IN every small town there is one business man who wears a silk hat. He is born to it; it is part of the Great Order, and nobody jeers. Mr. Hunter was that man in Parkerton.
He happened one night into Smiley’s drug-store, and while the proprietor was putting up his prescription companionably made talk.
‘Potatoes are still going up,’ he observed. ‘How people are going to get on, I don’t see. Did you hear about that fire up near Harrisburg — farmer’s barn with eight hundred bushels of potatoes, I think it was? He was holding them for a higher price — even when they were out of sight. I think the Lord had a hand in that fire.’
‘You could hardly say that, could you?’ inquired a gentleman sitting by the stove.
‘Why not, Mr. Bradley? He can do what He wants, can’t He? And if sparrows don’t fall without his noticing, I guess this kind of piggishness gets his attention.’
‘Yes,’ said Mr. Bradley, ‘but you don’t think God set that barn on fire, do you?’
‘He permitted it to burn,’ answered Mr. Hunter, burnishing his hat; ‘He permitted it to burn.’
‘Yes, and might have permitted it if the farmer had been selling the potatoes at one fourth the market, or planning to give them to the Children’s Home.’
‘But it was n’t that way,’ said Mr. Hunter.
Mr. Smiley, having wrapped the prescription with much deftness and rung fifty cents on his cash-register, entered the conversation.
‘I saw a picture the other day,’ he said, ‘of two Testaments which had saved soldiers’ lives in the trenches. A bullet was sticking half-way through one of them, and the other one was pretty nearly torn to flinders. What do you think of that?’
‘That they happened to be in the way,’ said Mr. Bradley. ‘One of those “Ford Jokes” books or an almanac would have done the same thing.’
‘Well, do you think God has anything to do with anything?’ inquired Mr. Hunter testily. ‘I’m glad of the chance to ask you, for I know you never go to church, and I saw a book you had ordered down at Brown’s yesterday, — Creative Evolution, by Bergman or something like that, — and I heard you criticized the President for appointing a day of prayer for peace. Do you think God has anything to do with anything?’
‘I think,’ said Mr. Bradley, ‘that God has everything to do with everything, and I think that God is much too big for such little mites as we to talk about or think about.’
Mr. Smiley’s drug-store had been the scene of many an argument and discussion, — controllingly political. Frequently had the very substantial blunders of the President been pointed out by sundry gentlemen, and his signal sagacities by others, the interested proprietor listening or participating, the while he took care of trade or constructed Smiley’s Infallible Troches. Debate was at times punctuated by small talk, for the disputants had a genuine interest in their kind, particularly such of it as dwelt in the neighborhood, and the assemblage had once been described as ‘the sewing circle,’ by a female person who lived opposite. From which it may be inferred that Smiley’s was quite a human sort of place. It had not gone in much for the gods, however.
‘You see,’ went on Mr. Bradley, ‘you people who seem most interested in God, — not that you really are, — you “herded and branded” religious people, as somebody calls you, have God mixed up with such little things, and you keep Him pottering with such little things, — and that just kills God for the rest of us.’
Mr. Hunter was acutely conscious of two facts — that of being under fire and that of his eldership in the Presbyterian Church.
‘Having the understanding darkened,’ he began solemnly, — and his hat seemed like a mitre, — ‘having the understanding darkened,’ —
‘Not on your life!’ interrupted Mr. Bradley with emphasis. ‘It’s exactly the other thing. It’s having the understanding broadened and enlightened that makes just about seventy-five of every hundred men in the average American town let you religious people go your own way. It’s your not having enough God for them to believe in, that’s the trouble. It’s that you will keep God fussing with little things.’
Mr. Smiley got a tube of dentifrice for a customer with ill-dissembled haste. He did not wish to lose a word. Just as Mr. Hunter was about to reply, there was a fumbling at the door, which finally opened, and admitted the local dipsomaniac, Mr. Rook Bevan, picturesquely drunk. Dilapidated, unsteady, yet urbane, he made a sweeping bow.
