The Devil's Instrument
FOR several days Tim Messer had been thinking about his soul. And on this hot August afternoon, as he gave his bottom corn its laying-by ploughing, his mind kept running on the mighty revival raging across the creek a mile away, at Little Bethel Church. Many a ‘big meeting’ had come and gone without disturbing him. But the new preacher from Johnson County had stirred up the neighborhood with his fervor, and Tim was beginning to feel the effects of it. At the end of a row he stopped and wiped his streaming face with his sleeve, while he blinked at the Lazy Laurence dancing across the fields. The dust choked and irritated him, and his crops needed rain. ‘ ‘y God, apt as not the whole shooting match is praying fer me over there right now!’ he muttered to himself, pulling his mule around.
As yet he had made no step to go near the meeting. But each night his Aunt Margaret had attacked him anew, holding up to him the conversion of this and that friend. And Tim had heard of their going, one by one, into the fold. Every day for the last week there had been special prayers for him and Sam, the two hardened sinners of the community. And most disturbing of all had been the news that the day before Sam’s sweetheart had prevailed upon him to go to hear the man of God.
‘If he gives in, I ‘m mint,’ said Tim, shooting a squirt of tobacco juice at a buzzing horse-guard, and watching the dry dirt slide over the aprons of his Carolina plough. He smiled wryly and slapped his mule with the sweathardened line. ‘Well, so fur we ‘ve shore give ‘em a run fer they money — me and him.’
And they had. For nearly ten years Sam and Tim had been traveling the road to the devil, as the holiness people of Little Bethel termed their way of living. And the cause of Tim’s wickedness was his father’s old fiddle, an instrument accursed because of the many reels played upon it by both Tim and his father before him, and doubly a thing of evil in that old man Messer had died suddenly one night while playing it before the fire. Sam had been seduced by a banjo. To the Little Bethel people this was second only to the fiddle in its harmfulness.
These two had started playing together as boys. And most of their ‘sparking’ was done together. Not a dance from Summerville to Dunn could be held without Sam and Tim to do the playing. No man along the Cape Fear River could fiddle off ‘The Arkansas Traveler’ talking-piece or ‘Leather Breeches’ or ‘Sally with her Shoes Run Down,’ the way Tim Messer could. Nor could anyone whang the chords and hang up the minors like Sam Adams when he got down to business. And the way they both overflowed with variations at ‘ balance all’ was a thing to remember. For years they had walked off with all the first prizes at the fiddlers’ conventions in the Lillington courthouse.
They were inseparable cronies, known far and wide as ‘Sam and Tim.’ Tim was long and leathery and silent. Sam was short and jovial. Each found in the other what he lacked in himself. And they would have been content to farm their crops and play at dances the rest of their lives. At least, Tim would have.
As he ploughed along, listening to the maypops and hogweeds tear against the keen steel sweeps, he ran over in his mind some of the merry times they had seen together. And he soon forgot the danger their partnership was being subjected to. Stowing his tobacco far back in his jaw, he broke out into one of the ballads he and Sam knew —
If I’d been a gander I ‘d a-swum with her. —
A low roll of thunder sounded in the west, and he looked up to see a long dark bank of cloud stretched across the horizon, rising here and there into a boiling sun-lit point. He sensed a shiver of delight running through the corn as he stopped his mule and drew in a great breath of cooling air.
‘That there rain ‘ll come pimeblank right,’ he said, ‘jest as I ‘m aending up the last, row.’ And then he was startled by a sudden thought. ‘I be dad-burn! Aunt Marg’ret said that there preacher was going to pray fer rain to-day.’ He hastily clucked to his mule, uneasy at what might be a further and greater proof of the revivalist’s power.
When he had finished stabling Fannie, he went into the house. From a case in the corner of the room he took out his fiddle and sat by the window. The rain soon settled into a steady drone on the roof. Out of the thankfulness of his heart he began to play snatches of melodies, his ‘made tunes,’ as he called them. His music and reverie were interrupted by a stamping of feet on the porch, and Aunt Margaret, a thin little old woman, wet and bedraggled, came into the room. Spying him at the window, she called out fearfully, —
‘ Lord-a-mercy! don’t set at that there window and the lightning bolts a-flying. Put up that devil’s instrument, and sich a black cloud coming over the world! ‘
‘You better git you on some dry clothes, and I ‘ll build you a far,’ was all he answered. But after a moment he rose and put the fiddle away. When she came back from dressing, he saw by the firelight that her eyes were red and swollen from weeping at the meeting. And there was a sort of elated look in them too that disturbed him. ‘Something must a-happened to Sam,’ was his first t hought. Finally he asked somewhat timidly, —
‘Did — did you have a good meeting to-day, Aunt Marg’ret? ‘
‘Why you ax that?’ she quavered sharply, giving him a direct look.
