A Sermon and a Sinner
A Sermon and a Sinner
BY FORREST CRISSEY
FROM the meadow, between the road and the West Woods, came the sweetly shrill note of the meadow-lark and the riotous warblings of bobolink. But these finer voices of the resurrected year fell sadly upon the heart of the boy, heavy with its dreadful burden of secret sin.
Although perching in desperate discomfort on the slippery edge of the oil-cloth cushion, wedged between his parents on the narrow buggy-seat, Ezra was keenly sensible of the spell of the spring, the jubilant gushing of lark and bobolink. Under their magic his being seemed trembling and expanding with life like that which thrilled the hushed earth.
The very mystery of these impressions multiplied their power and intensity—but the grim shadow of his sin could not be dispelled, even by the vernal gladness about him.
At the cross-road from Thompson's Woods to the cheese-factory, the glistening tombstones of the graveyard came into view.
The presence among them of a man standing knee-deep in a grave which he was digging gave the child a keen shock. Death! And on such a morning as this! At all times terrible, its shadow on the peace of this Sabbath morning made him shiver. He counted the shovelfuls of earth the sexton threw upon the slowly growing mound at his side.
How many shovelfuls would it take to empty the grave? Who were they going to put in that black hole? Was it one who had died a Christian? When would they dig his—Ezra Rue's—grave? Was he a Christian? And all the time he counted the shovelfuls of earth! Suddenly it came to him:
"If I don't see him throw out twenty more shovelfuls I shall die this year!"
"One—two—three—four," he counted, denying in each interim the claim of the suggestion, but still counting with tragic earnestness. How slowly the man moved! Oh, if only Totman would get out the twenty shovelfuls! Ezra almost prayed that the old horse would move slower or the sexton faster—but in his soul he felt either to be hopelessly impossible.
"Fourteen—fifteen—sixteen," he continued.
The man rested on his shovel; the boy held his breath. Would he never begin again?
A cloud of butterflies arose from a drying puddle; the horse started into a trot, and a corner of the woods shut off the boy's vision of the sexton just as the nineteenth shovelful dropped upon the mound.
Thompson was backing his horse into the shafts of his democrat wagon as they passed.
"D'y' know Sassman's Will died last night?" he called out in cheerful tones.
After halting for "the particulars," the Rues drove on, discussing with unsparing realism the details of death by this awful contagion, while the child's soul winced under the cumulative terrors which found their visible exponent in the grave-digger. For Death which could invade such a morning as this and lay its majestic silence upon the lips of his noisiest playmate, instead of those of some old man or woman, was more terribly near him than ever before. And he had not seen that twentieth shovelful of grave-dirt fall upon the pile!
He recollected the last time he had seen Will—pitching horseshoes. Now he was in Eternity! The word spelled itself in the child's imagination with letters greater than capitals—something like those the stars might make, on a clear night, if they should all suddenly rush together into the eight great blazing letters!
At the church his mother shook out the front of her skirts, stepped inside the vestibule, lifted Ezra's speckled straw hat, wet her fingers, and plastered back the lock of whitish hair that seemed determined to curl upon his forehead. Then they all went solemnly to the family pew.
Although Ezra had put on the garb of summer, in the form of baggy linen trousers and calico waist, his hair had not yet suffered the inevitable spring "shingle," but strung along down his thin neck like the frayed eaves of a sun-bleached straw thatch. His face was delicately white, save for two bright spots which flushed and faded in his cheeks with the rising and falling tide of his self-consciousness. His long, straight nose, high cheek-bones, and well-rounded chin redeemed from weakness the dreamy expression which large blue eyes and softly curved lips would otherwise have given to his face.
His hands were never at rest. When not fumbling his starched shirt, his long, slender fingers were clutched tensely into his palms.
As Miss Albright, the new teacher, arose behind the organ and began the solo, Ezra for the first moment forgot his sin.
