The Second Chance by Nellie L. McClung
Chapter XXIII. Pearl's Philosophy
For the love of God is broader Than the measure of man's mind, And the heart of the Eternal Is most wonderfully kind.
----F. W. Faber.
It was a dreamy day in late October, when not only the Tiger Hills were veiled in mist, but every object on the prairie had a gentle draping of amber gray. "Prairie fires ragin' in the hills," said Aunt Kate, who always sought for an explanation of natural phenomena, but Pearlie Watson knew better. She knew that it was a dream curtain that God puts around the world in the autumn, when the grass is faded and the trees bare and leafless. She explained it to the other children coming home that night.
"You see, kids," said Pearl, "in the summer everything is so well fixed up that there's no need to hide anything, and so the sun just shines and shines, and the days are long and bright to let every one have a good look at things. There's the orange-lilies pepperin' the grass, and there's cowslips and ladies' slippers, if it's yellows you like, and there's wild roses and morning-glories, and pink ladies' slippers, if you know whereto look for them, and the hills are all so green and velvety, and there's the little ponds full of water with the wind crinklin' the top of it, and strings of wild ducks sailin' kind o' sideways across them. Oh, it's a great sight, and it would be a pity to put a mist on it. But now the colour has faded and the ponds have dried up, and the grass is dead and full of dust, and it's far nicer to have this gray veil drawn in close around. It helps you to make a pretty picture for yourself. Now, look over there, near Tom Simpson's old house--that ain't a train track at all, but a deep blue sea, where boats sail day and night, and 'Spanish sailors with bearded lips' walk up and down clankin' their swords and whisperin' about hidden treasures."
Pearl's voice had fallen almost to a whisper.
"To-night when the moon rises the tallest one, the one with the deep scar on his cheek, will lead the way to the cave in the rock; the door flies open if you say the password 'Magooslem,' and there the golden guineas lie strewn upon the stone floors. And look back there at Lib Cavers's house--do you see how dreamy like and sleepin' it is, not takin' a bit of notice of anything? It don't look like a house where there's ever dirty dishes or anybody feelin' sad or lonely, and I don't believe that's Cavers's house at all," went on Pearl, making a bold appeal to the imagination of her audience--"that's just a dream house, where there is a big family of children, and they're goin' to have pancakes for supper--pancakes and maple syrup!"
At this association of ideas Bugsey made a quick move for the dinner-pail, in which he had a distinct interest. Bugsey was what his parents called a "quare lad" (his brothers often called him worse than that), and one way he had of showing his "quareness" was that he did not even eat like other people. On this particular day the Watson children had for dinner, among other plainer things, a piece of wild cranberry pie, with the pits left in, for each child. Patsy's piece had gone at the first recess; Danny's did not get past the fireguard around the school; Tammy's disappeared before he had gone a hundred yards from the house (Tommy was carrying the dinner-pail); but Bugsey, the "quare lad," did not eat his in school at all, but left it to eat on the way home.
Now cranberry pie with the pits in is a perishable article, and should not be left unguarded in this present evil world, where human nature has its frailties. When Bugsey looked into the pail, he raised a wail of bereavement, and at the same moment Tommy set out for home at high speed accelerated no doubt by the proddings of conscience. Bugsey followed, breathing out slaughter, and even made the murderous threat of "takin' it out of his hide," which no doubt was only intended figuratively.
"Come back here, Bugsey Watson!" cried Pearl authoritatively. "What do yez mane by it? S'posin' he did ate yer pie? It ain't as bad as if he knocked an eye out of yer. You shouldn't have left it in the pail to tempt him anyway. If you'd et it when you should ye'd had it and, anyway, don't be ye wasting yer temper fightin' for things like pie, that's here to-day and away to-morrow. It's a long way worse for him that has the mean feelin' than it is for you, so it is." In her excitement Pearl went back to her Irish brogue. Tommy by this time was a long way down the road, still making his small legs fly, thinking that the avenging Bugsey was in pursuit.
So intent were the children on the pie dispute that they did not hear the approach of a buggy behind them, until Sandy Braden with his pacing horse drove by. When he saw Pearl he reined in with a sudden impulse.
