post you up on Uncle Capen, if anybody can."

So they crossed the door-yard into the house.

Mrs. Hunter was sewing; a neighbor, come to tea, was crocheting wristers for her grandson.

They were both talking at once as the Doctor opened the sitting-room door.

"Since neither of you appears to be listening," he said, as they started up, "I shall not apologize for interrupting. Mr. Holt is collecting facts about Uncle Capen for his funeral sermon, and I thought that my good wife could help him out, if anybody could. So I will leave him."

And the Doctor, nodding, went into the hall for his coat and driving-gloves, and, going out, disappeared about the corner of the house.

"You will really oblige me very much, Mrs. Hunter," said the minister, "—or Mrs. French,—if you can give me any particulars about old Mr. Capen's life. His family seem to be rather sensitive, and they depend on a long, old-fashioned funeral sermon; and here I am utterly bare of facts."

"Why, yes," said Mrs. Hunter; "of course, now—"

"Why, yes; everybody knows all about him," said Mrs. French.

And then they laid their work down and relapsed into meditation.

"Oh!" said Mrs. Hunter, in a moment. "No, though—"

"Why, you know," said Mrs. French,—"no—I guess, on the whole—"

"You remember," said the Doctor's wife to Mrs. French, with a faint smile, "the time he papered my east chamber—don't you—how he made the pattern come?"

And then they both laughed gently for a moment.

"Well, I have always known him," said Mrs. French. "But really, being asked so suddenly, it seems to drive everything out of my head."

"Yes," said Mrs. Hunter, "and it's odd that I can't think of exactly the thing, just at this min-ute; but if I do, I will run over to the parsonage this evening."

"Yes, so will I," said Mrs. French; "I know that I shall think of oceans of things just as soon as you are gone."

"Won't you stay to tea?" said Mrs. Hunter, as Holt rose to go. "The Doctor has gone; but we never count on him."

"No, I thank you," said Mr. Holt. "If I am to invent a biography, I may as well be at it."

Mrs. Hunter went with him to the door.

"I must just tell you," she said, "one of Uncle Capen's sayings. It was long ago, at the time I was married and first came here. I had a young men's Bible-class in Sunday-school, and Uncle Capen came into it. He always wore a cap, and sat at meetings with the boys. So, one Sunday, we had in the lesson that verse,—you know,—that if all these things should be written, even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written; and there Uncle Capen stopped me, and said he, 'I suppose that means the world as known to the ancients?'"

Holt put on his hat, and with a smile turned and went on his way toward the parsonage; but he remembered that he had promised to call at what the local paper termed "the late residence of the deceased," where, on the one hundredth birthday of the centenarian, according to the poet's corner,—

"Friends, neighbors, and visitors he did receive From early in the morning till dewy eve."

So he turned his steps in that direction. He opened the clicking latch of the gate and rattled the knocker on the front door of the little cottage; and a tall, motherly woman of the neighborhood appeared and ushered him in.

Uncle Capen's unmarried daughter, a woman of sixty, her two brothers and their wives, and half-a-dozen neighbors were sitting in the tidy kitchen, where a crackling wood-fire in the stove was suggesting a hospitable cup of tea.

The ministers appearance, breaking the formal gloom, was welcomed.

"Well," said Miss Maria, "I suppose the sermon is all writ by this time. I think likely you 've come down to read it to us."

"No," said Holt, "I have left the actual writing of it till I get all my facts. I thought perhaps you might have thought of something else."

"No; I told you everything there was about father yesterday," she said. "I 'm sure you can't lack of things to put in; why, father lived a hundred years—and longer, too, for he was a hundred years and six days, you remember."

"You know," said Holt, "there are a great many things that are very interesting to a man's immediate friends that don't interest the public." And he looked to Mr. Small for confirmation.

"Yes, that 's so," said Mr. Small, nodding wisely.

"But, you see, father was a centenarian," said Maria, "and so that makes everything about him interesting. It's a lesson to the young, you know."

"Oh, yes, that's so," said Mr. Small, "if a man lives to be a centurion."

"Well, you all knew our good friend," said Mr. Holt. "If any of you will suggest anything, I shall be very glad to put it in."

Nobody spoke for a moment.