All the details of her personality—her curving lips with mischievous corners, her big gray eyes in which lurking bubbles of laughter seemed unconsciously to sparkle up to the surface, her soft-gray dress, her slender erect figure, the curling gray plumes of her silvery straw hat, and especially the little bunch of blue violets that trembled at her throat—all these epitomized themselves in the impression which the boy received as she sang:
"I stood outside the gate—
A poor wayfaring child,
And in my heart there beat
A tempest loud and wild."
Her rich alto was full of depth and power that he had never before heard in a woman's voice. Then and there he experienced his first, definite, personal consciousness of womanly beauty—and this new revelation banished the mystic fears of the morning to that second consciousness into which Pear sometimes withdraws only to clothe itself in darker and more terrible guise.
Ezra could now barely see the plumes of Miss Albright's hat above the organ and was watching eagerly for some movement which would give him another view of her face, when the preacher arose and read the text:
"Wherefore I say unto you, all manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him, but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come."
Ezra gasped and grew ashen at the terrible words! How had Elder Kingsbury learned his awful secret? And would he be called by name and denounced before the whole congregation?
The preacher was a stern product of New England and had a genius and passion for "conviction."
Ezra, the condemned, sat on the edge of the seat, his mouth open and the pupils of his eyes wildly enlarged. He breathed with the husky respirations of one sleeping or unconscious, and his heart throbbed like an engine. His clothing trembled about his thin, shaking ankles, as if an icy draught were blowing underneath the pews. His cheeks were whiter than his bleached linen trousers. He had lost consciousness of time and place. He had entered into eternity—the eternity of agony of those guilty of the Unpardonable Sin.
To him the preacher was the direct oracle of God, the voice of Jehovah! He caught each word from the threatening lips and received it as an inspired and revealed truth.
The preacher grew more terrible and fiery as he witnessed his own power. Women wept audibly and men dropped their chins uncomfortably upon their shirt bosoms. The orator's imagination grew strangely heated and gave forth fierce and wonderful figures that surprised even himself: Eternity—the unending cycles through which the blasphemers should drink the burning cup of their torment and die a million deaths—how long was it? If a bird should fly from the sun once in a thousand years, and each time carry from the earth one grain not larger than a mustard-seed—when it had carried away the inhabitants of the whole earth and all the buildings and devices of man, had levelled the mountains and eaten into the bowels of the earth, when the world had been wasted by this infinitesimal decay—one grain, one in a thousand years—to a single floating atom to be borne away by this sunbird, then eternity would have just begun; it would be no nearer its end than at the beginning.
The preacher closed his Bible and sank back into his chair with a consciousness of victory. He had carried conviction! The Lord had strengthened his arm mightily and he had dealt valiant blows against the strong walls of unbelief. He did not know that his awful blows, which had shattered the indifference of tired, discouraged, and gain-engrossed men, had fallen with their full brutal force upon the heart and conscience of a sensitive child. It was as if he had smitten the eyeball of the boy's soul with his knotted fist.
The "baptized believers" were now invited to remain after the general dismissal of the congregation. Then the minister made an announcement.
"Friends," said he, "in the midst of life we are in death! Last night Brother Sassman's boy, aged twelve years, was summoned to meet his God! On account of his malignant disease the burial will be private. Let this death be a solemn admonition to all—but especially to the young—that Death may pass the aged and lay his hand upon the child. The youth may be nearer the grave than those full of years; he must make his peace with God and accept mercy while it is offered to-day—or death may overtake him in his sins!"
Ezra drifted out with the ebbing tide which filled the aisles—so dazed that his mother pushed him gently forward, in a perfunctory way, as she exchanged nods of recognition with those about her.
The fearful vision of the blasphemer's fate was still before the boy's eyes. Ezra's first awakening to consciousness of his environment was with the sense of a faint, delicious odor. Miss Albright, the new teacher, was shaking hands with his mother. He knew before he saw her that the "perfumery" belonged to her. He felt a thrill as her dress brushed his hand, and its perfume seemed to penetrate to his heart like a kind word.
