Book-Dusting Time

WHEN book-dusting time comes around, it is always rather a heart - searching season, because every library which has been gradually accumulated by people to whom books have a human interest is full of underlying memories. The last time I attacked my bookcases, fired by a periodic recollection that cleanliness is next to godliness, it was my old schoolgirl copy of Paley’s Evidences of Christianity that opened inadvertently in my hand and served to paralyze my energies.

On one of the blank pages at the beginning of the book I found a brief, written dialogue which, like an elixir of youth, in a breathing space blotted out all the intervening years and made me a girl again, waiting the bell-stroke for morning recitation in the sunny classroom of the old seminary among the hills. The familiar scene lived again in my memory, the autumn morning, full of color and clear airs, the wide windows opening on the wonderful circle of hills, and the boy from Boston handing me, with his bow of unfailing courtesy, the volume, in which he had written in that finished, elegant script which was so characteristic of him:

“I hear you have received promotion on the field.”

“For what?” I wrote in return.

“From the context one would say it must have been for courage under fire.”

I ought, indeed, to have been very downcast on that memorable morning, — it was only the joy of nature’s pageant and the flooding spirits of youth, and, perhaps, the natural resistance of an india - rubbery temperament, that kept me from being so, — for, on the day before, I had succeeded, like Satan, in exalting myself by merit to an exceeding “bad eminence.”

“ Once in about so often,” as the phrase goes, it was the custom at our seminary to set in motion the machinery destined to culminate later in a season of religious revival. On the day in question we had found on assembling at the hour for chapel that such a season was about to be inaugurated. It was my first term at the school, and my first experience in the peculiar reformatory methods employed there. I am constitutionally reluctant in regard to making hasty promises, and constitutionally stubborn where I suspect anything like a trap; hence I remained quiescent while invitations to rise for prayers followed each other in rapid succession, each more sweeping than the last; and when, as a climax to the whole, “all those who desire to be counted with the righteous at the great and awful day of the judgment of God ” were requested to manifest their aspirations, I still sat fast, the only sinner in the assemblage, amidst the horrified glances of the virtuous and the audible titters of the frivolous-minded.

It would not have suited Dr., the head of the institution, a man of much individuality of character, to have taken any immediate personal notice of my contumacy, but in the long prayer which followed I waited with vivid interest for the petition in which I knew I should be impaled. It came at the very last. In those drawling, sarcastic tones which every student knew well, he added, as an afterthought, “ Oh, Lord, I had almost forgotten to beseech thee to have mercy, in spite of her stubbornness, on the young woman who has expressed a desire to be damned!”

Our class in Evidences of Christianity was not in all respects a usual one, though the average type of pupil was not lacking. I knew, on that autumn morning, that the conventionally pious element, they to whom complexities of temperament were unknown quantities, would wonder at my temerity in daring to face the public eye. I knew, too, that there were in the school many well-behaved young men and women who were in their hearts rather glad that at last some one had mustered sufficient courage, if not to be sincere, at least not to be insincere. For the opinions of the unusual element in our class I did not trouble myself; I knew that in time I should hear and be interested in them. From the conventional theological student I should be likely to hear also. He was a creature instinct with opinions which he unceasingly disseminated.

The “big minister,” as we called the other theologue, whose thoughts were as big as his body, was in the class for business purposes, but he gave as much as he got. The tall young law student was there because he loved the big minister, and also loved all discussion. The boy who sometimes brought snakes in his pocket was there because he had a universally inquiring mind. I was there because my father desired me to be. He had his own notions of what such study might do for me. The boy from Boston was there because I was. He was my “ opposite ” at table, and to be an opposite at the old Hill seminary was to subscribe to a relation as inflexible while it lasted as the marriage vow; though it must be acknowledged that the youth in question was of a nature to be bound only of free will. His inflexibility was that of tempered steel.

He was a merry - hearted scamp, this boy from Boston, a creature full of graceful courtesies, full of fascinating contradictions. Sentiment and mischief strove within him mightily for mastery. He knew Mrs. Browning’s sonnets by heart, nor did this knowledge prevent him from enjoying much more questionable literature. Among so many raw, untrained country boys, his graces of person and manner shone resplendent, and the other girls openly envied me the attentions which their less facile squires longed, yet scorned, to pay.

