Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
A New England Auction: The Lonely Church in the Valley
By William Cowper Prime (1825–1905)
From ‘Along New England Roads’

IT was in May. The forests further north had been just tinged with that delicious mauve color which is caused by the swelling buds of the maples, and which from day to day changes into pink and hazy sky-blue, and at length, when the buds burst, into green. But here the green had won the day; and the view in all directions, as I drove along, was fresh and full of promise. When the road led through forest, both sides were luxuriant with the close-packed masses of ferns just commencing summer life; and in the woods were hosts of purple and striped blossoms of the trilium, the glory of our northern forests in the early season. I came out from a piece of woods on a plain where the road went straight ahead in full view for a half-mile. Nearly that distance ahead stood a farm-house, with its barns and outbuildings. The house stood back from the road among fruit-trees, some of which were in blossom. But what especially attracted attention was a large number of horses and wagons, vehicles of various descriptions, which made the front yard and the road near the house look black.  1
  Only two events in the country life are likely to cause such a gathering around a house. When you see it, you are quite safe in thinking that there is a funeral or an auction sale. Either is sure to bring together all the wagons of a very widespread population. There is this difference, however,—that to the funeral men and women and children come, but to the “vandue” only men.  2
  As I approached the house, I began to pass horses tied to fences and small trees. Everything in the shape of a hitching-post, everything to which a halter could be tied, was in use; and when I reached the front gate there were groups of men so occupied here and there that no doubt could exist that this was an auction sale. It was undoubtedly a funeral in one sense,—not of any one dead, but of a home. It was the extinguishment of a fire that had been burning on a hearth a great many years. It took but a little while to learn from those who were grouped near the gate the reasons for the auction. This group consisted of men who had come only because it was an occasion for meeting people; a chance for general talk and exchange of little news, a break in the monotony of country life. Near the barn was another group inspecting cows. They had no interest in the sale of furniture in the house. On the front lawn was another group. I fancied they were discussing the value of the farm, whether it was worth the mortgage on it, whether any one was likely to bid on it. As I walked in towards the door I saw that there were people in all parts of the house, most of them in the large kitchen, whence the voice of the auctioneer was audible. As I entered he was selling cooking utensils, getting from a cent to six cents apiece, rarely as much as ten cents for any article.  3
  I confess that as I looked around this kitchen, on this scene, I felt very much as if it were a funeral, and began to think that I had an interest in, a personal acquaintance with, the departed. It had been for a long lifetime the home of an honest, respected farmer, who had recently died; an old man whose work was ended. His children, all but one daughter, had gone to distant parts of the country. His wife had died a year before. The property must be sold to settle his small estate, pay his funeral expenses and perhaps other claims. There was to be also an attempt to find a purchaser for the farm, but it was thought the holder of a mortgage on it would be the only possible bidder.  4
  That life was to be closed out forever. Wherein much of it had consisted was here visible. It was displayed for public view, and any stranger was free to rove from room to room and see the record; for nothing was reserved,—not even the clothing, or the old man’s silver watch, or his wife’s work-basket with knitting-needles and scissors, and a knife with a broken blade, and a ball of blue yarn and a half-knit woolen stocking.  5
  Here was a summing-up of the total reward in this world’s valuables which a long, laborious life had earned. I can never cease to feel indignation at the preachers about labor and its rewards, who imagine that workmen in the trades are the only laborers to be considered; who are deceived by the idea that the various societies of “working-men” represent one-tenth of the hard-working men of our country; who imagine that the labor question relates only to that small number of persons who work for fixed pay, eight or ten hours a day.  6
  The life of this man from his childhood had been one of incessant labor, hard work; beginning daily long before daylight, ending so wearily after dark that he welcomed sleep as the only rest he knew. Your ten-hour city laborer does not know what work means; and never will know till he acquires a farm, and has to support life by digging for himself, paying himself for his work, and finding that to the vast body of American farmers, fourteen hours a day of labor earns bare subsistence.  7
