THERE were scores of people in Ashfield who would have been delighted to speak consolation to the bereaved clergyman ; but he was not a man to be approached easily with the ordinary phrases of sympathy. He bore himself too sternly under his grief. What, indeed, can be said in the face of affliction, where the manner of the sufferer seems to say, “ God has done it, and God does all things well ” ? Ordinary human sympathy falls below such a standpoint, and is wasted in the utterance.
Yet there are those who delight in breaking in upon the serene dignity which this condition of mind implies with a noisy proffer of consolation, and an aggravating rehearsal of the occasion for it; as if such comforters entertained a certain jealousy of the serenity they do not comprehend, and were determined to test its sufficiency. Dame Tourtelot was eminently such a person.
“ It ’s a dreadful blow to ye, Mr. Johns,” said she, “ I know it is. Almiry is a’most as much took down by it as you are. ‘ She was such a lovely woman,’ she says; and the poor, dear little boy, — won’t you let him come and pass a day or two with us ? Almiry is very fond of children.”
“ Later, later, my good woman,” savs the parson. “ I can't spare the boy now ; the house is too empty.”
“Oh, Mr. Johns, — the poor lonely thing ! ” (And she says this, with her hands in black mits, clasped together.) “ It’s a bitter blow ! As I was a-sayin’ to the Deacon, ‘ Such a lovely young woman, and such a good comfortable home, and she, poor thing, enjoyin’ it so much ! ’ I do hope you ’ll bear up under it, Mr. Johns,”
“ By God’s help, I will, my good woman.”
Dame Tourtelot was disappointed to find the parson wincing so little as he did under her stimulative sympathy. On returning home, she opened her views to the Deacon in this style : —
“ Tourtelot, the parson is not so much broke down by this as we ’ve been thinkin’; he was as cool, when I spoke to him to-day, as any man I ever see in my life. The truth is, she was a flighty young person, noways equal to the parson. I ’ve been a-suspectin’ it this long while ; she never, in my opinion, took a real hard hold upon him. But, Tourtelot, you should go and see Mr, Johns ; and I hope you ’ll talk consolingly and Scripterally to him. It ’s your duty.”
And hereupon she shifted the needles in her knitting, and, smoothing down the big blue stocking-leg over her knee, cast a glance at the Deacon which signified command. The dame was thoroughly mistress in her own household, as well as in the households of not a few of her neighbors. Long before, the meek, mild-mannered little man who was her husband had by her active and resolute negotiation been made a deacon of tire parish, — for which office he was not indeed ill-fitted, being religiously disposed, strict in his observance of all duties, and well-grounded in the Larger Catechism. He had, moreover, certain secular endowments which were even more marked, — among them, a wonderful instinct at a bargain, which had been polished by Dame Tourtelot’s superior address to a wonderful degree of sharpness ; and by reason of this the less respectful of the townspeople were accustomed to say, “ The Deacon is very small at home, but great in a trade.” Not that the Deacon could by any means be called an avaricious or miserly man : he had always his old Spanish milled quarter ready for the contribution-box upon Collection-Sundays ; and no man in the parish brought a heavier turkey to the parson’s larder on donation-days : but he could no more resist the sharpening of a bargain than he could resist a command of his wife. He talked of a good trade to the old heads up and down the village street as a lad talks of a new toy.
“ Squire,” he would say, addressing a neighbor on the Common, “ what do you s'pose I paid for that brindle ye’rlin’ o’ mine ? Give us a guess.”
“Waäl, Deacon, I guess you paid about ten dollars.”
“ Only eight ! ” the Deacon would say, with a smile that was fairly luminous,— “and a pootty likely critter I call it for eight dollars.”
“ Five hogs this year,” (in this way the Deacon was used to soliloquize.)—“I hope to make ’em three hundred apiece. The price works up about Christmas : Deacon Simmons has sold his’n at five, — distillery-pork ; that ’s sleezy, wastes in bilin’ ; folks know it: mine, bein’ corn-fed, ought to bring half a cent more, — and say, for Christmas, six; that ’ll give a gain of a cent, — on five hogs, at three hundred apiece, will be fifteen dollars. That ’ll pay half my pew-rent, and leave somethin’ over for Almiry, who’s always wantin’ fresh ribbons about New-Year’s.”
The Deacon cherished a strong dread of formal visits to the parsonage : first, because it involved his Sunday toilet, in which he was never easy, except at conference or in his pew at the meeting-house ; and next, because he counted it necessary on such occasions to give a Scriptural garnish to his talk, in which attempt he almost always, under the authoritative look of the parson, blundered into difficulty, Yet Tourtelot, in obedience to his wife’s suggestion, and primed with a text from Matthew, undertook the visit of condolence, — and, being a really kind-hearted man, bore himself well in it. Over and over the good parson shook his hand in thanks.
“ It ’ll all be right,” says the Deacon. “ ‘ Blessed are the mourners,’ is the Scripteral language, ‘ for they shall inherit the earth.’ ”
“ No, not that, Deacon,” says the minister, to whom a misquotation was like a wound in the flesh ; “ the last thing I want is to inherit the earth. ' They shall be comforted,’ — that’s the promise, Deacon, and I count on it.”
It was mortifying to his visitor to be caught napping on so familiar a text; the parson saw it. and spoke consolingly. But if not strong in texts, the Deacon knew what his strong points were ; so, before leaving, he invites a little offhand discussion of more familiar topics.
“ Pootty tight spell o’ weather we’ve been havin’, Parson.”
