Chapter III.


Before going farther in our story we pause to give a brief answer to the queries that have risen in the minds of some who remember the old times in New England: How came there to be any Episcopalians or Episcopal church in a small Puritan town like Poganuc?

The Episcopal Church in New England in the early days was emphatically a root out of dry ground, with as little foothold in popular sympathy as one of those storm-driven junipers, that the east wind blows all aslant, has in the rocky ledges of Cape Cod. The soil, the climate, the atmosphere, the genius, and the history of the people were all against it. Its forms and ceremonies were all associated with the persecution which drove the Puritans out of England and left them no refuge but the rock-bound shores of America. It is true that in the time of Governor Winthrop the colony of Massachusetts appealed with affectionate professions to their Mother, the Church of England, and sought her sympathy and her prayers; but it is also unfortunately true that the forms of the Church of England were cultivated and maintained in New England by the very party whose intolerance and tyranny brought on the Revolutionary war.

All the oppressive governors of the colonies were Episcopalians, and in the Revolutionary struggle the Episcopal Church was very generally on the Tory side; hence, the New Englanders came to have an aversion to its graceful and beautiful ritual and forms for the same reason that the free party in Spain and Italy now loathe the beauties of the Romish Church, as signs and symbols of tyranny and oppression.

Congregationalism—or, as it was then called by the common people, Presbyterianism—was the religion established by law in New England. It was the State Church. Even in Boston in its colonial days, the King's Chapel and Old North were only dissenting churches, unrecognized by the State, but upheld by the patronage of the colonial governors who were sent over to them from England. For a long time after the Revolutionary war the old régime of the State Church held undisputed sway in New England. There was the one meeting-house, the one minister, in every village. Every householder was taxed for the support of public worship, and stringent law and custom demanded of every one a personal attendance on Sunday at both services. If any defaulter failed to put in an appearance it was the minister's duty to call promptly on Monday and know the reason why. There was no place for differences of religious opinion. All that individualism which now raises a crop of various little churches in every country village was sternly suppressed. For many years only members of churches could be eligible to public offices; Sabbath-keeping was enforced with more than Mosaic strictness, and New England justified the sarcasm which said that they had left the Lords-Bishops to be under the Lords-Brethren. In those days if a sectarian meeting of Methodists or Baptists, or an unseemly gathering of any kind, seemed impending, the minister had only to put on his cocked hat, take his gold-headed cane and march down the village street, leaving his prohibition at every house, and the thing was so done even as he commanded.

In the very nature of things such a state of society could not endure. The shock that separated the nation from a king and monarchy, the sense of freedom and independence, the hardihood of thought which led to the founding of a new civil republic, were fatal to all religious constraint. Even before the Revolutionary war there were independent spirits that chafed under the constraint of clerical supervision, and Ethan Allen advertised his farm and stock for sale, expressing his determination at any cost to get out of "this old holy State of Connecticut."

It was but a little while after the close of the war that established American independence that the revolution came which broke up the State Church and gave to every man the liberty of "signing off," as it was called, to any denomination that pleased him. Hence arose through New England churches of all names. The nucleus of the Episcopal Church in any place was generally some two or three old families of ancestral traditions in its favor, who gladly welcomed to their fold any who, for various causes, were discontented with the standing order of things. Then, too, there came to them gentle spirits, cut and bleeding by the sharp crystals of doctrinal statement, and courting the balm of devotional liturgy and the cool shadowy indefiniteness of more æsthetic forms of worship. Also, any one that for any cause had a controversy with the dominant church took comfort in the power of "signing off" to another. In those days, to belong to no church was not respectable, but to sign off to the Episcopal Church was often a compromise that both gratified self-will and saved one's dignity; and, having signed off, the new convert was obliged, for consistency's sake, to justify the step he had taken by doing his best to uphold the doctrine and worship of his chosen church.