Heretofore this had been to him simply an opportunity to escape to the horse-sheds with his mates; but to-day he lingered, and, with a strange fascination, watched those who were saved go in to partake, while the unsaved went to the post-office or loitered about. It seemed to him like the judgment scene in the Bible, where the sheep are separated from the goats.
"Do you—ah—go in?" asked Mrs. Deacon Thompson of Miss Albright, who had also paused at the foot of the stairs.
"No, thank you, I'm going to the post-office," was her cheerful reply. This surprised not only the watching boy, but the group of women—who seemed also to have been waiting to learn whether the new teacher should be classed with the sheep or the goats—for they hushed their conversation to hear her answer.
Ezra wondered how Miss Albright could have sung the hymn so wonderfully if she were not a Christian. Then he went out upon the wide, slanting platform and listened to the talk of the men sitting on its steps or leaning against the trees and discussing crops. He passed on down the walk and leaned shyly against the fence, where he could listen to those about the stile-post, at the end of the walk.
Recognizing the group as "hired men," Ezra drew nearer, for he judged all hired men by Chet and all farmers by his father; and he was not afraid of the hired men. Chet was his daily companion, told him stories, turned handsprings and played ball with him, and sometimes slung him over his shoulder like a bag of wheat. Besides, hired men, to him, represented the great unknown outside world. Chet had been to California and had seen a man shot. Here was wisdom, experience, bravery! What matter that for seven days in the week this hero milked cows, cleaned stables, and "worked like a dog"—clothed in faded blue overalls and a slouch-hat shot full of holes? He was still, to Ezra, one of the Immortals! This menial hero was not too great to talk to a boy about something besides driving cows, picking up stones, bringing in wood and "minding" in general. It was the proudest thing in Ezra's experience to have a man who had been to California and seen a man shot talk to him "about things," just as if he were another hired man!
"Yes, sir," said Chet, as he took from his pocket a brass-mounted buck-horn knife (with which he had killed a mountain-lion, skinned seven bears, and stabbed a road-agent "up in th' S'erras"), and began recklessly to carve one of the posts, continuing:
"I knew a fellow out in Californy that said if he could save himself from hell by hanging on to a hemlock knot he'd be damned if he'd do it!"
"He must 'a' been an awful hard case, an' a mighty big fool t' boot, to talk like that," said an indigenous hireling, whose worldly experience was confined to having once taken a drove of cattle to Philadelphia.
"Well, he had mighty good stuff in him," was the only answer.
"What end did he come to?" asked another.
"Died with his boots on!" Chet admitted, candidly. "Got in a row with a Greaser over his claim, an' the feller dropped him right into the sluice-box one fine mornin'."
This seemed to be regarded as a righteous judgment by the home-grown hired man, who screwed up courage to say:
"I'll bet he'd never 'a' dared talk that way if he'd a-heard the old elder's sermon this morning."
"Wouldn't, eh?" exclaimed Chet, contemptuously, as he jabbed his knife into the post. "I'll tell you this much, boys: If the real religion's the kind that th' ol' man give us this mornin', I'm agin' it—hell 'r no hell!"
Then he withdrew the knife, closed it, hitched up his suspenderless trousers, and strode off.
These words made Ezra gasp. Yet, as he turned towards the horse-sheds, he felt a dim comfort in the thought that in hell he would have the companionship of so brave a soul as Chet.
He hoped that the Sunday-school would last a long time—for he dreaded the thought of the long, still day at the farmhouse, diet would not be back until milking-time; and even if he were to be there throughout the afternoon, the recollection of his terrible words of defiance against the preacher's God would have kept Ezra from companionable intercourse with him. There would be only the dreary day, oppressive with the heavy stillness of a country Sabbath!
As he reentered the church and took his seat he felt a return of the sensation which had gripped him during the sermon, and he would have rushed from the room if he dared.
The superintendent was seeking a substitute teacher for Ezra's class in the place of the afflicted Mrs. Sassman. Ezra wondered if Miss Albright would not take the class, and it gave him a queer flurry of fear and joy as he saw her approaching with the superintendent.