‘I was jest— jest axing,’ he said, sitting down and gazing into the fire.
‘Oh, it was a great outpouring of the spirit!’ she cried. ‘God was with us. Brother Baxter prayed fer rain, and see, it’s come. But what’s God ‘s power to you, Tim? ‘ she went on, turning away her head. ‘You ain’t one o’ his children and don’t seem lak you never will be.’
Foreseeing a repetition of last night’s scene, he got to his feet and said he ‘d better go out and feed. But she motioned him to sit still.
‘Tim, I ‘ve tried these many days to git you to live the way yer ma ‘d want you to. But they ain’t no sign o’ you giving in. I got a feeling if you ain’t saved this meeting you won’t never be this side the grave.’
‘We talked all that over yistiddy and the day before, and you know how I feel,’ he spoke up unhappily. ‘And they ain’t a bit o’ use worrying over me,’ he added a little warmly as he went to the door.
‘How can I help worrying over yer immortal soul’s salvation and you my own blood and kin, I ‘d lak to know! ‘ she burst out.
The rain began coming down more heavily outside. He turned back into the room and stood at the window, watching the flood of yellow water running by the house in the lane.
‘Tim, don’t you ever feel yer conscience hurt you a speck? ‘ she queried tremulously.
‘I ain’t denying I’m a sinner, a bad sinner,’ he presently rejoined, drumming on the window-pane. ‘ But somehow I don’t want to change, and that’s ezzactly how I feel.’
‘Yes, you don’t want to change!’ she broke in warmly. ‘You’ve played the devil’s music till yer heart ‘s hardened near ‘bout beyond redemption. Cain’t you see where that fiddle’s leading you? It sent yer pap to a sinner’s grave, him playing fast tunes fer loose-living men and women. And you ‘re tromping right in his steps.’ She twisted her thin hard hands together. ‘ Brother Baxter told me to-day that worldly reels had led more men to destruction than you could think of, and you ‘d orter take warning. O Tim, he’s told us ‘bout how the Philistines feasted and danced and sung whilst death was a-drawing nigh. And the sons and daughters of Job was snatched away in they hour of music and cutting up.’ Here she cried out excitedly, ‘Oh, he ‘s going to call the wrath of Old Moster down on you if you don’t change yer ways.’
He eyed her uneasily as she sat shaking in her chair and wiping the tears from her eyes. ‘Aunt Marg’ret,’ he called gently, trying to hide his perturbation, ‘we’ve had a monstrous heap o’ talk. Le’s git our supper.’
‘No, I ain’t. I promised all of ‘em at the church I ‘d plead with you ag’in when I got home. They was a dozen prayers offered up fer you. And, Timmy, you got to be — saved.’
‘Well, I ‘ll go feed up.’ And he moved toward the door.
‘ But you ain’t heerd what the Lord’s done fer us this day,’she hurried on. ‘ Sam has perfessed! ‘ She looked at him in a kind of appealing triumph.
He stood silent in the doorway, and then went out to feed the mule and cow. The rain had stopped, and the earth sent up a warm steamy smell. The sun was setting through a bank of cloud that prophesied more rain during the night. ‘It shore is all a purty sight,’ he said to himself as he stared out across his fields. But his soul was not at peace. The feeling of discontent and wretchedness was growing stronger in him. ‘ What ‘n the name o’ Old Scratch ‘ll I do now with Sam gone? ‘ he muttered.
His attention was suddenly attracted by a bright illumination in the house. He turned and ran quickly across the porch and into the room. Aunt Margaret was standing near the fireplace watching his fiddle-case burning brightly. Jerking the old woman backward, he snatched the instrument from the flames. He opened the smoking case and found the fiddle wrapped in its flannel unharmed. Old Margaret dropped in a chair, rocking to and fro and sobbing,
‘I wanted to save you, Tim. I was doing it all fer you,’she whimpered.
He laid the fiddle on the bed and threw the ruined case back into the fire. It blazed up and finally burned itself out. Then he turned to her.
‘Aunt Marg’ret, it may be wrong to play music and go to dances, I don’t know. But you got to promise me never to tech that fiddle ag’in. The day you do, I walk out ‘n this house fer good, and that ‘s the gospel truth.’