“ Rather cool, certainly,” says tire unsuspecting clergyman.
“ Got all your winter’s stock o’ wood in yit ? ”
“ No, I have n’t,” says the parson.
“ Waäl, Mr. Johns, I ’ve got a lot of 'pastur’-hickory cut and corded, that’s well seared over now, — and if you’d like some of it, I can let you have it very reasonable indeed.“
The sympathy of the Elderkins, if less formal, was none the less hearty. The Squire had been largely instrumental in securing the settlement of Mr. Johns, and had been a political friend of his father’s. In early life he had been engaged in the West India trade from the neighboring port of Middletown ; and on one or two occasions he had himself made tire voyage to Porto Rico, taking out a cargo of horses, and bringing back sugar, molasses, and rum. But it was remarked approvingly in the bar-room of the Eagle Tavern that this foreign travel had irot made the Squire proud,— nor yet the moderate fortune which he had secured by the business, in which he was still understood to bear an interest. His paternal home in Ashfield he had fitted up some years before with balustrade and other architectural adornments, which, it was averred by the learned in those matters, were copied from certain palatial residences in the West Indies.
The Squire united eminently in himself all those qualities which a Connecticut observer of those times expressed by the words, “right down smart man.” Not a turnpike enterprise could be started in that quarter of the State, but the Squire was enlisted, and as shareholder or director contributed to its execution. A clear-headed, kindly, energetic man, never idle, prone rather to do needless things than to do nothing; an ardent disciple of the Jeffersonian school, and in this combating many of those who relied most upon his sagacity in matters of business ; a man, in short, about whom it was always asked, in regard to any question of town or State policy, “What does the Squire think ? ” or “ How does the Squire mean to vote ? ” And the Squire’s opinion was sure to be a round, hearty one, which he came by honestly, and about which one who thought differently might saiely rally his columns of attack. The opinion of Giles Elderkin was not inquired into for the sake of a tame following-after, — that was not the Connecticut mode, — but for the sake of discussing and toying with it: very much as a sly old grimalkin toys with a mouse, — now seeming to entertain it kindly, then giving it a run, then leaping after it, crunching a limb of it, bearing it off into some private corner, giving it a new escape, swallowing it perhaps at last, and appropriating it by long process of digestion. And even then, the shrewd Connecticut man, if accused of modulating his own opinions after those of the Squire, would say, “ No, I allers thought so.”
Such a man as Giles Elderkin is of course ready with a hearty, outspoken word of cheer for his minister. Nay, the very religion of the Squire, which the parson had looked upon as somewhat discursive and human, — giving too large a place to good works, — was decisive anil to the point in the present emergency.
“It ’s God’s doing,” said he; “we must take the cup He gives us. For the best, is n’t it, Parson ?”
“ I do, Squire. Thank God, I can.”
There was good Mrs. Elderkin—who made up by her devotion to the special tenets of the clergyman many of the shortcomings of the Squire — insisted upon sending for the poor boy Reuben, that he might forget his grief in her kindness, and in frolic with the Elderkins through that famous garden, with its huge hedges of box, — such a garden as was certainly not to be matched elsewhere in Ashfield. The same good woman, too, sends down a wagon-load of substantial things from her larder, for the present relief of the stricken household ; to which the Squire has added a little round jug of choice Santa Cruz rum,—remembering the long watches of the parson. This may shock us now ; and yet it is to be feared that in our day the sin of hypocrisy is to be added to the sin of indulgence : the old people nestled under no cover of liver specifics or bitters. Reform has made a grand march indeed ; but the Devil, with his square bottles and Scheidam schnapps, has kept a pretty even pace with it.
THE boy Reuben, in those first weeks after his loss, wandered about as if in a maze, wondering at the great blank that death had made ; or, warming himself at some out-door sport, he rushed in with a pleasant forgetfulness,—shouting,— up the stairs, —to the accustomed door, and bursts in upon the cold chamber, so long closed, where the bitter knowledge comes upon him fresh once more. Esther, good soul that she is, has heard his clatter upon the floor, his bound at the old latch, and, fancying what it may mean, has come up in time to soothe him and bear him off with her. The parson, forging some sermon for the next Sabbath, in the room at the foot of the stairs, hears, may-be, the stifled sobbing of the boy, as the good Esther half leads and half drags him down, and opens his door upon them.
“ What now, Esther ? Has Reuben caught a fall ? ”
“ No, Sir, no fall; he’s not harmed, Sir. It ’s only the old room, you know, Sir, and he quite forgot himself”
“ Poor boy ! Will he come with me, Esther ? ”
“ No. Mr. Johns. I 'll find something ’ll amuse him ; hey, Ruby ?”
And the parson goes back to his desk, where he forgets himself in the glow of that great work of his. He has been taught, as never before, that “all flesh is grass.” He accepts his loss as a punishment for having thought too much and fondly of the blessings of this life ; henceforth the flesh and its affections shall be mortified in him. He has transferred his bed to a little chamber which opens from his study in the rear, and which is at the end of the long dining-room, where every morning and evening the prayers are said, as before. The parishioners see a light burning in the window of his study far into the night.
For a time his sermons are more emotional than before. Oftener than in the earlier days of his settlement he indulges in a forecast of those courts toward which he would conduct his people, and which a merciful God has provided for those who trust in Him ; and there is a coloring in these pictures which his sermons never showed in the years gone.
