Chapter XXVI. Peter Makes An Impression
 

PETER'S turn came next. He did not write his sermon out. That, he averred, was too hard work. Nor did he mean to take a text.

"Why, who ever heard of a sermon without a text?" asked Felix blankly.

"I am going to take a subject instead of a text," said Peter loftily. "I ain't going to tie myself down to a text. And I'm going to have heads in it-- three heads. You hadn't a single head in yours," he added to me.

"Uncle Alec says that Uncle Edward says that heads are beginning to go out of fashion," I said defiantly--all the more defiantly that I felt I should have had heads in my sermon. It would doubtless have made a much deeper impression. But the truth was I had forgotten all about such things.

"Well, I'm going to have them, and I don't care if they are unfashionable," said Peter. "They're good things. Aunt Jane used to say if a man didn't have heads and stick to them he'd go wandering all over the Bible and never get anywhere in particular."

"What are you going to preach on?" asked Felix.

"You'll find out next Sunday," said Peter significantly.

The next Sunday was in October, and a lovely day it was, warm and bland as June. There was something in the fine, elusive air, that recalled beautiful, forgotten things and suggested delicate future hopes. The woods had wrapped fine-woven gossamers about them and the westering hill was crimson and gold.

We sat around the Pulpit Stone and waited for Peter and Sara Ray. It was the former's Sunday off and he had gone home the night before, but he assured us he would be back in time to preach his sermon. Presently he arrived and mounted the granite boulder as if to the manor born. He was dressed in his new suit and I, perceiving this, felt that he had the advantage of me. When I preached I had to wear my second best suit, for it was one of Aunt Janet's laws that we should take our good suits off when we came home from church. There were, I saw, compensations for being a hired boy.

Peter made quite a handsome little minister, in his navy blue coat, white collar, and neatly bowed tie. His black eyes shone, and his black curls were brushed up in quite a ministerial pompadour, but threatened to tumble over at the top in graceless ringlets.

It was decided that there was no use in waiting for Sara Ray, who might or might not come, according to the humour in which her mother was. Therefore Peter proceeded with the service.

He read the chapter and gave out the hymn with as much sang froid as if he had been doing it all his life. Mr. Marwood himself could not have bettered the way in which Peter said,

"We will sing the whole hymn, omitting the fourth stanza."

That was a fine touch which I had not thought of. I began to think that, after all, Peter might be a foeman worthy of my steel.

When Peter was ready to begin he thrust his hands into his pockets--a totally unorthodox thing. Then he plunged in without further ado, speaking in his ordinary conversational tone--another unorthodox thing. There was no shorthand reporter present to take that sermon down; but, if necessary, I could preach it over verbatim, and so, I doubt not, could everyone that heard it. It was not a forgettable kind of sermon.

"Dearly beloved," said Peter, "my sermon is about the bad place--in short, about hell."

An electric shock seemed to run through the audience. Everybody looked suddenly alert. Peter had, in one sentence, done what my whole sermon had failed to do. He had made an impression.

"I shall divide my sermon into three heads," pursued Peter. "The first head is, what you must not do if you don't want to go to the bad place. The second head is, what the bad place is like"--sensation in the audience--"and the third head is, how to escape going there.

"Now, there's a great many things you must not do, and it's very important to know what they are. You ought not to lose no time in finding out. In the first place you mustn't ever forget to mind what grown-up people tell you--that is, good grown-up people."

"But how are you going to tell who are the good grown-up people?" asked Felix suddenly, forgetting that he was in church.

"Oh, that is easy," said Peter. "You can always just feel who is good and who isn't. And you mustn't tell lies and you mustn't murder any one. You must be specially careful not to murder any one. You might be forgiven for telling lies, if you was real sorry for them, but if you murdered any one it would be pretty hard to get forgiven, so you'd better be on the safe side. And you mustn't commit suicide, because if you did that you wouldn't have any chance of repenting it; and you mustn't forget to say your prayers and you mustn't quarrel with your sister."

At this point Felicity gave Dan a significant poke with her elbow, and Dan was up in arms at once.

"Don't you be preaching at me, Peter Craig," he cried out. "I won't stand it. I don't quarrel with my sister any oftener than she quarrels with me. You can just leave me alone."

"Who's touching you?" demanded Peter. "I didn't mention no names. A minister can say anything he likes in the pulpit, as long as he doesn't mention any names, and nobody can answer back."

"All right, but just you wait till to-morrow," growled Dan, subsiding reluctantly into silence under the reproachful looks of the girls.