"There's one interesting thing," said one of the sons, a little old man much like his father; "that is, that none of his children have ever gone meandering off; we've all remained"—he might almost have said remained seated—"all our lives, right about him."

"I will allude to that," said Mr. Holt. "I hope you have something else, for I am afraid of running short of material: you see I am a stranger here."

"Why, I hope there won't be any trouble about it," said Maria, in sudden consternation. "I was a little afraid to give it out to so young a man as you, and I thought some of giving the preference to Father Cobb, but I did n't quite like to have it go out of the village, nor to deprive you of the opportunity; and they all assured me that you was smart. But if you 're feeling nervous, perhaps we 'd better have him still; he 's always ready."

"Just as you like," said Holt, modestly; "if he would be willing to preach the sermon, we might leave it that way, and I will add a few remarks." But Maria's zeal for Father Cobb was a flash in the pan. He was a sickly farmer, a licensed preacher, who, when he was called upon occasionally to meet a sudden exigency, usually preached on the beheading of John the Baptist.

"I guess you 've got things enough to write," said Maria, consolingly; "you know how awfully a thing doos drag out when you come to write it down on paper. Remember to tell how we 've all stayed right here."

When Holt went out, he saw Mr. Small beckoning him to come to where his green wagon stood under a tree.

"I must tell you," he said, with an awkwardly repressed smile, "about a trade of Uncle Capen's. He had a little lot up our way that they wanted for a schoolhouse, and he agreed to sell it for what it cost him, and the selectmen, knowing what it cost him,—fifty dollars,—agreed with him that way. But come to sign the deed, he called for a hundred dollars. 'How 's that,' says they; 'you bought it of Captain Sam Bowen for fifty dollars.' 'Yes, but see here,' says Uncle Capen, 'it's cost me on an average five dollars a year, for the ten year I 've had it, for manure and ploughing and seed, and that's fifty dollars more.' But you 've sold the garden stuff off it, and had the money,' says they. 'Yes,' says Uncle Capen, 'but that money 's spent and eat up long ago!'"

The minister smiled, shook hands with Mr. Small, and went home.

The church was crowded. Horses filled the sheds, horses were tied to the fences all up and down the street. Funerals are always popular in the country, and this one had a double element of attractiveness. The whole population of the town, having watched with a lively interest, for years back, Uncle Capen's progress to his hundredth birthday, expected now some electrical effect, analogous to an apotheosis.

In the front pews were the chief mourners, filled with the sweet intoxication of pre-eminence.

The opening exercises were finished, a hymn was sung,—

"Life is a span,"

and Father Cobb arose to make his introductory remarks.

He began with some reminiscences of the first time he saw Uncle Capen, some thirty years before, and spoke of having viewed him even then as an aged man, and of having remarked to him that he was walking down the valley of life with one foot in the grave. He called attention to Uncle Capen's virtues, and pointed out their connection with his longevity. He had not smoked for some forty years; therefore, if the youth who were present desired to attain his age, let them not smoke. He had been a total abstainer, moreover, from his seventieth year; let them, if they would rival his longevity, follow his example. The good man closed with a feeling allusion to the relatives, in the front pew, mourning like the disciples of John the Baptist after his "beheadment" Another hymn was sung,—

"A vapor brief and swiftly gone."

Then there was deep silence as the minister rose and gave out his text: "I have been young, and now I am old."

"At the time of the grand review in Washington," he said, "that mighty pageant that fittingly closed the drama of the war, I was a spectator, crippled then by a gun-shot wound, and unable to march. From an upper window I saw that host file by, about to record its greatest triumph by melting quietly into the general citizenship,—a mighty, resistless army about to fade and leave no trace, except here and there a one-armed man, or a blue flannel jacket behind a plough. Often now, when I close my eyes, that picture rises: that gallant host, those tattered flags; and I hear the shouts that rose when my brigade, with their flaming scarfs, went trooping by. Little as I may have done, as a humble member of that army, no earthly treasure could buy from me the thought of my fellowship with it, or even the memory of that great review.

"But that display was mere tinsel show compared with the great pageant that has moved before those few men who have lived through the whole length of the past hundred years.