“We ask ourselves,” said he, “my brethren, if we shall knowingly meet there — where we trust His grace may give us entrance — those from whom you and I have parted ; whether a fond and joyous welcome shall greet us, not alone from Him whom to love is life, but from those dear ones who seem to our poor senses to be resting under the sod yonder. Sometimes I believe that by God’s great goodness,” (and here he looked, not at his people, but above, and kept his eye fixed there) — “I believe that we shall; that His great love shall so delight in making complete our happiness, even by such little memorials of our earthly affections (which must seem like waifs of thistle-down beside the great harvest of His abounding grace); that all the dear faces of those written in the Golden Book shall beam a welcome, all the more bounteous because reflecting His joy who has died to save.”
And the listeners whispered each other as he paused, “ He thinks of Rachel.” «
With his eyes still fixed above, he goes on, —
“ Sometimes I think thus ; but oftener I ask myself, ' Of what value shall human ties be, or their memories, in His august presence whom to look upon is life ? What room shall there be for other affections, what room for other memories,than those of ‘the Lamb that was slain ’ ?
“ Nay, my brethren,” (and here he turns his eyes upon them again,) “we do know in our hearts that many whom we have loved fondly — infants, fathers, mothers, wives, may-be — shall never, never sit with the elect in Paradise ; and shall we remember these in heaven, going away to dwell with the Devil and his angels ? Shall we be tortured with the knowledge that some poor babe we looked upon only for an hour is wearing out ages of suffering ? ' No,’ you may say, ‘for we shall be possessed in that day of such sense of the ineffable justice of God, and of His judgments, that all shall seem right.’ Yet, my brethren, if this sense of His supreme justice shall overrule all the old longings of our hearts, even to the suppression of the dearest ties of earth, where they conflict with His ordained purpose, will they not also overrule all the longings in respect of friends who are among the elect, in such sort that the man we counted our enemy, the man we avoided on earth, if so be he have an inheritance in heaven, shall be met with the same yearning of the heart as if he were our brother ? DOes this sound harshly, my brethren ? Ah, let us beware, —let us beware how we entertain any opinions of that future condition of holiness and of joy promised to the elect, which are dependent upon these gross attachments of earth, which are colored by our short-sighted views, which are not in every iota accordant with the universal love of Him who is our Master ! ”
“ This man lives above the world,” said the people ; and if some of them did not give very cordial assent to these latter views, they smothered their dissent by a lofty expression of admiration ; they felt it a duty to give them open acceptance, to venerate the speaker the more by reason of their utterance. And yet their limited acceptance diffused a certain chill, very likely, over their religious meditations. But it was a chill which unfortunately they counted it good to entertain, — a rigor of faith that must needs be borne. It is doubtful, indeed, if they did not make a merit of their placid intellectual admission of such beliefs as most violated the natural sensibilities of the heart. They were so sure that affectionate instincts were by nature wrong in their tendencies, so eager to cumulate evidences of the original depravity, that, when their parson propounded a theory that gave a shock to their natural affections, they submitted with a kind of heroic pride, however much their hearts might make silent protest, and the grounds of such a protest they felt a cringing unwillingness to investigate. There was a determined shackling of all the passional nature. What wonder that religion took a harsh aspect? As if intellectual adhesion to theological formulas were to pave our way to a knowledge of the Infinite ! — as if our sensibilities were to be outraged in the march to Heaven! — as if all the emotional nature were to be clipped away by the shears of the doctors, leaving only the metaphysic ghost of a soul to enter upon the joys of Paradise !
Within eight months after his loss, Mr. Johns thought of Rachel only as a gift that God had bestowed to try him, and had taken away to work in him a humiliation of the heart. More severely than ever he wrestled with the dogmas of his chosen divines, harnessed them to his purposes as preacher, and wrought on with a zeal that knew no abatement and no rest.
In the spring of 1825 Mr. Johns was invited by Governor Wolcott to preach the Election Sermon before the Legislature convened at Hartford: an honorable duty, and one which he was abundantly competent to fulfil. The “Hartford Courant” of that date said, — “A large auditory was collected last week to listen to the Election Sermon by Mr. Johns, minister of Ashfield. It was a sound, orthodox, and interesting discourse, and won the undivided attention of all the listeners. We have not recently listened to a sermon more able or eloquent.”
In that day even country editors were church-goers and God-fearing men.
IN the latter part of the summer of 1S26, — a reasonable time having now elapsed since the death of poor Rachel, — the gossips of Ashfield began to discuss the lonely condition of their pastor, in connection with any desirable or feasible amendment of it. The sin of such gossip — if it be a sin — is one that all the preaching in the world will never extirpate from country towns, where the range of talk is by the necessity of the case exceedingly limited. In the city, curiosity has an omnivorous maw by reason of position, and finds such variety to feed upon that it is rarely — except in the case of great political or public scandal — personal in its attentions ; and what we too freely reckon a perverted and impertinent country taste is but an ordinary appetite of humanity, which, by the limitation of its feedingground, seems to attach itself perversely to private relations.
There were some invidious persons in the town who had remarked that Miss Almira Tourtelot had brought quite a new fervor to her devotional exercises in the parish within the last year, as well as a new set of ribbons to her hat ; and two maiden ladies opposite, of distinguished pretensions and long experience of life, had observed that the young Reuben, on his passage back and forth from the Elderkins, had sometimes been decoyed within the Tourtelot yard, and presented by the admiring Dame Tourtelot with fresh doughnuts. The elderly maiden ladies were perhaps uncharitable in their conclusions ; yet it is altogether probable that the Deacon and his wife may have considered, in the intimacy of their fireside talk, the possibility of some time claiming the minister as a son-in-law. Questions like this are discussed in a great many families even now.