"Will you come and ride with me? I'll drive you home," he said, addressing her. "Bring that little chap with you," he added, noticing the shortness of Danny's fat legs.
Pearl assented to this, and she and Danny climbed into the rubber-tired buggy.
They drove for a short distance in silence, and then, pulling his pacer to a walk, Mr. Braden said: "I have always wanted to tell you, Pearl, that I did not break my word that day. I left word with the bartender not to give Bill Cavers any liquor, but he did give it to him, and I have been sorry ever since about it, and I wanted you to know."
"I am glad you told me," Pearl answered quickly, "for I've often been sorry for you, thinkin' what sad thoughts you must be havin'."
"My thoughts are sad enough," he said gloomily, "for it was my whiskey that killed him, even if I didn't hand it out to him myself."
Pearl did not contradict him.
"Isn't it queer how things happen?" she said at last thoughtfully. "God does His level best for everybody! He tries to take them easy at first, to see if they'll take telling, and if they do, all right; but if they won't take telling, He has to jolt them good and plenty. But He always knows what He's doin'."
"I'm afraid I have not such unbounded faith in the Ruler of the Universe as you have," he said at last "Bill Cavers didn't get exactly a fair deal."
"Oh, don't worry about Bill Cavers now," said Pearl quickly. "Bill's still in God's hands, and God has a better chance at him now than He ever had. God never intended Bill to be a drunkard,--or you to be handing liquor out to people; you can bank on that. And he never intended Mrs. Cavers to be all sad and discouraged. God would do good things for people if they would only let Him, but He has to have a free hand on them. When you see people goin' wrong or cuttin' up dog, you may be sure that God didn't put it down that way in the writin's. Some one has jiggled His elbow, that's all. And it's great how He makes it up to people, too. Now, you'd be surprised to see how cheerful Mrs. Cavers is. When I went over after our threshin' to take her the money--"
"What money?" he interrupted.
Pearl hesitated. "Well, you know we took their farm when they left it, and there was some cleared on it, and the house is better than none, and so we gave her a little to help her and Libby Anne to get ready to go back to her folks down East."
"How much did you give her?" he asked.
"Two hundred dollars. She didn't want to take it, but really was glad of it, and Pa and Ma and all of us have been feeling better ever since. But I was goin' to tell you how cheerful she is, and Libby Anne is happier than she used to be. Poor little Lib, she's so thin and pale, she's never had a good time like other children."
Sandy Braden winced at her words, for an illuminated conscience showed him what had cheated Libby Anne out of her childhood.
"Poor little kid!" he said.
"I knew," said Pearl, after a pause, "that day that Jimmy and I went in with the onions that you didn't really know what a mean business you were in, or you wouldn't do it. You did not look to me like a man that would hit a woman."
"That's the part of it I can't forget," he said bitterly. "I can't forget the look of that thin little wisp of a woman, and Lord! how she glared at me! She could have killed me that day. I don't go much on religion, Pearl. I don't see much in religion, but I certainly would not hit a woman if I knew it."
"Where did you learn that?" Pearl asked quickly. "You wouldn't know that if it wasn't for religion. Mr. Burrell was telling us last Sunday that there's no religion teaches that only ours. You say you don't go much on religion, and still it's religion that has put any good in you that there is, and don't you forget it."
"That's not saying much for it, either," he said gloomily.
"Well, now, I think it is,"--said Pearl. "In lots of countries you'd pass for an awful good man. It's on'y when you stood up beside Christ, who was so good and kind and straight, that you can see you're not what you ought to be. If it wasn't for the Bible and Christ we wouldn't know how good a man should be."
"I haven't read the Bible for a goad many years," he said slowly. "I don't believe I ever read much of it."
Pearl looked straight into his face, and said without a minute's hesitation: "Well, I'll bet you a dollar some one read it for you and passed it on to you."