"You must not play any games on Sunday," went on Peter, "that is, any week- day games--or whisper in church, or laugh in church--I did that once but I was awful sorry--and you mustn't take any notice of Paddy--I mean of the family cat at family prayers, not even if he climbs up on your back. And you mustn't call names or make faces."

"Amen," cried Felix, who had suffered many things because Felicity so often made faces at him.

Peter stopped and glared at him over the edge of the Pulpit Stone.

"You haven't any business to call out a thing like that right in the middle of a sermon," he said.

"They do it in the Methodist church at Markdale," protested Felix, somewhat abashed. "I heard them."

"I know they do. That's the Methodist way and it is all right for them. I haven't a word to say against Methodists. My Aunt Jane was one, and I might have been one myself if I hadn't been so scared of the Judgment Day. But you ain't a Methodist. You're a Presbyterian, ain't you?"

"Yes, of course. I was born that way."

"Very well then, you've got to do things the Presbyterian way. Don't let me hear any more of your amens or I'll amen you."

"Oh, don't anybody interrupt again," implored the Story Girl. "It isn't fair. How can any one preach a good sermon if he is always being interrupted? Nobody interrupted Beverley."

"Bev didn't get up there and pitch into us like that," muttered Dan.

"You mustn't fight," resumed Peter undauntedly. "That is, you mustn't fight for the fun of fighting, nor out of bad temper. You must not say bad words or swear. You mustn't get drunk--although of course you wouldn't be likely to do that before you grow up, and the girls never. There's prob'ly a good many other things you mustn't do, but these I've named are the most important. Of course, I'm not saying you'll go to the bad place for sure if you do them. I only say you're running a risk. The devil is looking out for the people who do these things and he'll be more likely to get after them than to waste time over the people who don't do them. And that's all about the first head of my sermon."

At this point Sara Ray arrived, somewhat out of breath. Peter looked at her reproachfully.

"You've missed my whole first head, Sara," he said. "that isn't fair, when you're to be one of the judges. I think I ought to preach it over again for you."

"That was really done once. I know a story about it," said the Story Girl.

"Who's interrupting now?" aid Dan slyly.

"Never mind, tell us the story," said the preacher himself, eagerly leaning over the pulpit.

"It was Mr. Scott who did it," said the Story Girl. "He was preaching somewhere in Nova Scotia, and when he was more than half way through his sermon- -and you know sermons were very long in those days--a man walked in. Mr. Scott stopped until he had taken his seat. Then he said, 'My friend, you are very late for this service. I hope you won't be late for heaven. The congregation will excuse me if I recapitulate the sermon for our friend's benefit.' And then he just preached the sermon over again from the beginning. It is said that that particular man was never known to be late for church again."

"It served him right," said Dan, "but it was pretty hard lines on the rest of the congregation."

"Now, let's be quiet so Peter can go on with his sermon," said Cecily.

Peter squared his shoulders and took hold of the edge of the pulpit. Never a thump had he thumped, but I realized that his way of leaning forward and fixing this one or that one of his hearers with his eye was much more effective.

"I've come now to the second head of my sermon--what the bad place is like."

He proceeded to describe the bad place. Later on we discovered that he had found his material in an illustrated translation of Dante's Inferno which had once been given to his Aunt Jane as a school prize. But at the time we supposed he must be drawing from Biblical sources. Peter had been reading the Bible steadily ever since what we always referred to as "the Judgment Sunday," and he was by now almost through it. None of the rest of us had ever read the Bible completely through, and we thought Peter must have found his description of the world of the lost in some portion with which we were not acquainted. Therefore, his utterances carried all the weight of inspiration, and we sat appalled before his lurid phrases. He used his own words to clothe the ideas he had found, and the result was a force and simplicity that struck home to our imaginations.

Suddenly Sara Ray sprang to her feet with a scream--a scream that changed into strange laughter. We all, preacher included, looked at her aghast. Cecily and Felicity sprang up and caught hold of her. Sara Ray was really in a bad fit of hysterics, but we knew nothing of such a thing in our experience, and we thought she had gone mad. She shrieked, cried, laughed, and flung herself about.

"She's gone clean crazy," said Peter, coming down out of his pulpit with a very pale face.

"You've frightened her crazy with your dreadful sermon," said Felicity indignantly.

She and Cecily each took Sara by an arm and, half leading, half carrying, got her out of the orchard and up to the house. The rest of us looked at each other in terrified questioning.