Dame Tourtelot had crowned with success all her schemes in life, save one. Almira, her daughter, now verging upon her thirty-second year, had long been upon the anxious-seat as regarded matrimony ; and with a sentimental turn that incited much reading of Cowper and Montgomery and (if it must be told) “Thaddeus of Warsaw,” the poor girl united a sickly, in-door look, and a peaked countenance, which had not attracted wooers. The wonderful executive capacity of the mother had unfortunately debarred her from any active interest in the household ; and though the Tourtelots had actually been at the expense of providing a piano for Almira, (the only one in Ashfield,) — upon which the poor girl thrummed, thinking of “Thaddeus,” and, we trust, of better things, — this had not won a roseate hue to her face, or quickened in any perceptible degree the alacrity of her admirers.
Upon a certain night of later October, after Almira has retired, and when the Tourtelots are seated by the little fire, which the autumn chills have rendered necessary, and into the embers of which the Deacon has cautiously thrust the leg of one of the fire-dogs, preparatory to a modest mug of flip, (with which, by his wife’s permission, he occasionally indulges himself.) the good dame calls out to her husband, who is dozing in his chair, —
“ Tourtelot! ”
But she is not loud enough.
“TOURTELOT ! you ’re asleep ! ”
“ No,” savs the Deacon, rousing himself,— “only thinkin’.”
“What are you thinkin’ of, Tourtelot?”
“Thinkin’ — thinkin’,” says the Deacon, rasped by the dame’s sharpness into sudden mental effort, — “thinkin’, Huldy, if it is n’t about time to butcher : we butchered last year nigh upon the twentieth.”
“ Nonsense ! ” says the dame ; “ what about the parson ? ”
“The parson ? Oh ! Why, the parson ’ll take a side and two hams.”
“ Nonsense ! ” says the dame, with a great voice ; “ you ’re asleep, Tourtelot. Is the parson goin’ to marry, or is n’t he ? that’s what I want to know ” ; and she rethreads her needle.
(She can do it by candle-light at fiftyfive, that woman !)
“ Oh, marry ! ” replies the Deacon, rousing himself more thoroughly, — “waäl, I don’t see no signs, Huldy. If he doos mean to, he’s slv about it; don’t you think so, Huldy?”
The dame, who is intent upon her sewing again,— she is never without her work, that woman ! — does not deign a reply.
The Deacon, after lifting the fire-dog, blowing off the ashes, and holding it to his face to try the heat, says, —
“ I guess Alntiry ha’n’t much of a chance.”
“ What’s the use of your guessin’ ? ” says the dame ; “ better mind your flip.”
Which the Deacon accordingly does, stirring it in a mild manner, until the dame breaks out upon him again explosively : —
“Tourtelot, you men of the parish ought to talk to the parson ; it a’n’t right for things to go on this way. That boy Reuben is growin’ up wild ; he wants a woman in the house to look arter him. Besides, a minister ought to have a wife ; it a’n’t decent to have the house empty, and only Esther there. Women want to feel they can drop in at the parsonage for a chat, or to take tea. But who’s to serve tea, I want to know ? Who ’s to mind Reuben in meetin’ ? He broke the cover off the best hymn-book in the parson’s pew last Sunday. Who ’s to prevent him a-breakin’ all the hymn-books that belong to the parish ? You men ought to speak to the parson ; and, Tourtelot, if the others won’t do it, you must.”
The Deacon was fairly awake now. He pulled at his whiskers deprecatingly. Yet he clearly foresaw that the emergency was one to be met; the manner of Dame Tourtelot left no room for doubt; and he was casting about for such Scriptural injunctions as might be made available, when the dame interrupted his reflections in more amiable humor, —
“ It is n't Almiry, Samuel, I think of, but Mr, Johns and the good of the parish. I really don ’t know if Almiry would fancy the parson ; the girl is a good deal taken up with her pianny and books ; but there’s the Hapgoods, opposite ; there ’s Joanny Meacham”——
“ You ’ll never make that do. Huldy,” said the Deacon, stirring his flip composedly ; “ they ’re nigh on as old as the parson.”
“Never"you mind, Tourtelot,” said the dame, sharply; “only you hint to the parson that they ’re good, pious women, all of them, and would make proper ministers’ wives. Do you think f don’t know what a man is, Tourtelot ? Humph ! ” And she threads her needle again,
The Deacon was apt to keep in mind his wife’s advices, whatever he might do with Scripture quotations. So when he called at the parsonage, a few days after, — ostensibly to learn how the minister would like his pork cut, — it happened that little Reuben came bounding in, and that the Deacon gave him a fatherly pat upon the shoulder.
“Likely boy you ’ve got here, Mr. Johns,— likely boy. But, Parson, don’t you think he must feel a kind o’ hankerin’ arter somebody to be motherly to him ? I ’most wonder that you don’t feel that way yourself, Mr. Johns.”
“God comforts the mourners,” said the clergyman, seriously.
“ No doubt, no doubt, Parson ; but Pie sometimes provides comforts ag’in which we shet our eyes. You won’t think hard o’ me, Parson, but I’ve heerd say about the village that Miss Meacham or one of the Miss Hapgoods would make an excellent wife for the minister.”
The parson is suddenly very grave.
“ Don’t repeat such idle gossip, Deacon. I ’m married to my work. The Gospel is my bride now.”
