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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 19673

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

MY father's religion would have been unsatisfactory without a hell.

It was a part of his hope of the future that worldly men who scoffed at his piety would be punished, and this was as much a part of his expectation as that those who were faithful to the end would be rewarded. Everybody saved, to my father's thinking, was as bad as nobody saved, and in his well-patronized Bible not a passage for pleasurable contemplation which intimated universal salvation was marked, if such exists.

The sacrifices he made for religion were tasks, and his reward was a conviction that those who refused to make them would be punished, for he regarded it as an injustice of which the Creator was incapable to do as well by His enemies as by His friends. I believe that he would rather have gone to heaven without the members of his family than with them, unless they had earned salvation as he had earned it, and travelled as steadily as himself the hard road marked on his map as leading heavenward.

One of the best evidences to his mind of a compassionate and loving Saviour was the belief that all thought of unfortunate friends in torment was blotted from the memory of the redeemed, and the lake of fire he thought of as a remedy for the great number of disagreeable people with whom he was compelled to come in contact below, and of whom he would be happily rid above. Religion was a misery to be endured on earth, that a reward might be enjoyed after death. A man must spend the ages of his future either in a very pleasant place, with comfortable surroundings and pleasant associates, or in a very unpleasant place, with uncomfortable surroundings and all the mean people turned into devils and imps for companions. It was the inevitable law; every man of moderate sense should be able to appreciate the situation at a glance, and do that which would insure his personal safety. If there was a doubt-the thought was too absurd for his contemplation, but admitting a doubt-his future would be equal to that of the worldly man, for one cannot rot more easily than another, or be more comfortable as dust; but if there was no doubt-and all the authorities agree that there was none-then the difference would be in his favor.

It was the best thing offering under the circumstances, and should therefore be accepted without hesitation. If the conditions were hard, he could not help it; he might have suggested changes in the plan of salvation had his judgment been invited, but the plan had been formulated before his time, and there was nothing left for him but obedience. If he thought he deserved credit for all he possessed (and he was a man very likely to be seized with that suspicion), the Bible said it came from God; that settled the matter finally and forever-he gave thanks (for a punishment was provided if he did not, and a reward if he did), and pretended to have had nothing to do with accumulating his property.

Religion was a matter of thrift and self-interest as much as laying away money in youth and strength for old age and helplessness, and he called upon sinners to flee the wrath to come because he had been commanded to go out and preach to all the world, for it mattered little to him whether the people were saved or not. They had eyes, therefore let them see; ears, therefore let them hear. The danger was so plain that they ought to save themselves without solicitation.

That which he most desired seldom came to pass; that which he dreaded, frequently, but no matter; he gave thanks to the Lord because it was best to do so, and asked no questions. There were jewels for those who earned them, and as a thrifty man he desired a greater number of these than any other citizen of Fairview. He was the principal man in his neighborhood below, and desired to be a shepherd rather than a sheep above; therefore he was foremost in the church, and allowed no one to be more zealous in doing the service of the hard master he had, after careful thought and study, set out to serve, believing the reward worth the service, and determined to serve well if he served at all, as was his custom in everything else.

If I do him an injustice I do not intend it, but I have thought all my life that he regarded children as troublesome and expensive-a practical sort of punishment for sin, sent from time to time as the case seemed to require; and that he had been burdened with but two was no doubt evidence to his mind that his life had been generally blameless, if, indeed, this opinion was not confirmed by the circumstance that one of them had been taken from him in return for good service in the holy cause. Once they had arrived, however, he accepted the trust to return them to their Maker as nearly like they came as possible, for that was commanded of him.

Because he frequently referred to the road to heaven as narrow and difficult, and the highway in the other direction as broad and easy, I came to believe that but for his religion he would have been a man much given to money-getting, and ambitious for distinction, but he put such thoughts aside, and toiled away at his work as if to get out of temptation's way. When he talked of the broad and easy road it was with a relish, as though he could enjoy the pleasant places by the way-side if he dared; and in his preaching I think he described the pleasures of the world so vividly that his hearers were taken with a wish to enjoy them, though it is not probable that he knew anything about them except from hearsay, as he had always been out of temptation's way-in the backwoods during his boyhood, and on the prairie during his maturer years. But when he talked of the narrow and difficult path, his manner changed at once; a frown came upon his face; he looked determined and unforgiving, and at every point he seemed to build sign-posts marked "Duty!" It has occurred to me since that he thought of his religion as a vigorous, healthy, successful man thinks in his quiet moments of a wife sick since their marriage; although he may deserve a different fate, and desire it, he dares not complain, for the more wearisome the invalid, the louder the call of duty.

I think he disliked the necessity of being religious, and only accepted and taught religion because he believed it to be the best thing to do, for it did not afford him the peace he professed. To all appearances he was a most miserable man, although he taught that only the sinful are miserable, and the few acquaintances he had who were not equally devout (strangers passing through, or those he met at the country town, for all were pious in Fairview) lived an easy and contented life which he seemed to covet, but nobody knew it, for he reproved them with all the more vigor because of his envy.