‘All right, have yer own way, Tim, have yer way,’she gulped. ‘But it breaks my heart to see — to see — ‘ She bowed her head in her apron, crying bitterly. He stirred miserably about the room, knowing nothing to say. Soon the light failed in the yard outside, and the fire died down. He laid more wood on the coals, and they sat in silence for an hour or more. At last she dried her eyes and added, —
‘Brother Baxter ‘s going to hold a meeting here in this house Saddy night if you don’t go to church before then, Tim.’ He tapped his muddy shoe nervously against the bare floor. ‘ Please go to church to-morrow, won’t you?’
But he would not promise.
Next morning they ate their breakfast in silence. He told her she could drive Fannie to church, since it was too wet to plough. And he ignored the dumb request in her eyes by saying that he had to split stove-wood while he had a little spare time. But without knowing why, he ventured to remark that he ‘mought go later.’ Then he hitched the mule to the road-cart and went to chopping wood.
After she had gone, he sat down on a block and fell into a deep musing. For several hours he sat thinking things over. Near noon he was aroused by the sound of footsteps. Looking up, he saw Sam, dressed in his Sunday best.
‘Well, I be durn! ‘ he began delightedly; then his face fell and he added quietly, ‘Hi, Sam.'
‘Hi, Tim. How you come on? ‘
‘Middling, I reckon, how you making out? ‘
’Well as common, I guess.’
‘I thought it mought be better ‘n common’, Tim answered somewhat coldly.
Sam flushed slightly and said nothing.
‘Set down on this here log if you won’t hurt yer clothes.’
‘ It won’t hurt ‘em,’ he replied slowly.
He sat down and began making marks on the ground with a stick. For a moment Tim drummed nervously on his knee and then absently pulled his tobacco from his pocket, bit off a chew, and handed the plug to Sam, who reached out for it eagerly. But suddenly he let his hand drop to his side.
‘I cain’t — cain’t chew now,’ he stammered.
‘Excuse me, Sam, I ‘d clean forgot fer the minute that you ‘d been converted.’
‘Oh, that’s all right, Tim. I nearly forgot it myself.’ He began digging again with his stick. ‘Brother Baxter says God ‘ll take away my taste fer it. But I reckon I ain’t been consecrated long enough yit,’ he remarked somewhat shamefacedly.
‘ I don’t want to seem curious,’ said Tim, after they had sat in an embarrassing silence, ‘but how does it feel to have a change in life? ‘
‘ I dunno ezzactly — sorter lost lak or something,’ was the mournful acknowledgment.
‘Well, I reckon my time ‘ll come next, Sam.’
‘Do you? ‘ He looked eagerly around. ‘I — I hope so.’
‘Why you hope so fer? ‘
‘Mebbe I ort not to hope so, but you ‘n’ me ‘s pulled together so long in making music that it seems lak we mought make a team of it in this new business.’
‘Yeh, we shore have run doubleyoked many a day. It jest went through my mind ‘fore you come how we wound up at Sock Horton’s Saddy night a month ago.’
‘Did n’t we though!’ Sam rejoined, breaking into a loud laugh. ‘I can still see the weaving of old Lizzie Ryall’s thin legs plain as day. And, Tim, how we did put the gravy on “Mississippi Sawyer” ! I ‘ve hearn they ‘lowed you ‘n’ me was in our prime that night.’ Then his face grew sober, and he ended hurriedly, ‘But le’s not talk o’ that.’
‘Yeh, I reckon we ‘d better keep off ‘n that subject, seeing as how things is going.’ There was a trace of feeling in Tim’s voice that Sam was quick to notice.
‘I don’t blame you fer feeling out with me, Tim, I shore don’t. And I did n’t have no idee o’ going back on you the way I have, nuther. But Maisie kept after me to go to meeting jest one day. She even put it so strong as to say I need n’t look at her no more if I did n’t. And what could I do? ‘
Tim spat off towards a piece of pine bark and said nothing.
‘I swear to Go—, I declare I did n’t mean to git no religion when I went. But onct in that church and that preacher’s eyes sot on me, I did n’t have no more chance than a fly in syrup. He preached at me, Tim, and the people prayed at me, and they cut up worse ‘n that time in the Bible where a whole county was converted slick as a whistle. And what did I do but git crazy or something, and jump up and shout, “Glory to God I ‘m saved.” That’s jest how it was.’