"Before me lies the form of a man who, though he has passed his days with no distinction but that of an honest man, has lived through some of the most remarkable events of all the ages. For a hundred years a mighty pageant has been passing before him. I would rather have lived that hundred years than any other. I am deeply touched to reflect that he who lately inhabited this cold tenement of clay connects our generation with that of Washington. And it is impossible to speak of one whose great age draws together this assembly, without recalling events through which he lived.

"Our friend was born in this village. This town then included the adjoining towns to the north and south. The region was then more sparsely settled, although many houses standing then have disappeared. While he was sleeping peacefully in the cradle, while he was opening on the world childhood's wide, wondering eyes, those great men whose names are our perpetual benediction were planning for freedom from a foreign yoke. While he was passing through the happy years of early-childhood, the fierce clash of arms resounded through the little strip of territory which then made up the United States. I can hardly realize that, as a child, he heard as a fresh, new, real story, of the deeds of Lexington, from the lips of men then young who had been in the fight, or listened as one of an eager group gathered about the fireside, or in the old, now deserted tavern on the turnpike, to the story of Bunker Hill.

"And when, the yoke of tyranny thrown off, in our country and in France, Lafayette, the mere mention of whose name brings tears to the eyes of every true American, came to see the America that he loved and that loved him, he on whose cold, rigid face I now look down, joined in one of those enthusiastic throngs that made the visit like a Roman Triumph.

"But turn to the world of Nature, and think of the panoramic scenes that have passed before those now impassive eyes. In our friend's boyhood there was no practical mode of swift communication of news. In great emergencies, to be sure, some patriot hand might flash the beacon-light from a lofty tower; but news crept slowly over our hand-breath nation, and it was months after a presidential election before the result was generally known. He lived to see the telegraph flashing swiftly about the globe, annihilating time and space and bringing the scattered nations into greater unity.

"And think, my hearers, for one moment, of the wonders of electricity. Here is a power which we name but do not know; which flashes through the sky, shatters great trees, burns buildings, strikes men dead in the fields; and we have learned to lead it, all unseen, from our house-tops to the earth; we tame this mighty, secret, unknown power into serving us as a a daily messenger; and no man sets the limits now to the servitude that we shall yet bind it down to.

"Again, my hearers, when our friend was well advanced in life, there was still no better mode of travel between distant points than the slow, rumbling stage-coach; many who are here remember well its delays and discomforts. He saw the first tentative efforts of that mighty factor steam to transport more swiftly. He saw the first railroad built in the country; he lived to see the land covered with the iron net-work.

"And what a transition is this! Pause for a moment to consider it. How much does this imply. With the late improvements in agricultural machinery, with the cheapening of steel rails, the boundless prairie farms of the West are now brought into competition with the fields of Great Britain in supplying the Englishman's table, and seem not unlikely, within this generation, to break down the aristocratic holding of land, and so perhaps to undermine aristocracy itself."

So the preacher continued, speaking of different improvements, and lastly of the invention of daguerreotypes and photographs. He called the attention of his hearers to this almost miraculous art of indelibly fixing the expression of a countenance, and drew a lesson as to the permanent effect of our daily looks and expression on those among whom we live. He considered at length the vast amount of happiness which had been caused by bringing pictures of loved ones within the reach of all; the increase of family affection and general good feeling which must have resulted from the invention; he suggested a possible change in the civilization of the older nations through the constant sending home, by prosperous adopted citizens, of photographs of themselves and of their homes, and alluded to the effect which this must have had upon immigration.

Finally he adverted to the fact that the sons of the deceased, who sat before him, had not yielded to the restless spirit of adventure, but had found "no place like home."

"But I fear," he said at last, "that the interest of my subject has made me transgress upon your patience; and with a word or two more I will close.

"When we remember what hard, trying things often arise within a single day, let us rightly estimate the patient well-doing of a man who has lived a blameless life for a hundred years. When we remember what harm, what sin, can be crowded into a single moment, let us rightly estimate the principle that kept him so close to the Golden Rule, not for a day, not for a decade or a generation, but for a hundred years.