  The life labor in this house and on this farm showed in the end, as the laborer’s pay when all work was done, just nothing beyond the bare support of the life. Less, indeed, than that; for there was a mortgage on the farm, which represented a demand of some pressing need, or a steady, slow falling behind, from year to year.  8
  The home furniture was not luxurious; far otherwise. But it was not altogether without interest. There was an old chest of drawers in one room, which probably belonged to the mother; possibly came from her mother when she was married. It was made of solid cherry-wood; and the old brass mountings were, for a wonder, brilliant as if new. There was a small looking-glass hanging on a wall, in a frame once of great beauty, the relief ornaments on it being ears of golden grain. There were some pictures in black-pine frames, without glass. None had any money value, but each had higher than money value, because they had been the delights of that family life. Children had grown up looking at them daily, their young imaginations wandering far away under the guiding influence of art. Mark you, my friend, art brings its blessings not alone by the power of renowned artists, by the works of great masters. There are very rude pictures, pictures which provoke the derision of ignorant critics, pictures which have had mighty influence in swaying human minds. There was a fifteenth-century artist in Cologne whose Bible pictures, in rough, hard outlines, were the educators of millions of people for a century and more after he was dead. It is the thought written in the picture which is its power; not the execution, which is of account to very few who see it. There is no possible doubt that that old painted print of Ruth gleaning, and that other of the raising of the Widow’s Son, of Nain, had impressed lessons on young minds not to be effaced in this world’s experiences, perhaps not in any other world.  9
  The old kitchen seemed to be the place wherein the life had left its strongest marks. And yet they were not many. There was a little printed calendar of a long year ago pasted on the side of the chimney. There was a clock (not worth your purchasing, my friend) standing high up on a wooden shelf. There was a dresser whereon the family crockery was piled for sale. Having in mind friends who want old crockery, I looked over the pieces, one by one; but found nothing worth a stranger’s purchasing, except perhaps one English plate, with a blue print,—the rich dark blue wherein the cheap Staffordshire wares surpassed all other, Oriental and Occidental, potteries or porcelains. But the table was there,—a very old square table, made of black ash, with four solid legs. It had no claim to notice for any beauty about it. But around it the family had been gathered, morning, noon, and evening. First the young man and his wife had sat there alone, happy, hopeful. Years had fulfilled all they had hoped for, had brought little heads to the sides of the table, and years had changed them into older and perhaps wiser heads. All the troubles and all the happiness of every one of them had been brought to the assemblies at that kitchen table. Christmases, Thanksgiving days, wedding days of daughters, days when the minister was to make his annual visit,—all the gala days of life had loaded the table with unusual feasts. And always, with unfailing humility and gratitude, the voice of the father had been heard at the head of the board, thanking God as sincerely as if the farm had been a gold mine instead of slow-yielding soil.  10
  I was in the house but a few minutes. As I drove rapidly down the road, I overtook a man going home from the sale. I am not fond of “buying bargains” in such cases. If there had been anything to tempt me, I could not comfortably own a purchase out of that household at the poor prices things were bringing. But this man was carrying home something. As I turned out and drove by him he held it up for me to see. We went along side by side.  11
  “What have you got there?”  12
  “I don’t know. I think it’s an old pitcher they used in a church.”  13
  “What did you buy it for?”  14
  “I don’t know. I s’pose I can sell it to some one.”  15
  “How much do you want for it?”  16
  “I don’t know what it’s worth.”  17
  “Well, speak quick, if you want to sell,” and my horses were pulling ahead hard.  18
  “I don’t know as I care to sell it.”  19
  “All right,” and I went ahead rapidly.  20
  “Will you give two dollars?” came in a shout after me.  21
  “Will you take it?”  22
  “Yes.”  23