I remember well the night he asked me to be his opposite. Standing on the stone steps outside the broken alcove window, he seized my hand through the shattered pane, and bowed over it in such inspired oblivion of the circle of admiring girls who stood by in open-mouthed enjoyment of these story-book doings, that, whatever I might have done, he, at least, escaped all suspicion of appearing ridiculous. My room-mate, at hair-brushing time, spoke with much contumely of her own sturdy, red-cheeked opposite, a sterling but awkward fellow.

“ I ’d give all Bert’s goodness for a little of Louis’s grand air,” she said, with true feminine disregard for solid values.

So full of bounding life was he, this boy from Boston, so easily foremost in everything requiring athletic vigor, that one found it hard to credit his frequent and cheerful statement that he already bore within his supple frame the seeds of an early doom.

“ I think I ’ll be pretty much alive while I am alive,” he used to urge suavely in extenuation of some unusually flagrant piece of mischief, “because my chance is going to be such a limited one.”

The professor who had charge of our theological vagaries was one of the oldfashioned variety, a product of the days of slower intellectual development and more moderate ambitions, when men studied for love of study, and to teach was in itself a sort of distinction. He was a man of strong individuality, big-headed, clear-eyed, of a scrupulous neatness in dress which, while totally disregarding changes of fashion, achieved by its precision a certain degree of elegance. His methods of teaching were as individual as his character.

On this especial morning the lesson assigned was a part of the chapter on the morality of the gospel, and dealt distinctively with “the internal evidence of Christianity,” but Professor D. opened the recitation with an abrupt question addressed to the boy from Boston, who, elbows on knees, was leaning forward with dark eyes seemingly yearning toward the hills.

“ If you were going to preach a sermon, Mr. R.,”—here a ripple of amusement showed itself on the circle of listening faces, — “ what text would you choose?”

The boy from Boston, still absorbed in the hills, answered with unsmiling promptness.

“I would select one short sentence from the poet Simonides: ‘It is hard to be good.’ ”

“ What do you know about the poet Simonides?” the professor questioned, still abruptly.

“Nothing at all,” acknowledged the purveyor of unexpected bits of erudition, “except that he was a Greek and apparently knew what he was talking about.”

“The apostle Paul said something to the same effect, and Job foreshadowed it. when he declared, ‘Man, that is born of woman, is of few days and full of trouble.”The professor’s voice was rich in sonorous tones. He enjoyed quoting. “Mr. M.,” — turning suddenly to the congressman’s son, — “what text would you choose to preach from ? ”

The congressman’s son, as a member of the theology class, was wholly unaccounted for. Nobody pretended to know why he was there. I doubt if he had any definite reason in his own mind. He was an unmothered waif, who had already been judiciously weeded from seven successive schools. The boy from Boston had dubbed him “our gentleman of the seven sins,” and the name stuck. He was at present precariously enjoying his eighth and last experiment in school homes. After this, — so rumor said, — in case of one more dismissal, already perilously near, came the deluge. We had all grown rather fond of that clever, dark face of his, and shielded and bolstered him on all possible occasions, dreading the final catastrophe of submergence.

A slow flush mounted through the olive of his cheek as he answered the professor’s query.

“I would preach,” he declared, “from the text, ‘ It is hard not to be good.’ ”

There was a universal stare. Nobody had ever suspected our gentleman of the seven sins of encountering just this sort of difficulty.

He grinned a little when he saw our faces. “I don’t mean just what you think I do. What I’m trying to get at is this, — no fellow who’s got any decency in him goes to the dogs without having times when he kicks himself. Perhaps he goes just the same, — most generally I guess he does,—but it don’t follow that he’s dead in love with what he’s doing.”

“ If he keeps on long enough,” the law student commented, “he gets to the place where he don’t kick himself any more. A trained nurse who has spent a large part of his time taking care of old men during the last days of their lives told me that as a rule in his experience his irreligious patients met death with more equanimity than the professing Christians.”