"Boys," said he, "this is Miss Albright, your new teacher. Please show her where you sit for the lesson."
The boys, except Ezra, made a boisterous break down the aisles into the room below.
When Miss Albright and Ezra came in, the boys were throwing hymn-books and leaping over the blue benches, which bore the scars of previous ill usage. A sudden silence seized upon the rioters as the teacher took her seat among them and drew off her gloves. A touch of the awe of her womanhood, which had appealed so subtly to Ezra, also impressed his less sensitive companions, and they eyed her in a sustained silence of which their former teachers would hardly have believed them capable.
"We shall not do much with the lesson to-day, for I want to get acquainted with you. I like boys and I want you to know me, so that you will like me and we can be good friends," she said, and then opened the enamelled gold locket which hung from her chain and showed them the miniature which it contained—the face of a merry little fellow whose eyes seemed so much like her own that Ezra involuntarily glanced up into her face as she bent close above him so that he might inspect the portrait.
"Yes," she said, as if in answer to a question, "he's my little brother, and I'm sure you would all like him—he's so full of fun and mischief."
It made Ezra thrill with new and strange excitement to have her come so close to him—this beautiful, girlish woman; this rare, gentle lady in gray! The sweet, glad brightness of her smile as she bent above him touched his morbidly excited sensibilities like a soothing and reviving draught.
And she liked boys and hoped they would like her! Like her? The love which Ezra gave her in that instant was an abject surrender greater than she would have dared to wish, for it was almost worship.
It was with a sense of awakening from a pleasing dream that Ezra climbed into the buggy after Sunday-school and gradually twisted his neck about in the effort to keep Miss Albright in view as long as possible while the old horse took the homeward road.
The dinner, which was more elaborate than upon week-days, was eaten with uncommon deliberation. As a consequence all ate more heartily than usual, and Mr. Rue arose from the table with a dull, heated, "Sunday feeling," pulled off his boots, laid aside his coat, and settled back into the deep rocker with the denominational paper in his hands and his feet in a kitchen chair. The warm sun came in through the window and lay in a bright zone across his knees. The paper fell from his hands, the purring cat leaped into his lap, and soon he was deep in the comfort of his afternoon nap.
As Ezra's mother cleared the table, in subdued tones she hummed the solo which Miss Albright had sung—sometimes repeating snatches of the words, then vaguely following the melody only. The boy, listening in silence and wiping each dish with laborious care, felt that there was something in it that he had not noticed when Miss Albright sang: a vague, indefinite hint that his mother's thoughts were upon the wretched little boy—for it seemed to him that the "poor wayfaring child" must have been a boy—who "stood outside the gate," rather than upon the music.
Anyway, he knew that if it had been his mother she would have let the wretched child in and would have helped him in his trouble. Looking at her toil-worn hands, a new sense of their meaning came to Ezra and he felt sure that they would, if they could, undo at any cost the gate that shut him out from heaven. They became typical of her—stood for her, spoke for her in a dumb, appealing way as no words could have done!—for words were so small a part of her life that they could not epitomize her personality. It took hands, small, worn, wrinkled hands, to do that!
After the dish-washing was done Ezra strolled into the yard, feeling that he would be less alone out-of-doors than in the house with his sleeping father, and his silent mother reading her Bible.
He went to look at the pigs, and watched the hens scratching in the straw; his soul ached with envy of the comfort of their dumb, unthinking existence. Just to stop thinking—what a heaven that would be!
The ceaseless "C-r-r-oo-oo!—oo-oo!" of the doves, as they inflated their breasts and dipped their heads in a menacing way before their mates strutting on the wagon-shed roof, seemed a deliberate mockery of gloomy thoughts. Suddenly the doves circled away on swift wings towards a neighbor's barn. Vaguely conscious of the grace of their flight, he was glad to have them gone with their mournful noise. The soft grays of their plumage, however, made him think of Miss Albright, and again he saw her standing behind the organ—the bunch of blue violets trembling at her throat.
