Open main menu

 

CHAPTER VII

In which Lonely gets Religion with a Vengeance


SEVEN fully armed and bloodthirsty Apache Indians, having surrounded and captured the Overland Mail, dragged therefrom the solitary passenger and tied him to a stake in Judge Eby's cow-pasture.

Under the chicken feathers and war-paint of these Apaches might be detected the exultant features of the Baxter Street gang, while the Overland Mail looked suspiciously like Alaska Alice's go-cart, hauled by the patient Gilead. It scarcely took a second glance to discover that the heroically daring and resolute captive was Lonely O'Malley himself.

A pile of sticks was placed around the feet of the pale-face, and while the Apaches indulged in a second vociferous war-dance, a match was touched to the waiting fuel. This, of course, was the signal for the Rough Riders to swoop down to the rescue. But a fresh breeze was blowing, and the Rough Riders insisted on being nothing if not convincingly dramatic. The mounting flames singed the down from Lonely's bare legs. While the Apaches and the would-be rescuers still fought desperately, hand to hand, the flames began to lick cruelly up at the now terrified boy's trousers-legs. He shouted and called in vain. Equally in vain he strained and pulled at the stake to which he had been too well tied.

Then, with a sudden sickening pang, the thought came to him that he was to die there, that in another minute all his life would be blotted out and he would have to stand before the Judgment Seat of his Maker with all his great misdeeds on his head.

From his earliest childhood his mental conception of this Judgment Seat had been a grimly concrete one. It was a great black oak chair, which stood high above the sky-line, like a sombrely towering island above the horizon, and on each side of it rose two great desks of black oak, on which stood two ledgers bound in red leather. At each of these open ledgers, on a high black stool through the legs of which clouds came and went, sat a stern-faced angel with a goose-quill pen, calmly turning over pages and writing down little black marks after hundreds and hundreds of names. In so doing. Lonely solemnly believed, they recorded every single sin committed on earth. At his own name, he always thought, the sterner of the two angels often shook a despondent head, for the line of dots, he knew, was almost endless, being carried grimly on from page to page and threatening some day to invade even the inside of the back cover.

There was hothing grotesque in the image to the boy; on many occasions, in fact, the vision of the implacable angel with the goose-quill pen had served to keep him to the straight and narrow path of rectitude. He could not explain, however, whether it was from teaching, hearsay, or picture-books that his conception of this Judgment Seat had first arisen.

So, in his moment of peril, it flashed through him that his line of black marks was a hopelessly long one, being carried countlessly on, unlike all others, from one big pageful to another; and with a second and deeper pang of terror he realized that he was not fit to die. His black young life had been fairly stippled with mendacity; and liars, it had been written, shall inherit Hell.

Yet die he might very easily have done—for both Apaches and Rough Riders were now gazing at him with horror-stricken eyes—had not Butcher Brennan, driving homeward with three spring lambs, chanced to see and size up the situation. He caught up a bucket of water from Judge Eby's water-trough, and scattering boys right and left as he came, doused the burning captive from head to foot, kicked away the still burning brands, and then focused on his hapless son Piggie that wrath which should have descended diffusedly on the heads of the entire band of Apaches and Rough Riders together.

Even as it was, Lonely lost his eyebrows, his forelock, and the front of his checked calico blouse. For a few days, too, his singed and blistered bandy legs were secretly anointed with soda, sour milk, moist blue clay, melted lard, witch-hazel, and, in fact, every healing and soothing lubricant which artfully and circuitously evolved household advice brought forward from the rest of the still sorrowing gang.

But long after the soreness had passed away, and the sandy eyebrows had cropped out once more, Lonely's imagination harked back along that channel into which it had been so suddenly and so vividly plunged. He had stolen and robbed and lied. The days of his youth had been days of sin and idleness. The record against him, in the great red-bound ledger, was an overawing one.

Pg 181 - Lonely O'Malley.png

BUTCHER BRENNAH DOUSED THE BURNING CAPTIVE

 
Although these brooding thoughts somewhat darkened the days that followed, they did not readily quench the old pagan and irresponsible spirit of the boy. When, for example, he and Pud Jones decided to add to their earthly stores by early morning labor in the strawberry patches, it was decided that Pud should awaken Lonely by the time-honored method of pulling on a string tied to the latter's great toe, and left dangling downward through the open window.