‘It shore seems lak he’s determined to convert everybody around here,’ drawled Tim abstractedly.
‘It does that all right.’
‘But I wish you could have put it off till next month anyhow,’ Tim continued.
‘You must ‘ve forgot we ‘re scheduled to play over on Little River three weeks from now.’
‘I ain’t forgot it, nuther,’ was Sam’s quick reply. ‘And all last night I did n’t sleep nary a wink, thinking ‘bout what all this new way o’ living’s going to mean. But it ‘s too late to worry now, I ‘m a changed man and I got to live up to it. And, Tim,’ he went on, as he drew a figure with his stick that looked suspiciously like a banjo, ‘they sent me over here to see if you won’t come to church. I give you fair warning, though, you ain’t got a show agin’ that man with the black beard onct he gits to tackling you. But, Tim, you ‘n’ me must be wrong. We cain’t stand out when all t he whole neighborhood ‘s already filled with religion. You orter seed how happy the old man and muh was. And think how glad yer Aunt Marg’ret ‘ll be.’
‘I been thinking ‘bout it all the whole morning,’ he said glumly.
‘Well, I got to be hitting the grit back to the church.’ He stood up. ‘Cain’t you git on yer duds and go with me now? We ‘ll take a back seat in the house.’
‘No, I cain’t go now, Sam.’
‘Well, how ‘bout to-morrow? Remember, if you don’t go there, they ‘re coming here and have a meeting.’
‘I dunno, I dunno,’ was all that he could say.
‘Listen! I ‘ll come by fer you in the morning. Will you go then? ‘
He waited, and Tim thought a while. At last with a decisive movement he spat out his tobacco.
’Yeh, I will. I ‘ll go and see what’s being done.’
With that he got up and went to chopping wood. After a few more words, Sam hurried across the fields toward the church.
The next day — the last one of the meeting — Tim was filled with a nervous uncertainty. The preaching hour drew near and he had made no preparation to get ready. But Aunt Margaret, who saw her prayers being answered at last, had been up since early morning light, pressed his suit, ironed a collar, and done up his best shirt. He avoided her as much as possible, and after putting the mule to the cart, told her that, he’d come along later with Sam. But she would n’t leave until Sam had shown up. And even then there was misgiving in her face as she drove away.
‘We ‘ll have to hurry if we git there in time,’ said Sam.
‘I ‘d druther be a little mite late, had n’t you? ‘ Tim queried.
And Sam was bound to confess that he would. Presently Tim went in and dressed, and slowly they went across the fields and into the path through the woods.
When they arrived at the church they found it packed full of people. Carts, wagons, ox-carts, and various means of conveyance were scattered under the oak trees. And now and then a mule brayed and rubbed his bridle vigorously against the rough bark of a tree. These familiar sights and sounds somewhat. heartened Tim, and he breathed easier. They found the door so crowded that apparently no one else could push his way in. A hot fetid air poured out from the building in their faces. And Tim shuddered at. the thought of entering. They had just begun to hope that they would have to stay outside to hear the sermon, when there was a stir at the door, and a huge bearded man in black clothes and a celluloid collar shoveled his way through and took Tim by the hand.
‘This is Brother Tim Messer, is it? ‘ the voice rumbled, and Tim felt the jar of it against his chest as he nodded.
In a moment he was in the church, sitting by Sam on the front seat without knowing how he got there. Directly before him was the altar, a large bench facing the audience, in front of which hay was scattered for the mourners and convicted ones to lie on. From the way the hay was worn and broken, it was apparent that many a stiff bout with the devil had taken place during the last two weeks. All of these particulars floated above the deep misery of Tim’s mind. For Sam was right. He had n’t a chance against that preacher, and he already realized it.
The service began immediately with singing. Old Ben Truelove led off with ‘A Great Day Coming.’ At the beginning of the second stanza, two hundred people were making the walls of the little building swell and subside to the rhythm of the song. Tim had been to Little Bethel many a time in his younger days, but never had he heard such singing. Then at the third stanza the preacher asked everybody to rise, at the same time adding his voice to the tumult. If the music was great before, it was sublime now. Tim felt the chills run up and down his spine at Brother Baxter’s awful bass roaring like the wind. He whispered excitedly to Sam, ‘’y God, ain’t that fine! ‘ And only a sharp nudge from his partner made him realize that he was being profane in the house of God. He was disappointed when the music subsided. For if there had been a fourth stanza, he felt that he would have joined in.