"And now, as we are about to lay his deserted body in the earth, let not our perceptions be dulled by the constant repetition in this world of death and burial. At this hour our friend is no longer aged; wrinkles and furrows, trembling limbs and snowy locks he has left behind him, and he knows, we believe, to-day, more than the wisest philosopher on earth. We may study and argue, all our lives, to discover the nature of life, or the form it takes beyond the grave; but in one moment of swift transition the righteous man may learn it all. We differ widely one from another, here, in mental power. A slight hardening of some tissue of the brain might have left a Shakspeare an attorney's clerk. But, in the brighter world, no such impediments prevent, I believe, clear vision and clear expression; and differences of mind that seem world-wide here, may vanish there. When the spirit breaks its earthly prison and flies away, who can tell how bright and free the humblest of us may come to be! There may be a more varied truth than we commonly think, in the words,—'The last shall be first.'

"Let this day be remembered. Let us think of the vast display of Nature's forces which was made within the long period of our old neighbor's life; but let us also reflect upon the bright pageant that is now unrolling itself before him in a better world."

That evening Miss Maria and her brothers, sitting in state in the little old house, received many a caller; and the conversation was chiefly upon one theme,—not the funeral sermon, although that was commended as a frank and simple biographical discourse, but the great events which had accompanied Uncle Capen's progress through this world, almost like those which Horace records in his Ode to Augustus.

"That's trew, every word," said Apollos Carver; "when Uncle Capen was a boy there wasn't not one railroad in the hull breadth of the United States, and just think: why now you can go in a Pullerman car clear'n acrost to San Francisco. My daughter lives in Oakland, just acrost a ferry from there."

"Well, then, there 's photographing," said Captain Abel. "It doos seem amazing, as the minister said: you set down, and square yourself, and slick your hair, and stare stiddy into a funnel, and a man ducks his head under a covering, and pop! there you be, as natural as life,—if not more so. And when Uncle Capen was a young man, there wasn't nothing but portraits and minnytures, and these black-paper-and-scissors portraits,—what do they call 'em? Yes, sir, all that come in under his observation."

"Yes," said one of the sons, "'tis wonderful; my wife and me was took setting on a settee in the Garding of Eden,—lions and tigers and other scriptural objects in the background."

"And don't forget the telegrapht," said Maria; "don't forget that."

"Trew," said Apollos, "that's another thing. I hed a message come once-t from my son that lives to Taunton. We was all so sca't and faint when we see it, that we did n't none of us dast to open it, and finally the feller that druv over with it hed to open it fur us."

"What was there in it?" said Mr. Small; "sickness?—death?"

"No, he wanted his thick coat expressed up. But my wife didn't get over the shock for some time. Wonderful thing, that telegraph—here's a man standing a hundred miles off, like enough, and harpooning an idea chock right into your mind."

"Then that was a beautiful truth," said Maria: "that father and Shakspeare would like enough be changed right round, in Heaven; I always said father wasn't appreciated here."

"Well," said Apollos, "'tis always so; we don't begin to realize the value of a thing tell we lose it. Now that we sort o' stand and gaze at Uncle Capen at a fair distance, as it were, he looms. Ef he only hed n't kep' so quiet, always, about them 'ere wonders. A man really ought, in justice to himself, to blow his own horn—jest a little. But that was a grand discourse, wa'n't it, now?"

"Oh, yes," said Maria, "though I did feel nervous for the young man. Still, when you come to think what materials he had to make a sermon out of,—why, how could he help it! And yet, I doubt not he takes all the credit to himself."

"I should really have liked to have heard Father Cobb treat the subject," said Mrs. Small, rising to go, and nodding to her husband. "'T was a grand theme. But 't was a real chance for the new minister. Such an opportunity doesn't happen not once in a lifetime."

The next morning, after breakfast, on his way home from the post-office, the minister stopped in at Dr. Hunter's office. The Doctor was reading a newspaper.

Mr. Holt took a chair in silence.

The Doctor laid down the paper and eyed him quizzically, and then slowly shook his head.

"I don't know about you ministers," he said. "I attended the funeral; I heard the biographical discourse; I understand it gave great satisfaction; I have reflected on it over night; and now, what I want to know is, what on earth 'there was in it about Uncle Capen."

The minister smiled.

"I think," he replied, "that all that I said about Uncle Capen was strictly true."

THE END

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