The Second Chance by Nellie L. McClung
Chapter XV. The Sowing
"And other fell on good ground."
"Everything else is pretty only the old school," said Mary Watson. "Look at the sky and the grass and the spruce trees on the sandhills--all nice colours only the old school, and it's just a grindy-gray-russet inside and out."
Mary was a plain-spoken young lady of ten.
"Well, we can clean it, anyway," Pearl said hopefully. "If we get it clean it won't look so bad, even if it ain't pretty; and we can get lots of violets, though they don't show much; but we'll know they're there; and we can get cherry-blossoms and put them in something big on the desk for the minister to look over, and they'll do him good, for he'll see that somebody thought about it."
Maudie Steadman did not think much of the idea of violets and cherry-blossoms. Maudie was fat, and had pale freekles all over her face and on her hands. She talked in a jerky way, and was always out of breath.
"Perhaps we could get Maw's tissue-paper flowers. She's got lovely purple roses and yellow ones, and the like o' that," Maudie said.
Pearl considered it awhile.
"No, Maudie," she said. "Paper roses are fine in the winter, but in the summer, if you use them, it looks as if you don't think much of the kind that God's puttin' up, and you think you can do better yourself. So I think with lots of meadow rue for the green stuff and violets and blossoms, it'll be all right. Anyway, when the people get in with their Sunday clothes on, and the flowers on their hats, it'll take the bare look off it."
When Sunday came it seemed as if it were a day specially prepared for the beginning of religious instruction in the Chicken Hill School. The sky was cloudless save for little gauzy white flakes--"puffs of chiffon that had blown off the angels' hats," Mary Watson said they were. The grain was just high enough to run in waves before the wind, and even Grandfather Gray, Mrs. Steadman's father, admitted that the "craps were as far on as he'd ever seen them"; but in order that no one could accuse him of stirring up false hopes, he pointed out that "the wheat has a long way to go yet before the snow flies, and there's lots that might happen it."
By half-past two o'clock, the time set for the service, the yard was well filled with buggies and waggons, while knots of men, looking uncomfortable in high collars, stood discussing the crops and the price of horses, all in the best of humour. When they saw the minister's gray horse coming, the minister himself became the subject of conversation.
"It beats me," George Steadman said, springing the lid of his pipe with his thumb as he struck a match on the sole of his boot, "it beats me what a man sees in preaching as a steady job. It's easy work, all right, only one day in the week; but there's no money in it. A man can make more money at almost anything else he goes at"--he was thinking of short-horns--"and be more independent. It certainly beats me why they do it."
"Did ye ever hear, George, of greater rewards than money, and a greater happiness than being independent?" Roderick Ray, the Scottish Covenanter, asked gently, as he unbuckled his "beast" from the cart. Roderick Ray had a farm on Oak Creek, three miles east of the schoolhouse. "Yon man is a Methodist, an' I'm na' sa fond o' them as o' some ithers, but I can see he has the root o' the matter in him for all; and I'm thinkin' that he has the smile o' his Lord and Master on him, an' that's better nor gold, nor siller, nor houses, nor lands, nor cattle on a thousand hills; for, after all, George, these things slip frae us easy and we slip away frae them easier still, an' it's then we'll hear the Good Man ask: 'An' hoo did ye spend the years I gave ye? Did ye warn the sinner, teach the young, feed the hungry an' comfort the sad?' An' I'm thinkin', George, that to all this yon little man, Methoda body though he be, will be able to give a verra guid answer an' a very acceptable one."
The men sat on one side of the school, and the women on the other. Even a very small boy, when he found himself sitting with the women, made a scurry across to the other side. Danny Watson alone of the male portion of the congregation was unaffected by this arrangement, and clung to his sister Pearl, quite oblivious of public opinion.
Mrs. Cavers and Libby Anne sat beside the window, in the seat ahead of Danny, Mary, and Pearl. Mrs. Cavers's eyes were on the group of men at the woodpile, for Bill was among them, very much smartened up in his good clothes. She had had some difficulty in persuading him to come. He wanted to stay at home and sleep, he said. While the men talked beside the woodpile, Sandy Braden, the hotelkeeper, drove up with his pacing horse and rubber-tired buggy. He stopped to talk to the men. Sandy was a very genial fellow, and a general favourite.
Mrs. Cavers sat perfectly still; only the compression of her lips showed her agitation.
"Come on, Bill, and I'll give you a good swift ride," she heard him say.
Bill hesitated and looked around uneasily. Sandy gave him a significant wink and then he went without a word.
Inside, Mrs. Cavers gave a little smothered cry, which Libby Anne understood. She moved nearer to her mother in sympathy.
Mrs. Cavers leaned forward, straining her eyes after the cloud of dust that marked the pacing horse's progress, clasping and unclasping her hands in wordless misery. Bill was gone--she had lost him again. The wind drove ripples in the grain, the little white clouds hung motionless in the sky, but Bill was gone, and the sun, bright and pitiless, was shining over all. Then the other men came in and the service began.
The singing was led by Roderick Ray, who had the Covenanters' blood in his veins. He carried a tuning-fork with him always, and fitted the psalm tunes to the hymns, carrying them through in a rolling baritone, and swinging his whole body to the motion.
The Reverend John Burrell was a student of men. He had travelled the North-West before the days of railways, by dog-train, snow-shoes, and horse-back, preaching in the lumber camps and later on in the railway camps, and it was a deep grief to him when his health broke down and he was compelled to take a smaller appointment. He liked to be on the firing-line. He was a gentle, shrewd, resourceful man, whose sense of humour and absolute belief in the real presence of God had carried him over many a rough place.