The little edifice at Poganuc had been trimmed and arranged with taste and skill. For that matter, it would seem as if the wild woods of New England were filled with garlands and decorations already made and only waiting to be used in this graceful service. Under the tall spruces the ground was all ruffled with the pretty wreaths of ground-pine; the arbor vitæ, the spruce, the cedar and juniper, with their balsamic breath, filled the aisles with a spicy fragrance. It was a cheaply built little church, in gothic forms, with pointed windows and an arch over the chancel; and every arch was wreathed with green, and above the chancel glittered a great gold star, manufactured by Miss Ida Lewis out of pasteboard and gilt paper ordered in Boston. It was not gold, but it glittered, and the people that looked on it were not blasé, as everybody in our days is, with sight seeing. The innocent rustic life of Poganuc had no pageants, no sights, no shows, except the eternal blazonry of nature; and therefore the people were prepared to be dazzled and delighted with a star cut out of gilt paper. There was bustling activity of boys and men in lighting the windows, and a general rush of the populace to get the best seats.

"Wal, now, this beats all!" said Hiel Jones the stage driver, who had secured one of the best perches in the little gallery.

Hiel Jones, in virtue of his place on the high seat of the daily stage that drove through Poganuc Center on the Boston turnpike, felt himself invested with a sort of grandeur as occupying a predominant position in society from whence he could look down on all its movements and interests. Everybody bowed to Hiel. Every housekeeper charged him with her bundle or commissioned him with her errand. Bright-eyed damsels smiled at him from windows as he drove up to house-doors, and of all that was going on in Poganuc Center, or any of the villages for twenty miles around, Hiel considered himself as a competent judge and critic. Therefore he came at an early hour and assumed a seat where he could not only survey the gathering congregation but throw out from time to time a few suggestions on the lighting up and arrangements.

"Putty wal got up, this 'ere, for Poganuc Center," he said to Job Peters, a rather heavy lad who had secured the place beside him.

"Putty wal, considerin'! Take care there, Siah Beers, ye'll set them air spruce boughs afire ef you ain't careful lightin' your candles; spruce boughs go like all natur ef ye once start 'em. These 'ere things takes jedgment, Siah. Tell Ike Bissel there to h'ist his pole a leetle higher; he don't reach them air top candles; what's the feller thinkin' of? Look out, Jimmy! Ef ye let down that top winder it flares the candles, and they'll gutter like thunder; better put it up."

When the church was satisfactorily lighted Hiel began his comments on the assembling audience:

"There goes Squire Lewis and Mis' Lewis and old lady Lewis and Idy Lewis and the Lewis boys. On time, they be. Heads down—sayin' prayers, I s'pose! Folks don't do so t' our meetin'; but folks' ways is different. Bless my soul, ef there ain't old Zeph Higgins, lookin' like a last year's mullen-stalk! I swow, ef the old critter hain't act'ally hitched up and come down with his hull team—wife and boys and yaller dog and all."

"Why, Zeph Higgins ain't 'Piscopal, is he?" said Job, who was less versed than Hiel in the gossip of the day.

"Lordy massy, yis! Hain't ye heard that Zeph's signed off two months ago, and goin' in strong for the 'Piscopals?"

"Wal, that air beats all," said his auditor. "Zeph is about the last timber I'd expect to make a 'Piscopal of."

"Oh, lands! he ain't no more 'Piscopal than I be, Zeph Higgins ain't; he's nothin' but a mad Presbyterian, like a good many o' the rest on 'em," said Hiel.

"Why, what's he mad about?"

"Laws, it's nothin' but that air old business about them potatoes that Zeph traded to Deacon Dickenson a year ago. Come to settle up, there was about five and sixpence that they couldn't 'gree 'bout. Zeph, he said the deacon cheated him, and the deacon stood to it he was right; and they had it back and forth, and the deacon wouldn't give in, and Zeph wouldn't. And there they stood with their horns locked like two bulls in a pastur' lot. Wal, they had 'em up 'fore the church, and they was labored with—both sides. The deacon said, finally, he'd pay the money for peace' sake, if Zeph would take back what he said 'bout his bein' a cheat and a liar; and Zeph he said he wouldn't take nothin' back; and then the church they suspended Zeph; and Zeph he signed off to the 'Piscopals."

"I want to know, now," said Job, with a satisfied air of dawning comprehension.