When not engaged in reading at night, as was his custom, he sat for hours looking steadily into the fire, and was impatient if disturbed. I never knew what occupied his thoughts at these times; it may have been his preaching, or his daily work, but more likely he was seeing glimpses of forbidden pictures; caravans of coveted things passing in procession, or of hopes and ambitious dwarfed by duty. Perhaps in fancy he was out in the world mingling with people of a class more to his taste than Fairview afforded, and was thinking he could enjoy their pleasures and occupations if they were not forbidden, or wondering if, after all, his principles were not mistakes. I believe that during these hours of silent thinking he was tempted and beckoned by the invisible and mysteriously potent forces he pretended to despise, and that he was convinced that, to push them off, his religion must be made more rigorous and pitiless.

That he coveted riches could be easily seen, and but for his fear of conscience he could have easily possessed himself of everything worth owning in Fairview, for with the exception of Theodore Meek, the next best man in the neighborhood, he was about the only one among the people who read books and subscribed for newspapers. None of them was his equal in intelligence or energy, and had he desired he could have traded them out of what little they possessed, and sold it back again at a comfortable profit. But, "do unto others as you would have others do unto you," was commanded of him by his inexorable master, and he was called upon to help the weak rather than rob them; therefore he often gave them assistance which he could but poorly afford. This limited him so much that he had no other hope of becoming well-to-do than that the lands which he was constantly buying would finally become valuable by reason of the development and settlement of the country. This he regarded as honorable and fair, and to this work he applied himself with great energy.

I heard little of his father, except that he was noted where he lived as a man of large family, who provided them all with warm clothes in winter and plenty to eat all the year round. His early history was probably as unimportant and eventless as my own. He seldom mentioned his father to any one, except in connection with a story which he occasionally told, that once, when his house was on fire, he called so loud for help that he was heard a mile. Evidently the son succeeded to this extraordinary pair of lungs, for he sang the religious songs common in that day with such excellence that no man attempted to equal him. While his singing was strong and loud, it was melodious, and he had as great a reputation for that as for piety and thrift. His was a camp-meeting voice, though he occasionally sang songs of little children, as "Moses in the Bulrushes," of which there were thirty-eight verses, and the cradle song commencing, "Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber," written by a noted hymn-writer, otherwise my father would not have patronized him. Besides a thorou

gh familiarity with all the common, long, short, and particular metres, he had a collection of religious songs preserved in a leather-bound book, the notes being written in buckwheat characters on blue paper fast turning yellow with age, and the words on the opposite page. Feeling the necessity of a knowledge of notes once, he had learned the art in a few weeks, in his usual vigorous way, and sang at sight; and after that he preserved his old songs, and all the new ones he fancied, in the book I have mentioned. The songs to which I refer I have never seen in print, and he sang them on special occasions, as at a camp-meeting when a tiresome preacher had allowed the interest to flag. "Behold Paul a Prisoner," a complete history of the Apostle requiring almost an afternoon in its performance, or "Christ in the Garden," nearly as long, never failed to start the interest anew in an emergency, and if the case were very desperate, he called the members of his family into the pulpit, and sang a quartet called "The Glorious Eighth of April," using for the words the first hymn in the book.

This was usually sufficient to start some one to shouting, and after a short prayer he preached as vigorously and loudly as he sang, and with an equally good effect.

Of his brothers and sisters, although he had a great number, he seldom talked, and I scarcely knew the names of the States in which they lived, as they were scattered in every direction. I had heard him mention a Samuel, a Joseph, a Jacob, an Elias, a Rebecca, a Sarah, a Rachel, and an Elizabeth, from which I came to believe that my grandfather was a religious man (his own name was Amos), and I once heard that his children on Sundays carried their shoes to the brook near the meeting-house before putting them on, that they might last the longer, which confirmed the belief that there had been religion in his family as there was in ours.

Of his mother he said nothing at all, and if they had neighbors he never mentioned them. In short, he did not seem proud of his family, which caused us to wonder why he was so much like his father, which we had come to believe without exactly knowing why. We were certain he was like his father in religion; in the hard way in which he worked; in his capacity to mend his own ploughs and wagons; and in the easy manner in which he adapted himself to his surroundings, whatever they were, for in all these particulars he was unlike any other man we had ever known, and different from his neighbors, who spent half a day in asking advice in a matter which could be remedied in half an hour. The people came to our house from miles around to borrow, and to ask the best time to plant and to sow, but the Rev. John Westlock asked advice of no one, and never borrowed. If he needed an extra harrow, he made one of wood to answer until such a time as he could trade to advantage for a better one; if he broke a plough, he managed somehow to mend it until a rainy day came, when he made it as good as new. Even in cases of sickness he usually had a bottle hid away that contained relief, and in all other things was equally capable and thrifty.