As he stood before his congregation this day in the schoolhouse, a great compassion for the men and women before him filled his heart. He saw their lives, so narrow and bare and self-centred; he read the hard lines that the struggle with drought and hail and weeds had written on their faces; and so he spoke to them, not as a stranger might speak, but as a brother, working with them, who also had carried burdens and felt the sting of defeat; but who had gone a little farther down the road, and had come back to tell them to persevere, for things were better farther on!
He had had to do with travel-stained, wayfaring men for so long that he had got into the way of handing out to them at once, when he had the opportunity, the richest treasures of his Father's storehouse. When they looked to him for bread they were not given a stone, and so, standing in the bare schoolroom that day, he preached to them Christ, the Saviour of mankind, and showed the way of life eternal.
There was something very winsome about Mr. Burrell's preaching, not because of his eloquence, for he was a man of plain speech, low-voiced and gentle, but because he spoke with the quiet certainty of one who sees Him who is invisible. Near the front sat Bud Perkins and Teddy Watson, athletic-looking young fellows, clear-eyed and clean-skinned, just coming into their manhood, and there was a responsiveness in the boys' faces that made the minister address his appeal directly to them as he set before them the two ways, asking them to choose the higher, the way of loving service and Christlike endeavour.
When the service was over, Mrs. Burrell went around shaking hands with the women. "I am so glad we thought of holding service here," she said genially. "You people do turn out so well. Is this Mrs. Cavers?" she asked, as she shook hands with Mrs. Steadman.
Pearl Watson put her right.
Mrs. Steadman, in a broad black hat resplendent with cerise roses, stiffened perceptibly, but Mrs. Burrell did not notice this, but rattled on in her gayest humour. "I always do get those names mixed. I knew there were the two families out here."
She then turned to Mrs. Slater and Mrs. Motherwell. "It is a bare-looking school, isn't it?" she said amiably. "You women ought to try to fix it up some. It does look so wind-swept and parched and cheerless." Mrs. Burrell prided herself on her plain speaking.
At this Mrs. Steadman, who was a large, pompous woman, became so indignant that the cerise roses on her hat fairly shook. "I guess it doesn't keep the children from learning," she said hotly; "and that's mostly what a school is for."
"Oh, you are quite wrong, Mrs. Steadman," Mrs. Burrell replied, wondering just how it had happened that she had given Mrs. Steadman cause for offence. "Perhaps you think it doesn't prevent the children from learning, but it does. There's plenty of other things for children to learn besides what is in the books. Maybe they didn't learn them when you were young, but it would have been better if they had. Children should have a bed of flowers, and a little garden and trees to play under."
"Well, you can have them for yours," Mrs. Steadman said harshly, narrowing her eyes down to glittering slits. She knew that Mrs. Burrell had no children living; but when Mrs. Steadman's anger rose she tried to say the bitterest thing she could think of.
Mrs. Burrell was silent for a moment or two. Then she said gently: "My little girl has them, Mrs. Steadman. She has the flowers that never fade, and she needs no shade from trees, for no heat shall fall upon them there. I wasn't thinking of my own, I was thinking of yours and the other children who come here."
"Well, I guess we've done more for the school than anybody else anyway," Mrs. Steadman said loftily. "We pay taxes on nineteen hundred acres of land, and only send two children."
Mrs. Slater and Mrs. Motherwell joined the conversation then, and endeavoured to smooth down Mrs. Steadman's ruled plumage.
"She ain't goin' to dictate to us," Mrs. Steadman declared vehemently, after Mrs. Burrell had gone to speak to Mrs. Watson and Aunt Kate. Mrs. Steadman had a positive dread of having any person "dictate" to her.
Teddy Watson hitched up Mrs. Cavers's horse. There was still no sign of Bill, and after a little talk with Martha Slater she and Libby Anne drove sadly home.
Bud Perkins got the minister's horse ready and stood holding it while Mr. Burrell was talking to Roderick Ray, who wanted to be sure how Mr. Burrell stood on election. When the conversation was over Mr. Burrell walked over to where Bud was holding his horse. A sudden impulse seized him. "Bud," he said gently, laying his hand on the boy's shoulder, "I wonder if you are the good ground? I wonder if you are going to let the seed grow?"
Bud turned and looked the minister straight in the face, while a fine flush came into his own. "I am going to try," he said simply.
Mr. Burrell took hold of Bud's hand and said earnestly: "God only knows what can be made of a young man who is willing to try."
Bud's eyes were shining with emotion as he returned the handclasp. And thus the good seed was sown in the fertile soil of Bud Perkins's heart, destined to be cruelly choked by weeds in the evil days to come, but never quite forgotten by the Master Sower!
* * *
On the way home Bud was strangely lent, and Martha, with quick intuition, divined the cause. A great wave of emotion was surging through the boy's heart, a great new love for every one and everything; he wanted to do something, to suffer, to endure. Every ripple that ran over the grain, every note of the robin and meadowlark, the rustle of the leaves above them as they drove through the poplar grove on the school section, were to him the voices of God calling him to loving service.
"Martha," he said suddenly, "I haven't been very good to you, have I, old girl? Lots of times I could have been nicer and helped you more. I want to be better to you now. I never thought of it before, but I know that I've often let you do things that I might have done myself. I am going to be kinder and better, I hope."
Martha was not ready of speech. "You're all right, Bud," she said. "I knew how you feel, and I'm glad."