Chapter VIII.


The doctor's sermon had the usual effect of controversial sermons—it convinced everybody that was convinced before and strengthened those who before were strong. Everybody was talking of it. The farmers as they drove their oxen stepped with a vigorous air, like men that were not going to be brought under any yoke of bondage. Old ladies in their tea-drinkings talked about the danger of making a righteousness of forms and rites and ceremonies, and seemed of opinion that the proceedings at the Episcopal church, however attractive, were only an insidious putting forth of one paw of the Scarlet Beast of Rome, and that if not vigorously opposed the whole quadruped, tooth and claw, would yet be upon their backs.

But it must not be supposed that this side of the question had all the talk to itself. The Rev. Simeon Coan was a youth of bright parts, vigorous combativeness and considerable fluency of speech, and he immediately prepared a sermon on his side of the question, by which, in the opinion of the Lewises, the Danforths, the Copleys and all the rest of his audience, he proved beyond a doubt that Christmas ought to be kept, and that the 25th of December was the proper time for keeping it. He brought also quotations from Greek and Latin thick as stars in the skies; and as to the quotations of the doctor he ignored them altogether, and talked about something else.

The doctor had been heard to observe with a subdued triumph that he really would like to see how "Coan" would "get round" that passage in Clement, but he could not have that pleasure, because "Coan" did not get anywhere near it, but struck off as far as possible from it into a region of quotations on his own side; and as his audience were not particularly fitted to adjudicate nice points in chronology, and as quotations from the Church Fathers on all sides of almost any subject under the sun are plentiful as blackberries in August, Mr. Coan succeeded in making his side to the full as irrefragable in the eyes of his hearers as the doctor's in those of his.

But besides this he reinforced himself by proclaiming with vigor the authority of the Church. "The Church has ordained," "The Church in her wisdom has directed," "The Church commands," and "The Church hath appointed," were phrases often on his tongue, and the sound rolled smoothly above the heads of good old families who had long felt the want of some definite form of authority to support their religious preferences in face of the general Congregationalism of the land.

The Church, that mysterious and awful power that had come down from distant ages, had survived the dissolution of monarchies and was to-day the same as of old! The thought was poetical and exciting, and gave impulse to the fervor inspired by a liturgy and forms of worship allowed even by adversaries to be noble and beautiful; and their minister's confident assertion that the Church commanded, approved and backed up all that they were doing was immensely supporting to the little band. The newly-acquired members, born and brought up in Congregational discipline, felt all the delight of a new sense of liberty. It had not always been possible to go to any other than the dominant church, and there was a fresh emotion of pleasure in being able to do as they pleased in the matter; so they readily accepted Mr. Coan's High Church claims and doctrines. Instead of standing on the defensive and apologizing for their existence he boldly struck out for the rock of apostolic succession, declared their church the true Apostolic Church, the only real church in the place, although he admitted with an affable charity that doubtless good Christian people among the various sects who departed from this true foundation might at last be saved through the uncovenanted mercies of God.

Imagine the scorn which this doctrine inspired in Puritan people, who had been born in the faith that New England was the vine which God's right hand had planted—who had looked on her church as the Church of God, cast out indeed into the wilderness, but bearing with her "the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises." That faith was woven into the very existence of the New England race. They cast great roots about it as the oaks of the forest grasped and grew out of the eternal rocks of their hard and barren shores. So, when Mr. Simeon Coan, in a white surplice, amid suspicious chantings and bowings and genuflections, announced a doctrine which disfranchised them of the heavenly Jerusalem, and made them aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenant of promise, there was a grim sense of humor mingled with the indignation which swelled their bosoms.

"Uncovenanted marcies!" said stout Tim Hawkins. "Thet's what they call 'em, do they? Wal, ef thet's what Parson Cushing and all the ministers of our association has got to live and die by—why, it's good enough for me. I don't want no better; I don't care which kind they be. I scorn to argue with such folks."

In fact they felt as if they had seen a chip sparrow flying in the face of an eagle in his rock-bound eyrie.

But the doctor's sermon had the effect to draw the lines as to keeping Christmas up to the tightest brace. The academy teacher took occasion on Monday to remark to his scholars how he had never thought of such a thing as suspending school for Christmas holidays, and those of the pupils who, belonging to Episcopal families, had gone on Christmas Day to church were informed that marks for absence and non-performance of lessons would stand against them, no matter what excuses they might bring from parents. As to Christmas holidays—the giving up to amusement a week, from Christmas to New Year's—he spoke of it as a popish enormity not to be mentioned or even thought of in God-fearing New England, which abhorred a holiday as much as nature abhors a vacuum. Those parents whose children had been drawn in to attend these seductive festivities were anxiously admonished by their elders in homilies from the text, "Surely, in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird."