  He came up alongside of me, and I took my purchase. It was never church property; quite otherwise. It was a fine, tall old two-quart pewter mug with cover. It had done duty in times when men sat together while the pewter, filled with foaming beer, went around from hand to hand and lip to lip. It was in perfect order, but there was nothing about it which seemed in keeping with the old farm-house. When, four miles on, I stopped to feed my horses, the landlord, looking in my carriage, exclaimed, “Hello, did you buy Jake’s pewter pitcher?” and then said Jake had bought it at another sale years ago, on speculation, and had carried it afterwards to every “vandue,” trying to find a purchaser.  24
  In the autumn of that year I drove again through the same country, sometimes on the same, mostly on other roads. The aspect of the hills and valleys was now very different. October is a golden month for carriage travel; on some accounts more pleasant than any other month in the year, both for horses and travelers.  25
  The road passed through a forest, unbroken for half a mile. On the right a stream wandered over rocks, and under little bluffs of moss, bright green miniature copies of mountain bluffs along the courses of mighty rivers. Now and then, where the stream fell into a pool, the lower end of the pool was dammed with autumn leaves, yellow and red and brown, and in the whirl of the pool you could see the same colored leaves going around and around, and the water looked as if it were clearer and colder for their presence. The road was covered over with leaves,—a yellow carpet,—and every few minutes the light breeze would freshen up a little and shake the higher branches of the trees, and send down a shower of leaves, which flitted and darted to and fro, flashing in the sunshine, and falling on our laps and all around us.  26
  At length the road, which going up a gentle ascent left the brook away in the woods, emerged into open country, and we found ourselves on the top of a hill. Before us spread one of those beautiful landscapes in which New England is richer than any other part of the world that I know of. The road descended into an oval basin, some three miles long and a mile broad, the bottom and sides of which were, or had been, cultivated farm lands, except where a small lake slept motionless. It was surrounded by low hills, up the sides of which the fields extended, here and there one of them glowing with the buff and gold of corn stubble and scattered pumpkins. Along the ridges, where the fields did not go over them, were groves of maple and birch whose autumn colors were intensely bright, while down the slopes lay many abandoned fields gone to brush,—mauve, maroon, crimson, and purple-colored with their dense growth of bushes, scarlet-lined along the fences by rows of sumac.  27
  If you can show me anywhere in the world landscapes which are as rich and varied in color as our northern landscapes in America, or which are more beautiful in the form and contrast of valley and hill, I will go far with you to see them. Autumnal foliage with many is thought to be the changed color of the forest leaves, and few have observed the wonderful painting of landscapes in the autumnal colors of the low bushes. Many of our New England rivers, in October, flow between banks and around low gravel islands which are unbroken masses of crimson, from a plant not a foot high, covering every inch for acres. And the shades are even more beautiful than the intense colors,—soft, rich, and delicate as old embroideries.  28
  There was no village in the valley. As I drove along the road which led nearly through the middle of it, I came, at a cross-road, to a grave-yard of an old church. That it was once a church, the remains of a tower or spire indicated, and its location,—a hundred feet from both roads, in the grave-yard,—demonstrated. There had never been any fence around the lot except the rough-laid loose stone wall which serves for fence in all parts of our country where stone is plenty. And no better or more picturesque fencing can be, especially if people will plant along such walls any of the many beautiful vines which abound everywhere, and thrive luxuriantly in just such places. But no vines had ever been planted here. Not a solitary bush or tree grew in the grave-yard. Even grass seemed to have run out from lonesomeness and neglect, so that the ground looked like an old worn-out pasture lot; the only break in the desolate aspect being a stunted sprig of golden-rod which gleamed in front of the church door.  29
  I passed it, careful not to tread on it, and tried the door, found it open, and went in. The interior was a sad ruin, through which the breeze was free to blow; for there was no glass in any window, nor indeed now any need of glass, since it was plain enough that there had not been for long time any assembling of people here to worship. The pulpit, nearly round and high up, backed by a large window, had once been reached by a winding stairway, now broken down. The pews, which were built of pine without paint, were in fair preservation. The plaster on the walls and flat ceiling had mostly fallen off, and lay in the pews and on the floor of the aisles. I could see the blue sky through one great rift overhead, where the roof timber had fallen in and crushed down the ceiling.  30