Pud, in a sudden spirit of facetiousness, was not content to give this string the gentle little jerk allowed by tradition. For, after a sturdy pull, he decided, indeed, to climb up the string, and only its eventual snapping, followed by a muffled howl, rendered this feat out of the question. It brought Lonely out of bed with a bound, however, wrathfully hopping about on one foot and nursing the injured member while he cried down inaudible imprecations on the boy rolling and shaking and writhing so spasmodically below.

Nothing more was said of the matter until they parted for the day, when Lonely gently reminded Pud that he was to be awakened at five, the next morning, as before. Whereat Pud chuckled inwardly, and straightway decided to bring Redney McWilliams along to see the fun.
NURSED THE INJURED MEMBER

Before going to bed that night Lonely filled a willow bread-basket with wood ashes, well mixed with the softest and mushiest of those potatoes which a picking over of the bakery bin, weeks before, had cast out to unconsidered dissolution. To the handle of this basket, well hidden on his inner window-sill, he tied the piece of dangling string, and went to bed to sleep the deep and happy sleep of the artist well satisfied with his work.

His one regret was that he had not awakened to witness the outcome of his retributive plot. He discovered, though, that neither Pud Jones nor Redney McWilliams attended school that morning, that neither of them had gone picking strawberries, and that the willow bread-basket had been vindictively kicked round and round the little yard until it was in tatters. When he later found out that the two boys had spent the entire morning at the swimming-hole, he sniffed once more, with zest, at the advanced dissolution of the back-yard potato pile, hunched up a contemplative shoulder, gazed down at his swollen toe and wondered if after, all that meant another black mark in the big red ledger.

During those idle, empty days which intervened between berry-picking time and the midsummer holidays, when the boys of Chamboro would be turned loose on the world again. Lonely O'Malley was more and more driven in on himself. His last shred of available material had been used up for that octopus like air-ship which sucked away his time and his worldly wealth and gave nothing in return. Lionel Clarence, after his illness, was still capricious and languid; the companionship of Annie Eliza was to be resorted to only after a secretive and periodic fashion; Shivers and Gilead, even as the Baby itself, soon palled on his newly stirred and brackish spirit, where all the marsh-gas of his stagnant young soul seemed to add more and more to the latent explosibility of his cramped and soured little life.

When the sudden yet inevitable change came, it came from a quarter least expected.

Em'ly Bird and Lulu Bird, having quarreled with Jappie Barrison and Nora Eby as to the true meaning of the familiar "N or M" of the elementary catechism, indignantly absented themselves from Sunday School and decided to hold independent religious service each Sunday afternoon in the sand-pit, down by the river, just above the ice-house.

Here Em'ly Bird read a chapter from Revelation to Annie McWilliams and Peewee Steiner, and then solemnly called on Lulu Bird for prayer. After this a hymn was sung in the dragging, high-pitched, childish voices, and Em'ly, surrounded by her following, tearfully recounted her persecutions, after the fashion of that sombre Sunday School library heroine who for the moment held sway over her shifting affection, telling of her hapless home, of her misunderstood life, of her blighted worldly hopes, and her forgotten vanities of the flesh. But from that day forth she was to lead the life of the spirit. She was to succor the weak and help the widowed and fatherless; she was to forgive her enemies, even Nora Eby and Jappie Barrison; she was to be meek in spirit, and always to do good unto others. Here, finding the list of her potential virtues unexpectedly exhausted, she fell back on her Sunday School book, and in a slow and labored voice read to them the death-scene at the end of the story.

This started Peewee Steiner crying convulsively, to be joined later by Annie McWilliams and Lulu Bird, though Em'ly did not give herself over to the luxury of grief until the last sad lines had been read. Then with a sudden hysterical rapture of concern she pleaded with her tearful companions to lead new lives while yet there was time, that they might escape the torture of the Lake of Everlasting Fire.