“And a very good one it is, Parson. But don’t you think that a godly woman for helpmeet would make the work more eflectooal ? Miss Meacham is a pattern of a person in the Sunday school. The women of the parish would rather like to find the doors of the parsonage openin’ for ’em ag’in.”
“ That is to be thought of certainly,” said the minister, musingly.
“You won’t think hard o’ me, Mr. Johns, for droppin’ a word about this matter ? ” says the Deacon, rising to leave. “And while I think on 't, Parson, I see the sill under the no’theast corner o’ the meetin’-house has a little settle to it. I ’ve jest been cuttin’ a few sticks o’ good smart chestnut timber; and if the Committee thinks best, I could haul down one or two on ’em for repairs. It won’t cost nigh as much as pine lumber, and it ’s every bit as good.”
Even Dame Tourtelot would have been satisfied with the politic way of the Deacon, both as regarded the wife and the prospective bargain. The next evening the good woman invited the clergyman — begging him “not to forget the dear little boy” — to tea.
This was by no means the first hint which the minister had had of the tendency of village gossip. The Tew partners, with whom he had fallen upon very easy terms of familiarity,—both by reason of frequent visits at their little shop, and by reason of their steady attendance upon his ministrations,— often dropped hints of the smallness of the good man’s grocery account, and insidious hopes that it might be doubled in size at some day not far off.
Squire Elderkin, too, in his bluff, hearty way, had occasionally complimented the clergyman upon the increased attendance latterly of ladies of a certain age, and had drawn his attention particularly to the ardent zeal of a buxom, middle-aged widow, who lived upon the skirts of the town, and was “ the owner,” he said, “ of as pretty a piece of property as lay in the county.”
“ Have you any knack at farming, Mr. Johns ?” continued he, playfully.
“ Farming ? why?” says the innocent parson, in a maze.
“ Because I am of opinion, Mr. Johns, that the widow’s little property might be rented by you, under conditions of joint occupancy, on very easy terms.”
Such badinage was so warded off by the ponderous gravity which the parson habitually wore, that men like Elderkin loved occasionally to launch a quiet joke at him, for the pleasure of watching the rebound.
When, however, the wide-spread gossip of the town had taken the shape (as in the talk of Deacon Tourtelot) of an incentive to duty, the grave clergyman gave to it his undivided and prayerful attention. It was over-true that the boy Reuben was running wild. No lad in Ashfield, of his years, could match him in mischief. There was surely need of womanly direction and remonstrance. It was eminently proper, too, that the parsonage, so long closed, should be opened freely to all his flock ; and the truth was so plain, he wondered it could have escaped him so long. Duty required that his home should have an established mistress ; and a mistress he forthwith determined it should have.
Within three weeks from the day of the tea-drinking with the Tourtelots, the minister suggested certain changes in the long-deserted chamber which should bring it into more habitable condition. He hinted to his man Larkin that an additional fire might probably be needed in the house during the latter part of winter ; and before January had gone out, he had most agreeably surprised the delighted and curious Tew partners with a very large addition to his usual orders, — embracing certain condiments in the way of spices, dried fruits, and cordials, which had for a long time been foreign to the larder of the parsonage.
Such indications, duly commented on, as they were most zealously, could not fail to excite a great buzz of talk and of curiosity throughout the town.
“ I knew it,” says Mrs. Tew, authoritatively, setting back her spectacles from her postal duties;—“these ’ere grave widowers are allers the first to pop off, and git married.”
“ Tourtelot ! ” said the dame, on a January night, when the evidence had come in overwhelmingly, — “ Tourtelot ! what does it all mean ? ”
“ D’n’ know,” says the Deacon, stirring his flip, — “ d’n’ know. It ’s my opinion the parson has his sly humors about him.”
“ Do you think it’s true, Samuel ? ”
“Waäl, Huldy, — I du.”
“ Tourtelot ! finish your flip, and go to bed : it’s past ten.”
And the Deacon went.
TOWARD the latter end of the winter there arrived at the parsonage the new mistress,— in the person of Miss Eliza Johns, the elder sister of the incumbent, and a spinster of the ripe age of three-and-thirty. For the last twelve years she had maintained a lonely, but matronly, command of the old homestead of the late Major Johns, in the town of Canterbury. She was intensely proud of the memory of her father, and of his father before him, — every inch a Johns. No light cause could have provoked her to a sacrifice of the name ; and of weightier causes she had been spared the trial. The marriage of her brother had always been more or less a source of mortification to her. The Handbys, though excellent plain people, were of no particular distinction. Rachel had a pretty face, with which Benjamin had grown suddenly demented. That source of mortification and of disturbed intimacy was now buried in the grave. Benjamin had won a reputation for dignity and ability which was immensely gratifying to her. She had assured him of it again and again in her occasional letters. The success of his Election Sermon had been an event of the greatest interest to her, which she had expressed in an epistle of three pages, with every comma in its place, and full of gratulations. Her commas were always in place ; so were her stops of all kinds : her precision was something marvellous. This precision had enabled her to manage the little property which had been left her in such a way as to maintain always about her establishment an air of well-ordered thrift. She concealed adroitly all the shifts — if there were any — by which she avoided the reproach of seeming poor.
