Chapter XXI. Uncle Sheba Sat Upon
 

Old Tobe, keeper of the "rasteran," may have been right in saying that Uncle Sheba had backslidden as far as he could slide, remembering the limitations of a life like his, but circumstances had recently occurred which brought his church relations to a crisis. Tobe was the opposite pole in character to Uncle Sheba. There was an energy about the old caterer which defied age and summer heat. Even his white wool always seemed bristling aggressively and controversially. His fiery spirit influenced his commonest acts. When he boiled potatoes his customers were wont to say "he made 'em bile like de debil."

He carried his energy into his religion, one of his favorite exhortations in the prayer-meeting being, "Ef you sinners wants to'scape you'se got to git up an' git." During the preaching service he took a high seat in the synagogue, and if any one in the range of his vision appeared drowsy he would turn round and glare till the offender roused into consciousness. The children and young people stood in awe of him, and there was a perfect oasis of good behavior surrounding his pew. Once some irreverent young men thought it would be a joke to pretend to "conviction ob sin," and to seek religious counsel of old Tobe, but they came away scared half out of their wits, one of them declaring that he smelt brimstone a week afterward. The Rev. Mr. Birdsall felt that he had a strong ally in Tobe, but he often sighed over the old man's want of discretion.

Uncle Sheba was Tobe's bete noir, and he often inwardly raged over "dat lazy niggah." "De time am comin' w'en dat backslider got to be sot on," he would mutter, and this seemed his one consolation. He could scarcely possess his soul in patience in the hope of this day of retribution; "but I kin hole in till it come, fer it's gwine to come shuah," he occasionally said to some congenial spirits.

Tobe had a very respectable following in the church both as to numbers and character, for many looked upon his zeal as heaven-inspired. At last there came a hot Sunday afternoon which brought his hour and opportunity. Mr. Birdsall was not only expounding, but also pounding the pulpit cushion in order to waken some attention in his audience. Old Tobe had been whirling from one side to the other, and glaring hither and thither, till in desperation he got up and began to nudge and pinch the delinquents. From one of the back pews, however, there soon arose a sound which so increased as to drown even Mr. Birdsall's stentorian voice. Tobe tiptoed to the spot, and, in wrath that he deemed righteous, blended with not a little exultation, looked upon Uncle Sheba. His head had fallen on his bosom, and from his nose were proceeding sounds which would put to shame a high-pressure engine. Aun' Sheba was shaking him on one side and Kern Watson on the other. Audible snickering was general, but this soon gave way to alarm as Aun' Sheba exclaimed aloud, "He's dun gwine an' got de popoplexy shuah."

"Carry him out," said old Tobe, in a whisper which might have been heard in the street.

Two or three men sprang forward to aid, but Kern sternly motioned them back, and, lifting Uncle Sheba's portly form as if it were a child, carried the unconscious man to the vestibule. Scores were about to follow, but Tobe, with his wool bristling as never seen before, held up his hand impressively, and in the same loud whisper heard by all, remarked, "It doan took de hull cong'ration to wait on one po' sinner. Sabe yo'selves, brud'ren an' sisters. Sabe yo'selves, fer de time am a comin' w'en you'se all will be toted out dis yere temple ob de Lawd foot fo'most."

With this grewsome recollection forced upon their attention the people sat down again, wide awake at last. Tobe beckoned to three or four elderly men whom he knew he could rely upon, and they gathered around Uncle Sheba. His wife was slapping him on the back and chafing his hands, while Kern was splashing water in his face. The unfortunate man began to sneeze, and manifest rather convulsive signs of recovery. At last he blurted out, "Dar now, dar now, Aun' Sheba, doan go on so. I'se gwine to bring in de kinlins right smart"

"Bress de Lawd!" exclaimed Aun' Sheba, "dat soun' nat'rel. No popoplexy in dat ar kin' ob talk."

Tobe and his allies exchanged significant glances. Uncle Sheba was brought to his senses sufficiently to be supported home by his wife and son-in-law. He soon became aware that he had committed an awful indiscretion, for Watson looked stern, and there was a portentous solemnity in Aun' Sheba's expression. He began to enter on excuses. "I was jis' come ober by de heat," he said. "'Tween de heat an' de po'ful sarmon, I was jis' dat 'pressed dat de sperit went out ob me."

"Mr. Buggone," replied his wife, severely, "it was wat went inter you, an' not wat wen' out ob you, dat made de trouble. You jes' gormidized at dinnah. I'se gwine to cut off you'se 'lowance one-half."