Violets! There were hundreds of them down in the hollow of the orchard. He went to where they grew, feeling that they would somehow make her seem a little nearer to him. In the hollow, near the brook, the turf was blue with them, and he soon gathered all his hand could hold and started for the house, realizing that the excitement of choosing and picking them had broken in upon his haunting fears, and, if only for a moment, the awful presence of his sin had faded into less painful consciousness.
What should he now do? Again the violets, with their faint suggestion of Miss Albright, brought a hope of momentary relief.
He stretched himself out upon the cellar "hatchway," divided his violets into two equal bunches, and began a process with which every country boy is familiar. Drawing two violets from the same bunch, he locked their heads, and with a quick jerk snapped the head of the weaker one from its stem. The victorious specimen was then pitted against others from the same bunch until it met an antagonist with a hardier neck, and the slaughter was continued until only one of the first bunch remained.
This victor was placed under the shade of a big burdock-leaf, to contest the ultimate honor with the survivor of the second bunch.
When the several heads and stems of all save these two sprinkled the hot boards of the hatchway, he locked the two "champions" in mortal duel, paused a moment to guess which would prove victor, and then gave the fatal jerk. The violet of his choice survived!
But what of it? What of anything? He did not even take the pains to toss the stem aside, but let it drop listlessly from his fingers on the heap of the slain. Then he rolled over on his back, pulled his hat partially over his eyes, clasped his hands above his head, and again took up his problem.
A blackbird filled the air with the contented sound of its mellow "twinge-e-e!" as it spread and skewed its vanelike tail and ruffled its glistening wings; a kingbird pestered a crow in its flight, and from the barnyard came plaintive bleats of a bereaved cow mourning for the bull-calf upon whose carcass the crows were feasting in a corner of the meadow fence.
From the death of the calf it was a quick and inevitable step to the death of his playmate—to the universal death on every hand! There was no sunshine bright enough to dispel its black shadow, no music glad enough to hush its fearful voice. Then he went over each incident, thought, and emotion of the day. The day? Could this be the same day in the morning of which he had seen the sexton digging Willie's grave and heard the awful sermon? It seemed a year. Then there was the night—days and nights, nights and days—and then eternity before him! Oh, if he might never have been born! If he might only have died like the calf, which had no eternity!
Over and over again he turned the awful problem, always to find himself again at the point of beginning. But kindly Nature showered her sunshine down upon the wretched boy, until his eyes closed, the lines about his mouth relaxed, and he slept.
A listener might have caught from his intermittent mumblings the broken words:
These echoes of his troubled dreams finally ceased and a natural smile came upon his lips. When he awoke it was from a dream of a beautiful gray angel that had stooped above him and kissed his forehead. He was going to ask her to plead with God to have mercy on him—but she was gone, and he awoke with a start to hear his father, who stood in the door rubbing his eyes, calling:
"Come, Ezry! It's time t' fetch th' cows!"
At school he did not even venture to speak to Miss Albright unless she first spoke to him.
The days slipped by without the intimacy with his teacher for which Ezra hungered. At times, however, the impulse was strong within him to go to her and confess his secret, feeling sure that she at least would give the comfort of pity. But these impulses were usually followed by a reaction in which he was violently beset with the fear that even she might gain a suspicion of his awful guilt. Once he had seen through the bars of a jail a man under sentence of death. Ezra fancied that if his sin became known he would become an object of public horror and shame like this condemned murderer.
Such was his mental state one day toward the end of Miss Albright's first term. During the whole of the drowsy afternoon he sat listlessly toying with his slate and pencil, gazing abstractedly at the patch of bare wall just above Miss Albright's head, from which the plastering had dropped, and watched the dancing dust motes in the shafts of sunlight.
The reading class recited in droning tones, and even Miss Albright seemed inoculated with the dreamy indolence of the day, for she listened with a far-away look in her eyes and was strangely indifferent to the blundering singsong rendering of "The Queen of the May."