Brother Baxter then called for the experience and thanks meeting, adding that everyone had much to be thankful for now, yea more than ever before, since the last stronghold of Satan in the community was being broken down. And he cast a quick gleam out of his fiery eye at Tim. Brother Johnson was the first to get up and unroll his list of blessings from the Lord. He ended by saying that his cup was ‘plumb running over’ now that one of their long-lost brothers was saved and the other was on his way to be. For an hour these experience talks went on, and each person made his especial reference to Sam and Tim.
By this time Tim was thinking of bolting through the crowd and out at a window. He felt rivulets of sweat running ceaselessly beneath his shirt. And Sam’s condition appeared no better. It seemed to Tim that the climax to his misery had come when Aunt Margaret broke down in the middle of her talk and began weeping wildly. The preacher sat in his chair on the rostrum, fanning himself and crying out now and then, ‘Glory to God! P raise His Holy Name! ‘
Suddenly a piercing scream rent the air, raising the hair on Tim’s head. Old Miss Katie Harris sprang out into the aisle, giggling and whining. She came nearer to Tim, who sat convulsed with terror. Then she fell upon him, clasping him around the neck, tearing his collar apart, and in her ecstasy beating him in the face with her palm-leaf fan. When she had nearly strangled him with her long bony fingers, she moved over to Sam. He clung to his seat and endured her pounding. Then, hopping and skipping in a marvelous manner for one of eighty years, she made her way back to her seat. Already a dozen women were sobbing loudly. And some fed their babies at bared breasts, unashamed in the depth of their emotion. Here and there small boys and girls, wedged in between grown-ups, gnawed their dry home-cooked cakes and stared at Tim with large wondering eyes. A feeling of rebellion rose in him. And if at this point the preacher had not arisen and opened his Bible for the sermon, he would very probably have escaped through the door.
‘Brethren and sisters,’ the speaker began. ‘I ‘m going to preach to you on the same subject of a few days ago — the weekedness of worldly music and dancing.’ Tim looked helplessly at Sam, but his head was already bowed for the drenching of wrath to come. Then he lowered his head, nor once did he look up while the flood of words poured from the lips of the big dark orator. Up and down the platform the preacher strode, chanting and quoting from the Scriptures. ‘Yea,’ he rushed on, his voice gathering violence, ‘they was a time when the sons of God come together toting they instruments of praise. It ‘s in the Book; read and know the truth. And the first one said, “ I bring the harp. Is it a goodly instrument?” “Verily it is good,” saith the Lord. And another one fetched up the lute, and Old Moster looked at it and said it was good, very good. And still others fetched the psaltery, the sack but, the pipe, — yea, they played on a kind of pipe in them days, — the dulcimer and the trumpet and the shawm, and even the bells. It ‘s in the Book; read and know. And last of all, they brung taborettes. And they was all declared to be good and worthy of hymning praise to the Almighty. Later on come two fellows sneaking up, bringing — well, what was they bringing? ‘ he roared. ‘They was bringing a banjo and a fiddle. What did the Lord do? He said He knew ‘em not, and, “ Depart ye ‘cursed.” And right then and there them two was condemned to rot in Hell, yea, to roast in Hell fer making mock of the Creator.’ Here he pounded on the table, and the windows rattled in their sockets.
When he had finally cursed the joymaker and the Devil’s anointed, in the person of Tim, to the bottomless pit unless he changed his way of living, he stepped down from the pulpit and gathered new strength.
He stood over Tim’s shrinking form and began to unroll before him the vision of the sinner’s horror and despair on that day of days. ‘What ‘s to become of you, O sinner man! in that judgment day? Have you heerd it? Oh, have you dreamed it? Have you seed it with yer eyes? — when smoke begins to roll in the west and a loud voice cries out from land to sea’ — he lifted up his voice in a blood-curdling yell — ‘“Time is no more! Time is no more! ” And the hills will shake with terror, and the trees ‘ll be tore up by a mighty wind, and the rocks ‘ll melt and run lak b’iling water, and the sun and moon be turnt to blood. Dark will be over the face of the earth. Where will you be! Where will you be when that last trumpet sounds! Sinner man, yea, you, Tim Messer, where will you be! You will cry mercy,’ he screamed, ‘and there ‘ll be no mercy.’
Tim felt his flesh freezing as the terrible picture grew. At last the preacher ended his description of Tim’s likely end by imitating the wails and screams that would rise to heaven when he lay in outer darkness. His yells and bellowings swept a score of listeners to their knees. Several little children already were writhing on the hay, and men were crying in different parts of the house. Here and there old women crouched at their seats agonizing over Tim’s soul. As if in a dream, he heard them mentioning his name.