At this dire threat Uncle Sheba groaned aloud, feeling that his sin had overtaken him swiftly indeed. His supper was meagre, and to his plaintive remarks Aun' Sheba made no reply, but maintained an ominous silence until sleep again brought the relief of oblivion.

After Uncle Sheba's departure, Tobe and the other pillars of the church held a whispered conference in the vestibule, and soon agreed up their course. When the services were over, they, with other sympathizers, waited upon the minister. Mr. Birdsall was hot, tired, and incensed himself, and so was in a mood to listen to their representations.

"Hit's time dis yere scan'el was r'moved," said Tobe, solemnly. "We mus'purge ourselves. Mr. Buggone should be sot on, an' 'spended at de berry leas'; an' ter make de right 'pression on oders dat's gettin' weak in dere speritool jints, I move we sot on Mr. Buggone's case to-morrer ebenin'."

Mr. Birdsall was made to feel that it was his duty to accede, but he already felt sorry for Aun' Sheba and the Watsons, and had misgivings as to the result.

"Well," said he at last, "I'll agree to a prelim'nary conf'rence to-morrow evenin' at Mr. Buggone's house. Brud-'ren, we must proceed in de spirit ob lub an' charity, an' do our best to pluck a bran' from de burnin'."

In the morning he went around to prepare Aun' Sheba for the ordeal, but she and Vilet had gone out upon their mercantile pursuits, and Uncle Sheba also had disappeared. To Sissy the direful intelligence was communicated. In spite of all Mr. Birdsall's efforts to console, she was left sobbing and rocking back and forth in her chair. When Kern came home, he heard the news with a rigid face.

"Well," he said, "ef it's right, it's right. Ef I'd done wrong I'd stan' up an' face wot come ob it."

Uncle Sheba knew when his wife would return, and was ready to receive her in the meekest of moods. He had cut an unusual quantity of wood and kindlings, but they failed to propitiate. Sissy soon called her mother to come over to her cabin to hear of Mr. Birdsall's visit, and all that it portended. Aun' Sheba listened in silence, and sat for a long time in deep thought, while Sissy and Vilet sobbed quietly. At last the old woman said firmly, "Sissy, I wants you and Kern ter be on han'. Vilet kin take keer ob do chillun. Dis am gwine ter be a solemn 'casion, an' de Lawd on'y knows wot's gwine ter come out ob it. Anyhow dis fam'ly mus' stan' by one noder. My mind ain't clar jes yit, but'll git clar wen de'mergency comes; I jes' feel it in my bones it'll git clar den."

There was such an awful solemnity in her aspect when she returned, that Uncle Sheba was actually scared. It seemed to him that her manner could not be more depressing if she were making preparations for his funeral. His trepidation was increased when he was told briefly and sternly to put on his "Sunday-go-to-meetin's."

"Wotfer, Aun' Sheba?"

"You'se know soon 'nuff. De Elder's gwine to call on you dis ebenin'. Ef you'd had de popoplexy in arnest, we'd make great 'lowance fer you, but wen you eat an' drink till you mos' ready to bust, and den'sturb de hull meetin' by snortin' like a 'potamus, dar's got to be trouble, an' I'se got to meet it."

Uncle Sheba did as he was directed, with the feeling that the judgment day had come.

Meanwhile old Tobe had prepared his indictment, and marshalled his forces for the occasion. At seven in the evening he led them to the nearest corner, and waited for Mr. Birdsall, who soon appeared. Led by him, they entered Aun' Sheba's living-room in solemn procession. Although the evening was warm, there was a fire on the hearth, for she had said, "Dere's gwine ter be notin' wantin' to de 'casion." All the chairs had been brought in from Watson's cabin, and he and Sissy sat in the background. Uncle Sheba had been placed on the further side of the hearth, and was fairly trembling with apprehension. He tried to assume a pious, penitent air, but failed miserably. Aun' Sheba made an imposing spectacle.

She had arrayed herself in her Sunday gown and had wound a flaming turban about her head. Apparently she was the most collected person present, except Kern Watson who sat back in shadow, his face quiet and stern. As the minister and committee entered she rose with dignity and said, "Elder an' brud'ren, take cheers."

Then she sat down again, folded her hands and gazed intently at the ceiling.