Em'ly's passionate apprehension seemed to take on itself the spirit of infection, for Annie McWilliams flung herself on her knees and prayed aloud for her soul, then and there, the tears of contrition streaming down her cheeks as she openly confessed to all of those past sins which she could remember. Then Jappie Barrison choked back her own sobs, and less raptly and more shamefacedly told of her own misdoings, while Lulu Bird rocked her body back and forth and begged that the world should not come to an end until all her sins had been washed away.

Then Em'ly and her neophytes kissed one another, and finding that the mysterious passion which had shaken their young lives to the root had already passed and died away, as strangely as it had come, they hid their Bible and Sunday School book under a ledge of sand, and escaped back to the world of realities again, wonderingly, a little frightened of one another, and of themselves.

All of this strange ceremony Lonely O'Malley heard and saw from the half-hidden mouth of his sand-pit cave, where he stood, spell-bound and speechless.

It even made him feel creepy, tingling with the same little pricks of the skin as those which ran over him when errand or accident took him past the graveyard late at night.

It was all so intangible, so insubstantial, so bewildering to the untutored imagination. It was a voice from beyond the hills of reality.

Lonely crept stealthily down into the sand-pit, and with not a little trepidation exhumed the buried Bible and Sunday School story. Then he made his way carefully back to the cave, where he flung himself down and turned the two books over and over in his hand, guardedly, apprehensively, as though either of them might still hold imprisoned some terrible and occult power for good or evil.

It was the Bible which he first thrust away from him, hiding it well behind him back in the cave. For was it not the great solemn Book which stood on parlor centre-tables, the book from which terrible sermons were preached, the very arsenal, to his barbarian young mind, of all those stern "Thou Shalt Nots" which so imperiled human existence, and so beset with danger and dread youth's free and natural course?

It is true that he had had his accidental dips into the more rudimentary phases of scriptural lore. On a few rare occasions he had even attended church, of his own free will, creeping into the huge and shadowy Cowansburg edifice with a hunted and startled look, to be overawed by the tremulous roll and thunder of the pipe-organ, and to be charmed into emitting from his cacophonous young throat an intoxicating verse or two of the choir's hymn. But church, he explained in his more intimate moods, always "choked him up." It gave him the same feeling as did the little white satin-lined coffin in the show-window of Chamboro's leading furniture-dealer and undertaker—a dim and shivery sense of depression. His Sabbath School training, unhappily, had been most irregular and spasmodic, and always suspiciously synchronous with the advent of the annual picnic to Cowan's Grove. Indeed, his last term of attendance had been brought to an untimely close through a purely innocent and above-board retort of Lonely's, who, when asked by his teacher if he was not delighted to have a little baby sister arrive in his family, honestly and openmindedly asserted that he would much rather have had a pup. This remark created such an uproar that the Superintendent was summarily brought on the scene to inquire into its cause, and gleaning some little inkling of Lonely's utter depravity from many startling and contradictory explanations, ejected our embittered young barbarian from the class and from the Sunday School itself.

So it was Em'ly Bird's romance, bearing the dubious title of "Agatha Boring's Long Ordeal," into which Lonely first dipped. It was a startling new type of story to the eager and avid-minded boy,—like neither "The Headless Horseman" nor the "Swiss Family Robinson," for it told, in short sentences and easy words, of the suffering and heroism of Agatha Doring, tortured and ill-treated by an unconverted maiden aunt, who often sent the child to bed supperless, simply for being true to her own conscience, and often beat her, simply because she was so scrupulously honest. But in the end, after many troubles, included in which was an almost fatal attack of brain-fever, Agatha was the means of leading the maiden aunt to grace, even while casting seeds of piety far and wide along her every-day path of life.

Lonely pored over the book until the end was reached, until the sun was low in the west. Then he gazed out, through the half-lights of the dingy little cave, into a new and wonderful world.


Pg 191 - Lonely O'Malley.png

PORED OVER THE BOOK UNTIL THE END WAS REACHED


To do good, like Miss Agatha Doring, to greet every one with a quiet and gentle smile, to have your elders look after you approvingly, to protect the innocent young birds and plants, to bring jelly and read fairy-tales to little girls suffering from an incurable sickness, to step in, and, with a reproving word or two, to stop the stalwart bully from beating the smaller boy, to argue triumphantly with the village infidel, as did Agatha, and worst him on his own ground and lead him meekly and humbly to the life of the spirit, even to go gloriously without a supper now and then, for the sake of some proudly and stubbornly hidden right—all this seemed so easy and so alluring to Lonely O'Malley, as he walked home through the shadowy summer twilight, with swelling breast and a firmer tread of the feet. He even pictured himself as holding revival meetings in the Market Square, with a sea of upturned faces smiling their approval and gratitude up to him, as he swayed them with the force of his oratory, and brought them one by one to that life of the spirit about which Agatha had talked so much.