"Yis, sir, that air's the hull on't. But I tell you, Zeph's led the old deacon a dance. Zeph, ye see, is one o' them ropy, stringy fellers, jest like touch-wood—once get 'em a burnin' and they keep on a burnin' night and day. Zeph really sot up nights a hatin' the deacon, and contrivin' what he could do agin him. Finally, it come into his head that the deacon got his water from a spring on one of Zeph's high pastur' lots. The deacon had laid pipes himself and brought it 'cross lots down to his house. Wal, wat does Zeph do, without sayin' a word to the deacon, but he takes up all the deacon's logs that carried the water 'cross his lot, and throw'd 'em over the fence; and, fust the deacon's wife knowed, she hadn't a drop o' water to wash or cook with, or drink, nor nothin'. Deacon had to get all his water carted in barrels. Wal, they went to law 'bout it and 'tain't settled yit; but Zeph he took Squire Lewis for his lawyer. Squire Lewis, ye see, he's the gret man to the 'Piscopal Church. Folks say he putty much built this 'ere church."

"Wal, now," said Job, after an interval of meditation, "I shouldn't think the 'Piscopals wouldn't get no gret advantage from them sort o' fellers."

"That air's jest what I was a tellin' on 'em over to the store," said Hiel, briskly. "Deacon Peasley, he was a mournin' about it. Lordy massy, deacon, says I, don't you worry. If them 'Piscopalians has got Zeph Higgins in their camp—why, they've bit off more'n they can chaw, that's all. They'll find it out one o' these days—see if they don't."

"Wal, but Zeph's folks is putty nice folks, now," said Job.

"O—wal, yis—they be; don't say nothin' agin his folks. Mis' Higgins is a meek, marciful old body, kind o' heart-broken at leavin' Parson Cushing and her meetin'. Then there's Nabby, and the boys. Wal, they sort o' like it—young folks goes in for new things. There's Nabby over there now, come in with Jim Sawin. I believe she's makin' a fool o' that 'ere fellow. Harnsom gal, Nabby is—knows it too—and sarves out the fellers. Maybe she'll go through the wood and pick up a crooked stick 'fore she knows it. I've sot up with Nabby myself; but laws, she ain't the only gal in the world—plenty on 'em all 'round the lot."

"Why," exclaimed his neighbor, "if there ain't the minister's boys down there in that front slip!"

"Sartin; you may bet on Bill and Tom for bein' into the best seat whatever's goin' on. Likely boys; wide awake they be! Bill there could drive stage as well as I can, only if I didn't hold on to him he'd have us all to the darnation in five minutes. There's the makin' of suthin' in that Bill. He'll go strong to the Lord or to the devil one o' these days."

"Wal, what's his father think of his bein' here?"

"Parson Cushing! Lordy massy, he don't know nothin' where they be. Met him and Mis' Cushing jinglin' over to the Friday evenin' prayer-meetin' to North Poganuc."

"Wal, now," said his neighbor, "ef there ain't Lucius Jenks down there and Mis' Jenks, and all his folks."

"Yis—yis, jes' so. They say Lucius is thinkin' of signin' off to the 'Piscopals to get the trade. He's jest sot up store, and Deacon Dickenson's got all the ground; but there's the Lewises and the Copleys and the Danforths goes to the 'Piscopals, and they's folks that lives well and uses lots of groceries. I shouldn't wonder ef Lucius should make a good thing on't. Jenks ain't one that cares much which church he goes to, and, like enough, it don't make much difference to some folks."

"You know this 'ere minister they've got here?" asked Job.

"Know him? Guess so!" said Hiel, with a superior smile. "I've known Sim Coan ever since he wore short jackets. Sim comes from over by East Poganuc. His gran'ther was old Gineral Coan, a gret Tory he was, in the war times. Sim's ben to college, and he's putty smart and chipper. Come to heft him, tho', he don't weigh much 'longside o' Parson Cushing. He's got a good voice, and reads well; but come to a sermon—wal, ain't no gret heft in't."

"Want to know," said his auditor.

"Yis," said Hiel, "but Sim's almighty plucky. You'd think now, comin' into this 'ere little bit of a church, right opposite Parson Cushing's great meetin'-house, and with the biggest part of folks goin' to meetin', that he'd sing small at fust; but he don't. Lordy massy, no! He comes right out with it that Parson Cushing ain't no minister, and hain't got no right to preach, nor administer sacraments, nor nothin'—nor nobody else but him and his 'Piscopal folks, that's been ordained by bishops. He gives it to 'em, hip and thigh, I tell you."