For example, witness one scene. It is Sunday evening, and the bright snapping fire lights up the great kitchen chimney where the widow Jones is sitting by the stand with her great Bible before her. A thin, weary, kindly old face is hers, with as many lines in it as Denner's celebrated picture of the old woman. Everything about her, to her angular figure and her thin bony hands, bore witness to the unsparing work that had been laid upon every hour and moment of her life. Even now the thin hands that rested on the Bible twitched at times mechanically as if even in the blessed rest of Sunday evening she felt the touch of the omnipresent knitting needles.

On the settle beside the fire, half stretched out, lounges Hiel, her youngest born son and the prop of her old age; for all others have gone hither and thither seeking their future in the world. Hiel has been comforting her heart by the heartiest praises of the minister's sermon that day.

"I tell you what, Mother, them 'Piscopals got pitched into lively, now; the Doctor pursued 'em 'even unto Shur,' as the Scriptur' says."

"Yis; and, Hiel, I hope you won't be seen goin' to the 'Piscopal meetings no more. I felt reely consarned, after I heard the sarmon, to think of your bein' in to that air 'lumination."

"Oh laws, Mother, I jest hed to go to see to things. Things hez to be seen to; there was the Doctor's boys right up in the front slips, and little Dolly there rolled up like a rabbit down there under them spruces. I had to take her home. I expect it's what waked up the Doctor so, what I said to him."

"Wal, Hiel, mebbe it was all fer the best; but I hope you'll let it alone now. And I heard you was a settin' up with Nabby Higgins the other evening; was you?"

A curious expression passed over Hiel's droll handsome face, and he drew his knife from his pocket and began reflectively to shave a bit of shingle.

"Wal, yis, Mother; the fact is, I did stay with Nabby Christmas evening, as they call it. Nabby and me's allers ben good friends, you know. You know, Mother, you think lots of Nabby's mother, Mis' Higgins, and it ain't her fault nor Nabby's ef she hez to leave our meetin'. It's old Zeph that makes 'em."

"O yis. I ha'n't nothin' agin Mis' Higgins. Polly Higgins is a good woman as is goin'. I don't want no better; but as to Nabby, why, she's light and triflin', and she's goin' right into all these 'ere vanities; and I don't want no son of mine to get drawn away arter her. You know how 'twas in old times, it was the Moabitish women that allers made mischief."

"Oh land o' Goshen, Mother, jes as ef it would do any harm for me to set up with Nabby in the minister's own kitchen. Ef she don't pisen the minister's boys and Dolly she won't pisen me; besides, I wanted to see what was in that air bundle Mis' Cushing's folks sent to her from Boston. Of course I knew you'd be a wantin' to know."

"Wal, did you see?" said the widow, snapping at once at the bait so artfully thrown.

"I rather reckon I did. Dolly she got a red frock and red shoes, and she was so tickled nothing would do but she must bring her red frock and red shoes right out to show to Nabby. They think all the world of each other, Nabby and Dolly do."

"Was the dress made up?" said the widow.

"Oh, yis; all made up, ready to put right on."

"Red, did you say?"

"Yes, red as a robin, with little black sprigs in't, and her shoes red morocco. I tell you she put 'em on and squeaked round in 'em lively! Then there was six silk pocket-handkerchers for the Doctor, all hemmed, and his name marked in the corner; and there was a nice book for each o' them boys, and a bonnet-ribbin for Miss Cushing."

"What color was it?" said the widow.

"Wal, I don't know—sort o' sky-blue scarlet," said Hiel, tired of particulars. "I never know what women call their ribbins."

"Wal, reely now, it's a good thing for folks to have rich relations," soliloquized the widow. "I don't grudge Mis' Cushing her prosperity—not a grain."

"Yis, and the doctor's folks was glad enough to get them things, if they was Christmas presents. The Christmas didn't pisen 'em, any way; Mis' Cushing's folks up to Boston 's 'Piscopals, but she thinks they're pretty nice folks, if they be 'Piscopals.

"Now, Hiel," said the widow, "Nabby Higgins is a nice girl—a girl that's got faculty, and got ambition, and she's handsome. I expect she's prudent and laid by something out of her wages"—and here the widow paused and gazed reflectively at the sparks on the chimney-back.

"Wal, Mother, the upshot on't is that if I and Nabby should want to make a team together there wouldn't be no call for wailin' and gnashin' of teeth. There might wuss things happen; but jes now Nabby and I's good friends—that's all."

And with this settlement the widow Jones, like many another mother, was forced to rest contented, sure that her son, in his own good time, would—do just as he pleased.

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