Supper was over and the table cleared away long before he had reached home; slowly and unconsciously a subtle change came over the tenor of his mood.

He foraged fretfully and resentfully about, demanding to know if there was anything fit to eat in the house, and asserting, in no uncertain language, that he was dead sick of cold bread and milk, that the rhubarb tarts were sour enough to make a pig squeal.

Then, with a sudden pang of contrition, he remembered that this was not the way in which Agatha Doring bore her trials. So he consumed the remainder of his meal in silence and proud humility, remembering that from that day forward he was ordained to be misunderstood and ill-treated and misjudged.

A few minutes later his mother heard him bustling about the wood-shed, searching for soap and shoe-polish, slicking down his hair, and doing his best to sponge ancient and innumerable spots off his dust-stained Sunday clothes.

"Lonely O'Malley, what 're you sprucing up that way for, anyhow?" his astounded mother demanded, for such things were new in the career of her ever-changing son.

He fell back into his old attitude of silent humility, and addressed his parent as "mother," even as Agatha Doring would do.

"Mother, I'm a-goin' to church!" he asserted, pleased beyond words at the startled look which this declaration brought to the other's face.

"Lonely, you ain't sick, or nothing?" cried his mother, suddenly, turning his face to the light.

"No," he answered, sepulchrally. "No, I 'm not sick!"

"Then why are you acting up this way, fixing up, and talking about going to church, and all that?"

"I am seeking for the Light and the Truth!" answered the spirit of Agatha Boring, through the mouth of Lonely O'Malley. He rolled his eyes a little, as he said it, and even came back and closed the door after him, gently and slowly.

And as Lonely had always been an enigma to his own mother, Mrs. O'Malley accepted the new mystery for what it was worth, though a blind and wistful light came into her vacant eyes as they followed Lonely out through the warm night air, down the little path, and on through the murmurous silence of the village street.

"Me poor boy!" was all she said. And Lonely, even though he had heard it, would never have understood it. "Me poor boy!"

Lonely was in time for the sermon. He made vague guesses as to just what Lionel Clarence's father meant, and certain simpler phrases now and then came home to him. But the general unintelligibility of the sermon only added to its mysterious charm. It was oracular, symbolic, to be interpreted to fit the passing moment, to be translated to suit the changing mood. It had much to do with the need of prayer and confession, which was the exteriorization and alienation of all inner sin; and if it left Lonely unsatisfied in mind, it tended to soothe him in spirit.

Early the next morning he was back in the cave, poring over the little calf-skin Bible, spelling out the words as best he could, moved with the mystery of the symbols far too great for his child-mind to grasp.

"And I stood upon the sands of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy."

It was writing the like unto which Lonely had never before read, and he went on, from verse to verse, spellbound.

"If any man have an ear, let him hear."

"He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity: he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints."

And he read on and on, unconscious of time and place, gasping over the seven angels with the seven plagues, quailing over the fall of Babylon, rejoicing over the chaining of the Dragon, and thrilling at the jeweled wealth of the new Jerusalem.

It was a fire-brand to the dry straw of his starved imagination. What seemed the waste acreage of his misspent youth, burning itself shamefacedly away, only added to the vital heat of the quick transformation.

He went back to the first of the book, and read it as carefully, yet emerged from it as dubiously uncertain as from the last of it. Some of the faint echoes of modern science had fallen on his inattentive young ears. The whispers of modern skepticism had crept absently into his preoccupied mind.

"I 'm going to get at the bottom of this here Adam and Eve business!" he said to himself, with great determination, as he made his way boldly toward the study of the Reverend Ezra Sampson, and requested the privilege of a private conversation with that amazed and somewhat perturbed scholar.