Sandy Braden looked straight ahead of him, down the deeply tinted prairie road, at the hazy outlines of the sand-hills, with their scattered spruce trees, blurred now into indistinctness--that is, his eyes were turned toward them, but what he really saw in one of those sudden flashes of memory which makes us think that nothing is ever entirely forgotten, was a cheerful old-fashioned room, with a rag-carpet on the floor and pictures in round frames on the wall. The sun came in through the eastern windows, and the whole place felt like Sunday. He saw his mother sitting in a rocking-chair, with a big Bible on her knee, and by her side was a little boy whom he knew to be himself. He saw again on her finger the thin silver ring, worn almost to a thread, and felt the clasp of her hand on his as she guided his finger over the words she was teaching him; and back through the long years they came to him: "Love one another as I have loved you." He remembered, too, and smelled again the sweet-mary leaves that were always kept in his mother's Bible, and saw again the cards with big coloured birds on them that he had got at Sunday-school for regular attendance, and which were always kept between its pages; and while he mused on these things with sudden tenderness, there came back again the same numb feeling of sorrow that he had had when he came home, a heartbroken boy, from his mother's funeral that day so many years ago, and buried his face in the sweet-mary leaves in the old Bible, and blotted its pages with his tears; for it seemed more like her than anything else in the house. He remembered that the undertaker's black mat with its ghastly white border was still in the front window, where the coffin had rested, and that the room smelled of camphor.
Pearl saw that memory was busy with him, and said not a word.
At last he spoke. "You're right, Pearl," he said. "Some one did read it and pass it on to me, and it would have been better for me if I'd stayed closer to what she taught me."
"Ain't it queer how things turn out?" Pearl exclaimed, after a long pause. "Now, I've often wondered why Christ had to die--it seemed a terrible thing to happen to Him, and Him that lovin' and kind--do you mind how gentle and forgivin' He was?"
Sandy Braden nodded.
"Well, Mr. Donald and I have been talkin' about it quite a bit, and at first we thought it shouldn't have happened, but now it looks as if God had to strike hard to make people listen, and to show them what a terrible thing sin is. Death ain't nothin' to be afraid of, nor sufferin' either. Sin is the only thing to be real scared of. It wasn't the rusty nails through His hands that made the dear Lord cry out in agony--it was the hard hearts of them that done it. Bill Cavers's death has done good already, for it has closed your bar, and no one knows how many men and boys that may save; and you're a different man now, thinking different thoughts, ain't you?"
"I'm a mighty unhappy man," he said sadly. "I'm different that way, that's a sure thing."
Pearl looked at him closely, as if she would see the inner working of his mind.
"Mr. Braden, I know just what you're like," she said. "Did you ever see a man 'trying to stand still on a bicycle? That's no harder than what you're tryin' to do. You've stopped doin' wrong, but you haven't gone on, and you're in great shape to take a bad fall. If you'd just get busy helpin' people you'd soon get over bein' sad and down-hearted. You're feelin' bad over Bill Cavers's death. Why don't you make Bill's death count for something good? You're a smart man, and everybody likes you. If you was to teach a Bible class every one would come to hear you."
"I'll bet they would," he said, shrugging his shoulders and laughing almost bitterly.
"Well, then," said Pearl, "don't let the chances all go by you. Do you know, I often look at trees and feel sorry for them?"
"Why?" he asked curiously.
"Because they can't do a thing to help each other; and I often wonder if they're the people who wouldn't lift a finger to help any one when they were livin', and so they were turned into trees when they died, and now they see grubs and worms crawlin' over their own folks, maybe, and they can't lift a leaf to help them. Mr. Donald read us a story in school about a man who was awful mean while he lived and wouldn't help anybody, and when he died he had to wander up and down the world and see people starvin' and all sorts of sad sights, but he couldn't do a single thing for them, though he wanted to bad enough, because he had forged a chain that bound him hand and foot while he was livin', all unbeknownst to himself. Did you ever read that little book, Mr. Braden?"
"I did," he said. "I read that story, but I had almost forgotten it. I haven't thought of it for years."
"It's a good story," said Pearl meaningly.
"I guess it is," he answered, smiling.
When they reached the Watson home, Mrs. Watson and Aunt Kate came out and thanked Mr. Braden profusely for his kindness in "givin' the childer a lift." Danny, who had been bored by the serious nature of the conversation, had gone to sleep, and was carried snoring into the house.
Mr. Braden admired the display of poppies and asters, which still made a brave show of colour against the almost leafless trees of the bluff, and when Pearl ran over to pick him a bouquet of asters, was it by accident--or does anything ever happen by accident--that she put in some leaves of sweet-mary?