‘Doc,’ he said, ‘I am a ree-novated man, — all ree-novated up, — and as a ree-novated man I come in here to get you to go along to Elder Squiggs’s tent and get ree-novated like I done last night. The Elder says for me to do this and get you saved — ree-novated, understand — like me.’
‘Now, if you can resist that, Smiley! ’ put in Mr. Bradley.
The wandering eye of Mr. Bevan rested on the lawyer.
‘ Ree-novated,’ he murmured, ‘ that’s it. We want everybody ree-novated; every damn — I mean every single — man in town ree-novated. Only,’ — a maudlin pathos stole into his tone, — ‘everybody can’t git ree-novated. You can’t,’ — here a finger shot out at Mr. Bradley, — ‘for you ain’t got any more religion than one of them bullfightin’ cuspidors. You can,’ — the finger veered to Mr. Hunter, — ‘for no man can wear that plug hat and not be called.’
He made his way uncertainly to the show-case behind which Mr. Smiley was standing.
‘I want alcohol,’ he said, with something of a child’s pleading in his voice; ‘please, doc, I want alcohol.’
The show-case was a low, all-glass affair, with sundry shelves, also of glass, and laden with numerous small articles, suspended within. When Mr. Rook Bevan tripped and fell on and into this case, the ensuing crash was brilliant. Two thirds of his body was down among pomades, shattered vials, and tooth-brushes, while his legs gesticulated wildly above. The effect was striking and brief. He was dragged forth almost instantly, and Mr. Smiley, wiping ‘Maiden Blush’ and other cosmetics from the luckless features, affixed court-plaster to certain ugly cuts.
‘Shall I telephone for the marshal?’ asked Mr. Hunter.
‘Oh, no,’ said Mr. Smiley; ‘poor devil, he sort of looks to me to jolly him along and see to him — and it sort of seems up to me to do it. Wait a jiff till I give him something quieting and get him to bed. He’s got a cubby in the building next door.’
Mr. Bevan, with his countenance pleasantly diversified by the bits of court-plaster and supported by t he arm of Mr. Smiley, beamed amiably as he withdrew.
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘everybody can’t git ree-novated.’
Mr. Smiley, returning ten minutes later, surveyed the ruin which had been a show-case a bit ruefully.
‘It’ll set me a plumb hundred,’ he said, ‘and I do need the hundred. Well, I’ll put it down with the twentyfive I dug up to get him the Keeley. If I need, gee, how he needs! — Let’s get our minds off of this. When Rook broke in, you was saying something about God’s fussing with little things, Mr. Bradley, and I think Mr. Hunter was getting ready to come back.'
Mr. Hunter had been getting ready, and had utilized certain moments of Mr. Bevan’s stay in the process. He had not been for years teacher of a men’s Bible class for nothing, and now, with his batteries well placed, he proceeded to a conventional and very well executed declarat ion of the whole counsel of God, as deduced and held by religionists of his kind. It began with the Garden of Eden, abounded in covenants and decrees, and was everywhere stiffened with texts — a miraculous number of them, it seemed to Mr. Smiley, who was much impressed. Mr. Hunter fancied comfortably that the scale had been big enough.
‘The whole human race,’ he said, ‘figures in this mighty drama — the whole human race!’
‘Oh, dear, oh, dear!’ said Mr. Bradley; ‘what’s the use? Don’t you see that you make God ridiculously small when you keep Him eternally nosing round among such small fry as the human race? Don’t you see that that’s the trouble? People nowadays don’t believe that God does anything of that kind. “The Lord Talketh Familiarly with Moses” — that’s a chapter-head in the Bible. I don’t believe He did. Neither do folks in general. They feel just as Carlyle did when he said that it was as sure as shooting that such things never happened. They feel as a late English prime minister did when he said that such conceptions stifled him. It’s all like painting God with whiskers, as the Old Masters used to do.’