  No places are filled with such profound interest to thoughtful men as those spots in which their fellow-men of former generations were accustomed to assemble for the worship of God. And places of Christian worship are more deeply interesting, because of the characteristics of that worship which distinguish it from all others. In no other have men approached Deity with the sense of personal unworthiness which only their God can remove, and with faith in his fatherhood and brotherhood, his personal presence among them, and his love for them. From the early ages of the Christian Church this immediate and close relationship between God and man has been a distinguishing characteristic of old Christian art; whose earliest representations of his personality are as the Good Shepherd, carrying home a lost and found lamb of his flock. If that faith which directs their prayers be indeed the substance of the things hoped for, then the place where men meet their God is so truly the house of God that one is at a loss to understand those who deny any special sanctity in it. But however irreverent be their regard for the church which they themselves frequent, I think there are very few who can without some serious emotion enter an old church, in which generations of men and women and children have worshiped, who are now lying in silent graves around it.  31
  I don’t think you, my friend, whatever your creed or your sympathies, could have sat with me in one of those plain pine pews, seeing the sunshine of that autumn falling through the shattered building on the ruined interior, and have failed to appreciate something of the sanctity of the old place of prayer. It was early noon. Through the broken roof one broad stream of golden light fell on the open place between the front pew and the pulpit. There the table used to stand which they called their Lord’s Table, and from which they received, as their catechism expressed it, “by faith,”—that is, by the highest assurance men can have,—unhesitating belief, the body and blood of Him they worshiped. There one by one, when the work and worry, the sorrow and sin, of this life were ended, they were laid with closed eyes and calm faces, and thence carried out to the gathering-place of the dead. Where are they now, strong men and matrons, young men and maidens, little children and patriarchs? As I asked myself the question, I walked across the floor to a window and looked out. Yes, they were all lying there, as so many millions of the Christian dead all over the world lie, in circles that sweep over the surface of the globe, ever-widening circles as their faith has extended among men, all with their faces heavenward and their feet towards Jerusalem.  32
  We spent more than a half-hour in the old church. I climbed by the wrecked stairway into the pulpit. Its interior casing was falling to pieces, and in a recess within were some scraps of paper, which had slipped between the boards from the shelf under the desk. On one was a memorandum of the minister for notices to be given of the weekly prayer-meeting at Mr. ——’s house, and a Thursday night lecture at the school-house on the mountain. On another was a funeral notice. There was nothing else legible, except a torn scrap, the lower part of a leaf of a hymn-book, and on this was a stanza not unfitting the associations of the place. So, for the moment, I assumed the position of the erstwhile minister, and said from the pulpit, “Let us sing:—
  “‘Oh, what amazing joys they feel,
  While to their golden harps they sing,
And sit on every heavenly hill
  And spread the triumphs of their King!’”
  There were only three of us, but one was leader of a choir in an up-country church; and we sang a good old tune, which perhaps they who were now silent around the church used to sing to the same words—and perhaps will some day sing again.  34
  And while we were singing I saw a vision; not supernatural, but as lovely for the moment as any imagination. In the open doorway, at the other end of the church, was standing a little child, a girl of five years old, dressed in white, with masses of red-gold hair, which the wind, coming in from behind her, was waving and shaking. Her great blue eyes were looking with wonderment while she listened. As the sound ceased she vanished. We might have thought it an apparition, but that, going to the door, we saw her running down the road as fast as her little feet would carry her, towards a large farm-house nearly a half-mile off. Her story told at the house might have been the foundation of a midday ghost story for the neighborhood,—the coming back of old-time people to sing an old hymn in the ruined church. But they could hardly suppose that ghosts would come in a traveling carriage drawn by a very solid pair of gray horses.  35

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