In person she was not unlike her father, the Major, — tall, erect, with a dignified bearing, and so trim a figure, and so elastic a step even at her years, as would have provoked an inquisitive follower to catch sight of the face. This was by no means attractive. Her features were thin, her nose unduly prominent ; and both eye and mouth, though well formed, carried about them a kind of hard positiveness that would have challenged respect, perhaps, but no warmer feeling. Two little curls were flattened upon either temple ; and her neck-tie, dress, gloves, hat, were always most neatly arranged, and ordered with the same precision that governed all her action. In the town of Canterbury she was an institution. Her charities and all her religious observances were methodical, and never omitted. Her whole life, indeed, was a discipline. Without any great love for children, she still had her Bible-class ; and it was rare that the weather or any other cause forbade attendance upon its duties. Nor was there one of the little ones who listened to that clear, sharp, metallic voice of hers but stood in awe of her ; not one that could say she was unkind ; not one who had ever bestowed a childish gift upon her, — such little gifts as children love to heap on those who have found the way to their hearts.
Sentiment had never been effusive in her ; and it was now limited to quick sparkles, that sometimes flashed into a page of her reading. As regarded the serious question of marriage, implying a home, position, the married dignities, it had rarely disturbed her ; and now her imaginative forecast did not grapple it with any vigor or longing. If, indeed, it had been possible that a man of high standing, character, cultivation, — equal, in short, to the Johnses in every way,— should woo her with pertinacity, she might have been disposed to yield a dignified assent, but not unless he could be made to understand and adequately appreciate the immense favor she was conferring. In short, the suitor who could abide and admit her exalted pretensions, and submit to them, would most infallibly be one of a character and temper so far inferior to her own that she would scorn him from the outset. This dilemma, imposed by the rigidity of her smaller dignities, that were never mastered or overshadowed either by her sentiment or her passion, not only involved a life of celibacy, but was a constant justification of it, and made it eminently easy to be borne. There are not a few maiden ladies who are thus lightered over the shoals of a solitary existence by the buoyancy of their own intemperate vanities.
Miss Johns did not accept the invitation of her brother to undertake the charge of his household without due consideration. She by no means left out of view the contingency of his possible future marriage ; but she trusted largely to her own influences in making it such a one, if inevitable, as should not be discreditable to the family name. And under such conditions she would retire with serene contentment to her own more private sphere of Canterbury,—or, if circumstances should demand, would accept the position of guest in the house of her brother. Nor did she leave out of view her influence in the training of the boy Reuben. She cherished her own hopes ot moulding him to her will, and of making him a pride to the family.
There was of course prodigious excitement in the parsonage upon her arrival. Esther had done her best at all household appliances, whether of kitchen or chamber. The minister received her with his wonted quietude, and a brotherly kiss of salutation. Reuben gazed wonderingly at her, and was thinking dreamily it he should ever love her, while he felt the dreary rustle of her black silk dress swooping round as she stooped to embrace him. “I hope Master Reuben is a good boy,” said ; “your Aunt Eliza loves all good boys.”
He had nothing to say; but only looked back into that cold gray eve, as she lifted his chin with her gloved hand.
“ Benjamin, there’s a strong look of the Handbys ; but it ’s your forehead. He’s a little man, I hope,” and she patted him on the head.
Still Reuben looked — wonderingly — at her shining silk dress, at her hat, at the little curls on either temple, at the guard-chain which hung from her neck with a glittering watch-key upon it, at the bright buckle in her belt, and most of all at the gray eye which seemed to look on him from far away. And with the same stare of wonderment, he followed her up and down throughput the house.
At night, Esther, who has a chamber near him, creeps in to say good-night to the lad, and asks, —
“Do you like her, Ruby, boy? Do you like your Aunt Eliza ? ”
“I d’n know,” says Reuben. “She says she likes good boys ; don't you like bad uns, Esther ? ”
“ But you ’re not 'very bad,” says Esther, whose orthodoxy does not forbid kindly praise.
“ Did n’t mamma like bad uns, Esther ? ”
“Dear heart!” and the good creature gives the boy a great hug ; it could not have been warmer, if he had been her child.
The household speedily felt the presence of the new comer. Her precision, her method, her clear, sharp voice, — never raised in anger, never falling to tenderness, — ruled the establishment. Under all the cheeriness of the old management, there had been a sad lack of any economic system, by reason of which the minister was constantly overrunning his little stipend, and making awkward appeals from time to time to the Parish Committee for advances. A small legacy that had befallen the late Mrs. Johns, and which had gone to the purchase of the parsonage, had brought relief at a very perplexing crisis ; but against all similar troubles Miss Johns set her face most resolutely. There was a daily examination of butchers’ and grocers’ accounts, that had been previously unknown to the household. The kitchen was placed under strict regimen, into the observance of which the good Esther slipped, not so much from love of it, as from total inability to cope with the magnetic authority of the new mistress. Nor was she harsh in her manner of command.
“ Esther, my good woman, it will be best, I think, to have breakfast a little more promptly, — at half past six, we will say, — so that prayers may be over and the room free by eight; the minister, you know, must have his morning in his study undisturbed.”
“ Yes, Marm,” says Esther ; and she would as soon have thought of flying over the house-top in her short gown as of questioning the plan.
Again, the mistress says, — “Larkin, I think it would be well to take up those scattered bunches of lilies, and place them upon either side of the walk in the garden, so that the flowers may be all together.”
“ Yes, Marm,” says Larkin.
And much as he had loved the little woman now sleeping in her grave, who had scattered flowers with an errant fancy, he would have thought it preposterous to object to an order so calmly spoken, so evidently intended for execution. There was something in the tone of Miss Johns in giving directions that drew off all moral power of objection as surely as a good metallic conductor would free an overcharged cloud of its electricity.