"Is God a liar?" was the boy's first question, as he faced the clergyman, in the quietness of the little study.

"God, my boy, is the light and the truth," answered the man, forbearingly.

"But does God say one thing and then go and do another?" demanded Lonely, with unrelaxed severity.

The clergyman made sure that the door was well closed before their talk went any further. Into what channels it drifted only the minister of the gospel and his pagan young interlocutor ever knew, though it left the former in a strangely disturbed state of mind, while eventually adding little or nothing to the spiritual satisfaction of Lonely himself.

Ezra Sampson, in fact, on meeting old Doctor Ridley that very morning, confessed to him his perplexity and the unlooked-for turn which had come in the bent of Lonely's aggressive young mind.

"Tut! tut!" asseverated the old Doctor, easily. "Don't try to pick open the bud before it unfolds!"

"But his curiosity is unlimited, and his questions are astounding, simply astounding!"

"Then let him worry and chew over 'em for a while—it 'll do his spiritual teeth a world of good. Take my advice, Ezra, and don't pack the boy full of doctrine. It 'd seem too much like trying to teach a five-year-old girl the full duties of married life!"

"But this seems more than a mere ebullition of morbid fancy. My wife claims that he is far, very far, from being the vicious character he may seem, at first sight. And I must confess that in many respects he is an extraordinary boy, a very extraordinary boy."

"He 'll get over it, Ezra; he 'll get over it! He 'll fall in love, or turn pirate, or want to be a soldier, and then the two over-blown bubbles of fancy 'll somehow touch, and both of 'em will collapse."

Yet Lonely did not get over it quite so soon as the sage old practitioner prophesied. He borrowed what religious books he could from Lionel Clarence; he took to Bible-reading, of an afternoon, with his old-time enemy, Miss Mehetabel Wilkins, and made it a matter of conscience to accept no more than one cheese-cake at the end of the solemn conference in the little antimacassar-strewn sitting-room.

Pg 199 - Lonely O'Malley.png

A MATTER OF CONSCIENCE TO ACCEPT NO MORE THAN ONE CHEESE-CAKE

 
When Mr. Sampson was told of this sustained and serious interest in things eternal, he suggested to his wife that they have the lad in for supper, and do what they could to get on a more friendly basis with him.

"It would indeed be gratifying to feel that we were the instruments of leading this darkened boy out into the light!" said the man of the cloth, with a sigh.

"And I 'll have Leena make the freezer full of chocolate ice-cream," added his wife, inconsequentially. This stern but whole-souled woman had once been heard to confess that nothing gave her more joy than the sight of half a dozen hungry small boys devouring one of her dinners.

"He has been a wayward youth! But even the darkest mind seems to have its divine glimmer!"

"He 's a young rip!" said Mrs. Sampson, with quiet conviction, following her own line of thought. "And I fancy he will be a young rip, for many a day to come!"

"There is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth—" began the clergyman, reprovingly.

"Well, I 'll have some fresh pound-cake and currant-loaf for him," said the placid apostle of materialism, from the doorway, as she went back to her jam-making.

Lonely ate supper with the Sampsons, accordingly, in his best black clothes, with his hair plastered decorously down over his ears, and a quaver of emotional tension in his more carefully modulated voice. Indeed, such a settled smile of meek and wistful melancholy played about his features that Lionel Clarence demanded to know what was making him such a stiff, and had lurking suspicions that Lonely had been eating Bordeaux Mixture again off the Gubtills' gooseberry bushes.

The Preacher's son thought that this supper was to be a rare treat, and that, being the official recognition of his newly found chum, it would find Lonely in his lightest and most engaging vein.

Never was boy more doomed to bitter disappointment.

It is true that Lonely did ample though somewhat uneasy justice to the chocolate icecream, to the currant-loaf and the pound-cake, to say nothing of ample helpings of Mrs. Sampson's justly renowned quince preserve. But these were now the mere accidentals and incidentals of existence, which the excellent Lonely schooled himself to accept casually and absent-mindedly. His interest in the foreign mission field, however, seemed unbounded. He even pointedly inquired of his host if there still were left many leper colonies where missionaries could go and lead lonely, martyred, and heroically horrible lives.

Lionel Clarence looked at his guest and gasped. Could this be the same boy who had taught him to spit through his teeth!