Then Brother Baxter turned to the table and drank deeply from the pitcher of water. He came back to Tim and pleaded with him in a gentle voice, as he sketched the estate of the blessed sleeping in Abraham’s bosom. ‘There they sing and make music all the days as one. Won’t you come and be saved now, Tim? ‘
At the sweetness of his words, Tim felt the hot tears go coursing down his leathery cheeks.
‘Think o’ yer mother there with her arms stretched out to you this very minute,’ he continued. ‘And think o’ yer father br’iling in t’ other place!’ he suddenly thundered. And he went on comparing their different conditions. When he had exhausted his adjectives he bent close to Tim and began speaking of the day when he would die and the neighbors would come to lay out his cold body. ‘And, Brother Tim,’ he concluded in heartbroken tones, ‘on that day, mebbe on that dark and stormy night, while you lays there beating out yer last breath and the lamp burns low beside yer bed, the Devil ‘ll come creeping, creeping, up, up, on, on to the porch. He ‘ll open the door jest a crack, now a little wider, a little wider, and he ‘ll stick his head in, his grinning head in, and look at you laying there helpless in bed.'
Aunt Margaret screamed out above the moaning and praying of the audience. Brother Baxter kept his eyes on Tim. ‘He ‘ll come in easy, oh, so easy, his tail making a grisly sliding sound on the floor. Then! ‘ he roared, seizing the terrified Tim by the shoulders, ‘he ‘ll jump onto the bed and carry off yer soul screaming to everlasting hell!’ And he shook him like a rag.
Then Tim could stand no more. He fell upon his knees at his seat. Aunt Margaret screamed a second time and went off in a faint. Thereupon a din arose and went out over the quiet countryside of Little Bethel. Women and men shouted and danced before the Lord. And every little child in the house made his way to the pile of straw and fell upon it, many of them in a half trance from t he extremity of terror and the consciousness of their lost and ruined condition. Sam was already down at his bench, praying and clutching his hair.
Brother Baxter called for a song, and a great rhythm of‘Almost Persuaded’ shook the roof. Old Miss Katie sprang out into the aisle again and began speaking in tongues. Above the tumult her shrill voice could be heard pouring out a stream of senseless words, ‘Hoofey-beigh Jesus! Hokumma-loki! Whizzem-hi-shimminy! Ishiliki! Others took it up. Combs and hairpins soon strewed the floor, and men threw their coats and collars from them as they sprang up and down in the air. Tim stumbled forward and fell sobbing at the mourner’s bench. The victorious parson called for friends to come and wrestle for his soul, and half the congregation swept up and around him. Brother Baxter himself got down beside Tim, and as the song went on with, —
Almost persuaded Christ to receive,’ —
he shouted in his ringing head, ‘Give it up! Give it up! Be saved now, now! To-morrow’s too late. Glory to God, give it up!’
In half an hour Tim was saved. The preacher stood near him, smiling seraphically and smoothing his thin hair tenderly as he would an infant’s. And when Tim had grown quiet, he asked him to stand up and make public his profession of faith. He staggered to his feet and mumbled out something about being saved and living the life of God. Then he collapsed on his bench.
Brother Baxter announced that the meeting was over. And after a few business matters had been settled, he pronounced the benediction, ending the greatest revival that had ever visited Little Bethel.
That night for the first time Tim said grace over their supper. He was able to growl out only a few words about being thankful — amen. But he ‘d decided to begin right. And after the meal, he got the old Bible down and at last managed to read a chapter in John. Then Aunt Margaret led in family prayer, and they went to bed.
But Tim could not sleep. He felt queer and far away from things about him. The house seemed different, and that afternoon he had not gone down to look at his bottom corn. ‘Mebbe I ‘m already a-giving up the goods o’ this world,’he thought. But he was not happy. Near morning he fell into a sleep, tortured with dreams of the Devil and a fiery pit yawning before him. As he was being cast headlong into the fire, he awoke with a low scream. He lay the rest of the night shivering and miserable.