The parishioners were not slow to perceive that new order prevailed at the quiet parsonage. Curiosity, no less than the staid proprieties which governed the action of the chief inhabitants, had brought them early into contact with the new mistress. She received all with dignity and with an exactitude of deportment that charmed the precise ones and that awed the younger folks. The bustling Dame Tourtelot had come among the earliest, and her brief report was, — “ Tourtelot, Miss Johns s as smart as a steel trap.”
Nor was the spinster sister without a degree of cultivation which commended her to the more intellectual people of Ashfield. She was a reader of “ Rokeby” and of Miss Austen’s novels, of Josephus and of Rollin’s “Ancient History.” The Miss Hapgoods, who were the blue - stockings of the place, were charmed to have such an addition to the cultivated circle of the parish. To make the success of Miss Johns still more decided, she brought with her a certain knowledge of the conventionalisms of the city, by reason of her occasional visits to her sister Mabel, (now Mrs. Brindlock of Greenwich Street,) which to many excellent women gave larger assurance of her position and dignity than all besides. Before the first year of her advent had gone by, it was quite plain that she was to become one of the prominent directors of the female world of Ashfield.
Only in the parsonage itself did her influence find its most serious limitations, — and these in connection with the boy Reuben.
THERE is a deep emotional nature in the lad, which, by the time he has reached his eighth year, — Miss Eliza having now been in the position of mistress of the household a twelvemonth, — works itself off in explosive tempests of feeling, with which the prim spinster has but faint sympathy. No care could be more studious and complete than that with which she looks after the boy’s wardrobe and the ordering of his little chamber ; his supply of mittens, of stockings, and of underclothing is always of the most ample ; nay. his caprices of the table are not wholly overlooked, and she hopes to win upon him by the dishes that are most toothsome ; but, however grateful for the moment, his boyish affections can never make their way with any force or passionate flow through the stately proprieties of manner with which the spinster aunt is always hedged about.
He wanders away after school-hours to the home of the Elderkins, — Phil and he being sworn friends, and the good mother of Phil always having ready for him a beaming look of welcome and a tender word or two that somehow always find their way straight to his heart. He loiters with Larkin, too, by the great stable-yard of the inn, though it is forbidden ground. He breaks in upon the precise woman’s rule of punctuality sadly ; many a cold dish he eats sulkily— she sitting bolt upright in her place at the table, looking down at him with glances which are every one a punishment. Other times he is straying in the orchard at the hour of some home-duty, and the active spinster goes to seek him, and not threateningly, but with an assured step and a firm grip upon the hand of the loiterer, which he knows not whether to count a favor or a punishment, (and she as much at a loss, so inextricably interwoven are her notions of duty and ot kindness.) leads him homeward, plying him with, stately precepts upon the sin of negligence, and with earnest story of the dreadful fate which is sure to overtake all bad boys who do not obey and keep “ by the rules ” ; and she instances those poor lads who were eaten by the bears, of whom she has read to him the story in the Old Testament.
“ Who was it they called ‘bald-head,’ Reuben ? Elisha or Elijah ?”
He, in no mood for reply, ?s sulkily beating off the daisies with his feet, as she drags him on ; sometimes hanging back, with impotent, yet concealed struggle, which she —not deigning to notice — overcomes with even sharper step, and plies him the more closely with the dire results of badness, —has not finished her talk, indeed, when they reach the door-step and enter. There he, fuming now with that long struggle, fuming the more because he has concealed it, makes one violent discharge with a great frown on his little face, “You ’re an ugly old thing, and I don't like you one bit! ”
Esther, good soul, within hearing of it, lifts her hands in apparent horror, but inwardly indulges in a wicked chuckle over the boy’s spirit.
But the minister has heard him, too, and gravely summons the offender into his study.
“ My son, Reuben, this is very wrong.”
And the boy breaks into a sob at this stage, which is a great relief.
“ My boy, you ought to love your aunt.”
“ Why ought I ? ” says he.
“ Why ? why ? Don't you know she ’s very good to you, and takes excellent care of you, and hears you say your catechism every Saturday ? You ought to love her.”
“ But I can’t make myself love her, if I don’t,” says the boy.
“ It is your duty to love her, Reuben ; and we can all do our duty.”
Even the staid clergyman enjoys the boy’s discomfiture under so orthodox a proposition. Miss Johns, however, breaks in here, having overheard the latter part of the talk : —
“No, Benjamin, I wish no love that is given from a sense of duty. Reuben sha’n't be forced into loving his Aunt Eliza.”
And there is a subdued tone in her speech which touches the boy. But he is not ready yet for surrender; he watches gravely her retirement, and for an hour shows a certain preoccupation at his play ; then his piping voice is heard at the foot of the stairway,—
“ Aunt Eliza ! Are you there ? ”
“ Yes, Master Reuben ! ”
Master ! It cools somewhat his generous intent ; but he is in for it; and he climbs the stair, sidles uneasily into the chamber where she sits at her work, stealing a swiit, inquiring look into that gray eye of hers, —
“I say — Aunt Eliza—I ’m sorry I said that — you know what.”
And he looks up with a little of the old yearning, — the yearning he used to feel when another sat in that place.
“Ah, that is right, Master Reuben I I hope we shall be friends, now.”