And Lionel Clarence, with sudden unrighteous anger, kicked the new Lonely O'Malley under the table.

Lonely, at this, only smiled wanly and sadly. Lionel Clarence some day would see things as he did. His eyes would be opened, and then he would remember and be sorry!

But as there were still many points of dogma about which Lonely was almost ludicrously unschooled, Mr. Sampson invited the boy to attend his regular Wednesday evening class.

Lonely had judiciously disposed of his collection of birds' eggs, wondering how he had the heart, even in his unregenerate days, to indulge in an amusement so cruel to any of God's creatures. He had likewise for all time given up smoking, and one rainy afternoon in the Barrisons' stable even reproved Lionel Clarence for his surreptitious and unseemly indulgence in the weed.

It gave his heart a wrench to think that he had to part with his old friend Gilead, but as he went over the long list of the goat's transgressions, he saw there was no help for it, and wondered just how and where he could get rid of an offender so notorious and so steeped in all the cunning of well-seasoned crime. His first inclination was to build a funeral pyre, and offer him up as a living sacrifice, after the fashion of the righteous of olden times. This seemed to him, however, both an unalleviated cruelty and an uncommendable monetary sacrifice. So he temporized over the point until, to his unspeakable relief, he discovered that Abraham himself had been an honored and respected keeper of goats. Finding his case bolstered up with so substantial a precedent, he firmly decided to retain Gilead in his retinue. But he no longer took outward joy in Gilead's unseemliness of action and appetite. The boy whose spiritual eyes had been opened even showed no sign of anger when Shivers rescued for the fifth time from the river the Widow Tiffins's three drowned kittens, which Lonely had as carefully though hurriedly replaced in their watery grave. Even when Gilead ate a goodly part of his newly pasted house-kite no word of reproof fell from the boy's lips—though in times past all such transgressions had marked sorry days in the predaceous existence of his meek and ever faithful pet.

One of Lonely's sorest trials, in his efforts to lead a new life, was his diurnal watering of the decrepit Plato—a task, by the way, out of which he had once wrung not a little excitement. For Plato, whether because of some mere caprice of the spirit, some mysterious weakness of the flesh, or some pertinacious association of idea, or, perhaps, even some long-continued abuse at the hands of a former owner, had to be soundly kicked in the stomach before he would drink a pail of water.
 
Pg 205 - Lonely O'Malley.png

ATE A GOOD PART OF HIS NEWLY PASTED HOUSE-KITE


So what seemed at first sight a sheer cruelty, and had been the cause of much indignant protest at the hands of uncomprehending neighbors, was in reality a kindness. For without this resounding thump on the ribs the muscles of Plato's gaunt throat seemed stricken with paralysis. Once the essential kick had been administered. Lonely had often noticed, a look of mute gratitude crept into his eye, his nose went deep down in the pail, and he drank freely and eagerly.

But to the casuistic-grown Lonely a kick was a kick, and many were the deliberations and devices to force the perverted Plato to refresh himself after some more enlightened and humane procedure.

The obdurate Plato, however, had little or no idea of conduct, and Lonely piously decided that this was to be one of the thorns in the side of his new-found beatitude. It was something to be borne in meek and unprotesting silence, along with the taunts and gibes of the Gang when they came upon him unexpectedly in the comfortable and lumbering old rockaway, along with Miss Mehetabel Wilkins, on the way home from a day of cherry-picking in the country—as a reward for that new and deeper seriousness of mind so rare and yet so becoming in the young.

On this occasion, it must be recorded, the smug and serenely satisfied face of his old—time tutor in sin so worked on the feelings of the dusty Lionel Clarence that he climbed boldly up on the back of the old carriage, for the avowed purpose of punching Lonely’s head. But his loose-waisted blouse was stuffed to repletion with Early Richmond cherries, and as he leaned over the empty back seat he felt a sudden gush of winey rivers down his body, and he discreetly let go his hold, trying in vain to shake the cherry-juice from his trousers legs and even his sodden boots, where, later in the day, it solemnly convinced his Grandmother Horton that the boy was already in the second stage of scarlet fever.