"You've made rather too much of an impression, Peter," said the Story Girl miserably.

"She needn't have got so scared. If she'd only waited for the third head I'd have showed her how easy it was to get clear of going to the bad place and go to heaven instead. But you girls are always in such a hurry," said Peter bitterly.

"Do you s'pose they'll have to take her to the asylum?" said Dan in a whisper.

"Hush, here's your father," said Felix.

Uncle Alec came striding down the orchard. We had never before seen Uncle Alec angry. But there was no doubt that he was very angry. His blue eyes fairly blazed at us as he said,

"What have you been doing to frighten Sara Ray into such a condition?"

"We--we were just having a sermon contest," explained the Story Girl tremulously. "And Peter preached about the bad place, and it frightened Sara. That is all, Uncle Alec."

"All! I don't know what the result will be to that nervous delicate child. She is shrieking in there and nothing will quiet her. What do you mean by playing such a game on Sunday, and making a jest of sacred things? No, not a word--" for the Story Girl had attempted to speak. "You and Peter march off home. And the next time I find you up to such doings on Sunday or any other day I'll give you cause to remember it to your latest hour."

The Story Girl and Peter went humbly home and we went with them.

"I can't understand grown-up people," said Felix despairingly. "When Uncle Edward preached sermons it was all right, but when we do it it is 'making a jest of sacred things.' And I heard Uncle Alec tell a story once about being nearly frightened to death when he was a little boy, by a minister preaching on the end of the world; and he said, 'That was something like a sermon. You don't hear such sermons nowadays.' But when Peter preaches just such a sermon, it's a very different story."

"It's no wonder we can't understand the grown-ups," said the Story Girl indignantly, "because we've never been grown-up ourselves. But they have been children, and I don't see why they can't understand us. Of course, perhaps we shouldn't have had the contest on Sundays. But all the same I think it's mean of Uncle Alec to be so cross. Oh, I do hope poor Sara won't have to be taken to the asylum."

Poor Sara did not have to be. She was eventually quieted down, and was as well as usual the next day; and she humbly begged Peter's pardon for spoiling his sermon. Peter granted it rather grumpily, and I fear that he never really quite forgave Sara for her untimely outburst. Felix, too, felt resentment against her, because he had lost the chance of preaching his sermon.

"Of course I know I wouldn't have got the prize, for I couldn't have made such an impression as Peter," he said to us mournfully, "but I'd like to have had a chance to show what I could do. That's what comes of having those cry-baby girls mixed up in things. Cecily was just as scared as Sara Ray, but she'd more sense than to show it like that."

"Well, Sara couldn't help it," said the Story Girl charitably, "but it does seem as if we'd had dreadful luck in everything we've tried lately. I thought of a new game this morning, but I'm almost afraid to mention it, for I suppose something dreadful will come of it, too."

"Oh, tell us, what is it?" everybody entreated.

"Well, it's a trial by ordeal, and we're to see which of us can pass it. The ordeal is to eat one of the bitter apples in big mouthfuls without making a single face."

Dan made a face to begin with.

"I don't believe any of us can do that," he said.

"You can't, if you take bites big enough to fill your mouth," giggled Felicity, with cruelty and without provocation.

"Well, maybe you could," retorted Dan sarcastically. "You'd be so afraid of spoiling your looks that you'd rather die than make a face, I s'pose, no matter what you et."

"Felicity makes enough faces when there's nothing to make faces at," said Felix, who had been grimaced at over the breakfast table that morning and hadn't liked it.

"I think the bitter apples would be real good for Felix," said Felicity. "They say sour things make people thin."

"Let's go and get the bitter apples," said Cecily hastily, seeing that Felix, Felicity and Dan were on the verge of a quarrel more bitter than the apples.

We went to the seedling tree and got an apple apiece. The game was that every one must take a bite in turn, chew it up, and swallow it, without making a face. Peter again distinguished himself. He, and he alone, passed the ordeal, munching those dreadful mouthfuls without so much as a change of expression on his countenance, while the facial contortions the rest of us went through baffled description. In every subsequent trial it was the same. Peter never made a face, and no one else could help making them. It sent him up fifty per cent in Felicity's estimation.

"Peter is a real smart boy," she said to me. "It's such a pity he is a hired boy."

But, if we could not pass the ordeal, we got any amount of fun out of it, at least. Evening after evening the orchard re-echoed to our peals of laughter.

"Bless the children," said Uncle Alec, as he carried the milk pails across the yard. "Nothing can quench their spirits for long."