Another disturbed look at her,— remembering the time when he would have leaped into a mother’s arms, after such struggle with his self-will, and found gladness. That is gone ; no swift embrace, no tender hand toying with his hair, beguiling him from play. And he sidles out again, half shamefaced at a surrender that has wrought so little. Loitering, and playing with the balusters as he descends, the swift, keen voice comes after him, —
“ Don’t soil the paint, Reuben ! ”
“ I have n’t.”
And the swift command and as swift retort put him in his old, wicked mood again, and he breaks out into a defiant whistle. (Over and over the spinster has told him it was improper to whistle in-doors.) Yet, with a lingering desire for sympathy, Reuben makes his way into his father’s study ; and the minister lays down his great folio, — it is Poole’s “Annotations,” — and says,—
“ Well, Reuben ! ”
“ I told her I was sorry,” says the boy ; “but I don’t believe she likes me much.”
“ Why, my son ? ”
“ Because she called me Master, and said it was very proper.”
“ But does n’t that show an interest in you ? ”
“ I don’t know what interest is.”
“ It’s love.”
“ Mamma never called me Master,” said Reuben.
The grave minister bites his lip, beckons his boy to him, — “ Here, my son ! “ — passes his arm around him, had almost drawn him to his heart, —
“There, there, Reuben; leave me now ; I have my sermon to finish. I hope you won't be disrespectful to your aunt again. Shut the door.”
And the minister goes back to his work, ironly honest, mastering his sensibilities, tearing great gaps in his heart, even as the anchorites once fretted their bodies with hair-cloth and scourgings.
In the summer of 1828 Mr. Johns was called upon to preach a special discourse at the Commencement exercises of the college from which he had received his degree ; and so sterlingly orthodox was his sermon, at a crisis when some sister colleges were bolstering up certain new theological tenets which had a strong taint of heresy, that the old gentlemen who held rank as fellows of his college, in a burst of zeal, bestowed upon the worthy man the title of D. D. It was not an honor he had coveted ; indeed, he coveted no human honors ; yet this was more wisely given than most : his dignity, his sobriety, his rigid, complete adherence to all the accepted forms of religious belief made him a safe recipient of the title.
The spinster sister, with an ill-concealed pride, was most zealous in the bestowal of it; and before a month had passed, she had forced it into current use throughout the world of Ashfield.
Did a neglectful neighbor speak of the good health of “ Mr. Johns,” the mistress of the parsonage said,—“ Why, yes, the Doctor is working very hard, it is true ; but he is quite well; the Doctor is remarkably well.”
Did a younger church - sister speak in praise of some late sermon of “ the minister,” Miss Eliza thanked her in a dignified way, and was sure “ the Doctor ” would be most happy to hear that his efforts were appreciated.
As for Larkin and Esther, who stumbled dismally over the new title, the spinster plied them urgently.
“ Esther, my good woman, make the Doctor’s tea very strong to-night.”
“ Larkin, the Doctor won’t ride today ; and mind, you must cut the wood for the Doctor’s fire a little shorter.”
Reuben only rebelled, with the mischief of a boy : —
“ What for do you call papa Doctor ? He don't carry saddle-bags.”
To the quiet, staid man himself it was a wholly indifferent matter. In the solitude of his study, however, it recalled a neglected duty, and in so far seemed a blessing. By such paltry threads are the colors woven into our life ! It recalled his friend Maverick and his jaunty prediction ; and upon that came to him a recollection of the promise which he had made to Rachel, that he would write to Maverick.
So the minister wrote, telling his old friend what grief had stricken his house, — how his boy and he were left alone, — how the church, by favor of Providence, had grown under his preaching, — how his sister had come to be mistress of the parsonage, — how he had wrought the Master’s work in fear and trembling ; and after this came godly counsel for the exile.
He hoped that light had shone upon him, even in the “dark places ” of infidel France,—that he was not alienated from the faith of his fathers, — that he did not make a mockery, as did those around him, of the holy institution of the Sabbath.
“ My friend,” he wrote, “ God’s word is true ; God’s laws are just ; He will come some day in a chariot of fire. Neither moneys nor high places nor worldly honors nor pleasures can stay or avert the stroke of that sword of divine justice which will ‘pierce even to the dividing asunder of the joints and marrow.’ Let no siren voices beguile you. Without the gift of His grace who died that we might live, there is no hope for kings, none for you, none for me. I pray you consider this, my friend ; for I speak as one commissioned of God.”
Whether these words of the minister were met, after their transmission over seas, with a smile of derision, —with an empty gratitude, that said, “ Good fellow ! ” and forgot their burden, — with a stitch of the heart, that made solemn pause and thoughtfulness, and short, vain struggle against the habit of a life, we will not say ; our story may not tell, perhaps. But to the mind of the parson it was clear that at some great coming day it would be known of all men where the seed that he had sown had fallen, — whether on good ground or in stony places.
The cross-ocean mails were slow in those days ; and it was not until nearly four months after the transmission of the Doctor’s letter —he having almost forgotten it — that Reuben came one day bounding in from the snow in midwinter, his cheeks aflame with the keen, frosty air, his eyes dancing with boyish excitement: —
“ A letter, papa ! a letter ! — and Mr. Troop ” (it is the new postmaster under the Adams dynasty) “says it came all the way from Europe. It’s got a funny post-mark.”
The minister lays down his book, — takes the letter, — opens it, — reads, — paces up and down his study thoughtfully, — reads again, to the end.
“ Reuben, call your Aunt Eliza.”
There is matter in the letter that concerns her, — that in its issues will concern the boy, — that may possibly give a new color to the life of the parsonage, and a new direction to our story.