If it be to the credit of a man to say that he was a slave to hard work, I cheerfully add this testimony to the greatness of my father, for he went to the field at daylight only to return with the darkness, winter and summer alike; and never in my life have I seen him idle-except on the day appointed for rest-and even then he devoured the Bible like a man reading at so much per page. He worked hard when he preached, talking rapidly that he might accomplish as much as possible before the people became impatient, and he no sooner finished one song of warning, than he began another.

My father being large and positive, it followed naturally that my mother was small and weak, and thoroughly under his control. I don't think she was afraid of him, but he managed his own affairs so well that she was willing he should manage hers, as he had given her good reason to respect his judgment. She probably argued-if she argued the question at all-that as his ideas were good in everything else, he would of course know how to manage a boy, so my bringing up was left entirely to him.

She never corrected me except to say that father would not like what I was doing, and she might find it necessary to call his attention to it, but in the goodness of her heart she forgot it, and never told him unless the offence was a very grave one. While she frequently pleaded with me to be good, and cried in vexation if I would not, she never gave commands which were enforced with severe punishments, as he did; therefore I am afraid that I did not appreciate her kindness and favor, but rather enjoyed my freedom when under her care as a respite from restraint at other times. She was as quiet and thoughtful as her husband, but seemed sad rather than angry and discontented, as was the case with him, and it will be readily imagined that as a family we were not much given to happiness. While I never heard my father speak harshly to her, he was often impatient, as though he regretted he had not married a wife as ambitious and capable as himself; but if he thought of it, he gave it no other attention than to become more gloomy, and pacified himself by reading far into the night without speaking to any one.

I could find no fault with him except that he never spoke kindly to me, and it annoyed him if I asked him questions concerning what I read in his books. When Jo and I worked with him in the field, which we both began to do very early in life, he always did that which was hardest and most disagreeable, and was not a tyrant in anything save the ungrumbling obedience he exacted to whatever he thought about the matter in hand, without reference to what others thought on the same subject. We had to be at something steadily, whether it helped him or not, because he believed idle boys grew up into idle men. Other boys in the neighborhood built the early fires, and did the early feeding, but he preferred to do these things himself-whether out of consideration for us, or because it was troublesome to drive us to it, I do not know. After starting the fire in the room in which he slept, he stepped to our door and told us to get up, to which command we mumblingly replied and slept on. After returning from the stables, he spoke to us again, but we still paid no attention. Ten minutes later he would start up the stairs with angry strides, but he never caught us, for we knew that was final and hurried on our clothes. Seeing that we were up and dressing when he reached the head of the stairs, he would say, "Well, you'd better," and go down again, where we speedily followed. This was his regular custom for years; we always expected it of him, and were never disappointed.

After the morning devotions, which consisted of reading a chapter from the Bible and a prayer always expressed in exactly the same words, he asked a blessing for the meal by this time ready (the blessing was as unvarying as the prayer), and we ate in silence. Then we were warmly clothed, if it was winter, and compelled to go out and work until we were hungry again. I suppose we helped him little enough, but his reasoning convinced him that, to work easily and naturally, work must become a habit, and should be taught from youth up, therefore we went out with him every day and came back only with the darkness.

I think he was kinder with us when at work than at any other time, and we admired him in spite of the hard and exacting tasks he gave us to do-he called them stints-for he was powerful and quick to aid us when we needed it, and tender as a child if we were sick. Sometimes on cold days we walked rather than rode to the timber, where my father went to chop wood while Jo and I corded it. On one of these occasions I became ill while returning home at night-a slight difficulty, it must have been, for I was always stout and robust-and he carried me all the way in his arms. Though I insisted I could walk, and was better, he said I was not heavy, and trudged along like a great giant, holding me so tenderly that I thought for the first time that perhaps he loved me. For weeks after that I tried as hard as I could to please him, and to induce him to commend my work; but he never did, for whether I was good or bad, he was just the same, silent and grave, so that if I became indifferent in my tasks, I fear he was the cause of it.

Other families had their holidays, and owned guns and dogs, which they used in hunting the wild game then so abundant; but there was little of this at our house, and perhaps this was the reason why we prospered more than those around us. Usually Jo and I were given the Saturday afternoons to ourselves, when we roamed the country with some of the idle vagabonds who lived in rented houses, visiting turkey roosts a great distance in the woods, and only returning long after night-fall. I do not remember that we were ever idle in the middle of the week, unless we were sent on errands, as buying young stock at low prices of the less thrifty neighbors, or something else in which there was profit; so that we had little time to learn anything except hard work, and if we learned that well it was because we were excellently taught by a competent master. During those years work became such a habit with me that ever since it has clung to me, and perhaps, after all, it was an inheritance for which I have reason to be thankful. I remember my father's saying scornfully to me once, as if intimating that I ought to make up by unusual industry for the years of idleness, that I was a positive burden and expense to him until I was seven years old. So it will readily be imagined that I was put to work early, and kept steadily at it.

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