"That air don't look reasonable," said Job, after a few minutes of profound reflection.

"Wal, Sim says this 'ere thing has come right stret down from the 'Postles—one ordainin' another in a steady string all the way down till it come to him. And Parson Cushing, he's out in the cold, 'cause there hain't no bishop ordained him."

"Wal, I declare!" said the other. "I think that air's cheek."

"Ain't it now?" said Hiel. "Now, for my part, I go for the man that does his work best. Here's all our ministers round a savin' sinners and convartin' souls, whether the 'Postles ordained 'em or not—that's what ministers is fur. I'll set Parson Cushing 'longside any minister—preachin' and teachin' and holdin' meetin's in Poganuc Center, and North and South Poganuc, and gatherin' church members, and seein' to the schools, and keepin' every thing agoin'. That air kind o' minister 's good enough for me."

"Then you've no thoughts of signing off?"

"Not a bit on't. My old mother, she thinks every thing o' Parson Cushing. She's a gret deal better jedge than I be o' this 'ere sort o' thing. I shall go to meetin' with Mother."

"It's sort o' takin' and pretty, though, this 'ere dressing up the church and all," said his neighbor.

"Wal, yis, 'tis putty," said Hiel, looking around with an air of candid allowance, "but who's going to pay for it all? These 'ere sort of things chalk up, ye know. All these 'ere taller candles ain't burnt out for nothing—somebody's got to foot the bills."

"Wal, I like the orgin," said Job. "I wish we had an orgin to our meetin'."

"Dunno," said Hiel, loth to admit any superiority. "Wal, they wouldn't a hed none ef it hadn't been for Uncle Sol Peters. You know he's kind o' crazy to sing, and he hain't got no ear, and no more voice 'n a saw-mill, and they wouldn't hev 'im in our singer seats, and so he went off to the 'Piscopals. And he bought an orgin right out and out, and paid for it, and put it in this church so that they'd let him be in the singin'. You know they can make noise enough with an orgin to drown his voice."

"Wal, it was considerable for Uncle Sol to do—wa'n't it?" said Job.

"Laws, he's an old bachelor, hain't got no wife and children to support, so I s'pose he may as well spend his money that way as any. Uncle Sol never could get any gal to hev him. There he is now, tryin' to get 'longside o' Nabby Higgins; but you'll see he won't do it. She knows what she's about. Now, for my part, I like our singin' up to the meetin'-house full as wal as this 'ere. I like good old-fashioned psalm tunes, with Ben Davis to lead—that's the sort I like."

It will have been remarked that Hiel was one of that common class of Yankees who felt provided with a ready-made opinion of everything and every subject that could possibly be started, from stage-driving to apostolic succession, with a most comfortable opinion of the importance of his approbation and patronage.

When the house was filled and the evening service begun Hiel looked down critically as the audience rose or sat down or bowed in the Creed. The tones of the small organ, leading the choral chant and somewhat covering the uncultured roughness of the voices in the choir, rose and filled the green arches with a solemn and plaintive sound, affecting many a heart that scarce could give a reason why. It was in truth a very sweet and beautiful service, and one calculated to make a thoughtful person regret that the Church of England had ever expelled the Puritan leaders from an inheritance of such lovely possibilities. When the minister's sermon appeared, however, it proved to be a spirited discourse on the obligation of keeping Christmas, to which Hiel listened with pricked-up ears, evidently bristling with combativeness.

"Parson Cushing could knock that air all to flinders; you see if he can't," said Hiel, the moment the concluding services allowed him space to speak his mind. "Wal, did ye see old Zeph a-gettin' up and a-settin' down in the wrong place, and tryin' to manage his prayer-book?" he said. "It's worse than the militia drill—he never hits right. I hed to laugh to see him. Hulloa! if there ain't little Dolly down there in the corner, under them cedars. How come she out this time o' night? Guess Parson Cushing 'll hev to look out for this 'ere!"

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