If old Tobe was not cool, as indeed he never was, he was undaunted, and only waited for the minister to prepare the way before he opened on Uncle Sheba. A few moments of oppressive silence occurred, daring which the culprit shook as if he had an ague, but Aun' Sheba did not even wink. Mr. Birdsall, regarding her portentous aspect with increased misgiving, began at last in a mournful voice, "Mis Buggone, dis is a very sorrowful 'casion. We are here not as you'se enemies but as you'se fren's. Our duty is painful, 'stremely so, but de brud'ren feel dat de time is come wen Mr. Buggone mus' be made to see de error ob his ways, dat dere mus' be no mo' precrastination. De honah ob de church is japerdized. Neber-de-less he is a free-agent. De lamp still holes out to burn--"

"An' de wilest sinner can return," interrupted Aun' Sheba, nodding her head repeatedly. "I unerstan'. You means well, Elder."

Old Tobe could hold in no longer, and began excitedly, "De question am weder de wile sinner's gwine ter return, or wants ter return, or's got any return in 'im. Elder, I feels fer Mis Buggone an' her family, but dis yere ting's gwine on long anuff. We'se been forbearin' an' long-sufferin' till dere's a scan'el in de church. I'se tried wid all my might 'er keep de people awake an' listenin', and I'se gettin' dun beat out. Ef we wink at dis awful 'zample you mought as well go to de grabeyard an' preach. It ud be mo' comfable fer you, kase dey'd hear jus' as well, an' dey wouldn't 'sturbe de'scorse by snorin' de roof off. Now I ask de sense ob dis meetin'. Wen a member backslide so he do notin' but eat an' sleep, oughtener he be sot on?"

There was audible approval from all of Tobe's followers, and he was encouraged to go on.

"Ef Mr. Buggone mus' sleep mos' ob de time let him sleep peac' ble in his own house, but de Scripter say, 'Wake dem dat sleepest,' an' we say it's time Mr. Buggone woke up. Any cullud pusson dat kin snore so po'ful as Mr. Buggone needn't say he weakly an' po'ly. Hafe de poah he put in his snore ud lif' 'im right along in all good works, week days an' Sundays. But I'se los' faith in 'im. He's been 'spostulated an' 'monstrated with, an' 'zorted so often dat he's hardened an' his conscience zeered wid a hot iron. We'se jes' got to take sich sinners in han', or de paster-lot won't hole de flock no mo'. I move we take steps to s'pend Mr. Buggone."

"Secon' dat motion," said one of his followers promptly.

"Mr. an' Mis Buggone, have you nothin' to say?" asked Mr. Birdsall sadly.

"Elder," began Uncle Sheba in his most plaintive tone, "you know de heat yistidy was po'ful--"

"Mr. Buggone," interrupted his wife severely, "dis ain't no 'casion fer beatin' round de bush an' creepin troo knotholes. You knows de truf an' I knows de truf. No, Elder, we'se got not'in ter say at jes' dis time."

"Den, Elder, you put de motion dat we take steps," said Tobe, promptly.

With evident reluctance Mr. Birdsall did so, and the affirmative was unanimously voted by the committee.

"I wants ter be s'pended too," said Aun' Sheba, still gazing at the ceiling.

"Now, Mis Buggone, dere would be no right nor reason in dat," the minister protested.

"Elder, I doesn't say you-uns ain't all right, an' I does say you means well, but I'se de bes' jedge of my inard speritool frame. Hit was neber jes' clar in my mind dat I was 'ligious, an' now I know I ain't 'ligious, an' I wants ter be s'pended."

"But it is clar in my mind dat you are religious, dat you'se a good woman. Would to de good Lawd dat de church was full ob Christians like you!"

"I'se spoke my min'," persisted Aun' Sheba, doggedly. "Ole Tobe shall hab his way an' de church be purged."

"Elder," said Tobe, now quite carried away by zeal and exultation, "p'raps Mis Buggoue am de bes' jedge. Ef she feel she ain't one ob de aninted ones--"

"Peace!" commanded Mr. Birdsall, "never with my consent shall any steps be taken to suspend Mis Buggone. You forgits, Tobe, how easy it is to pull up de wheat wid de tares."