The truly-good theologue looked pained at the turn the recitation was taking. The big minister seemed unusually alert and full of interest. Even in those days he was alive to every subtlest opportunity for divining the souls of men. The professor, noting his intent look, answered it with a question:

“ How would you account for the truth of such a statement, granting it to be true ?”

“Easily enough. It merely shows the difference between an oversensitive and an undersensitive conscience.”

“Miss B.,” — it was my turn now for one of the professor’s darting questions,— “if you were going to characterize the ordinary method of presenting the subject of religion to the unconverted, socalled, what form would your comment take ?”

“I should say,” I suggested boldly, “that the subject is usually presented wrong end foremost.”

The pious theologue groaned audibly. Who was I, an acknowledged pagan, that my opinions on religious topics should be even tolerated ? At sight of his displeasure the professor waxed genial “How so?” he inquired encouragingly.

“Why,” I hesitated, “of course it is a wonderful and beautiful thing to be good, but most of the time people get so mixed up with ‘Thou shalt nots ’ that they forget the heroic side of it. I suppose life is a good deal like this school. We’re awfully tempted to break rules.”

The good theologue took his life in his hands. He had a duty to perform, let the professor trample upon him as he might. “Are we not wasting time?” he asked, pensively patient. “Were we not to-day to consider the morality of the gospel — a great subject?”

There was a gleam of blue fire under the professor’s heavy brows. “And what is the gospel for, Mr. C., but for the building up of man ? We were to study to-day the internal evidences of Christianity; a great subject truly, a strange, subtle subject, the inmost significance of which is not written upon the surface of life, but to be sought for, earnestly and patiently sought out in the hidden recesses of the heart and soul. No discussion is a waste of time that may chance to open a window into the soul of a man or woman. I claim that every human creature holds within himself greater possibilities for good than he himself realizes. I believe, sir, in unconscious goodness, intuitive Christianity, and I thank God that I do so believe. It is my business to recognize, to seek out, to develop, such possibilities in my pupils. I find them where you, sir, would never dream of looking for these evidences, but it is not your fault, sir, not your fault so much as your misfortune, that you are constitutionally incapacitated for viewing any subject in its entirety!”

At the close of this same week, the week of the foregoing recitation, dawned the longed-for day of the annual “fall walk.”

It mattered little to the hot heart of youth that, though the autumn sun shone, a chill wind rustled the withering scarlet of the trees. No one stayed within doors for so slight a matter as the blowing of the wind on this long-expected day of untrammeled “socializing,” when the sexes might mingle in hilarious and permitted intercourse. When we streamed down the long road toward South Pond, none was left behind. The good theologue, suppressed but unsubdued, trudged with the rest, and, in his grudging way, made holiday in his heart. The big minister swung along with mighty stride, followed by the tall law student, still discussing, discussing evermore. The snake boy gathered in a scanty autumn harvest. The boy from Boston, afflicted with one of his worst bronchial colds, croaked buoyantly at my right, although the professor in charge, the shepherd of our flock, chose persistently to linger in our company.

It was our only unrestricted day for the whole term, yet no one would have supposed from the gallant bearing of my facile opposite that he found the good professor’s presence unwelcome. He — the boy from Boston — had missionary relatives whom, one would judge from his ordinary conversation, he did not estimate according to their full excellence. Yet, as it seemed to-day, he had nevertheless taken in at the pores much picturesque information about Burmah. He charmed the attendant professor; the good theologue unwillingly drew near, drawn in spite of himself; the big minister joined our group; the law student, forced to cease arguing, listened to the croaking voice that unfailingly seized the salient point of each situation. We, the unworthy ones, proceeded on our pondward way haloed and girt about by an assemblage of the good, and once, only once, did I detect an irreverent twinkle in the dark eyes of the boy from Boston.

When we had reached our destination, and most of our group were participating in a lively scramble for needed firewood, the professor, watching an agile figure always in the midst of the fray, commented absentmindedly to whomever it might concern:—

“A fascinating personality — most fascinating! Such life, such courage, such buoyancy in spite of discouragements, such unfailing grasp of whatever he touches but complex, most complex! I hardly know whether to count him most strongly for good — or — or otherwise.”