More than once his mind dwelt on the instrument under the bed. At last, as day was breaking, he got up softly and dressed. Taking the fiddle under his arm, he stole from the house and went to the barn. There he wrapped it well in an old cotton sheet, put it in a box and nailed the lid down. T hen he got a shovel and went into the woods back of the house. The birds were singing in the dogwoods, and dew hung over his cotton. Spider-webs gleamed like silver nets among the grass and bushes, and the whole east was a splash of red, sprinkled above with pink and silver racks which the Little Bethel people called ‘rain seed.’ But Tim no longer noticed the freshness and glory of the earth. Under a shady holly tree he dug a hole, put the fiddle in, and covered it up. And when he had made a little mound, he stood looking at it with a mournful expression. Then he stuck a stick at the head and foot and went away.
About sunset, when he was milking old Sook, Sam came up the lane and stopped. He leaned over the fence and asked Tim if he wanted to take a walk. Leaving the pail at the house, they set off down toward the bottom. There among his corn, Tim looked out at the flaming west and felt something of the old spirit move within him, and he murmured, ‘Ain’t it purty now, Sam, with all this fine crop and the pink o’ evening setting in?’
‘Yeh, ‘t is, Tim. You got a good crop. But you ‘n’ me ‘s been warned not to feel pride over the here and now, you must remember. I did n’t come special to look at yer crop nohow, Tim. I wanted to ax you what you going to do with yer fiddle.'
‘What you going to do with yer banjo, Sam?’
‘I done got rid of it. Dunno whe’r I done right or not. Eph Slocumb’s boy over on Little River wanted a banjo, and I let him have mine yistiddy to keep fer me. He promised to say nothing ‘bout it.’
‘What would the preacher say to that, Sam? Mebbe you ‘re putting temptation in Ed’s way,’Tim rejoined.
‘Well, I jest could n’t tear it up. It was sorter lak a part of me,’ said Sam, as he gazed gloomily down a dusk-filled row.
‘Yeh, I know. Well, I buried my fiddle out back o’ the house under a holly. I reckon it ‘ll be there till judgment day.’
The weeks that followed were wretched ones for Tim. More than once he had gone to the holly and been tempted to dig up his fiddle. And several times he had chewed weeds and grass to ease his terrible hunger for tobacco. But so far he had successfully withstood the tempter. And now, as he went into the fodder-field on this particular Saturday morning, he realized that the day of the greatest temptation had come. For to-night was Molly O’Quinn’s dance on Little River. And he could n’t help thinking about it. All day long he pictured to himself the different people who would be there. And worst of all was the remembrance of Molly’s blight eyes watching him in frank admiration as he pulled his bow. Once or twice he had hoped — ‘But she’s a world’y woman and they ain’t nary a glim o’ hope now that I ‘ve got religion,’ he growled to himself as his long fingers stripped the corn to the ground. ‘But I got a good farm and all, and if— if everything had turnt out all right, mebbe, we ‘da—’ He snapped the tie around his handful of fodder, slammed it on a stalk, and went on Stripping the next.
The afternoon wore on, and he was more and more tormented by the vision of the dance. ‘I don’t reckon she ‘s called it off,’ he mused after a while. ‘She ‘ll git old Eph Slocumb and his boy to play. And what can they do making music fer a gal lak her?’ In his misery he went to the spring in the hollow for a drink.
Aunt Margaret had an early supper, for she had to go down the road to pray over a sick child. She asked him to go with her, but he said he was feeling too tired. And in the dusk he watched her drive off down the lane. He leaned on the yard-fence gate and looked at the bats flying around the barn. A late whippoorwill was singing in a thicket. He turned and gazed at the dark and empty house.
‘I jest cain’t stand this here life much longer and that ‘s a fact,’ he mumbled wretchedly. And then heard a noise behind him. Turning around, he found Sam standing beside the fence. He felt like embracing him, but all he did was to wrench off a paling and let it fall to the ground. After a moment he called out, ‘Hi, Sam.’
‘Hi, Tim. How you come on?’
‘Middling, middling. How you standing the weather?’
‘Not much, I mought say, and ag’in I mought n’t,’ Sam answered, leaning back against the fence and looking straight before him.
Suddenly Tim lifted up his nostrils and drew in a deep breath. A sweet tantalizing odor made him gasp. He bent toward Sam and then drew away. His hands fell limply to his side, and a wave of peace and joy swept over him. Sam had his jaw full of tobacco. Tim clung to the fence without saying a word, but in his mind ran a sort of singing, ‘Sam has fell, Sam has fell from grace! ‘
‘Tim,’ Sam went on presently, ‘have you been tempted much to go back to the old life since I seed you last?’ He spoke still staring before him.
‘What you mean, Sam?’ Tim replied cautiously.
‘Well, to make a long story short, I ‘ve slid back.’