But instead of lulling Ezra to peace, the day awakened his sensibilities to a painful extreme. The stillness seemed tense and oppressive—surcharged with some tremendous, mysterious excitement. What could be about to happen so great that the earth must hold its breath? What if the world should come to an end?
When school was dismissed the teacher was too preoccupied to notice the shy, troubled face which, for a moment, lifted its large blue eyes in an appealing glance to her and then passed swiftly out of the entry door.
There was something essentially sylvan in her nature, and its drawings were strong upon this August afternoon. Leaving all behind her, she took a short cut through the meadow and along the path to the centre of Thompson's Woods. Her movements were noiseless as those of a hunter, and did not even disturb the chatter of the red squirrels chasing each other about in the beeches.
The sunlight fell in quivering blotches upon the pale sward of the more open spaces. But it was not these for which the young woman hungered. Across the factory road, beyond the cemetery, were the Big Woods whose deep shadows had vanquished the grass and brought forth ferns and mosses. In these still depths the partridge reared her speckled brood and foxes burrowed among the roots; and here, in the cool dampness, the groundnuts expanded their delicious bulbs and the crumpled joints of bitter crinkle-root ran their zizgag fingers through beds of buried leaves. She was annoyed at the sight of the intrusive picnic tables and benches and deserted lemonade-bunks a little distance beyond her. Without a pause she hurried on towards the Big Woods. But as she neared a booth, a strange sound arrested her. She stopped to listen. Surely it was not the cry of a bird, the scolding of a squirrel, or the creaking of rubbing branches? It was the sobbing of a human being!
Her first thought was to retreat, but curiosity for the moment held her and she continued to stand and listen.
Again it came—this time clear and distinct. There could be no mistake about it to her ear, long habituated to the wails of unhappy youngsters. It was the sound of a boy crying.
She crept softly to the booth and peered in through a crack in the rough boards. Kneeling in one corner of the shed was Ezra Rue, his head bowed against the splintery sides of the boards. He had been praying, but now articulate words were lost in the confusion of his sobs.
She stole quietly away and watched the door of the shanty until, after several minutes, he came out. His pale, troubled face, shining white hair, and thin, stooping form—as he stumbled along, his chest still heaving with occasional and involuntary sighs—made as forlorn and pitiable a figure as she had ever seen. It touched to the quick the latent motherhood in the young woman. The slow, weary, hopeless effort with which he climbed the fence and rested a moment on the top rail, betrayed his exhausted condition!
"Ezra! Oh, Ezra!" she called to him. He started nervously at the sound of her voice, and seemed about to run up the road, but when he saw her he paused and stammered:
She came quickly to him and said:
"If you are not in a hurry, come back into the woods with me; I want you to show me where you think would be the best place to put up the swings when we have our school picnic."
He led the way back towards the centre of the woods, where the skeleton picnic-tables stood under the tallest trees, near a central clearing.
When they reached the safe seclusion of the benches Miss Albright sat down and drew aside her skirts to make a place close beside her for the boy. As he shrank timidly upon the edge of the bench, she put her arm around him and said:
"Ezra, something is troubling you. I can't bear to see you go on feeling this way, for I love you, and I want to help you, if you will let me. Nothing helps us so much as to have some true friend to whom we can tell all our troubles and who will understand and love us, whatever may be the matter."
The touch of her arm along his back, the gentleness of her voice, and the words "I love you," were so strange, so sweet, so humanly tender beyond all his experience, that the overwrought child could no longer master the sobs that he had been swallowing back.
"I—I—I—can't—tell you. It's—too—too—too—awful! You—would—have to—hate me if I told you," he sobbed.
Miss Albright said no more, but drew his head close against her, laid aside his hat, and stroked his hair and tear-wet face. It was many minutes before he regained sufficient control of his emotions to speak.
She laughed—a low, gentle, loving laugh.