Lonely, indeed, was being pointed out, all up and down the streets of Chamboro, as the boy who had been converted; and in this gracious publicity, of course, he took no little delight. He even raptly arose from his bed, late one night, and, seeking out the home of Samuel Brennan, the butcher, demanded of that rotund materialist and apostle of all ventral delights, at two o'clock in the morning, if he was saved.

He was peremptorily told by the elder Brennan to get to the devil out of that or he would have the hide whaled off him. And Lonely went resignedly, though not altogether disheartened, for the next day his exercises in evangelism were extended to different citizens of Chamboro—though not in any case with immediate or flattering success.

Lonely began to see what many another man had seen long before him, that his dead past was not quite dead to him. The record of his earlier life was a dark one. It would take years and years, he felt, to live it down. Perhaps it would be better, even, if he should go abroad, somewhere in the South Pacific Islands, where one wore goat-skins and lived on cocoanuts and bananas, and where the natives still fought among themselves and resorted to cannibalism, and where there was always good swimming, and sharks' fins for dinner.

The South Sea Islands being out of the question. Lonely did the next best thing, and penetrated to the terra incognita of the Upper River Tile Works, where he went about among the stolid laborers, reminding them of the general depravity of their ways and the utter sinfulness of their speech,—until he was picked up bodily and placed on a wheelbarrow covered with blue clay, and dumped alertly and ignominiously into the river.

"Come agin!" bawled down the burly clay-kneader after him.

 
Pg 209 - Lonely O'Malley.png

"COME AGIN!"

 
Lonely gasped and puffed, and struck out into deeper water.

"Yes, I will come again," he cried back, defiantly, treading water, "and you 'll be sorry for it!"

"And what will yez do, bein' in such a state o' grace?" taunted the other, leaning Titan-like on his grimy barrow.

"Wait, and you 'll see! I am in a state of grace—but—but mebbe it won't last!" he added, darkly.

It was only the advent of Mr. Sampson's regular Wednesday evening meeting that kept Lonely from wavering from the narrow path once trodden by the saints. As had been requested of him, he came promptly on time, with his hair once more slicked down and a pensive smile once more playing about his sad young lips.

The murmur of wonder and approval which greeted his appearance was uncommonly like the first taste of blood to a rampant young tiger.

His mood of Massochistic humility passed away from him; the old intoxicating passion to be in the lead, the old madness to excel came over him, and by the time he was called on to speak out, candidly and unreservedly, his eye was dilated, his cheeks flushed, his hands fidgety and clammy.

One fragmentary sentence, vague, cabalistic, impenetrable, from the previous Sunday's sermon, was still ringing in his ears.

"To be under conviction of Sin has always been the first of the formal steps that ended in conversion to the Newer and Higher Life!"

And he was under conviction of sin, sin deeper and darker than the mind of man could conceive, as he told his hearers at the beginning of his tempestuous and passionate peroration. And he went on with his confession of guilt, each iniquity seeming to be more and more elaborated and dwelt on and fondled over, until he appeared to glory in his own utter depravity. But so exultant did his evil become, so hopeless his utter diabolism, that he was gently but sternly interrupted by the Preacher himself, who obviated an impending torrent of righteous indignation by promptly calling on Miss Mehetabel Wilkins to address the meeting.

Lonely held up a hand, airily, as though to warn back the preacher, the impatient Miss Mehetabel, and the glowering and justly outraged widow Tiffins.

"But that ain't all—oh, that ain't all!" the rapt boy went on, shrilly and breathlessly, intent on unburdening to the uttermost his blackened young soul. "When old Br——I mean, when Mister Brennan found that garter-snake in his ice-box, who put it there? Who broke the three panes o' glass in Judge Eby's conservat'ry? Who shot and et the Gubtills' rooster, and stole bologny, and cussed and swore and lied and smoked and let the steam out o' the sawmill ingin? Who put the womper in Widow Tiffins's cistern? Who—"

But precisely at this juncture, a pregnant glance having passed between Ezra Sampson and the glowering widow, the latter seized Lonely by one prominent ear, and sweeping down the narrow aisle with him, plumped him vigorously and humiliatingly into one of the empty wooden benches.