A small boy of four in an Oliver Twist suit came into the store and demanded a stick of licorice, which Mr. Smiley provided, with the adjuration, ‘Skip.’
The conversation was not resumed. Mr. Hunter seemed stalled and Mr. Bradley hopeless. Then said Mr. Smiley, —
‘Now you know I’m just an ordinary man. You, Mr. Bradley, are a lawyer, and you read a lot of books, too, everybody says. A man told me the other day he’d bet you’ve read a thousand books. And you, Mr. Hunter, are a great Bible scholar, if you are in the dry-goods line — and you’ve been to the Holy Land. I ’m not in the same class with either of you. You know that weepy-lookin’ dog of Alick McCue’s? Some one asked Alick what breed he was, and Alick says, “Oh, no particular breed, — just dog.” That’s me. But just as a plain proposition and as it hits a plain man in the drug business, Mr. Bradley’s God seems to be too busy with everything to attend to any particular thing, and Mr. Hunter’s God too busy with particular things to attend to everything. Honest, that’s about the way it seems to me.’
There was an interlude while a sodawater patron was served. Then Mr. Smiley continued, —
‘ About God, you know, I get my idea from Samuel.’
‘Ah, the prophet?’ asked Mr. Hunter with the pleased expression of one expecting reinforcement.
‘Goodness, no,’ said Mr. Smiley. ‘The rat who was here for licorice — my Samuel. You see, he plays a lot with his choo-choos and things about the house, all alone. Sometimes a half day’ll go without his seeing his mother — she’ll be at work in the kitchen or somewhere, and he in another part of the house. Does n’t seem to miss her. Does n’t seem to know he has a mother. But don’t you make any mistake. He can forget her only because he knows she’s there. He can get all wrapped up in his choo-choos and things, only because he’s got a sure feel of her being there. If it once came to him that she was n’t there, — well, I would n’t like to have it happen, for he’d cry his heart out. He pretty nearly did it once, too, when he wanted something of her and she’d slipped out for five minutes.
‘Well, I says to myself, noticing this about Samuel, is n’t it a good deal the same about people and God? They forget Him, but they know He’s there; and they could n’t wrap themselves all up in their jobs and things, and go on having a fairly good time, if they did n’t know — or feel — that He was there. Of course, they don’t know what He’s doing, — Samuel could never guess what his mother was doing in the kitchen, — and if they did, they could n’t understand it, any more than Samuel understands a lot his mother does. They just know — or feel — that He’s in the house. Just in the house. That’s the way it is with me, and a lot of other plain men like me, I do believe.’
A month after this conversation at Smiley’s the country went to war. There was enlisting and recruiting, and three self-forgetting men — the three who had met at the drug-store — put themselves at the Nation’s service, and were accepted and ordered with their company to a mobilization camp. They might, so rumor said, be sent to France to fight in the trenches, and with this possibility before them they said good-bye to their friends, amid the waving of flags and blaring of bands, at the train.
‘Good-bye,’ said Mr. Hunter to the young men of his Bible Class who had escorted him to the station. ‘Remember me when you pray. I don’t mean, ask God to do particular things for me, for God has everything to do with everything, and this that we’re going in for may reach beyond humanity and beyond this planet. Only think of me when you think of God — remember me when you pray.’
‘ Good-bye,’ said Mr. Bradley, grasping the hand of his law-partner and closest friend. ‘It has been a tug to do this, but I have orders — orders, Frank! Do you know ’ — he was clearly agitated — ‘I have almost the sense of a hand on my shoulder—almost the sense of a voice talking familiarly in my ear?’
‘Good-bye,’ said Mr. Smiley to the small Samuel. ‘I don’t know how I’m going to stand for it, old chum, I sure don’t. I just could n’t go if it was n’t for one thing: we’re going to make ’em stop taking their daddies away from little tads like you.’
And the collar of the Oliver Twist suit was moist, as he pressed its wearer close to his heart.