“Louis? I count him for good,” the candid girl pronounced uncompromisingly. She was always ready to answer questions. “He’s the fussiest boy in this school about the way girls should behave.”

“Yes, yes,” the professor mused, still in a psychologic mist, “ he naturally obscures the feminine judgment.”

It was later in the day, after our dinner had been served, that things came to a climax. Ordinarily my opposite and myself would have been wandering far afield with our free-footed comrades,but on this special occasion that hoarse note in his voice had kept us hovering near the fire, though the anxiety was mine, not his.

Our camping ground had been chosen near the outlet, where a strong current swept into the turbulent and rocky stream connecting two ponds. The orphan, who throve on mischief, was just now choosing to amuse himself by poling about on a large, floating log. To awaken disquiet was the orphan’s normal air. The fact that he could not swim only gave poignancy to his joy.

The orphan was a red-haired imp of parts. He had no visible means of support, yet managed to exist because we all stayed him with flagons and comforted him with apples. In fact, so universally did we maintain one purse with him that the only care remaining on his mind was that of giving us enough trouble for our money. In the midst of admonitions, instructions, and objurgations he placidly continued to pole, and in the natural excitement of watching him prepare to drowm, the little group left on the shore fell to discussing its swimming powers.

It seemed that our gentleman of the seven sins was a good swimmer, but always subject to violent cramps except in the mildest of summer waters. The boy from Boston loved to swim, but was forbidden “because of his beastly chest.” The snake boy could swim six strokes. The candid girl knew how to float. The ever-watchful professor used to swim a little when he was a youngster. The good theologue could swim anywhere, at all times and seasons.

At this point the page of history and narrative suddenly left a blank for illustration. The pole slipped, the treacherous log rolled to leeward, and the orphan, with a wild whoop of exultant anguish, disappeared into the flood. The boy from Boston was temporarily absent on a search for more wood; the good theologue, the expert swimmer, stood rigid on the shore as if violently petrified, but the congressman’s son, he to whom chill waters always brought cramps, hesitated not the twinkling of an eye. Coat off, his swift plunge into the rapid water seemed coincident with our next breath. We saw him seize the orphan’s red crest just as it came to the surface, saw him strike out boldly for the shore, then, while our hearts froze within us, he began to waver and struggle, and had it not been for the boy from Boston, who, tearing off his coat as he ran, plunged in his turn just in time to save the situation, those two white faces would have gone together sweeping down the chill current of death. The last comer, whose agile intelligence seemed always prepared for emergencies, knew where to turn in the search for shallow waters, and it seemed, after all, but the space of one long heartbeat before swift help came, feet flying from all directions, and the three drenched and gasping heroes of the scene were drawn safely on dry land and hustled off to the nearest farmhouse, the orphan gurgling and sputtering in a sort of irregular rhythm all the way.

When the last wild gurgle had faded into silence, the candid girl turned to the theologue, who, waking to life once more, seemed to be making tentative experiments in the use of his component parts.

“What was the matter with you about that time?” she inquired, with her usual unflinching frankness.

The theologue looked pale but firm. “I remembered,” he said stiffly, “that mine was a consecrated life.”

“Consecrated fiddlestick!” the candid girl commented with decisive finality.

Two days after these happenings, when we met for our next regular recitation, the class in Evidences of Christianity presented its full complement of members, and the occasion would, perhaps, have proved but an ordinary one, had it not been that the good theologue, who was evidently having difficulty with the somewhat lumbering machinery which he called a conscience, evinced a determination to discuss past issues.

“I suppose,” he said, addressing the professor with an air of patient gravity, “from the remarks thrown out by you at our last recitation, that you would consider the intuitive acts of unsanctified persons — such acts, for instance, as resulted in the rescue of young Blake on Saturday — as constituting in themselves internal evidence of the existence of what you would term unconscious Christianity in the minds of the actors.”