There Lonely, finding himself disgraced and undone by a sudden spasm of unexplainable weeping, fled miserably away from the flaring lights and the circle of wondering onlookers,—fled shamefaced out through the open door into the cool night air, where it seemed to him that he had awakened from a dream, and only the prickling closeness of his Sunday best clothes told him it was a painful reality.

Pg 213 - Lonely O'Malley.png

HE WAS PUT IN THE INFANT CLASS


Yet he still groped blindly after his unattainable ideal. Indeed, in fulfillment of an earlier promise, he appeared at Sunday School on the following Sabbath afternoon. There, after a course of brief questioning, in which it developed that he knew neither any three of the Ten Commandments nor anything whatever of the Shorter Catechism, he was put in the infant class, along with gorgeously appareled little girls of six and seven, and squirming little boys who still wore dresses and sailor collars.

This was too much for Lonely O'Malley, who had nursed visions of standing up beside the Superintendent, and eloquently telling the entire school the full and truthful history of his conversion, and the depths of crimes and wrong-doing from which he had been rescued. During this recountal, he thought, he would sway the multitude with the force of his eloquence, and little girls would gasp and cry to be taken out, and little boys would wag their heads knowingly at each iniquitous detail from the pages of his past life, and after that all the teachers would shake hands with him, and the prettiest one of them all would invite him home to tea, where they would have cheese-cakes and hot muffins and pop-overs and strawberry jam in abundance.

That was the vision which had floated before the self-effacing Lonely O'Malley's eyes; when, in reality, he found himself thrust down into the lowest depths of the lowest class, among a serried swarm of tongue-tied babies and mincing girls, who did not even know the name, let alone the record, of the new Champion of Right in their unsuspecting midst.

Lonely grew fretful and irritable, and made paste balls of his lesson leaflet, and sternly fought back the vague wish that he might escape to the swimming-hole for one good dive off the new spring-board and then a backdrop or two off the old sycamore roots.

His new teacher somewhat sharply requested him kindly not to fidget so much, and asked him if he always squinted that way, and seemed astonished that a big boy like him should not know that Jordan was a river.

And to cap the climax she irritably stopped Lonely (who had for the moment forgotten his sorrows in the beguiling intricacies of an entirely new church tune) from joining in another verse of the closing hymn, if he could sing no better than he was doing. [1]

The shame and ignominy of it all was too much for Lonely's pride. It struck the last blow at the root of his altruism. He guessed he was one of those who lived by the sword, as the verse in Revelation had said, and he guessed, too, he was going to die by the sword!

There was no sudden and moving climax to his fall. It came slowly, surely, and yet inevitably. The over-thick lees from the fermenting wine of life fell away and settled once more. And he went back to his old pagan tradition and his old pagan code. Perhaps he was not unhappier for it. At any rate he was freer and more natural; there was no attitudinizing and primping, no more morbid introspection and self-abasement.

And even though there may be those who claim that Lonely went back among the unregenerate, it was not that our poor hero stood an especially and hopelessly bad boy: it was only the code that was wrong, the tradition that was still pagan and puerile.

But from this time forward there was a change in Lonely O'Malley. He had emerged dank and sodden from those darkest and yet those divinest currents of human feeling, and it was to be many a long day before that ablution flowered into anything more tangible than a deep-seated hatred for antimacassars, rockaways, and Sunday School books of the Agatha Doring type.

It is also worthy of record that he packed away, with that solemn and studious sense of finality which should mark all last burials, his tight-fitting and prickly little black suit, once proudly known as his "Sunday Best." He buried it deep in his mother's bottom bureau drawer, under many layers of faded winter blankets. And he hoped with all his heart and soul that he would never see the darned old rags again!

"Oh, me poor boy!" sighed Lonely's mother, as she came upon them once, many a year later,and carefully refolded and replaced them, bedewed with a seemingly inconsequential tear or two.

 

But your eyes were turned to the fluting bird,
And your brow was drawn with thought;
And I pulled six daisies out of the turf
And asked for the thing you sought.

"That solemn old bird," you idly mused,
He 's singing the whole day long—
That silly old bird—what good will it be
To him, when he ends his song!"

 


  1. One of Lonely's obsessions was the fixed idea that he—the tuneless and tone-deaf—was some day to lead an orchestra.