‘Yeh, but I don’t want to cause you to fall.’ He looked Tim straight in the face. A whiff of tobacco-juice caught him full in the nose. Sam turned away, spat slyly off to the left, and went on. ‘I was over in Lillington to-day, Tim, and who should I see there but Molly O’Quinn.’ He waited, but Tim said nothing. ‘And, Tim, she ain’t got nobody to play fer her to-night.’ He waited again, but still Tim made no answer. ‘I did n’t mean to go back to evil ways, Tim, but Providence must a-had a hand in it. While we was talking there in the street to-day, up come Ed Slocumb and said he had the banjo there with him, and I could take it. And he run and brung it ‘fore I could say a word. But mebbe it would n’t. a-made so much difference if me ‘n’ Maisie had n’t had a bad busting up last night. Yeh, I ‘d a-helt out then, I believe; but right after Ed crammed the banjo in my hands, Molly dropt a package, and out rolled — what you reckon? — a long plug o’ Brown Mule. I picked it up fer her, and she axed me to smell it and see if it was the reg’lar kind her pa chewed. And then she told me to take a chew and try it and keep the plug, fer the old man had more’ n he needed. Somehow the way she axed me and the way she looked at me with them dark eyes o’ hern — you know how she looks, I reckon, if anybody does. Well, in two minutes, anyhow, I was in my buggy with the banjo under the seat and my mouth full o’ Brown Mule, on my way here to git you. She sent me special fer you. And here’ — reaching in his pocket and pulling out a ragged plug — ‘is what I ain’t chewed.’
Tim’s long hand shot out and raised the tobacco to his mouth. Then he lowered it without taking a chew.
‘Tim, I don’t want to tempt you,’ Sam hurried into saying; ‘but you see I done give up my hope fer redemption. You reckon they ain’t no chance of our going over and playing fer Molly? And you know, Tim, she ‘s sorter sot on you. I tell you I cain’t stand no more o’ this way o’ living.’ But Tim was silent, holding the tobacco in his trembling hand. ‘And, Tim,’ Sam began again, ‘you ‘n’ me ‘s allus pulled together. I don’t mind running the risk o’ being lost if you don’t.’
‘I don’t mind, nuther!’ Tim burst out, and he quickly crammed the end of the plug into his starving jaws. There was a ripping sound, and a sheepish grin began to spread over his face. When he had settled the quid in its accustomed place, he spoke up. ‘Sam, I ‘m lak you. This life ain’t fer me. Another week of it and I ‘d been crazy as a loon.’ He spat a great stream. ‘ God did n’t seem to have no notion o’ taking away my taste.’
‘Mine, nuther,’ Sam answered happily. ‘And, Tim, you ‘n’ me need n’t feel so bad after all. Muh and pap ain’t half as keen ‘bout their religion since that preacher got out’n the neighborhood. And I bet you a dollar yer Aunt Marg’ret won’t be in a month or so.’
‘Mebbe not,’ Tim rejoined absently. ‘ But we need n’t worry ‘bout that now.’
‘No, we need n’t,’ Sam agreed. ‘ But le’s be moving. I got my mule and buggy tied there in the woods. Git on yer duds in a hurry. I seed Aunt Marg’ret go down the road, and we want to be gone ‘fore she comes back.’
Tim ran into the house to dress. Soon he reappeared, and they hurried with a shovel to the woods. The full moon had risen, and again he felt the joy of the earth slide into his soul. As they stood under the holly tree, he looked at the patterns and splotches on the ground and turned to Sam,
‘Ain’t all this here a purty sight?’ he said.
‘Yeh,’ Sam grunted, scratching the leaves from the grave.
Presently they had the fiddle out. And in the moonlight Tim held it tightly to him. All the while they were chewing and spitting around them in great profusion.
‘Sound as a dollar!' said Tim, twanging the strings.
At the edge of the woods they untied the mule, clambered into the buggy, and were off.
‘Well, we ‘re set fer the Devil, I reckon,’ Sam declared joyously, as they turned the lane into the big road, ‘and we mought as well let folks know it.’ Thereupon he rolled his tobacco in his jaw and lifted up his voice in their favorite ballad. After a cough of hesitation, Tim joined in with his high tenor. Over the moonlit fields went their song. It rose and wavered under the moon, hung a moment, and then echoed against the creek hills.
She won’t come and I won’t follow.
And the people of Little Bethel heard them passing and said, ‘Sam and Tim’s at it ag’in. They ‘ve backslid.’