“It was not my intention, Mr. C.,” — the professor spoke a little sternly,— “to have referred to this matter in the class, although personally it would give me nothing but pleasure to do so, because I felt sure that the principal participants in that rescue would very much prefer to escape public mention, but since the subject is forced upon me, I say this: both those young men, by the intuitive acts to which you refer, risked their lives twice over. The one made the plunge with the full knowledge that he would probably be seized with fatal cramps, the other was in a physical condition which rendered such an immersion in icy water a deadly peril. I ask you whether you would consider that such sacrifices of self, sanctified or unsanctified, make for unrighteousness ? ”

Our gentleman of the seven sins interposed gruffly. “There was n’t any Christianity or righteousness about the business. There was only one thing to do. Any fellow would have done it.”

“I jumped in for my health,” the boy from Boston declared in a cheerful croak. “Cold’s been better ever since.”

The professor smiled, but his smile was a grave one. “When we consider what might have been the outcome of the accident, young gentlemen, the matter is hardly one for jesting, and,” turning to the good theologue, “if any member of this class feels disposed to underestimate such intuitive acts as were here displayed,

I would ask him to call to mind the statement of his Master and mine: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’”

With such utterances as these fresh in our minds, we felt it rather a blow when, at the close of the recitation hour, we heard the professor request our gentleman of the seven sins to come to his house that afternoon.

Owing to his peculiar dignity and the influence which he exerted in the school, it often became the professor’s task to prepare victims for the pangs of execution, and we knew, alas! too well we knew, that the congressman’s son had been diligently and feloniously abstracting himself from the “special meetings” which were nightly going on.

All the afternoon, as the manner of such critical seasons was, parties of anxious youths scouted and reconnoitred in the vicinity of the professor’s house, and yet the object of their solicitude appeared not. Finally, as dusk drew on, the snake boy, characteristically ready to obtain information at whatever personal sacrifice, volunteered to conduct a forlorn hope. “I’ll make an arrant,” he said, and having made it, hastened it to its destination.

It was in that bygone epoch when amateur craftsmen all over the country were busy sawing out ornamental shelves and brackets and designing hollywood frames. The professor, who possessed a very pretty mechanical turn, had set up a workshop of his own. Hither, seeing a cheerful light , the snake boy directed his steps. The door stood a trifle ajar, and the seeker after information was able to gratify his curiosity without betraying his presence. At one end of the bench sat the professor, at the other the congressman’s son, both busily at work. Ever and anon there came to the cautious listener sounds of amicable conversation, assuring himself of which fact, he beat a masterly retreat.

“It’s all right, fellers. May as well quit watchin’ The professor’s jest found a strawberry mark on ole Seven Sins’s arm, and there ain’t any talk of an eighth sin this time.”

After this, it became a regular occurrence for the professor and the congressman’s son to carve and jig-saw in company on Saturday afternoons, and as a result of this odd copartnership, more than for any other reason, it chanced that our gentleman of the seven sins never added his crowning offense.

On book-dusting morning, when I sat with the worn volume of Paley’s Evidences in my lap, living over the former days, it was as if I had reopened a familiar tale to which the years had added a sequel.

I know that the beloved professor has long ago finished his work in the world of the actual, a world that can ill spare him and his like. I know that the snake boy has made his inquisitiveness tell in the realm of natural history. I know that the candid girl, an excellent wife and mother, is also active in good work in the community where she lives. I know that the tall law student has made his mark in a great city, and that the big minister has never ceased to enlarge his borders.

What a glorious sermon on immortality was that which I heard him preach! How wonderfully from the arc of mortal life he drew the circle of eternity!

The good theologue, too, is preaching still. I meet him sometimes, grown rotund, and no less self-satisfied than of old. It was our gentleman of the seven sins who, several years ago, was elected reform mayor of his city. If one may believe the current newspapers of the time, he “made good.” That turning-lathe of the professor’s proved the turning point of a life.

The boy from Boston also made good. He went as buoyantly and lightheartedly to the grave as if death were but a bubble on a foaming cup. It was on a May night that he slipped away into infinity, — there is a story about that, too, — and when I think of the mound in Mount Auburn which I have never seen, I always fancy that the happiest Maytime breezes are playing there.

How the stars shone that night to light him on his way! and he “greeted the unseen with a cheer.”