My poor child! That couldn't be! It's ridiculous. You never did or thought an awful thing in your life. If it seems to you that you have, it's because somebody has put it into your head—not into your heart; and it's their thought, not yours," she said, taking from her pocket her dainty handkerchief and wiping his cheeks and forehead.
"How long have you been so unhappy, Ezra?" she asked.
The perfume—so sweet and kindly—from the handkerchief, seemed to envelop him in the subtle atmosphere of her personality and gave him courage to answer:
"Since that Sunday when the minister preached about—about—"
"About blasphemers!" she interrupted,—"that awful, cruel sermon!"
Ezra felt her shiver as she said the words, and he glanced up into her face in time to see a harder, sterner look in her eyes than he had ever seen in them before.
"But why did it frighten you?"
"Because—I—I—he meant me," was the choking response. Then, as she took her handkerchief and brushed from his knees the fragments of dead, crumpled leaves which clung to his clothing, he continued:
"The Saturday before, us boys went in swimmin'—down on the flat by the old elm. The other boys played baptize, but I was afraid to, an' they made fun of me. Then Joe said, 'Let's play something else.'
"'All right; play I'm the devil!'
"'An' I'm Peter!'
"'An' I'm John the Baptist,' another one said.
"It sounded awful bad; it didn't seem so bad then as it did afterwards. I was the only one left, so I said:
"'I'll be the Holy Ghost!'"
"And then you went to church next day and listened to that terrible sermon?"
He nodded his head in assent. She could feel him tremble—with the terror that again seized him at the vividness of the recollection as he put his sin, for the first time, into spoken words.
"It's just as I thought, Ezra," she finally said, more tenderly than before, her voice taking something of the deep alto that had made her singing tones seem wonderful. "You are no more guilty of the Unpardonable Sin than I am, or than a baby in its mother's arms. You didn't know the meaning of the words you used. If I can't make you see clearly now that you are entirely innocent of the sin that you imagine yon have committed, I want you to take my word for it and trust that sometime I can make it very clear to you. So don't worry any more about it; but be as happy and have as good a time as you possibly can; that is always a boy's duty. And I want you to come and see me the next evening your father comes to town and will bring you. If you like we'll have some music."
Then she arose and walked with him towards the factory road.
When they reached the fence he paused a moment in embarrassment, his thumbs caught awkwardly in his pocket slits and his cheeks flushing hotly as he struggled to contrive words in which to express his gratitude. But before he could speak she laid her hands on his shoulders, and looking tenderly into his upturned eyes, said:
"No one will ever know from me what you have told me. Now, Ezra, remember that I understand you and love you, and that your sin, as you call it, is all a mistake. Now good-by"—and she stooped quickly and kissed the bright red spot in each of his cheeks, then turned and left him standing in blissful confusion beside the fence.
He remembered the last time his mother had kissed him—when she came home from a month's visit with her relatives in Dutchess County. That was a year ago. He had not known a kiss since. But to feel upon his cheeks the quick, firm, impulsive pressure of Miss Albright's lips was almost as far beyond the boy's dreams as it would have been had a beautiful angel, like the one clinging to the stone cross in the frontispiece of the parlor Bible, suddenly swooped down from the clouds and kissed him. His timid, shrinking, fear-tortured heart grasped this expression of Miss Albright's sympathy with a far more desperate grip than that with which the angel in the picture clasped the cross to hold itself from sinking into the angry flood beneath. After all, she might be right—and, anyway, she loved him, whether God did or not!
Before he reached home he was whistling, "When the Birds Shall Return, Nellie Wildwood," and thinking that, although the violets were long since gone, he would rummage the West meadow for a bunch of "brown-eyed susans," to be laid as a thank-offering upon Miss Albright's desk.
Ah, but it was good to look into the sky again and not see upon the blue vault of the heavens the awful word "Blasphemer"! His new peace was even so great that he fell to wondering if Shucks would really trade him the splendid red rooster, with sharp and valiant spurs, for the ponderous and pantaletted old lord of the Shanghai flock in the henhouse at home.