"Den I s'pend myself," said Aun' Sheba, "an' I is s'pended. Now I gwine ter 'fess de truf. I gave Mr. Buggone an extra Sunday dinner yistidy. I was puff up wid pride kase business was good, an' I bress de Lawd fer prosperin' me. Den like a fool I 'dulge myself and I 'dulge Mr. Buggone. Ef he's ter be s'pended fer a snorin' sleep, I oughter be s'pended fer a dozin' sleep, fer I was a-dozin'; an' I feels it in my bones dat we bofe oughter be s'pended, an' I is, no matter wot you does wid Mr. Buggone. Now, Tobe, you hab had you'se say, an' I'se a-gwine to hab mine. You'se got a heap ob zeal. You wouldn't lead de flock; you'd dribe 'em, you'd chase 'em, you'd worry de bery wool off ob dem. Whar you git you sperit fum? You ain't willin' ter wait till de jedgment day; you'd hab a jedgment ebery day in de week. You'se like dem 'siples dat was allers wantin' ter call down fiah from Heben. Look out you don't get scorched yo'self. I can't be 'ligious long o' you, an' if you got 'ligion I habn't. Elder, you says de Lawd libed yere on dis yarth. I ony wish I'd libed in dem days. I'd a cooked, an' washed, an' ironed, an' baked fer Him an' all de 'siples. Den like anuff He'd say: 'Ole Aun' Sheba, you means well. I won't be hard on you nor none of you'se folks when de jedgment day comes.' But so much happen since dat ar time wen He was yere dat I kinder got mixed up. I reckon I jes' be s'pended, an' let Him put de ole woman whar she belong wen de time comes."

There was pathos in her tones; her stoicism had passed away, and tears were streaming from her eyes, while Sissy was sobbing audibly. The committee at first had been aghast at the result of the meeting, and now their emotional natures were being excited also. Old Tobe was disconcerted, and still more so when Aun' Sheba suddenly rallied, and, turning upon him, said with ominous nods, "Wen dat day come, Old Tobe, you won't be de jedge."

Thus far Kern Watson had sat silent as a statue, but now his strong feelings and religious instincts gained the mastery. Lifting up his powerful mellow voice he sang:

  "The people was a-gatherin' from far and neah;
  Some come fer fishes an' some ter heah;
  But He fed dem all, an' He look so kin'
  Dat dey followed, dey followed, an' none stay behin'

 "But one got loss, an' he wandered far,
  De night come dark, no moon, no star;
  De lions roared an' de storm rose high,
  An' de po' loss one lie down ter die.

 "Den come a voice, an' de win's went down,
  An' de lions grovel on de groun',
  An' de po' loss one am foun' an' sabed,
  For de Shepherd ebery danger brabed."

These words, as sung by Kern, routed old Tobe completely; he hung his head and had not a word to say. The committee had beaten time with their feet, and began to clap their hands softly. Then Mr. Birdsall, with kindly energy, exhorted Uncle Sheba, who groaned aloud and said "Amen" as if in the depths of penitence. A long prayer followed which even moved old Tobe, for Aun' Sheba had shaken his self-confidence terribly. The little company broke up with hand-shaking all around, Tobe saying: "Sister Buggone, I bears no ill-will. I'se gwine ter look inter my speritool frame, an' ef I cotch de debil playin' hob wid me he's gwine to be put out, hoof an' horns."

Aun' Sheba wrung her son-in-law's hand, as she said: "You'se singin', Kern, kinder went to de right spot. Neber-de-less I'se s'pended till I feels mo' shuah."

Sissy kissed her mother and father affectionately, and then the old couple were left alone. Aun' Sheba gazed thoughtfully into the dying fire, but before long Uncle Sheba began to hitch uneasily in his chair. Finally he mustered up courage to say: "Aun' Sheba, dis am been bery po'ful 'casion, bery tryin' to my narbes an' feelin's. Yet I feels kinder good an' hopeful in my inards. Ef I wasn't jes' so dun beat out I'd feel mo' good. P'raps now, 'siderin' all I'se pass troo, you wouldn't min' gibin' me a bit ob dat cole ham an' hoe-cake--"

"Mr. Buggone," began Aun' Sheba sternly, then she suddenly paused, threw her apron over her head and rocked back and forth.

"Dar now, Aun' Sheba, dar now, doan go on so. I was ony a sigestin' kase I feels po'ly, but I kin stan' it."

"I'se no better dan old Tobe hisself," groaned Aun' Sheba. "All on us is hard on some one, while a hopin' fer marcy ourselves. Ef you'se hebin is in de cubud, go in dar an' hep a sef." And she rose and opened the door of the treasure-house.

"I'se jes' take a leetle bite, Aun' Sheba, jes a leetle comf'tin bite, kase I'se been so sot on dat I feels bery weakly an' gone-like."

Uncle Sheba was soon comforted and sleeping, but Aun' Sheba still sat by the hearth until the last glowing embers turned to ashes. "Yes," she muttered at last, "I'se s'pended till I feels mo' shuah."